Hero Image

He Took Up Arms Against Liberalism

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937)

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

On New Year’s Eve, 1936, in a Roman Catholic hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota, J. Gresham Machen was one day away from death at the age of 55. It was Christmas break at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, where he taught New Testament. His colleagues had said he looked “deadly tired” at the end of the term. But instead of resting, he had taken the train from Philadelphia to the 20-below-zero winds of North Dakota to preach in a few Presbyterian churches at the request of pastor Samuel Allen.

“There is only one hope, but that hope is sure. God has never deserted his church; his promise never fails.”

He had pneumonia and could scarcely breathe. Pastor Allen came to pray for him that last day of 1936, and Machen told him of a vision that he had had of being in heaven. “Sam, it was glorious. It was glorious,” he said. And a little later he added, “Sam, isn’t the Reformed faith grand?”

The following day — New Year’s Day, 1937 — he mustered the strength to send a telegram to John Murray, his friend and colleague at Westminster. It was his last recorded word: “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” He died about 7:30 that evening.

Insubordinate Presbyterian

Machen was cut off in the midst of a great work — the establishment of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He hadn’t set out to found a seminary or a new church. But given who he was and what he stood for and what was happening at Princeton, where he had taught for 23 years, and in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, it was almost inevitable.

Westminster Seminary was seven years old when Machen died. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was six months old. The occasion for starting a new Presbyterian church over against the huge Presbyterian Church in the USA was that on March 29, 1935, Machen’s Presbytery in Trenton, New Jersey, found him guilty of insubordination to church authorities and stripped him of his ordination.

The reason for the charge of insubordination was that Machen had founded an independent board of foreign missions in June 1933 to protest the fact that the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions endorsed a laymen’s report (called Rethinking Missions) that Machen said was “from beginning to end an attack upon the historic Christian faith” (J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, 475).

He pointed out that the board supported missionaries like Pearl Buck in China, who represented the kind of evasive, noncommittal attitude toward Christian truth that Machen thought was destroying the church and its witness. She said, for example, that if someone existed who could create a person like Christ and portray him for us, “then Christ lived and lives, whether He was once one body and one soul, or whether He is the essence of men’s highest dreams” (474).

Thus, Machen was forced by his own conscience into what the church viewed as the gravest insubordination and disobedience to his ordination vows. Hence the beginning of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

‘Princeton Seminary Is Dead’

A few years earlier, Machen had left Princeton Seminary to found Westminster Seminary. This time he wasn’t forced out, but chose freely to leave when the governing boards of the seminary were reorganized so that the conservative board of directors could be diluted by liberals more in tune with the denomination as a whole.

Princeton Seminary died, in Machen’s eyes, and out of the ashes he meant to preserve the tradition of Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield. So when he gave the inaugural address of Westminster Seminary on September 25, 1929, to the first class of fifty students and guests, he said,

No, my friends, though Princeton Seminary is dead, the noble tradition of Princeton Seminary is alive. Westminster Seminary will endeavor by God’s grace to continue that tradition unimpaired. (458)

Machen’s most enduring response to what he called modernism was the founding of these two institutions: Westminster Seminary (which today is a major influence in American evangelicalism) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (which now, over eight decades later, bears a witness disproportionate to its small size).

Faith and Doubt

Machen met modernism face to face many years earlier, while spending a year in Germany after seminary. As he studied New Testament with well-known German scholars, Machen was shaken profoundly in his faith. Almost overpowering was the influence of Wilhelm Herrmann, the systematic theologian at Marburg, who represented the best of what Machen would later oppose with all his might. He was not casting stones over a wall when he criticized modernism. Machen had been over the wall and was almost lured into the camp.

In 1905 he wrote home,

I have been thrown all into confusion by what [Herrmann] says — so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known in myself during the past few years. . . . Herrmann affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type. (107)

His struggle with doubt gave him patience and sympathy with others in the same situation. Twenty years later, he wrote,

Some of us have been through such struggle ourselves; some of us have known the blankness of doubt, the deadly discouragement, the perplexity of indecision, the vacillation between “faith diversified by doubt,” and “doubt diversified by faith.” (432)

Nevertheless, Machen came through this time without losing his evangelical faith and was called to Princeton to teach New Testament, which he did from 1906 until he left to form Westminster in 1929. During that time, he became a pillar of conservative, Reformed orthodoxy and a strong apologist for biblical Christianity and an internationally acclaimed New Testament scholar.

Duplicity in the Classroom

Machen’s experience in Germany made a lasting impact on the way he carried on controversy. He said again and again that he had respect and sympathy for the modernist who could honestly no longer believe in the bodily resurrection or the virgin birth or the second coming, but it was the rejection of these things without openly admitting one’s unbelief that angered Machen.

For example, he said once that his problem with certain teachers at Union Seminary was their duplicity:

There is my real quarrel with them. As for their difficulties with the Christian faith, I have profound sympathy for them, but not with their contemptuous treatment of the conscientious men who believe that a creed solemnly subscribed to is more than a scrap of paper. (221–22)

He wanted to deal with people in a straightforward manner and take his opponents’ arguments seriously, if they would only be honest and open with their constituents and readers. As it was, however, many modernist professors and pastors were not honest and open.

Liberalism: Another Religion

In the Presbyterian Church of Machen’s day, there were hundreds who would not deny the Confession of Faith, but by virtue of this modernistic spirit had given it up even though they’d signed it. One of the most jolting and penetrating statements of Machen on this issue is found in his book What Is Faith?

It makes very little difference how much or how little of the creeds of the Church the Modernist preacher affirms, or how much or how little of the Biblical teaching from which the creeds are derived. He might affirm every jot and tittle of the Westminster Confession, for example, and yet be separated by a great gulf from the Reformed Faith. It is not that part is denied and the rest affirmed; but all is denied, because all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as true. (What Is Faith? 34)

When Machen took on modernism, then, he took it on as a challenge to the whole of Christianity. His most important book in the debate was Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923. The title almost says it all: Liberalism is not vying with Fundamentalism as a species of Christianity. The book is not entitled Fundamentalism and Liberalism. Instead, Liberalism is vying with Christianity as a separate religion. He wrote the blurb for the book:

Liberalism on the one hand and the religion of the historic church on the other are not two varieties of the same religion, but two distinct religions proceeding from altogether separate roots. (J. Gresham Machen, 342)

Modernism to Postmodernism

I don’t think the structure of the modernism of Machen’s day is too different from the postmodernism of our day. In some churches, the triumph of modernism is complete. It is still a menace at the door of all our churches and schools and agencies. One of our great protections will be the awareness of stories like Machen’s — the enemy he faced, the battle he fought, the weapons he used (and failed to use), the losses he sustained, the price he paid, and the triumphs he wrought.

For example, Machen’s life and thought issue a call for all of us to be honest, open, clear, straightforward, and guileless in our use of language. He challenges us, as does the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2; Ephesians 4:25; 1 Thessalonians 2:3–4), to say what we mean and mean what we say, and to repudiate duplicity, trickery, sham, verbal manipulating, sidestepping, and evasion.

“All is denied, because all is affirmed merely as useful or symbolic and not as true.”

The dangers of the utilitarian uses of moral and religious language are still around in our day. It is not unusual, for example, to come across language similar to what I read in the Washington Times when I was first researching Machen’s life. The spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation’s largest homosexual advocacy group, told the Times, “I personally think that most lesbian and gay Americans support traditional family and American values,” which he defined as “tolerance, concern, support, and a sense of community.”

This is an example of how words with moral connotations have been co-opted by special-interest groups to gain the moral high ground without moral content. They sound like values, but they are empty. “Tolerance” for what? All things? Which things? “Concern” for what? Expressed in what way? Redemptive opposition or sympathetic endorsement? “Support” for what? For the behavior that is destructive and wrong? Or for the person who admits the behavior is wrong and is struggling valiantly to overcome it? “Community” with what standards of unification? Common endorsements of behavior? Common vision of what is right and wrong? Common indifference to what is right and wrong?

In every case, the standards are not defined. All you have is words driven by a utilitarian view of language where honesty and truth are not paramount. Machen shows us that this is not new, and that it is destructive to the church and the cause of Christ — especially when pastors engage in such duplicity from the pulpit.

His Promise Never Fails

The overarching lesson to be learned from Machen’s life, however, is that God reigns over his church and over the world. His all-inclusive plan is always more hopeful than we think in the darkest hours of history, and it is always more intermixed with human sin and weakness than we can see in its brightest hours. This means that we should renounce all triumphalism in the bright seasons and renounce all despair in the dark seasons.

Our hope for the church and for the spread of the true gospel lies not ultimately in our strategies but in God. Even when the culture degenerates, and once-faithful institutions drift, as they did in Machen’s day, there is every hope that God will triumph. He writes,

That Church is still alive; an unbroken spiritual descent connects us with those whom Jesus commissioned. Times have changed in many respects, new problems must be faced and new difficulties overcome, but the same message must still be proclaimed to a lost world. Today we have need of all our faith; unbelief and error have perplexed us sore; strife and hatred have set the world aflame. There is only one hope, but that hope is sure. God has never deserted his church; his promise never fails. (J. Gresham Machen, 386)