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.
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.
In “Taking up Machen’s Torch: An Archetype for Christian Libertarians,”Kerry Baldwin explains how Machen stood against both the political right and political left. He “staunchly opposed ideas that jeopardized the proper roles of Christian faith and civil governance and so opposed these two movements in both realms of church and state.” From this enlightening article:
Theologically, Machen distanced himself from fundamentalism’s political, eschatological, and revivalist tendencies. Against the right, he opposed prohibition, protestant character education and Bible reading and prayer in public schools. Machen recognized that Bible reading in schools would strip Christianity of its doctrine and therefore should not be done in schools at all. Stripping doctrine would result in diluting doctrinal issues. This would inevitably arise through the standardization of education. Machen knew state control of education was bad enough, but to “put God in the schools” was to sterilize the Gospel.
In Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church, Gary North discusses the problem of Princeton Seminary’s shift toward academic credentialing as opposed to the covenantal authority of the Church over seminary faculties. North points out that the “most important screening device for entrance into ministry” became academic examination, undermining ecclesiastical governance. Machen’s appointment to the seminary is an example. From chapter 10:
The extent of Princeton Seminary’s later commitment to technical scholarship above the authority of the Church is best seen in Machen’s appointment to a teaching position: instructor. He received the appointment in the fall of 1906. He was not ordained to the teaching eldership until June 23, 1914. He was elevated to assistant professor in May, 1914, to begin in the fall of that year. The faculty was self-conscious about this, as Stonehouse’s language indicates: “Acting on the background of Machen’s licensure, the Faculty of the Seminary was not slow to recommend his election as Assistant Professor of New Testament in its report to the Board of Directors at its meeting during the first week of May, 1914.”
…[T]here must be a renewal of Christian education. The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is. An outstanding fact of recent Church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the Church. Various causes, no doubt, can be assigned for this lamentable development. The development is due partly to the general decline of education–at least so far as literature and history are concerned. The schools of the present day are being ruined by the absurd notion that education should follow the line of least resistance, and that something can be “drawn out” of the mind before anything is put in. They are also being ruined by an exaggerated emphasis on methodology at the expense of content and on what is materially useful at the expense of the high spiritual heritage of mankind. These lamentable tendencies, moreover, are in danger of being made permanent through the sinister extension of state control. But something more than the general decline in education is needed to account for the special growth of ignorance in the Church. The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity. But whatever may be the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, the evil must be remedied. It must be remedied primarily by the renewal of Christian education in the family, but also by the use of whatever other educational agencies the Church can find. Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man. Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is; and the fair and logical thing is to learn what Christianity is, not from its opponents, but from those who themselves are Christians.That method of procedure would be the only fair method in the case of any movement. But it is still more in place in the case of a movement such as Christianity which has laid the foundation of all that we hold most dear. Men have abundant opportunity to-day to learn what can be said against Christianity, and it is only fair that they should also learn something about the thing that is being attacked.
From J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, 1923, pp. 176, 177.
[The family] is being pushed more and more into the background. It is being pushed into the background by undue encroachments of the community and of the state. Modern life is tending more and more toward the contraction of the sphere of parental control and parental influence. The choice of schools is being placed under the power of the state; the “community” is seizing hold of recreation and of social activities. It may be a question how far these community activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the home; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain–the lives of children are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the Christian home, but by the utilitarianism of the state. A revival of the Christian religion would unquestionably bring a reversal of the process; the family, as over against all other social institutions, would come to its rights again.
–J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans, 1923, p. 154.
The October 2012 issue of New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church devotes its issue to various articles related to the history of Presbyterianism. In addition to articles about Charles Hodge and Geerhardus Vos, there is an article entitled “Faith and Learning: the Heritage of J. Gresham Machen” by Katherine VanDrunen. VanDrunen wrote her PhD dissertation at Loyola at Chicago about Machen’s familial ancestors and draws upon that to provide a fascinating look at the education and biblical instruction Machen received from his formative years through his graduating first in his class at John Hopkins.
This excerpt from Machen’s Education, Christianity & the State reminds us that philosophical questions are important to Christians, and that philosophy is inherent in the Bible, from the account of the creation of the world forward.
What a world in itself the Bible is, my friends! Happy are those who in the providence of God can make the study of it very specifically the business of their lives; but happy also is every Christian who has it open before him and seeks by daily study to penetrate somewhat into the wonderful richness of what it contains.
A man does not need to read very long in the Bible before that richness begins to appear. It appears in the very first verse of the Bible; for the very first verse sets forth the being of God: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
A friend referenced a comment on an old post (2006) at baylyblog.com by Fr. Bill Mouser, which contains some interesting thoughts on the path toward theological liberalism in denominations. The post concerned indications of liberalism in the chapel program at Covenant College, but the comment is more broadly applicable. Evidently, a large part of the problem is academic elitism at seminaries and ecclesiastical colleges, without sufficient oversight by the denomination. Continue reading “Leftward Movement among Seminaries and Ecclesiastical Colleges”→
This excerpt from Machen’s Education, Christianity & the State reminds us that truly edifying preaching is based on the rich content of the Bible–and that study of the Bible is a suitable specialty to be developed in seminaries.
One thing that impresses me about preaching today is the neglect of true edification even by evangelical preachers. What the preacher says is often good, and by it genuine Christian emotion is aroused. But a man could sit under that kind of preaching for a year or ten years and at the end of the time he would be just about where he was at the beginning. Such a lamentably small part of Scripture truth is used; the congregation is never made acquainted with the wonderful variety of what the Bible contains. Continue reading “The Importance of Christian Scholarship (XIV)”→