Learning in Class

87 years ago last Sunday, or so, J. Gresham Machen and a handful of other faculty walked out of Princeton Seminary to found a better alternative: Westminster. The decision was a hard one. They left behind the library, the traditions, the buildings, the connections. If you compare the two institutions today, obviously Princeton is the more affluent and Westminster is a kind of theological seminary slum. Machen also left behind many orthodox colleagues in the faculty, and that had to be difficult. We are often told that Machen left because of the liberals being tolerated in the faculty, and that to a certain extent was true. There were liberals coming in, but at that point they were not really in charge. We need to understand it was the orthodox in the faculty who admitted and sheltered the liberals, those Machen called indifferentists, and who thought liberalism ought to be represented in the academic setting.

I would be very surprised if orthodoxy is today represented at Princeton Seminary, though there are many conservative things still coming out of Princeton. Machen argued that theological modernism was essentially a different religion from Christianity, and that argument is still good.

Last Thursday I was in a class with the dean of Princeton Seminary. Now, if you are the dean, you are in charge of running the seminary, right? This is one of the guys in charge. During the class the dean said that he did not care about the historicity of Jesus death and resurrection, what he cared about was the pattern, the meaning for us existentially of the truth about how we attain to authenticity. At one point he became very emotionally moved while recounting the story of a man falsely condemned to 40 years in jail who has been able to put his life together again according to this mysterious pattern of death and resurrection. And there is something to be said, a great deal, of someone who has been the victim of such an injustice and has apparently assimilated it without notable final resentment or anger. The death and resurrection of Christ for the dean is a pattern of something deep in the structure of humanity and which helps us deal with more than less success with this present life; that is its power. Considering what the human condition is, this power is something. Considering, however, what we believe about the Gospel, it is not enough since it excludes the hope of real resurrection from the dead. In his mind, whatever the Gospel events, and we can be sure we only have inaccurate accounts of what actually happened, the thing became something better than it originally must have been, and this becomes something for others as well, something of the most passionate inwardness, coming from beyond the world we know, breaking in at a moment with a glimpse of what we can only have in a transitory moment of unending flux. That flux, which would not have remained the same anyway, is made different by an inscrutable deliberateness which is somehow for us. That, at least, is what I can piece out of the event in class with what I know from other sources.

It was a difficult moment for me. He had said he was a Bultmanian, so I had an idea of the concomitant affirmations. I guess I was hoping he would by now have abandoned the denials. Earlier I had heard him say he was committed to the Enlightenment, and I thought that was kind of quaint. He’s an older gentleman, even wears an overcoat: here he is going on still about something hardly anybody cares about anymore. So difficult that it came as a blow was his denial that the actual events of the Gospel really took place in any definite sense. Implied in what he affirmed was his expectation not to be raised together with Christ bodily because whether Christ arose or not is neither here nor there. I spent the whole rest of the day trying to figure out how he could be anything but severed from Christian orthodoxy. No dice: it is nothing else; what he did in class was deny that he accepts Christian orthodoxy.

It is not a denial of the importance of the meanings, it is a denial of the importance of the actual events from which the meanings come, through which the meanings are always mediated because they correspond. There is no permanent opening to the realm of meaning, but instead a growing awareness of the darkness shrouding it in the contrast of a momentary flash of light. It is a denial that the world of appearances corresponds to the world of real significance in any but a highly unstable way (an arbitrary way, if I am not mistaken). It is in fact an affirmation of the fundamental instability of the human condition, with only flashes of transcendence as transitory as lightning: powerful, instantaneous and living mostly in remembered impressions). This is not the noonday of the Platonist, the structuring of the chaotic world of appearance in the gained certainty of the realm of forms, but such a positive belief in the thickness of the clouds of doubt as to plunge the believer into an endless night, with only the fitful trouble above for occasional guidance.

Anyway, now I have a better sense of how the affirmations contain the denials, and how it is that if you aren’t explicit about the denials, it is hard to sense the problem, the way it was in Machen’s day. Imagination works from the positive in a way it abruptly ceased to do when I was confronted with the negative. All of which, if you’re doing Church History, is good experience.

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