Pragmatism Destroys the Possibility of Progress

…it is unreasonable, the pragmatist theologian says, to reject the physics and chemistry of the first century or the seventeenth century and yet maintain unchanged the theology of those past ages; why should theology be exempt from the universal law of progress?

But . . . far from advocating progress in theology, the current pragmatism really destroys very possibility of progress. For progress involves something to progress to as well as something to progress from. And in the intellectual sphere the current pragmatism can find no goal of progress in an objective norm of truth; one doctrine, according to the pragmatist view, may be just as good as an exactly contradictory doctrine, provided it suits a particular generation or a particular group of persons. The changes in scientific hypotheses represent true progress because they are increasingly close approximations to an objectively and externally existent body of facts; while the changes advocated by pragmatist theologians are not progress at all but the meaningless changes of a kaleidoscope…

At this point, then, we find the really important divergence of opinion in the religious world at the present day; the difference of attitude toward theology or toward doctrine goes far deeper than any mere divergence in detail. The modern depreciation of theology results logically in the most complete skepticism. it is not merely that the ancient creeds, and the Bible upon which they are based, are criticized—indeed we ourselves certainly think that they ought constantly to be criticized in order that it may be seen that they will stand the test—but hte really serious trouble is that the modern pragmatist, on account of the very nature of his philosophy, has nothing to put in there place. Theology, according to him, may be useful; but it can never by any possibility be true. As Dr. Fosdick observes, the liberalism of today must necessarily produce an intellectual formulation which will become the orthodoxy of tomorrow, and which will then in turn have to give place to a new liberalism; and so on (we suppose) ad infinitum.

This is what the plain man in the Church has difficulty in understanding; he does not yet appreciate the real gravity of the issue. He does not see that it makes very little difference how much or how little of the creeds of the Church the Modernist preacher affirms, or how much or how little of the Biblical teaching from which the creeds are derived. He might affirm every jot and tittle of the Westminster Confession, for example, and yet be separated by a great gulf from the Reformed Faith. it is not that part is denied and the rest affirmed; but all is denied because all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as true.

J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, pp. 31-32, 34

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