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Machen and the Two Kingdoms

3 March, 2008

100_23571.jpgHere’s a follow up to Stephen Roberts’s post below, Consecrating the Culture:

Persecution meets those theologians whose presuppositions guide them to different practical conclusions in the social sphere than those of other Christians. Some Westminster graduates (and even current students) have experienced this persecution on issues such as a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture, which doesn’t allow for a theonomic imposition of Old Testament law upon the civil sphere. Machen was guided by his presuppositions concerning the doctrine of Church to oppose a motion in favor of Prohibition in the New Brunswick Presbytery of the PCUSA. In one of the more disturbing episodes between Machen and other PCUSA ministers, his opposition to that motion became the basis for accusations of alcoholism, and he was subsequently prevented from attaining the Chair of Apologetics at Princeton Seminary.

In the humiliating aftermath of this episode, Machen produced a brief, three-page explanation of his vote in Presbytery, entitled machen“Statement on the Eighteenth Amendment” (p. 393 in Hart’s Collection). While vigorously opposed to drunkenness, Machen did not believe the logical end of Prohibition justified the means of Church interference on the issue. “My vote was directed against a policy which places the church in its corporate capacity, as distinguished from the activities of its members, on record with regard to such political questions” (p.394, italics mine). This opposition was rooted in theological and practical considerations concerning the doctrine of the Church. Theologically-speaking, Machen explained his opposition by citing WCF XXXI, Article iv, which prohibited intermeddling with civil affairs except in extraordinary circumstances.

The final paragraph of Machen’s defense is key: “In making of itself, moreover, in so many instances primarily an agency of law enforcement, and thus engaging in the duties of the police, the church, I am constrained to think, is in danger of losing sight of its proper function, which is that of bringing to bear upon human souls the sweet and gracious influences of the gospel. Important indeed are the functions of the police, and members of the church, in their capacity as citizens, should aid by every proper means within their power in securing the discharge of those functions. But the duty of the church in its corporate capacity is of quite a different nature” (p.395, italics mine).

Many attribute Machen’s opposition to modernism to the modern view of Scripture and/or Christ. These issues did likely place Machen in the fundamentalist camp over and against modernism, but they do not explain the heart of his opposition to modernism. Twentieth-century “Christian” modernism was an accommodation to popular scientific and social ideals, which directly competed against the biblical doctrine of the Church. As the purpose of the Church shifted amongst many ministers from that of redemption from sin to that of a social utopia, their doctrines of Scripture, man, and Christ necessarily had to be altered. Coincidentally, this also pitted Machen against the vast William Jennings Bryan wing of the fundamentalist camp, which like modernism, sought to use the power of the Church as a means to an end: the promotion of “Christian” civic virtue. Thus, as Hart rightly points out in the opening pages of his biography on Machen, Machen just as firmly stood against fundamentalism as against modernism on the doctrine of the Church, which as just argued, was the fundamental issue at stake for Machen.

For those who would impute modern strawman stereotypes of Two Kingdoms theology into Machen, he was an active participant in the socio-political sphere. When it came to issues of civil liberties, education, the environment, etc., he would write to federal, state, and local officials. He also gave speeches to the Academy of Social Sciences and the Sentinels of the Republic, and testified before a congressional committee on the proposed Federal department for education. In his personal life, he also was generous with his money, most notably in his persistent care over the years for a Christian alcoholic who nobody could seem to manage. Machen would follow that man from town-to-town to try to clean him up and make him a productive member of society. Also, don’t forget that Machen served hot chocolate to the soldiers on the front during WWI on behalf of the YMCA. In conclusion, Machen had a robust view of the Christian’s participation in the City of Man, but that participation required a Church faithful to its mission:

“I will present to you a strange paradox, but an assured truth–this world’s problems can never be solved by those who make this world the object of their desires. This world cannot ultimately be bettered if you think that this world is all. To move the world, you must have a place to stand.” (Hart’s Collection, p.376–“The Responsibility of the Church in our New Age”)

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2 Comments
  1. creedorchaos permalink*
    3 March, 2008 6:48 am

    Steve~

    I appreciate your going it to these things more deeply — I think it also ties in well with the series on the Kingdom of God Matt has started.

    ~B

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