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 said he looked “deadly tired.” But instead of resting, he took 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.
Ned Stonehouse, his New Testament assistant said, “There was no one of sufficient influence to constrain him to curtail his program to any significant degree.” He was the acknowledged leader of the conservative movement in Presbyterianism with no one to watch over him. His heroes and mentors, Warfield and Patton were dead. He had never married, and so had no wife to restrain him with reality. His mother and father, who gave him so much wise counsel over the years, were dead. His brothers lived 1500 miles to the east. “He had a personality that only his good friends found appealing.” And so he was remarkably alone and isolated for a man of international stature.
He had pneumonia and could scarcely breath. 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 words: “I’m so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” He died about 7:30 p.m.
So much of the man is here in this tragic scene. The stubbornness of going his own way when friends urged him not to take this extra preaching trip. His isolation far from the mainline centers of church life and thought. His suffering for the cause he believed in. His utter allegiance to and exaltation of the Reformed Faith of the Westminster Confession. And his taking comfort not just from a general truth about Christ, but from a doctrinally precise understanding of the active obedience of Christ—which he believed was his own obedience in Christ and would make him a suitable heir of eternal life, for Christ’s sake.
And so 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 taught for 23 years, and in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., it was almost inevitable.
The occasion for starting a new Presbyterian church over against the huge Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was that on March 29, 1935, Machen’s Presbytery in Trenton, N.J., found him guilty of insubordination to church authorities and stripped him of his ordination. An appeal was taken to the General Assembly at Syracuse in the summer of 1936 but failed.
The reason for the charge of insubordination was that Machen had founded an independent board of foreign missions in June of 1933 to protest the fact that the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions endorsed a laymen’s report (called Rethinking Missions) which Machen said, was “from beginning to end an attack upon the historic Christian faith”.
He pointed out that the board supported missionaries like Pearl Buck in China who represented the kind of evasive, non-committal attitude toward Christian truth that Machen thought was destroying the church and its witness. She said, for example, that if some one existed who could create a person like Christ and portray him for us, “then Christ lived and lives, whether He was once a body and one soul, or whether He is the essence of men’s highest dreams”.
How serious was it that Machen could not give or endorse giving to this board? The General Assembly gave their answer in Cleveland in 1934 with this astonishing sentence:
A church member . . . that will not give to promote the officially authorized missionary program of the Presbyterian Church is in exactly the same position with reference to the Constitution of the Church as a church member . . . that would refuse to take part in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or any other prescribed ordinance of the denomination.
Thus Machen was forced by his own conscience into what the church viewed as the gravest insubordination and disobedience to his ordination vows, and removed him from the ministry. Hence the beginning of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Where Did this Warrior for the Faith Come From?
Who was J. Gresham Machen? Where did he come from? What shaped and drove him? More important than the mere fact of founding institutions is the question of the world-view that carried him through that achievement. And what was this thing called “Modernism” that engaged his amazingly energetic opposition? And what can we learn from his response today?
John Gresham Machen was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 28, 1881, sixteen years after the civil war. His mother was from Macon, Georgia, and was educated and cultured enough that she published a book in 1903 entitled The Bible in Browning. His father was a very successful lawyer from Baltimore. The family hobnobbed with the cultural elite in Baltimore, and had a vacation home in Seal Harbor and traveled often. Machen sailed to Europe and back some six times. In a word, Machen was a well-to-do southern aristocrat.
When he was 21 he inherited $50,000 from his maternal grandfather. To put that in perspective his first annual salary at Princeton was $2,000. So he inherited 25 times an annual salary when he was 21, and when he was 35 he inherited a similar amount when his father died. When he died his assets totaled $250,000. This explains why we can read time after time of Machen’s funding ministry and publishing efforts with his own money.
As with most of us, the level at which Machen engaged the culture of his day was being powerfully shaped by the level of his upbringing and education. He went to Johns Hopkins University and majored in Classics, and then, with the urging of his pastor, went on to Princeton Seminary, even though he was not at all sure he would enter the ministry. And after seminary he spent a year in Germany studying New Testament with well known German scholars.
Here Machen met Modernism face-to-face and 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:
The first time that I heard Herrmann may almost be described as an epoch in my life. Such an overpowering personality I think I almost never before encountered—overpowering in the sincerity of religious devotion . . . .
My chief feeling with reference to him is already one of the deepest reverence . . . I have been thrown all into confusion by what he says—so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known in myself during the past few years . . . Herrmann af-firms 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. He is a Christian not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is (practically, if anything even more truly than theoretically) unbounded . . . .
What Machen seemed to find in Herrmann was what he had apparently not found either in his home or at Princeton, namely, passion and joy and exuberant trust in Christ. At Princeton he had found solid learning and civil, formal, careful, aristocratic presentations of a fairly cool Christianity. He eventually came to see that the truth of the Princeton theology was a firmer ground for life and joy. But at this stage the spirit in which it came, compared to Herrmann’s spirit, almost cost evangelicalism one of its greatest defenders. There is a great lesson here for teachers and preachers: that to hold young minds there should be both intellectual credibility and joyful, passionate zeal for Christ.
This experience in Germany made a lasting impact on the way Machen 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 declaring yourself 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.
He wanted to deal with people in a straightforward manner, and take his opponents’ arguments seriously if they would only be honest and up front.
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 with his book, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, published in 1921 (still a text at Fuller when I went there in 1968), and then his most famous book, The Virgin Birth of Christ in 1930.
Machen’s Response to Modernism and to Fundamentalism
Machen’s years at Princeton were the two decades which are known for the ongoing modernist-fundamentalist controversy. We will see Machen’s distinctive response to Modernism if we contrast it with what was known most widely as fundamentalism. In the process of defining his response the meaning of Modernism will become clear.
He was seen as an ally by the fundamentalists; and his ecclesiastical opponents like to make him “guilty” by association with them. But he did not accept the term for himself.
In one sense fundamentalists were simply those who “[singled] out certain great facts and doctrines [i.e., Fundamentals] that had come under particular attack, [and] were concerned to emphasize their truth and to defend them”. But there was more attached to the term than that. And Machen didn’t like that. He said,
“Do you suppose that I do regret my being called by a term that I greatly dislike, a ‘Fundamentalist’? Most certainly I do. But in the presence of a great common foe, I have little time to be attacking my brethren who stand with me in defense of the Word of God.”
What he didn’t like was
1) the absence of historical perspective;
2) the lack of appreciation of scholarship;
3) the substitution of brief, skeletal creeds for the historic confessions;
4) the lack of concern with precise formulation of Christian doctrine;
5) the pietistic, perfectionist tendencies
6) one-sided other-worldliness (i.e., a lack of effort to transform culture); and
7) a penchant for futuristic chiliasm (or: pre-millennialism).
Machen was on the other side on all these things.
But none of those issues goes to the heart of why he did not see himself as a Fundamentalist. The issue is deeper and broader and gets at the root of how he fought Modernism. The deepest difference goes back to Machen’s profound indebtedness to Benjamin Warfield who died February 16, 1921. Machen wrote to his mother, “With all his glaring faults he was the greatest man I have ever known.”
Machen moved in a different world from most Fundamentalists. And when he took on Modernism he took it on as a challenge to the whole of Reformed 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.”
Stonehouse tells us that Machen’s only regret is that he had not used the term “Modernism” rather than “liberalism” in the book, since the word “liberalism” seemed to give too much credit to the phenomenon.
The problem of modernity is that it has bred forces which are hostile to Biblical faith and yet produced a world that believers readily embrace. Machen is exactly right to skewer us in this dilemma when he says, “We cannot without inconsistency employ the printing-press, the railroad, the telegraph [we would say computers, jets and fax machines] in the propagation of our gospel, and at the same time denounce as evil those activities of the human mind that produced these things.”
So he calls for a critical assessment of modernity. The negative impulses he sees that all lead to Modernism are 1) a suspicion of the past that is natural in view of the stunning advances of recent decades; it does seem as if the past is of relatively little value; 2) skepticism about truth and a replacement of the category of true with category of useful (pragmatism, utilitarianism); the question what works seems to be more scientifically productive; 3) the denial that the supernatural, if there is any such thing, can break into the world.
Machen credits Modernism—the theological re-sponse to this challenge of modernity—with trying to come to terms with the real problem of the age. “What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age? It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve.”
In trying to solve the problem, Liberalism, or Modernism, has joined modernity in minimizing the significance of the past in favor of newer impulses; has accepted the utilitarian view of truth; and has surrendered supernaturalism. All three compromises with the spirit of modernity work together to produce the modernist spirit in religion.
And it is a spirit more than a set of doctrines or denials. That is why Machen never tired of pointing out the dangers of what he called “indifferentism” and “latitudinarianism” as well as the outright denials of the resurrection or the virgin birth or the inspiration of Scripture. The spirit of Modernism is not a set of ideas but an atmosphere that shifts with what is useful from time to time.
One of their own number, John A. MacCallum, an outspoken Modernist minister in Philadelphia, said in a newspaper article in 1923,
[The liberals] have accepted the enlarged view of the universe which has been established by modern astronomy, geology and biology. Instead of blindly denying scientific facts as the obscurantists have always done, they have adjusted themselves to them, and in so doing have increased their faith and unity and consequently extended their influence, particularly with the educated classes . . . Liberalism is an atmosphere rather than a series of formulas.
When the preference for what is new combines with a naturalistic bias and a scepticism about finding abiding truth, the stage is set for the worst abuses of religious language and the worst manipulations of historic confessions. In essence, what the modernists do is not throw-out Christianity but reinterpret the creeds and give old words new meanings. That is, they make them into symbols for every changing meaning.
Thus the Virgin Birth is one theory of the incarnation. The bodily resurrection is one theory of the resurrection. And so on. The old “facts” don’t correspond to anything permanent. They symbolize general principles of religion. And those symbols are arrived at by what is useful or helpful, not by what is true. If they are useful for one generation, good; and if not for another then they may be exchanged.
This meant that 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 signed it. One of the most jolting and penetrating statements of Machen on this issue goes like this:
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.
This utilitarian view of history and language leads to evasive, vague language that enables the modernist to mislead people into thinking he is still orthodox.
This temper of mind is hostile to precise definitions. Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definition of terms . . . Men discourse very eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, faith; but are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms.
Machen’s critique of the spirit of Modernism that flows from its marriage to modernity comes from two sides. First, internally—does this modern culture really commend itself? Second, externally—does the history of Christ and the apostles really allow for such a modernistic Christianity? Or is it not an alien religion?
The Critique of Modernism as Part of Degenerate Modernity
Machen argued that a “drab utilitarianism” de-stroys the higher aspirations of the soul and results in an unparalleled impoverishment of human life. When you take away any objective norm of truth, you take away the only means of measuring movement from lesser to greater or worse to better or less to more beautiful. One doctrine is as good as any contradictory doctrine “provided it suits a particular generation or a particular group of persons.” All that’s left without truth are the “meaningless changes of a kaleidoscope”. Without a sense of progress in view of an objective truth life becomes less and less, not more and more.
In view of these, and other observations about the effects of modernity and Modernism Machen asks modern man if he can be so sure that the past and the truth and the supernatural are really as cheap and expendable as he thought?
Critique of Modernism from New Testament History
Machen wields his powers as a historian and a student of the New Testament. He argues on historical grounds that from the beginning the church was a witnessing church (Acts 1:8) and a church devoted to the apostles’ teaching. In other words, her life was built on events without which there would be no Christianity. These events demand faithful witnesses who tell the objective truth about the events since they are essential. And the life of the church was built on the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42), the authoritative interpretation of the events.
He argues powerfully in the chapter on “Doctrine” in Christianity and Liberalism that Paul made much of the truth of his message and the need to get it exactly right, even if the messenger was not exactly right. For example, in Philippians he was tolerant of those who with bad motives preached to make his imprisonment worse—because they were saying the objective truth about Christ.
But in Galatians he was not tolerant but pronounced a curse on his opponents—because they were getting the message objectively wrong. They were telling gentiles that works of the flesh would complete God’s saving action in their lives which had begun by faith and the Spirit. It may seem like a triviality since both the Judaizers and Paul would have agreed on dozens of precious things including the necessity of faith for salvation. But it was not trivial. And with this kind of historical observation and argument from the New Testament Machen shows that truth and objectivity and doctrine are not optional in grasping and spreading Christianity.
Machen’s response to Modernism, therefore, stands: it is not a different kind of Christianity. It is not Christianity at all. “The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism’ . . . at every point the two movements are in direct opposition”. The foundational truths have been surrendered; or worse the concept of truth has been surrendered to pragmatism so that even affirmations are denials, because they are affirmed as useful and not as true.
I don’t think the structure of the Modernism of Machen’s day is too different from the postmodernisms 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—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. If we do not know history we will be weak and poor in our efforts to be faithful in our day.
We thank Reverend Piper for graciously granting us permission to present this abridged version of a longer tribute to J. Gresham Machen which may be found in its entirety here. Copyright 2009 John Piper. Used by permission from Desiring God organization.
Unless noted, pictures are used with the permission of the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.