Moral character and moral certainty: The subjective state of the soul and J. G. Machen's critique of theological liberalism

Paul Kjoss Helseth, Marquette University

Abstract

What was the driving force behind Machen's repudiation of theological liberalism? Was it his theological commitment to the Reformed Orthodoxy of the Princeton Theology? Or, was it his philosophical commitment to the Scottish Common Sense Realism of Victorian America? A significant number of modern interpreters contend that Machen was a practitioner of the "Old Princeton" approach to apologetics and as such hopelessly wed to anthropological and epistemological norms which were diametrically opposed to the anthropological and epistemological assumptions of the Reformed tradition. The problem with the Princeton Theology, so the argument goes, is that while it made a show of orthodoxy, it in fact was built upon an accommodation of theology to the anthropological and epistemological assumptions of an essentially humanistic philosophy. While these conclusions appear to be justified, the question remains as to whether or not they in fact are warranted. This dissertation is motivated by the conviction that they are not precisely because they miss the moral rather than the merely rational nature of Machen's thought. When Machen's "intellectualism" is understood within an epistemological context which recognizes that the soul is a single unit which acts as a single substance, it becomes clear that Machen was not a rationalist whose confidence in the mental competence of fallen sinners led him to ignore the import of the subjective and the centrality of experience in religious epistemology. He was, rather, a Reformed scholar who consistently acknowledged that subjective and experiential concerns are of paramount importance in any consideration of religious epistemology, for he recognized that the operation of the intellect involves the "whole soul" rather than the rational faculty alone. In response to those who would suggest that Machen's controversialism betrays an enthusiastic accommodation of theology to the anthropological and epistemological assumptions of enlightenment philosophy, this dissertation establishes that no such accommodation in fact took place, and that Machen's critique, on the contrary, was driven by theological rather than philosophical, subjective rather than objective concerns. It demonstrates, moreover, that Machen's critique will never be understood correctly if the subjective emphases of his thought are given a place of secondary significance.

Recommended Citation

Helseth, Paul Kjoss, "Moral character and moral certainty: The subjective state of the soul and J. G. Machen's critique of theological liberalism" (1996). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9719093.
https://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI9719093

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