Back in 1921, J. Gresham Machen, then a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, preached a sermon that later became an explosive book called “Christianity and Liberalism” (not political liberalism, mind you, but theological liberalism). Harry Emerson Fosdick responded in 1922 with his equally incendiary sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And the fight was on for the soul of American Protestantism. The thesis of Machen’s sermon, and then book, was that the historic Christianity of Scripture and the church’s great ecumenical creeds, and modern Christianity were two entirely different religions.
“The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’” Machen asserted. “Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message — the living God and the fact of sin,” he argued. “The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.” (http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/10/08/two-rival-religions-christianity-and-post-christianity/)
Bradley J. Longfield tracked the theological controversy of those days in his award winning 1991 book The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates (Oxford University Press). I personally found the experience of reading this book to be something of a theological self-sorter of my own spiritual temperament, convictions and conclusions, and I came out of the exercise– no big surprise here – as a passionate moderate. My “hero” in this story was Charles R. Eerdman, the theological conservative who tried, without success, to hold the warring factions of his beloved Presbyterian Church together.
I find much to admire about the faith and faithfulness of J. Gresham Machen. In fact, I learned my New Testament Greek from his standard textbook for “beginning students.” Still, I have long thought that his argument about the modernists and the fundamentalists of his day representing entirely different religions to be something of an exaggeration, a polemical overstatement of the facts of the situation. Clearly there were genuine Christians among the modernists, just as there were genuine Christians among the fundamentalists. I suppose that this is just my “Disciple” coming out in me.
True to my faith’s traditional conclusions and convictions, my centrist moorings and my moderate inclinations, I have tried to navigate, not just the polarized and polarizing political and cultural divide of this past election year, but my forty plus years as an Evangelically minded and hearted minister in a progressive mainline denomination, by steadfastly following the good counsel of Hebrews12:1-3 –
…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…
Consider Him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
This is what I understand it to mean to be a big “D” “Disciple.” You know – “No Creed but Christ…,” “In essentials unity…,” “Where the Bible speaks…,” “Not the only Christians, but Christians only,” and all that.
I truly believe that the basis for our unity as a church is Jesus Christ, and that so long as our eyes and hearts are mutually “fixed” on Him, that we can run the race of faith before us with endurance, without growing weary or losing heart. But when Jesus gets left out of the picture, then it seems to me that there is nothing at the center that holds us together any longer, and all we have left are our jangling opinions that we feel free to offer up as the correct definition of Christianity. When the Christ of New Testament faith has been excised from the conversation, then the versions of Christianity that start to show up bear little resemblance to what the church has historically believed and proclaimed. Without our eyes and hearts “fixed” on Christ, the theological drift is dramatic, and I fear that this is the direction that things trending these days
In this era of hyper-politicized and partisanly divided Christianity, when people’s Christianity is determined more by who they voted for in the last election than by who they have confessed to be the Son of the Living God and have taken to be their Lord and Savior, I suddenly find myself rethinking that conclusion about Machen’s two different religions argument. With every passing day, I find that I have less and less in common with both the content and the spirit of the public positions that are being taken by so many of my denominational partners and peers. The tipping point in this for me was a ministerial colleague’s recent posting on Facebook. This old friend actually suggested the adoption of Bernice King’s (Dr. Martin Luther and Coretta King’s daughter) list of responses to the Presidency of Donald Trump as a “Lenten Discipline.”
1. Don’t use his name; EVER (45 will do)
2. Remember this is a regime and he’s not acting alone;
3. Do not argue with those who support him–it doesn’t work;
4. Focus on his policies, not his orange-ness and mental state;
5. Keep your message positive; they want the country to be angry and fearful because this is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow;
6. No more helpless/hopeless talk;
7. Support artists and the arts;
8. Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it;
9. Take care of yourselves; and
Keep demonstrations peaceful. In the words of John Lennon, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight! Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”
When you post or talk about him, don’t assign his actions to him, assign them to “The Republican Administration,” or “The Republicans.” This will have several effects: the Republican legislators will either have to take responsibility for their association with him or stand up for what some of them don’t like; he will not get the focus of attention he craves; Republican representatives will become very concerned about their re-elections.
Now, this is very different from the invitation to the Lenten disciplines that I heard each year from the Book of Common Prayer when I was a kid growing up in church, and still use each Ash Wednesday at the church I serve –
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
In my mind and heart, I can’t avoid the conclusion that these two Lenten Invitations represent two very different religions. The first invitation makes no mention of God or Christ, has as its whole purpose partisan resistance, and reduces Christianity to a matter of opposing a certain President and supporting a progressive political agenda. This is very different from the second invitation to the church’s traditional Lenten disciplines of penance, prayer, fasting, and a serious engagement with Scripture all in the interest of a renewal of the Gospel of our Savior in both our lives as individual Christians, and collectively in the whole life of the church.
William Ralph Inge famously observed – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” My variation on this theme would be – “Whoever marries Christianity to a political party or candidate will find himself a widower by the next election cycle.” Scot McKnight, after the Presidential candidate debates but before the general election last fall, wrote (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/10/political-christianity-american-style/) –
Progressives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church and especially the “red letters” of Jesus with the Democrat or Social Democratic party. For them, Jesus’ being for the poor ineluctably means Jesus is for centralized government and federal relief, aid and support for the poor and that, for them, means Vote Left.
Conservatives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church with the Republican party (or its Tea Party variation). For them, to be Christian means to be anti-Left and pro-Right. Jesus and the whole Bible, they seem to claim in one variation after another, are for decentralization, free markets, and the platform list goes on.
…the closer progressives or conservatives get to seeing the way to change the world is through the Powers in Washington DC the closer they become to being Constantinian — a conservative Constantine or a progressive Constantine is still a Constantine.
American Christianity, during election season especially (and since it lasts so long and occurs so often that means always), spends its energies on who will be the Next Apocalyptically-crucial Power in DC and in so doing is failing to use its energies — a zero sum game seemingly — for the mission of God in this world and to this world.
Back in the 1980’s the Religious Right tried to marry historic Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, and as a person of historic Christian faith I found myself publicly and adamantly rejecting their attempt co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission. You can certainly be a Christian and a Republican, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Republican. And today as the Religious Left tries to marry Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, as a person of Christian faith I find that I must just as publicly and adamantly reject their attempt to co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission. You can certainly be a Christian and a Democrat, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Democrat.
Of course, this rejection of the machinations of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left to turn the church into a constituency group of their political ambitions and to reduce the mission of the church to acquisition of political power hinges on just exactly what is meant by those words – “historic Christianity.” I will write more about this struggle for the definition of Christianity in the coming weeks, but for now, I will conclude by simply inviting you to give some thought to some questions –
What is the question that the Gospel answers?
What is the problem that the Gospel solves?
What is the saving work of Jesus Christ?
What are we saved from? What are we saved to?
And how do we know any of these things?
How can we say anything certain about God or
about God’s purposes for us and the world?
It seems to me that how you answer these questions will say a whole lot about your own particular understanding of Christianity, and I’m pretty sure that the way the answers will generally sort out, that there will be two basic versions of Christianity that are at work, that maybe even compete in life and thought of the church and in the world today. Are they two entirely different religions, as Machen suggested back in his day? Well, the striking contrast between the two Lenten disciplines recommended for adoption that I cited earlier would seem to suggest that the answer is “yes,” but let’s take a closer look, shall we?