This excerpt from Machen’s Education, Christianity & the State argues that we should not avoid becoming familiar with the arguments against the historic Christian faith, but should become familiar with the arguments for it first.
It is no easy thing to defend the Christian faith against the mighty attack that is being brought against it at the present day. Knowledge of the truth is necessary, and also clear acquaintance with the forces hostile to the truth in modern thought.
At that point, a final objection may arise. Does it not involve a terrible peril to men’s souls to ask them–for example, in their preparation for the ministry–to acquaint themselves with things that are being said against the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Would it not be safer to learn only of the truth, without acquainting ourselves with error? We answer, “Of course it would be safer.” It would be far safer, no doubt, to live in a fool’s paradise and close one’s eyes to what is going on in the world today, just as it is safer to remain in secure dugouts rather than to go over the top in some great attack. We save our souls, perhaps, by such tactics, but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field. It is a great battle indeed, this intellectual battle of today; deadly perils await every man who engages in that conflict; but it is the Lord’s battle, and He is a great Captain in the fight.
There are, indeed, some perils that should be avoided–particularly the peril of acquainting ourselves with what is said against the Christian religion without ever obtaining any really orderly acquaintance with what can be said for it. That is the peril to which a candidate for the ministry, for example, subjects himself when he attends only one of the theological colleges where the professors are adherents of the dominant naturalistic view. What does such a course of study mean? It means simply this, that a man does not think the historic Christian faith, which has given him his spiritual nurture, to be worthy of a fair hearing. That is my only argument in advising a man to study, for example, at an institution like Westminster Theological Seminary, which I have the honour to serve. I am not asking him to close his eyes to what can be said against the historic faith. But, I am telling him that the logical order is to learn what a thing is before one attends exclusively to what can be said against it; and I am telling him further, that the way to learn what a thing is is not to listen first to its opponents, but to grant a full hearing to those who believe in it with all their minds and hearts. After that has been done, after our students, by pursuing the complete course of study, have obtained something like an orderly acquaintance with the marvelous system of truth that the Bible contains, then the more they listen to what can be said against it, the better defenders of it they will probably be. (J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity & the State, pp. 32-34)
This post is the eleventh of a series of excerpts from chapter 2 of J. Gresham Machen’s book Education, Christianity & the State, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship.” This chapter is a compilation of addresses given at the Bible League meetings in Westminster, London, on June 17, 1932. Page references are from the 1987 Trinity Foundation edition of this book.