Machen’s Militancy Revisited

Bill Evans head shot

It has now been over 81 years since J. Gresham Machen was laid to rest in Baltimore, Maryland on January 5, 1937 after succumbing to pneumonia while on a speaking tour in the Dakotas.

Machen’s legacy is complicated.  He was a distinguished scholar whose writings, such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion, The Virgin Birth of Christ, and Christianity and Liberalism, are still in print and profitably read, and a long-time professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who left that institution in 1929 to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He was a key player in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy as it played out in the Presbyterian Church, USA, but he was clearly cut from different cloth than many who embraced the term “fundamentalist.”  The skeptic H. L. Mencken, in his January 18, 1937 obituary of Machen entitled “Dr. Fundamentalis,” took considerable pains to distinguish Machen from the less learned: “The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.”

Machen

Perhaps most significant for our time is the connection often drawn between Machen and conservative Christian militancy, a come-outer, sectarian mentality that draws lines both sharply and narrowly and takes no prisoners in ecclesiastical conflict.  For example, we think immediately of John Frame’s widely circulated article “Machen’s Warrior Children,” which examines the history of theological conflict in conservative American Presbyterianism.  As Frame puts it, “Machen’s children were theological battlers, and, when the battle against liberalism in the PCUSA appeared to be over, they found other theological battles to fight. Up to the present time, these and other battles have continued within the movement, and, in my judgment, that is the story of conservative evangelical Reformed theology in twentieth-century America.”

Frame goes on to examine 21 areas of conflict that have helped to divide conservative Reformed people in the decades since Machen’s death.  If I’m reading it correctly, the essence of Frame’s argument is one of theological inertia.  Once the snowball of conflict started rolling down the hill, it was difficult to stop.  Or, to use a slightly different analogy, once the genie of theological conflict was unleashed, it was difficult to put it back in the bottle: “The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a ‘true Presbyterian church’ they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.”  Perhaps even more damningly, Frame adds that a balance of truth and love “was not characteristic of the Machen movement.”

There can be little doubt that conflict—often needless and ultimately pretty pointless conflict—has been a legacy of 20th century conservative Presbyterianism, but I’m wondering whether Machen is getting a bum rap here.

For one thing, most of the 21 areas of conflict cited by Frame have nothing to do with Machen.  And more to the point, as Frame himself admits, Machen sometimes evinced a breadth of vision and tolerance, and one that I would suggest doesn’t fit without remainder into the “warrior children” thesis.  For example, the seminary he founded included faculty members representing the range of conservative Reformed thinking at that time—American Presbyterians such as Machen, R. D. Wilson, Paul Wooley and O. T. Allis, the mild dispensationalist Allen MacRae, Dutch Reformed such as Cornelius Van Til and R. B. Kuiper, and the Scot John Murray.  The fact that that that broad faculty coalition could not be sustained for a variety of reasons after Machen’s death does not detract from the breadth of Machen’s inclusive vision for the school.

Furthermore, the church Machen helped to found—the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with the current Presbyterian Church in America)—was, even by our standards today, a sort of big-tent conservatism embracing American, Dutch, and Scottish strains, and including people ranging from Murray and Van Til to the premillennial fundamentalist stalwart Carl McIntire.  Once again, the fact that this rather broad coalition did not long survive Machen’s death does not detract from the broader impulse he evinced.

As it happens, I have a personal connection to Machen.  My paternal grandfather was a classmate of Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary.  They were members of the class of 1905, a class that also included Clarence Macartney and O. T. Allis.  While my grandfather remained a “Westminster Confession man” to his dying day and as pastor of the Harlem-New York Presbyterian Church was involved in the 1922-23 controversy over Harry Emerson Fosdick, he stayed in the Presbyterian Church, USA (and moderated the General Assembly of 1946). My grandfather’s stories about Machen were passed down to my father (also a PTS graduate) and so I grew up hearing tales of “Das” Machen from time to time.  Some of those stories focused on Machen’s personal eccentricities (he was a life-long bachelor and somewhat odd personally), but some were more substantial.

Perhaps the most interesting is an anecdote recorded in my grandfather’s privately published memoirs.  In a chapter on the 1920s, he wrote:

Still, the conflict set off by Dr. Fosdick’s sermon continued.  On the liberal side, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin preached his widely-quoted sermon on a txt that rally had nothing to do the doctrine but, in contrast, with a storm and shipwreck—Acts 27:31: “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.”  Using this text out of context, Dr. Coffin urged that all liberals and conservatives abide in the ‘Good Ship Presbyterian Church,’ that there be no split, no division.  He thesis was that the Presbyterian Church should be inclusive, making room for both conservatives and liberals.  On the conservative side, there were others who were for separation on doctrinal grounds, citing such a text as 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”  Among these was Dr. J. Gresham Machen, my Seminary classmate, who said to me one day in the Princeton Inn, “Evans, we conservatives from all denominations ought to withdraw and unite in a Biblically true or Gospel Church.”  I do not know whether this distinguished theologian changed his mind before his early death.  My other classmate and strong defender and contender for the faith, Dr. Clarence Macartney, never declared himself on Separation but remained a Presbyterian Christian until “journey’s end.”  Gradually the theological conflict or fire of the 1920’s died down, only to break out again in the 1960’s.  (Frederick Walter Evans, Reminiscences of a Long Life [privately published, 1981], 22)

Here we see stark evidence that principled conservatives could come to different conclusions in the context of the struggles of the 1920s.  We also see that Machen’s separationist impulse was in service to a broader vision of Christian unity in the truth of the gospel.

In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Machen was the, dare I say it, ecumenical glue that held the disparate conservative Presbyterian coalition of the 1920s and 1930s together, and it is more than a bit ironic that he sometimes gets blamed for the sectarianism that seems to afflict conservative Presbyterians today.

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Young Fogies

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Not long ago I removed myself from an internet discussion group that focused on the theology and praxis of my religious tradition.  The level of hostility directed toward other Christian traditions and the dismissiveness of what I know to be responsible scholarship on the part of some were toxic.

A number of years ago evangelical mathematician and philosopher Bill Dembski wrote: “There’s a mentality I see emerging in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This has really got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is.”

I think Dembski is right, and I also think it’s worth asking why a more-conservative-than-thou defensiveness has become the default position of too many today. I suspect it has to do, at least in part, with a batten-down-the-hatches response to an increasingly hostile cultural environment (more about that below).

Another interesting aspect of this conservatizing phenomenon is that it is especially evident among younger white males, and I’ve frequently used the term “young fogies” to reference it.  Psychologically and sociologically, I suppose it makes sense.  Couple a sense of marginalization and the anxieties that go with being a younger white male in the current cultural environment with the desire to differentiate themselves from an older generation of evangelicals they regard as squishy and compromising and stridency is what you are likely to get.

One frequent explanation proffered for fundamentalism, and one dating back at least to H. L. Mencken in the early 20th century, is intellectual softness.  A Facebook friend recently suggested to me that we “really don’t have a very well-educated ministry” and that “most conservative ministers lack the competence and the confidence to engage challenging issues theologically.”  Of course, there’s at least something to that.  For one thing, we’re sometimes starting from a deficit.  As historian Mark Noll famously put it, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 3).

Also, due to a variety of factors—the “professionalization” of the clergy, declines in student aptitude and preparation, and so forth—seminary education has been dumbed down in recent decades.  In terms of a typology I developed a number of years ago (catechetical vs. critical, confessional vs. ecumenical, and school for pastors vs. graduate school of theology), the most common seminary model in conservative Reformed circles seems to be catechetical/confessional/school for pastors, and that’s not necessarily the best training for navigating troubled cultural waters or thinking through difficult theological issues.

That being said, I’m somewhat skeptical of the explanatory value of this intellectual-mediocrity argument, and for reasons that will be evident below.  More interesting is the deeper question of why such intellectual softness is not only tolerated but celebrated.

So how should this fundamentalism be characterized? The common account—the conflict of rationality vs. irrationality or reason vs. faith—is clichéd, frequently self-serving, and doesn’t, in my opinion, get one very far. For one thing, all positions have a “faith element” to them. You can’t prove everything; you have to start with certain foundational, pre-theoretical convictions about the nature of reality. As the late Presbyterian theologian John Leith aptly put it,

All people . . . live by faith.  To be a human being is to live by faith.  There is no other alternative. . . . The events of life compel us to faith commitments, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious.  Each day before we have been up three hours we have made decisions in the light of some faith commitment about the nature of the universe, about the nature of the human being, about the significance of a human being, about the meaning of human life (John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine, 6).

For another, some of the fundamentalists I know are cerebral; they pride themselves on their reason and scholarship. The problem is that their reason and scholarship are sometimes skewed or misdirected and this tendentiousness can lead to odd results.

Rather, I suspect the problem lies in a lack of balance, an inability to hold together perspectives that are needful for good theology and church life. Cultural pressure is leading some to choose the binary logic of either/or when both/and may be more appropriate. Here are two examples.

Reformed theology at its best has sought to do justice to the both/and of what the neo-Calvinist tradition has called “common grace” (e.g., the epistemological potential that belongs to all by virtue of God’s creation grace) and the “antithesis” (the difference between what God intended for humanity and the post-fall human condition as it actually obtains). This is an apt way of getting at both the grandeur of human potential and achievement and the tragedy of the human condition.  Fundamentalism, it seems to me, tends to camp out in the antithesis, and effectively to deny the doctrine of common grace. Thus the findings of various disciplines (geology, biology, astrophysics, textual criticism, etc.) are sometimes discounted without a person really wrestling with them.

With regard to Scripture, Christian theology at its best has sought to do justice to Scripture as divine and human—as fully authoritative Word of God and as human text that can be studied in terms of the cultural context of the ANE and the Graeco-Roman world. Fundamentalism is strong on the divine character of Scripture, but the human dimension is often ignored or effectively denied. What can emerge is a pretty docetic view of the Bible, as if it simply dropped out of the sky with no connection to the historical context in which it actually emerged.

The last sentence of the preceding paragraph perhaps hints at a deeper problem. Notice that both examples cited evince problems with human endeavor as enculturated and embodied in time and space. Is there an analogy to be drawn between the Gnostics of the second century and modern fundamentalism? I’m still pondering that one, but I suspect more parallels could be drawn.

A Brief Response to “A Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy.”

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[Editor’s Note: This essay dates back to 2010–a time of some controversy over the doctrine of Scripture at the institution where I teach.  It responds to a satirical piece written by a former colleague, and while it is obviously a bit dated and the initial context of controversy has thankfully faded, it says some things that, in my opinion, still need to be said.  Both the other individual’s article and this response were, until recently, hosted on another site that has now gone off-line (enterprising folks can likely still find the full exchange via Google cache).  For better or worse, I have resisted the urge to update it.]

I have read my colleague Dr. Richard Burnett’s 22-page single spaced essay with both interest and some annoyance. He has written a satirical piece depicting how he thinks that Biblical inerrantists such as myself should go about defending what Burnett regards as our indefensible doctrine of Biblical authority. Of course, the dangers of such an exercise are evident—in pretending to put words in other people’s mouths one runs the distinct risk of erecting a straw man and then beating it about the head.

I gather that Burnett has created a composite picture of inerrantists, but since he mentions me so often I will respond on a few points. The question is: where does one begin? Much that Burnett asserts is open to debate, and some of the things he says are simply wrong or at best misleading. I will confine my brief comments to three areas. Once one sifts through the sarcasm, Burnett seems concerned to do three things. First, he seeks to show that the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs is an intellectually untenable and rationalistic exercise. Second, he tries to depict this doctrine of inerrancy as an historical novelty. And finally, he wants to vindicate the orthodoxy of his theological hero, Karl Barth. In the interests of what John Calvin called “lucid brevity,” references to the enumerated sections of Burnett’s paper will be in parentheses.

(1) Burnett apparently will not be dissuaded from the conviction that the doctrine of inerrancy is really about trying to prove the reliability of the Bible. For Burnett, the term “inerrancy” immediately raises the specter of modernism with its commitment to human rational autonomy and its imposition of alien standards upon the text (see #33-34). I think I have made it sufficiently clear in a number of contexts that I too am concerned about such matters. I have argued elsewhere that the doctrine of inerrancy is sometimes presented in unhelpful and problematic ways. For example, there are inerrantists who have framed the doctrine in rationalistic terms and who have wrongly demanded what John Murray termed “pedantic precision” from the biblical text. Here Burnett would do well to heed the writings of his own Seminary professor, George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary, who correctly sees the more “impressionistic” doctrine of inerrancy found in the Dutch Reformed (Kuyper and Bavinck) and Westminster Seminary (Richard Gaffin) traditions as a viable alternative to rationalism (see George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, 354-358). Of course, we also understand that Burnett’s case depends on presenting the doctrine of inerrancy in the most unfavorable light. For example, given the context of Burnett’s quote from J. I. Packer (see #28), one would never suspect that Dr. Packer has long affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs.

(2) Burnett also argues that the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs is of recent vintage. He appears to be unaware that there is a venerable tradition of “inerrancy” language in the Roman Catholic tradition stretching from St. Augustine’s implicit affirmation of inerrancy in the original autographs (“If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”) to the First and Second Vatican Councils. Such is the prominence of inerrancy in the Catholic tradition that, not surprisingly, there have been extensive discussions of “absolute inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic traditionalists) and “limited inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic progressives) which parallel, to some degree, recent Protestant inerrantist/infallibilist debates.

But Burnett’s handling of evidence on this point is also shaky. His treatment of Old Princeton Seminary is a good example. In a curious historiographical move, Burnett distinguishes between Old-Old Princeton (Witherspoon to Charles Hodge) and New-Old Princeton (B. B. Warfield and J. G. Machen), and the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy,” for Burnett, is B. B. Warfield (#11-12). Even Machen is subjected to similar treatment as Burnett distinguishes the early Machen (who rarely mentioned inerrancy) from the later Machen who staunchly affirmed inerrancy in the original autographs (#16-17). Of course, there are historical explanations for these patterns. Extensive discussions of the authority of the original autographs tend to emerge with vigor after the rise of textual criticism as a discipline (though they were present before), and Machen’s personal history (treated with subtlety by Darryl G. Hart) may have played a role. But Burnett seems uninterested in such matters—much of his historical argument is directed toward the question of whether somebody mentions the original autographs or not, as if this settles the issue.

To his credit, Burnett does briefly mention the important article by Randy Balmer (#11), now of Columbia University and an acknowledged expert on American Evangelicalism (Randall H. Balmer, “The Princetonians and Scripture: A Reconsideration, WTJ 44 (1982): 352-365). Unfortunately, it appears that Burnett did not read with sufficient care the article he cites. For example, Burnett claims that “Balmer shows that a variety of American clergy in the nineteenth century (even a couple Presbyterians) held to the exclusive inspiration and authority of the original autographs,” adding that “Old Princeton never did” (#11). But Balmer’s point here is quite different—indeed the opposite of what Burnett maintains. Balmer demonstrates that “all the elements, including the belief that only the original manuscripts were errorless, are found in the earlier writings of [Old Princeton figures] Archibald Alexander, Joseph Addison Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Francis Patton. No new doctrine of inspiration was introduced at Princeton after 1850, as Sandeen and others have alleged.” Balmer goes on to note that “far from being unique or novel in their view of Scripture, the Princetonians stood squarely within the mainstream of conservative thought on the subject” (Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354-355). Particularly striking here is Balmer’s quote from Francis Landey Patton, who wrote in 1869 (shortly after his graduation from Old Princeton Seminary): “When it is claimed that the Scriptures are inspired, it must be understood that we refer to the original manuscripts” (quoted in Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354 n. 8). In other words, it is not just that a few believed this; rather, belief in the inerrancy of the original autographs, and thus in a certain authority of the original autographs over against later copies, was the consensus among conservative American Protestants—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and yes, even Associate Reformed. So how, we may ask, was B. B. Warfield the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy” when it was common currency of the day? Burnett’s tendentious handling of the historical data of this issue should be recognized for what it is.

So, it appears that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture has a much better pedigree than Burnett allows. It is, as I argued in my Greenville News op-ed piece, “simply what Christians have historically believed.”

(3) The subtitle of Burnett’s sarcastic essay (‘A Non-Barthian Approach”) suggests that he views the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth as the great alternative to the inerrancy doctrine that has been officially endorsed by the General Synod of the ARP Church. In fact, Burnett has made it clear that he regards Barth as the compelling answer to both Evangelical inerrantist and liberal views of Scripture. The interpretation and theological significance of Barth are large and difficult topics (which I have touched on elsewhere; see this article), but a few comments are in order here.

First, Burnett accuses me of bad faith and selectivity in my quotation from Barth, where my article “cleverly omits to quote” what Burnett regards as a crucial portion allegedly indicating Barth’s position that the Bible does not teach error (#53). But that is not quite what the omitted text says. There Barth says that we should not take sides when Scriptural teachings disagree and conflict even over matters of religion and theology. Rather, as Barth makes clear elsewhere, we must listen for the Holy Spirit to speak though this fallible and messy human text as it “becomes” God’s Word to us. Such subjectivism is a clear threat to the witness of the church.

Burnett also seems to accuse me, by implication at least, of directing students to the most hostile American interpreters of Barth (#51). But that is not the case. When students ask me for reliable treatments of Barth on Scripture, I send them to the writings of Geoffrey Bromiley—a translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and one who knew Barth well. According to Bromiley, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, 52). Later Bromiley would write, “Barth’s dismissal of biblical inerrancy and his assigning of a special historical character to events like the resurrection pose the question whether the biblical books can really enjoy the status of direct, absolute, material authority, except by a sacrifice of the intellect, if they do in fact contain demonstrably incorrect statements or tell of events that do not meet the test of normal historical verifiability. . . . For many people, however, doubt seems unavoidably to arise about the great reality to which the Bible bears witness if it might be in error, or even under suspicion of being in error, about plain facts” (Bromiley, “The Authority of Scripture in Karl Barth,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, 291).

It is indeed ironic that Burnett would seek to champion Karl Barth in a context where the clear expectation has been that professors will uphold a high view of Scripture. Near the end of his life Barth admitted, “I myself am also a liberal—and perhaps even more liberal than those who call themselves liberals” (quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 496). At the end of the day at least, Barth was honest about his theological stance. I commend Barth for that candor, but not for his sadly defective view of Scripture.

Top Ten Reasons You Just Might Be a Hyper-Protestant

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Number Ten: You define the “gospel” primarily in terms of freedom from the condemnation of sin (justification) rather than freedom from both the condemnation and the power of sin (justification and sanctification).

Number Nine:  You are much more much more concerned about legalism than antinomianism.

Number Eight:  You view sanctification as a more or less optional add-on to justification (or maybe as an evidence of justification, though you are concerned that even that concession to necessity might be potentially legalistic) rather than as grace parallel to justification that comes with our union with Christ and that is essential to the walk of faith and the path of salvation.

Number Seven:  You sense a tension between the Christ pro nobis (Christ for us) and the Christ in nobis (Christ in us).  Thus, you are very suspicious of those you deride as “unionists” who want to see justification as communicated to the Christian through spiritual union with Christ.

Number Six:  It is not enough to affirm that justification is forensic and synthetic (a justification of the ungodly that involves the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the merits of Christ) and received by faith as the instrument that unites us to Christ who is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.  Rather, if the gratuity of justification is to be properly safeguarded justification must be completely abstracted from transformation of life.  Thus, if justification from eternity is too daring for you, you place heavy emphasis on an ordo salutis (order of salvation) that seeks logically and temporally to separate justification and transformation.

Number Five:  In order further to keep justification and sanctification separate you are suspicious of any real transformation intrinsic to the Christian.  Thus, your view of sanctification tends to be that of a divine actualism.

Number Four:  In order further to separate the forensic and the transformatory and to portray the forensic as independent of other considerations, you place enormous emphasis on the theme of covenant—especially on constructs such as a “covenant of redemption” between the first and second Persons of the Trinity (never mind that such a notion implies two divine wills and is thus implicitly tri-theistic) and a “covenant of works” in the Garden (never mind that, as John Murray pointed out, the term “covenant” is not used until Genesis 6:18).  Your attachment to the covenant theme is due in large measure to the fact that it gives you a vocabulary and conceptual apparatus for expressing the purely extrinsic, nominal relationships that will, you think, safeguard the doctrine of justification.  Of course, it is difficult to completely expunge the notion of conditionality from the concept of covenant and you may be dimly aware of the way that foregrounding the covenant theme has placed the Reformed tradition on the horns of the conditionality/unconditionality dilemma, and so you may eventually feel the tug of Lutheranism.

Number Three:  You are firmly committed to the notion of “immediate imputation” as an adequate description of the mode of imputation whereby both the sin of Adam the righteousness of Christ (i.e., the active and passive obedience of Christ) are credited.  This “immediate imputation” involves a purely extrinsic legal or forensic divine act that is independent of any realistic relationship between the persons involved (e.g., Christ and the Christian).  Along these lines, you are convinced that the choice between the scholastic categories of “mediate imputation” (i.e., imputation through participation in a moral quality) and immediate imputation pretty much exhausts the possibilities for thinking about the mode of imputation (despite the fact that, e.g., Calvin’s view of the mode of imputation seems to correspond to neither).

Number Two:  In keeping with the above, philosophically speaking you are basically a pretty radical nominalist rather than a realist.

And, finally, Number One:  Deep down you harbor the suspicion that John Calvin just might be a little shaky on the doctrine of justification.  In particular, passages like this trouble you greatly:

How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men?  First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us (Institutes of the Christian Religion [McNeill/Battles ed.], III.1.1).

We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him (Institutes of the Christian Religion [McNeill/Battles ed.], III.11.10).

Why I Still Don’t Much Care for Karl Barth

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A recent and significant article about Karl Barth’s personal life is making some waves.  Christiane Tietz, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Zürich, examines the relationship between Karl Barth and his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, on the basis of recently published correspondence between Barth, his wife Nelly, and Charlotte.  Tietz’s findings were presented at the 2016 meeting of the Karl Barth Society of North America, and that paper has now been published (Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 74/2 [2017], 86-111).

The nature of Barth’s relationship with Charlotte had long been hinted at.  Barth’s biographer and student, Eberhard Busch, came as close as any to acknowledging that Barth and Charlotte were lovers:

There is no question that the intimacy of her relationship with him made particularly heavy demands on the patience of his wife Nelly. . . Barth himself did not hesitate to take the responsibility and blame for the situation which had come about.  But he thought that it could not be changed. It had to be accepted and tolerated by all three.  The result was that they bore a burden that caused them unspeakably deep suffering.  Tensions arose which shook them to the core.  To avoid these, at least to some extent, was one of the reasons why in further Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum regularly moved to the Bergli during the summer vacation (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts [Fortress, 1976], 185-186).

Now, however, with Tietz’s article we have clear evidence of the nature of the relationship between Barth and von Kirschbaum, and the extraordinary pain it brought to Barth’s wife Nelly and to their children.  Worth noting is the fact that the surviving Barth children had decided to make the correspondence available in 1985, though the materials were not actually published until 2000 and 2008.

The article itself, with copious quotations from the letters of the principals, is excruciating to read.  Barth first met von Kirschbaum, who was fifteen years younger than he, in 1925 at the home of a friend and by early in 1926 they knew they were in love.  In September of 1929 Barth moved von Kirschbaum into his home, and from that point on the theologian lived with two women.  The picture of Barth that emerges from these letters is that of a man who recognized the awkwardness of his situation but who was steadfastly unwilling to give up his relationship with a mistress who, unlike Barth’s wife, was both a physical and intellectual partner.

The article also details the cognitive bargaining in which both Barth and von Kirschbaum engaged in order to justify this Notgemeinsschaft zu dritt (“union of necessity and trouble as a threesome”).  Barth himself rejected the admonitions of friends and family, and his own mother asked him, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” (Tietz, 107; cf. pp. 103-104).  As Tietz (p. 102) summarizes Barth in one of his letters, “The necessity lay in this: He wants to keep the outer order of marriage but also to be true to his love to Charlotte.  He confesses his guilt: that in a situation where he was still immature, he had asked Nelly to become his wife, that he was not what a man should be for his wife, and that he finally was unable to remain faithful to her.”  Yet, while recognizing a personal failure toward his wife Barth seems to have denied any moral failure, declaring that he had “never preached morally,” and, writing to von Kirschbaum, “it cannot just be the devil’s work, it must have some meaning and a right to live, that we, no, I will only talk about me: that I love you and do not see any chance to stop this” (pp. 107, 109).  Even von Kirschbaum was convinced that her relationship to Barth was a “marriage” and that it was a “responsible relationship” before God (p. 110).

All this is, frankly, disturbing in ways that challenge the capacity of language to describe.  Terms such as “adultery” and “affair” don’t seem to do full justice to what Barth was up to.  Perhaps “functional bigamy” is a better descriptor, but the level of chutzpa and hubris evident in Barth’s behavior and his disregard for the feelings of his wife Nelly are truly astonishing.

Then there’s the question of Barth’s theology.  This is the man regarded by many as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century (and there’s a case to be made for that assertion).   Some will argue that Barth’s behavior thoroughly discredits his theology, particularly in that his theology was used to justify the behavior, and I’m sensitive to the emotional power of that argument.  But Barth’s appalling behavior notwithstanding, I’m uncomfortable using this issue as a decisive theological criterion. The question of the rightness or wrongness of Barth’s theology should be decided on the merits.  But in order to examine these merits, we need to see how we got to this point.

Though this doubtless would have been surprising to many only a few decades back, we are today in the midst of a significant revival of interest in the theology of Karl Barth.  This renewed interest is especially evident among people who are somewhat to the right-of-center theologically.   This has been facilitated by the strategic release of Barth archival material (which has stimulated much scholarly work on Barth) and by the work of Barth scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary (especially Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, and Stacy Johnson), in the United Kingdom (especially the late John Webster and the late Colin Gunton), and in Germany (Eberhard Jüngel).  It is safe to say that, for better or worse, Barth is now “front burner.”

When I started seminary Barth had been dead for thirteen years, and was generally regarded as “historical theology” because the problems inherent in his work had become evident to people on both the right and left.    For the record, I’ll readily agree that Barth is almost always stimulating, which is why I have a fair number of books by and about Barth on the bookshelves in my office, and that the recent “Barth revival’ has produced some helpful and even remarkable insights into his thought.

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I’ll also admit that I went through a phase in seminary when I thought Barth was “cool.” He is fun to read, especially as he interacts with so much of the Christian tradition.  But I found it necessary to move on, in large measure because I was finding his soteriology and ecclesiology to be less than helpful (more on this below).  Many of my graduate school professors had gone through (sometimes passionate) Barthian phases before moving leftward to other forms of theology.  One thing I had in common with my mostly liberal professors was a distaste for Barth, though for somewhat different reasons.

The current preoccupation with Barth seems to be to some extent a “younger evangelical” phenomenon. Reasons are not terribly difficult to discern—fatigue with the older generation’s framing of issues, a desire for more interpretive “wiggle room” on certain matters, a concern to do greater justice to the humanity of Scripture, and so forth. In various ways Barth seems to some to provide a “third way” that avoids the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.

Are there good things to be found in Barth?  Sure there are.  Here’s a brief and incomplete list:

He has stimulated a lot of people to take the classical Christian tradition more seriously.

He retrieved the classical apparatus of Christological discussion (e.g., the  anhypostasia/enhypostasia distinction of Leontius of Byzantium) to good effect.

He took the doctrine of the Trinity seriously.  Though his language of “modes of being” has been confusing to many, Barth was certainly not a “modalist” or Sabellian.

He reminded us of the importance of the Augustinian and Anselmian principle of fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).

And finally, Barth reminded us that theology must be shaped by its object.  In the face of the anthropocentric turn of Schleiermacher and his liberal successors, Barth rightly declared, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”

In other words, Barth’s enduring value, as I see it, lies primarily in his retrieval of the classical Christian tradition.  The good stuff in Barth can generally be found elsewhere in the tradition.  But when Barth ventures out on his own, whether it be his view of the imago dei, his view of Scripture, his covenantal “supralapsarianism” and view of election, his dialectical view of history, etc., the results are often unhappy.

In fact, the problems in Barth’s work have long been recognized. First, his view of Scripture as potentially mistaken in matters of religion and theology and the shift in emphasis from inspiration to illumination leave the Christian with little place to stand (see, e.g., Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2:509-510). As Church Dogmatics editor and translator Geoffrey Bromiley well put it, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p. 52).  It seems to me that John Webster’s stimulating recent work on the doctrine of Scripture can be read as an attempt to fix some of these problems in Barth.

Second, his implicit universalism (e.g., his contention that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that non-Christians are outside of Christ but rather that Christians know they are redeemed by Christ) cuts the legs out from under gospel proclamation (see Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1: 92-93, 103). It is safe to say that Barthianism has not exactly been an engine for missionary activity!

Third, there is the failure to take history with the seriousness it deserves.  Here we recall that Barth sought to affirm both God’s redemptive activity and the critical study of history, and so he relegated divine acts to the realm of “suprahistory” (by which he meant that it really happened but it’s not “historical” in the sense of being verifiable).  The problems inherent in this dialectical approach to history seem to lie at the crux of the complaints that theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and N. T. Wright have with Barth.

Fourth, there is Barth’s “objectivism,” which results in a pretty abstract soteriology.  For Barth, Christ not only fulfilled the divine initiative toward fallen human beings but also the human response of faith and obedience.  In other words, all of salvation (the gracious divine initiative and the human response to it) is objectively comprehended in Christ.  But this in turn raises the question of whether we have to do anything and whether transformation of life is at all important.  It is precisely here that we may want to ponder whether there was a connection between Barth’s thought and the messiness of Barth’s life.

Finally, consistent with this objectivism Barth’s ecclesiology and sacramentology, with its view of the church as witness to salvation rather than the sphere of salvation, is disappointingly low in ways that this ecclesial Calvinist cannot embrace.

In sum, then, I still don’t much care for Karl Barth, and for a variety of reasons having to do with both theology and life.  Those wise words of Barth’s mother quoted above to her wayward son should be a salutary word of caution to those of us who seek to do theology: “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”

Critical Theory and the Unity of the Church

The undersigned concerned individuals are constrained, indeed compelled, to speak to ideological dangers that threaten and subvert the unity of the Body of Christ.

Some in the conservative Reformed community evince a laudable desire to overcome racial injustice, but they often seek to understand racial divisions by relying on categories drawn from the “critical theory” of secular academia (e.g., notions of “white privilege,” “white guilt,” “intersectionality,” and more broadly the power-analysis tradition that stems from Marx, Foucault, and others) rather than from Scripture and the Christian tradition.  As a result of this uncritical borrowing, some in the church are falling headlong into the divisive identity politics that now plague the broader culture and particularly higher education.

These secular categories are often unhelpful.  For example, what are often taken to be examples of “white privilege” are simply the rights and opportunities that should be enjoyed by all, and the appropriate response is not to engender subjective feelings of “white guilt” but to work to extend these rights and opportunities to all.  Furthermore, the notion of “white privilege” is artificial in that many non-Caucasians are similarly “advantaged,” while poor whites often experience problems and disadvantages similar to those experienced by impoverished people of color. While such thinking provides incentives for political activism and a “stick to beat people with,” it does little to further careful analysis, productive theological reflection, and mutual understanding.

More broadly, we contend that reducing the complexity of social relationships to issues of power, and imposing a binary logic that divides human society into oppressors and oppressed is unhelpful in a number of ways.  When the rich complexity of human society and motivation is viewed largely through the lens of power analysis much is missed.  Such reductionistic thinking also provides a ready rationale for unfairly marginalizing people deemed to be “politically incorrect.”  Perhaps most importantly, the identity politics that flow from this fixation on race, gender, sexuality, etc. are powerful centrifugal forces that have the potential to tear not only society but also the church apart.  Such a focus on identity almost inevitably gives rise to a psychology of ressentiment, with its anger and desire for revenge.

In short, the grand inclusive vision—one rooted not in identitarian difference but in what people share in common—of racial reconciliation evident, for example, in the work of African-American Presbyterian pastor Francis J. Grimké is being tragically subverted.  Grimké drew deeply and decisively on the Christian tradition for his views of justice and social change, and he knew well that secular solutions would not suffice.  He wrote: “I am hopeful, because I have faith in the power of the religion of the Lord Jesus Christ to conquer all prejudices, to break down all walls of separation, and to weld together men of all races in one great brotherhood.” (The Works of Francis J. Grimké [1942], I:267).

We believe, not only that such secular categories are inherently divisive, but that there is a better way.  Drawing on the Christian doctrine of Creation, we affirm that all people are created in the image of God, that all possess a dignity and value that flow from their relationship to their Creator rather than from the contingencies of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Drawing on the Christian doctrine of sin and the fall, we affirm that all people are sinners and that sin affects every aspect of our existence.  All stand in need of God’s grace and mercy.  While sinfulness can express itself in different ways depending upon social location, and God does have a special concern for the poor and marginalized, there is no “superior virtue of the oppressed.”  The fashionable notion today that only white people can be racists stands in stark tension with this Christian doctrine of sin.

Drawing on the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, we affirm that the Second Person of the Trinity has united himself with humanity and become a member of the human community forever, and that this has powerful implication for our understanding human dignity and community.  As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “All the great writers of antiquity were a part of the aristocracy of masters . . . and it was necessary that Jesus Christ come to earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal” (Democracy in America [2000], 413).

Finally, drawing on the Christian doctrines of Reconciliation and the Church, we affirm with the Apostle Paul that in Christ “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”  We insist that this union of the Church with Christ in his obedient death, mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension—intended in the eternal purposes of God and accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit—is more concrete and vital than the contingent social distinctions of race, gender, and ethnicity, and that this unity of the Church must not be subverted by dubious and irremediably divisive secular theories.

August 31, 2017


Signatories*:

The Rev. William B. Evans, Ph.D.
Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion
Erskine College
Due West, SC

The Rev. Mark Robinson
PCA Teaching Elder
Pittsburgh, PA

Darrell B. Harrison
Fellow, Princeton Theological Seminary Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI)
Atlanta, Georgia

The Rev. Leslie Holmes, Ph.D.
Provost, Erskine Theological Seminary
Due West, SC  29639

The Rev. Andy Webb
Senior Pastor, Providence PCA Church
Fayetteville, NC

The Rev. Todd Pruitt
Pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church
Harrisonburg, VA

The Rev. Robert Briggs
Sacramento, CA

The Rev. Lane Keister
Pastor, Momence Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Momence, IL

The Rev. Dr. Dennis E. Bills
Trinity Presbyterian Church
New Martinsville, WV

Gabriel J. Williams, Jr., PhD
Charleston, SC

Col. Robert J. Mattes, USAF Ret.
Ruling Elder, Christ Church of Arlington Arlington, VA

The Rev. Ken Fryer
Riverside Baptist Church
Denham Springs, LA

Pastor Dan McGhee, M.Div.
Senior Pastor, Harvest Bible Church
Westland, MI

Benjamin Shaw, Ph.D.
Academic Dean, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Greenville, SC.

John McDonald, Th.D.
Director of the Seminary
The North American Reformed Seminary
Sumter, SC

John Barber, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology & Culture
Whitefield Theological Seminary
Lakeland, FL

The Rev. George E. Lacy, Jr.
PCA Teaching Elder
Beeville, TX

The Rev. William F. Hill, Jr.
PCA Teaching Elder,
Pastor, Fellowship Presbyterian Church
Newport, TN

 

 

*Institutional connections listed for identification purposes only.

The Slippery Slope: An Iron Law of Theological Declension?

Bill Evans head shot

PCA minister Rick Phillips has a post over on Reformation21.org entitled “The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box.”  In his brief article, which seems to be directed largely against his “progressive” opponents in the PCA, Phillips references a former PCA minister who has gone from being on the hip and relevant end of the PCA, to affirming the ordination of women and leaving the PCA, to affirming the propriety of homosexual behavior, to questioning the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement.

All this is evidence, Phillips contends, of an inevitable “slippery slope,” and he makes the following three arguments:  First, he contends that there is an “unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world’s demands.”  Second, he argues that “the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women’s ordination” and that “the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture.”  And finally, he maintains that once one goes down the path of denying the authority of Scripture one will eventually deny Christ and the gospel.

What are we to make of this Phillipsian iron law of theological declension?  As an historian who studies the impact of theological ideas, I’m tempted to think that there is something to it.  After all, ideas do have consequences.  But the deterministic note and air of apodictic certainty give me pause and cause me to wonder if life may be more complicated than Phillips allows.

What are some of the complexities missed?  First, the doctrine of inerrancy is not by itself a solution to everything that ails us.  Now for the record I affirm the doctrine in its classic form as defined from Augustine to Old Princeton, and I think it’s important—for theology, worship, pastoral care, and, indeed, all of life—that we affirm the truthfulness of Scripture in all that it teaches.   But by itself the doctrine of inerrancy is a rather formal affair, and my sense is that we currently have a number of competing versions of the doctrine of inerrancy present in the conservative Reformed context (some more adequate than others).  Where the rubber tends to meet the road is on the question of interpretation—what is this inerrant and infallible Bible actually teaching?  More often than not hermeneutics is where the real battles are being fought out.

Generally speaking, evangelical leaders don’t set out to deny the authority of the Bible.  Rather, over time they adopt a series of interpretations on what they deem to be plausible grounds, and the cumulative weight of these can lead eventually to the denial of the full authority of the Bible.  In other words, contra Phillips, the denial of the authority of Scripture, more often than not, may lie closer to the end point of the process of declension rather than to the beginning.

Sociologists of knowledge such as the late Peter Berger called our attention to “plausibility structures,” the social realities that help to shape our sense of what is believable and acceptable.  A 2015 article in World Magazine on the former PCA pastor in question helps to make this point.  He was planting a church in San Francisco, a city long known for its open and affirming stance on homosexuality.  His oldest son came out of the closet, and a well-known gay billionaire became interested in the ministry of the church.  It’s not hard to figure out how this man’s change of views happened, and Phillips’ iron law of theological declension doesn’t do justice to the existential realities of this particular case.  Sure, doctrine is important, but people aren’t brains on sticks.

In other words, the current crisis may be not so much one of biblical authority (though that is certainly an issue) as it is a failure to navigate the problem of what H. Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture called the competing authorities of Christ and culture.  Yes, Scripture is our final authority, but our grasp of Scripture is inevitably partial because we read the Bible through the lenses of our encultured experience.  Moreover, the problems resulting from this are evident on both the right and the left.  For example, the temptation for the contemporary progressive left is to baptize whatever is going on in the prevailing culture.  Conversely, the temptation for the right is to react mechanically against that prevailing culture and to read Scripture in reactionary mode.  In both cases, the full authority of Scripture is compromised, and simply bloviating about inerrancy doesn’t advance the discussion.  What we need is sanctified wisdom and discernment.

Second, there is Phillips’ fixation on the ordination of women as a bellwether for this declension.  Here there are enough counterexamples to give us pause.  For example, the very conservative RPCNA has been ordaining women to the diaconate since the late nineteenth century, and my own denomination (the ARPC) has been doing so since the 1970s.  Neither group has fallen headlong into theological liberalism.  Then there are the many people and congregations, a good many of whom affirm the ordination of women to all church offices, who at great personal and monetary cost have left mainline denominations such as the PCUSA and TEC (primarily because those denominations have endorsed homosexuality) in order to affiliate with more conservative groups such as the EPC and ACNA.

This may come as a surprise to some in conservative Reformed circles, but continued faithfulness in these challenging times involves much more than having a correct doctrine of Scripture, important as that is.  It also involves understanding the often subtle (and inevitable) nexus of culture and interpretation.  It involves guarding our hearts in reliance upon the Holy Spirit and seeking to be obedient in every area of our lives.  And it involves having a robust understanding of God’s created order and the creational norms embedded in it.