Old Dead Guys Notes #13: J G Machen & H Bavinck
Notes #13– J G Machen and H Bavinck
John Wiers PhD 2020
- The 2 theologians we are studying in this lesson both deal with the subject of how narrow or broad should we be in our inclusivity theologically,
- We looked at the doctrine of scripture last week and saw 2 different responses to the pressures of modernity with its skepticism and the liberal theology that sought to accommodate to modernity.
- J Gresham Machen and Herman Bavinck, an American and Dutch Reformed theologian respectively, show us both sides of the pole– Machen shows us that there is a line we can’t cross and Bavinck shows us within that line how can have a “catholic” spirit as we do our theology.
II. The background to Machen
- Machen’ struggles in the mainline American Presbyterian Church– the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American– the so-called Northern Presbyterian church because most of the churches were in the northern and western part of the US– came after 40+ years of struggle.
- The PCUSA had a long history of Reformed orthodoxy in seminaries such as Princeton and those staffed by Princeton grads, but the 1869 merger between the more Reformed orthodoxy driven Old School branch of the church and the more broadly evangelical New School branch injected a leaven of a :”broadening church” model of church life into the PCUSA.
- During the 1870s through the 1890s there were a series of heresy trials, that the conservatives almost always won– the Swing Trial, the H, P, Smith Trial, the Briggs Trial– but many broadly evangelicals became tired of heresy trials and often advocated a “can’t we all just get along, preach the Bible, and do the more important work of missions” motto,
- What often drove these broad evangelicals was a pragmatic concern for efficiency in missions. Business models were often applied to the church and theology’s importance was downplayed. The minimalistic theology of the late 19th century revival preachers such as D. L Moody and Billy Sunday were highlighted as models of how to “reach people’ without worrying too much about theology,
- In 1906, the church revised slightly the Westminster Confession of Faith on the topic of predestination and while many claimed that the confessional basis of the church had not changed, reunion with the Arminian splinter group, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was quickly accomplished and B. B. Warfield– a vocal opponent of confessional revision– argued that the PCUSA was no longer a strictly Reformed confessional body.
F, This trajectory would peak with the Auburn Affirmation of 1924 and the so-called Peace Commission of 1925 that declared that it was no longer necessary to hold to the full inspiration of the Bible, the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, the Virgin Birth of Christ, or the literal 2nd advent. The traditional views were just ‘theories’ and not binding on ministers and elders.
G. What is sad is that the chairman of the Peace Commission and a large percentage of its members were broad evangelicals who were willing to paper over the huge differences between liberalism and orthodoxy in the name of efficiency for missions.
H. All of this took place during the broader Fundamentalist-Modernist crisis in American Christianity,
III. Machen’s life
- He was born in Baltimore, MD, to a well-to-do family. His father was a lawyer and his mother was from southern stock, originally from Macon, GA.
- He received a fine education, attending Johns Hopkins University as a college student, majoring in Greek and Latin and stayed for a year of grad studies in classics.
- The family were devout Presbyterians and feeling a call to the ministry, he entered Princeton Seminary in 1902 and while there also earned a master’s degree in Philosophy at Princeton University.
- He studied under B. B. Warfield in theology and was especially close to W. P Armstrong, the well-respected New Testament prof.
- After graduation he spent 2 years in Europe where he studied in theologian W Hermann, the charming liberal theologian and J. Weiss and W Bousset, two of the most influential NT scholars of the era who radically sought to reconstruct our view of the historical Jesus.
- Machen seems to have had a minor crisis in his thinking in all of this which wasn’t fully resolved until he was actually in his first year of teaching at PTS,. It was Hermann that nearly brought him over the liberal side with his warm, devout sounding extolling of the liberal view of the faith,
- Machen returned to the US and was offered the position of a lecturer in NT at PTS, under Armstrong’s tutelage who promised him he could resign any time if he couldn’t fully convince himself of orthodoxy,.
- Machen became fully persuaded of the orthodox Reformed faith fairly quickly during that time and became a professor of NT at PTS, where he was highly regarded as teacher. He was a bit of a character, often balancing a book on his head as he listened to the students recite their Greek lessons. He eventually wrote one of the best selling introductions to NT Greek.
- During his tenure at PTS, PCUSA continued to struggle with Liberalism and Machen entered into the debate with both great gusto and great success.
- He wrote his best-selling book Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, a book highly praised by agnostic journalist W. Lippmann, who said Machen was correct you had to choose one or the other, and listed by Christianity Today and World Magazine as one of the top 100 books written during the 20th century.
- He also wrote the Origin of Paul’s Religion and the Virgin Birth of Christ, both of which are still considered foundational texts in their subject matter, along with a number of other popular level writings such as What is Faith, Christianity in the Modern World, and a survey of the New Testament and large number of shorter articles, many of which have been anthologized.
- His role as a defender of orthodox Christianity earned him the offer of the presidency of Bryan College in Tennessee in 1917, founded there in the aftermath of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Machen said he really didn’t believe he was a fundamentalist, just an orthodox Calvinist.
- During this time period, PTS was reorganized, under the leadership of evangelical moderate, H. Ross Stevenson, and its board was explicitly told that it must reflect the “diversity of belief” found in the PCUSA,
- During that period Machen was nominated for the position of Professor of Apologetics, but the new board turned him down for the position, even though the majority of the faculty approved.
- Machen and 4 other key faculty members could foresee that the historic Reformed theology of PTS was being undermined and in 1929 left and formed Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia to continue to uphold the old Princeton theology which it has since then and has had a very strong influence on modern orthodox Protestantism of all types in the US as one of the key scholarly centers when much of evangelicalism was very shallow in serious study,.
- Although WTS grads had some difficulty getting ordained in some presbyteries, the real problem came when, as a result of the Hocking Commission of 1932—Rethinking Missions, and anecdotal evidence from all over the world, the conservatives began to realize that the missionary arm of the church contained many liberals, such as Pearl Buck. The head of the PSUSA mission board, Robert Speer, was a confessed evangelical, who had written in the Fundamentals set of booklets, but he denied that there were any real liberals in the missionary force.
- The conservatives didn’t want their money going to support liberal missions, so they organized the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1934 to channel their funds to orthodox missionaries. Many presbyteries began using support of the Independent Board as a test for ordination.
- Many PCUSA leaders were furious at the obvious loss of funds and it was decreed that anyone who didn’t support denomination missions was as much in violation of his loyalty to the church as if he had refused to take the Lord’s Supper. This General Assembly decree of 1934 was upheld over the protest of evangelicals at the 1935 GA and Machen himself along with others were tried for insubordination to their ordination vows and defrocked from the ministry.
- This led to the founding of new denomination in 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but unfortunately many evangelicals were extremely hesitant to follow Machen into the new church, including 1 WTS prof and a majority of the board of directors. John Piper says that it has had a witness far out of proportion to its size.
- Isolated and somewhat alone Machen went to encourage some small struggling churches over the Christmas break of 1936, caught pneumonia and died on New Year ’s Day in a Bismarck, ND hospital when it was 20 below outside. His colleagues had said he looked worn out and advised him not to go, but he felt obligated to help the churches in N Dakota.
- A warm gregarious bachelor, who was loved by his students and lavished soft drinks and snacks on them at his living quarters when he invited them to play games every Friday night and told many jokes, he was also extremely determined and not particularly diplomatic at times in his defense of the faith.
- He was an avid mountain climber most of his adult life, the Swiss Alps being his favorite and was an avid college football fan. Being financially independent from family inheritances, he often funded some of his own ministries, such as the early days of Westminster Seminary.
- He was also a radical civil libertarian and an opponent of Prohibition on those grounds and an advocate of private, parent-run Christian schools. His opposition to Prohibition dogged him much of his life.
IV. Machen’s theology
- Machen’s theology was essentially the same orthodox theology that he was taught under Warfield and had been earlier taught to so many by Charles Hodge at PTS.
- We don’t however, see many glimpses of the piety that was found in C. Hodge or B B. Warfield, and John Piper’s otherwise glowing tribute to JGM faults him for that, overlooking that PTS did have a tradition of warm piety wedded to strong orthodoxy,’
- What Machen’s strength is his ability, like his mentor, B. B. Warfield, to do the in-depth historical work to debunk liberal ideas. He is often referred to by snarky critics as ‘’the brainy Fundamentalist.”
- He was critical of so many Fundamentalists’ lack of historical perspective, lack of scholarship, lack of concern for precise doctrine, short doctrinal statements rather than historic creeds and confessions, its dispensationalism, and its hang ups with such things as alcohol and tobacco– he once said that when he saw a group of Princeton students enjoying their cigars, he wished he had taken up smoking,.
- What he so clearly saw and wrote about in his most popular book, Christianity and Liberalism, is that the 2 were really quite different religions and liberalism was not really just a different form of Christianity.
- He was nuanced and didn’t accuse all liberals of teaching everything that should be consistent with their liberal assumptions, but he systematically walks through 6 topics: doctrine, Christ, God and Man, the Bible, Salvation and the Church to prove his point.
- He said liberalism is as much not so much some different ideas as shift in a totally different atmosphere– quoting from a prominent liberal minister.
- On the subject of doctrine, he demonstrates that the liberal attempt to have a non doctrinal Christianity is simply impossible. He was highly critical of the pragmatic view of truth seen in most liberals.
- Liberals could say that they affirmed the historic creeds, but only meant so in a symbolic sort of way.
- On Christ, he points out that this is just an extension of the first topic, a Jesus who does not perform miracles, teach distinctive doctrine as well as ethics, doesn’t die a redemptive death on the cross and rise again, simply can’t be squared with the NT portrayal of Christ without leaving those documents in shambles.
- On the Bible he shows that Liberals have swapped experience for Biblical revelation and this experience has nothing distinctly Christian about it, but is a generic religious experience.
- On Salvation, he shows that Liberals, with their extremely weak ideas of sin and grace, really have no Salvation other than the self-salvation of their religious experience. The historic Christian message is one of hope to men who understand their need for grace and forgiveness, but the Liberal message is entirely different and leaves us helpful when facing the wrath of God against human sin.
- Overall, JGM, simply dismantles the Liberal claim to really be Christian in any historic sense and says that honesty should compel them to leave the various churches founded on evangelical principles and stop propagating their alternative religion with funding that had been in good faith given to propagate orthodoxy,
- He strongly argued that the pragmatic, anti-doctrinal attitude of many who said that they believed the historic doctrines played right into the hands of the Liberals.
- He advocated that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 we have a mandate to argue in the realm of ideas and are shirking our task if we don’t.
- 13 years before the OPC as founded he suggested that if Liberals failed to do that, the conservative would likely need to leave.
V. The background to H Bavinck
- If JGM was someone who protested within the mainline denominational structure was eventually kicked out, Herman Bavinck was the son of a secessionist movement against such liberalism in the 19th century Netherlands.
- The Netherlands had been a tolerant country, yet one of the bastions of Reformed orthodoxy during the 17th and 18th centuries. It had its High Orthodox wing, but also a pietistic wing that has often been compared to English Puritanism. That movement was called the Nadere Reformatie– the Further Reformation– and the pious, orthodox writers associated with that movement were cherished by the common folks, who called them the Oude Schrijvers– literally the old writers. Many of them met in small groups in homes to keep this faith alive.
- Liberal thought gradually entered the Netherlands and some of the most advanced skeptical thinks such as Spinoza and Descartes lived there, but it wasn’t until after the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars that liberal thought made great headway in the theology of the Dutch Reformed church.
- After Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and the Netherlands regained its independence, the Dutch Reformed church was reorganized under a new church order with a new name– it went from the Gereformeerde Kerk, to the Hervormde Kerk. Both technically mean Reformed, but the latter has more of the connotation of reorganized.
- While the church was technically independent of the state and religious freedom was constitutionally guaranteed, the new church order had a different form of subscription to the 3 theological standards of the Dutch church, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. Rather than church officers pledging that they believed that these doctrinal standards were summaries of the teachings of the Bible, the new vow said that the officer believed them :”as far as” they taught the Word of God. This opened the door for wide variations in doctrine and within a short period of time, Liberal thinking begun to be taught, and several of the university theological faculties became controlled by those of liberal persuasion.
- Yet the common folks continued to read the Oude Schrijvers and while there was unrest about the new forms of subscription including a number of Amsterdam and Leiden intellectuals who were associated with the Reveil evangelical movement that originated in Switzerland, the matter exploded in the church in a small town of Ulrum in the northeast province of Groningen– some of my ancestors were members of that very church.
- The minister, Hendrik De Cock was challenged by one of his devout parishioners, Klaas Kuipenga, to read Calvin, the Oude Schrijvers and the Canons of Dordt, which De Cock had never read, even though they were part of the doctrinal standards of the church.
- He was converted and became a beaver for his newly found Reformed orthodoxy, but when he began to criticize other ministers and the theology profs at the U of Groningen, he got in trouble, especially when pious lay folks left their neighboring churches to hear him preach and baptize their children.
- De Cock was fined, told to stop and when he refused, he was defrocked. His congregation followed him and they met in barns, etc.
- Another leader of a different sort, Hendrik Scholte– who later with a large portion of his congregation emigrated to Pella, here in Iowa– had come to similar conclusions along with 4 of his close ministerial friends– known as the Scholte club– in various provinces throughout the Netherlands.
- Scholte saw in De Cock a kindred spirit and met with him and did so publically. He was surprised that many of his intellectual friends of the Reveil movement were sympathetic to the theology of De Cock, but opposed to his separatist tendencies. They offered legal and moral support– the government had used a law designed against subversive political movements to fine and harass De Cock.
- Eventually Scholte and his followers joined in this movement, known as the Afsheiding– the Secession– that eventually became known as the Christian Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Part of their claim was that they were the true heirs of the Dutch Reformed church– they used the term Gereformeerde rather than Hervormde.
- Although the movement remained small and faced fines and harassment in the early days, a small, yet vital denomination was formed. Scholte, always a maverick, was restless even before he immigrated to the USA.
- Many who were orthodox did not leave to join the CGKN, but while there were a couple of smaller secessions, there was another major one in the 1880s led by Abraham Kuyper, the theologian who founded a university- the Free University of Amsterdam– and became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 1902. While equally orthodox, it had some significant differences in emphasis and this caused conflict even when the 2 movements merged in 1892.
- One of the key leaders in the CGKN was Jan Bavinck, originally from right across the border in Bentheim, Germany, an area that spoke a low German dialect similar to Dutch, was orthodox Reformed, and often associated with the Dutch churches. Many from that area would immigrate to Dutch areas in the US.
- The Secession folks had several streams, often differentiated geographically, but all were serious, orthodox– they as whole loved the Oude Schrijvers– psalm singing, Sabbath keeping, no dancing– cigars and moderate use of alcohol was fine, though– sort of devout Christians.
VI. Herman Bavinck’s life
- He was the 2nd of 7 children born to Jan Bavinck, a minister and later theology prof at the CGKN seminary in Kampen.
- A bright child, he was given a fine education and aspired to the ministry.
- He studied at the theological school at Kampen for 1 year, but announced at the age of 20 that he wanted to study at the University of Leiden, the hotspot for Dutch theological liberalism.
- Many in the CGKN were shocked and were sure he would lose his faith, including his best friend who eventually immigrated to the US and became a theological prof at a Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.
- Bavinck’s own dad, one of the more highly educated among the Seceders, agreed with some fears, but trusted his son and young Herman entered Leiden University where he studied under world renowned Old Testament scholar Kuenen and theologian Scholten.
- HB eventually earned his doctorate at Leiden in 1880 and kept his faith, although he admitted it was very stretching at times. He became fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, French, German and English while a student there and mastered philosophy as well as theology.
- His ordination exam was especially thorough because a number of the ministers were suspicious of his training under liberals.
- He turned down the offer of a position at Kuyper’s new Free University of Amsterdam to take a pastorate in Franeker in the province of Friesland for 2 years. There he grew in his appreciation of ordinary folk and their biblical based piety and love of the Oude Schrijvers and especially seemed to have appreciated the opportunity to minister to some handicapped folks.
- He was offered a position teaching theology at the seminary at Kampen in 1882 and taught there until 1902 when after several more attempts to woo him to the Free University, he finally agreed when Kuyper became Prime Minister and stepped down from his academic chair.
- He was a popular and well-loved teacher, often coming to meet with the students for casual discussion on any topic that they wanted to talk about before class would meet,
- HB worked hard to bring the Kuyperian secession movement– the Doleantie– and the Afscheiding together. In spite of a few that stayed out, it was successful, although HB worked hard to overcome the suspicions some continued.
- He was widely regarded as a key theologian of what has been called Neo-Calvinism, although he lived in the shadow of the more flamboyant Kuyper for many years. Today many have argued he was the far better theologian than Kuyper.
- He served in the upper house of the Dutch parliament, was knighted by the queen, and wrote in many other areas: politics, ethics, psychology, education, the Christian family, philosophy in addition to his many works in theology. He was also a member of the Dutch Royal Academy of the Sciences.
- Yet he always remained the devout Reformed Christian. On his deathbed after a severe heart attack, he said basically that none of his learning mattered, including his Dogmatics, but only his faith in Christ
VII. Bavinck’s theology
- Bavinck wrote widely in theology in addition to his many writings in other fields– a number of these are available now in English translation–but his magnum opus was his 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics, which covered the whole gamut of theology. Long only available in Dutch, it had been translated into readable English and there is a one volume summary available which is not the same as his own popular summary which has been translated and published under 2 different titles in English: Wonderful Works of God and Our Reasonable Faith.
- In addition he lectured on a wide variety of theological topics, including an important book on debated issues on the doctrine of regeneration– Saved By Grace— and the print version of the Stone lectures he gave at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1908, A Philosophy of Revelation. He had an opportunity to meet President Roosevelt during that trip to the US.
- HB also left behind a massive manuscript of his lecture on Theological Ethics, which is in process of being translated into English, with the 1st volume now available and will be at least 3 large volumes.
- HB was for years primarily mediated through Dutch Americans such as L. Berkhof and C. Van Til. Berkhof’s widely used Systematic Theology– translated into multiple languages– was highly dependent on HB, often summarizing and paraphrasing whole sections, and even using the same scripture references that HB used,
- Van Til was heavily dependent on HB’s method in developing his own distinct apologetic method where he taught at Westminster Seminary. Some who have been critical of parts of CVT, have argued that those areas where he differed with HB were the weakest spots in Van Til’s thought.
- The English translation of HB”s Dogmatics has given a huge boost of interest in his theology and a new major center of Bavinck studies has emerged at the U of Edinburgh in Scotland where noted Bavinck scholar, James Eglington teaches,.
- HB is now being recognized as one of the greatest Reformed theologians, especially in the modern era–see the attached recommendations of his theology.
VIII. Main contributions of HB’s theology
- HB was a thoroughly biblical theologian who was incredibly informed in the history of theology and philosophy.
- He was possessed with a careful and irenic temperament and always sought to find the most positive good in any scholar that he interacted with– and he interacted with almost everyone both contemporary and historical.
- He was always careful in his theology, not speculative like Kuyper often was, worked with the historically given and worked for clarity of thought and was quite willing to admit when problems still existed in theological positions he believed were true.
- However, what so many have highlighted was his ‘catholic’ spirit. One author says that is a great irony that one of the truly most ecumenically minded, in the proper sense, Reformed theologians came from a small separatist seminary in the small country of the Netherlands.
- He was an orthodox Reformed theologian and all of his theology was such, but he was willing to find truth in any source that he could. He said that the great theologians of the past were a great cloud of witnesses to the truth of the church catholic in all of its manifestations.
- Certainly this means the historic Reformed theologians, starting with the Reformers– her wrote his doctoral thesis on Zwingli– and the age of Reformed orthodoxy of the 17th and 18th century. He knew the American Reformed theologians such as the Princetonians well, too.
- However, he was incredibly familiar with Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and modern Liberal theology.
- It is the latter 2 that are good examples of his catholic spirit.
- HB remained thoroughly orthodox, but, for example he appreciated an aspect of F. Schleiermacher’s emphasis on absolute dependence and borrowed it, reworked it and used to answer some of the philosophical objections against the historic Christian faith set forth by I Kant. He believed that S’s insight was of great help in understanding the universal sense of religious feeling found in people.
- 90% of HB”s references to FS are negative, but he finds a couple of very useful ideas that can be used in explicating orthodox, Reformed theology.
- His use of FS has led some theologians to argue for a 2 Bavincks, i.e. an orthodox Bavinck and a modern Bavinck, but a number of recent studies have shown that this just wrong. There is one HB, the theologian, who organically borrows ideas from any source, including Schleiermacher, in the setting forth of the historic Christian faith. He was able to blend this ideas found in Augustine and Calvin on the innate knowledge of God that we humans have, drawing upon all 3 of these theologians as he exegeted Romans 1-2. He actually quotes Augustine more than any other theologian in the history of the church.
- He did the same by using ideas from Thomas Aquinas, as mediated by late 19th century Roman Catholic Neo-Thomist theologians, to develop a truly catholic theology, arguing that Roman Catholicism was not truly Catholic, especially its corrupted doctrine of salvation.
- His irenic nature and willingness to see good in the theology of some of the Liberal theologians in the Netherlands often irritated his friend A. Kuyper, who was combative by nature. Bavinck thought Kuyper’s combativeness led him to be arrogant at times and domineering in the Reformed political party that both were leaders in.
- He was a Trinitarian theologian, who like most Neo-Calvinist theologians worked with ideas of a Creation foundation and grace as restoring nature through the work of the Holy Spirit, but he also did not neglect the role of Christology in his doctrine of the Christian life.
- For example, he had a strong doctrine of the imitation of Christ like the kind normally associated with the Anabaptist tradition. Drawing upon Philippians 2, he demonstrated that this theme was also found in Calvin.
- This enabled him to give a generous review of American liberal pastor, Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, which kicked off the original WWJD movement,. Many have argued that this emphasis on the imitation of Christ kept HB from some of the triumphalism of his colleague A Kuyper and his followers who talked much of cultural transformation, while forgetting about personal piety.
- Above all HB wanted to be fully catholic in his theology and returned to that theme many times in his writing and lectures It was the theme of his inaugural address as prof of theology at the seminary in Kampen and would be the theme of one of his last theological writings in 1918.
- He is perhaps the favorite theologian of the movement for Reformed Catholicity, since he was to retrieve from the past, but always in a thoroughly up-to-date way and serve the church catholic in his theologizing. He said we most always retrieve from the past, but always use it in the culture we find ourselves in and not just repeat the past.
- For HB, there is no pristine era of theology that we must “go back to.” Rather we must draw upon the theology of the whole history of the church.
IX. What we can learn from these 2 theologians
A.. Machen shows us the boundaries between Liberalism and true Orthodox Christianity. He reminds us that there are battles for truth to be fought and sometimes those can be institutionally painful.
B. Bavinck reminds us that all Truth, if it is Truth, is God’s truth, and that we should mine the whole of the Christian tradition in our theology.
C. No one era, including the modern evangelicalism that most of us have grown up in, is the pristine era. We must be thoroughly, biblical, but always checking our biblical ideas against what our forefathers have taught and restating it into the context of our current culture,.
D. These 2 theologians show us the boundaries within we should have our irenic, catholic spirit of theology.