Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Distraction of Denominational Disagreements

There is a time to fight with each other. When wolves invade the sheepfold, we know we are not among friends. The SBC conservative resurgence was a needed and necessary denominational fight.

J. Gresham Machen was a Presbyterian who would have been all-too-familiar with the issues of our Southern Baptist fight of the 1980s. He became a professor at Princeton Seminary in 1906 and fought in the 1920s to keep that precious university rooted to its theological tenets.

He and the other conservatives who engaged that battle lost. In 1929, the Presbyterian General Assembly voted to reorganize Princeton’s boards, effectively giving theological liberals control of the school and Machen and his supporters left Princeton and founded Westminster Seminary.

Seventeen years before that fatal vote in 1929, Machen was given the honor of addressing the Opening Convocation of the seminary. Here is some of what he said:

Beneath the surface of life lies a world of spirit. Philosophers have attempted to explore it. Christianity has revealed its wonders to the simple soul. There lie the springs of the Church's power. But that spiritual realm cannot be entered without controversy. And now the Church is shrinking from the conflict. Driven from the spiritual realm by the current of modern thought, she is consoling herself with things about which there is no dispute. If she favors better housing for the poor, she need fear no contradiction. She will need all her courage. She will have enemies enough, God knows. But they will not fight her with argument. The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment. But sin, and death, and salvation, and life, and God—about these things there is debate. You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current. Preach every Sunday during your Seminary course, devote the fag ends of your time to study and to thought, study about as you studied in college—and these questions will probably never trouble you.

The great questions may easily be avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The Church is waiting for men of another type. Men to fight her battles and solve her problems. The hope of finding them is the one great inspiration of a Seminary's life. They need not all be men of conspicuous attainments. But they must all be men of thought. They must fight hard against spiritual and intellectual indolence. Their thinking may be confined to narrow limits. But it must be their own. To them theology must be something more than a task. It must be a matter of inquiry. It must lead not to successful memorizing, but to genuine convictions.

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.

Taken from an address on "The Scientific Preparation of the Minister," delivered September 20, 1912, at the opening of the one hundred and first session of Princeton Theological Seminary, and in substance (previously) at a meeting of the Presbyterian Ministers' Association of Philadelphia, May 20, 1912. It was first published in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 11, 1913. This essay was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. It is now in the public domain and may be freely copied and distributed. Original pagination has been kept intact for purposes of reference.

I’m not enough of a Machen scholar to know for sure, but I can’t help wondering if he was not greatly disillusioned by the end of his career. His address speaks of an “us-against-the-world” mindset. Within a decade, he would be embroiled in an “us-against-us” fight. I am not suggesting we ignore internal problems. Internal disease is as deadly as external wounds. Many liberals urged Southern Baptists to focus on evangelism and missions while our seminaries and institutions were oozing deadly doctrine and philosophies.

My question is, are we there again? Can we address our differences as conservative Southern Baptists without launching an all-out war against each other? Can we find ways to dwell together in unity and keep a shared focus on a common enemy—the world? The issues tearing us apart are significant. They are not merely a tiff, or a misunderstanding. The events of recent months are but a symptom of different beliefs that have long been present in our convention.

Are we getting pulled into what Machen called “the questions of the hour” and losing our focus on “the eternal problems of the spiritual world”? Perhaps. Perhaps we are.

Machen said the men who would fight the battles of the church and solve her problems must be men of thought. Some have already given serious thought to various positions and beliefs. Perhaps we could do some more thinking.

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