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Machen: The Morpheus to My Neo?

(This post has been modified slightly since originally publishing it)

There is a compelling scene in The Matrix, where Neo – the protagonist – is being recruited by the shadowy, mysterious and attractive Trinity. He says, “Why should I trust you?” And she says (and I paraphrase), “Because I know about you, Neo. I know why you can’t sleep. I know why you don’t have any friends, and why night after night you sit at your computer screen. You’re looking for someone. I know because I was once looking for him too. And when I found him, he told me it was not so much him I was looking for, but the answer to a question. You know what the question is, just as I do – what is it, Neo?” Neo, “What is the Matrix?” Trinity, “The truth is out there, Neo – and he is looking for you!”

On a far less melodramatic scale, I too have been on a quest, and today I feel excited (although trying not to get too excited!) that I may have finally found “The One.”

In a way, my quest began even before I was born, when my newly-saved father attended a United seminary. Fresh, excited and naive, he had no idea what his teachers were talking about. It seemed like they were making gobbly-gook out of the Bible, saying that it wasn’t really God’s word, that Jesus wasn’t really who He said he was…the person who seemed to make the most sense was the atheist mathematician, who could not understand why these “Christian” professors claimed to be Christian, while rejecting Scriptures and Christian doctrine. He wisely dropped out and the rest of his life (and my early life) became defined in part by a reaction against what we came to know vaguely as “Liberalism.” Dad studied in New Tribes Mission – where, as he often told us, “they just studied the Bible – book by book by book.” We did family devotions straight out of the Bible for as long as I can remember, and from a young age we were alternately forced and/or encouraged to read the Bible for ourselves. Dad also brought us to very conservative, Bible-centered churches – one of which I am still a member of.

All of this birthed within me a tremendous love for God, and a thirst for His Word: I would not trade my heritage for anything! However, there have been questions which my heritage has been unable to answer. These questions are many, but among the chief of them is an intellectual glass ceiling.

Often, my Dad and others would contrast “study of the Bible” with “study of books about the Bible.” On the surface this seemed helpful: but it cut me off from so much of the depths and richness of commentaries, theologians and expositors of the past! In this, the near-paralyzing fear of Liberalism was clearly a contributing factor. I was never encouraged to read solid commentaries or systematic theologies growing up, and I cannot think of a single systematic theology which was present in my childhood church-library. This lack of serious books left a void which I filled in part with Scriptures (for this I am thankful) and in part with whatever flimsy pop-Christianity book I could find (this was less helpful).

This reaction against Liberalism into a sort of anti-intellectual retreat into Biblicism is generally know today as “Fundamentalism” – and especially when I went through college and into seminary, this tradition felt increasingly shallow and unsatisfactory.

In seminary, however, I met with exactly the same foe as my Dad did. In my hermeneutics class, for example, I read about several different methods for finding meaning from the text of the Bible. “Finding meaning”? Since when did God’s word become an impressionist work of art? I thought I was looking for truth, not meaning? I also learned that the Bible is a very very old book – we can’t really be sure what all it said, and so we need to find other methods (such as existentialism) for finding God through the Bible. (Note: for those readers who know which school I went to – just FYI, my seminary is/was not a Liberal school per-se – they just expose their students to all sorts of views without necessarily throwing them a life-jacket. Good place to learn to swim? Perhaps. Good place to drown? Also possible.)

I never exactly went along with Liberalism on an academic level, but for a while I experimented with popular-level liberalism in the form of the Emergent Church movement. (Note: not all emergent folks are liberal – see post “THE Book To Read On Emergent“) After walking with that ideology until it fell apart for me, I have come limping back home to my home church and the fundamentalism of my childhood. I think I have come to believe something like Kierkegarrd’s “leap.” No, I don’t support the Bible on science: if I did, I would be asserting that the scientific method (which is based on the functions of my own mind) is a higher authority than the Bible. I just accept that the Bible is true, and start there. It is working for me, but I am still searching. I am searching for some way to get beyond the dichotomy between over-simplified and overly complicated, between too shallow and too deep, between “Bible-only” and “using the Bible as a tool to go beyond the Bible.”

I could find a way through myself. I know that I could. However, such a journey would take my entire life – and there are other things which I would like to do with it. Like, for example, serve my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Is there no other way – no guide who may help me? Someone who has gone on before…? I thought for a while that Brevard Childs had found a way…but his work seemed incomplete and unsatisfactory. I thought that Karl Barth had found a way…but now I have serious questions about him, and I am just not sure. (Read about these disappointments in “Letter to a Bartian Professor.” By the way, I still haven’t heard back from my teacher.)

Today, however, I have new hope. In his sermon “J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism” John Piper seems to have lead me to the one man who may have some answers!

Machen was a guy who lived 1881-1937 in America, within the Presbyterian church. He was very well educated and after studying at Princeton (at the time, the standard, conservative Evangelical school of America) he spent time in Germany where he almost lost his faith (as he would have later put it) to become a Liberal. He went on to spend the rest of his life fighting strongly against the dangers of Liberalism: his thoughts are, apparently, mostly summarized in the book “Liberalism and Christianity” – a book which will either be my salvation or yet another bitter disappointment to me.

According to Piper, the first thing you need to know about Machen is that he was not at all interested in starting a new denomination, or a new institution (note: he did both): rather, he saw true Calvinism as the pure root, the fullest expression of Christianity. All other forms of Christianity were either defective or under-developed forms of Calvinism, which alone gave preference to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. Thus, when he saw that Liberalism was a complete dismissal of God in preference for man, he saw it not as a different and acceptable variation of Christianity, but as a denial of it. This was in contrast to Fundamentalism, which seemed to make a new denomination, and fight Liberalism as a rival denomination.

According to Machen, Liberalism began with “the modernist spirit” of the last half of the 19th century.

In a mere fifty years, the scientific process and the powers of the human mind had brought mankind from a primitive to a “modern” way of life. Now there were trains, appliances, telegraphs, etc., to make life so much better than before! However, along with these amazing inventions came a certain way of thinking which was less helpful: in short, people were 1) distrustful of the past, 2) less interested in absolute truth, more interested in practical truth (who care about the soul and ultimate reality? what is really important is learning how to turn on a light bulb and becoming a millionaire!) and 3) dismissing of the supernatural (after all – if it is little demons making the light-bulb turn on, science is useless!). Machen points out that Christianity does need to face these very important questions: there have been two main options – fundamentalism and Liberalism.

Fundamentalism was a movement which identified and rallied around the following points, in reaction against Liberalism:

1) Scriptures are divinely inspired, and were inerrant in the original writing;

2) Christ was born of a virgin and truly God;

3) Christ’s death resulted in a real substitutionary atonement for our sins

4) Christ really rose from the dead, and

5) Christ will come again Christ’s personal pre-millennial and imminent second coming.

Machen was not a fundamentalist, and he did not especially like being grouped in with them – but, if I can paraphrase him – he believed that, “against that great and terrible foe of Liberalism, my differences with Fundamentalism appear trifling.” Trifling, yes, but still existent: his objections to Fundamentalism could have been written by myself, if I had more education and more time to think about it:

1. An absence of a historical perspective (Fundamentals can’t remember history past about 1830)

2. Lack of appreciation for scholarship (I gained less, not more credibility in some circles by becoming more educated)

3. Substitution of brief, skeletal creeds for historic confessions (Why don’t we know/use the confessions of our denomination?)

4. Lack of concern for precise formulation of doctrine (Again – where were the theology texts, where was the solid preaching on doctrine in my childhood…?)

5. Pietistic/perfectionistic tendencies (“Read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow!” …seriously – is this all that there is to true holiness? cf. James 1:27, Matt. 25:33ff)

6. One-sided other-worldliness (Not sure what that means)

7. A penchant for futuristic, premillennial nonsense (Two words: “Left Behind”!)

Machen was not a Fundamentalist – thank God! – but neither was he a Liberal. According to him, the main problem with the Liberal/Fundamentalism debate is that the Fundamentalists made the debate about a mere five points of doctrine, and fought over these points as though Liberalism was a rival denomination of Christianity. This was not thinking deeply enough about the issue, and it was giving Liberalism far too much credit. Far from being a denomination of Christianity, liberalism was and is a a denial of Christianity because it differed to the spirit of the age rather than holding fast to the scorn of the Cross. Thus, they 1) minimized the usefulness of the past, 2) substituted the pursuit of usefulness for the pursuit of truth, and 3) denied the supernatural. The result was the Christianity which my Dad encountered in seminary – professors who were atheistic or agnostic about the supernatural,  but who nevertheless called themselves “Christian” professors. Rather than approaching Scriptures humbly, seeking instructions from a God who really existed, they approached Scriptures brazenly (with a knife on one hand, and a fire on the other cf. Jer. 36:23), seeking “useful” thoughts which would help them live happy, moral, comfortable lives….and, of course, keeping their cushy jobs as Christian teachers (rather than leaving the seminaries to fight for crowded and under-funded posts in secular philosophy – the only other job which would be open to them if they actually admitted they were no longer Christian)!

Liberals are agnostics and atheists who claim to be Christians: naturally, there is a certain amount of dishonest which comes along with this territory. The primary lie is that they accept virtually any doctrinal statement, but behind their back they cross their fingers with this simple phrase, “I believe this is a useful doctrine.” A word is a symbol, and symbols are helpful to different people in different times. In the ancient, primitive first century, when people believed in resurrection from the dead (note: no, people did not believe in the resurrection of the dead back then, cf. Acts 17:32). In today’s enlightened world, however, we do not believe in the supernatural. Therefore, a Liberal will willingly sign any statement of faith – but secretly he will be saying that these doctrines are really useful more than true.

Two things really got Machan’s goat: 1) theological slipperiness. That is, people who used orthodox words, but meant radically different things by them. (Note: This happens all the time with modern-day liberal Emergents!) and 2) people who let liberals get away with theological murder. They don’t criticize the Liberal pastor/teacher who is hiding behind his position and his orthodox words, when anybody who knows anything should be able to see that he is an atheist or at least an agnostic, and destroying the faith of many.

Machan attacked Liberalism basically on two fronts: internally and externally. Internally, Liberalism purported to be the most “useful” doctrine known to man – but what good was it after all? All of this technology and industry has made our lives more comfortable, yes – but has it made us better people? We have no great poets or artists: our best are mostly imitative of the past, and those which are not are usually quite strange. Because we have lost touch with God and with objective truth, we are not really going anywhere – all that we have is a shifting kaleidoscope of varying perspectives. He also attacked Liberalism externally, from Scriptures. Liberals claimed to be Scriptural – well then, what did the Bible say about itself? It says that 1) Christianity is based on facts which really happened, and were witnessed (2 Pet. 1:16, 1 John 1:1), 2) these facts were authoritatively interpreted by the apostles (1 Pet. 1:20-21, ), 3) these facts were formulated into concrete doctrines, which were passed on to future generations (1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15). Paul was amazingly forgiving and tolerant of pastors preaching the gospel with lousy attitudes (Phil. 1:15-18), but was categorically unforgiving of those who got the facts wrong, who preached “another gospel” (Gal. 1:8). In denying the historicity, the authoritative interpretation, and the historical transmission of the Christian tradition, Liberalism is not a variation of Christianity, but a denial of it, full-stop!

According to a very smart person whom Piper quoted (sorry, that’s as good as you get by memory!), Liberalism has never produced a good answer to Machen’s arguments.

Machen called for several points of application which are just as pressingly relevant today as they were in the thirties:

1. Let us use straight language. No more etymological gymnastics. No more using words, but refusing to define them, or pretending to accept them when really one is only saying that “I affirm that some people believe this, and that it has been useful to them….” Let words be defined and clear, with standard usages!

2. Let us alert people to the utter “doctrinelessness” of the church in our day. This is a serious problem! If people are not taught firm truths about God, they will fill in the void with whatever pop-culture spirituality and ambiguity they find in Christian pulp-fiction section, or on TV. Likely, the people in your church are doing this already!

3. Let us realize the importance of founding and maintaining institutions. Yes, it is all about one’s personal faith – but where would any of us be without a church to grow up in, without good books to read, without a solid college and somewhat solid seminary to attend? Institutions are important – let us hold the tide against the Liberal takeover of them!

4. Let us wake up and realize the danger of “indifferentism,” of sitting by idly as Liberalism – that is, as agnostic or atheistic peoples, posing as Christians – categorically takeover the institutions, pulpits and literature of our churches and denominations, thus preaching and teaching their worldview, and destroying the faith of many. This is not right and it is worth fighting over.

5. Very importantly, let us preach and extol a worldview which holds to the centrality and supremacy of God. Only when God is on His throne in our minds will the world make sense.

6. Let us recognize that we will be criticized. This is no easy doctrine, and Liberals have whole arsenals of weapons at their disposal.

I had already planned to write a minor paper on Machen: now, I will switch that to writing one of my major papers on him. Machen has already shed a tremendous amount of light on the Fundamentalist/Liberal distinction, and has given me a whole framework of thought.

Thank you, Morpheus – if your thoughts pan out, I will fight hard where you were unable to complete your mission!!


Podcasts which you may be interested in would be:

A Christian And An Atheist: Show #72 Here, the atheist presses a Liberal “Christian” on his beliefs, and he ends up abdicating most of them, except for a vague notion of deism and love. Note that the Atheist starts making a lot more sense than the “Christian.”

The White Horse Inn: “Is Christianity the One True Religion?.” This podcast is helpful just for the introduction, and has some very profitable discussions throughout.


  1. 5 stars on this post.If the starting point is the sovereignty of God,a lot of the fog and haze lifts rather quickly.Are you familiar with Douglas Wilson from Idaho?I’d encourage you to check him out.He debated Christopher Hitchens in ’08,CD is called Collision.I’d like to hear your take on him.

  2. I’m not so sure about Doug Wilson, but Machen has some excellent points. Good post Josiah. Loved his list on the problems with Christian fundamentalism. Lack of studious study of Scripture is a huge problm in Christianity.

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