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      The Attack Upon the Intellect
      (J. Gresham Machen)

      Saturday, October 27, 2007


      Main Entry:
      prag·ma·tism Listen to the pronunciation of pragmatism
      circa 1864
      1 : A method in philosophy where value or worth is determined by results.
      2 : an American movement in philosophy founded by C. South Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief

      (from What is Faith? by Machen):
      What is true in the case of Paul is also true in the
      case of Jesus. Modern writers have abandoned the historical
      method of approach. They persist in confusing
      the question what they could have wished that Jesus
      had been with the question what Jesus actually was.
      In reading one of the most popular recent books on the
      subject of ,religion, I came upon the following amazng
      assertion. "Jesus," the author says, "concerned
      himself but little with the question of existence after
      death." In the presence of such assertions any student
      of history may well stand aghast. It may be that we
      do not make much of the doctrine of a future life, but
      the question whether Jesus did so is not a matter of
      taste but an historical question, which can be answered
      only on the basis of an examination of the sources of
      historical information that we call the Gospels.
      And the result of such examination is perfectly plain.
      As a matter of fact, not only the thought of heaven but
      also the thought of hell runs all through the teaching 'of Jesus.
      It appears in all four of the Gospels; it appears
      in the sources, supposed to underly the Gospels,
      which have been reconstructed, rightly or wrongly, by
      modern criticism. It imparts to the ethical teaching
      its peculiar earnestness. It is not an element which can
      be removed by any critical process, but simply suffuses
      the whole of Jesus' teaching and Jesus* life. "And
      fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to
      kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to
      destroy both soul and body in hell." "It is better for
      thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having
      two eyes to be cast into hell fire" these words are
      not an excrescence in Jesus' teaching but are quite at
      the center of the whole.

      At any rate, if you are going to remove the thought
      of a future life from the teaching of Jesus, if at this
      point you are going to reject the prima facie evidence,
      surely you should do so only by a critical grounding of
      your procedure. And my point is that that critical
      grounding is now thought to be quite unnecessary.
      Modern American writers simply attribute their own
      predilections to Jesus without, apparently, the slightest
      scrutiny of the facts.

      As over against this anti-intellectual tendency in the
      modern world, it will be one chief purpose of the present
      little book to defend the primacy of the intellect,
      and in particular to try to break down the false and
      disastrous opposition which has been set up between
      knowledge and faith.
      No doubt it is unfortunate, if our theme be the intellect,
      that the writer has so very limited an experimental
      acquaintance with the subject that he is undertaking
      to discuss. But in these days the intellect cannot
      afford to be too critical of her defenders, since her
      defenders are few enough. Time was when reason sat
      in regal state upon her throne, and crowds of obsequious
      courtiers did her reverence. But now the queen
      has been deposed, and pragmatism the usurper occupies
      the throne. Some humble retainers still follow the exile
      of the fallen queen; some men still hope for the day of
      restoration when the useful will be relegated to its
      proper place and truth will again rule the world. But
      such retainers are few so few that even the very
      humblest of them may perhaps out of chafcity be
      granted a hearing which in reason's better days he
      could not have claimed.

      The attack upon the intellect has assumed many
      forms, and has received an elaborate philosophical
      grounding. With that philosophical grounding I am
      not so presumptuous as to attempt to deal. I am not
      altogether unaware of the difficulties that beset what
      may be called the common-sense view of truth; epistemology
      presents many interesting problems and some
      puzzling antinomies. But the antinomies of epistemology
      are like other antinomies which puzzle .the human
      mind; they indicate the limitations of our intellect,
      but they do not prove that the intellect is not reliable
      so far as it goes. I for my part at least am not ready
      to give up the struggle; I am not ready to rest in a pragmatist
      skepticism; I am not ready to say that truth can
      never be attained.

      But what are some of the ways in which the intellect,
      in the modern religious world, has been dethroned, or
      at least has been debarred from the sphere of ultimate

      In the first place, and most obviously, there is the
      distinction between religion and theology. Theology,
      it is said, is merely the necessarily changing expression
      of a unitary experience; doctrine can never be permanent,
      but is simply the clothing of religious experience
      in the forms of thought suitable to any particular generation.
      Those who speak in this way protest, indeed,
      that they are not seeking to do without theology, but
      are merely endeavoring to keep theology in its proper
      place. Theology, it is admitted, is necessary to religion;
      there can never be religion without some theology;
      but what particular theology it shall be, they
      hold, depends upon the habits of thought that prevail
      in the age in which the theology is produced.
      In accordance with this principle, various creeds have
      recently been produced to take the place of the great
      historic confessions of faith various creeds intended
      to "interpret" Christianity in the "thought-forms" of
      the twentieth century and to provide -a basis for Christian
      unity. It is perfectly obvious that these modern
      formulations differ from those that they are intended
      to supplant in many important ways. But the most
      important difference of all has sometimes escaped
      notice. The most important difference is not that these
      modern creeds differ from the historic creeds in this
      point or that; but it is that the historic creeds, unlike
      the modern creeds, were intended hy their authors or
      compilers to he true. And I for my part believe that
      that is the most necessary qualification of a creed. I
      cannot, therefore, accept the protestations of those pragmatists
      who maintain that they are not hostile to theology.

      For if theology is not even intended to be permanently
      and objectively true, if it is merely a convenient
      symbol in which in this generation a mystic
      experience is clothed, then theologizing, it seems to me,
      is the most useless form of trifling in which a man
      could possibly engage.

      Certainly this theologizing of the pragmatist is as
      far as possible removed from the kind of progress that
      is found in the advance of science. The scientist does
      indeed modify his opinions; one hypothesis often gives
      place to another which is intended to be a better explanation
      of the facts. But the point is that the new hypothesis,
      like the old, is intended at least to be permanently
      correct: it may have to give way to a better
      understanding of the facts, but there is nothing in the
      very nature of the case to show that it must give way.
      Science, in other words, though it may not in any
      generation attain truth, is at any rate aiming at truth.
      Very different is ,the activity of the pragmatist theologian.
      The pragmatist theologian, unlike the scientist,
      does not even intend his own formulations to be
      permanent, but regards them as merely symbolic expressions,
      in the thought-forms of one particular generation,
      of an ineffable experience. According to the
      pragmatist it is not merely inevitable that the theology
      of one generation should differ from the theology of another,
      but it is desirable that it should do so.
      theology, according to the pragmatist, is the best which
      most perfectly expresses the experience of religion in the
      "thought-forms" of any particular age.
      Thus the
      Nicene Creed, it is said, was admirable in the fourth
      century of our era, and the Westminster Confession
      was admirable in the seventeenth century, but these formulations
      must of course now give place to twentieth century
      statements which so far as the literal or intellectual
      meaning is concerned are contradictory to them.

      Theology in other words is not to be judged in accordance
      with the degree of approximation which it attains
      to an eternally persisting norm of truth, but it is to be
      regarded as good or bad according as it serves the purposes
      of mankind and promotes an abundance of life.

      Indeed this pragmatist attitude toward difference in
      theology is applied not only to successive generations,
      but also to simultaneously existing nations and races.
      It is unreasonable, some advocates of missions are accustomed
      to say, for missionaries to ask Eastern races to accept
      Western creeds; the Eastern mind cannot be forced
      into a Western mould; on the contrary, the East must
      be allowed to give its own expression to the Christian
      faith. And so sometimes we read more or less formal
      expositions of belief that have come from the native
      churches of the East. What an interesting thing the
      formation of such expositions is, to be sure! A fresh,
      new expression of the Christian religion independent
      of all the conventions of the West! Unfortunately such
      expectations are often sadly disappointed when one reads
      the new formulations for himself; the vaunted freshness
      and originality is often not to be seen, and
      what we actually have is a most unoriginal repetition
      of the vague naturalism of the contemporary Western
      world. The Eastern mind has turned out to he as like
      as two peas to the mind of the South Side of Chicago;
      all the stock phrases of modern agnosticism seem to be
      thoroughly acceptable to the Oriental students to whom
      they have been taught.

      But if the results of these little experiments of the
      Eastern mind hardly seem to bear out the contention
      of the pragmatist hardly seem to bear out the contention
      that the Eastern mind and the Western mind
      are so distinct that the thought-forms that suit one
      will not suit the other the contention itself is thoroughly
      typical of our age; it is only one manifestation
      of a pragmatism that is all-pervasive. And that pragmatism
      involves the most bottomless skepticism which
      could possibly be conceived. According to the logic
      of the pragmatist position two contradictory doctrines
      may be equally good; for doctrine, in the opinion of the
      pragmatists, is merely the symbolic expression of an
      experience really inexpressible, and must necessarily
      change as the generations pass. There is, in other words,
      according to that view, no possibility that anything in
      the sphere of doctrine can be permanently and universally

      Such a view of doctrinal changes is sometimes compared,
      as we have already hinted, to the progress of
      science; it is unreasonable, the pragmatist theologian
      says, to reject the physics and chemistry of the first century
      or the seventeenth century and yet maintain
      unchanged the theology of those past ages; why should
      theology be exempt from the universal law of progress?

      But this comparison, as indeed should be plain from
      what has already been said, really involves a very
      strange misconception; far from advocating progress in
      theology, the current pragmatism really destroys the
      very possibility of progress. For progress involves
      something to progress to as well something to progress
      from. And in the intellectual sphere the current pragmatism
      can find no goal of progress in an objective norm
      of truth; one doctrine, according to the pragmatist
      view, may be just as good as an exactly contradictory
      doctrine, provided it suits a particular generation
      or a particular group of persons.
      The changes in
      scientific hypotheses represent true progress because they
      are increasingly close approximations to an objectively
      and externally existent body of facts; while the changes
      advocated by pragmatist theologians are not progress at
      all but the meaningless changes of a kaleidoscope.

      As over against this pragmatist attitude, we believers
      in historic Christianity maintain the objectivity of
      truth; and in doing so we and not the Modernists become
      advocates of progress.
      Theology, we hold, is
      not an attempt to express in merely symbolic terms an
      inner experience which must be expressed in different
      terms in subsequent generations; but It is a setting forth
      of those facts upon which experience is based.
      It is
      not indeed a complete setting forth of those facts, and
      therefore progress in theology become possible; but it
      may be true so far as it goes; and only because there
      is that possibility of attaining truth and of setting it
      forth ever more completely can there be progress. Theology,
      in other words, is just as much a science as is
      chemistry; and like the science of chemistry it is capable
      of advance. The two sciences, it is true, differ widely
      in their subject matter; they differ widely in the character
      of the evidence upon which their conclusions are
      based; in particular they differ widely in the qualifications
      required of the investigator: but they are both
      sciences, because they are both concerned with the acquisition
      and orderly arrangement of a body of truth.

      At this point, then, we find the really important
      divergence of opinion in the religious world at the
      present day; the difference of attitude toward theology
      or toward doctrine goes far deeper than any mere divergence
      in detail. The modern depreciation of theology
      results logically in the most complete skepticism.

      It is not merely that the ancient creeds, and the Bible
      upon which they are based, are criticized indeed we
      ourselves certainly think that they ought constantly to
      be criticized in order that it may be seen that they will
      stand the test but the really serious trouble is that the
      modern pragmatist, on account of the very nature of
      his philosophy, has nothing to put in their place.
      according to him, may be useful; but it can never
      by any possibility be true.
      As Dr. Fosdick observes,
      the liberalism of today must necessarily produce an intellectual
      formulation which will become the orthodoxy
      of tomorrow, and which will then in turn have to
      give place to a new liberalism; and so on (we suppose)
      ad infinitum. This is what the plain man in
      the Church has difficulty in understanding; he does not
      yet appreciate the real gravity of the issue.
      He does
      not see that it makes very little difference how much
      or how little of the creeds of the Church the Modernist
      preacher affirms, or how much or how little of the
      Biblical teaching from which the creeds are derived.

      He might affirm every jot and tittle of the Westminster
      Confession, for example, and yet be separated by a
      great gulf from the Reformed Faith. It is not that part
      is denied and the rest affirmed; but all is denied, because
      all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as

      Thus it comes about that to the believer in historic
      Christianity the Modernist preacher is often most distressing
      just when he desires to be most concessive.
      has no desire, he says, to combat the faith of simple
      people in the Church; indeed the older "interpretations,**
      he says, may be best for some people even now.

      Such assertions are perhaps intended to be concessive;
      but in reality they are to the believer in historic Christianity
      the most radically destructive assertions that
      could possibly be made.
      It would from our point of
      view be better if the preacher, convinced of the falsity
      of supernatural religion in the sense of the New Testament
      and of the creeds, became an apostle with the
      courage of his convictions, and sought to root out of
      every one's' mind convictions that he holds to be false.

      In that case we should indeed differ from him radically,
      but there would be at least a common ground for discussion.

      But the assertion that the historic creeds may
      still be best for some people and the modern interpretations
      better for others, or the provision in plans of
      Church union that the constituent churches should
      recognize each the other's creed as valid for the other
      church's members this, we think, involves a sin
      against the light of reason itself;
      and if the light that
      is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness! A
      thing that is useful may be useful for some and not for
      others, but a thing that is true remains true for all
      people and beyond the end of time.

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