Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Write-Up: Toward a Sure Faith

Terry A. Chrisope.  Toward a Sure Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism, 1881-1915.  Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2000.

J. Gresham Machen was a conservative Christian biblical scholar.  He was a prominent voice during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century.  Machen sided with the fundamentalists, even though he did not consider himself to be one of them.  Machen believed that modernism was contrary to the Christian faith in that it questioned God’s supernatural intervention in history, and Machen as a scholar wrote articles and books to challenge it.

Toward a Sure Faith is about Machen’s own wrestling with doubt as a student of Princeton and in Germany, as well as his scholarship.  Its author, Terry Chrisope, effectively describes what Machen was reacting against: a focus on the Bible as a historical document that reflected different times and thus failed to provide an unchanging universal standard (or people could pick and choose from the Bible what they thought would work), and the exclusion of the possibility of miracles, either through anti-supernaturalism or by saying that God was present in all things.  Machen, by contrast, believed that there were unchanging universal standards within the Bible, and that certain examples of God’s intervention in history, such as the virgin birth, were essential to Christianity.

Because Machen fought modernism within the church, people may get the impression that he was closed-minded and intolerant.  But that was not the case, according to Chrisope.  Machen did not believe that modernism should be promoted within the church.  When he was struggling with his own religious doubts and admiring a German liberal thinker, and worrying his mother in the process because she thought that he was about to leave Christianity, Machen was firm on not entering the ministry during that time.  The ministry was not the place for people who question the truths of Christianity, he thought.  But, within his scholarship, he was eager to engage contrary points-of-view and even to acknowledge where their points were strong.  He did not give conservative Christian scholarship a free pass, either, but was critical when he felt that it lacked rigor or failed to take into account the latest scholarship.  As a scholar, Machen gained respect even from the liberal scholars with whom he disagreed.

My impression is that Machen’s scholarship amounted to arguing that Christianity was supernatural by dismissing other historical possibilities that scholars proposed.  Machen also criticized liberal scholars by arguing that their conclusions did not necessarily follow from their premises, and that they made assumptions (i.e., anti-supernaturalism) that biased their interpretation.  That sounds a lot like Christian apologetics today, but there were times when Machen could make a fresh scholarly proposal.  For example, Machen argued against a scholar who contended that the Magnificat came from Luke or was designed to imitate the Septuagint, maintaining instead that it reflected an Aramaic original.  There was obviously an apologetic motive here: if Machen is correct, then Luke did not make the Magnificat up, and it may actually go back to Mary herself, who spoke Aramaic.  And, because Mary spoke this prayer within the context of the virgin birth story, this may be another piece of evidence (along with patristic statements and the implausibility of liberal scholarly scenarios for how the virgin birth story originated) that the virgin birth historically happened.  Notwithstanding the apologetic use Machen made for his argument, his careful look at language and his argumentation managed to impress the scholar whose work he was criticizing.

Machen’s views on scholarship, reason, and faith were not particularly neat, however.  He believed in appealing to evidence and in the ability of reason to accurately conceptualize the world (on some level), yet he emphasized that people’s presuppositions could influence their interpretations and observations.  His scholarship apparently had some apologetic motive—-at the very least to undermine liberal arguments that he believed were against Christianity—-but he also thought that reason and historical argument by themselves were inadequate to lead a person to God, that they rested on probabilities, and that faith was necessary to bridge the gap.  He did not dismiss the idea that the Bible reflected its historical contexts, but he did not take that so far that he excluded the supernatural.  He, like other Princeton theologians, maintained that the Bible was without error, and yet Chrisope says that they were open to acknowledging some historical errors in the Bible, or the possibility that the biblical authors’ sources had errors.  I wish this had been fleshed out some more!

Machen did not consider himself a fundamentalist, but rather as orthodox.  Unfortunately, Chrisope does not go into much detail about this in the text, but he does offer more information in his endnotes.  Chrisope quotes scholars who state that Machen differed from fundamentalism’s “dispensationalist theology, revivalistic techniques of soul-winning, stern prohibitions against worldly entertainments, and a low view of the institutional church” (quoted from D.G. Hart and John Muether’s Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).  Actually, Chrisope’s endnotes provide quite a few jewels, such as references to books that disagree on whether biblical inerrancy was a product of the modernist controversy or instead reflecting longstanding (even ancient) Christian opinion.

This book was worth the read because it clearly articulated the modernist trends that conservatives found so troubling and Machen’s scholarly argumentation, as well as raised interesting questions about the relationship between faith and scholarship.  It also humanized Machen by highlighting his own religious doubts as a student.  The book lacked a clear “aha” moment in which Machen arrived at a state of religious certainty and internal reconciliation, perhaps because that is inaccessible to historians.  Chrisope just concludes that Machen must have arrived at the certainty he was looking for, since Machen started arguing against liberal scholars in his writings!

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