Why “Clear Antithesis”?

The name of the site comes from two of my theological inspirations (pictured on the site header), J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til.  Machen wrote the 1923 classic, Christianity and Liberalism, in which he argued that theological liberalism is not simply another variant of Christianity, but another religion altogether.  Van Til, as well, in many of his writings highlighted the antithesis between Christianity and other worldviews, between belief and unbelief.  Such views are not popular in our day, but neither were they in Machen’s or Van Til’s.  Machen  was criticized for being “divisive” by liberal elements within the Presbyterian Church who tried to marginalize him and his allies by reorganizing Princeton Theological Seminary in 1929 and then excommunicated him personally in 1935.  His crime was to unapologetically uphold the orthodox, historical Christian faith against the inroads of theological modernism.  While Van Til did not experience anything nearly so wrenching in his career, he too was often criticized for unapologetically defending the Reformed Christian faith and giving no allowance to the principle of intellectual autonomy inherent in theological modernism. 

The example of Machen and Van Til, among others, resonates with me, even though I did not grow up Presbyterian, Reformed, or in any way Calvinist.  I initially came to faith in Christ in a non-denominational U.S. Navy Chapel, and my family transferred to the local United Methodist Church when I was in middle school in the early 1980s. That church, however, was focused on the Social Gospel, particularly in protesting the policies of the Reagan Administration. While posturing to be “relevant” to the day, the pastor was spiritually abusive, and what little respect I had for him dissolved entirely when upon retiring from the ministry he promptly divorced his long-faithful wife and married my youth group leader, with whom he had been having an affair. Over the same period of time, I saw a change in one of the college women who had been helping out our youth group, in which she went from being an enthusiastic believer in Christ to being cool to the faith after having taking college courses characterized by liberal theology. I came to see that such are the fruits of the Social Gospel, which to quote the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-7, is something other than the Gospel.  My time at that church was a kind of spiritual exile.

By the time I went to college at the University of New Hampshire, I rejected organized religion and the church.  Nevertheless, having been led to faith and initially discipled by Evangelicals when my family attended the Navy chapel, I was open to Evangelical campus ministries because they took seriously the Bible. I made good friends through campus ministries and grew in my faith, but I faced a serious spiritual crisis midway through college. That crisis on the one hand strengthened me in trusting in the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of Christ, but on the other hand showed up a shallowness in Evangelicalism and made me see that campus ministry could not substitute for the Body of Christ, the church. Evangelicalism, it seemed to me, had a subjectivism, a man-centeredness, and a desire to be accepted by the world that undermines its commitment to biblical truth. The last half of my time in college, I began attending a Baptist church, which gave me an image of what the Body of Christ could look like, but to paraphrase the words of U2’s famous hit, “I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.”

After college, I moved to Northern Virginia and became exposed to Eastern Orthodoxy through a colleague at work.  Having seen the shallowness of both Protestant liberalism and Protestant evangelicalism, I was initially attracted to the apparent depth of that tradition, but the more I read of Eastern Orthodox theology the more I tripped over the lack of emphasis they placed on the justifying work of Christ on the Cross.   To me, that was central to the Gospel, and for that reason, I turned back from the road to Constantinople.  My exposure to Eastern Orthodoxy, however, challenged me to research the roots of the Protestant tradition.  For me, key to my coming to the Reformed tradition was reading J. I. Packer’s seminal work on the Puritans, The Quest for Godliness, which showed me that Protestantism did have real depth at one point.  Also important was Michael Horton’s The Making of Modern Evangelicalism, which explained how American Protestants lost that depth and why we have many of the pathologies that exist in contemporary evangelicalism.  Reading these books was like finally coming home theologically. While I appreciate the exposure I have had over the years to different Christian traditions, for me I have to agree with B. B. Warfield that the Reformed tradition is the Bible come into its fullness. The historic Christian faith is a faith worth preserving, indeed worth fighting for as Machen and Van Til did. The Gospel is not some “Hell insurance” or some method of personal or societal transformation: it is the graciousness of God, extended through the atoning work of Christ Jesus to me, a sinner who knows he has sinned against that God, who knows he deserves punishment, and yet has received mercy. That message is a clear contrast to the world, an antithesis to the theses proposed by the world. For that reason, we need to keep the antithesis clear.