Jewish Americans and Presbyterian Theology

Jewish Americans and Presbyterian Theology May 7, 2019

Some journalists who want to report on the connections between the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the shooting at the synagogue in Poway, California last weekend may be surprised to learn about this recommendation of J. Gresham Machen’s diatribe against theological liberalism by a Jewish American:

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years debating who’s a Jew, but we’ve neglected to ask the thornier question: namely, what is Judaism? It’s a question that belongs with theologians, a scholastic class that, in our tradition, is sadly more likely to focus on offering a close reading of some sacred scrap of text than on addressing the fundamental relations between the tenets of faith and the earthly soil in which they’re rooted. It’s a shame—we need this sort of inquiry more than ever now that every social-justice warrior fashions our creed into a banner under which to march into battle.

For inspiration, then, we ought to look to our Christian brothers. In 1923, American Christendom received a master class in doctrinal clarity when a perfervid Presbyterian named John Gresham Machen wrote a short book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Too many of his contemporary faithful, he argued, have come to look at their religion as a blank screen on which to project the values of progressive liberalism. They’ve come to see Christ as a metaphor, not a deity, a gentle reminder to always be good and kind because kindness and goodness were just, you know, right. They read the Bible for affirmation, not for instruction, and they were always ready to ignore its teachings if those clashed, however mildly, with modernity’s latest edicts. Liberals who could not abide by Christianity’s essential truths, Machen argued, were many wonderful things, but they were not Christians. And everyone, the fiery theologian concluded, would be better for it if they stopped pretending that their values corresponded in any but a tangential way with those of the core Christian faith.

You can imagine how well Machen and his ideas were received. Rejected and dejected, Machen quit his perch at Princeton and was soon thereafter altogether defrocked of the ministry for his refusal to compromise his beliefs. He traveled extensively to minister to the few who still supported him, and died on one of those journeys, on New Year’s Day of 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was 55. On his grave was inscribed, in Greek, the motto that captured him best: “Faithful Unto Death.” In a warm obituary several weeks later, H.L. Mencken advised his readers that the deceased “fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.”

What fun Machen would have had, then, had he stuck around long enough to witness Judaism today and see it turned, by and large, into just such an enfeebled club. Had he walked into our shuls or read our publications, he would’ve despaired to hear so many of us speak reverentially of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, as if it alone stood at the core of our ancient faith, or as if world-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, were anything more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect. Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.

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