Essay / Theology

Happy Birthday to J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham Machen was born this day (July 28) in 1881, and died in 1937. An adherent of the Old Princeton theology and protege of B. B. Warfield, Machen launched a classic attack on modernist theology in 1923 with his book, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: Macmillan, 1923).

As modernism made deeper inroads into the denominations and Princeton Seminary reorganized, Machen left to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Later struggles concerning the content of Presbyterian missions led to Machen’s defrocking and the founding of a new denomination. But Machen’s legacy can also be seen in the broader evangelical movement: he was almost the sole example of an evangelical intellectual during what George Marsden called the “academic dark age of conservative evangelicalism,” making possible the academic renaissance that began in the 1950s. His students included Harold Ockenga and Francis Schaeffer (who in turn exerted great influence on Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, respectively).

Although Machen’s greatest scholarly works are his widely-used introduction to New Testament Greek, his Origins of Paul’s Religion (1921), and The Virgin Birth (1930), he is best known for the controversial work, Christianity and Liberalism. To everything there is a season, and Machen lived in a season of confusion and drift, when the pressing need was for some clear lines of demarcation to be drawn. With the incisive argument of Christianity and Liberalism, Machen drew those lines. Here is how he frames his argument in the first pages of that book.

Christianity and liberalism, according to Machen, are two distinct religions, in fact two different types of religion, opposed to each other: The great redemptive religion known as Christianity is locked in combat with a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is pretending to be Christianity and using Christian terminology (p. 2). The first mark of liberalism is professed hostility to “doctrine,” but in fact there are liberal doctrines just as surely as there are Christian doctrines: “In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another.” (p. 19).

Christianity is history plus doctrine, fact plus meaning: “Christ died” is history, “for our sins” is doctrine. “Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity (p. 27).” Doctrine is found in the earliest church, in Paul, and in the message of Jesus: “A stupendous theology, with Jesus’ own person at the centre of it, is the presupposition of the whole teaching” of the Sermon on the Mount (p. 37). The ethic of Jesus can only apply to a group of disciples, not to the whole undiscipled world: the golden rule itself means opposite things to a group of drunkards encouraging each other in their drunkenness and to a group of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus. This is the chief difference between liberalism and Christianity: liberalism is only in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative: a gracious act of God (p. 47).

This way of defining the issue is characteristic of the whole work. Every day is not a day for fighting, and not everything needs to be clarified. The polemical thrust of Machen’s style, especially as it was used by his young followers, was not always a constructive force. Even John Frame, who obviously cares deeply about doctrinal clarity and distinctions, has said that Machen’s “warrior children” tended to become too divisive once they found themselves in control of their own schools and denominations. But with the argument of Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen proved himself to be a man of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.

Share this essay [social_share/]