Machen’s "Christianity and Culture"

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.

—J. Gresham Machen in “Christianity and Culture”

Contemporary discussions of Christianity and culture almost always begin with an analysis of the “ideal types” that H. Richard Niebuhr developed in Christ and Culture. So prominent have Niebuhr’s categories become that one might overlook the fact that Christians were writing and thinking about culture for a very long time before Niebuhr came along. One writer who contributed to this discussion was J. Gresham Machen.

Machen’s essay on “Christianity and Culture” was one of his earliest published works (Princeton Theological Review 11 [1913]). It built upon a lecture that Machen had delivered on two earlier occasions: “The Scientific Preparation of the Minister.” It is decades older than Niebuhr’s work, and it also antedates Machen’s acquaintance with Cornelius Van Til. It cannot be accused of Kuyperian “neo-Calvinism,” but most likely reflects the influences of William Park Armstrong, Machen’s mentor at Princeton.

When Machen wrote about culture, he meant primarily high culture: the arts and sciences, poetry, philosophy, and the like. His special focus was upon academic culture, i.e., the cultivation of the intellect and the life of the mind. The specific problem that the essay addressed was the gap between piety and knowledge, or between what Machen called the “practical tendency” and the “scientific or academic tendency.” As he saw it, every Christian wrestles with the balance between two activities: the acquisition of knowledge and the inculcation of faith.

According to Machen, people attempt to strike this balance in two ways. Some wish to subordinate Christianity to culture. Others try to destroy culture (or at least treat it with indifference) in the interest of faith. While Machen did not say so in his essay, the first approach is one that he later identified with religious liberalism. The second is the tendency that he saw in fundamentalism.

The problem with subordinating Christianity to culture is that it eliminates the supernatural and reduces Christianity to the level of a merely human product. In other words, Christianity becomes nothing but an aspect of human culture. On Machen’s view, this approach was incompatible with revealed religion, supernatural authority, and, indeed, with the gospel itself.

Destroying or ignoring culture, however, amounted to obscurantism. For Machen, Christianity could never be upheld by ignoring evidence. If a real conflict could be discovered between reason and Christianity, then Christianity would have to be abandoned or at least modified (here Machen’s difference with Van Til is significant). Even if the faith were not at stake, culture would still be worth pursuing. Machen believed that both the intellectual and aesthetic capacities come from God. These capacities were created to be used. Scripture displays no lack of appreciation for them.

For Machen, neither conceding to culture nor ignoring it could bring the proper balance to Christianity. Instead, he proposed a third alternative: the consecration of culture. Machen insisted that Christians ought to cultivate the arts and sciences “with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist,” but they ought to do so to the service of God. Such a program of cultivation is necessary because Christianity faces a real danger if it allows any sphere of human activity to continue opposed to, or even disconnected from, Christian understanding.

According to Machen, culture exerts a definite influence upon the human mind. What we receive from culture conditions the mind toward either the acceptance or the rejection of the gospel. If the collective thought of society is dominated by ideas that prevent Christianity from being taken seriously, then even the best preaching will produce only meager results. Christians cannot permit that to happen. For Machen, the only solution was to confront false thinking at its sources, to truncate its influence before it was able to reach the popular mind. In this sense, it turns out that Machen did believe in the destruction of culture.

For Machen, the difference between these three approaches was more than theoretical. He had already provided an example of his approach in his earliest articles, published while he was a student at Princeton (“The New Testament Account of the Birth of Jesus,” first and second articles, in Princeton Theological Review 3 and 4 [1905-1906]). There he examined the New Testament accounts of the virgin birth of Christ, not as theological statements, but as historical narratives. He asked whether the narratives should be seen as factual or as mythical.

Machen recognized that Christians had a powerful incentive to defend the virgin birth because it was a fundamental fact of the Christian faith. Though he might have been expected to argue backward from theological necessity to the historical actuality of the virgin birth, he did exactly the opposite. Theology, he said, depends at least partly on the historicity of the events. Interestingly, he admitted that the historical evidence for the virgin birth of Christ is not conclusive. Therefore, a decision about the historicity of the virgin birth hinges upon one’s prior conclusions regarding the possibility of miracles in general. If one begins by dismissing the possibility of miracles, then the narratives of Jesus’ birth will be unconvincing. If, however, one begins with a prior belief in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection, then one will find the evidence against the mythological interpretation of Jesus’ birth to be insurmountable.

This was a surprisingly modest conclusion, and it indicates his reluctance to retreat from a serious confrontation with the evidence into a faith that neglected the concerns of intellectual culture. His subsequent study in the German universities further illustrates this commitment. There he was taught by cultured intellectuals who challenged the historical and factual nature of Christian affirmations. He refused to shrink from the honest examination of the evidence, even when he understood that Christianity itself was at stake. For Machen, intellectual dishonesty was a greater sin than unbelief.

In sum, Machen believed that culture (understood in the sense of high culture) was extremely important. The categories that one received from one’s culture either enabled or disabled the understanding of biblical Christianity. Consequently, culture was far too vital simply to be ignored, and it could not be destroyed without doing injustice to our humanity. On the other hand, culture was not simply to be given the final word. Where culture enabled a right understanding of Christianity, it had to be nourished and fostered. Where culture challenged Christianity, its claims had to be faced squarely. If Christianity was to maintain its plausibility, then the possibility of its claims had to be vindicated.

Machen believed that at least some Christians had to be persons of culture—including the culture of high learning. This duty arose partly because intellectual and cultural abilities are gifts of God, valuable in their own right. More than that, persons of culture would be necessary to nourish culture where it was true or to overthrow it where it was false. The neglect of culture, however, constituted a sin for which Machen exhibited little patience.

Eucharistic Prayer B
The Book of Common Prayer

We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

6415 reads

There are 29 Comments

Steve Newman's picture

I understand the need for Christians to be culturally involved. However,it seems to me that the current trend is a lot more about culture and a lot less about Christ. Don't you think that covenant theology is what is driving a lot more of this push? Dispensationalists don't have the obligations to turn the present world in to a theocracy in order to be "successful". We can easily end up tilting at cultural "windmills" without really being able to accomplish anything of substance. It is not often productive to say much about culture unless you can do something about it.

DavidO's picture

Machen's point is that disengaging from culture fortifies the windmill. Having taken that path, here we are, tilting anyway.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Steve,

It appears that you do not understand Covenant Theology very well. Very few adherents of CT are Theonomists. CT is not endeavoring to "Christianize" the culture, or to bring in the reign of Christ. That sounds more like Post-millenialism.

Cordially,
Greg Barkman

G. N. Barkman

Charlie's picture

I think it's important to remember that liberalism is a theology of subtraction. It reduces the supernatural to the natural, it sublimates the transcendent into the immanent. So, the social impulse of liberalism isn't foreign to Christianity. It's what was left of Christianity after being vitiated by materialism and post-Kantian philosophy. What makes liberalism liberalism, then, isn't the social emphasis; it's the absence of orthodoxy. Fight the absence, not the only remaining good part.

The cultural/social impulse is the birthright of orthodox Christianity. I implore you, don't sell your birthright.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I remember arriving at an idea sort of like this as an adolescent. Felt the need to come up with a justification for Christians to care about the condition of the society they lived in. At the time, it made sense to me that if you want people to see the light clearly, you should try to get the smog out of the air.

I later rejected the idea because it no longer seemed likely to me that a culture would be the means God uses to draw people to Himself.
In the first century, immorality was rampant, polytheism was normal, dissent from Roman religion was strongly discouraged, etc. Yet the church flourished as enormous numbers of people believed.

It's interesting that Kevin doesn't breathe a word here as to whether or not he agrees with Machen or to what extent on what points, etc. I'd love to know.
What biblical evidence do we have of Machen's thesis?

Of course, God is able to use any means He chooses to bring people to faith, in large or small numbers. But given the centrality of preaching the gospel--both in Scripture and in our own traditions--I wonder how Machen is able to attach so much power to culture in the redemption of human beings.

Or have I misunderstood his idea?

And how does his idea fit the whole concept of presuppositional apologetics?

I'd love to be able to agree with Machen but I don't see how I can.

CLeavell's picture

Aaron, these are very good ideas for us to think through. I have a few questions to add into the mix. Why is it that the gospel is more readily accepted in one culture over another? For example, many missionaries speak of great openness to the gospel in parts of Asia while many missionaries speak of great difficulty in sharing the gospel in parts of Europe. How does one account for these differences? Is it possible for one culture to be more or less hardened to the gospel?

http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/jgmculture.htm Here is a link to Machen's essay.

Joseph's picture

Aaron,

To be clear, I hope you're not suggesting that the early church supports your thesis. The early church was extensively involved in what we would today call social justice, and that was a significant part of their appeal. See Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity, for data on the growth of the early church and what accounted for it.

Todd Wood's picture

And wouldn't Stark project the LDS model to be the most appealing and successful in America in the days ahead?

The LDS model is remarkable: (1) high emphasis on cultivating the mind, very academic, well educated and (2) high emphasis on industry, giving, meeting social needs, church welfare.

We also have an LDS man who desires to start leading the American nation in 2012 toward conservative utopia.

What more can we ask of our friends?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joseph wrote:
Aaron,
To be clear, I hope you're not suggesting that the early church supports your thesis. The early church was extensively involved in what we would today call social justice, and that was a significant part of their appeal. See Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity, for data on the growth of the early church and what accounted for it.

No, I'd be closer to saying that the cultural environment the early church thrived in leads me to wonder whether the "Christianness" of the culture is really much of a factor in responsiveness to the gospel.

I don't even want to get started here on "social justice." (Off topic, but, why is it that we now feel the need to attach "social" to justice when all Christians cared about for many centuries was good ol' justice?)

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I later rejected the idea because it no longer seemed likely to me that a culture would be the means God uses to draw people to Himself.
In the first century, immorality was rampant, polytheism was normal, dissent from Roman religion was strongly discouraged, etc. Yet the church flourished as enormous numbers of people believed.

I was reading recently, I think (but am not sure) in Wilken's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, that current estimates of the rise of Christianity put the largest increases in the 3rd and following centuries, that is, after they had achieved cultural supremacy.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

CLeavell's picture

Kevin Bauder wrote:
Where culture enabled a right understanding of Christianity, it had to be nourished and fostered. Where culture challenged Christianity, its claims had to be faced squarely. If Christianity was to maintain its plausibility, then the possibility of its claims had to be vindicated.

This seems to be the approach of the early church apologists. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.i.html Against Heresies by Irenaeus is a great example of squarely facing the claims of a pagan culture that was being mixed with Christianity. I believe one of the main reasons for the success of the early church was they took a similar approach to culture that Machen is advocating.

RPittman's picture

Why are we looking for natural causes of a supernatural working? Have we forgotten about God's sovereignty and His building of His church. Scripture specifically states that ". . . the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:47)." If you need a more natural, human motivation, then perhaps it was the miracles done by the Apostles because ". . . great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things. And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon's porch. And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.) (Acts 5:11-14)" Somehow, I just don't see the cultural thing at all.

RPittman's picture

Bauder wrote:
Destroying or ignoring culture, however, amounted to obscurantism. For Machen, Christianity could never be upheld by ignoring evidence. If a real conflict could be discovered between reason and Christianity, then Christianity would have to be abandoned or at least modified [emphasis added ] (here Machen’s difference with Van Til is significant). Even if the faith were not at stake, culture would still be worth pursuing. Machen believed that both the intellectual and aesthetic capacities come from God. These capacities were created to be used. Scripture displays no lack of appreciation for them.

For Machen, neither conceding to culture nor ignoring it could bring the proper balance to Christianity. Instead, he proposed a third alternative: the consecration of culture. Machen insisted that Christians ought to cultivate the arts and sciences “with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist,” but they ought to do so to the service of God. Such a program of cultivation is necessary because Christianity faces a real danger if it allows any sphere of human activity to continue opposed to, or even disconnected from, Christian understanding.

Like us, Machen was a child of his times. He was a stalwart soldier for orthodoxy, although we can observe a few chinks in his armor. Machen, like other orthodox theologians of his era, used his academic training and rationalism to defend the faith. Even so, Machen placed reason above faith and revelation (see emphasized quote above), perhaps naively believing that faith could always be justified by reason. Remember that he lived in an age of rationalistic euphoria and scientific optimism.

None-the-less, Machen has left a hole in the dike he built. The predominance of reason is the inducement that modern conservative evangelical theologians working in a rationalistic-academic environment have found to return to some form of theistic evolution. Even some of the Princeton theologians held theistic evolutionary views.

Rationalism assumes that everything is knowable and understandable by man's reason. Machen, evidently, bought well into this concept. The Biblical teaching, however, is that man's knowledge is not exhaustive (Deuteronomy 29:29), his understanding is limited (Isaiah 55:8-9), and revelation is the only sure means of truth (1 Corinthians 2:10-14). Thus, reason alone is insufficient lacking three essentials--data, comprehension, and verification. Realizing our rational limitations, it is reasonable to conclude that we must accept some things by faith based upon revelation. Orthodox rationalists are constantly looking for explanations to bolster their faith. Some things we don't know and can't explain.

Miracles place orthodox rationalists in a dilemma. As orthodox, they must believe them and as rationalists, they must explain them. A miracle that can be explained by natural means is no miracle--it is only a natural phenomena whose cause is obscured. Whereas some will argue that God used natural means to perform miracles, it will be noted a supernatural influence controlled the natural phenomenon. Furthermore, there are miracles that are clearly outside the use of natural processes (e.g. feeding of the four thousand, raising Lazarus from the dead, etc.). The greatest miracle of all is the Virgin Birth. Some have tried to explain it by parthenogenesis, which is unacceptable to both sides.

Van Til is closer to the truth with his presuppositionalism, but he somewhat follows rationalism after postulating his presuppositions, even though he knew our knowledge and thinking is analogical to God's knowledge and thoughts. At best, ". . . we see through a glass, darkly . . . (1 Corinthians 13:12)."

Having said so much, my point is simply that we must buy into Machen's view of reason and faith before his view of culture becomes persuasive for us. This view, IMHO, is an antiquated view from the Orthodoxy v. Liberalism war and is no longer suited for current struggles with Post-Modernism, materialism, pluralism, etc. Culture is important for Christians but it portends either to good or evil. Thus, it is always a point of tension for Christianity.

RPittman's picture

Bauder wrote:
In sum, Machen believed that culture (understood in the sense of high culture) was extremely important. The categories that one received from one’s culture either enabled or disabled the understanding of biblical Christianity. Consequently, culture was far too vital simply to be ignored, and it could not be destroyed without doing injustice to our humanity. On the other hand, culture was not simply to be given the final word. Where culture enabled a right understanding of Christianity, it had to be nourished and fostered. Where culture challenged Christianity, its claims had to be faced squarely. If Christianity was to maintain its plausibility, then the possibility of its claims had to be vindicated.
This is a very interesting proposition. There is no better place to test it than the mission field. In bygone generations, missionaries sought to westernize the native cultures to a style fostering Christianity. This fell out of vogue when it was characterized as subversive. Today, missionaries try to speak the Gospel through the native culture. Should missionaries try to change the native culture? In light of the highlighted statement, what is the best approach?

RPittman's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I remember arriving at an idea sort of like this as an adolescent. Felt the need to come up with a justification for Christians to care about the condition of the society they lived in. At the time, it made sense to me that if you want people to see the light clearly, you should try to get the smog out of the air.

I later rejected the idea because it no longer seemed likely to me that a culture would be the means God uses to draw people to Himself.
In the first century, immorality was rampant, polytheism was normal, dissent from Roman religion was strongly discouraged, etc. Yet the church flourished as enormous numbers of people believed.

It's interesting that Kevin doesn't breathe a word here as to whether or not he agrees with Machen or to what extent on what points, etc. I'd love to know.
What biblical evidence do we have of Machen's thesis?

Of course, God is able to use any means He chooses to bring people to faith, in large or small numbers. But given the centrality of preaching the gospel--both in Scripture and in our own traditions--I wonder how Machen is able to attach so much power to culture in the redemption of human beings.

Or have I misunderstood his idea?

And how does his idea fit the whole concept of presuppositional apologetics?

I'd love to be able to agree with Machen but I don't see how I can.

Have you compared the state of the modern church in the supposedly Christian culture of the West to the church in the totalitarian atheistic culture of the former Soviet Bloc countries and the Far Eastern culture of Communist China? A casual perusal of history would seem to indicate that Christianity thrives in alien cultures even in face of open opposition and adversity. Machen's view, I think, are attributable more to his academic-rationalistic worldview than his Biblical understanding.

Charlie's picture

I disagree with your historical reading. I think history fairly unambiguously declares Christianity to flourish in conditions of peace and general support. As mentioned above, recent historical estimates place the largest rate of growth in Christianity after the conversion of Constantine. Also, that was certainly the period of most sustained doctrinal development.

If we examine the Reformation era, the next age to see serious persecution of Christians, we find the same. The Reformation flourished only where it was protected by the governmental authorities - England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden. It made less ground in France, and barely touched ruthless Spain. The same holds true for the Anabaptists; they did best outside zones of persecution.

I'm pretty confident 20th century history will reveal the same. Great growth often occurs after the end of persecution, but rarely within it. Christianity fills the cultural void left by the fall of the previous ideology. However, serious doctrinal maturity usually doesn't come until the Church has greatly affected culture. Our "post-Christian" America is still leading the world in theological precision, and that's no small thing. The Chinese church, for all its fantastic growth, is a hotbed of heresy. At least, everyone I know who's worked with it has told me so.

By the way, if you think Van Til is too rationalistic, which Christian philosophers do you approve?

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

RPittman's picture

Charlie wrote:
I disagree with your historical reading. I think history fairly unambiguously declares Christianity to flourish in conditions of peace and general support. As mentioned above, recent historical estimates place the largest rate of growth in Christianity after the conversion of Constantine. Also, that was certainly the period of most sustained doctrinal development.

If we examine the Reformation era, the next age to see serious persecution of Christians, we find the same. The Reformation flourished only where it was protected by the governmental authorities - England, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden. It made less ground in France, and barely touched ruthless Spain. The same holds true for the Anabaptists; they did best outside zones of persecution.

I'm pretty confident 20th century history will reveal the same. Great growth often occurs after the end of persecution, but rarely within it. Christianity fills the cultural void left by the fall of the previous ideology. However, serious doctrinal maturity usually doesn't come until the Church has greatly affected culture. Our "post-Christian" America is still leading the world in theological precision, and that's no small thing. The Chinese church, for all its fantastic growth, is a hotbed of heresy. At least, everyone I know who's worked with it has told me so.

By the way, if you think Van Til is too rationalistic, which Christian philosophers do you approve?

Yes, Charle, I see your points but I don't reach your conclusions. It may be that we are defining Christianity in broader or narrower terms. Much of what you are using for your examples, I think, is what I would call cultural Christianity. Even in America, you know the term "American Civil Religion." This refers to a larger consensus of cultural norms and beliefs that correspond to Christianity but it does not necessarily reflect the Believing Church, only establishmentarian religion. However, you have made some good points such as the widespread heresy in China. Even so, I think this was the case in the rapid growth of first century Christianity too.

BTW, I rather like Van Til as well as Machen. It is that I don't have stardust in my eyes. Just because I note a strength or weakness doesn't mean that I approve or disapprove of the person. I am not afraid to challenge the thoughts of any man. We all, including myself, have feet of clay. I critique and even change my own thinking from time to time. And sometimes I even note something positive about someone with whom I am in significant disagreement. No, Van Til has real impact on my own thinking. Like the rest of us, he has noticeable weaknesses and falls short of getting it all worked out and right.

As for Christian philosophers . . . well . . . . Charlie, I have this thing about philosophy; it has to do with my understanding of how we perceive reality. Ironically, like Van Til, I believe that we understand reality analogically. We do not see reality as reality is but we understand and explain it through models, much like we do scientifically. Philosophers construct models that are not reality itself but one's intellectual framework of what he or she perceives reality to be. These models are limited, tentative, and changing. No system works, although it may refine and contribute to our understanding. Whereas philosophy may aid us in broadening our understanding, no philosophy mirrors reality and truth exactly--perhaps not even close. Thus, I strive for a kind of operationalism (i.e. what works) in this area. I use an eclectic approach, borrowing the best from many and rejecting much from all. Also, I tend to be more of a generalist than a specialist. Whereas an educated person ought to have a broad working knowledge of philosophy, a specialized and detailed knowledge is a waste of time because of philosophy's tentative and transitory nature. Spending all of our time and effort on the pedantic details of error hinders us from more important things of life within a very limited lifespan. (If you're wondering why I waste my time on SI, I'm sharpening my skills and ideas for projects I've planned. Also, I'm trying to get ideas on the table for critique and floating in the public forum.) Although there is knowledge and understanding to be found in philosophy as a whole, it is weighed down by a morass of foolish error and human speculation.

In many things, I am an agnostic--I don't claim to know. It is better to recognize our limitations, IMHO, than to speculatively go down the wrong path. My basic presuppositions are centered in the verities of Scripture, which is sufficient. Humans are limited in their knowledge (i.e. data) and their ability to process (i.e. reason). Our certainties are based in what Scripture clearly says and these sureties decrease exponentially as we make inferences and deductions, although based on Scripture. In other words, each step in argumentation away from a direct statement of Scripture decreases exponentially in certitude. Granted that inferences can be valid and useful, we tend to get carried away with our own pet deductions. As a disclaimer, please do not think that I am opposed to reasoning from Scripture or reasoning via observations. I am not but I subordinate these to a lesser status.

This can be well illustrated from microscopy. Before observing, one must prepare a specimen for viewing. The process may range from a simple thin-slicing, fixation, and staining to impregnation with silver for electron microscopy. Sometimes in our preparation, we create artifacts--structures that were not in the original specimen. Ofttimes, we do the same in our philosophizing. Furthermore, there are two factors in microscopy, magnification and resolution. When the image is small, we try to make it larger by increasing the magnification. Magnification results in decreasing resolution, the ability to distinguish between two adjacent structures. Thus, one can go from a small image with some detail to a large fuzzy blob with details washed out. The same is true in our thinking. When we can see the issue with some apparent details, the whole thing becomes fuzzy and confused as we try to magnify it. Sometimes it is best to state what we can see clearly and say that we don't know outside our limits of resolution.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Well now it seems to me that if God has chosen who will and will not be saved, these discussion are quite moot. Oh but of course they aren't because God "uses" these conditions to bring about his pre-determined election...as if God needs conditions. But he doesn't need such conditions, however man does (parable of the sower and the condition of a man's heart that he has produced). But then why need does man need conditions if God has pre-determined he will respond and believe, particularly if regeneration occurs before believing? He doesn't, but in reality he does because that isn't what election is (God pre-determining who will respond and believe) and that isn't when and how regeneration occurs. But of course I digress, forgive me Smile .

As to culture I believe Charlie states a vital truth, namely that where governments secure and maintain freedom of religion and where oppression is absent or quite minimal, Christianity flourishes greatest. This is not to say that in oppression there is not flourishing but that where freedom of religious expression is maintained men and women are much more apt to explore considerations apart from those that are approved by a tyrannical state.

Let me give an example, not so much of the state but of cultural conditioning that contributes to both the reception of the gospel and theological development. Our culture today is experiencing the results of the anti-authoritarian movement of the late 50's into the early 70's. As a result our theological perspicacity as a whole has been greatly diminished. Within all circles of Evangelicalism personalities and teachings that once would easily have been recognized as unauthoritative and unorthodox are accepted as reasonable and possible.

Why? Because the understanding of authority, objectivity and reality has been distorted and has made its way into our thinking, our culture. It is considered virtuous to question authority, to be novel, to be different, even though certain standards are tried and true.

So when men and women hear the gospel, the authoritative voice of God, their cultural conditioning will diminish their consideration if not prohibit it all together! After all, if they reject many forms of authority, God is subject to the same rejection.

The fact that so many people, for example, who identify themselves as born again through faith in Christ, tolerate Rob Bell (and it isn't a scant few) or other personalities/Teachers who depart grossly from Evangelical orthodoxy, is in part due to a demographic that has lost a great deal of objectivity and orientation to authority. Many do not understand authoritative teaching and reject it for the novel because of their cultural conditioning. In fact to sit under strong exegesis and be certain about your beliefs from an exegetical/theological standpoint is to be considered by many as unenlightened.

While it is true that further enlightenment on existing doctrines or areas yet well explored in Scripture await us, such men seek to redefine the very fundamentals of our faith as if such anti-authoritarianism is a virtue.

Another example is the lack of objectivity easily read online by many Christians in many discussions. If you present a grammatical argument and point out where someone is grammatically in error you get lectured about being a school teacher when in fact grammar is the basis of communication and precision in grammar is the beginning of understanding what people are saying. But today, in our anti-authoritarian culture many believers (even here at SI as I have interacted with) simply cannot receive grammatical/exegetical boundaries or arguments because these, fundamentally, represent authoritative boundaries and they are not trained or conditioned to receive them.

In fact, my best guess is that this very argument I just made will bother a number of people because they have issues with this kind of thinking.

RPittman's picture

Alex wrote:
As to culture I believe Charlie states a vital truth, namely that where governments secure and maintain freedom of religion and where oppression is absent or quite minimal, Christianity flourishes greatest. This is not to say that in oppression there is not flourishing but that where freedom of religious expression is maintained men and women are much more apt to explore considerations apart from those that are approved by a tyrannical state.
My thesis is that the preaching of the Gospel and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit bring men and women to Christ, not cultural factors. Could your observations be explained by the fact that there is a wider opportunity for preaching the Gospel under freedom than under repressive tyranny? If so, I agree. Paul, I think, alludes to this as he writes: "Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: And that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith (2 Thessalonians 3:1-2)" and pray "[f ]or kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Timothy 2:2)." Yes, stability and freedom are conducive to our preaching the Gospel.

However, I think Machen's idea is that culture is a factor in acceptance of the Gospel.

RPittman's picture

Alex wrote:
So when men and women hear the gospel, the authoritative voice of God, their cultural conditioning will diminish their consideration if not prohibit it all together! After all, if they reject many forms of authority, God is subject to the same rejection.
It is common to man's depravity to reject/resist authority, even God's authority. Evidently, our first parents did this in Eden. Cultural conditioning for acceptance of authority produces legalism, I think. It is man's effort to exercise, control, and enforce authority. All genuine authority emanates from God. Although God delegates authority to man, it is specific and limited. I'm not sure that conditioned acceptance of authority, which mimics classical behaviorist conditioning, is what brings us to God. After all, even the Pharisees, who were masters of authoritarianism, were in rejection of God's authority.

Then, we may quibble about whether authority in the human realm is really authority at all or simply the power to enforce one's will. There's no end to the debate.

CLeavell's picture

RPittman wrote:

However, I think Machen's idea is that culture is a factor in acceptance of the Gospel.

I do not think you evaluation of Machen is entirely correct. Here is a quote from his http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/jgmculture.htm essay .

Quote:
In the first place, I do not mean that most men reject Christianity consciously on account of intellectual difficulties. On the contrary, rejection of Christianity is due in the vast majority of cases simply to indifference. Only a few men have given the subject real attention. The vast majority of those who reject the gospel do so simply because they know nothing about it. But whence comes this indifference? It is due to the intellectual atmosphere in which men are living. The modern world is dominated by ideas which ignore the gospel. Modern culture is not altogether opposed to the gospel. But it is out of all connection with it. It not only prevents the acceptance of Christianity. It prevents Christianity even from getting a hearing.

RPittman's picture

CLeavell wrote:
RPittman wrote:

However, I think Machen's idea is that culture is a factor in acceptance of the Gospel.

I do not think you evaluation of Machen is entirely correct. Here is a quote from his http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/jgmculture.htm essay .

Quote:
In the first place, I do not mean that most men reject Christianity consciously on account of intellectual difficulties. On the contrary, rejection of Christianity is due in the vast majority of cases simply to indifference. Only a few men have given the subject real attention. The vast majority of those who reject the gospel do so simply because they know nothing about it. But whence comes this indifference? It is due to the intellectual atmosphere in which men are living. The modern world is dominated by ideas which ignore the gospel. Modern culture is not altogether opposed to the gospel. But it is out of all connection with it. It not only prevents the acceptance of Christianity. It prevents Christianity even from getting a hearing.
It is not entirely my evaluation but it is based on Bauder's original posting.
Bauder wrote:
According to Machen, culture exerts a definite influence upon the human mind. What we receive from culture conditions the mind toward either the acceptance or the rejection of the gospel. If the collective thought of society is dominated by ideas that prevent Christianity from being taken seriously, then even the best preaching will produce only meager results.
Furthermore, your quotation does not preclude this view. It appears that Machen is saying that indifference, the chief reason men reject the Gospel, is a cultural thing.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

RPittman wrote:
I'm not sure that conditioned acceptance of authority, which mimics classical behaviorist conditioning, is what brings us to God. After all, even the Pharisees, who were masters of authoritarianism, were in rejection of God's authority.

Then, we may quibble about whether authority in the human realm is really authority at all or simply the power to enforce one's will. There's no end to the debate.

I would make a distinction here with regard to the Pharisees, they were masters of the abuse or misuse of authority. In fact, it was they who rejected the divine limits of their authority and imposed, in their rebellion, many illegitimate burdens upon the Jews.

But to your other point, whether conditioning to accept authority (when I say authority I refer to only valid/legitimate authority) brings us to God, I would say that statement would be too limited in its exclusive form. But I do assert that being taught and conditioned to identity and respond appropriately to the varying forms of authority develops in a person a greater willingness to give a proper and objective hearing to God's Word (authoritative thought) as an unbeliever seeing that instead of responding irrationally and/or emotionally or in self-aggrandizing arrogance such a person will have developed a capacity and appreciation for authoritative thought and recognize it, in the least. This certainly is not a replacement for the enlightening work of the Spirit of God but it is a human mechanism that can either function as an unnecessary hindrance or a more deliberate path to reception.

CLeavell's picture

RPittman wrote:
It is not entirely my evaluation but it is based on Bauder's original posting.
Bauder wrote:
According to Machen, culture exerts a definite influence upon the human mind. What we receive from culture conditions the mind toward either the acceptance or the rejection of the gospel. If the collective thought of society is dominated by ideas that prevent Christianity from being taken seriously, then even the best preaching will produce only meager results.
Furthermore, your quotation does not preclude this view. It appears that Machen is saying that indifference, the chief reason men reject the Gospel, is a cultural thing.

I apologize if I was not clear. I did not mean to say that the quotation “precludes” this view. What I said was that your evaluation of Machen is not entirely correct. It seems that Machen’s argument is more nuanced than you are giving him credit for and those nuances are important.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Charlie wrote:
I'm pretty confident 20th century history will reveal the same. Great growth often occurs after the end of persecution, but rarely within it. Christianity fills the cultural void left by the fall of the previous ideology. However, serious doctrinal maturity usually doesn't come until the Church has greatly affected culture. Our "post-Christian" America is still leading the world in theological precision, and that's no small thing. The Chinese church, for all its fantastic growth, is a hotbed of heresy. At least, everyone I know who's worked with it has told me so.

This is a very interesting idea... contrary to everything I've heard and read for years. But I'm certainly willing to question the popular common knowledge on it.

Charlie, as one who values history, is the idea that Christianity thrives best where it has cultural/institutional support a new idea? How far back can you find it? I'm not a "new = wrong" guy, but I'd be more skeptical if this is a thesis that has just bubbled up in the 20th century, know what I mean?

Charlie's picture

Whenever the church is persecuted, the line is, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." It's a rallying cry. On the other hand, whenever the church is in a position of cultural supremacy, the prevailing theory is that God ordains the state for the establishment or at least protection of the church, and that a good church reinforces a good state. The Church tends to adopt whichever orientation is the most useful at the time. In fact, many church figures have adopted both ideas simultaneously, somehow enduring the cognitive dissonance.

The first clear instance of a historian praising a favorable state is Eusebius' Church History and Life of Constantine, in which God ordains Constantine to bring an end to persecution and to allow Christianity to triumph. (It's no coincidence that Anabaptist-influenced segments of the Church hate Constantine.) Most of the post-Constantine apologists appeal to the Christian conquest of the Empire as proof of Christianity's truth. Of course, the Eastern Church and (almost) the entire medieval Western church believed institutional support is good for the church. In fact, the Church was so strong at times in the West that the theory sometimes reverses the roles, making the state dependent on the support of the Church.

Even in the early modern period, most Christians favored establishment. The Scottish Kirk was an establishment church, as was the Anglicanism of both England and the American colonies. Even after the American revolution, individual states supported denominations for some time (I think, a bit rusty there). The Netherlands supported the Dutch Reformed church for a long time (remember Abraham Kuyper), and I believe that some European countries still have established churches, at least in theory. The rampant secularism, of course, vitiates the reality of such establishment.

So, the interesting question is, why have you not been exposed to this idea before? I propose a three-pronged answer. First, you are an American, and we tend to view establishment of all kinds as a bad thing. In the American system, establishment is incompatible with freedom of religion. This is not so in Europe.

Second, you are a Baptist, and at least some Anabaptists tried to pull off a separation of church and state. I think they were mostly unsuccessful. Some, such as Thomas Münzer, set up their own kingdoms. Others, such as the Mennonites, so withdrew from the society of others that they set up their own society, which of course had governmental aspects. In the modern era, we have Baptists like Jerry Falwell, who seemed pretty intent on not separating church and institutional power. In any case, Baptists at least verbally express the desire for such separation.

Third, you are a Fundamentalist, and the Fundamentalist movement has consistently employed the rhetoric of persecution and faithfulness in a declining era. So, it's natural that they would gravitate toward interpretations that stress the positive value of persecution. It reinforces their isolation and gives them a martyr complex. In summary, an American Fundamental Baptist would naturally expect that Christianity flourishes under persecution, because that idea comports most easily with his theology and worldview. You have not had any reason to question your assumptions.

However, I think the quantitative history is unambiguous. At least since the 16th century, where we have good data, the prevalence of a particular religious affiliation matches up quite well to where it enjoyed (or enjoys) institutional support. France and Spain provide perhaps the best studies, at least if you're interested in Protestantism.

Biblically, I notice repeated injunctions to pray for peace and safety. The line of thinking that prays for persecution because that would wake up the Church is truly monstrous.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

RPittman's picture

Charlie wrote:
Whenever the church is persecuted, the line is, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." It's a rallying cry. On the other hand, whenever the church is in a position of cultural supremacy, the prevailing theory is that God ordains the state for the establishment or at least protection of the church, and that a good church reinforces a good state. The Church tends to adopt whichever orientation is the most useful at the time. In fact, many church figures have adopted both ideas simultaneously, somehow enduring the cognitive dissonance.

The first clear instance of a historian praising a favorable state is Eusebius' Church History and Life of Constantine, in which God ordains Constantine to bring an end to persecution and to allow Christianity to triumph. (It's no coincidence that Anabaptist-influenced segments of the Church hate Constantine.) Most of the post-Constantine apologists appeal to the Christian conquest of the Empire as proof of Christianity's truth. Of course, the Eastern Church and (almost) the entire medieval Western church believed institutional support is good for the church. In fact, the Church was so strong at times in the West that the theory sometimes reverses the roles, making the state dependent on the support of the Church.

Even in the early modern period, most Christians favored establishment. The Scottish Kirk was an establishment church, as was the Anglicanism of both England and the American colonies. Even after the American revolution, individual states supported denominations for some time (I think, a bit rusty there). The Netherlands supported the Dutch Reformed church for a long time (remember Abraham Kuyper), and I believe that some European countries still have established churches, at least in theory. The rampant secularism, of course, vitiates the reality of such establishment.

So, the interesting question is, why have you not been exposed to this idea before? I propose a three-pronged answer. First, you are an American, and we tend to view establishment of all kinds as a bad thing. In the American system, establishment is incompatible with freedom of religion. This is not so in Europe.

Second, you are a Baptist, and at least some Anabaptists tried to pull off a separation of church and state. I think they were mostly unsuccessful. Some, such as Thomas Münzer, set up their own kingdoms. Others, such as the Mennonites, so withdrew from the society of others that they set up their own society, which of course had governmental aspects. In the modern era, we have Baptists like Jerry Falwell, who seemed pretty intent on not separating church and institutional power. In any case, Baptists at least verbally express the desire for such separation.

Third, you are a Fundamentalist, and the Fundamentalist movement has consistently employed the rhetoric of persecution and faithfulness in a declining era. So, it's natural that they would gravitate toward interpretations that stress the positive value of persecution. It reinforces their isolation and gives them a martyr complex. In summary, an American Fundamental Baptist would naturally expect that Christianity flourishes under persecution, because that idea comports most easily with his theology and worldview. You have not had any reason to question your assumptions.

However, I think the quantitative history is unambiguous. At least since the 16th century, where we have good data, the prevalence of a particular religious affiliation matches up quite well to where it enjoyed (or enjoys) institutional support. France and Spain provide perhaps the best studies, at least if you're interested in Protestantism.

Biblically, I notice repeated injunctions to pray for peace and safety. The line of thinking that prays for persecution because that would wake up the Church is truly monstrous.

Think of it as a remnant mentality going back to OT times. Baptist and other separatists have always thought of themselves in this line of spiritual heritage with a demarcation between organized establishmentarian Christianity and the Believing Church. It is the difference of a cultural Christianity and a truly Believing Church that is always in the minority.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Charlie wrote:
So, the interesting question is, why have you not been exposed to this idea before? I propose a three-pronged answer.

Your 3 prongs are pretty good, but I'd add one more even more likely factor: I read or heard it but was not paying attention. (Let's blame it on working nights and then going to class during the day during seminary!)

... and yet another: I heard it, paid attention, but subsequently completely forgot. This is also more likely than I really want to ponder.
(Seems like I increasingly find that big chunks of stuff seem to be AWOL from my brain. Blessedly, other chunks are just now coming together for the first time! All in all, not a really terrible trade. But I'm talking like and old guy so.... moving right along, now.)

The faithful remnant rhetoric is definitely overplayed in some places. I haven't heard much of it for well over a decade now, but it was more common where I hung out in the late 80's. At times it crossed over from "Hang in there, we're the faithful few" to "We must be right because we are so few!" Biggrin

I'm reminded of Matt.5:11-12, but the problem is being too quick to claim it for ourselves.

RPittman's picture

Aaron wrote:
The faithful remnant rhetoric is definitely overplayed in some places. I haven't heard much of it for well over a decade now, but it was more common where I hung out in the late 80's. At times it crossed over from "Hang in there, we're the faithful few" to "We must be right because we are so few!"

I'm reminded of Matt.5:11-12, but the problem is being too quick to claim it for ourselves.


Some bring down the house upon their own head. They revel in adversity because it gives them significance and a feel of being right.

We must, however, temper Matthew 5:11-12 with I Peter 4:14-16. Being a busybody in other men's affairs can bring down retribution.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.