J. Gresham Machen Bibliography

Guide to the works of J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937). Scholar. Preacher. Founder of Westminster Theological Seminary. Leader in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

▷ Does Fundamentalism Obstruct Social Progress? The Negative

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The term “Fundamentalism” in the title of our discussion is evidently to be taken in a broad sense, not to designate “Premillennialists” but to include all those who definitely and polemically maintain a belief in supernatural Christianity as over against the Modernism of the present day. In what ways has “Fundamentalism,” defined thus broadly, to include men like ourselves, been held to be inimical to social progress?

In the first place, it has been held to be inimical to social progress because it maintains unchanged certain root convictions in the sphere of history. It is opposed to social progress, we are told, because it is opposed to all progress. It maintains a traditional view of what Jesus was and what Jesus did in the first century of our era, and therefore, we are told, it is opposed to the advance of science. If we no longer hold to the chemistry or physics of the sixteenth century or the fourth century, why should we hold to the account which those past ages gave of what Jesus said and did?

This objection ignores the peculiarity of history as over against the experimental sciences. A thing that has happened can never be made by the passage of the years into a thing that has not happened; all history is based upon a thoroughly static view of facts. Progress can never obliterate events.

It is a great mistake to suppose that the evangelical Christian is opposed to the discovery of new facts; on the contrary he welcomes the discovery of new facts with all his mind and heart. But he is a Christian because he maintains certain facts which have been known for many hundreds of years. In particular he believes that on a certain morning some nineteen hundred years ago, the body of Jesus of Nazareth emerged from the tomb in which it had been laid. That belief involves the most far-reaching consequences in every sphere of thought and of conduct; the Christian risks the whole of his life upon his conviction as to the resurrection of Christ. If indeed that conviction should prove to be ill-grounded, it would certainly have to be given up. The Christian ought to welcome to the full the investigation of the resurrection of Christ by all the methods of scientific history. But the point is that that investigation seems to him only to result in a confirmation of his belief. And if it results in a confirmation of his belief, then to relinquish that belief is not progress but retrogression. The grounding of life upon falsehoods is inimical to progress; but the grounding of it upon facts is a necessary condition of any true advance.

In the second place, Christianity is held to hinder social progress because it maintains a pessimistic view of human nature as at present constituted. This charge is sometimes evaded; and the Christian religion is represented as though it were a kind of sweet reasonableness based upon confidence in human goodness. But the evasion reverses the true character of our religion. Confidence in human resources is paganism—or modernism—whereas Christianity begins with the consciousness of sin, and grounds its hope only in the regenerating power of the Spirit of God.

It is no wonder that the advocates of the modernist program regard Christians as opponents of social progress. Men who refuse to go with the current and who rebuke the easy self-confidence of their time have always been regarded as enemies of the human race. But this antipathy is well founded only if the pessimism that is objected to is out of accord with the facts. The physician who comforts the patient by a false diagnosis is pleasing for the moment; but the true friend and helper is the one who designates the disease by its true name. So it may turn out to be with the Bible and with the Christian preacher who brings the Bible message to the modern world. Modern social science has erected an imposing building; it has in many respects improved the mechanical aspect of human life: and Christianity certainly has nothing to say against its achievements. But, unless we mistake the signs of the times, there is among the social architects of the present day a vague sense of uneasiness. There is abroad in the world an ill-defined but none the less disconcerting sense of futility. The work on the social edifice still goes on, but rifts are beginning to appear in the walls and underneath there are intimations of dreadful things. Shall the trouble with the foundations continue to be ignored? If it is ignored, the enthusiasm of the architects may for a time be maintained, but all the greater will be the crash when at last it comes. Utilitarianism, in other words, is proving to be a quite inadequate basis for the social edifice, and there are those despised and abused as the enemies of progress and the race who insist upon facing the underlyimg facts of personal life. In these men the hope of society really rests. The edifice erected by social science need not be destroyed if the foundations be strengthened in time. And the strengthening is provided by the Christian faith.

In the third place, historic Christianity is thought to be inimical to social progress because it is individual rather than social. The older evangelism, it is said, seeks to win individuals; it invites men to come forward to the mourners’ bench, receive salvation, and so escape from this wicked world. The newer and better evangelism, on the other hand—thus the claim runs—instead of rescuing individuals and leaving the world to its fate, seeks so to improve the physical conditions of life and the relations between man and man as to set up what may be called the “Kingdom of God” here upon this earth.

This objection depends partly upon a caricature of the Christian religion. It is not true that the Christian gospel offers individual men a selfish escape from the world and leaves society to its fate. On the contrary, Christianity is social as well as individual. Even the relation of the individual to his God is not individual but social, if God exists; certainly it is not regarded by anyone who experiences it as a selfish thing. But the Christian also sustains relationships to his fellow men, and his religion is far from discouraging those relationships. When a man is rescued inwardly from the world, he is not, according to Christian teaching, allowed to escape from the world into a place of mystic contemplation, but is sent forth again into the world to battle for the right.

Nevertheless, despite one-sidedness, the assertion of modern social workers to the effect that historic Christianity is individual rather than social has in it a large element of truth. It is true that Christianity as over against certain social tendencies of the present day insists upon the rights of the individual soul. We do not deny the fact; on the contrary we glory in it. Christianity, if it be true Christianity, must place itself squarely in opposition to the soul-killing collectivism which is threatening to dominate our social life; it must provide the individual soul with a secret place of refuge from the tyranny of psychological experts; it must fight the great battle for the liberty of the children of God.

The rapidly progressing loss of liberty is one of the most striking phenomena of recent years. At times it makes itself felt in blatant ways, as in the notorious Lusk laws for the licensing of teachers in the State of New York, or in the Oregon school law now being tested in the United States courts. Liberty still has some bulwarks; but even those bulwarks are threatened. In Nebraska, for example, where the study of languages other than English was forbidden and thus literary education was made a crime, all outer defenses were broken through and the enemy was checked only by that last bulwark of liberty, the United States Supreme Court. But unless the temper of the people changes, that bulwark also will fall. If liberty is to be preserved against the materialistic paternalism of the modern state, there must be something more than courts and legal guarantees; freedom must be written not merely in the constitution but in the people’s heart. And it can be written in the heart, we believe, only as a result of the redeeming work of Christ. Other means in the long run will fail. Sometimes, it is true, self-interest will accomplish beneficent results. The Lusk laws, for example, which attacked liberty of speech in the State of New York, were opposed partly by the socialists against whom the laws were originally aimed. But the trouble is that socialism, if it were ever put into effect, would mean a physical, intellectual and spiritual slavery more appalling than that which prevailed under the worst despotisms that the world so far has ever known. The real defenders of liberty are those who are devoted to it for its own sake, who believe that freedom of speech means not only freedom for those with whom they are agreed but also freedom for those to whom they are opposed. It is such a defense of liberty which is favored by the true followers of Christ.

But at this point an objection may arise. “Fundamentalism,” it is said, “is a synonym of intolerance; and the writer of the present article desires to cast out of the ministry of his church those who hold views different from his own. How can such a person pretend to be a lover of liberty?”

The objection ignores the distinction between voluntary and involuntary organizations. The state is an involuntary organization, an organization to which a man is forced to belong whether he will or no. For such an organization to prescribe any one type of education for its members is an intolerable interference with liberty. But the Church is a purely voluntary organization, and no one is forced to enter its ministry. For such an organization to prescribe terms of admission and to insist that its authorized teachers shall be in agreement with the creed or message for the propagation of which the Church exists involves not the slightest interference with liberty, but is a matter of plain common honesty and common sense. Insistence on fundamental agreement within a voluntary organization is therefore not at all inconsistent with insistence upon the widest tolerance in the state. Indeed the two things are not merely consistent, but are connected logically in the closest possible way. One of the essential elements in civil and religious liberty is the right of voluntary association—the right of individuals to associate themselves closely for the propagation of anything that they may desire, no matter how foolish it may seem to others to be. This right is being maintained by “Fundamentalists,” and it is being combated subtly but none the less dangerously by some of their opponents. The most serious danger to liberty in America today is found in the widespread tendency towards a centralized state monopoly in education—the tendency which has manifested itself crassly and brutally in the Oregon school law, and which manifests itself more subtly in the proposed development of a Federal department of education, which will make another great addition to the vast Washington bureaucracy, the bureaucracy which with its discouragement of spiritual initiative is doing so much to drain the life-blood of the people. The same tendency manifests itself also in the advocacy of anti-theological and anti-evangelical propaganda under the guise of “character-building” in monopolistic public schools. Under these circumstances, it has come about paradoxical though it may seem that one of the chief defenders of American liberty is the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics and “Fundamentalists,” despite their immense differences, are at least agreed, in America, in their insistence upon the right of voluntary association; and such insistence is the very foundation of civil and religious liberty. To persuade Catholic parents to send their children to non-Catholic schools is no doubt in many cases wise; to force them to do so, no matter how high the motive of the compulsion, is tyranny. The end, we hold, does not justify the means, and violation of sacred rights will in the long run, through the retributive of God, bring ruin.

The last objection to historic Christianity is that it is doctrinal rather than practical. There is so much misery in the world, it is said—so many crowded tenements, so many starving children—that there is no time to engage in theological or historical discussions about the death and resurrection of Christ. This objection, we are constrained to believe, betokens a singular narrowness of mind. It seems to be assumed that the Church has to choose between examining the basis of her faith and relieving the physical distresses of men. As a matter of fact she ought to do both. Neglect of either one will certainly bring disaster. And today the danger lies altogether in the neglect, not of the physical, but of the intellectual and spiritual task. The truth is that the present age is characterized by an unparalleled intellectual and spiritual decline.

The growth of ignorance–certainly in America and probably elsewhere as well—is appalling; poetry is silent; and even the appreciation of fine and noble things seems almost to be lost. Certainly a generation that follows Mr. H. G. Wells in his contemptuous neglect of all the higher ranges of the human mind, or deserts Milton for Van Loon, can hardly convince any thinking man that it is an infallible judge of what is beautiful or good.

We do not therefore seek to evade this last objection, but we meet it squarely in the face. We are opposed with all our might to the passionate anti-intellectualism of the Modernist Church; we refuse to separate religion sharply from science; and we believe that our religion is founded not upon aspirations but upon facts. Of course if the intellectual defense of our faith causes us to neglect our duty to the poor, we have made ourselves guilty of a great sin. And in that case may God pity us and set us back into the pathway of duty and love! But relief of physical distress, important as it is, is not all that the Church has to do. And even that task, we believe, cannot be accomplished if we neglect the intellectual basis of our faith. False ideas are responsible even for the physical evils in the world; the machinery of the world’s business will not perform its task if we neglect the soul of man; the best of engines will not run if it is not producing a spark.

THUS we maintain that far from being inimical to social progress, “Fundamentalism” (in the broad, popular sense of the word) is the only means of checking the spiritual decadence of our age. Some men are satisfied with the thought of the time when the physical conditions of life will so be improved by the advance of science that there shall be no poverty and no disease, and when vain aspirations will so be conquered by reason that death will lose its terrors and men will be able to part from their loved ones without a pang. But would such a rule of reason represent an advance over the present state of mankind? For our part, we think not. The deadening of spiritual aspirations and the abolition of individual liberty may bring about a diminution of pain, but they will also bring about the destruction of all that makes life worth while. We do not for one moment discourage the relief of distress and the improvement of the physical condition of the race; indeed these things have obtained their real impetus from the “Fundamentalism” of the past. But if these things prove to be all, then mankind will have sunk to the level of the beasts.

The process of decadence has been going on apace, and it is high time to seek a way of rescue if mankind is to be saved from the abyss. Such a way of rescue is provided by the Christian religion, with its supernatural origin and supernatural power. It is a great mistake to represent us who are adherents of historic Christianity as though we were clinging desperately to the past merely because it is old, and as though we had no message of hope. On the contrary, our eyes are turned eagerly to the future. We are seeking no mere continuation of spiritual conditions that now exist but an outburst of new power; we are looking for a mighty revival of the Christian religion which like the Reformation of the sixteenth century will bring light and liberty to mankind. When such a revival comes, it will destroy no fine or unselfish or noble thing; it will hasten and not hinder the relief of the physical distresses of men and the improvement of conditions in this world. But it will do far more than all that. It will also descend into the depths—those depths into which utilitarianism can never enter and will again bring mankind into the glorious liberty of communion with the living God.

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