April 02, 2014

Machen and Mountains

Stephen Nichols
Machen and Mountains


“I do love the mountains, and I have loved them ever since I can remember anything at all.” That quote comes to us from J. Gresham Machen. Machen was born in 1881 and he died on January 1, 1937. And Machen left behind for us a great legacy. He left behind the legacy of a denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He left behind a legacy in a seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary. And also in a number of great books, of course “Christianity and Liberalism,” a classic text. Perhaps even more necessary and more urgent given the challenges that the church of today is facing than when Machen first wrote that book in 1923.

And he wrote many other books, he wrote one book in particular that gave me many sleepless nights in seminary, and that’s his New Testament Greek for Beginners. And in addition to the seminary and denomination and books, Machen also had a lot of other shorter writings, and one of them is a piece that was published in Christianity Today entitled, Mountains and Why We Love Them. Machen did, as he says in this piece, love the mountains.

He lived in Baltimore, but his family would vacation up in Bar Harbor, Maine, and so his first exposure to the mountains were the great mountains of New England. And then when he graduated from John’s Hopkins University, his parents gave him as a graduation present a trip to Switzerland. And there he went to Switzerland and he had his first encounter with the Alps.

Throughout his life, and as time permitted and his duties allowed, he would find himself back in Switzerland, and back on these Alps. And he’s speaking in this piece, “Mountains and Why We Love Them,” of what he had to learn. He remembers in particular one time when he was standing there on the Matterhorn, and he could look out over, essentially, all of Europe. And as he looked out from that vantage point he says, “You think of the great men whose memories you love, the men who have struggled there in those countries below you, who have struggled for light and freedom, struggled for beauty, struggled above all for God’s Word.”

These are of course the lands of Luther, the lands of Calvin, the lands of the great Reformation. And then Machen is seeing what is happening to this, the crumbling of this in the twentieth century. In fact, he goes on to say that he is one who very much thinks we need a perspective on our age. Kind of like a mountain lifts you out and gives you a perspective over the horizon. So those who are living in the modern world, they need a perspective! And Machen says, “When I do that, when I have this kind of mountain-top perspective, I cannot for the life of me see how any man with even the slightest knowledge of history can help recognizing the fact that we are living in a time of sad decadence. A decadence only thinly disguised by the material achievements of our age, which already are beginning to pawl on us like a new toy."

Machen then, doesn’t just want to end on a sad note, a sour note. Certainly there is a negative thing he has to learn from these experiences of climbing mountains, but there’s also something very positive. And so at the end of this piece he sort of turns this around. He says, “While modernity has proposed life without God,” Machen finds that an alternative that simply is not acceptable it is not viable. In fact, he goes on to say, “There’s only one alternative to this modernist worldview,” and then he says, “the alternative is that there is a God. A God who in His own good time will bring forward great men again to do His will, great men to resist the tyranny of experts, and lead humanity out again into the realms of light and freedom. Great men above all who will be the messengers of His grace. There is far above any earthly mountain peak of vision a God high and lifted up, who although He is infinitely exalted, yet he cares for His children among men.”

This is Machen and why he loved the mountains.