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May 19, 2005

Words to Ponder

Whilst reading my Mars Hill Audio Addenda for May (not yet online), I came across an article entitled Christianity and Culture, by J. Gresham Machen, with this intriguing opening that I think gets at the heart of some of the concerns I have about two movements within the Church today:

One of the greatest of the problems that ha[s] agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared first of all in the presence of two tendencies in the Church—the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical tendency.
Some men have devoted themselves chiefly to the task of forming right conceptions as to Christianity and its foundations. To them no fact, however trivial, has appeared worthy of neglect; by them truth has been cherished for its own sake, without immediate reference to practical consequences. Some, on the other hand, have emphasized the essential simplicity of the gospel. The world is lying in misery, we ourselves are sinners, men are perishing in sin every day. The gospel is the sole means of escape; let us preach it to the world while yet we may. So desperate is the need that we have no time to engage in vain babblings or old wives’ fables. While we are discussing the exact location of the churches of Galatia, men are perishing under the curse of the law; while we are settling the date of Jesus’ birth, the world is doing without its Christmas message.

The representatives of both of these tendencies regard themselves as Christians, but too often there is little brotherly feeling between them. The Christian of academic tastes accuses his brother of undue emotionalism, of shallow argumentation, of cheap methods of work. On the other hand, your practical man is ever loud in his denunciation of academic indifference to the dire needs of humanity. The scholar is represented either as a dangerous disseminator of doubt, or else as a man whose faith is a faith without works. A man who investigates human sin and the grace of God by the aid of dusty volumes, carefully secluded in a warm and comfortable study, without a thought of the men who are perishing in misery every day!

I think that Machen has eloquently stated the feelings of, and problems with, the extremes of both camps. On the one hand are those who want to out-Calvin Calvin and, to a greater or lesser degree, exhibit an "unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind." (1 Tim. 6:4-5) On the other side, equally dangerous, are those who are so wrapped up in emotivism that they "believe every spirit," and fail to utilize the reason that God gave them to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1)

Both extremes, then, are dangerous to the body, which is why I think so many are attracted to the concept of the Mere Christianity outlined so eloquently by C.S. Lewis. Lewis, as well as others like G.K. Chesterton, managed to take a reasoned approach to Christianity, while maintaining a love for the world and its inhabitants. They also did it in a winsome and winning way.

Kudos to J. Gresham Machen, then, for putting our modern American Christian dilemma so well into perspective. Kudos, in particular, to his prescience. He gave this talk, after all, in 1912 at Princeton University.

It just goes to show that some things don't necessarily change.

Posted by Mark at May 19, 2005 09:59 PM

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Taking a break from the usual horrors of writing up the back story to a best practices guide that is the obligatory prolegomena to the actual architecture and design document, I wandered over to Stones Cry Out and ran across Words to Ponder. Which is a... [Read More]

Tracked on May 21, 2005 03:02 PM