January 15, 2010
An article appearing in the Nov./Dec. 2009 issue of The Journal of the Prayer Book Society
by Rev. Dr. David B. McWilliams, Westminster alumnus and pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Lakeland, FL
Entering the room your attention is drawn to a silent, slightly portly, serene-looking man sitting at a table. His eyes are bright, alert with intelligence; his carriage displays dignity. As you strain to listen you perceive that this is a court, a trial – not conducted by the state – but a court of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the man is on trial for his ecclesiastical life! Who is this man? What could he have done to bring him here? Should his case elicit pity, sympathy or scorn?
The composed, middle aged man sitting before us was born July 28, 1881. The name that rang out in the Presbyterian Church as he received baptism in infancy was John Gresham Machen (1881-1937). He was the son of an uncommonly successful lawyer from Baltimore, and Mary Jones Gresham (the ‘h’ is silent) of Macon, Georgia.
The Machen and Gresham families were southern aristocrats; lovers of learning, language, books and culture. The Greshams counted Sydney Lanier among their friends and J. Gresham’s mother would later make her own literary contribution, a book on the use of the Bible in the poetry of Robert Browning. Young Machen learned Latin at an early age and was taught the Kings of Israel and the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism at his mother’s knee. His upbringing underscored commitment to principle, character and faith in Christ alone for salvation.
Machen began his studies at Johns Hopkins University in 1898, where he took his degree in classics under Basil Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve was a phenomenal classicist, devout Presbyterian, and Machen family friend, whose influence on the young Gresham was massive.
After a considerable personal struggle, Machen took the surprising step of attending Princeton Theological Seminary, in that day the citadel of Presbyterian and Reformed orthodoxy. Princeton seminary stood rock ribbed for the orthodoxy of the Westminster Standards but had an influence far beyond Presbyterian bounds. At Princeton, Machen learned from theological giants such as William Park Armstrong, Gerhardus Vos and supremely, Benjamin B. Warfield. At Warfield’s funeral Machen was later to say that “it seemed to me that old Princeton – a great institution it was – died when Dr. Warfield was carried out.” As we shall see, he was not far wrong.
Machen was scholarly, careful, analytical, and dominated by a desire to know the truth. He investigated with utmost care every facet of Christianity. He believed that truth was fostered in open debate. Therefore, after a year in Princeton the young Machen ventured to Germany and experienced the attraction of a theology totally at odds with that of Princeton. Studying under Hermann, the reigning liberal theologian in Germany at the time, his heart struggled in crises of faith from which he was to emerge with deeper convictions for historic Christianity.
After additional study Machen became an instructor and later professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, having distinguished himself in that field. Over time he published a great deal, including a Greek grammar still widely used, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, a rich, scholarly rebuttal of the liberal interpretation of Paul, and finally The Virgin Birth of Christ, his magnum opus – the labor of a lifetime. It is a work beyond estimation. The book that unquestionably has had the most impact, however, is Christianity and Liberalism, in which he exposed the classical modernist theology as, not another form of Christianity, but a different religion altogether.
Machen had no love for controversy, but seeing liberalism overtake institutions once committed to training men for gospel ministry, especially in the Presbyterian Church, demanded response. Machen was what has become so rare in the world, a man of principle, and this commitment led him to defend Princeton Seminary against the forced reorganization of its board by the General Assembly. Princeton Seminary had stood for over 100 years as the bastion of Reformed orthodoxy, but Machen saw clearly that the reorganization opened the door for board and faculty members who held theological viewpoints antithetical to the charter and history of Princeton. Indeed, the St. Paul assembly of 1929 appointed two members to the Princeton board who had signed the Auburn Affirmation, a document claiming that the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and physical resurrection of Jesus were but theories and not verities. Machen refused to serve under the new board and in that very long, tragic year a number of Princeton professors and former supporters left to found Westminster Theological Seminary. This seminary was committed to the old Princeton tradition and to the scholarly defense of the Reformed faith.
Machen found it necessary, as well, to expose modernism on the mission field. Pearl Buck, Presbyterian missionary to China, published in the Christian Century an approving review of the liberal book Rethinking Missions, and in 1933, in Harper’s, questioned the propriety of Christian missions. A proliferation of such viewpoints led Machen to found The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which was intended to be a temporary measure to insure the support of sound Presbyterian missionaries. He was elected the Board’s first president and was ordered to resign by the General Assembly of 1934, even though membership on such boards was permitted by the church’s constitution. He respectfully declined to resign.
On December 20, 1935, he was tried and condemned for refusing to resign from the Independent Board. He was not permitted to make any pertinent comments in his defense. Machen refused to substitute human authority for the absolute authority of the Word of God. Two years later, on January 1, 1937, while pressing on with speaking engagements despite a developing case of pneumonia, Machen died. His last words sent by telegram to Professor John Murray were: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”
While readers of Mandate might find it unusual for a Presbyterian leader to be featured in its pages, the reasons are not far to seek. Machen always encouraged confessional churches to be consistent with their confessions and the issues faced in the Anglican Communion are not unlike those faced by him. His case was, in many respects, a watershed in American Christianity, and his conduct in controversy demonstrates three characteristics that are instructive to all Christians who may be called to defend the faith. First, he loved the truth and submitted his life to principle. Second, he did so with integrity and without personal animosity. And, finally, he did so with grace. In the midst of controversy, Machen was always a Christian gentleman.
Machen was absolutely clear about what the Christian faith is, and was not willing to mingle the views of consciousness theology and classical liberalism with Christianity. And, if you will permit a recommendation from a Presbyterian minister to my Anglican first cousins, a careful, prayerful perusal of Machen’s insightful Christianity and Liberalism could be cold water to the thirsty soul as you graciously, firmly defend the faith once delivered to the saints. As he wrote in that book: “indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith,” and now is the time for heroes.
A special thanks to Dr. Roberta Bayer and the journal of the Prayer Book Society of the USA, and that the full issue can be found on line at pbsusa.org