Why J. Gresham Machen Didn’t Like the Term ‘Evangelical’

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As Justin Taylor’s recent post noted, the great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield was already registering doubts about the meaning of the term “evangelical” in 1915. The current religious debates we often see as brand new (such as “who is an evangelical?”) have deep historical roots.

Warfield’s one-time Princeton colleague J. Gresham Machen, a founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and of Westminster Theological Seminary, also faced the question of what orthodox Presbyterians should call themselves. He gave a brilliantly biblicist, if denomination-centered answer, in his wonderful little essay “What Is Orthodoxy?” (1935).

I just want to say, when you ask me whether I am a Fundamentalist or a Modernist, that I am a Fundamentalist from the word go!

However, it is a different matter when we are choosing terminology that we shall actually use about ourselves. When we are doing that, I think we ought to be just as careful as we possibly can be.

The term Fundamentalism seems to represent the Christian religion as though it had suddenly become an “ism” and needed to be called by some strange new name. I cannot see why that should be done. The term seems to me to be particularly inadequate as applied to us conservative Presbyterians. We have a great heritage. We are standing in what we hold to be the great central current of the Church’s life—the great tradition that comes down through Augustine and Calvin to the Westminster Confession of Faith. That we hold to be the high straight road of truth as opposed to vagaries on one side or on the other. Why then should we be so prone to adopt some strange new term?

Well, then, if we do not altogether like the term Fundamentalism—close though our fellowship is with those who do like that term—what term shall we actually choose?

Conservative does seem to be rather too cold. It is apt to create the impression that we are holding desperately to something that is old just because it is old, and that we are not eager for new and glorious manifestations of the Spirit of God.

Evangelical, on the other hand, although it is a fine term, does not quite seem to designate clearly enough the position of those who hold specifically to the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith, as distinguished from other systems which are near enough to the truth in order that they may be called “evangelical” but which yet fall short of being the system that is contained in God’s Word.

Therefore, in view of the objections that face the use of other terminology, I think we might do far worse than revive the good old word orthodoxy as a designation of our position.

Orthodoxy means, as we have seen, “straight doxy” [or “straight teaching, straight doctrine”]. Well, how do we tell whether a thing is straight or not? The answer is plain. By comparing it with a rule or plumb line. Our rule or plumb line is the Bible. A thing is “orthodox” if it is in accordance with the Bible. I think we might well revive the word. But whether we revive the word or not, we certainly ought to hold to the thing that is designated by the word.

If it comes to pass that we need to abandon “evangelical” because of the term’s political and ethnic baggage today, one alternative would be to call ourselves “orthodox,” or “orthodox Protestants,” to avoid confusion with capital-O “Orthodox” churches.

For Machen, this terminology helped him create distance from the militant fundamentalist movement that had defined itself by opposition to evolution in public schools in the Scopes Trial (1925), on one hand, and from the modernist Presbyterians that he was separating from by founding the OPC on the other. Of course, both the fundmentalist movement and also Machen’s Reformed movement had their own implicit ethnic connotations, as they catered primarily to whites and tended to exclude people of color and neglect their concerns over issues such as lynching (see my post “African American Christians and Fundamentalism.”)

For us today, the challenge is separating ourselves from the hyper-politicized and ethnic image of “evangelical” that dominates media coverage. In the public mind, “evangelical” seems to designate Fox News-watching whites who vote Republican and consider themselves religious.

Our self-description of choice probably doesn’t make much of a difference on a day-to-day basis. But if asked, should we continue to tell pollsters that we are “evangelicals,” knowing that an affirmative answer will inextricably connect us to those ethnic and political connotations?

Maybe in our next conversation with a pollster, we should insist on telling them, “I am an orthodox Protestant.” I’m sure that will not fit in their survey rubric!

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