Defending the Faith: J Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative

Protestantism in Modern America

By Darryl G. Hart; Baker 1995 paperback; 227 pp including a useful Bibliographical essay and an index

Out of print but copies available from Westminster Theological Seminary Bookshop.

Review by Dr R. Oxner.

J. Gresham Machen's story is well known to some readers of this magazine, but for others his name and importance is unknown. In the following review, I attempt to introduce Machen (a Presbyterian) to those who have not heard about him, and also comment on Darryl Hart's important new book that adds significantly to Ned Stonehouse's biography published in 1954 and recently republished by

Banner of Truth.

Keynote Address

In November 1921, Machen [the subject of this biography] delivered a important address to a meeting of The Ruling Elders of Chester Presbytery on the subject “ The Present Attack against the Fundamentals of our Christian Faith from the Point of View of Colleges and Seminaries. ” This was reworked into an article “ Liberalism or Christianity ” that appeared in The Princeton Theological Review [PTR] Vol 20 number 1 pages 93-117. Machen contrasts the Liberal view with the Christian view with regard to:

-their view of God

-their view of man

-their choice of the seat of authority in religion

-their view of Christ

-their view of the way of salvation

He then calls the ruling elders to:

-encourage those in the intellectual and spiritual struggle [noting that orthodox Christianity needed defending as well as propagating in his day]

-to exercise their duty in examining candidates for licensure or ordination. Machen noted the “ Church was a purely voluntary organization: no one is required to enter its service. If a man cannot accept the belief of the Church, there are other ecclesiastical bodies in which he can find a place. ”(p 115)

-as loyal members of individual congregations that they play their role to see the Gospel of Christ is truly preached by choosing pastors who preach Christ with clarity, rather that brilliant preachers who are rather evasive on the central points for the faith. Near the end of the article, Machen noted: “A terrible crisis has arisen in the Church. In the ministry of evangelical churches are to be found hosts of those who reject the gospel of Christ. By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith. And now there are some

indications that the fiction of conformity to the past is to be thrown off, and the real meaning of what has been taking place is to be allowed to appear. The Church, it is now apparently supposed, has almost been educated up to the point where the shackles of the Bible can openly be cast away and the doctrine of the Cross of Christ can be relegated to the limbo of discarded subtleties.” (Page 116.) This article became very famous and was expanded into a book called “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923), which is still available and well worth the read.

Liberal Attack

In 1922 Harry Emerson Fosdick a Baptist minister who acted as a visiting preacher at New York's First Presbyterian Church preached what became the liberal party's counterblast to Machen and other conservatives in a sermon entitled “ Shall the Fundamentalists Win ?” (See “ American Christianity “ by

H S Smith, R T Handy and L A Loetscher Vol 2 1963 pp295-301 for an extract.).

Fosdick saw two groups in the church, and asked whether the Fundamentalists would drive the other group out. He felt there was a need for a spirit of tolerance and Christian liberty. Secondly, he felt the listeners needed a clear insight into the major issues facing modern Christianity, which he saw as “the weightier matters of the law, justice , and mercy and faith…. “ (p300) He saw doctrine as divisive, and something to be downplayed - it got in the way of the real issues facing the modern church.

The Fundamentalist Modernist dispute (to give it another common title) had been underway for a number of years, but it entered a new phase in the 1920's. The able scholars of the earlier generation were going to their eternal rest (Warfield, Kuyper and Bavinck died within a year of each other in 1921, while James Orr had died in 1913). Princeton (where Machen taught) was still a bastion of Calvinistic Orthodoxy, but a number of the faculty were coming to the end of their teaching careers. Machen found himself propelled into the role of the scholarly defender of orthodox Christianity. Other scholars played their part but Machen was the major conservative scholar known to the general public and in the General Assembly.

Machen's Background

Darryl Hart has written a first-rate intellectual biography of Machen. To briefly summarize Machen's career: he came from a well -educated and well to do Baltimore family (he was independently wealthy).He studied Classics at John Hopkins and then went to Princeton Theological Seminary, and also took an M.A. in Philosophy at Princeton University. Like many an American, he went to Germany for further study then returned to Princeton seminary to teach New Testament. He was not ordained till 1914 (B.D. 1905). After ordination he became an assistant professor in NT. In 1917, he did one year with the YMCA with the troops in France then returned to Princeton Seminary. He published two very scholarly books. The first was on “ The Origin of Paul's Religion,” which showed the continuity between Jesus and Paul [The critical scholars saw a sharp discontinuity] , while the second book was on “ The Virgin Birth of Christ ”.

Besides his scholarly work, Machen was also involved in the battle for orthodox Christianity, as noted above. This battle was fought on several fronts including the pew, the public square, the seminaries and the General Assembly and Church Courts. The General Assembly chose to reorganize Princeton Seminary so that it reflected the broader view held within the Presbyterian Church, as opposed to its previous position as a bastion of Calvinism. (Machen was intimately involved in the fight to retain Princeton's orthodox Calvinistic character.) The conservative party lost the fight (1929) at Princeton, and Machen, along with others, set up Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) to continue the Princeton Tradition. All was clearly not well within the Presbyterian Church. The Church's beliefs were variously interpreted, and this spilled over into the Church's Mission Board, as it became all too clear in a report on Foreign Missions. Machen, along with some others, set up a board for Independent Foreign Missions in 1933.

Founding of The O.P.C.

Machen was censured by the 1934 General Assembly for this and in 1935 was defrocked for disobedience. This led to the formation of a new church, which became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church [OPC]. Machen died of pneumonia in Dakota in 1937.The OPC was to experience early difficulties. Many young ministers left the fledgling church, a year after its founding, over Premillenialism, and issues to do with the separated Christian life (films, alcohol etc). This was the era of prohibition (introduced 1919/20), with the start of the dismantling of prohibition in 1933.

Machen had lost a lot of support among more conservative Presbyterian ministers when he helped set up the Board of Independent Missions, and further support when the Premillenialists left.

Set In His Time

What Hart does so well in his book (based on his John Hopkins Ph.D. thesis) is put Machen in his intellectual context. He was wealthy, well-educated and shared many attitudes in common with his class. He also held some views that were much more in keeping with the intellectual trend-setters rather than his fundamentalist supporters. [Machen's path to these views was, however, by a different route. His views were Old School Presbyterianism which in brief is confessional Presbyterianism - based on the Westminster Confession. He also appears to have held the Southern (Presbyterian) Church's view on the “Spirituality of the Church”. Southern Presbyterianism was strongly Old School, and, partly as a result of the Civil War, drew a sharp line between the sphere of the Church and that of the State (so that the church should not interfere in the workings of the state). Baltimore, where Machen grew up, was close to the Southern States.

What Hart also shows is that Machen was very different to most Fundamentalists. He was an able scholar who held orthodox beliefs, but, unlike the fundamentalists, what Machen aimed at was a confessionally-loyal Calvinism (not the fundamentalism of the premillenial prohibitionists). Socially, he aimed for a strong separation of the Church from the State, and he had a very different view of the Christian life from the Fundamentalists. His views on Prohibition also were poles apart form the Fundamentalists, and for that matter many liberal Christians. He also supported the Roman Catholic candidate for the presidency in 1928.

Worth The Effort

Rewritten Ph.D.'s and intellectual history fill most Church members with dread. So who should read this book? This book isn't a simple read for the ordinary church member, but it is well worth the effort. The RCNZ has sister relations with Machen's OPC. Machen's defence of confessional loyalty is an important example for how one man used the talents he was blessed with to serve the cause of the Gospel. One also sees the human side of Machen, his self doubts, his lack of direction about the future (it took him years to be ordained, why did he do the YMCA stint etc).

One Warning

Most Christians read books for edification. This isn't bad, but it does cause some problems. Many people get uncomfortable when they detect faults or weakness in their “heroes”. The closer you get to the person playing a central role in a movement that you yourself are committed to and feel deeply about, the less able many are able to cope with these weaknesses. This has lead to a number of books on major figures that never really say a bad word about the subject. Paul Helm, in his review of Iain Murray's “ Jonathan Edwards: A new biography ' had some pertinent points. He saw Murray's book as the equivalent of the Protestant life of the saints. “ There is scarcely one adverse comment on Edwards…There is no assessment, no analysis.[Helm noted that Edwards' congregation, that had received such benefits of revival in 1740, was the very same congregation that unceremoniously bundled Edwards and his family out in 1750. Where were the fruits of revival?) Why is there this perfectionism among the Reformed? Where are the warts and the skeletons which, the apostle Paul tells us, afflict and haunt even the most eminent believer until his death?” [The Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology Vol 6:1, 1988, p.58]

One mentions this not to upset the sensibilities of readers, but to mark a note of caution. Edification is important, but it does not mean that the person's life you are reading will not have faults and things that irritate or mystify you. Hart clearly has a very deep regard for Machen (Hart is Librarian at Westminster Seminary), and this isn't a book aimed to cut Machen down to size. It tells the story of Machen's intellectual journey, the blind alleys he went down (e.g. his brief infatuation with German Liberalism), the ups and downs of his emotions (he never married and he shared his deepest thoughts [by letter] with his mother who died only a few years before her son), and what many of his detractors saw as his emotionally immature character (reliance on Mother and also in his dealings with other people especially during the Fundamentalist Modernist controversy). One meets Machen skipping class at Princeton as a student to go to the Theatre. One could go on. In Hart's biography one meets Machen as a person. Many readers will notice that he has some warts. Hopefully, one comes away realising that this hero of the faith struggled for his faith - a struggle which didn't finish after praying the right prayer that delivered him from the struggles and got him into his life's work. Yes, there were major advances in Machen's spiritual life over times but his life shows the struggles and triumphs of an man who sort to be faithful to his God given task.

Every church library should have this book, and hopefully some church members will also wish to buy it. If you don't make much progress the first time, you can try slogging it out. Or, if you are like me, come back to it a year or two later .This book repays careful reading and thought about its content.

*Darryl Hart and Mark Noll have edited a very useful [and inexpensive] “Dictionary of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition in America “ IVP 1999 that tells you about Old School Presbyterianism, etc, so you can follow more knowingly what Hart writes about in his biography.

Back to the article index

Faith in Focus / NZ Reformed Church / / Copyright 2001