Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and Indifferent

The Presbyterian Controversy of the 1920s and 30s could have unfolded like a classic Western movie. The liberals who denied the Westminster Confession by their reinterpretations, like Henry Sloane Coffin, and the orthodox who really believed it, like Gresham Machen, were headed for a showdown. The denomination (read "town") wasn't big enough for the both of them. Well how could it be with antithetical views on the very doctrines that were essential to the gospel and the very life of the church?

What seemed to be a straight forward showdown was exacerbated by the "moderates." Epitomized by Charles Erdman, who taught practical theology at Princeton and who became Moderator at the 1925 General Assembly, this approach was orthodox enough in affirming the truth but was willing to accommodate the liberals. From the best of motives, unity and the evangelistic mission of the church, great damage was done by the "moderates."

It is possible for men to hold to orthodox beliefs, but in actual practice to hold to them in quite different ways. This difference was not lost on Machen. His description of it has real value since the same parties and approaches seem to recur in doctrinal controversies:

There is between Dr. Erdman and myself a very serious doctrinal difference indeed. It concerns the question not of this doctrine or that, but of the importance which is to be attributed to doctrine as such...
Dr. Erdman does not indeed reject the doctrinal system of our church, but he is perfectly willing to make common cause with those who reject it, and he is perfectly willing to keep it in the background. I on the other hand can never consent to keep it in the background. Christian doctrine, I hold, is not merely connected with the gospel, but it is identical with the gospel, and if I did not preach it at all times, and especially in those places where it subjects me to personal abuse, I should regard myself as guilty of sheer unfaithfulness to Christ. (p. 131-2)
Make no mistake, mere assent to orthodoxy without the practical consequence of dealing with error in the church is inevitably a gross compromise. Orthodox doctrine is devalued when this mindset is at work.

As Longfield notes, there had to be a showdown, and the "moderates" would have to choose where their loyalty would lie:
Though the liberal threat to bolt the church was apparently sincere, it also served the strategic purpose of demanding a choice from the moderate conservatives. Strict doctrinal orthodoxy and a united church were no longer an option; one or other, the liberals implied, would have to go. (p. 152)
In the end the choice came down not to "strict doctrinal orthodoxy" or a united church but to the very survival of the marks of the church. Someone was going to end up in the cemetery on the outskirts of the town. Machen saw it coming:
A policy of palliation and of compromise will in a few years lead to the control of our church as has already happened in the case of many churches, by agnostic Modernism. (p. 149)
What do we learn from this?

Men will always applaud an irenic spirit over against a polemical approach. But the sound of such approval can quite easily mask the noise of the destruction of confessional orthodoxy. Choices must be made and it will do no good to cry "peace! peace!" when there is no peace.

[All extracts from Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy]

Scott Clark has a review of Longfield's book here, and a similar post here.

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