Machen on Christianity and Culture

In his essay entitled, Christianity and Culture, Gresham Machen addresses the problematic, relational dissociation between Christianity and culture. He explains that the problem is due conflicting worldviews and to educational systems that have developed chasms between Christianity and culture. Religion has been set apart as a study focused on the emotions and the will, and secular studies have taken over the intellectual and scientific pursuits. Therefore, faith and science have become incompatible; piety and knowledge have been severed. Machen offers three possible Christian solutions to this problem.[1]

First, Christianity may submit or accommodate to culture. Machen explains that this option eliminates the supernatural and any correlating revelatory and authoritative elements. Christianity would surrender all of its gospel particulars and become merely a human ethic that is part of the culture. Christianity would be suffocated by the formidable force of culture and then anything that claims the traditional name would be counterfeit.[2]

Second, Christianity may be against culture or seek to destroy culture. This option demonstrates cultural indifferences by abandoning all intellectual activity in relation to culture and by never interacting in cultural pursuits such as art and science.[3] Christianity would not shrink from the faith tenets, but would take a lofty position “into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism.”[4] Culture would be viewed as a necessary evil that may at times be unavoidable, but in response, Christianity would exercise an unenthusiastic posture in any cultural engagement.[5]

Third, Christianity may consecrate or transform culture. Machen argues for this view by explaining that Christianity should not adapt the message to meet the cultural ideals nor should Christianity attempt to destroy or show indifference to the cultural arts and sciences, but rather Christianity should “cultivate them with all enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of God.”[6] Thus, the exhortation is to cling to the tenants of Christianity while applying the faith to the modern cultural and social conditions. Christianity must pervade all human thought and endeavor. The gospel must relate to culture so that its power will transform the hearts and minds of humanity.[7]

The problem of the relationship between Christianity and culture is tumultuous, but there is a viable solution for Christians. They must seek to impact the culture with boldness and dependence on God. Machen writes,

…if she [the Church] would descend into the secret place of meditation, if by the clear light of the gospel she would seek an answer not merely to the questions of the hour but first of all to the eternal problems of the spiritual world, then perhaps by God’s grace, through His good spirit, in His good time, she might issue forth once more with power, and an age of doubt might be followed by the dawn of an era of faith.[8]

[1] Gresham Machen. “Christianity and Culture.” The Princeton Theological Review Vol. 11 No. 1 (1913), 1-3. [2] Machen, “Christianity,” 3-4. [3] Machen, “Christianity,” 4-5. [4] Machen, “Christianity,” 5. [5] Machen, “Christianity,” 4. [6] Machen, “Christianity,” 5. [7] Machen, “Christianity,” 6. [8] Machen, “Christianity,” 15.