12 October 2008

Machen on (Post?)Modernism

This afternoon I picked up Machen's What Is Faith? - mainly because of the smell. It's the original 1925 edition, with a bland, dark blue cover, browning pages and the smell of a musty 1940s office in some conservative church. Which is exactly where it sat--I inherited it from my grandfather who was a pastor from the 40s to the 80s.

The striking thing is not how outdated the book is, though, but how relevant. It is remarkable how well-worn some trends within evangelicalism are despite the appearance of innovation, creativity, and freshness.

For instance, Machen describes Modernism like this:

Obviously this temper of mind is hostile to precise definitions. Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms. Anything, it seems, may be forgiven more readily than that. Men discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms (13-14).

It is remarkable that the next snippet is describing not the postmodern but the modern mind. I've been taught that, with standout exceptions like Schleiermacher, this was most emphatically not what Modernism was, but here's a testimony from someone who lived and breathed it, having tasted it in both America and Germany (Marburg, no less!):

The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion . . . (23)

Or how about this one, remarkably similar to what we hear in today's pluralistic age:

Theology, it is said, is merely the necessarily changing expression of a unitary experience; doctrine can never be permanent, but is simply the clothing of religious experience in the forms of thought suitable to any particular generation. (28)

And finally, on the ecumenical ethos of the day that hates controversy and avoids it at all cost - the last sentence is the quote of the week for me:

Loyalty to church organizations was being substituted for loyalty to Christ; Church leaders who never even mentioned the centre of the gospel in their preaching were in undisputed charge of the resources of the Church; at board meetings or in the councils of the Church, it was considered bad form even to mention, at least in any definite and intelligible way, the Cross of Christ. A polite paganism, in other words, with reliance upon human resources, was being quietly and peacefully substituted for the heroism of devotion to the gospel. (40-41)

I conclude: postmodernism must be studied and understood by today's church leaders. But it must not be overemphasized. Fallen humanity probably errs in predictable historical cycles. Machen can help us here. In reading him, I not only understand his time better, I understand my time better.

1 comment:

Nicholas T. Batzig said...


I picked up 'What is Faith' not too long ago and had the same thoughts. It is extremely relevant to our present circumstances. Thanks for posting these quotes!