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Consecrating the Culture

29 February, 2008

100_23571.jpg Another meditation on the life and writings of Machen from our friend Stephen Roberts:

J. Gresham Machen was a much better theorist than practitioner of his principle of “consecrating the culture” (see my previous post). He knew how to analyze the modern mind, but was unable to captivate it using the modernist tools at his disposal. Even with the success of Christianity and Liberalism, Machen was much more of a philosopher than a popularizer–more effective at engaging the ‘ivory tower’ than the grass roots. To dismiss Machen, the greatest defender of orthodox Christianity in the past century, on these grounds, however, would be an egregious mistake. His thought — drawn from the Scriptures and reinforced by Church history and intellectual potency — could be absolutely invaluable for the Church at the present time.

In his essay, “Christianity and Culture,” Machen repudiated two views common in his day — both of which machenpitted Christianity against culture: the first view subordinated Christianity to the culture and made it a shell of the true religion, existing only to accommodate societal needs; the second obliterated culture by making it worthless in comparison to Christianity. If forced to choose between the two, Machen would choose the latter (hence his self-description as a “fundamentalist” instead of “modernist”), but he proposed a more-palatable third option: consecration. In God’s power, Christians are to go forth into the culture, bringing the power of Christian thinking into every sphere, thus minimizing those intellectual barriers that helped to barricade sinful hearts against God. As in practice, Machen’s approach remained somewhat ambiguous and unfocused.

It could yet prove useful in the present day, however. While modernism finds itself discarded more and more with each passing year, there is a need for “consecration” in the current postmodern milieu. This may prove difficult for Christians, including the Reformed, as many are finally learning how to take on modernism several decades late. Here a couple simple strategies for consecrating the postmodern mind:

1) Unity of truth and meaning. Modernism often tried to scientifically establish truth without considering such personal values as morality, purpose, and meaning. After viewing the destructive aftermath of this quest, postmodernism finds itself on a pursuit for meaning and purpose, but is doing so without the ‘dangerous’ concept of truth. Like the modern quest, this quest is doomed to failure as well. The Bible, being God’s fount of truth and source of meaning, invariably unites the two concepts. As Machen often wrote, God put fact and meaning side-by-side. For example, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (fact) “of whom I am the worst” (meaning). The fact of the Gospel message makes even the worst of sinners acceptable before the judgment of God through the blood of Christ. The postmodern must be told that truth is not a weapon, but a vehicle of true meaning in the hands of a sovereign God.

2) Embracing the Story. There may have been a time in the past century when sermons largely consisted of high-minded virtues and abstract ideals; bare propositionalism or possibly rational proofs. In an the present age of ADD and disillusionment, the vast story of redemption must become the theme. Reformed theology offers this in its most beautiful form: covenantal theology. The Bible paints a dramatic picture of the history of redemption, rooting truth in a covenantal relationship between God and His people. The postmodern must be told they can be part of this story–the grand redemptive metanarrative which gives the grounding of human origin and the hope of eternity. Human characters may be written into this story, and what a comfort to know that the Author is also the Perfecter who will write the final chapter.

As this article is being written, I am also engaging in an online conversation with an Irish friend who was in Malawi this past summer. For several weeks, I would stay up each night with Eimir and three other Irish friends defending the claims of Scripture and painting the picture so vividly offered in God’s Word. There were no candlelight conversions, but the conversation continues by God’s grace. Let this be your encouragement, brothers and sisters–that God gives power by His Spirit for the task of consecrating culture, including individuals. There is hope yet!

~Stephen

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8 Comments
  1. 29 February, 2008 12:21 pm

    Machen and the consecration of culture? Steve, you say Machen believed that “In God’s power, Christians are to go forth into the culture, bringing the power of Christian thinking into every sphere.”

    What do you (did he) mean by that?

  2. creedorchaos permalink*
    29 February, 2008 1:46 pm

    I’d like some more fleshing out of this as well, esp. in light of Machen’s strong 2 Kingdoms stance (which I think is what Matt’s getting at).

    ~B

  3. 1 March, 2008 2:45 am

    Unfortunately, Machen did not delve as much into specifics on this issue as we would prefer:

    “Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God…Instead of obliterating the distinction between the kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God.” (Hart–Machen’s Selected Writings, 402.)

    Based on anecdotal reports, some try to use this essay by Machen to turn him from a “consecrationist” into a transformationalist. That assertion is not proven from this essay, nor is it even allowed for in much of Machen’s writing. For risk of anachronism, part of Machen’s idea of consecration seems to be reflected in Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic method. “But if our position is correct, we ought at least to be able to show the other man that his reasons may be inconclusive.” (p.403) He also was avoiding the emotionalist ploy of revivalism: “The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man.” (“) It also involved a robust view of commong grace, for “…any branch of earnest human endeavor…must be brought into some relation to the gospel” for the purposes of proving it false or making it “useful in advancing the kingdom of God.” (“) This was done so that the kingdom would be advanced “intensively” as well as “extensively.” (“)

    Did this mean that the various disciplines and professions were to be baptized into the term “Christian?” Not at all. This essay was delivered to Princeton Seminary students, and spoke to the need of all Christians to intellectually engage every sphere, that converts to the Church might come, not in spite of their intellect, but with it steadily in tow. It was a call to the Church to renew its appreciation for common grace (contra fundamentalism) and remember that the intellect belongs to God as much as the will. A foundation for presuppositional apologetics and holistic evangelism was thus provided at the service of and for the building up of the Church.

  4. 1 March, 2008 10:13 am

    Funny, that sounds a lot like Kuyper, who, after all, was quite in the tradition of the two kingdoms (possibly more consistent than many of the 16th/17th Century Reformed!). I don’t think Machen sounds out of line with the two kingdoms in these quotes; he just sounds out of line with a certain narrow form of the two kingdoms.

    If you could show us more on this Steve, that would be great.

  5. 1 March, 2008 4:15 pm

    Thanks, Steve–you put as much thought into your response as into your post! I appreciate it.

    ~B

  6. 1 March, 2008 4:22 pm

    Thanks for this I am finally getting around to reading C and L after buying it last summer. Look forward to what else you may have to say about it. Linked on my blog now. Good Stuff.

  7. 1 March, 2008 7:43 pm

    well Benjamin, stephen roberts has been gracious enough to provide us with a follow up post. more on our hero machen coming up!

    thanks roberts.
    good stuff…and controversial…and strongly opinionated…great copy! 🙂

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