Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tyranny of Experts

J. Gresham Machen had much to say about the "tyranny of experts." In a world where morality sways like a pendulum based on the results of the latest scientific study, one may grasp his meaning. I have collected a few quotes by him and another famous "J.G." (Vos) which reflect the Reformed interest in setting free the conscience from a "implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience" to the "doctrines and commandments of men" and affirming its Christian liberty to be bound by God alone, being informed and regulated by his word (WCF Chap. 20). In an age of passive submission to "experts" whose rulings are treated as authoritative on all sorts of subjects and which have come to bind the consciences of men as to what is moral and what is not, it is refreshing to consider the counter-cultural affirmations of Machen and Vos who have challenged conventional wisdom.

J.G. Machen, Mountains and Why We Love Them (1933):

What will be the end of that European civilization, of which I had a survey from my mountain vantage ground—of that European civilization and its daughter in America? What does the future hold in store? Will Luther prove to have lived in vain? Will all the dreams of liberty issue into some vast industrial machine? Will even nature be reduced to standard, as in our country the sweetness of the woods and hills is being destroyed, as I have seen them destroyed in Maine, by the uniformities and artificialities and officialdom of our national parks? Will the so-called "Child Labor Amendment" and other similar measures be adopted, to the destruction of all the decencies and privacies of the home? Will some dreadful second law of thermodynamics apply in the spiritual as in the material realm? Will all things in church and state be reduced to one dead level, coming at last to an equilibrium in which all liberty and all high aspirations will be gone? Will that be the end of all humanity's hopes? I can see no escape from that conclusion in the signs of the times; too inexorable seems to me to be the march of events. No, I can see only one alternative. The alternative is that there is a God—a God who in His own good time will bring forward great men again to do His will, great men to resist the tyranny of expert and lead humanity out again into the realms of light and freedom, great men, above all, who will be messengers of His grace. There is, far above any earthly mountain peak of vision, a God high and lifted up who, though He is infinitely exalted, yet cares for His children among men.

J.G. Machen, The Necessity of the Christian School (1933) [republished in Education, Christianity, and the State (1987), pp. 67-68]:

It is true, the attack upon liberty is nothing new. Always there have been tyrants in the world; almost always tyranny has begun by being superficially beneficent, and always it has ended by being both superficially and radically cruel. But while tyranny itself is nothing new, the technique of tyranny has been enormously improved in our day; the tyranny of the scientific expert is the most crushing tyranny of all. That tyranny is being exercised most effectively in the field of education. A monopolistic system of education controlled by the State is far more efficient in crushing our liberty than the cruder weapons of fire and sword. Against this monopoly of education by the State the Christian school brings a salutary protest; it contends for the right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with the dictates of their conscience and not in the manner prescribed by the State.

J.G. Machen, "The Claims of Love," in God Transcendent (1949):

For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good; but me ye have not always. Mark 14:7

Here in one of the most unforgettable, characteristic words that Jesus ever uttered, our Lord actually contrasts the service of the poor with the service of Him. “Ye have the poor with you always,’ he said, ‘and whensoever ye will ye may do them good; but me ye have not always.’ We have not Jesus always with us in the sense in which the woman had Him with her at Bethany; we cannot pour any precious ointment upon His head. But in a higher better sense we have Him with us still. And surely we must not neglect the privilege of communion with Him.

Certainly I am not advocating neglect of external service. Without that it is quite impossible that we should be true disciples of Jesus. It is a poor and untrue religion which leaves the hungry in distress. But we shall perform such services all the better if we take time also to commune with Jesus Himself. Do you think that the Christian life is concerned only with philanthropy; do you think that activity in social service is all that our Lord Desires? Oh no, my friends. Those things are absolutely necessary to the Christian, but they are not all that is necessary. If we are true Christians, we shall not neglect those things; but we shall also take time to go into our closet and close the door; and there, with the world shut out, with even our service forgotten for the moment, we shall think no longer of what we do but of what our Savior has done, and we shall pour out upon Him, with an abandon like that of the woman at Bethany, our gratitude and love and praise.

…In these words to the woman at Bethany our Lord sets us free from the oppressive tyranny of the efficiency expert…

J.G. Vos, The Bible Doctrine of the Separated Life (1936):

Moreover, those who wish to introduce science as an additional authority always speak as if it were a very simple matter to ascertain what science has to say on any particular question. They always speak as if somewhere there were a sort of scientific pope who could utter ex cathedra the final, united, unquestionable voice of science. They seem to presuppose that the voice of science can be heard, speaking with authoritative accents, by simply consulting a few volumes in the public library. The truth is, however, that “science” is an abstraction. There is in the world today no such thing as the voice of science; there are only the voices of a multitude of scientists, and they are anything but agreed among themselves. Now who is to decide which of these many voices is to be accepted as the authoritative voice of science? One scientist, a professor in a great university, states that years of research have failed to demonstrate that a certain practice shortens life. Another scientist, of equal scientific standing, maintains the contrary position. Who is to decide which represents the authoritative voice of “science”? All too often those who wish to place science alongside of Scripture as a standard of faith and conduct wish at the same time to be the judges of what is science; those who hold certain views they regard as scientists; all others they reject as being prejudiced or otherwise untrustworthy. Can any pope or church assembly decide just what kinds of science — the opinions of just which scientists — are authoritative and therefore, along with Scripture, binding on the conscience of man? No, in matters of science every person must decide for himself. And even if certain scientific theories are believed to be true, they cannot be binding on the conscience. We must beware of the sin mentioned in the Larger Catechism, no. 105, of “making men the lords of our faith and conscience.” All human authority, however expert or learned, is fallible, and therefore cannot bind the conscience. Science may show that certain things are harmful to the body, but science can never show that anything is sinful. Scripture alone can show that anything, for example a particular course of conduct, is sinful. It is true that the light of nature, or the moral law written on the heart of man (Rom 2:14-15), shows that certain acts, such as murder, are wrong; but the light of nature does not tell us anything about morality in addition to what is revealed in Scripture; Scripture is a fuller revelation than natural revelation and includes all of the latter and much besides; therefore when Scripture does not declare or imply that a certain practice is sinful, we cannot turn from Scripture to natural revelation for fuller light on the matter. (In this connection it may be remarked that the modernist notion that all human knowledge and science is a divine revelation in the same sense that Scripture is a divine revelation, is utterly false and destructive. Natural revelation is a provision of God by which the heathen, who do not have the light of Scripture, may know something of His power, divinity and moral law. It is insufficient for salvation, but leaves men without excuse and provides a standard by which those who lived and died without the light of special revelation shall be judged. Rom. 1:18-20; 2:12-16.)
Someone may object that opium and marihuana, for example, are not indifferent, but sinful in themselves. We have already shown that no material thing can be sinful in itself. Now if opium, marihuana or any other particular material substance is to be regarded as an exception to this principle, the problem is raised as to what authority is competent to decide which substances are exceptions to the principle that no material things can be sinful in itself. There is, no doubt, general agreement among Christian people that such substances as opium and marihuana, for example, are so dangerous and harmful that they should not be used at all. This general agreement is, however, no proper ground for church judicatories authoritatively pronouncing such substances sinful in themselves, or declaring their use to be sinful per se. The Word of God, not the so-called Christian consciousness, is our only infallible rule of faith and conduct. What authority is competent to determine the harmfulness and on this basis to infer the inherent sinfulness of the use of a particular material substance, withal making this inference binding on the consciences of the Lord’s people? Are church judicatories qualified to issue authoritative pronouncements on such matters? By what right does a synod or assembly composed of ministers and elders decide questions concerning the physiological action and toxic properties of various narcotic drugs? If we grant to ecclesiastical bodies the right to decide concerning opium and marihuana, do we not thereby concede the entire principle that the church may legitimately decide for its members concerning the use of things indifferent? And if so, could we consistently object, for reasons of principle, if a church judicatory were to enact a rule prohibiting the use of tea or coffee? We are far from holding that it is legitimate for Christians to use dangerous drugs. What we are contending for is not license to use poisonous drugs, but freedom under God to decide for ourselves what material substances we ought to leave alone. We would keep the consciences of Christian people free from what Dr. Machen called “the tyranny of the experts.” We maintain that the individual Christian, and not the church, must pass judgment on the pronouncements of experts concerning such things, so far as questions of morality are concerned. We are far from holding that it is “all right” to use opium, marihuana or a great many other material substances, but if the question as to the sinfulness of the use of these things is to be decided for us by a synod or pope, then our freedom of conscience is destroyed and our soul reduced to bondage to the commandments of men. If the thing is indifferent in itself, whatever it may be, then the individual Christian, not the church, has the God-given right to decide ethical questions concerning its use. We fully agree with the general opinion of Christian people that such substances as opium and marihuana should not be used at all, except possibly by a physician’s orders; but we claim the God-given right to make this decision ourselves, and not to have it made for us by an ecclesiastical judicatory. The conscience of each and every one of the Lord’s people is enlightened by the Holy Spirit; to require Christian people to accept ecclesiastical regulations on such matters is akin to the “implicit faith, and absolute and blind obedience” which is required by the Church of Rome.

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