Theological Daylighting: Retrieving J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism

Justin McLendon

In 2025, New York residents will benefit from a long-planned environmental project of Tibbetts Brook, a small stream that flows through Yonkers and the Bronx, eventually merging into the Harlem River. This project promises to address annual flooding and the stressed stormwater infrastructure of New York’s aged sewer system. Like other waterways in the United States, Tibbetts Brook was once a thriving water source that developers chose to contain by burying the waterway underground, forcing water through culverts and other coverings. Over time this process contributed to neighborhood flooding as underground culverts proved to be incapable of handling excess water and drainage.

Daylighting is the environmental act of restoring a covered waterway, and this tedious process can be pursued for a variety of reasons, such as to improve water quality, provide wildlife habitat, or create a more pedestrian-friendly environment.[1] Daylighting, however, can be a complex and challenging process, for it often requires the removal of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure that has been built over the waterway. Complicating matters further, daylighting requires strategic thinking to ensure that the banks of the waterway are stabilized to prevent future erosion and flooding. While daylighting is fraught with complexities, its benefits can be significant.

In one sense, daylighting a buried waterway is the exhuming of a buried life-source, with the belief that its resources are critical to future flourishing. From my perspective, daylighting can be theologically applied to old books that often sit untouched on our bookshelves, forgotten by the distance of time and change. Theological daylighting offers a compelling picture of how we can rejuvenate and reinvigorate theological discourse by retrieving the theological riches of the past to bring them into dialogue with contemporary challenges. As such, in what follows we will consider an old life-source from which we can theologically daylight three applications.

Confronting Liberalism

Biographical treatments of J. Gresham Machen are easily accessible, and a full treatment is beyond the purview of our reflection.[2] We should recall, however, that Machen was a prominent American theologian and a key figure in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century.[3] Born in 1881 in Baltimore, Maryland, Machen displayed exceptional intellectual abilities from a young age. He pursued his education at Johns Hopkins University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Universities of Marburg and Göttingen in Germany. For our purposes, we recall his lengthy service as New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he taught from 1906 until Princeton’s reorganization in 1929.

Recognizing the urgent need for a new institution committed to the preservation of orthodox Christian doctrine, Machen (and others) founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. The seminary aimed to provide rigorous theological education firmly rooted in the authority of Scripture and the Reformed tradition. Machen’s establishment of Westminster showcased his unwavering commitment to doctrinal integrity and his determination to equip future generations of Christian leaders with a solid theological foundation. John Murray, who arrived at Westminster in 1930, claimed that “Westminster raised a banner for the whole counsel of God when concrete events had made it more than apparent that Reformed churches throughout the world had laid in the dust that same banner, defaced, soiled, and tattered. When the enemy came in like a flood, God in his abundant mercy and sovereign providence raised up a standard against him.”[4] We cannot overlook Murray’s insistence upon the seminary’s role in confronting enemy forces, stationed as it were as a bulwark against the intellectual assaults of Modernist proponents and institutions.

Machen’s opposition to the theological liberalism within the PCUSA led to his involvement in various controversies, including the Auburn Affirmation and the subsequent trials that resulted in his suspension from the ministry. Despite facing opposition and criticism, Machen remained steadfast in his defense of orthodox Christianity and his commitment to the authority of Scripture. His theological convictions and willingness to stand against the prevailing cultural and theological trends earned him both admirers and detractors.

Due to his untimely death in 1937, Machen’s primary theological challenges and his enduring influence are often bookended within the confines of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy. Overall, Machen’s academic career was characterized by significant contributions to New Testament studies and his frequent engagement with theological issues: his publications addressed New Testament criticism, Pauline studies (e.g., The Origin of Paul’s Religion; 1921), Bible surveys, doctrinal treatments of the virgin birth (e.g., The Virgin Birth of Christ; 1930), theological anthropology, the Christian understanding of faith, and most notably, the intersection of Christianity and cultural engagement. He played a leading role in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936 (serving as its first moderator), after his departure from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).

Machen’s classic, Christianity and Liberalism, has now reached its one-hundredth anniversary and remains a standard academic text to engage early twentieth-century theological developments in American seminaries and churches. The book, however, has a grassroots origin: its first iteration occurred in 1921, when Machen addressed the Ruling Elders’ Association of Chester Presbytery with concerns over theological trends infecting academic and ecclesiastical audiences. Machen knew, and we must never forget, that theological wandering in the seminaries eventually infects the people in the pews. The following year, The Princeton Theological Review published Machen’s remarks, which ultimately created widespread interest and the need for a more substantive presentation. Thus, in 1923, Machen’s mature presentation appeared and challenged American Protestants to reject the appeals of theological liberalism. As D. G. Hart acknowledged, Machen’s book “met a chilly reception” among his peers, and Machen’s formidable opposition dismissed his concerns as extremist and alarmist, only fostering a theological isolationism.[5]

Though not a lengthy work, throughout Christianity and Liberalism Machen offered a robust defense of orthodox Christianity against the encroachment of modernist ideas. He argued that theological liberalism diluted the essential doctrines of the faith, including the authority of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the significance of the atonement, and the role of the church in society. Machen contended that Christianity and liberalism were fundamentally incompatible, as liberalism sought to reinterpret and revise Christian doctrine to accommodate modern sensibilities and scientific advancement.

Machen lived in an era where Christian orthodoxy was contested from internal and external forces. As he argued:

The great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.”[6]

According to Machen, theological liberalism transcended mere variations in ecclesiastical practice or divergent Christian theological perspectives (more on this later). Rather, he contended that liberalism constituted an entirely distinct and humanized religious system, characterized by a sentimental, superficial, and man-made understanding of God. Machen believed liberalism departed wholesale from the historical and doctrinal tenets of orthodox Christianity.

Thus, Machen meticulously dismantled the theological presuppositions of liberalism and exposed its inconsistencies. His rigorous analysis not only challenged the intellectual foundations of theological liberalism but offered a warning of perilous consequences if churches and institutions failed to reject what amounted to an imposter religion clothed in Christian garb.

Three Applications of Machen’s Work for Today

There is, of course, a great distance between 1923 and today, and over the course of one hundred years, the Church has encountered significant challenges on every front. Machen could not have imagined Vatican II, the outbreak of liberation theology, or the recent theological compromises related to marriage and sexuality. Even though much has transpired since Machen’s publication, we should carefully daylight key features of his work to assist our efforts in maintaining doctrinal fidelity. Of course, it goes without saying, every generation of Christians must articulate a robust defense of the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible, and Machen provides a timeless and informed example.

We can further assume that Christians will continue to encounter challenges from secular worldviews whose epistemological framework rests upon scientific findings and secular humanism. As Mark Noll observes, “Modernists were Protestants who felt it was important to adjust Christianity to new science, new economic expansion, and new ideals of human progress.”[7] We are careful to remember that Christian orthodoxy will always be challenged on two fronts: from a secular, godless culture whose rejection of Christianity persists, and those within the church, like the Modernists of old, who seek to soften the perceived rough edges of doctrine, often with the aim of bridging the gap between traditional faith and a younger generation. This phenomenon occurs across generations and cultures, as the allure to adapt and accommodate doctrinal principles remains a recurring challenge for the Christian community.

In addition to these obvious areas of continued relevance, we can discern three additional applications as we address present crises and forecast future challenges. The following applications do not exhaust the usefulness of Machen’s work, but these broadly apply, even if portions of his work are deemed outdated.

1. Making an Apologetic Approach

In every era, the presence of Christian apologists is indispensable, and Machen serves as an example of a comprehensive apologetic approach encompassing biblical fidelity, historical acumen, a deep devotion to the gospel, and a commitment to safeguarding the church from error. Christians are called to be apologists, which means we are tasked with providing a rational defense of the Christian faith. This responsibility does not mean every Christian must possess expertise in all areas of knowledge, but rather, we are expected to provide answers for the hope that resides within us (1 Pet. 3:15). In essence, this means, as part of our faith, Christians work as ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), whose task centers upon articulating and explaining the basis for their beliefs when engaging with others, demonstrating the historical, biblical, and theological reasons for our hope in Christ. When we consider our duty to defend Christian orthodoxy, we can retrieve a critical aspect of Machen’s approach.

Though he did not use our modern term when assessing the modernist challenges, Machen viewed the severity of modernist claims through the lens of theological triage.[8] In short, theological triage refers to the process of prioritizing theological issues based on their significance and impact on Christian doctrine. As such, this evaluation involves categorizing theological disagreements into different levels of importance, distinguishing between essential doctrines, secondary doctrines, and issues of lesser consequence. This approach helps Christians navigate theological tensions, ensuring that we focus on preserving core, essential beliefs while allowing room for secondary disagreements.

In Machen’s case, he argued, “We do not mean, in insisting upon the doctrinal basis of Christianity, that all points of doctrine are equally important. It is perfectly possible for Christian fellowship to be maintained despite differences of opinion.”[9] As an example, Machen noted the rising interest of eschatology, especially the growing popularity of dispensational premillennialism (Machen also uses the older term, Chiliasm). Though Machen admitted that the rise of premillennialism “causes us serious concern,” for he denied its hermeneutical conclusions, he nonetheless praised premillennial advocates for their adherence to orthodoxy: “how great is our agreement with those who hold the premillennial view!” Despite his rejection of premillennialism, he recognized that its adherents

share to the full our reverence of the authority of the Bible, and differ from us only in the interpretation of the Bible; they share our ascription of deity to the Lord Jesus, and our supernaturalistic conception both of the entrance of Jesus into the world and of the consummation when He shall come again.[10]

With the challenges the church now faces, we must resist every effort to delegate apologetics to specialists. Instead, from the perspective of Christian discipleship, the employment of theological triage can assist our apologetic witness to clarify the gravity of theological novelty, all with the hopes of providing a grid with which we can discern the legitimacy and seriousness of new proposals.

2. Maintaining Theological Vocabulary

Christians must preserve and promote theological terminology as means of Christian discipleship. Machen recognized the downstream dangers of abandoning theological vocabulary to accommodate modern sensitivities. He claimed that “among students [at theological seminaries] the reassuring employment of traditional phrases is often abandoned, and the advocates of a new religion are not at pains, as they are in the Church at large, to maintain an appearance of conformity with the past.”[11] In other words, to avoid offending others, modernist sympathizers jettisoned specific theological terminology to situate Christianity around experientialism and morality. This practice was justified as a way to convey Christianity in relational rather than doctrinal terms. Machen, on the other hand, understood that Christianity is much more than doctrine, but it is not less than doctrine.

In his advocacy of retaining theological terminology, Machen argued that

From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name “gospel” or “good news” implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. “Christ died” —that is history; “Christ died for our sins”—that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.[12]

From its inception, Christianity was more than a mere lifestyle; it was a way of life rooted in a profound message. Foundational to this way of life was the significance of doctrine. Machen appealed to the Apostle Paul, demonstrating that doctrine served as the very bedrock of his ministry, fueling his intense concern for the substance and content of the Christian message. Machen is not rejecting the reality of theological contextualization (explaining doctrine in an understandable way to any specific audience); he is, however, rejecting revisionist definitions of theological terminology and the diminishing efforts modernists applied to its importance.

3. Involving the Whole Church

Our current theological and cultural challenges must be confronted in a joint effort between Christian academics and Christian laypersons. Noll argues that Modernists won their most important victories and gained their most ardent advocates in academic institutions, while the Fundamentalists were primarily led by laypersons.[13] To be sure, Fundamentalists had academic advocates, even if they were outnumbered. George Marsden notes that Machen “eventually assumed Warfield’s mantle as chief intellectual spokesman for conservative Presbyterians.”[14] But Machen knew that the challenges before the church necessitated a diverse alliance to sustain an effective witness.

Similarly, a broad coalition encompassing both academics and laypersons offers several compelling advantages. First, academics’ inclusion provides rigorous intellectual engagement, drawing upon scholarly expertise and research. When in service to the church, academic specialization provides theological frameworks and nuanced responses to complex issues. Second, the engagement of laypersons plays a vital role in anchoring theological discourse to the practicalities of daily Christian life. Christians bring a wealth of diverse perspectives, experiences, and insights forged by their distinct contexts and vocations. Their active involvement serves as a safeguard against detachment from real-world realities, ensuring that theological discussions retain relevance and applicability to believers across diverse cultural and societal contexts. Third, a coalition of academics and laypersons invites collaboration, where scholars benefit from the wisdom and contextual knowledge of laypersons, gaining insights into the practical implications of their research. Conversely, laypersons can draw upon the theological expertise of academics to deepen their faith and to navigate complex theological challenges. Together, this means seminaries and churches cannot minimize their shared governance of confronting theological compromise while training the next generation of ministers.


Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is a significant work of Christian theological discourse that remains relevant in our tenuous theological and ecclesial landscape.[15] Machen’s insights provide continued guidance for Christians to navigate the challenges brought by modern versions of theological liberalism and its accommodationist alternatives. Machen’s vigorous and unwavering defense of orthodoxy highlights Christianity’s historical verifiability and foundational doctrines, emphasizing the inseparable connection between several fundamental truths. His work serves as a reminder that God’s self-revelation finds its primary expression in concrete historical events, most notably in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. These pivotal moments in history, accessible to humanity through the sacred Scriptures, form the solid foundation upon which the Christian faith firmly stands. Machen’s emphasis on the historical basis of Christianity underscores the significance of these events as essential components of the faith, reinforcing their central role in shaping the belief system and providing a solid foundation for believers to cultivate lives of sanctified devotion. As believers strive to uphold the timeless truths of the Christian faith, Machen’s overall emphases remain a relevant and indispensable resource that we can daylight, applying his classic work in our efforts to discern an apologetic that confronts the theological challenges threatening the vitals of orthodoxy, to reinforce our commitment to promote and protect the doctrinal bases and terminology underlying our faith, and to emboldened us to foster mutual partnerships between academic learning and ecclesial ministry.


[1] Jim Morrison, “How ‘Daylighting’ Buried Waterways Is Revitalizing Cities Across America,” Smithsonian Magazine (March 15, 2023). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-daylighting-buried-waterways-is-revitalizing-cities-across-america-180981793/?amp;utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_term=3/15/2023&utm_content=new.

[2] Biographical information gleaned from Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020). See also D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).

[3] Though Machen appreciated the Fundamentalist movement and was sympathetic to its concerns, he disliked the term “Fundamentalist,” believing it was reductionistic to refer to Christianity as an “ism.” See David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 343.

[4] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, The Claims of Truth (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 101.

[5] D. G. Hart, “The Rise and Fall of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism,” in Christianity and Liberalism Revisited: A 100 Year Appreciation, Christ Over All podcast (June 5, 2023), paragraph 4. https://christoverall.com/article/longform/the-rise-and-fall-of-j-gresham-machens-christianity-and-liberalism/.

[6] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 2.

[7] Mark Noll, The Work We Have to Do: A History of Protestants in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 57. Emphasis in original.

[8] For a helpful summary, see Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[9] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 40–41.

[10] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 41.

[11] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 15.

[12] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 23.

[13] Noll, The Work We Have to Do, 57–58.

[14] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 137.

[15] There is a website dedicated to the celebration of Machen’s work: https://www.christianityandliberalism.com/.

Justin McLendon is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and serves as professor of theology at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Ordained Servant Online, December, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: December 2023

Remembering G. I. Williamson

Also in this issue

Elf on the Shelf or Christ on the Cross?

G. I. Williamson: Encounters with the Life of a Faithful Servant of God

G. I. Williamson’s Farewell Sermon

The Case for the Majority Greek New Testament Text

The Case for the Eclectic Greek New Testament Text

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Trumpeter of God: Fulfill Your Office,[1] Chapter 9

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 10: Be a Presbyter

Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto

An Ode of the Birth of Our Saviour

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