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J. Gresham Machen, Old Princeton, and the Presbyterian Controversy (D. G. Hart)

In the most recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Old Princeton,” D. G. Hart has written an article titled, ” J. Gresham Machen, Old Princeton, and the Presbyterian Controversy.” D. G. Hart, an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is an adjunct professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California and served as Academic Dean at WSC from 2000- 2003. He has also taught church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and directed the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. He is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He is the author of several books, including The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist,  J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of American Protestantism,  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin.

Here is the introduction to Hart’s article:

As attorneys in July of 1925 were preparing arguments for the trial of John T. Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, the editors of the New York Times decided to feature a debate between a leading evolutionist and a prominent fundamentalist.  The person they chose to represent Protestantism, J. Gresham Machen, was an odd choice.  An assistant professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and a minister in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., Machen was not used to addressing the subject of Darwinism.  In fact, William Jennings Bryan, the lead prosecutor in Dayton, had invited Machen to give expert testimony about the Bible’s teaching on creation.  The Princeton professor respectfully declined by explaining that as a professor of New Testament he was not competent to speak about technical matters of the Genesis narratives.  But Machen did not turn the New York Times’ editors down.  By 1925, thanks to his highly acclaimed book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), he had established a reputation of not backing down from theological or intellectual controversy.  In fact, because of the kind of argument that Machen employed in that book, he was increasingly identified as one of fundamentalism’s chief spokesman.  That status earned him invitations to give the fundamentalist point of view in ecclesiastical settings, at academic conferences, and in print.

Even if the Times’ invitation made sense of Machen’s reputation, his identity as a fundamentalist was one of the more surprising aspects of his career.  An older generation of historians’ portrayal of fundamentalism as the faith of uneducated, rural, and backward Protestants was certainly guilty of caricature but at the same time, the movement to oppose theological liberalism in the churches and evolution in public schools produced few figures with Machen’s background and credentials.  Sometimes called the “scholarly” or “high-brow” fundamentalist, Machen defied most of the categories used to define militant conservative Protestantism of early twentieth century.

 The Early Years

The son of an accomplished Baltimore attorney, Machen was born on July 28th, 1881, the second of three sons.  His father, Arthur, was from Virginia and his mother, Mary Gresham, was from Macon, Georgia, giving the Machen home strong sympathies and ties to the South and the region’s politics.  (Machen was a life-long member of the Democratic Party.)  He attended private schools in Baltimore before enrolling at Johns Hopkins University, one of the leading institutions in the rise of graduate training, specialized research, and the shift of American higher education away from the liberal arts curriculum to the pursuit of scientific truth.  Despite Hopkins’ innovations, it continued to provide a traditional undergraduate curriculum – minus ties to the church or required religious training – and Machen majored and excelled in the study of ancient Greek literature and history.  He remained at Hopkins after graduating first in his class to complete a Masters degree in Greek with the leading American classicist, Basil L. Gildersleeve.

After finishing at Hopkins, Machen struggled to find a niche in which he could labor as an adult.  He took courses in banking and in law but neither held as much appeal as bicycling, mountain-climbing, and travel.  With a fair amount of reservation, he finally enrolled at Princeton Seminary.  There Machen found the university’s athletic contests to be more interesting than classes, at least that was how he came across in letters to his family.  The one subject that did interest him (in which he won a few scholarships) was New Testament, an area where he could apply his proficiency in Greek.  But the appeal of the Gospels or Paul’s letters was not sufficient to resolve Machen’s indecision about a career.  After graduating from Princeton in 1905, he pursued advanced studies at Marburg and Goettingen in Germany where he became more proficient in modern biblical scholarship.  When he returned to the United States, he took a post at Princeton Seminary as a lecturer in Greek.  At the same time, he refused to pursue ordination in the Presbyterian Church, a requirement for joining the faculty as a full-time member.  Ministers seemed to Machen to be too remote from the duties and delights of everyday life for him to consider it as a vocation.  By 1912, after six years of teaching at Princeton, some of these doubts subsided, and two years later he went ahead with ordination and a regular appointment at the seminary.  Even then, a desire for direct engagement in the affairs of the world prompted Machen to volunteer during World War I as a secretary for the YMCA.  Only after a year at the front in France, where the horrors of war between Europe’s most civilized societies made a lasting impression, did Machen begin to throw himself into his responsibilities as a professor and churchman.

 Machen a Fundamentalist?

Upon his return to the United States, Machen started in earnest to prepare for lectures to be delivered at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, which would be the basis for his first book, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921).  Machen’s argument here was to show that naturalistic accounts of Paul’s faith, efforts that tried to trace his teaching to religious developments in the first-century world, were inadequate, and that the only plausible explanation was the supernatural work of God both in redirecting the apostle’s life and revealing instruction for the early church. This line of reasoning would make Machen attractive to the emerging fundamentalist movement since conservatives were also intent on defending the supernatural character of Christianity over against liberal Protestant interpretations that presented the Bible as the product of the history and culture of the Israelites and first Christians.  Although Machen refused few invitations to speak before conservative audiences, he did decline membership and institutional affiliation with numerous fundamentalist organizations.  Some of the reason for this distance was Machen’s own commitment to the Presbyterian Church and combatting the presence of liberalism there.  Another factor was his disagreement with two of the characteristic doctrines of fundamentalism, namely, dispensational premillennialism and anti-evolution.  He thought dispensationalism an erroneous and even harmful interpretation of redemptive history and he regarded evolution as a side issue.  In fact, in Christianity and Liberalism, his second important book, Machen argued that the real problem with liberalism was not a flawed view of creation or Christ’s return, as important as these truths were.  The real issue was an erroneous understanding of the gospel.  For liberals salvation was attainable through good works.  For Christians man’s only hope for redemption was through the sacrifice Christ made for sin on the cross.

Read the rest of Hart’s article today!

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

Each of us are indebted to those theologians of ages past who have gone before us, heralding the gospel, and even fighting to their last breath to keep the God of that gospel high and lifted up. It is hard to think of a group of men more worthy of this praise than those of the Old Princeton heritage. Men like Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and many others, stand in this rich heritage, men who defended the faith once for all delivered to the saints against the ever-growing threat of liberalism around them.

Since this year marks the 200th anniversary of Old Princeton (1812-2012), it is fitting that we devote ourselves to remembering and imitating these great theologians of yesterday, not because they are great in and of themselves, but because their example points us to the great and mighty God we worship. And who better to introduce us to these Old Princetonians than James M. Garretson writing on Archibald Alexander, W. Andrew Hoffecker making our acquaintance with Charles Hodge, Fred Zaspel reminding us of B. B. Warfield, and D. G. Hart increasing our love for J. Gresham Machen? Not to mention a very in-depth interview with Paul Helseth on Old Princton and the debate over “right reason.”  May these articles and interviews inspire us so that in our own day we might experience a revival of this rich orthodoxy that has stood the test of time.

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