One of the most important figures in the defense of biblical Christianity against theological liberalism early last century was J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937). His life was characterised by controversy, but it was controversy for the sake of biblical orthodoxy.
Born in Baltimore, his Presbyterian parents were keen book lovers and the family home had a remarkable library. His mother early on taught him the faith via such things as the Bible, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Even while quite young he was a brilliant student. Says Nicholls in his biography of Machen:
“In the 1895-1896 school year, Machen ranked first in his class in geometry, algebra, Latin, Greek, French, natural science, and English, scoring from a low of 98 to a high of 100 – respectable marks and subjects for a fourteen-year-old.”
He continued to do just as well in university. He majored in classics and excelled in Greek at Johns Hopkins University. In 1902 he went to study at Princeton Theological Seminary. It had been founded in 1812 to counter deism and scepticism.
The seminary included (either as students or lecturers or both) some famous Reformed luminaries such as Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), A. A. Hodge (1823-1886), B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), and Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949).
He also studied philosophy at Princeton University. One professor who especially influenced him during this period was the noted Reformed theologian Warfield. He studied theology in Germany for a year in 1905 where he encountered theological liberalism head-on.
Instead of pursuing a PhD there, he returned to New Jersey and joined Princeton Seminary to teach New Testament in 1906. He taught there for a number of years, and it was during this period that many of his key works were penned, including The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), and What is Faith? (1925).
But what may be his most important book is Christianity and Liberalism, which he wrote in 1923. This is a superlative book, and I have often mentioned it and quoted from it. Let me offer just two quotes from the introduction to this vital work:
In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called ‘modernism’ or ‘liberalism’…. But manifold as are the forms in which the movement appears, the root of the movement is one; the many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism, that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God.
[W]hat the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.
See more on this issue here: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/15/theological-liberalism-progressive-christianity/
All this was no mere theory, as Machen saw it happening all around him. Even Princeton was not immune from this. After 23 years of service there, several theological crises developed, eventually resulting in him leaving Princeton. The various departures from theological orthodoxy worried him greatly and he did what he could to stop the tide, but was not able to.
Thus, with some of his colleagues he formed Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929 to maintain conservative Reformed theology. But it was not just with the Seminary but the Presbyterian Church as a whole that he had to fight serious departures from the faith.
So he helped to form not just a new seminary but a new mission board and new church as well! In 1933 he formed an independent foreign missions board since the existing Presbyterian one was fast capitulating to liberalism. Among other things, it was questioning the uniqueness of Christ and the need to proclaim an exclusive gospel.
One famous Presbyterian missionary and author, Pearl Buck also strongly and publicly affirmed these sorts of heterodox views, yet the board remained silent about them. So Machen felt he had no choice but to form his own independent board that would affirm historical Christianity and the clear need for Christian missions.
The third split was with the denomination itself, and it was connected to the missions’ board saga. In 1934 the General Assembly’s moderator said the board was illegal, and a trial was held. In March of 1935 he was suspended from the ministry. So in June of 1936 he founded the Presbyterian Church of America, renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939. His involvement with it was short-lived however, having died at age 55 in January, 1937.
Like so many great saints, Machen was often forced into controversy, and at times, forced into secession. When the very heart of the gospel was under threat, Machen could not back down. He had to stand for historical Christian beliefs, regardless of the costs.
And when the forces of modernism began to win victories over the old verities and the old values, he was often left with no choice but to move on. And what he started endures. Westminster Seminary of course still continues today, as does the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
A big part of his legacy will include what we can refer to as the education wars. Of course his many years of teaching at Princeton and his formation of Westminster are a major part of his legacy. But he was also quite concerned about education in general, and he long railed against what he saw as the eventual statist take-over of education along with all the dangers that would include.
A fierce libertarian, he knew that if the secular state controlled most of the educational reins, it would mean a loss of freedom along with a loss of the gospel itself. Thus he was a strong advocate for independent schools and Christian education. As he once wrote:
A Christian boy or girl can learn mathematics, for example, from a teacher who is not a Christian; and truth is truth however learned. But while truth is truth however learned, the bearings of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth, even in the sphere of mathematics, seem entirely different to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian conviction underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life — those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian school.
In all this he was ahead of his time, and the rush to things like home-schooling today testify to the prophetic nature of his concerns. But for much more detail on his views on education and the state, see this recent article of mine: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/05/machen-education-and-the-state/
Like all leaders, Machen was not without his faults. And of course his critics might claim his controversies and divisions were mainly due to him just being a cranky old man. Conviction and commitment to biblical orthodoxy might be a better reason.
But his impact continues, and we can learn much from the man and his ministry. In his portrait of Machen, John Piper lists a dozen things we can learn from his life and work. These include:
-Machen’s life teaches us the importance of founding and maintaining institutions in the preservation and spreading of the true Gospel.
-Machen’s interaction with modernism shows the value of a God-centered vision of all reality – a worldview, a theology that is driven by the supremacy of God in all of life.
-Machen’s careful expressions of disagreement show the necessity and fruitfulness of controversy.
-We learn from Machen the inevitability and pain of criticism, even from our brothers.
-Machen’s approach to apologetics raises for us the question whether our labors for the sake of the lost should not only involve direct attempts to present the gospel, but also indirect attempts to remove obstacles in the culture that make faith more difficult.
He concludes his appraisal of the man with these words:
The overarching lesson to be learned from Machen’s mixture of weaknesses and strengths is that God reigns over his church and over the world in such a way that he weaves the weaknesses and the strengths of his people with infinite wisdom into a fabric history that displays the full range of his glories. His all-inclusive plan is always more hopeful than we think in the darkest hours of history, and it is always more intermixed with human sin and weakness than we can see in its brightest hours. This means that we should renounce all triumphalism in the bright seasons and renounce all despair in the dark seasons.
Major books and articles by Machen
The Literature and History of New Testament Times (1915)
The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921)
New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923)
Christianity and Liberalism (1923)
What is Faith? (1925)
The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930)
The Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936)
The Christian View of Man (1937)
Hart, D. G., ed., J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings. P&R, 2004.
Nichols, Stephen, J. Gresham Machen’s The Gospel and the Modern World: And Other Short Writings. P&R, 2005.
Stonehouse, Ned, ed., God Transcendent. 1949.
Stonehouse, Ned, ed., What is Christianity? And Other Addresses. 1951.
For further reading
Hart, D. G., Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. P&R, 1994, 2003.
Nichols, Stephen, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. P&R, 2004.
Stonehouse, Ned, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Eerdmans, 1954.