Machen, the OPC and American Culture: A Personal Interpretation
The pathos of Stonehouse's account of J. Gresham Machen's final days is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Only someone made of marble could be unmoved by that last chapter of the biography. It tells of the Dakotas, a world not unlike what Machen knew in the plains of Europe in World War I. There, far removed from the life of grace and culture of Baltimore, Princeton and Philadelphia, he fell asleep, victim of a greater conflict. Having been raised the fair-haired boy within the establishment, he died an orphan, dear to a movement of the disinherited.
Why Study Machen?
July 28th marks the 100th anniversary of Machen's birth. On this occasion, many things encourage us to take stock of him, not the least of which is our need for spiritual equilibrium. A fresh look could help us gain our balance in a day very much like his own. Now as then, fundamentalism demands a hearing; broader-based evangelicalism announces renewal; and, although no longer scaling the city walls but well situated inside, liberalism exhales its insidious nonsense.
Beyond this, however, is the very embarrassing fact that so little has been done from within our own denomination toward an in-depth analysis of Machen. 1 To the degree he is tied to the OPC, we face an urgent task. The OPC may cease to be, never having understood herself. Therefore, we may not have a true sense of what is in the balance if we dissolve, or for that matter, what we have to contribute to a new affiliation. This can also work in another direction: through a better analysis of Machen, we could provide others with a better understanding of ourselves.
While we have been producing little, many — even liberals — have been quite active. Often their critiques are disturbing. Machen is cut open and his faults, misconceptions and theological indiscretions exposed. These criticisms demand mature response. As we rightly object to much, we may be compelled to admit that certain thrusts find their mark. But unearthing flaws must not force us to dismiss Machen's fundamental genius. At heart, he championed what we cherish. He said Christianity is founded squarely upon a body of historical facts, the record of which we possess in the infallible Scriptures; the Faith begins with the triumphant indicative of the gracious act of God in Jesus Christ apart from which the imperatives of faith are absurd; further, he contended that the confessional heritage of the Reformed churches is a faithful summary of Bible teaching and, as such, is to be sincerely embraced by church officers.
If intellectual problems leave casualties, what can be said for practical pressures? Here we meet as important a reason for taking stock of Machen as any. The greatest distress for the OPC has been her size. Our congregations are consistently small; also, we are unable to show off a single instance of phenomenal growth anywhere approximate to that of the modern "super" church. Under this weight and the innumerable success stories arising around us, pastors and flocks often have become discouraged.
Explanations have been suggested to account for our situation, many of which are self-incriminating. Of course, we have no excuse for ignoring our sin; but, when you watch a faithful shepherd expend himself and, after years of devotion, offer only modest results, you know the reason is not lack of piety or evangelistic zeal. Neither can you be convinced it lies in a yet untried or undiscovered technique. I contend the reason is found in Machen himself. Better acquaintance with him promises aid in exegeting our practical dilemma.
Machen grew up in the best of Baltimore society. His father was a gifted lawyer and his mother, uncommonly cultured and devout. Tutored by their genuine love, he marched through adolescence and a classical education. His background provided him with a reverence for ancient things as well as a sensible sentimentality which always perceived the boundaries of propriety. He courted nature (mountains), technology (steam locomotives) and learning. Politically, he crusaded gracefully for individual liberty. Emphasizing communion with God, his religion was quietly passionate and relentlessly principled. Socially, he seemed to travel in a "man's world" — through school, the War, Princeton and Westminster. Feminine symbols, nevertheless, were constantly present in his mother and the church. In the end, his zeal for the church consumed him; for her, he gave his life.
Originally, Machen was a Southern Presbyterian; however, he was ordained in the northern church. He agonized for more than eight years whether to be ordained at all. His journey toward consistent Reformed convictions proved equally painful. To be sure, there clung to him remnants of a genteel evangelicalism and the complex, sometimes grotesque, ambiguities of fundamentalism. But by and large he outgrew these as his commitment to Calvinism and the visible Body of Christ deepened. In time, he was hurled headlong into the fight to insure the consistent witness of the Presbyterian Church. The issue was whether the officers of the church would be truly presbyterian. To Machen, only a leadership which sincerely embraced the church's standards guaranteed her integrity.
It is important to realize, however, that within the American establishment, questions about the church are also questions about the culture. Therefore, the struggle confronted by Machen in the church was symptomatic of a general cultural transformation. The radical nature of this alliance is witnessed in the consequences of his trial. As a result of the disciplinary action against him, he found himself not only outside of the church but also the culture. The weight of the verdict was staggering. In light of it, Machen becomes as significant an individual as 20th century America has known, since he is the pivotal figure in a radical ecclesiastical and cultural shift. Through him it is apparent, as never before, that life in America is not what it once was. The effect of all this was that Machen found himself in a counter-cultural position.
The ecclesiastical and cultural issues have been the focus of controversy for the OPC since her formation. While her strict doctrine of the church is evident to all, the seriousness of her cultural posture is generally missed; but it provides as crucial an index to the OPC as her ecclesiology. Simply put, the OPC has no cultural or social agenda. She resisted every attempt to so define her. In this regard she is orphaned just as her founder.
The first to offer her shelter were the fundamentalists. Ironically for all their protestations against this world in deference to the next, they maintained a remarkably active social and political perspective. This was their cultural bridge and, as much as anything else, its rejection by the new church in 1937 precipitated their exit. The OPC remained a foundling on the American scene.
Next, throughout the '40s some Reformed men with broad evangelical convictions suggested the way home. They felt directly what they considered to be the burdens of OPC isolation. They thought that action was needed which would gain a footing within the established culture whose structures they considered generally neutral. They too had a cultural bridge which the OPC did not accept; and, in time many left. It should also be said that the church failed in a consistent way to accept the Dutch reformational answer to the question, although this perspective has had great influence.
Because we in the OPC lack a cultural tie, we lack an indigenous American identity and a route to larger appeal. This cross has been difficult for us to bear. So far we have been unwilling to abandon it, possibly because we sensed our relationship to Machen would never be the same if we did. The matter continues to press upon us since in the recent discussions with the PCA and RPCES, we are face to face with churches which have strong cultural identity. We should not ignore this issue in our discussions.
Meanwhile, continuing beneath our burden, we progress slowly; still our growth is steady. But the amazing thing, given our cultural position, is that we grow at all. Truly by the grace of God we have our ministry and, in it, great potential to minister to those who have been disenchanted with the establishment. We are capable of addressing their disappointment and proclaiming to all that the future is not assured by securing a place within the American scene.
Our purpose is not success; it is not even survival, but the giving up of our lives in service to our great God and in imitation of our Savior. This is the lot of the disinherited — a position much closer to the poor of the earth. It is where Machen ended; it is where we began.