J. Gresham Machen, A Biographical Essay

Introduction

Throughout the history of Christianity, certain theologies, ideologies, and philosophies have arisen and threatened the church’s understanding of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. One such theology is the modern liberalism that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which the main character of this essay describes as “an attempt to solve the problem of historic Christianity’s relation to modern culture.”[1] In an attempt to solve this “problem,” modern liberalism became rooted in naturalism and discarded the supernatural particulars of the Christian message such as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ as mere symbols of the more general aspects of religion.[2]

Modern liberalism taught that the essence of Christianity is to be found in its general ethical principles rather than in the event of the Son of God dying for the sins of His people. Liberalism made its way into many churches, denominations, and seminaries by the dawn of the twentieth century and was threatening to overpower historic Protestantism in its popularity and acceptance. However, church history often demonstrates that when a harmful theology arises, God raises up a voice to expose, correct, and provide clarity for the church. In the early decades of the twentieth century in the United States, that voice was J. Gresham Machen’s.

Childhood and Education

            John Gresham Machen was born in Baltimore on July 28, 1881, the second of Arthur Webster Machen and Mary Gresham Machen’s three sons. His father was a respected lawyer in Baltimore and an elder in Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, a man of wide reading and sincere Christian devotion.[3] His mother was an avid reader, writer, and hospitable home-maker who often entertained university presidents and notable authors in her home.[4] One of Machen’s biographer’s describes his childhood home in Baltimore as “a home of devout Christian faith, of a high level of culture and social standing, and of a considerable degree of prosperity.”[5] His close-knit family was built on love and loyalty and it shaped Machen’s character, theology, and worldview in his early years. But his family also provided a means of constant support to him throughout the many trials he would experience in adulthood. He and his mother consistently wrote each other, and she was the one woman who decisively influenced his life.[6]

            Machen received his Bachelor of Arts from John Hopkins University in 1901 and studied Greek for an additional year with the renowned classics professor D.L. Gildersleeve. This year of study sparked Machen’s lifelong love for the Greek language and gave him the first incentive to the study of the New Testament.[7] After his year of Greek study, Machen received a Bachelor of Divinity and an M.A. in Philosophy from Princeton Theological Seminary. At the time he studied, Princeton was a bulwark of Reformed theology and eminent scholarship. Machen studied under professors such as William P. Armstrong, F.L. Patton, and B.B. Warfield, all of whom would become intimate acquaintances for the rest of his life. His interest in the academic study of the New Testament increased during his time at Princeton, and he decided to study at the German universities of Gottingen and Marburg after his graduation.

            At Gottingen and Marbug, Machen experienced the winsomeness of some of the most capable exegetes of modern liberalism. Chief among them was Wilhelm Herrmann, an eloquent spokesman for Ritschlian liberal theology. Herrmann’s teaching made liberalism appear wonderfully attractive and heart-gripping.[8] Herrmann’s teaching propelled Machen into a season of spiritual turmoil in which he questioned his faith. Stonehouse notes that Machen was “profoundly unsettled and even overwhelmed with this man whose fervor and moral earnestness put many Christians to shame.”[9] However, after months of agonizing study, Machen came to see that the “Christ” to whom Herrmann was so fiercely devoted did not actually exist in history, nor could Herrmann’s religious experience be self-validating of the truth.[10] Because of his experience, Machen was sympathetic to those who came under the “spell” of liberal theology throughout his life. But he was also well-equipped to point out the pitfalls and errors of such theology.

External Influences

            As mentioned above, Machen was highly influenced by his one year of Greek study with the eminent classics scholar Dr. Gildersleeve in Baltimore and Professor Wilhelm Herrmann in Germany. However, there were many other shaping influences in his life, chief among them being Princeton Seminary and two professors that taught in it.

Princeton Seminary as a whole exerted a great influence upon Machen. At Princeton’s centennial celebration, President Patton remarked that “Princeton’s boast, if she has any reason to boast at all, is her unswerving fidelity to the theology of the Reformation.”[11] Princeton was the seminary that stood for and taught the “rugged, undiluted Calvinism of the Westminster Standards.”[12] Princeton shaped and cemented Machen’s theology, but it also prepared him for a lifetime of apologetics. One of Princeton’s purpose statements may be quoted at length to demonstrate what kind of students the seminary desired to produce, indeed which they did produce, in J. Gresham Machen.

“It [Princeton’s purpose] is to form men for the Gospel ministry who shall truly believe, and cordially love, and therefore endeavor to propagate and defend, in its genuineness, simplicity, and fullness, the system of religious belief and practice which is set forth in the Confession of Faith, Catechisms, and Plan of Government and Discipline of the Presbyterian Christ; and thus to perpetuate and extend the influence of true evangelical piety and Gospel order.”[13]

Furthermore, Princeton sought to “provide for the church an adequate supply and succession of able and faithful ministers of the New Testament, workmen that need not be ashamed, being qualified to rightly divide the word of truth.”[14] Princeton accomplished her task in the preparation of Machen.

            The influence of Francis L. Patton and B.B. Warfield were two of the most decisive influences on Machen’s life and thought.[15] Dr. Patton possessed a reputation as a brilliant defender of Christian orthodoxy who proved to be one of Machen’s most ardent supporters and defenders. Patton often encouraged Machen during his years of spiritual turmoil in Germany. When Machen began doubting his adequacy to enter the ministry, Dr. Patton’s voice was one of constant understanding and encouragement. Dr. Patton consistently persuaded Machen to join the staff at Princeton Seminary, and after years of extending patience and encouragement, Dr. Patton finally received his wish. Machen joined the faculty at Princeton Seminary as an assistant professor of New Testament in 1906.

            If Dr. Patton exerted a decisive influence on Machen’s early life, B.B. Warfield exerted an even greater influence throughout his years of maturation. Dr. Warfield stressed the importance of the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the importance of the historical Reformed Faith, and the value of apologetics.[16] Under his teaching, Machen began to see the grandeur of Reformed Theology as the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. Machen wrote concerning Dr. Warfield that “he enabled me to see with greater and greater clearness that consistent Christianity, the only thoroughly Biblical Christianity, is found in the Reformed Faith.”[17] He imbibed Warfield’s view that Reformed Theology was “Christianity come into its own,” and held him in high esteem throughout his life.[18] Machen wrote these words after Warfield’s death, “Nearly everything I have done has been done with the inspiring hope that Dr. Warfield would think well of it…he was the greatest man I have known.”[19]

Writings

            Machen wrote many books, articles, and tracts throughout his career ranging from a wide variety of topics, from apologetics and textual criticism to national education and government preservation of national parks. However, three main works influenced his career as a scholar and spokesman for conservative Protestant Christianity: The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), and Christianity and Liberalism (1923), each of which are summarized below. Readers may also be familiar with Machen’s New Testament Greek for Beginners¸ a textbook published in 1922 that is still in use at many divinity schools.

The Origin of Paul’s Religion

            The Origin of Paul’s Religion addresses the consensus among liberal theologians that the ethical teachings of Jesus (i.e. the “general principles of religion”) constituted the essence of Christianity. The thesis of Machen’s book is that the person and writings of Paul present a major problem for such a view. He argues that Paul’s religion was founded upon the historical Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and on a specific event in Jesus’ life, namely, his death and resurrection. Machen writes, “What is the plainest of all in the Epistles is the historical character of the Pauline message. The religion of Paul was rooted in an event…the redemptive work of Christ in His death and resurrection.”[20] Machen summarizes all the modern attempts to explain how Paul could have arrived at such a view of Christ, such as his Jewish expectation in an apocalyptic Messiah,[21] but proves them all to be found wanting. He argues that Paul’s faith and theology are best explained by the realization that God had supernaturally worked in human history to bring about salvation through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that Paul himself experienced such salvation and entered into a loving relationship with risen Lord Jesus. Only if the account of the gospel of Jesus Christ was true, Machen argues, can the origin of Paul’s religion be explained.”[22]

The Virgin Birth of Christ

            The Virgin Birth of Christ (1932) is considered the magnum opus of Machen’s scholarly work. It is based upon a set of lectures Machen delivered at Columbia Theological Seminary in the spring of 1927. In the book, Machen defends the historicity of the virgin birth by closely considering the literary, historical, and critical aspects of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. He analyzes the relationship between the accounts, assesses their historic credibility, and compares them with secular history. Throughout the book, he presents alternative theories and demonstrates them to be inferior in terms of their historicity and explanatory power in terms of how the doctrine came about and why it was so widely believed. Biblical scholars of all stripes acknowledged the value of Machen’s book in its exhaustive research of and argumentation for the virgin birth.

            Machen also argues for the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth for Christians. He notes that the believer’s knowledge of Christ would be seriously imparted without it, for it “fixes for us the time of the incarnation.”[23] He argues that the supernatural person of Jesus Christ belongs logically with his redemptive work, and thus the virgin birth belongs logically with the cross. In Machen’s argument, the two cannot be separated. If they are, all that remains is a slippery slope into modern liberalism. “Deny or give up the story of the virgin birth, and inevitably you are led to evade either the high Biblical doctrine of sin or else the full Biblical presentation of the supernatural Person of our Lord.”[24] This book, though perhaps not his most popular, is one of the most definitive of Machen’s life’s work. It exhibits his brilliant scholarship and fervent devotion to orthodox Protestant Christianity.

Christianity and Liberalism

            Christianity and Liberalism was published in 1923[25] as a polemic against modern liberal theology. In it, Machen contends that Christianity and Liberalism[26] are two different religions that teach two different views of salvation. He writes, “the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of Christian terminology.”[27] Throughout the book, he highlights the differences between the two religions by stressing the supernatural character of Christianity in contrast to the naturalistic presupposition of liberal Protestantism.[28] These differences may be seen most-clearly in their views of Jesus. Modern liberalism, according to Machen, views Jesus as a teacher of ethical religion and an example of the “general principles of religion” in his sacrificial death. As such, he is an example of faith. This is to be contrasted with historic Christianity, which views Jesus as the Savior of the world because of the event in which he bore the guilt of human sin in his death and conquered death itself in his resurrection. True Christianity views Jesus not only as an example of faith, but as the object of faith.[29]

            Christianity and Liberalism propelled Machen to the position of national spokesperson for the group of conservative Christians opposing liberalism often referred to as “fundamentalists.” His scholarly acumen and salient arguments gave many within the church a confidence that historic Christianity could hold its own weight against the scholarship of modern liberalism. Walter Lippman called it an “admirable book” that was “the best popular argument produced by either side of the controversy.”[30]

It is important to note that Machen’s primary objective was not to deny the liberal theologian’s right to hold and teach such views. He acknowledges that liberals have every right to establish their own churches and seminaries. However, he contends that it is “inconsistent and dishonest” for them to remain in creedal churches and institutions.[31] It was this conviction that led to Machen’s marginalization in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A and Princeton Seminary. It also led him to pioneer a new seminary, Westminster, and a different denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, that were both committed to historic Protestant orthodoxy.

Theology

Reformed Theology

            As a young boy, Machen spent hours reciting the Westminster Shorter Catechism. As a young adult at Princeton, he studied under giants of Reformed theology. It should come as no surprise that Machen passionately held to the principles of historic Calvinism throughout his life. He states succinctly in The Christian View of Man, “The author believes that the Reformed Faith should be preached, as well as taught in the classroom, and that the need for preaching of it is particularly apparent at the present time.”[32] In the same work, Machen outlines some the main tenets of Reformed theology such as total depravity and unconditional election. However, Machen viewed Reformed theology not as a list of principles to be accepted in a cold, academic manner, but rather as a source of great comfort and rest for the Christian. He encourages his reader to wonder rather than speculate when he considers the doctrines of grace, and implores him to rest in the supreme mystery of the grace of God. “What a comfort it is,” Machen writes, “to know that salvation depends solely upon God’s mysterious grace!”[33]

Christian Doctrine

            Machen was a churchman and a scholar who devoted his life to the defense of historic Christian doctrine. Mainstream liberalism held that doctrine was out of date, and that the essence of Christianity was a “lifestyle” rather than faith in a set of doctrinal suppositions. In response, Machen consistently argued that “true Christianity” was not a life distinguished from doctrine, but “a life founded upon doctrine.”[34] He also argued that Christian doctrine is rooted in a historic event, not in changing expressions or symbols of the “general principles of religion” as the proponents of liberalism argued. He argues in, “At the heart of the disciples faith was the conviction that Jesus had done something for them by His death and resurrection. The Christian religion in other words rooted in an event.”[35]

Fundamentalism

            Machen is often regarded as the spokesperson for modern fundamentalists. Historian D.G. Hart notes that recent scholarship describes fundamentalism as “an alliance of conservatives who held that humanity was on the verge of collapsing, that Christ’s return was immanent, and that the Bible was inerrant in scientific and historical details as well as spiritual matters, who primarily fought against evolution and scientific naturalism.”[36] This perception of fundamentalism is often projected onto Machen, though he does not fit the bill. Machen opposed the premillennial view of Christ’s return (a primary component of fundamentalism) and did not appeal to inerrancy in Christianity and Liberalism to make his defense of conservative Christianity. He also did not see evolution as a major threat to the church and did not spend any time fighting against it. Machen preferred the term “Calvinist” to “fundamentalist,”[37] and often expressed distaste for the term due to the suggestion that fundamentalists were some new sect rather than Christians standing in the great stream of orthodoxy.[38] So why is Machen identified with fundamentalism? Ultimately, he sided with the movement because he believed it “reiterated traditional convictions about sin and grace against the humanitarian theology of Protestant liberalism.”[39] He was content to partner with them and speak on their behalf in the controversies of the 1920s and 1930s.

Conclusion: Machen’s Legacy to the Church

            There are many monuments to Machen’s legacy that have survived to the present day. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church that Machen founded when he was marginalized by his own denomination has almost three hundred congregations with over thirty-thousand members. Westminster Theological Seminary, which Machen help start with other faculty members who were forced out of Princeton, continues to bear the torch of Old Princeton’s historic Calvinism. However, there is much more to Machen’s legacy than these institutions. By his own life and example, he set the precedent that the historic Christian faith could be defended by rigorous scholarship and pious devotion in the modern world.

            The fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s are often viewed as “intellectually backward protestants” who were unable to cope with modern society.[40] Their opponents characterized them as sectarians who were antagonistic to intellectual progress and modern scholarship. However, several historians have challenged the idea that fundamentalism was antagonistic to intellectual advance. One such historian is Paul Carter, who used none other than J. Gresham Machen to make his case.[41] One of Machen’s lasting legacies on church history is the proof that not all fundamentalism is founded upon anti-intellectual, anti-modern, religious fanaticism. Machen’s life demonstrates that conservative Christians can use their minds in providing a robust defense of historic Christianity.

            Machen also left a legacy of standing for truth regardless of the cost. Because of his unwavering defense of orthodox Protestant Christianity, he was marginalized and embarrassed by his denomination, mischaracterized and demonized by his opponents, and pushed out of his prominent position as a professor at Princeton Seminary.[42] Machen genuinely believed the historic doctrines of Christianity were true and could be defended in the face of any enemy. However, he was never primarily motivated by proving his opponents wrong for the sake of scholarly achievement. He realized that eternity was at stake. After defending the supernatural deity of the Lord Jesus in The Christian View of Man, he states, “No lesser Christ could save us; this Christ alone could save us from eternal death.”[43] Machen’s ultimate legacy is a life that was given to defend and preach the only Christ that could save mankind from eternal death in the modern world. May Christians in this century be encouraged by his testimony and follow in his footsteps.


[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Masselink, Professor J. Gresham Machen: His Life and Defense of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1940), 3.

[4] D.G. Hart, “When is a Fundamentalist a Modernist? J. Gresham Machen, Cultural Modernism, and Conservative Protestantism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, No. 3 (1997): 1.

[5] Ned. B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 29.

[6] Stonehouse remarks, “No one ever seriously rivaled her (Machen’s mother) in her capacity to satisfy his need of deep spiritual sympathy or in her hold upon his affection and admiration,” 2.

[7] Masselink, Professor J. Gresham Machen, 6.

[8] For more on Wilhem Herrmann’s liberal theology, see Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 110-114.

[9] Stonehouse, 114.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Princeton Seminary Centennial Volume (De Vinne Press, 1912), pp. 350. Quoted in Stonehouse, 57.

[12] Stonehouse, 57.

[13] Quoted from Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 1935/1936, p. 27. Accessed digitally 6/26/2021. Part of this statement is quoted by Masselink, further research was done to locate the entirety of the stated purpose of the seminary in the published seminary bulletins.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Stonehouse, 61.

[16] Masselink, Professor J. Gresham Machen, 7.

[17] Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010), 552.

[18] Stonehouse, 64.

[19] Machen in a letter to his mother written on February 17, 1921, recorded in Stonehouse, 354.

[20] J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 316.

[21] As an example, Machen responds to the theory that Jesus fit Paul’s paradigm of an apocalyptic Messiah by stating, “the apocalyptic messiah was not an object of worship, and was not a living person to be loved…the heart of the problem is found in the Pauline relation to Christ…a revelation of love; and love exists only between persons. It is not a group of ideas that is to be explained, if Paulinism is to be accounted for, but the love of Paul for his Savior. And that love is rooted, not in what Christ had said, but what Christ had done.”.

[22] Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, 316.

[23] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930), 394.

[24] Ibid., 395.

[25] Though this book was published before the Virgin Birth of Christ, I chose to include it last out of the three due to its popularity and importance.

[26] Liberalism, modernism, and modern liberalism are all used interchangeably in this essay. In fact, Machen himself lamented that he did not title his book “Christianity and Modernism,” having thought it a more precise title. Machen himself uses all three names to identify liberal theology in the work.

[27] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 2.

[28] D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 71.

[29] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 96. Additional support for the differing views of Jesus may be found in Machen’s discussion of the phrase, “Jesus is God.” Machen was concerned that the use of traditional Christian terminology was one of the most dangerous tools in the liberal’s arsenal. For example, when the liberal theologian states, “Jesus is God,” the average Christian may think he is orthodox in his confession of Christ’s deity. However, Machen notes that in liberal theology, “God” is not viewed as a person separate to the world, but merely as a unity that pervades the world. Thus, for a modernist to say that Jesus is God means only that the life of God, which appears in all men, appears with special clearness or richness in Jesus. Machen comments, “such an assertion is diametrically opposed to the Christian belief in the deity of Christ,” 94.

[30] Walter Lippman, A Preface to Morals, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 32.

[31] D.G. Hart, “When is a Fundamentalist a Modernist? J. Gresham Machen, Cultural Modernism, and Conservative Protestantism,” 611.

[32] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 11.

[33] Ibid., 78.

[34] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936), 103.

[35] Ibid., 206.

[36] D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith, 63.

[37] Stonehouse, 426.

[38] Ibid., 386.

[39] Ibid.,71.

[40] D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith, 63.

[41] D.G. Hart, When is a Fundamentalist a Modernist?, 609.

[42] Machen actually resigned from Princeton Seminary, but only after he was blocked from taking a Professorship due to a rumor that he did not adequately support Prohibition, and the board of the seminary was reorganized which placed the liberals in charge.

[43] Machen, The Christian View of Man, 23.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s