3. Machen's wars – Consolations in the midst of battle
The final thing I would like to do is to consider a short address that Machen gave to the second batch of outgoing students from Westminster Seminary in 1931. It is of interest to us here because it is headed in published form (see Hart's Selected shorter writings) Consolations in the midst of battle. It is interesting because the battle that Machen has in mind is not World War I and, although he clearly has in mind the battle for the truth that he and others were then involved in that was still raging at the time, what has to say has relevance to every age. It is the same theme as that which he touched on in his last address to the Princeton students. Then he said
God grant that you … may be fighters, too! Probably you have your battles even now; you have to contend against sins gross or sins refined; you have to contend against the sin of slothfulness and inertia; ... against doubt and despair. Do not think it strange if you fall thus into divers temptations. The Christian life is a warfare after all. John Bunyan rightly set it forth under the allegory of a Holy War; and when he set it forth, in his greater book, under the figure of a pilgrimage, the pilgrimage, too, was full of battles.
Early on in the Westminster address he mentions the twin evils of opposition from the world and from a worldly church, enemies we still face today. “The world today” he says “is opposed to the faith that you profess and the visible church, too often, has made common cause with the world.”
He reminds them that this has always been the case and that the Saviour warned us that it would be so. In light of this, Westminster, he says, was looking for men willing to bear the reproach of Christ and to work hard at studying God's Word.
The consolations or comforts he offers are twofold. First, and not to be underestimated, there is “the affections and prayers of the little company of men, unpopular with the world, who you have called your teachers”. He reminds them that these comrades stand with far more than seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
He reminds them, secondly and more expansively, that his was not the first period when the Christian church was tempted to be discouraged by events. “Again and again” he says “the gospel has seemed to be forever forgotten; yet always it has burst forth with new power and the world has been set aflame.” He wants them to be expectant then and meanwhile not to be unduly impressed “by the pomp and power of this unbelieving age”.
He then describes how a week earlier he had looked down on the city from the 102nd floor of the then newly completed Empire State Building in New York. He states how impressed he was by it all but he says that his mind then went to other buildings he had seen before. He thought particularly of the great cathedrals of England and the continent, living expressions of the human soul and act of worship to Almighty God.
He suggests that while modern builders may be good at lifting the body (1240 feet in record time) they do not compare with the ability of builders in former times to lift the soul. In a flight of fantasy he continues his contrast between the virtual Tower of Babel that he had more recently visited and the ancient cathedrals built over centuries designed to lift ones faith on wings to “the very presence of the infinite God”.
He is eager for his enthusiasm not to be construed as anti-modern or as a call for obscurantism and narrowness. Quite the opposite. No Machen dares to dream of a future time when God will send to the world “something far greater than genius – a humble heart finding in his worship the highest use of al knowledge and all power”. He longs for the rejection of materialism and the embrace of a true view of man.
Meanwhile it is “a drab and empty age” they are in when God's law is forgotten and men are in slavery. Hungry souls are thirsting and hungry for bread, a hunger these men could still by preaching the Word. His desire is not for a novel sect but for a company of men steeped in the Word and in the best scholarly traditions, who labour, mediate and pray in order to faithfully preach.
He wonders aloud
Perhaps you may be the humble instruments, by the use of whatever talents God has given you, of lifting preaching out of the rut into which too often it has fallen, and of making it again, by God's grace, a thing of power.
He closes by saying
Remember this, at least – the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give – the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God.