Thursday, May 21, 2009

Liberalism: A warning from history (2)

The Cost of Compromise

A. B. Davidson, who was appointed in 1863 to the Chair of Hebrew Old Testament Literature in the New College, Edinburgh, had drunk deeply at the wells of German Liberal theology. He subtly began to introduce the new theology in his classroom. Finlayson notes that Davidson gave this counsel to his students:

"Be careful to give this to your congregations in small doses." (p.196)

A. B. Bruce, professor at the Glasgow College, is a further tragic example of the effects of Liberal theology:

Of some others in the forefront of the movement, it can only be said that there was a breakdown in character as well as in faith, over which the veil of charity must be drawn. As sad a case as any was, perhaps, that of A. B. Bruce, because of the early promise of his work on the teaching of Christ: and yet at the end of the day one of his closest friends commented sorrowfully: 'Sandy Bruce died without a single Christian conviction.' (p. 198)

From the vantage point of the 21st century as we survey the wreckage of Liberalism, the emptying of the churches, we rightly wonder why this was not seen to be the logical outcome of the new theology. Finlayson touched on that very point:

The fact so difficult to understand is that this barren rationalism captured so many of the Reformed Colleges within a few decades, and Church leaders, professing to be evangelical, could not see that it could produce only bankruptcy in the realm of faith, and complete sterility in the life of the Church. (p. 195)

As deluded as this marriage of evangelical convictions to biblical criticism now appears, at the time it was considered necessary for the survival of Christian faith in the modern world. This was the "New Apologetic." But it was a compromise with the spirit of the age. Tragically when it was preached it was to sound the death knell of authentic Christian faith. The damage done was unspeakable. Considered in the light of the Day of Judgement it is deeply traumatic to contemplate. The consequences of this kind of error are eternal.

Marcus Dods, who was to become Principal of New College, Edinburgh, in 1907 wrote in a letter to a friend:

"The churches won't know themselves fifty years hence. It is hoped some little rag of faith may be left when all's done."

The story in Scotland of what I have called "Liberalism: A Warning from History" is poignantly told by R. A Finlayson. Iain Murray gives a much fuller account, from which I have also drawn, in his chapter "The Tragedy of the Free Church of Scotland" (in A Scottish Christian Heritage, Banner of Truth). It is a chapter that should be read by every theological student, every minister, and every seminary professor. It is a sobering warning to our own generation.


Sam said...

Dear Martin,
as someone who's coming to the end of four years studying theology in Germany, I find it mildly amusing, despite the seriousness of it all, to hear about Germany as the root of all theological evil!

Now although I've been studying at a confessional college, we read widely, and try to test it. In the process of testing and understanding, I'm sure fruit has been born - to name a well-worn example, Paul knew the literature of his day (Acts 17).

Something that strikes me about Machen's polemic is that structurally, it is analagous to the following situation:

Wesley Finney, principal of Arminius College in Freewillton talks to his students in 2050:

"Back in the 2000, there were a bunch of good students who, swelled by the pride of their own free will listened to John Piper and Mark Driscoll after they had been so upheld as new role models in the Christianity Today article: "Young, Reformed and Restless" - some of them went and did their Master at Westminster or Covenant. Those churches which they pastored are now fully Calvinist - let this be a warning".

Obviously there is a difference between young students seeking spiritual nourishment and young students seeking fame and status in the world.

What bothers me about the structural similarity is that my theology gets protected by a wall - my - Calvinist, or Arminian, or Liberal - theology is already so defined that it is correction-proof. That way, you get Luther's friend Spalatin saying to him: trust the tradition of the church, don't even begin to think outside the box - you'll destroy the church.

To some extents the argument is pragmatic - being about the stability of the church.

To sum up: the warning to watch the spiritual health and not drink poison is valid. However making one's own theology correction-proof seems to create problems longer-term. WHat do you think? Have I misunderstood Machen?

Martin Downes said...

Hi Sam,

People say that Pelagius was a Welshman--that really is the root of all theological evil.

If the history of Princeton Seminary, in the 19th Century, shows anything it is that confessional orthodoxy, deep spiritual piety, and high academic rigour can all go hand in hand.

And they were fully abreast and engaged with the latest scholarship, yea even the nasty stuff that came out of Germany. I believe that even Bultmann reviewed Machen's work favourably.

I take your point. The Princetonians never sought to insulate themselves from scholarship. And whilst they certainly strengthened and developed their Reformed tradition, they did not see anything to warrant its dismissal.

Get back to me if that sounds vague!

Sam said...

Hi Martin,
"But Pelagius was a Welshman" - that's going to be my comeback next time England send their 3rd XV to play Wales.


I'm glad to hear that Princeton strengthened and developed their Reformed tradition. For me the key word there is "developed". Something that has struck me since leaving the Island is the different way in which the discipline of dogmatics is viewed.

In the UK, my (limited) impression of good evangelical dogmatics was the emphasis on the givenness of doctrine, its stability and provenness. This is surely right; we're talking about the faith handed down once for all to the saints.

On the other hand, having had the chance to study church history and hearing the (German) emphasis on the need to reformulate doctrine in each generation, I find myself asking how appropriate static approaches to doctrine are. I wonder whether they immunise against correction.

I'll be specific, because perhaps that's more helpful. If you, for example, find the Westminster Confession to be a healthy and accurate summary of Christian doctrine, is it possible that someday good arguments might persuade you that the Confession has erred in some point?

I would hold that conceding this possibility is vital for the health of the church - which is why the WTS-Enns debate deeply concerned me - the result seemed to be that the college would cease to exist would the WC be corrected in some point.

I'll stop there before I go on too long...