It’s not difficult to stare down the annals of church history and look upon the faces of men and women whose personalities loom large over the historical church. Many wonderful saints deserve their place, front and center, in Christian Cooperstown, but there are some whose memories reside in a dusty corner of that ideological Hall, known only to a few in a particular theological tradition. One of those dimly lit statues is the person of J. Gresham Machen.
Machen is probably most well-known for his founding of both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Both of these institutions, even today, stand as bastions of biblical Christianity, which is an especially relevant fact given the arc of Machen’s career. Ordained in the presbytery of New Brunswick, Machen began his career as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America and a professor at undoubtedly one of the finest ministerial training schools in the West, Princeton Theological Seminary. Though his career and ministry began somewhat quietly and comfortably, things would not always be so tranquil for the good Doctor from New Brunswick.
Machen left Princeton voluntarily in 1929 after its reorganization took control from a theologically conservative board of directors and gave more and more influence to theological moderates and liberals. Machen went on to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, saying at its first convocation,
“[T]hough Princeton Seminary is dead, the noble tradition of Princeton Seminary is alive…[Westminster] will endeavor, not on a foundation of equivocation and compromise but on an honest foundation of devotion to God’s Word, to maintain the same principles that the old Princeton maintained."
Though he left Princeton upon his own volition, and with him O.T. Allis, Cornelius Van Til, and Robert Dick Wilson, the same cannot be said of Machen’s departure from the PC(USA). During the summer of 1933, Machen was charged in church court with insubordination for founding an independent mission board to counteract the increasing theological liberalism he saw within the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He was found guilty two years later, and finally lost his appeal in 1936.
Dr. Machen was by all accounts a man of conviction, some would even say to a fault. But there’s something admirable about standing for your conscience and girding to oneself to God’s Word and what you believe it says, even (especially) in the face of disagreement and pressure, neither of which were always civil. This is especially apparent in the obituaries written by two of Machen’s most able adversaries. Pearl Buck, the author and Presbyterian missionary to China, writes thus,
“In the days when he was hot upon the trail of my own too liberal soul, I received from him, in the midst of his public protestations, a private letter saying that he hoped I would not misunderstand his denunciations or in any way interpret them as being at all personal to me. He had, he said, the utmost respect for me as a person, but no respect at all for my views. I replied that I perfectly understood, inasmuch as this was exactly the way I felt about him, the only difference being that he had the same right to his views that I had to my own. He wrote again to say very courteously that I was completely mistaken, since views were either right or wrong, and his were right.” Buck goes on to say, "We have lost a man whom our times can ill spare, a man who had convictions which were real to him and who fought for those convictions and held to them through every change in time and human thought. There was power in him which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the convictions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits. No forthright mind can live among them, neither the honest skeptic nor the honest dogmatist. I wish Dr. Machen had lived to go on fighting them.
H.L. Mencken, a noted atheist himself, penned the following words upon Machen’s death:
"What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine.He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and pollutingChristianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin.Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives...he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.”
I’ve found myself visiting this man and this moment in church history pretty often lately, I think mainly because I feel like there's a lot to learn from him. There's a surprising deftness in Machen's correspondence with folks. Though he minced no words in his assessment of viewpoints with which he disagreed, he seems to have been able to differentiate between the person and the opinion, which is a remarkably important skill for our postmodern age. Machen serves as a helpful reminder to never excise the teeth of the Gospel when sharing it. This is especially evident in his radio addresses, in reaction to which some have said (perhaps with a bit of merit) that Machen is much too sharp and confrontational. For Machen, though, when God, in Word and Spirit, speaks to sinful man, the only possible outcome is confrontation. Here, God speaks to man, not vice versa, and tells man that he is sinful and in need of a savior, which is offensive to man on all counts. Machen's statements are at times indeed harsh, but they are nothing if not consistent. It's this consistency and authenticity that led interlocutors like Pearl Buck and H.L. Mencken to respect him so much, and it's this consistency and authenticity which led to his enduring faithfulness in the face of conflict. None of this is to say that Machen lacked faults; he most certainly didn't. However, it's this consistency, this authenticity, and this faithfulness to God and His Word which have taught me so much even 80 years after his much-too-early death on New Year's Day, 1937.