J. Gresham Machen wanted Christians to be educated and able to argue intelligently in defense of their faith. He worried about the low state of scholarship among Christians, especially among the clergy. In a letter to a former student who had become a pastor, he said, “It is very encouraging to find a minister who does not believe that the cultivation of the intellect is at all hostile to pastoral service.”
Machen’s willingness to apply Christian thinking to both ecclesiastical and social issues was valuable to theologically conservative Christians of his time, and his death in 1937 left something of a vacuum in conservative Christianity in the US. Arguably, this would remain—at least with regard to scholarship on social issues—until the 1960s and 1970s, with the emergence of thinkers like Francis Schaeffer and Rousas J. Rushdoony.
Let us… pray that God will raise up for us today true defenders of the Christian faith. We are living in the midst of a mighty conflict against the Christian religion. The conflict is carried on with intellectual weapons.
J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State
In his biography of Machen, Stephen J. Nichols discusses the elevated stature of Machen’s contributions:
Very little of the fundamentalists’ literature was taken seriously by critics. Machen’s work, however, got reviewed by Harnack and by Rudolf Bultmann and in the leading theological journals of all persuasions, reflecting that his contributions were a cut above. While his reviewers did not always offer ringing endorsements of his views, to a person they lauded his scholarship and acknowledged the force of his arguments. He refused merely to “preach to the choir,” offering arguments that would, even if rejected, at least gain a hearing from the other side. He also strenuously avoided arguing for Christianity by his personal experience or on pietistic grounds. Machen is often likened to Bunyan’s character Valiant-for-Truth from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Having been well versed in that classic from the time he was young, Machen would likely both appreciate and humbly reject the association. Yet something can be gained by making the connection. Machen knew that the truth was not on the side of the liberals; he knew that the liberal view would not bear scrutiny. So, rather than offering hollow pronouncements condemning it, he showed it for what it was, truly lacking a place to stand either on the grounds of science and reason or on the grounds of Scripture. And in the process, he allowed the truth of Scripture to prevail.
R. Scott Clark has an insightful recent post at Heidelblog on J. Gresham Machen’s segregationist views. We posted at The Machen Seminar in 2011 on this issue, and Clark’s post can serve as a useful follow-up. In 1913, Machen wrote his mother about a black student moving into the student dormitory at Princeton Seminary. Machen strongly objected to the racial integration that his mentor B.B. Warfield (apparently alone among the faculty) supported. He did more than complain to his mother—he had a two hour argument with Warfield on the matter.
Clark writes, “I have previously indicted Machen for his racism and addressed the question of how we, who are the beneficiaries of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s, should think about him. I have urged us 1) not to repeat Machen’s sins; 2) not to be anachronistic.”
In a 1925 essay on reforming government schools, J. Gresham Machen pointed out the immorality of rooting morality in patriotism. Whether based on nationalism or on broader human experience, however, a humanistic morality is “flimsy,” according to Machen. Machen was willing to accept “secularized public education” as “a necessary evil,” but wanted to reduce “the danger of that institution” by limiting its functions, by discouraging the “garbled” reading of the Bible in government schools, and providing for unhampered competition from private and explicitly religious schools.
J. Gresham Machen might be (erroneously) thought of as merely an upper-crust ivory-tower academic who spent his life developing intellectual arguments, lecturing to students, and contending with his opponents in highbrow ecclesiastical circles. While his scholarly pursuits and his family money did permit a comfortable life removed from the hardships of many urban Americans, Machen worked to alleviate poverty in his own personal way. Machen and another Princetonian, Sylvester Beach, befriended and cared for a local man named Richard Hodges. As Stephen Nichols relates the story,
In the early 1920s, when J. Gresham Machen was in the thick of the battle for the orthodox Christian doctrines in the Presbyterian Church and Princeton Seminary, he faced frustrating and damaging opposition from moderates, which Machen referred to as “indifferentists.”
Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in response to liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick objected to the conservative “Five Point Deliverance” of 1910, a PCUSA statement requiring new ministers to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith and specific points of orthodox doctrine, which included the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the miraculous works of Christ, and Christ’s bodily resurrection. Allowing attacks like Fosdick’s to go unchallenged threatened to replace the truth of Scripture with a false gospel, and yet the indifferentists preferred to preserve a superficial peace. In Stephen Nichols’ J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, he writes: