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 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:
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.”
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”→
I came across a copy of Edward John Carnell’s book The Case for Orthodox Theology(1959). Chapter 8, “Perils,” is worth a lengthy discussion, as it contains a criticism of J. Gresham Machen for his defiance of the church courts in the course of his battles with modernism in the Presbyterian church. Following is an excerpt from the chapter, and a few thoughts from others on the problems of Carnell’s position. This is important because it deals with the overarching question of how the Christian is to handle official ties to those who claim the name of Christ but deny the essence of the gospel. In a broader sense, this is relevant to the right of withdrawal from any institution that has authority. Continue reading “Machen, the Fundamentalist Mentality, and Separation”→
In the context of a discussion of the difficulty of the relationship of culture and Christianity, J. G. Machen mentions the problem that arises when religion is studied using the intellectual tools applied to the study of other aspects of culture, such as science or history. He then writes,
This problem may be settled in one of three ways. In the first place, Christianity may be subordinated to culture. That solution really, though to some extent unconsciously, is being favored by a very large and influential portion of the Church today. For the elimination of the supernatural in Christianity–so tremendously common today–really makes Christianity merely natural. Christianity becomes a human product, a mere part of human culture. But as such it is something entirely different from the old Christianity that was based upon a direct revelation from God. Deprived thus of its note of authority, the gospel is no gospel any longer; it is a check for untold millions–but without the signature at Continue reading “Christianity and Culture”→
J. Gresham Machen’s contest against theological liberals was not a contest against political involvement per se, though political action among professing Christians had become almost synonymous with “social gospel” liberalism. Machen was also opposed to the pietistic retreat of fundamentalists from political affairs. Though Machen was not a fundamentalist in the pietistic sense, his commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible and confessional orthodoxy put him in that category as far as the theological liberals were concerned. He had therefore become the de facto intellectual leader of conservative fundamentalists by the time of his death in 1937. Gary North explains the political vacuum existing among fundamentalists in the mid 20th century in this selection from the essay “The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right”: Continue reading “The Fundamentalist Political Vacuum of the Mid-20th Century”→