J. Gresham Machen: Liberalism's Foe

by Bernard R. DeRemer

J. Gresham MachenJ. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) became an outstanding leader in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s. Yet he came from an elite family and attended traditional institutions.

Born in Baltimore, he graduated from Johns Hopkins University and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became a New Testament instructor. Then he was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry.

But his studies in Germany "brought to a head a crisis of faith which had been intensifying for several years." A critical view of the Bible greatly concerned him. His time abroad did not resolve all his doubts, but it was vital to his becoming an outspoken opponent of protestant liberalism during the 1920s.

He returned to Princeton Seminary with some misgivings but threw himself more heartily than ever into his work. This resulted in two books, both of which "made strong cases that the Bible was trustworthy."

The first was The Origin of Paul's Religion,published in 1921. Machen countered the efforts of biblical scholars who tried to separate the teachings of Jesus from the theology of Paul. A close reading of the New Testament "showed overwhelming agreement between the apostle and the Savior he worshipped Paul was a true follower of Jesus, a divine Redeemer come from heaven to die for the sins of men."

Machen concluded that the spread of Christianity could only be explained by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

His most popular and important book, Christianity and Liberalism, was issued in 1923 by Macmillan, a major New York publisher. Here he stressed that liberalism was not a variety of Christianity but was an entirely different religion. He argued that Christianity had always been rooted in the saving historic acts of Christ's death and resurrection.

"Liberal Protestantismreduced Christianity to a set of general religious principles about being good and following the moral teachings of Jesus. Historic Christianity and liberalism were thus at odds.

"By focusing on the redemptive character of Christianity, Machen's book clarified the issues which separated conservative and liberal Protestants." Machen went on to declare that because of all these factors, conservatives should separate themselves from liberals.

This led to the most difficult period in his life. He became embroiled in a series of conflicts within his own denomination, the Northern Presbyterian Church.

"In 1929, when conservatives lost control of Princeton Theological Seminary, Machen provided both able leadership and financial resources (to start) Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia." Then he helped form a rival mission board in 1933.

All this led to his expulsion from the church in 1936. With other ministers he began the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Earlier he had published The Virgin Birth of Christ.In many respects it was the "capstone of his scholarship, as well as a culmination of his critique of liberal Protestantism." He defended the miraculous birth of Christ against liberal scholars who tried to explain it away either by natural causes or the cultural conditioning of the apostles.

Critics sometimes charged that Machen did not evince "a spirit of love." Yet he readily won the intense devotion of many of his students at both Princeton and Westminster. They admired his mental acumen and defense of orthodoxy but in addition "viewed him as a personal friendwho walked closely with the Lord."

His other titles include New Testament Greek for Beginners, The Christian Faith in the Modern World, and What Is Faith?

In December, 1936, Machen, who never married, went to North Dakota for meetings in spite of his cold and the severe weather-20 below 0. There he contracted pneumonia, which finally wore him down. On New Year's Day, 1937, he went to be with the Lord.

What a glorious and abundant entrance he must have had.


From "Christianity v. Liberalism," by Daryl Hart, in More Than Conquerors; ©1992 Moody Bible Institute; excerpts used by permission.

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