Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Mistakenly thinking the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen had written a book on Catholicism and wanting to give it as an example of Protestant apologetics in yesterday’s item , I googled the subject and found that he didn’t, but he did say this in his book Christianity and Liberalism :

Far more serious still is the division between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms. Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!

We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.

He had some thoughts on how such divided Christians could face their division, noted by our friend Darryl Hart . Machen’s thoughts appear in a discussion of pernicious laws against Christian schooling — which he called the clearest “attack upon tolerance in America” — being proposed in the mid-twenties:
Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; but the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others.

What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object to the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda first, last, and all the time? Clearly they have a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same . . . .

Does this mean, then, that we must eternally bite and devour one another, that acrimonious debate must never for a moment be allowed to cease? . . . . There is a common solution of the problem which we think ought to be taken to heart. It is the solution provided by family life.

In countless families, there is a Christian parent who with untold agony of soul has seen the barrier of religious difference set up between himself or herself and a beloved child. Salvation, it is believed with all the heart, comes only through Christ, and the child, it is believed, unless it has really trusted in Christ, is lost. These, I tell you, are the real tragedies of life. And how trifling, in comparison, is the experience of bereavement of the like!

But what do these sorrowing parents do? Do they make themselves uselessly a nuissance to their child? In countless cases they do not; in countless cases there is hardly a mention of the subject of religion; in countless cases there is nothing but prayer, and an agony of soul bravely covered by helpfulness and cheer.

And there’s this from a weblog dedicated to Machen , about Machen’s time working with the YMCA in the trenches in WWI:
Spiritually, he had to make do too — reading his English Bible rather than in Greek, which brought home some things with a freshness; worshipping with Roman Catholics. Of one sermon he says “It was far, far better than what we got from the Protestant liberals”.

In conversation afterwards, he could not agree with the priest on the mass but responded to a complaint that the phrase “descended into hell” was missing from versions issued to American soldiers “I could assure him that I disapproved as much as he did of the mutilation of the creed”.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles