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J. Gresham Machen

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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February 21, 2022 12:01 am

J. Gresham Machen

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 21, 2022 12:01 am

The early 20th century saw a growing skepticism of the Bible among theologians. Today, W. Robert Godfrey introduces us to one man who stood against the tide of unbelief.

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In the early 20th century, a battle raged for the very soul of the church. One theologian stood in the gap. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind on this Friday.

I'm Lee Webb. In 1909, a heated debate in the Presbyterian Church in New York came to a head. It revolved around the ordination of three men who refused to affirm the virgin birth of Christ. A clear line in the sand was drawn, and five doctrines were declared to be fundamental to the Christian faith.

Among those essential doctrines was the virgin birth of Christ, along with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. All of this became known as the fundamentalist modernist controversy. Into this phrase stepped a professor from Princeton named J. Gresham Machen.

Let's join Ligonier teaching fellow, Dr. Robert Godfrey. Machen is important on several fronts. He illustrates something of a character and role of Presbyterianism in America, but more importantly, he was recognized as the single, most effective scholarly voice on the fundamentalist side of the controversies that were emerging in America in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. Machen in that regard helps us to see that fundamentalists in the early part of the 20th century were not at all what fundamentalism came to mean later when it was used in a derogatory way. Fundamentalists today is often used to refer to uneducated, stubborn, ignorant, uncultured sorts of people, and Dr. Machen was none of those things. He was not always entirely comfortable with the label fundamentalist, but not because he thought it was too negative or too critical a label, but because he felt it was important for Christians to have a fuller theology than that represented by the fundamentals alone. And so Dr. Machen was a Westminster Confession of Faith man.

He wanted the whole confession, not just part of it, and that was his only reservation about fundamentalists. In fact, he came to be known by some as the Doctor Fundamentalis, the fundamental doctor, because he was seen as such an important voice in America in the 20s and 30s in defense of conservative Protestantism. Dr. Machen was born in 1881.

We can't quite get out of the 19th century altogether. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland, which means he was a Southerner. Maybe you didn't know that, but Baltimore remained well into the 20th century, a very southern city, and President Lincoln knew that.

He knew that left to itself, Maryland would probably have seceded from the Union, but President Lincoln seemed to think that he could not tolerate Virginia and Maryland seceding from the Union and leaving the federal capital completely surrounded by rebels. But the ethos, the life of Baltimore was very much that of a southern city, and Machen's mother, the Greshams, were from Georgia, from Machen, Georgia. There's a little museum of the Gresham family in Machen, if you visit there, and the Machen family were from Virginia, and their old home had been in the middle of the battlefield of the Battle of Bull Run. So, the Machen's had deep southern roots, and Dr. Machen's father was a very distinguished lawyer in Baltimore. It was a family of some wealth and some social connections. Machen's father was quite a good friend of Woodrow Wilson's, and so the Machens were a prominent family and were members of the Southern Presbyterian Church. His mother was a very devout woman, sort of the catechesis of her children. His father was also a very devout Presbyterian. Dr. Machen studied at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and then was sent as the son of a rather important family on a tour of Europe. We should all, you know, be sent as young people on tours of Europe.

I think it's a very good thing. Dr. Machen really loved Germany. He kind of fell in love with Germany and things German, and he said German would be almost perfect if these Germans would only learn about the Sabbath and about football, and he felt they were somewhat deficient on both points. He did write home at one point to his father and say that he was running a little short of money, and his father wrote back and said, the pecuniary question need not bother you, I can assure you on that point. I'm still waiting to receive a letter like that. Don't worry about the money. We'll take care of that. So, as a brilliant student, he was able to study at Johns Hopkins University, and then he went to Princeton Seminary, the most prestigious of the Presbyterian seminaries, and then he went on to study for a time in Germany to do post-seminary work, and his letters show that he's wrestling, and some people have said, well, maybe Dr. Machen had something of a crisis of faith in Germany.

That doesn't really seem to be the case. What he seemed to have was a crisis of calling. Dr. Machen had such broad interests. He liked sports. He liked hiking.

He liked outdoor life. He liked scholarship, and I think he was a little afraid that if he entered the ministry, the life of a Presbyterian minister was maybe a little confined. People had expectations that there were all sorts of things ministers didn't do, like play football, and Dr. Machen was not sure he was really quite ready to live that kind of a life, and so wrestled with the question of calling, but did go off, despite that, to teach at Princeton Seminary and was immediately recognized as a remarkably gifted scholar and teacher, and in due course he was ordained into the ministry, only at that point actually joining the Northern Presbyterian Church. So, most of his life, the majority of his life, he was a Southern Presbyterian, and only on being ordained at Princeton did he become a member of the Northern Presbyterian Church, and he was recognized as an outstanding teacher by the students, most of them, but Dr. Machen recalled that already students were beginning to complain that there was too much academics and not enough practical theology, and Dr. Machen had no sympathy for that point of view at all. He believed that ministers needed to be carefully and thoroughly educated. They needed to be able to engage in a lifelong system of learning. He said, some of these young students just want to be told everything they'll need to know for the rest of their ministry, and he said, I pity the congregations are going to be sent out to.

A minister has to stay in touch with the world as it's developing around him in the course of his ministry. He complained once in 1912, instead of making our theological seminaries merely centers of religious emotion, which is what he thought some of the students wanted, we shall make them battlegrounds of the faith. We're helped a little by the experience of Christian teachers. Men are taught to fight their own battle, where they come to appreciate the real strength of the adversary, and in the hard school of intellectual struggle, learn to substitute for the unthinking faith of childhood the profound convictions of full-grown men. And he said, we must never be afraid of studying and learning what the enemy has to say. If we just bury our head in the sand and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist, we are really not worthy of Christ. He said, we cannot believe without knowing that our belief is true.

And if the cost of faith is not to know what's true, then we're not real Christians anyway. His mother had actually written him when he was in Germany. She was afraid he was being too influenced by those liberal Germans who were very nice to him. And she said, come home.

I don't want you influenced by those people. And he said, mother, I can't come home and hide from reality. If the cost of being a Christian is hiding from reality, then we're not real Christians. So, he was a man who plunged into the reality of the world in which he found himself. His biggest single scholarly book that he would write was entitled The Virgin Birth of Christ. And it was a careful, scholarly, thorough study, not just of the Bible, but of everything that had been written in modern theology on the virgin birth. And he, with the greatest care as an exegete, showed what the Scripture actually taught about that, then as a theologian, reasoned about why that was important, that those scriptural teachings were true, and then answered one by one all of the objections of liberal scholarship to the idea of the virgin birth.

It's a big, fat volume. If you have a little trouble sleeping, it might be good, some of the chapters. But it was hailed as a remarkable scholarly achievement. And the young Rudolf Bultmann, of all things, read the book and said, this is a very impressive work of scholarship. So, Machin believed that there had to be a continuing scholarly dialogue between conservatives and liberals, and he was able to do that in a most effective sort of way. And he believed that Princeton needed to go on being that place, not of emotion, not just of pious practice, although he was all for pious practice, but that it would continue to be a place of really serious scholarship that would help the church, that would lead the church, and would ensure that the church was able to be faithful in the work to which it was called to do. As time went along, Machin was more and more called into an involvement in the ecclesiastical life of the church. He became more and more concerned, not just about what students at Princeton were thinking, but what was going on in the church as a whole, what the church as a whole was thinking. And that's why in 1923 he produced this little popular book, Christianity and Liberalism, because he was concerned about what was going on in the church. He wanted to be an influence in the life of the church. He wanted to be sure that influence would be genuine and healthy. And he would look around the church, and part of his concern, he expressed in this term already as early as 1915, he wrote, the mass of the church here is still conservative, but conservative in an ignorant, non-polemic, sweetness and light kind of way, which is just meat for the wolves. I do not mean to use harsh phrases in a harsh way, and my language must be understood to be biblical.

Now, what's he really saying there? It's that the church still felt conservative. The church still felt comfortable with conservative practices and ideas, but the church no longer really understood why these things were important. The church no longer could defend these things in the face of an onslaught, and that seriously troubled Dr. Machen and worried him about what the future would hold. And as he analyzed the forces with which he disagreed in the life of the church, he felt those forces needed to be exposed for what they were. He wrote at one point here, as elsewhere, the destructive forces have been content to labor for the most part in the dark. I think Dr. Machen really put his finger on something. He said, those who want to change our church are not going out publicly and saying, these are the changes we espouse.

What do you think of them? But they were working in the background. They were working behind the scenes. They were working in ways that most of the laity didn't observe in the life of the church. And Dr. Machen thought there was a dishonesty about that. Again, he would write in Christianity and Liberalism, honesty is being relinquished in a wholesale fashion by the liberal party in many ecclesiastical bodies today. By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the repetition of differences of opinion, as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundation of the faith. Again, as the very title of the book said, you are free to be a liberal. You're not free to call that Christian. That's not honest.

That's not fair. And Dr. Machen all his life remained what I would call a southern gentleman. He was always charitable to his opponents. He always tried to represent them fairly. He was never mean-spirited. Well, I can't say he was never, but he was largely not mean-spirited or nasty in the way in which he conducted himself. In fact, if anything, maybe he was a little too trusting of the other side to also behave like gentlemen.

And they didn't. They were nasty and mean-spirited, some of them in reference to him. And he would write about that too. He wrote at one point, what is thoroughly evil, what leads to strife, bitterness, hypocrisy, and every evil thing, is a unity of organization which covers radical diversity of aim. And that's what he became concerned was more and more characteristic of what was going on in the Presbyterian church in his day. They were still all Presbyterians. They all insisted they were evangelical, but in fact, the theological differences were becoming immense and increasingly separating different people in the church.

These issues began to come to the General Assembly increasingly. And as I said before, in 1923, the General Assembly once again reiterated its commitment to the five fundamentals, and this decision was particularly directed against Harry Emerson Fosdick. Now Harry Emerson Fosdick was a Baptist, one of the liberals amongst the Baptists in the 20s, but he had been asked to be stated supply preacher at a congregation in Manhattan in New York.

And he had famously preached there a sermon entitled, Shall the Fundamentalists Win, fairly in your face sort of title. And Fosdick was insistent that the fundamentalists must not be allowed to win, but the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church was equally insistent that Baptist liberals ought not to be telling Presbyterians what they ought to believe. And so the General Assembly again reiterated its commitment to conservative principles, and then something very important happened. Well, I think everything I've been saying has been pretty important, but in 1925, the General Assembly met again, and the General Assembly was confronted again by what was going on in New York, and word got around in the General Assembly where there was a conservative majority that maybe it was time to really admonish and discipline the Presbyterian of New York for tolerating what it was tolerating in its churches. And the Presbyterian of New York pretty well made clear that if the General Assembly criticized them, they would leave the Presbyterian church. And Dr. Minchin's opinion was, good, leave, go. But the General Assembly, conservative leadership, decided that they ought to give it one more chance, that they ought to be patient, that they ought to be turning the other cheek. And so they did what churches so often do in difficult times, they appointed a study committee.

And the idea was, what harm can it do? Let's have a committee spend a year studying the condition of the church, and then the committee will bring what we can really defend as a well researched analysis back to the General Assembly next year, and then we can do what needs to be done. What no one could know at that time is that there would be an event in the summer of 1925 that in fundamental ways would change American attitudes. Up until 1925, most American churches, and most Americans, and most reporting on the state of American churches, was more sympathetic to the fundamentalist side than they were to the liberal side. But in the summer of 1925, there was a trial that took place that came to be known in the press as the Monkey Trial, a trial that took place in Dayton, Tennessee, a trial of a nice young biology teacher in the Dayton Public High School who had violated the laws of Tennessee by teaching the theory of evolution in school. And he was put on trial.

And the media flocked to this trial. And many people sensed this was going to be a very important trial, and so the defense of this high school teacher hired Clarence Darrow, one of the most accomplished trial lawyers in the country, to lead the defense of Mr. Scopes. And the prosecution thought it had made a brilliant choice by choosing William Jennings Bryan to lead the prosecution. William Jennings Bryan was one of the most famous men in America. He had served in the cabinet of presidents. He'd been a nominee for president by the Democratic Party. He was well known as being one of the most accomplished orators in America, and he was a Bible-believing Presbyterian elder.

And they thought, who could we get that could possibly be better? But William Jennings Bryan was an old man. He was tired. He was not well.

He was not an accomplished trial lawyer. And Clarence Darrow sort of ran circles around him. And as many of the newspaper folk said, Darrow set America laughing at fundamentalism.

Darrow made Bryan look ridiculous. And some of the media there, led by H.L. Mencken, a notorious unbeliever, but a very effective writer and witty man, used the Scopes trial to launch a full-scale attack against fundamentalism. Only in Bible Belt, Tennessee, could you have a law forbidding the teaching of evolution.

How ridiculous, how unfair, how un-American. And so, the whole notion of freedom, the whole notion of tolerance, the whole notion of niceness was brought out by the press, and America was set laughing at fundamentalism. And the mood of the nation changed. The mood in the Presbyterian church changed. Things were dramatically different after that. And increasingly, the press became critical of fundamentalism as being intolerant.

There's nothing worse in America than being intolerant. And when the General Assembly met in the next year, 1926, the committee reported that everything was fine in the Presbyterian church. There was no theological problem in the Presbyterian church. And indeed, anyone who would suggest there was a problem in the Presbyterian church, there's something wrong with them. And at that meeting of the General Assembly, a recommendation was present to make Professor Machen professor of apologetics at Princeton Seminary.

General Assembly had always just rubber-stamped those kinds of recommendations coming from seminaries. But the decision was made to establish a study committee to study what was going on at Princeton. What's wrong at Princeton that they're causing all this trouble in the Presbyterian church? And so, as we come to an end today, we see how quickly things can turn, how quickly things can be reversed.

There was never a conservative majority at a Presbyterian General Assembly after 1925. And by the mid-thirties, Dr. Machen was suspended from the Presbyterian ministry. In his book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, Francis Schaeffer wrote that Dr. Machen's defrocking was the culmination of a long trend toward liberalism within the Presbyterian church and represented the same trend in most other denominations.

It's a sober reminder, isn't it? That gospel work requires a diligent contending for the faith and a reminder that knowing church history is critical for us in the laity. Dr. Robert Godfrey has been our teacher this week. We've been featuring his series, A Survey of Church History. In 73 messages, Dr. Godfrey traces the thread of Christ's church through 2,000 years. And when you give a donation of any amount today, we'd like to send you part six of the series covering the 20th century.

You can give your gift and make your request at, or you can call us at 800-435-4343. This series will show you how men like Dr. Machen stood firm for biblical truth in their generation. We hope it encourages you to take a stand for truth. And there are so many heroes of the faith through the centuries. Learn about them when you request part six of the series, A Survey of Church History.

And it's yours for your gift of any amount when you call us at 800-435-4343, or when you go online to And by the way, today is the last day that we're making this offer available. Well, following our brief look at church history this week, we thought it would be a good idea to take a critical look at the Roman Catholic Church. Tomorrow and the rest of this week, we'll present several messages from Dr. R.C. Sproul, helping us understand the doctrines of the church in Rome and why the Protestant Reformation was necessary. So I hope you'll join us tomorrow here for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-02 17:29:37 / 2023-06-02 17:38:20 / 9

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