One of the other wordpress blogs that I check out periodically posted something regarding J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. You see, I’ve been reading that book with my pastor for the past several weeks. The good folks at City of God blog have typically interesting perspectives and I find encouragement when I read there. This one, however, I felt that I needed to respond.
The post is a reaction to a post here. There, the folks at the blog posted an excerpt from Machen’s book, chapter 2 called doctrine. Here’s what they posted:
Another difference of opinion which can subsist in the midst of Christian fellowship is the difference of opinion about the mode of efficacy of the sacraments. That difference is indeed serious, and to deny its seriousness is a far greater error than to take the wrong side in the controversy itself. It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist. It was a great calamity when at the “Marburg Conference” between Luther and the representatives of the Swiss Reformation, Luther wrote on the table with regard to the Lord’s Supper, “This is my body,” and said to Zwingli and Oecolampadius, “You have another spirit.” That difference of opinion led to the breach between the Lutheran and the Reformed branches of the Church, and caused Protestantism to lose much of the ground that might otherwise have been gained. It was a great calamity indeed. But the calamity was due to the fact that Luther (as we believe) was wrong about the Lord’s Supper;and it would have been a far greater calamity if being wrong about the Supper he had represented the whole question as a trifling affair. Luther was wrong about the Supper, but not nearly so wrong as he would have been if, being wrong, he had said to his opponents: “Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about the table of the Lord.” Such indifferentism would have been far more deadly than all the divisions between the branches of the Church. A Luther who would have compromised with regard to the Lord’s Supper never would have said at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen.” Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.
The reaction over the separation of various denominations on doctrinal lines should be one of lament. The difference between the Lutherans and the remainder of the Reformed world over Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper is small to us. We are now, regardless of our denomination, are fundamentally Zwinglian (see Keith Mathison’s “Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper”). So, any difference over the doctrine of the supper is odd, to our ears. But for our fore bearers, such matters were of life and death.
Further, the reaction to Machen’s writings by City of God seems to miss the point. Machen isn’t praising or decrying the separation of groups over the supper; it’s the fact the differences were significant enough, that an honest conscience required an objection. We find our theology, all to often, as a matter of personal preference. Our spiritual parents found it enough to stand ground on significant doctrines. Should we not stand as firm today, where required. Even though we’re all predominantly Zwinglian, should we be?
Separation is lamentable and, in fact, mournful. It’s a sad state, but there will be a rectification of that one day. May we honor God, even by honoring our conscience, as we await Christ’s return.