2. Machen's wars – The battle with modernism
Even as far back as 1918 there were concerns with modernism in the Presbyterian church and other Protestant churches. The 90 essays that make up the 12 volume work The Fundamentals (from which the word fundamentalist is said to be drawn) had been published in the period 1910-1915 as a clarion call in defence of orthodox Protestant beliefs, attacking higher criticism, liberal theology and geological evolution, among other things.
In his letter of December 28 1918 Machen says to his mother (243)
“If my conscience were quite at rest on the matter of principle, upon which Dr Stevenson and I differ so widely, I should be happy now.”
Dr J Ross Stevenson was principal of Princeton and the reference is to curriculum changes that were to put less emphasis on the biblical languages and apparently on the Calvinism in which the seminary had been steeped. The problems at Princeton can in many ways be dated from this curriculum change.
Some of what Machen had to say about Stevenson was removed from the letters but he wrongly assumed that in his YMCA role Stevenson had prevented or delayed his involvement in the religious work in France, In fact it was Dr Henry King who had him moved to Paris as some had complained that Machen's sermons were “too long and too deep”.
Waugh comments that at this time Machen was able to come to peace of mind with regard to Stevenson but “his assessment of the situation with Dr Stevenson would change over the course of the next decade”. (317).
What happened, as we have intimated, was that there was a series of battles between so called modernists and fundamentalists with the moderates between them also having quite an important impact. Machen was the focus of much of the controversy.
In 1922 Liberal Baptist Henry Emerson Fosdick, supplying First Presbyterian Church, New York preached a notorious sermon called Shall the Fundamentalists Win? The sermon has been cited as “the signal for a new and public outbreak of the conflict between the forces of historic Christianity and modern liberalism within the Presbyterian Church in the USA.” (Rian, Presbyterian Conflict, 17). Long before, before Machen had returned from France, Fosdick had published a strongly unbelieving article entitled The Trenches and the Church at Home in the Atlantic Monthly for January 1919. Attacking biblical Christianity he declared that the church had lost the soldiers because it proclaimed a negative religion of outmoded doctrines that failed to measure up to their self-sacrifice at the front. “The only use of the church is to gather up humanity's best,” he declared, to unite people in common cause of progressive social aims.
Machen probably knew of Fosdick's article when he addressed the Princeton alumni on May 6, 1919, on The Church in the War. He declared that the church had failed in the war because it had abandoned the reality of sin, the gospel of personal salvation and the sanctified life. He wrote, “One drop of the precious blood of Jesus is worth more, as a ground for the hope of the world, than all the rivers of blood which have flowed upon the battlefields of France”. It was not merely a matter of learning more about Jesus but of believing in his divine holiness as distinct from our sinfulness. The self-satisfaction argument declared that the soldiers' sacrifice kept God happy, since the Germans were the real sinners in the war and the Allies had won a great victory by their stupendous efforts.
The roots of modern self-satisfaction lie far deeper than the war. During the past century a profound spiritual change has been produced in the whole thought and life of the world - no less a change than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant principle of life.
He defined paganism as “a healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties” which is the opposite of Christianity, the “religion of the broken heart”. For the Christian, it is only after repentance that joy comes in being the Lord's steward in all of life.
Some time later in 1924 he wrote similarly
At this point we ﬁnd the most fundamental divergence between modernism and the Christian faith; the modernist assertion that doctrine springs from life, and may be translated back into the life from which it came, really involves the relinquishment of all objective truth in the sphere of religion. If a thing is merely useful it may cease to be useful in another generation; but if it is true, it remains true to the end of time. ... It makes little difference how much or how little of Christian doctrine the modernist affirms since whatever he affirms, he afﬁrms as a mere expression of an inner experience, and does not afﬁrm any of it as fact.
Machen's great ability was to see liberalism not as a variant form of the gospel but as another religion altogether. This he brought out in his book Christianity and liberalism. The book began as an article in 1921 and was published in 1923. “The author is convinced” wrote Machen “that liberalism on the one hand and the religion of the historic church on the other are not two varieties of the same religion, but two distinct religions proceeding from altogether separate roots.”
Machen's last address to the Princeton students was on fighting the good fight. He said
You will have a battle ... when you go forth as ministers into the church. The church is now in a period of deadly conflict. The redemptive religion known as Christianity is contending, in our own Presbyterian Church and in all the larger churches in the world, against a totally alien type of religion. As always, the enemy conceals his most dangerous assaults under pious phrases and half truths. The shibboleths of the adversary have sometimes a very deceptive sound. "Let us propagate Christianity," the adversary says, "but let us not always be engaged in arguing in defence of it; let us make our preaching positive, and not negative; let us avoid controversy; let us hold to a Person and not to dogma; let us sink small doctrinal differences and seek the unity of the church of Christ; let us drop doctrinal accretions and interpret Christ for ourselves; let us look for our knowledge of Christ in our hearts; let us not impose Western creeds on the Eastern mind; let us be tolerant of opposing views." Such are some of the shibboleths of that agnostic Modernism which is the deadliest enemy of the Christian religion today. They deceive some of God's people some of the time; they are heard sometimes from the lips of good Christian people, who have not the slightest inkling of what they mean. But their true meaning, to thinking men, is becoming increasingly clear. Increasingly it is becoming necessary for a man to decide whether he is going to stand or not … If you decide to stand for Christ, you will not have an easy life in the ministry.