Machen: Christianity + Culture

If you tune into the volume of books, articles, and cross-country speaking tours you may get the idea that the church just opened her eyes to see that she lives within a culture and needs to do something to understand and engage that culture. Some may say the church is still sleeping through the present culture, unaware of what’s happening around her in the arts, literature, worldview shifts, etc.

Which is why I find myself consistently amazed when I read evidence of how long, how deeply, and how carefully the Reformed tradition has sought to wed theological precision to cultural engagement for the sake of saving the lost.

Take Baltimorian J. Gresham Machen for example (1881-1937). On September 20, 1912, Machen opened the fall semester at Princeton Theological Seminary with an address titled, “Christianity and Culture.”

Listen carefully to Machen as he balances the primacy of the gospel, reformed theology, and cultural engagement. He said:

“… Are then Christianity and culture in a conflict that is to be settled only by the destruction of one or the other of the contending forces? A third solution, fortunately, is possible—namely, consecration. Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God. Instead of stifling the pleasures afforded by the acquisition of knowledge or by the appreciation of what is beautiful, let us accept these pleasures as the gifts of a heavenly Father. Instead of obliterating the distinction between the kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God. …

There are two objections to our solution of the problem. If you bring culture and Christianity thus into close union—in the first place, will not Christianity destroy culture? Must not art and science be independent in order to flourish? We answer that it all depends upon the nature of their dependence. Subjection to any external authority or even to any human authority would be fatal to art and science. But subjection to God is entirely different. Dedication of human powers to God is found, as a matter of fact, not to destroy but to heighten them. God gave those powers. He understands them well enough not bunglingly to destroy his own gifts. In the second place, will not culture destroy Christianity? Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world? We answer that of course it is easier. Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not disturb yourself with the thoughts of unregenerate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul—but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field. …

I do not mean that the removal of intellectual objections will make a man a Christian. No conversion was ever wrought simply by argument. A change of heart is also necessary. And that can be wrought only by the immediate exercise of the power of God. But because intellectual labor is insufficient, it does not follow, as is so often assumed, that it is unnecessary. God may, it is true, overcome all intellectual obstacles by an immediate exercise of his regenerative power. Sometimes he does. But he does so very seldom. Usually he exerts his power in connection with certain conditions of the human mind. Usually he does not bring into the kingdom, entirely without preparation, those whose mind and fancy are completely dominated by ideas which make the acceptance of the gospel logically impossible. …

Modern culture is a tremendous force. It affects all classes of society. It affects the ignorant as well as the learned. What is to be done about it? In the first place, the church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of modern thought to flow by unheeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current. There are still some men in the world who have been unaffected by modern culture. They may still be won for Christ without intellectual labor. And they must be won. It is useful, it is necessary work. If the church is satisfied with that alone, let her give up the scientific education of her ministry. …

The church is puzzled by the world’s indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the questions of the hour but, first of all, to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps, by God’s grace, through his good Spirit, in his good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.”

[Quote taken from D. G. Hart’s, J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings (P&R, 2004) 399-410.]

5 thoughts on “Machen: Christianity + Culture

  1. “Dedication of human powers to God is found, as a matter of fact, not to destroy but to heighten them. God gave those powers. He understands them well enough not bunglingly to destroy his own gifts…
    “The church is puzzled by the world’s indifference. She is trying to overcome it by adapting her message to the fashions of the day. But if, instead, before the conflict, she would descend into the secret place of meditation,…”

    AMEN.

  2. “In the first place, the church may simply withdraw from the conflict. She may simply allow the mighty stream of modern thought to flow by unheeded and do her work merely in the back-eddies of the current.”

    I’m afraid that this is what we do. What a post. He touches on so many different subjects.

  3. “Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world?”……”You save your own soul—but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field.”

    God forbid we should put our heads in the sand. Or worse yet, to cave to polilitcal correctness.

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