Sunday, January 1, 2012

75 years ago: The death of J. Gresham Machen

On January 1, 1937, J. Gresham Machen, one of the great scholarly contenders for the Christian faith in the 1920s and 1930s, went to be with the Lord Jesus Christ at the relatively young age of 55. Dr. Machen was Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary from 1914-1929. It was during this period that modernism--the basis of which is the idea that the Bible was mainly of human, rather than divine, origin--became increasingly influential. In 1929 Dr. Machen left Princeton Seminary and founded Westminster Theological Seminary. As modernism increasingly influenced missionary activities of the Northern Presbyterian Church, Dr. Machen founded, in 1933, the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which he and fellow Bible-believers had a right to do under the rules in place. The NPC leadership, now controlled by modernists, suspended Dr. Machen and seven colleagues--including Carl McIntire--and defrocked Dr. Machen. Francis Schaeffer, in his last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984), commented (pp. 34-35):

Then in the mid 1930s, there occurred an event which I would say marks the turning-point of the century concerning the breakdown of our culture. By 1936 the liberals were so in control of the Northern Presbyterian Church that they were able to defrock Dr. J. Gresham Machen...Machen's defrocking and the resulting division of the Northern Presbyterian Church was front-page news in the secular news media in much of the country...this was rightfully page-one news, for it marked the culmination of the drift of the Protestant churches from 1900-1936. It was this drift which laid the base for the cultural, social, moral, legal, and governmental changes from that time to the present. Without this drift in the denominations, I am convinced that the changes in our society in the last fifty years would have produced very different results from what we have now. When the Reformation churches shifted, the Reformation consensus was under cut. A good case could be made that the news about Machen was the most significant U.S. news in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the culmination of a long trend toward liberalism within the Presbyterian Church and represented the same trend in most other denominations. Even if we were only interested in sociology, this change in the churches and the resulting shift of our culture to a post-Christian consensus is important to understand if we are to grasp what is happening in the United States today. It is interesting to note that there was a span of approximately eighty years from the time when the higher critical methods originated and became widely accepted in Germany to the disintegration of German culture and the rise of totalitarianism under Hitler.

Dr. Machen became the principal figure in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. His trial and defrocking had taken a toll on his health, and Mr. Machen took ill and died while visiting Bismarck, North Dakota to fulfill speaking engagements. A number of Dr. Machen's works are still available, including On the Deity of Christ; Christianity and Culture (1912, 1913); The Origin of Paul's Religion (1921); Christianity and Liberalism (1923); What is Faith? (1925); and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930).

While I disagree with Dr. Machen's Calvinism, I respect him as one of the 20th century's greatest defenders of fundamental Christian doctrine. Those who think that religious liberals are nice people with good intentions should look at the way they treated J. Gresham Machen, whose death so soon after his defrocking does not reflect positively on his inquisitors. It should be kept in mind that not only did Dr. Machen's tormentors differ with him theologically, but they were nowhere near his level in terms of scholarship.

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