Like a Nightmare? Marx, Machen, and the Significance of History

That history is a nightmare is surely one of the defining convictions of this present age

“Machen’s concern for history, however, is broader than just the biblical story and its importance for doctrine.  Because he held to a high view of the church as an institution, and of her offices, officers and confessions, history was inevitably of vital importance to the particularities of Christian belief and practice in the present.”


On Monday, I offered some reflections on Machen’s analysis of liberalism in terms of Philip Rieff’s arguments about the rise of psychological man.  Another theme in Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is liberalism’s functional abandonment of history as a source of any authority.  This is again quite consistent with the Romantic/psychologizing trajectory of the modern age, for history too is a kind of external authority.  Where once history and tradition might have been seen as liberating, as giving an identity to people and thus a place from which to engage the world, history is now seen more as something oppressive, something to be overcome, if we are ever to be our true selves.   Indeed, Karl Marx captured the attitude of the modern world quite brilliantly at the start of his 1852 essay, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

Men make their own history, but they do not make the history that they choose; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

That history is a nightmare is surely one of the defining convictions of this present age.  Yet this was not the position of Machen and this is a vital part  of his rejection of liberalism.

Now, while he dealt with doctrine in a specific chapter, this theme is not singled out in such a way but rather pervades much of what he says on other topics.  Thus, for example, throughout the book it is the fact that Jesus Christ actually happened, was an historical person, really did live, die, and rise again, that underpins the truth value of doctrinal formulations.  To reject the authority of history is thus to engage in a form of Docetism.  It is also to reject the authority of doctrine or to turn doctrine into the psychological constructs which undergird liberalism and make Christinaity into nothing more than a religion of sentiment and feeling.  As Machen eloquently expresses it:

From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened.  And from the beginning, the meaning of that happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine.  ‘Christ died’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine.  Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.

History therefore has authority, external authority, which makes demands upon the present.

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