Review of Education, Christianity, and the State

Education, Christianity, and the State by J. Gresham Machen, ed. John W. Robbins, Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 1987, 163 pp.
Education, Christianity, and the State is a collection of essays written by J. Gresham Machen. While the essays are grouped here together they were not originally written at the same time nor with an attempt at a systematic presentation. Nevertheless, general themes and emphases may be noted.
In the first essay, “Faith and Knowledge,” Machen emphasizes the intellect and the importance memorization for, he argues, “It is impossible to think with an empty mind.” (p. 7) Machen notes that “The most important Christian educational institute is not the pulpit or the school, important as these institutions are; it is the Christian family.” (p. 8) Against theological modernism he argues that it deprecates the intellect and exalts the feelings. (p. 9) Various points in this essay (the importance of definitions, the primacy of the intellect, opposition to faith being contrasted with knowledge) clearly influenced Gordon Clark who carried forward Machen’s positions.
The second essay, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship,” is made up of three sections with the general title applied to each evangelism, apologetics, and Christian growth.
In the first section, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship for Evangelism,” Machen again critiques those who oppose memorization. He also critiques those who favor education as training a child to learn rather than actually teaching them some content. He calls this a “substitution of methodology for content.” (p. 14) While I must agree with Machen that memorization is valuable, I found in my university work in engineering and mathematics (where we did not memorize much but learned to solve problems) and in my M.B.A. studies (which used the “case method”) that there is much value in being trained to learn so that new problems can be solved independently. When it comes to “religious education” I can more easily agree with Machen who argues that it should be goal of the teacher to impart that fixed body of knowledge which God has revealed in the Scriptures rather than training the “religious faculty” of the child by diverse content. Getting to the topic of faith and knowledge more directly than in his first essay (which actually bore that title), Machen here argues that “faith” is not faith at all if it is not faith in Christ. That is, there must be content, an “intellectual element” preceding faith. (p. 17) He defends this position based on Biblical examples including Peter’s sermon at Pentecost which set forth the facts about Jesus Christ which three thousand individuals then came to believe. Christian scholarship then is important, Machen contends, because salvation “depends on the message in which Christ is offered as Saviour” and “it is obviously important that we should get the message straight.” (p. 20) Machen continues saying that because of the necessity of of the Biblical gospel it is important that we preach not our own experiences but that we preach the Scriptures. He writes, “Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences. We cannot be the instruments of God in saving them if we preach to them thus only ourselves. Nay, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ, for it is only through the Gospel which sets him forth that they can be saved.” (p. 21)
In the second section, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship for the Defense of the Faith,” Machen opposes those who pretend to propagate Christianity without also defending it. He writes, “Certainly a Christianity that avoids argument is not the Christianity of the New Testament.” (p. 23) While “argument alone is quite insufficient to make a man a Christian,” “it does not follow that it is unnecessary.” (p. 24) Christian apologetics, Machen contends, is broader than “the immediate winning of those who are arguing vigorously on the other side.” (p. 25) It is a longer-term struggle to produce “an intellectual atmosphere in which the acceptance of the Gospel will seem to be something other than an offence against truth.” Opposed to those who desire that we just get along with everyone regardless of their theology, Machen notes “The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end.” (p. 29) And “Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.” (p. 30) Machen gives two practical points for defending the faith. 1) It should be “perfectly open and above board”; that is honest, and 2) it should be “of a scholarly kind” focusing on the arguments and never analyzing another person’s motives.
In the third section, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship for the Building Up of the Church,” Machen discusses the continued importance of edification after conversion. Sermons, he contends, should include the teaching of Christian doctrine while not confusing the audience with too many points. While it is good when in preaching “genuine Christian emotion is aroused,” if the sermon does not also teach Biblical content the hearers will not grow in their knowledge of God. Defending “the metaphysic” of Genesis 1:1, Machen argues that philosophical question are not a matter of indifference for the Christian. Ultimately, because the Gospel saves man from his condition of sin “the humblest man who believes the Bible is the Word of God is possessed of riches greater by far than all the learning of all the world.” (p. 44)
In Machen’s third essay, “Christianity and Culture,” he first begins his critique of the public school system, which he will address more in subsequent essays. He notes, “Our whole system of school and college education is so constituted as to keep religion and culture as far apart as possible and ignore the question of the relationship between them.” (p. 46) Each subject, he notes, is taught without reference to Christianity. Particularly notable is that “we studied history with careful avoidance of that greatest of historical movement which was ushered in by the preaching of Jesus.” (My own public school educations also attests to this. And most public high school graduates today probably couldn’t tell you what the Reformation was.) Machen then addresses the age old question of the proper relationship between Christianity and culture. He rejects two extremes. First he rejects the idea of “Christianity subordinated to culture” as an anti-supernatural destruction of Christianity. Then he rejects “the opposite extreme” of culture as “a matter at least of indifference to the Christian.” He holds that this separationism (a word he doesn’t however use) is “both illogical and unbiblical” as “God has given us certain powers of mind and has implanted within us the ineradicable conviction that these powers were intended to be exercised.” (p. 49) Before one concludes that Machen has made a logical fallacy, one should note that he is referring specifically to engagement in the arts and sciences, not immoral activities. Machen’s proposal then is that “Instead of destroying the arts and science or being indifference to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God.” (p. 49) He writes, “let us go forth joyfully and enthusiastically to make the world subject to God.” (p. 50) The remainder of the essay defends this position.
Machen’s fourth essay is titled “Reforming the Government Schools.” Here he notes, “an education that trains the mind without training the moral sense is a menace to civilization rather than a help.” (p. 60) The attempts to remedy this in the public school, Machen says, are only making the situation worse. The only solid morality is found in the law of God. Machen’s supports “the encouragement of private schools and church schools.” (p. 63) Christianity, he contends, should be taught in Christian schools. Public education while “perhaps necessary” is “a necessary evil.” Given this necessity, he lists certain ways that the danger of the institution may be diminished. These recommendations include limiting the function of the public school by giving more authority to parents, and avoiding uniformity in education as that is “one of the very greatest calamities into which any national can fall” (p. 64).
Though Machen has some recommendations for improving the necessary public schools, his greater interest is in having private Christian schools. That is the topic of the fifth essay, “The Necessity of the Christian School.” He supports Christian schools “for American Liberty” and “for the propagation of the Christian Religion.” (p. 67) Machen notes in 1934 the despotism then already prevailing in Italy, Germany, and Russia. In America there is tyranny as well. There “a monopolistic system of education controlled by the State is far more efficient in crushing our liberty than the cruder weapons of fire and sword.” (p. 68) Machen opposes the child-labor amendment as it “masquerades under the cloak of humanitarianism” while being “just about as heartless a piece of proposed legislation as could possibly be conceived.” (p. 69) His concern is that the “youth of our country might be turned over … to the Washington bureaus.” (p. 71) Machen is writing at a time when the federal Department of Education is still only being proposed and is not the unfortunate reality it is today. Like one of the earlier essays, Machen opposes the “overemphasis upon methodology” of those who study “education” rather than history or chemistry. Also like a previous essay Machen writes against the evil of uniformity in education. Machen opposes “equal opportunity” as it inevitably provides an opportunity that is not worth very much as parents lack any incentive for providing educational advantages for their own children. While public education lacks a specific moral training, Machen opposes infusing Christian teaching into public schools since it is bound to be taught incorrectly. He equally opposes Bible reading in public schools as it would likely be selective readings, a “garbled Bible” used to teach the direct opposite of what it really says. Machen advocates the release of public school children at certain hours for religious instruction provided by parents. Yet this is a “makeshift measure.” Machen’s “true solution” is the Christian school. He writes, “I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the Gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the Earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism.” (p. 82)
Machen’s sixth essay is on “Shall we have a federal Department of Education?” If you’re much familiar with Machen, you know his answer is “no.” Here Machen supports the right of voluntary organizations to exclude certain persons from membership. Machen returns to the problems associated with standardization which a then-proposed federal Department of Education would likely produce. He notes as well that “Federal aid in education inevitably means federal control.” Machen argues that the principle of state control in education is the same as that of ancient Greece (not of the Bible). Many of the points and examples in this essay are repeated from previous ones.
The seventh essay, or rather seventh chapter for it is not an essay at all, is titled “Proposed Department of Education” and is the record of Machen speaking to congress in 1926. Most of Machen’s positions and arguments have already been outlined in previous essays. He again holds that it is the right of parents, not the state, to education children as they please. This is the Biblical rather than Greco-Roman approach. Machen’s political views are better displayed here than elsewhere. He “objects in general to the principle of federal aid” (p. 109) and “believes with all my soul in the principle for this country of the division of power between the states and the federal government.” (p. 110) It is recorded that there was applause after Machen said “If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else as well.” (p. 114) Machen notes a number of times that he sees a role for the federal Bureau of Education only within the District of Columbia.
The eighth essay in the series is “The Christian School: The Hope of America.” Here Machen argues that the primary purpose of education is not vocation, but the broadening of man. These are themes that Gordon Clark later takes up in “A Christianity Philosophy of Education.” The influence of Machen on Clark is strongly evident. Machen notes that if you leave the average American alone for five minutes he has to turn on his radio and it seems to make very little difference to him what the radio gives forth. He writes, “An uneducated man shrinks from quiet. An educated man longs for it.” (p. 126) Machen lamets the fact that the federal government has built roads scarring “practically every mountainside” in the National parks systematically destroying their beauty. Machen opposes the Child Labor Amendment as placing “the wholes lives of those under eighteen years of age under the despotic control of whatever bureaus Congress may set up.” (p. 129) Machen further argues that there is value in Christian schools even if only in promoting liberty.
The ninth and final essay is on “Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan” which was an address Machen gave at the school’s opening in 1929. He says that they are devoted to the service of Jesus Christ with the Bible as the core of what they do. Thus, they study the Bible rather than religion more broadly. Westminster is to be an institution of higher learning, not a school for lay workers. They will train in the original languages of the Scriptures and they will do “Biblical Theology” but have systematic theology as “at the very centre of the Seminary’s course.” (p. 150)
Where Machen might have stood on part of the Clark – Van Til Controversy (which he did not live to see) might be indicated in the following quote:

“There are those who think that systematic theology on the basis of the Bible is impossible; there are those who think that the Bible contains a mere record of human seeking after God and that its teachings are a mass of contradictions which can never be resolved. But to the number of those persons we do not belong. We believe for our part that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that he has given us not merely theology, but a system of theology, a great logically consistent body of truth.” (p. 150)

 

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