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Education, Christianity, and the State Review by Kevin Dayton

By John Gresham Machen; edited by John W. Robbins
The Trinity Foundation
PO Box 68
Unicoi, Tennessee 37692
Fax: 423-743-2005

Christians are reminded of the truth of Ecclesiastes that "there is nothing new under the sun" when reading Education, Christianity, and the State, a collection of erudite but highly readable essays written by early twentieth-century orthodox Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen. His essays are as relevant today as they were in the first third of the twentieth century.

In 1925, Machen decried "a tendency that is very widespread at the present day, the tendency to disparage the intellectual aspect of the religious life." Seven years later, Machen observed that "public opinion--even in England and America--is predominantly opposed to the Christian faith, and the people from their youth are imbued with the notion that Christian convictions are antiquated and absurd." He laments how "the Christian home, as an educational institution, has largely ceased to function." As early as 1912, he observed regretfully that "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."

Education, Christianity, and the State freezes a moment in time when ideological figures such as Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Dewey, and Freud had infiltrated Western intellectual thought and ushered in the period often identified as "modernism." Machen witnessed a dramatic period of change in America in which radical individualism, and what Machen calls "indolent impressionism," supplanted and marginalized the classical liberalism of Western civilization and the intellectually rigorous principles of Reformed Christianity.

Machen identifies what he thinks are the sources of this corruption of traditional Western thinking. In his 1925 essay, "Faith and Knowledge," he outlines what he considers to be "anti-intellectualism" in various scholarly endeavors. He contends that new and "absurd" pedagogic theories encourage a student to "think for himself" at the expense of memorizing facts that can back up an argument. In another essay, he decries pedagogies of "self-expression" as "this child-centered notion of education" that results in "a boundless superficiality." Machen sees and decries the results of this new pedagogy: younger generations make assertions about literature, history, language, and theology based on personal experience and emotional desires about what they want things to be, rather than what they are. Machen notes that the "physical sciences" remained immune to the change, but he presciently warns that "intellectual decadence" may soon extend to that arena as well.

Besides the new pedagogy, Machen targets increasing government intrusion into the affairs of the family and the continued shift of power from the states to the federal government. He passionately opposes proposed education policies that he regards as motivated by the idea that "children exist for the state and are the property of the state." Such policies include "character education" in public schools, a federal Department of Education meant to establish "standards," and a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the federal government authority to limit, regulate, and prohibit "child labor."

Educational activities within the God-ordained institutions of church and family do not escape the scrutiny of Machen, either. For example, Machen claims that the increasing dependence of the church on "Sunday School" as the primary place to teach children about the Christian faith (rather than at home, as dictated by Scripture) leads to theological ignorance and allows modernist false teachings to take root in the church. "The ignorance of the church is explained by the failure of the Christian family as an educational institution," Machen contends. He also criticizes adult Bible classes where preachers exclusively teach practical information on how to live during the following week, without basing that exhortation on the systematic instruction of Christian doctrine and history.

Machen wrote these articles at a perilous time for American Christianity that he called "days of defection and disbelief." Traditional Reformed Biblical theology--as defined in the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith--was increasingly ignored in his Presbyterian denomination and attacked by new manifestations of the same worldly philosophies that have always opposed Biblical truth. Many denominational leaders were choosing to compromise church doctrine and embrace "new knowledge" and "ideas of progress" propagated at "schools of learning," as portrayed approvingly by liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick in a 1922 sermon at New York City's First Presbyterian Church.

As revealed in this collection of essays, Machen openly and aggressively opposed the trend. Ultimately, Machen's presbytery in the Presbyterian Church USA suspended him in the mid-1930s for disobedience to church authorities who were either acquiescing to heresy or openly promoting it. Machen then became a founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which continues today as a doctrinally and intellectually rigorous Calvinist denomination.

Despite the discouraging decline of orthodox Christian doctrine and the worldly ignominy inflicted on him by liberals in the Presbyterian Church USA, Machen maintains hope that God will bring a new Reformation upon the Church. He anticipates "a revival of learning which we so much need and which I verily believe might be, in the providence of God (as was the Renaissance of the fifteenth century) the precursor of a Reformation in the church." This new Reformation would be like the original Reformation of the sixteenth century in that it would involve "a return to plain common honesty and common sense," especially regarding Biblical exegesis (referred to by contemporary modernists as "interpretation"). With optimism, Machen asserts that "a revival of the Christian religion . . . will deliver mankind from its present bondage and, like the great revival of the sixteenth century, will bring liberty to mankind. Such a revival will not be the work of man, but the work of the Spirit of God. But one of the means which the Spirit will use, we believe, is an awakening of the intellect."

Today, doctrinally orthodox Christians still await that new Reformation. In the meantime, as Machen writes, "we can even rejoice that God did not place us in an easy age, but in a time of doubt and perplexity and battle." Perhaps the small but growing homeschooling movement in the United States and elsewhere is the beginning of the revival of the classical Christian intellect and the commencement of a second Reformation. Education, Christianity, and the State will encourage Christian families to pray and reflect upon the reasons why God has led them to the challenging task of homeschooling and their role in God's plan for redemption.

Product review by Kevin Dayton, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August 2010