J. Gresham Machen: The Man Who Wrote "Liberalism and Christianity"
THE MAN WHO WROTE ‘LIBERALISM AND CHRISTIANITY’
June 30, 2010
J. Gresham Machen was a man of understated accomplishments. The denomination and seminary that he founded have never been large, yet have had an influence disproportionate to their size. The book for which he is most well known, Christianity and Liberalism is short, written in plain language, and has never enjoyed wide popularity: yet it is among the most important theological works of the 20th century.
Because the thought and life work of Machen flow so clearly from his childhood and education, the first portion of this paper will offer a brief biographical sketch of Machen’s life, with a special emphasis on the factors that shaped his later theological disposition. The latter half of this paper will provide a brief summary of Machen’s polemic against Liberalism in his primary work, Christianity and Liberalism.
J. GRESHAM MACHEN, THE MAN
Born into an affluent, cultured, and firmly Christian family in the 1880’s American south, J. Gresham Machen’s early years positioned him well for his later influence. In his seasoned reflections, he noted that his father – a well-established lawyer – had an enviable library, and could boast mastery of the Classics in Latin, Greek, English, French and Italian literature that would “put our professional scholars [of the early 20th Century] to shame.” His mother – a Presbyterian – was also a bright intellectual, and Machen assures the reader that the brilliance shown in her published work, “The Bible in Browning” was “only one gleaning from a very rich field.” The young Machen was deeply impressed with an appreciation of poetry, of nature, and of the Reformed faith. Machen could perfectly recite the Shorter Catechism at a “tender age,” and, “had acquired a better knowledge of the contents of the Bible at twelve years of age than is possessed by man theological students of the present day.”
His mother – with whom he cultivated a close relationship until her death – was also a fitting companion for the many doubts of the maturing Machen, having struggled similarly herself. These doubts seemed to have come often throughout his childhood and early education, but seemed to reach a real climax when, after receiving a stellar undergraduate which included Princeton Seminary, he spent a year in Marburg, Germany. It was here where his exposure to the pulsating core of Liberalism in his day rocked his faith.
In Marburg, Machen studied mostly the New Testament – but the occasions that he took to sit in on lectures conducted by Wilhelm Hermann were the truly significant events of his time there. Reflecting candidly on this experience, he wrote in 1905:
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. . . 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 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. 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 . . . Perhaps Herrmann does not give the whole truth – I certainly hope he does not – at any rate he has gotten hold of something that has been sadly neglected in the church and in the orthodox theology. Perhaps he is something like the devout mystics of the Middle Ages – they were one-sided enough, but they raised a mighty protest against the coldness and deadness of the church and were forerunners of the Reformation.
Machen later recounts feeling as though that small classroom in Germany was “the centre of world-wide influence, a place from which a great current went forth, for good or ill, into the whole life of mankind.” Almost swept away by it at the time, Machen went through a difficult season of questioning (recorded in part in his correspondence to his mother) before his quest for truth eventually lead him to hold the position of his later career, which will be explored below. Machen’s time in Germany gave him a lasting respect for serious Liberal scholarship, and a patience for those who are doubting as he once did. The stalwart devotion to the truth and radical commitment to honesty that brought him through this season also gave him a hard edge of intolerance towards the intellectual and spiritual dishonesty that he would later encounter in those who gave lip service to creeds and doctrinal statements while secretly espousing Liberal doctrines – and attempting to oust those who did not concur with them.
He returned to America in 1906 and taught New Testament at Princeton Seminary until 1929. During this time he published The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), Christianity and Liberalism (1923), and What is Faith? (1925) in defense of orthodox Christianity. In 1929, despite Machen’s protests, the Northern Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) took actions to make Princeton Seminary more inclusive of the Liberalism creeping into the denomination. Machen was convinced that this change represented the “death” of the school. He left the seminary and founded Westminster Theological Seminary, to provide a conservative option for Presbyterians. When this action was followed by the decision to withhold support from Presbyterian missionaries and to found his own mission, Machen was brought before the PCUSA General Assembly in Cleveland in 1934. It was decreed that failure to support the denomination’s missionaries was tantamount to refusing communion “or any other prescribed ordinance of the denomination:” Machen was stripped of his ordination and forcefully ejected from the Presbyterian church. Machen turned his now-orphaned seminary and missions-board into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) – a denomination which continues to this day.
Regrettably, the strain of his latter years – combined, perhaps, with some poor health decisions – served to tax Machen to the breaking point. On New Year’s Day, 1937, only one year after the formation of the OPC, J. Gresham Machen passed away at the age of fifty-five.
LIBERALISM AND CHRISTIANITY
In Machen’s own words, his aim in writing Christianity and Liberalism was to, “show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies…spring from different roots.” According to Machen, the core differences between Liberalism and Christianity is that one is naturalistic (that is, it denies the creative entrance of God in connection with the origins of Christianity), while the other is supernaturalistic. From these divergent roots grow two entirely different organisms – distinct in their view of doctrine, of God and man, of the Bible, of the person of Christ, of salvation, and, finally, in their view of the Church. When all has been considered, the primary difference that emerges is that while Christianity is and always has been concerned with the redemption of humanity and hope of a life to come. In stark contrast to Christianity, Liberalism is a distinctly non-redemptive religion, with an exclusively this-worldly focus.
The first great difference between Liberalism and Christianity is that while liberals teach a religion that is a way of life, divorced from doctrine, Christianity has always been a way of life founded upon doctrine.
In support of this claim, Machen turns to a representative text: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3) This message contains: 1) facts, or history and 2) interpretations of facts, or doctrine. “Without these two elements, inextricably intertwined,” writes Machen, “there is no Christianity.” Thus, the early character of Christianity is one of witness (cf. Acts 1:8) to a message that purported to have life-changing power. “According to the Christian conception,” continues Machen, “a creed is not based upon Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.” In fact, the entire concept of “gospel” or “good-news” presupposes the fact of a definite event, occurring in history, which has the power to transform all of human existence.
Further, it is sometimes objected that doctrine ruins the possibility of a real relationship with God – but this is contrary to real experience. “Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just bristling with dogma.” In the same way that objective facts known about a friend are the foundation for a warm relationship, doctrine is the foundation of the Christian’s relationship to and love for God.
In contrast to Christianity, the religion of Liberalism is based on universal human emotion and human experience that, by definition, is non-historical, non-doctrinal, impossible to proclaim as “good news,” and is built upon a groundless sentimentality.
God and Man
Having thus defended the importance and centrality of doctrine, Machen moves on to what he believes are the two great presuppositions of the Christian faith: God and Man.
“One attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible,” writes Machen: “That attribute is the awful transcendence of God.” Although God is involved in this world, He is involved as the “free Creator and Upholder of it,” and not as being necessarily bound up with it. If the Biblical starting-place for God is His transcendence, the Biblical starting-place for humanity is sin. “According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God.” This tragic fact – combined with the terrible transcendence of God – provides the dismal backdrop of historic Christianity, which makes the real, historic event of Jesus’ death necessary.
In Liberalism, however, “God…is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His.” Although expressions of this pantheistic religion are varied, the unifying concepts are the “fatherhood of God” and “brotherhood of man” – that is, the concept of a benevolent deity, holding a universal love for all of his children without distinction. This doctrine would not be possible without the removal of the historic doctrine of sin – thus entirely removing the need for a savior, and putting humanity at the center of religion.
The next area of great difference between Liberalism and Christianity is in their treatment of the Bible. While both religions agree that the Bible contains much truth that is available to all men everywhere through nature and through conscience (although both these are clouded by sin), the Bible also contains something quite unique.
It could be said that the whole of the Old Testament looks forward to one decisive event, which serves as the center and core of the New Testament – that is, the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of by Jesus Christ. According to the Christian view, therefore, the Bible is primarily a narration of real, historical events. Although very ancient, the Christian believes that these events may serve as the real foundation for our faith because of: 1) the early date of the documents, 2) the evidence of their authorship, 3) the internal evidence of their truth, 4) the impossibility of explaining their origins in pagan mythology, and 5) the confirmation of their claims in the experience of the present-day experience of Christians.
Far from this lofty view of Scriptures, Liberalism begins with the assumption that no supernatural power was present either in the events narrated or in the act of recording them in Scriptures. Thus, since Scriptures are only an expression of religious devotion, it is possible to be
dismissive of the Old Testament, and highly selective of the New Testament.
The criteria of selection is often declared to be Christ: upon further examination, however, this claim is seen to be false, since: 1) virtually all of the doctrines most abhorrent to Liberalism are also present in the teachings of Jesus, 2) Liberals ignore Jesus’ affirmations of the Old Testament, 3) Liberals ignore Jesus’ commendation of the Apostolic interpretation of His life and work (John 14:26), and 4) Liberals even edit the words and actions of Jesus. Thus, it becomes abundantly clear that, “It is not Jesus…who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made.”
Because Liberalism and Christianity differ so widely on the presuppositions of the faith, it is not surprising that they differ also on the role of the great object of faith, Jesus Christ. As has been said, Christianity holds to the great transcendence of God and the wretched state of humanity – necessitating a mediator. The only solution which was possible was for God Himself to come into human history, to solve the problem of sin from the inside out, and to thus make a restoration to God possible. The righteousness of Christ is credited to a person through faith: thus, the Christian religion is basically a religion that makes faith in Jesus Christ its central motif.
By negating the two great presuppositions of Christianity, Liberalism has no need of a saviour: also, the Liberal balks at the idea of the supernatural making an intrusion into the natural world. Finally, since the life of Christ is so removed from us in time the Liberal is inclined to see Jesus’ life and work as a non-historical myth of the supreme human life. Thus, the Christ of Liberalism directs the gaze of the Liberal away from Himself, and onto themselves and their attempts at morality.
It is in salvation that the great difference between Liberalism and Christianity is seen most clearly: for, “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of ‘salvation’) in man: Christianity finds it in an act of God.”
In theological terms, the Liberal understanding of salvation comes down to nothing more than works, and a hardening of the heart. It is up to the individual, they believe, to do their utmost to imitate Christ, to bring His example of redemption to the world, and to make themselves acceptable to God. In regards to their own sin, the solution that is presented is to focus on the love and longsuffering of God, to learn to forgive themselves, and to “let bygones be bygones” in regards to the harm they have caused to others. No atonement is necessary, because sin is not really as great an offense as historic Christianity has always made it out to be.
Although apparently good news, Machen rightly identifies this as a terrible doctrine which has no real power to free people from their bondage to sin and denies the existence of a real moral order. Further, there can be no doubt that this is the very form of legalistic gospel which Christianity has battled with and rejected from the very beginning (cf. Galatians and Jude).
As Machen enters into the final chapter of his work, he feels confident that he has established Liberalism as a different religion from Christianity. This belief is in keeping with the historic Christian conviction that Christianity is its own unique entity, and Christians are a separate entity whose fellowship together as “the church,” gathering around a shared experience of God’s grace through Christ, represents an entity totally different from the world.
In stark contrast to this, Liberalism believes in the “universal brotherhood of man,” which sees no such demarcation between Christian and non-Christian, and which sees the church only as a place of moral instruction and social connection.
Machen ends with a passionate plea for the right of historic Christianity to maintain the institutions and churches that it has established, without being forced to share space with Liberalism. Machen feels that the two religions cannot cohabit the same space: therefore, the honorable thing to do is for Liberalism to form its own separate religion, such as the Unitarian Church has done. If this alternative is not possible, Machen grudgingly admits that the only other option is for the historic Christians to form their own exclusive fellowship, for “the deep, pathetic longing of the Christian for fellowship with his brethren” cannot be ignored, nor should it be trampled underfoot by the “forced union of machinery and tyrannical committees” who are attempting a union of the world against the Lord.
The critique raised most vehemently against Machen was that he was a disturbers of the peace, a causers of division, a wrangler with words, and the like. If, however, Machen’s thesis can remain unassailable – that is, if Liberalism truly is a heretical form of Christianity which is really un-Biblical, naturalistic, agnostic and thoroughly pagan intrusion into Christianity, then it is those who tolerate, co-mingle with and otherwise allow Liberalism to propagate and to take over the denominations and institutions of Christianity who must defend their actions.
As Machen rightly states: “The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from ‘controversial’ matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”
If Liberalism truly is what Machen says that it is, then it is no exaggeration to lift Machen’s great struggles in the 1920’s with Luther’s in the 1500’s, and Athanasius’ in the 300’s. Once again, the great doctrines upon which Christianity is founded are under attack: once again, a great majority of the Christian church has fallen into error. Once again, it is time for men of conviction to stand in the gap, to pay the price, and to defend orthodoxy in the grace of God. Often alone, but not alone because he had truth on his side, J. Gresham Machen stood as a new Athanasius, defending orthodoxy against the great Modern heresy of Liberalism.
Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Machen, J. Gresham. What is Faith? Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Publications. 1992.
Machen, J. Gresham. “Liberalism or Christianity?” The Princeton Theological Review 20 (1922):
93-117. [document on-line]. Available from http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal /reformationink/jgmchrandlib.htm. Accessed 17 May 2010.
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Theology: Theological Autobiographies. New York, NY: Round Table Press, 1932. [document on-line]. Available from http://www.pcahistory.org/findingaids/machen/
index.html. Accessed 24 May 2010.
Machen, J. Gresham. “The Separateness of the Church” Princeton Theological Seminary. 8
March 1925. [sermon on-line]. Available from http://www.pcahistory.org/findingaids/ machen/separateness.pdf. Accessed 31 May 2010.
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Piper, John. “J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism.” 1993 Bethlehem Conference for
Pastors. [sermon and transcript on-line]. Available from http://www.desiringgod.org /ResourceLibrary/ Biographies/ 1464_J_Gresham_Machens_Response_to_Modernism/ #_ftnref66. Accessed 24 Mar. 2010.
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Stonehouse, Ned B. J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth
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 Note: J. Gresham Machen’s “Liberalism or Christianity?” The Princeton Theological Review 20 (1922): 93-117 [document on-line] Available from http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal /reformationink/jgmchrandlib.htm, Accessed 17 May 2010, is a shorter, seminal version of the later work, J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009)which was quoted almost verbatim and greatly expanded in the later work. Because the earlier work at times says the same thing as the latter work in a more concise manner, the two works will be quoted interchangeably where they overlap.
 J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” ed. Vergilius Ferm, Contemporary American Theology: Theological Autobiographies, (New York, NY: Round Table Press, 1932), 246.
 Ibid, 248.
 Ibid, 249.
 J. Gresham Machen, in Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987) as quoted in John Piper, “Response to Modernism,” 1993 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors, [sermon and transcript on-line]. Available from http://www.desiringgod.org /ResourceLibrary/ Biographies/1464_J_Gresham_Machens_Response_to_Modernism/ #_ftnref66, Accessed 24 Mar. 2010.
 Machen, Christianity in Conflict, 255.
 J. Gresham Machen, ed. William D. Dennison, “J. Gresham Machen’s Letters Home From Mauburg” Journal For the History of Modern Theology 16. [documen on-line]. Available from http://www.reference-global.com/doi/abs/10.1515/ZNTH.2009.013. Accessed 31 May 2010.
 In Christianity in Conflict, for example, he speaks with admiration of the character (but not the message) of many Liberal scholars and teachers.
 A famous example of the kinds of missionaries which Machen did not want to support was Pearl Buck, who said that if any person could create and portray a person like Christ 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.” From Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Publishing, 1998), 475.
 Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, 485.
 John Piper expresses the sentiment of several biographers when he states that, not having a spouse or close companion to speak sense into his life and schedule, Machen “worked himself to death.” The decisive event likely was a trek through the snow to preach to a small group of churches, when his friends told him he looked “deathly tired” and urged him not to go. John Piper, “J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism,” 1993 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors [sermon and transcript on-line]. Available from http://www.desiringgod.org /ResourceLibrary/ Biographies/ 1464_J_Gresham_Machens_Response_to_Modernism/ #_ftnref66. Accessed 24 Mar. 2010.
 Machen, Christianity in Crisis, 266-267.
 Ibid, 96.
 Ibid, 94, italics added.
 Ibid, 98.
 Ibid, 99.
 Ibid, 99.
 Ibid, 100.
 Ibid, 99.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 66.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 99.
 Machen, Liberalism and Christianity, 151.
 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 1.