J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)
Born: Baltimore, United States
Role: theologian, Princeton university scholar, pastor, founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, Orthodox Presbyterian Church (America) & Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
Emphases: historical, doctrinal/confessional Christianity; plenary inspiration/inerrancy of Scripture; reality of the supernatural elements of Christianity; full divinity & humanity of Christ; reality of sin; penal substitutionary atonement; exclusivity of salvation in Christ
Protested against: theological liberalism
J. Gresham Machen was schooled in the Westminster Catechism of his mother’s Presbyterian faith and grew up attending Presbyterian churches with his parents. In his early twenties, he entered Princeton Theological Seminary – the fortress of American Reformed academia and ministry training. He graduated in 1905 with dual degrees in theology and liberal arts and travelled to Germany to undertake further studies, while evaluating his future career paths.
Machen experienced personal difficulties as a result of being confronted with the theological liberalism that characterised the German theological environment. While wrestling with the incompatibility between the conservative, Bible-based Presbyterianism of his upbringing and the critical, modernistic, scholastic faith of those he was studying under – Machen eventually came down squarely on the side of theologically conservative, confessional Presbyterianism.
Returning home to take up positions at Princeton and within the Presbyterian Church, Machen became perhaps the most prominent champion of reformed orthodoxy against the advent of theological liberalism in early 20th century America. As an academic he challenged the liberal scholars of biblical studies by refuting their theories about Paul’s theology departing from Jesus’ teachings. As a theological writer, he attacked liberalism as a different religion that claimed to be Christianity, but differed from it substantially. His best known work, Christianity and Liberalism, remains insightful as an exploration of the key differences between the two different kinds of faith that claim the name of Christianity even today.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy – over the relationship between Christianity’s core doctrines, Scriptures and creeds and the rationalistic mindset of modernism – was the major battle in American churches in the early 1900s. What at first appeared to be a contest concerning the public Christian ‘mind’ became a vicious war for the heart and soul of the church.
Liberals in almost every denomination perverted almost every key orthodox doctrine imaginable in order to ‘reconcile’ their ancient faith with the modern world. The miraculous and supernatural elements of Christianity were downplayed or even denied: Christ’s virgin birth could be explained away; the signs and wonders of the Old and New Testament were pre-modern, unscientific descriptions of natural, explainable phenomena; Scripture itself was not divinely inspired in the way it was commonly understood.
Most seriously, doctrines that pertained directly to salvation, such as the nature of Christ’s atonement and the historical reality of His resurrection were increasingly questioned by ministers and theologians who perceived these dogma as being out of step with modern sensibilities.
Machen pulled no punches in fighting against these pernicious reinterpretations of the Christian faith. But his attempts to keep liberalism from taking over the Presbyterian Church eventually resulted in his expulsion from it – putting him in that great line of rejected reformers who were forced to carry on their work outside of the church they sought to transform for the better.
In 1929, he had founded the Westminster Theological Seminary as an alternative to Princeton Seminary – which was increasingly tolerant of liberal theology and less committed to the robust Reformed theology of previous generations of faculty. A few years later he set up a rival Presbyterian mission sending-agency to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, due to dissatisfaction with the latter’s vetting of missionary candidates in line with orthodox theological standards. This was too much for his denomination, which took action against Machen, resulting in the suspension of his ordination in 1935.
Together with other ministers who were gravely concerned at the state of their denomination, Machen formed the Presbyterian Church of America (which was forced to change its name, for legal reasons to the ‘Orthodox Presbyterian Church,’ as it remains today). It was a denomination where the fundamentals of the faith and subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith would be treasured and guarded by all its ministers.
Machen died of pneumonia just 6 months after the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. While this meant that he would play little to no role in the development, growth and ongoing activity of the new denomination, his theology and outlook were profoundly imprinted upon the OPC and the other institutions he was instrumental in founding and thus he continued to have a considerable impact upon them long after his death.
John Frame summarised this impact with the following words:
J. Gresham Machen, a lifelong bachelor, left no biological children but many spiritual ones. The story of American conservative evangelical Reformed theology in the twentieth century is largely the story of those children.
“Machen’s Warrior Children,” as Frame has described these theological descendants, have continued to contend for the truths their forefather stood for in the face of widespread liberalism and doctrinal infidelity. While by no means all of Westminster Theological Seminary’s graduates would appreciate that moniker, its breadth of notable alumni demonstrates something of Machen’s lasting impact upon reformed evangelicalism.
Popular pastors and preachers such as Tim Keller and Alistair Begg; theologians such as Wayne Grudem and Kevin Vanhoozer; apologists such as Francis Schaeffer and Robert Bowman; and seminary presidents like Edmund Clowney (of WTS itself) and Philip Ryken (of Wheaton College) are all graduates of the seminary. The current Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Glenn Davies is also an alumnus of WTS.
Thus, Machen’s legacy has had a considerable impact on many of the shapers of contemporary, 21st century evangelicalism in America and internationally. 80 years after his death, there is still a great need for godly and faithful Christians to contend earnestly for the faith in their respective denominations and, indeed, form new institutions and even church networks where reform proves impossible. Machen should be a valued guide to any evangelical church leader who finds themselves in such a situation.
You can read an online copy of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism here.
 John Frame, “Machen’s Warrior Children” https://frame-poythress.org/machens-warrior-children/
P.C. Kemeny, “Machen, J.G.” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
“John Gresham Machen” wikipedia