August 15, 2014

Anniversary Week: 1923

Stephen Nichols
Anniversary Week: 1923


For our final top-five moment in church history, we will be looking at the year 1923. That year was a very crucial year, especially in the American church, but I think also for the church at large.

In this year, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy came to a head. The controversy was a dispute in the Presbyterian church between theological conservatives and theological liberals. One of the leaders of the conservatives—the fundamentalists—at one point said, "Well, if the choice is between being a fundamentalist or a liberal, of course you can call me a fundamentalist." But I think the terms by which he actually preferred to be called were Presbyterian and a theological conservative. That man, of course, was J. Gresham Machen.

Machen was a scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a professor of New Testament, and a few years after 1923, he'd be promoted to professor of apologetics. That promotion would eventually be rejected by the general assembly of the Presbyterian church. And that, in turn, would lead to Machen leaving Princeton Seminary, going across the Delaware River, and founding Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. But all that hasn't quite happened yet in 1923.

In 1921, Machen delivered an address to the presbytery in Chester County, Pa., titled "Liberalism and Christianity." He wanted to bring this debate into sharp focus. "What we are talking about here," Machen said, "is not simply an acceptable version of Christianity." When we're talking about Christianity and liberalism, "we're talking about two different things."

Machen continued to hone his thought. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the controversy were also publishing books and promoting their ideas. Then, in 1923, Machen stepped back into the waters again with his wonderful classic text Christianity and Liberalism. A few pages into this book, Machen says this:

Inevitably the question arises whether the opinions of such men can ever be normative for men of the present day. In other words, whether first-century religion can ever stand in company with twentieth-century science. That's the question. Is Christianity outdated? Is it a religion that belongs to ancient times and to ancient peoples? We are now a couple centuries into the enlightenment. We are in the industrial age of the twentieth century. We have twentieth-century science. We have unlocked the universe. We know so much more than those generations that have preceded us. Is Scripture still authoritative for us? Is Christianity still meaningful for us in the tenets, the doctrines of Christianity? Are they meaningful?
Machen goes on to say, "However the question may be answered, it presents a serious problem to the modern church." And now we get to the divide between the liberals and the fundamentalists. What the liberals wanted to do was simply accommodate Christianity to the pressures and to the tastes of the age. To simply bring, as it were, Christianity into the twentieth-century. Machen wanted to see something a little bit differently. Rather than accommodate Scripture to the pressing cultural issues of the day, Machen thought that we should submit to Scripture. It stands over us, it governs us, and it guides us, not the other way around.

So, Machen sets out in his book to set forth the various doctrines that are presented in Scripture—the doctrine of God, the doctrine of humanity, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of salvation, and the doctrine of the church. "There are two ways to look at this," Machen says. "One is to, just again, be driven by the pressures of the day. The other is to be driven by Scripture."

The amazing thing about this book is it was a timely book. It was written for an existential crisis, if you will, in 1923. But here's the amazing thing: over the years, this book has not gone out of style. It is not dated. In fact, I think we can make a case that that book is every bit as crucial today as it was then, and perhaps even more so. And by God's grace, we may cling to the precious truths that Machen laid out in it.