In an age when theological liberalism sought to sway the church, J. Gresham Machen took a definitive stand for truth. Today, Stephen Nichols tells us about this 20th-century advocate of the central doctrines of Christianity.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: This week on the Ask Ligonier podcast I’m joined by the president of Reformation Bible College and the host of the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History. Dr. Nichols, can you help us understand, who was J. Gresham Machen?
DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: Well, Machen was a New Testament scholar. He was a Princeton professor. He was the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He was a key founder of a denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He’s the author of some very scholarly texts: The Virgin Birth of Christ, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, and he even wrote a grammar of New Testament Greek. In addition to those books, he’s also the author of what is, by all accounts, a twentieth-century classic text, Christianity and Liberalism. But I’d like to put all of that just much more succinctly and say that Machen belongs to that constellation of rare and precious gifts of God to His church.
He was a major figure in what was the fundamentalism and liberalism contest for the church. Now, this goes back, has its beginnings—this debate—in the 1880s, 1890s, but really comes to a head in the 1920s. A significant watershed moment here is 1925 and the Scopes Monkey Trial, and sort of the battle between fundamentalism and liberalism. Well, let’s take a step back here and see what we’re talking about.
In American culture, as we go into the turn of the twentieth century, it’s progressivism, and really it comes to be known as modernism. What we see, really for the first time in American culture, is that the cultural elites are wanting to move forward without the church and without the sort of baggage of doctrine. Well, this is a wake-up call for the church because the church doesn’t want to be left behind as culture moves forward. And so, there are many within the church who are willing to negotiate key beliefs and key doctrines in order to keep that seat and influence in culture.
And so, what are the key doctrines that they begin negotiating? Well, we start with God, and we just sort of knock off some of those doctrines like His holiness, or His wrath, or His anger, and we begin to see God as much more of a God of mercy and love—almost exclusively. Well, this has a view of human nature: “We’re basically good people. We can be better, but these ideas that we are sinful and totally depraved just don’t mash with modern sensibilities.” And then, of course, that flows into how we think about Christ and what Christ is doing on the cross. And of course, He dies on the cross, but does He do that because we need a substitute, or does He do that because He’s providing an example for us?
Well, these are all key doctrines. And of course, underlying these doctrines is the bedrock of the Bible. So now, we start thinking differently in liberalism about the Bible. It’s no longer the Word of God handed down, but it is more the traditions of men, and it’s more our expression of our religious expression. And of course, modern man doesn’t believe in miracles, so we need to rethink miracles, et cetera.
Well, that’s all liberalism—it wants to negotiate away core beliefs. Along comes Machen, and Machen says: “Historic, Christian, orthodox faith is beliefs. We can’t just redefine everything and still call it Christianity.” And in 1922, there was a sermon published by Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was a consummate liberal, at First Presbyterian Church in New York, overlooking Central Park, funded by John D. Rockefeller, on the radio, heard by millions across the United States of America, propounding liberalism and liberalism’s ideas. Machen responds with his text Christianity and Liberalism in 1923.
And again, what he wants to tell us is, “We can’t simply redefine or renegotiate these doctrines and still have Christianity.” He says, “You’re free to believe what you want to believe, but you can’t believe what you want to believe and still call it Christianity.” And so, he takes us just slowly, carefully, biblically, faithfully through these doctrines: God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, the church. And he just helps us understand that Christianity is a set of beliefs, and we don’t help culture by compromising them away. We help culture when we say, “Your only hope is in Jesus Christ because you are a sinner standing before a holy God, and you must have a substitute.” That is the best thing we can do for any culture, whether it’s 1920s or it’s the 2020s.
So yeah, Machen was a great New Testament scholar, but he recognized what was happening in the church and he stepped in, used all of his God-given gifts—his brilliant mind, his ability with words—and defended the faith at the points where it was being contested in his moment. And the beauty of Machen is that he gives a timeless answer to those timely questions. And so in one sense, this book of his is maybe even more urgent and more relevant to the moment we find ourselves now.
So again, Machen, I do believe, is in that great constellation of folks that have just been so helpful to us and can continue to be helpful to us as a church as we seek to be faithful disciples of Christ.
Updated July 25, 2023
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