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Changing Categories for Abiding Experience?

volume 21, number 46, November 17, 2022

“The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” -Hebrews 4:12

In the 1890’s Princeton Professor Woodrow Wilson and his wife Ellen often visited in the Baltimore home of Arthur Webster Machen and his wife Mary Jones Gresham. Their son John Gresham was around ten years old at the time. Later when Gresham was a student at Princeton Seminary Dr. Woodrow Wilson invited him to several meals at his home and at least once Wilson dined with Machen and several of his friends at Princeton Seminary. Arthur, a prominent attorney in Baltimore, was forty-five and Mary was twenty-four when they married. Mary was from Macon, Georgia where her father once served as the mayor of Macon and was a ruling elder for forty-five years at the First Presbyterian Church, Macon. Mary grew up in a mansion on College Street in Macon which is still there. The Machens were members of the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, and Mary faithfully taught her son the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Young Machen was converted and became a communing member of Franklin Street Presbyterian Church at the age of fourteen. 

While Woodrow Wilson and J. Gresham Machen knew each other well, and while both made professions of faith at an early age, and while both cut their teeth on the Westminster Confession of Faith and orthodox, Biblical doctrine, the two diverged significantly from each other in how they viewed the Christian faith. While it is true that Machen had a brief period of doubt as to the Bible’s authority when studying under modernist Wilhelm Herrmann at the University of Marburg in Germany, he soon rejected the liberalism coming out of Germany and went back to his commitment to the Scriptures as the infallible, inerrant, and inspired word of God. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, while continuing to attend church, teach his daughters the Shorter Catechism, and read his Bible and pray each morning, began to drift from the faith of his father and mother. He once wrote in his diary that he was not orthodox in his theology but he was orthodox in his faith. By the time he became a professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton, Wilson viewed Christianity as a private religion which only regulates one’s personal life of morality. In other words, it has nothing to do with the world of politics or academia. 

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) was a famous Baptist preacher who boasted that he had never recited the Apostles Creed. He was a theological rebel who stood with the theological liberals in the Fundamentalist, Modernist Controversy of the 1920’s. He said, “We must distinguish between abiding experiences and changing categories.” This kind of thinking was prominent in modernest circles. Where did he get this idea and what does it mean?

It came from the German theologians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Machen had heard this from his professor, Wilhelm Herrmann, who believed that one’s Christian experience is personal and cannot be grounded in doctrine. Herrman and two of his disciples, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultman, were all significantly influenced by Immanuel Kant who taught that knowledge or science must be held separate from faith. Kant said that knowledge can be measured empirically while faith cannot be measured since it is intuitive. Faith, he said, is an experience while theology is an academic discipline that rationalizes the experience; and since theology is manmade it can change or develop over a period of time. In other words, one can have some kind of personal experience with God and Jesus but it can never be explained in theological terms because the meaning of theological terms change in time. 

So Fosdick, Herrmann, and Woodrow Wilson all believed that people can have a personal, religious experience with Jesus (what Fosdick called abiding experiences) but it can never be defined theologically (because they are ever changing categories). And why is this the case? Because from the modernist viewpoint the Scriptures cannot be proven to be authoritative. This explains why seminaries, denominations, and pastors, who years before believed, for example, in the virgin birth of Christ later rejected this doctrine. In their view the Bible is merely a guide for one’s personal, religious, and devotional life and it really does not matter if the things written in the Bible actually occurred. For the modernist the experience of Jesus is everything. It need not be grounded in historical fact. So, one can have a lasting and meaningful experience with Christ but it is fruitless to explain the experience in theological terms. So in this view Christianity is subjective, never objective. 

How did this faulty view of Scripture play itself out in Woodrow Wilson’s life? I showed last week how it adversely affected his policies in government and his personal life. Wilson carried on an adulterous affair with Mary Hulbert Peck for eight years, brought racist policies into his cabinet which adversely affected Black people, and his progressive politics pushed the United States into World War I, resulting in his egregious belief that we can “Christianize” the world by exporting American democracy. He believed that the “inherent goodness” of man would erase war once people were enlightened. 

Okay, so what? What difference does this make today? First of all, many churches still hold to the progressive, liberal privatized view of faith, grounded in experience rather than the objective, historical truth of holy Scripture. Anyone of you brought up in a liberal church know this is still true. But let’s go further. It seems that many professing Christians, who claim to believe in the historicity, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture are a sort of “de facto” theological progressive. They speak of a personal relationship with Jesus, having very special encounters with Him, and knowing His love for them, while they at the same time continue to live ungodly, corrupt, licentious lives. We all know of professing believers who live contrary to God’s word and whose “faith” makes no difference at all in how they conduct business, view politics, or think about the social issues of the day. 

It makes an eternal difference in how you view the Bible. We do well to remember that Christianity is not a religion. It is not a philosophical system. It is not some collection of esoteric musings. Christianity in all its fullness is a proclamation of God’s overall plan for the ages, “I will be a God to you and you will be a people to Me.” The Bible is a historical document, written by approximately forty authors, in three different languages, over a period of 1500 years. Is it merely a book of private religion where the truthfulness or historic authenticity of the narratives doesn’t matter? If the Bible is not true in all that it teaches, if the creation narrative is mythological, if the ten plagues on Egypt did not really happen, if the earth did not stand still while Joshua routed the Amorites, if Jesus was not born of the virgin Mary, if Jesus did not die and be raised from the dead three days later, then the Bible cannot be trusted; and if the Bible cannot be trusted then there is no absolute truth of any kind, and if that is the case then there is no hope for anyone.  But the Scriptures are historic, factual, authoritative, and God’s special revelation to man. The Bible must impact every area of your life.  


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