Steering a Course between Fundamentalism and Transformationalism: J. Gresham Machen’s View of Christian Scholarship[1], Part 1

Dariusz M. Bryćko

Christian religion flourishes not in the darkness but in the light. Intellectual slothfulness is but a quack remedy for unbelief; the true remedy is consecration of intellectual powers to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

Machen did not present his views on Christian scholarship in a systematic manner, and therefore analyzing his philosophy of education can at times be challenging—yet it is not impossible. Machen extensively addressed education, and his opinions on scholarship are spread throughout his speeches, essays, books, and book reviews. We also possess a transcript of Machen’s testimony before the U.S. Congress against the act proposed to form the U.S. Department of Education.[3] In the midst of the current discussion about the nature of Christian scholarship and education, and on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Machen’s death, I would like to reflect on his educational writings and what I have come to call his “militant view of Christian scholarship,” which may perhaps serve as a middle way between those who question the idea of Christian education and those who see a direct biblical imperative for it.[4] Further, Machen has been credited with fostering a renaissance of academic pursuits among fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals in America (both free and confessional) from his day until the advent of Dutch Neo-Kuyperianism (sometime in the 1960s), and it seems worthwhile to revisit his writings in light of the current spiritual and academic identity crisis of American Christian scholarship.[5]

George Marsden, in his book Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, argues that most early opponents of liberalism who became leaders in the fundamentalist and (later) evangelical movements were in some way connected to Machen.[6] The list of familiar people and institutions Machen directly influenced is long, so let us mention just a few, such as Harold Ockenga, the founder of Fuller and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries, Christianity Today magazine, and pastor of the historic Park Street Church in downtown Boston; Carl McIntire, the popular broadcaster and founder of the Bible Presbyterian Church; Francis Schaeffer, the well-known Christian intellectual whose L’Abri community in the Swiss Alps became an intellectual refuge for European evangelicals;[7] and Samuel Sutherland, the president of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, under whom the institute founded and accredited Talbot Seminary.[8] Further, Cedarville and Bryan Colleges both offered their presidencies to Machen, Columbia Theological Seminary and Southern Presbyterian Seminary offered him New Testament professorships, and Canada’s Knox College asked him to be its principal.[9] Also, Machen was one of the main founders of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, which came into existence not only due to his initiative but also his family fortune. Finally, if we add that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Moody Bible Institute asked Machen to speak at public events and zealously sought his support, it seems safe to say that the renaissance of academic pursuits among conservative evangelicals through the 1960s could, in large measure, be credited to Machen.

When it comes to the secondary literature, we have a few biographies of Machen and other helpful sources dealing with his theology. However, Machen’s philosophy of education has received only minimal treatment and is a topic that deserves further attention.[10]

Perhaps the most insightful analysis of Machen’s views of science can be found in D. G. Hart’s book Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, which we will later bring into our discussion. We also will find George Marsden’s earlier analysis helpful, as he offers insights on Machen’s Southern influences and his use of common sense realism. Marsden traces the decline of Machen’s popularity among evangelicals to two causes. The first was the early 1960s critique made by the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Edward J. Carnell, that Machen lacked vision and greater involvement with non-Presbyterians. The second cause Marsden gives for Machen’s declining popularity was the growing influence of the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed perspective embodied in the writings of Abraham Kuyper.[11]

What Makes Scholarship Intellectual?

Machen has often been labeled a fundamentalist—and in many ways he was, as he shared the majority of his doctrinal convictions with those who, early on, represented the fundamentalist camp and expressed their views in the Fundamentals of Faith, a set of ninety essays that the Bible Institute of Los Angeles published in twelve volumes between 1910 and 1915.[12] Machen also was a major source of inspiration and intellectual ammunition for the fundamentalist and later neo-evangelical camp in its struggle against liberal efforts to redefine the historic Christian faith.[13]

However, there were some differences between Machen and the fundamentalists. First of all, Machen had had an elite education. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, and Princeton, Machen also pursued foreign studies at Marburg, Germany, under Wilhelm Herrmann, with whom Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann also trained.[14] Politically, Machen was a Democrat with a strong libertarian bent. He stood against the religious mainstream of his day by opposing prohibition, opposing prayer and Bible teaching in public schools, and even openly promoting the rights of non-Protestant religious minorities and sects.[15] Culturally, Machen was a Southern gentleman, coming from the upper Baltimore elites with high family connections, including the president of the United States, a close friend of the Machen family.[16]

not what set him apart most from the fundamentalists. It was rather the growing anti-intellectualism and non-confessionalism of the fundamentalist camp that kept him from fully identifying with the movement. This is well illustrated by the fact that in 1927 Machen politely declined to become the president of the nondenominational university named for William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the famous Scopes “monkey trial.” In his letter declining the offer, Machen wrote:

I never call myself a “fundamentalist.” There is indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between Fundamentalism and Modernism, then I am willing to call myself a fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith.[17]

There are numerous reasons why Machen declined this particular offer, and these are better understood in the context of the entire letter. But it is apparent from the quoted text that, when asked to lead a nondenominational, fundamentalist university, Machen preferred to be identified with a particular Protestant confession. We should not underestimate this point when seeking to understand Machen’s approach; however, for the purpose of this presentation, we will not delve into Machen’s ecclesiological and confessional stands, as they are less essential to his views on Christian education (which go beyond Presbyterian and Reformed identity). Here we would like to emphasize that Machen turned down a chance to preside over an institution so closely associated with the Scopes trial.

Machen knew William Jennings Bryan, and Bryan personally asked him to testify in the trial, but Machen withheld his support from a cause that did not seem essential in the battle against liberalism. Hart argues that this act showed Machen to be committed to the university world and confirmed his stand against anyone who would separate Christianity from science, even fellow believers. For Machen, the dialogue about faith and science was essential to refuting the liberals and thus to preserving the historic Christian faith, because science has the ability to verify that the Christian faith is based on historical facts, confirming the truthfulness of Christianity. In Machen’s view, the “trueness” of the Christian religion was deeply rooted in actual, historically verifiable events, and in this sense theology as a science was not different from any other scientific inquiry; after all, both theology and chemistry are concerned with the “acquisition and orderly arrangement of truth.”[18] Thus using biblical interpretation to disqualify the claims of science was, to Machen, unacceptable. That being said, we note here that Machen was not arguing that true faith in God could be acquired and/or limited simply to an intellectual argument or assent. For Machen as for other conservative Presbyterians, faith ultimately comes only by the mysterious and creative power of the Holy Spirit enabling one to trust in Christ’s atoning work and follow his commands.[19]

It was the fundamentalists’ insistence on literal six-day creation that alarmed Machen the most—not because they held to this interpretation personally, but rather because they turned it into the litmus test for proving one’s Christian orthodoxy. In Machen’s view, this position hurt the Christian cause because it minimized the significance of the Fundamentals of Faith, which included Christ’s divinity, the Second Coming, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, and the historical reality of miracles. Machen felt that fundamentalists had a low view of natural revelation, and left no room for academic discussion about the findings of science and how they could relate to biblical interpretation. To be sure, Machen saw the dangers of naturalistic evolutionism, but he also believed that science must have an important voice in the discussion even if it cannot be treated on an equal basis with biblical revelation.[20]

The anti-intellectualism of fundamentalists also became evident for Machen by their stress on a personal experience of salvation, suggesting that spiritual intimacy and subjective experience somehow carried superior value to the knowledge acquired through toilsome study of Bible, original languages, and theology. He was convinced that religion without science would lead to superstition or false religion based on feelings and emotions—the very definition of religion that liberals tried to advocate. Against revivalism and pietism, Machen argued that education and knowledge were necessary for effective preaching because religion is primarily doctrine oriented, and experience must follow—never the other way around. He wrote:

Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences. We cannot be the instruments of God in saving them if we preach to them thus only ourselves. No, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ, for it is only through the gospel which sets him forth that they can be saved.[21]

Because faith consists of trust, Machen rejected the so-called “simple faith” proclaimed by some revivalist preachers, for it is impossible to trust someone unless we first determine whether he is even trustworthy. In Machen’s view, we must possess knowledge to have true faith in Christ. He wrote, “What these advocates of a ‘simple faith’ which involves no knowledge of Christ really mean by ‘simple faith’ is faith, perhaps; but it is not faith in Christ. It is faith in the practitioners of the method.”[22] Machen worried that many conversions that take place upon so called “simple faith” are nothing else but a psychological manipulation. He contrasted these false conversions to biblical examples of true conversions, which always contain a doctrinal element. He recalled Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, which included facts about Christ and not just an account of Peter’s own personal experience; the conversion of the jailer in Philippi where Paul and Silas preached to him the “word of the Lord”; and the words of Jesus when he addressed the theological inquiry of the Samaritan woman about the proper place of worship.

We ought to note here that although Machen was a proponent of highly educated clergy, he did not argue that all evangelists must necessarily be scholars. However, at the same time, he maintained that “evangelists who are not scholars are dependent upon scholars to help them get their message straight”[23] and that the most powerful evangelism in the history of the church has been done by scholars.

Machen refused to overlook the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists with whom he shared so much in common because he was convinced that it would hurt the movement, leading to the decline of theology and the spread of populism in Christian faith and practice.[24] Moreover, as surprising as it may at first sound, anti-intellectualism was one of his main critiques of liberalism as well, so to tolerate it among fundamentalists would not be fair. Granted, the liberal expression of anti-intellectualism was different; nevertheless, Machen could not ignore that fact that both the fundamentalists and the liberals were guilty of it.

Machen criticized liberal theologians for abandoning the grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation, allowing the Bible to become an ineffectual and useless book, a collection of inspirational stories describing various human emotions. For Machen, Christianity was either based on historical facts or it was philosophically bankrupt, perhaps able to sustain morality for a while but not the gospel.[25] He once wrote that “a gospel independent of history is simply a contradiction of terms”[26] and that “the foundation of the church is either inexplicable, or else it is to be explained by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But if the resurrection is accepted, then the lofty claims of Jesus are substantiated; Jesus was then no mere man, but God and man, God come in the flesh.”[27]

Further, Machen argued that modernists degraded science by excluding from it the sphere of religion. This separation of reason from faith led to decadence in the academic community, producing a “horrible Frankenstein”[28] whose knowledge and skill hurts humanity. Machen wrote:

I think we can say that science alone, unless something else goes with science, is bound by an inexorable logic to result just exactly in that decadence which so distresses.... In fact, science has served to improve enormously the technique of tyranny in our days as over against the cruder tyrannies of fire and sword which reigned in the past. It is in accordance with an inexorable logic that Hitler is practicing fiendish wickedness in Germany today in the name of science.... The fact ought to be perfectly clear to every thoughtful observer that humanity is standing over an abyss. When I say humanity, I include America; indeed I am thinking particularly of America. Russia and Germany are already in the abyss. But how shall it be with our country?[29]

If we consider that Machen wrote these words before the Second World War, we have reason to stand astonished by his prophetic voice.

The anti-intellectualism of the liberals also became evident to Machen by their widespread acceptance of the modern pedagogical method. Machen observed that liberals were preoccupied with the “method of study” and emphasized practical rather than theoretical knowledge. This issue surfaced during his disputes with Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton Seminary. Erdman, supported by the new president of Princeton, J. Ross Stevenson, advocated a curriculum that downplayed the study of biblical languages and reduced core biblical and theological courses for the sake of practical electives, with strong emphasis on pastoral care and spiritual formation. This reform Machen strongly opposed, lamenting that the seminary would not produce “specialists in the Bible” but rather congregational CEOs (if we were to use the contemporary term).[30]

For Machen, the modern pedagogical obsession with the method of acquiring knowledge instead of the knowledge itself was defeating the very purpose of education. He wrote:  “The modern conception of the purpose of education is that education is merely intended to enable a man to live, but not to give him those things that make life worth living.”[31] Also, the main role of the academic instructor had been reduced to the “developing of the faculty of the mind” and no longer with transmitting knowledge. All of this, Machen ironically concluded, led modern educators to a great discovery: that it is “possible to think with a completely empty mind.”[32] This pursuit would lead American education to complete disaster, Machen argued, where shameful superficiality and ignorance of the most basic facts about the world would become a new norm. He wrote:

We shall never have a true revival of learning until teachers turn their attention away from the mere mental processes of the child, out into marvelous richness and variety of the universe and of human life. Not teachers who have studied the methodology of teaching but teachers who are on fire with a love of the subjects that they are going to teach, are the real torchbearers of the intellectual advance.[33]

Unfortunately, this pedagogical anti-intellectualism is something Machen also observed among fundamentalists, whose Bible colleges and institutes often sought after quick and practical education for the sake of evangelism and mission work or spiritual formation, rather than training reflective and critically thinking graduates. This deeper training was something he desired to achieve with the newly founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.


[1] The research for this essay was made possible thanks to generous support from the Center for Christian Thought at Biola University, where I spent the spring semester of 2012.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of Faith,” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 152.

[3] For a complete bibliography of Machen’s writings, please see Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., Pressing toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986). My appreciation goes to D. G. Hart and John Muether, who pointed me to some helpful sources.

[4] I am referring here to the recent exchange in Ordained Servant between David C. Noe and Benjamin W. Miller as well as to the current debate between the Two-Kingdoms and Kuyperian camps. See also: William D. Dennison, “Is Classical Christian Education Truly Christian? Cornelius Van Til and Classical Christian Education” in Essays Commemorating Seventy-Five Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. eds. John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger (Willow Grove, PA: Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 2011), 101–25.

[5] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 149.

[6] Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 149.

[7] Ibid., 183.

[8] Biola in its early days hired conservative Presbyterians (such as Paul Aijian, Dean Nauman, and Vernon McGee) who taught at Talbot and who in the mid-1950s were challenged by the Los Angles Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church USA to dissolve their relationship with the school as “the spirit, doctrinal position and program of the church” were different from the Presbyterian stance. In response to this Samuel Sutherland wrote an article in which he quotes extensively from the Westminster Confession, showing how the Bible Institute of Los Angles was more faithful to historic Presbyterianism than the mainline Presbyterians were. He writes, “Shades of John Calvin, John Knox, John Witherspoon, and a great host of other theological spiritual giants of former generations! These men held the same doctrines which were enunciated in the great Westminster Confession of Faith and which has stood as a mighty confession of faith through the centuries as it bred and fed spiritual giants!” See Samuel Sutherland, “Modernism and Los Angeles Presbytery” in King’s Business 45, no. 9. (Sept. 1954): 14–17. I am thankful to Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola’s Torrey Institute for his assistance in finding these materials.

[9] D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 105. 

[10] Carl Trueman, foreword to J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), ix-xv; Stephen J. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004); Terry Chrishope, Toward a Sure Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism 1881–1915 (Fearn Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2001); Coray W. Henry, J. Gresham Machen (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981); Allyn C. Russell, Voices of Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976); Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmamns, 1954); Paul Woolley, The Significance of J. Gresham Machen Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1977). See also: George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[11] “Yet Machen remained controversial, and even many evangelical scholars repudiated his heritage. The most notorious example came in 1959 when Edward J. Carnell, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, devoted a chapter in his volume The Case for Orthodox Theology  to the ‘cultic mentality’ of Machen. Repudiations of Machen's narrowness have been frequent since then. Almost all evangelical scholars who are not strictly Reformed have found his Presbyterian confessionalism too narrow, and even many of the strictly Reformed have rejected his Princetonian apologetics for Kuyperian models, or have been unhappy with his insistence on ecclesiastical separatism.” Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 184. For more see: George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and The New Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 188–192.

[12] See also Annette G. Aubert, “J. Gresham Machen and the Theology of Crisis,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002): 337–62. Aubert carefully argues that Machen’s critical yet careful response to Barth set him apart from the anti-intellectual fundamentalist response. She writes: “The basic point for Machen was that one needs to possess knowledge about a subject in order to point to its errors. This was a general principle that Machen applied in his own approach to liberal scholarship,” 341.

[13] Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism became one of main tools of defense against liberal attacks on fundamentalists. See Marsden, Religion and American Culture (Belmont, CA: Thomson, 2001), 193. However, as Hart notes, the book was written mostly for a Presbyterian (not fundamentalist) audience and thus its fullest application could never be realized among non-Reformed ecclesiastical bodies. Hart, Defending the Faith, 65.

[14] Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, 32–33.

[15] For the scope of this discussion we will concentrate only on some of those differences; however, it is worth mentioning the following: Machen refuted the church’s direct involvement in politics, did not join the Prohibition movement or the anti-evolution crusade, felt uneasy with the emotion-driven religion of the revivalists, argued against teaching Bible and prayer in public secular schools, supported the rights (free speech) of Mormons, Jews, and other religions for the full exercise of their religion, and was sympathetic to the fundamentalists in their common goal to preserve orthodox Christianity. He was a libertarian who opposed child labor legislation, national parks (but not preservation of nature), and Philadelphia’s ordinance against jaywalking. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism, 184.

[16] Katherine Lynn Tan Vandrunen “The Foothills of the Matterhorn: Familial Antecedents of J. Gresham Machen” (PhD diss., Loyola University, 2006).

[17] “Dr. Machen Declines the Presidency of Bryan University,” repr. in Moody Bible Institute Monthly 28 (Sept. 1927): 16.

[18] J. Gresham Machen, “What Fundamentalism Stands for Now,” in J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 118.

[19] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 144.

[20] Hart, Defending the Faith, “Machen tried to construct a mediating position that subordinated the naturalism of liberal Protestantism to the supernaturalism of fundamentalism but still kept the two ideas together,” 104–105.

[21] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and Evangelism,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 141.

[22] Ibid., 138.

[23] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and Evangelism,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 141.

[24] Hart, Defending the Faith, 95.

[25] Aubert, “J. Gresham Machen and Theology of Crisis,” 346.

[26] Machen, “History and Faith,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 105.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School” in Selected Shorter Writings, 168.

[29] Machen, “The Christian School: Hope of America,” in Education, Christianity and the State, ed. John W. Robbins (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1994), 135–136.

[30] Machen, “The Minister and His Greek Testament,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 211.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and Evangelism,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 135.

[33] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and Evangelism,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 137.

Dariusz M. Bryćko, PhD is a member of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, and volunteers as director of Tolle Lege Institute. His new book, The Irenic Calvinism of Daniel Kałaj: A Study in the History and Theology of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation is now available from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

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