Monthly Archives: February 2020

Review of “J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir” by Ned B. Stonehouse

Stonehouse, Ned B.  J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Machen bio book cover

I first learned about J. Gresham Machen in church history class during my initial year as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1980s.  This fact is wrapped in irony: Machen had been part of the “old guard” at Princeton who were forced out or resigned when the seminary was reorganized by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America General Assembly in the late 1920s.  Princeton had been the last bastion of theological orthodoxy in that historic Presbyterian denomination, and several scholars there were engaged in a valiant fight against the rising tide of liberal theology, or “modernism.”  Machen was at the center of this controversy.  The Princeton Seminary I attended in the late ’80s was, of course, the post-reorganization Princeton, where we studied Machen as an artifact of history.  His seminal work, “Christianity and Liberalism,” was required reading as an example of the “fundamentalist” viewpoint of the early 20th century (and no doubt as an example of “old Princeton,” too). Yet for me the book became a lifeline to help sort through the theological morass I found myself in at modern-day Princeton.

Ned Stonehouse had studied under Machen at Princeton in the ’20s and then became one of the founding members of the faculty at Westminster Seminary, the school Machen and several colleagues started in 1929 after leaving Princeton.  Stonehouse was also one of the constituting members of the Presbyterian Church of America (later known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) founded by Machen and others in 1936 after being suspended from ministry in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for having started an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  Therefore the author of this biography knew Machen personally as a mentor and friend during the last 10 years of Machen’s life, and the tone of the book is indeed that of an admiring protege.

Stonehouse’s narrative of Machen’s life is extremely thorough.  The book is 516 pages of small print with narrow margins.  The author provides a detailed account of every portion of his subject’s life, including his family background.  The most interesting part of Machen’s journey has to do with his involvement in the battle against theological liberalism in the 1920s and ’30s.  The first 300 pages of the book tell of his life prior to that time.  Sometimes the story of these early years is detailed to the point of tedium.  However, Machen’s fans will no doubt appreciate the care the author has taken in telling his life story.

Stonehouse relies heavily on Machen’s correspondence, which was quite voluminous.  At one point Stonehouse speaks of “thirty drawers of filing cabinets” that housed Machen’s letters, papers, and memoranda!  Gresham was very close to his mother and, according to Stonehouse, during his lifetime Machen exchanged over 1000 letters with her.   Machen’s correspondence with his mother, father, and other friends provide a unique and personal window into his private thoughts.  With these plus information drawn from contemporary magazine and newspaper articles and reviews; Machen’s books, articles, sermons, and pamphlets; as well as seminary and denominational records; the author constructs the portrait of Machen’s life.

Because the author relies so heavily on Machen’s own writings, the book concentrates chiefly on his inner life.  Machen’s outer accomplishments were many and impressive, but Stonehouse doesn’t focus on these; rather, they are alluded to more as incidental aspects of the larger story.  The weakness of this approach is that at times the greatness of the man is obscured by the stresses, anxieties, and struggles recorded in his private thoughts.  However, the other side of the coin is that an important figure is made more accessible through this revelation of his humanity.

Machen’s father was a lawyer, and though he struggled financially early in his career, by the end of his life he had done very well for himself.  In adulthood Machen inherited some modest funds from ancestors on both sides of his family.  Because of this and some other sources of income he wasn’t dependent solely on his meager salary as a professor.  Machen never married and during his 23 years on the Princeton faculty he lived in the dorm.  This frugal choice no doubt also reduced his expenses as well.  Machen was generous with his resources, using them to help others in times of difficulty, including a derelict he took under his wing during his Princeton years.  In the theological crises Machen’s financial situation likely made it easier for him to follow his conscience than perhaps some of his colleagues when time came to decide whether to leave or stay at Princeton after the reorganization in 1929.  Machen also invested a great deal of his own money in the fledgling Westminster Seminary.

Gresham received a classical education.  He attended Johns Hopkins University, where he merited an academic scholarship.  He excelled in his studies.  After college he spent a summer in Europe, then enrolled in Princeton Seminary in the fall.  The faculty there saw in Machen a promising student, and after graduation they asked him to consider staying on as an instructor in New Testament.

At this point Machen had not yet fully resolved his own faith convictions.  He was raised in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (the “southern church”), but toward the end of seminary he spent a year studying in Europe, where he encountered theological liberalism for the first time.  This shook his nascent faith, a fact he was honest about in his letters to his parents.  For a time Machen wrestled with liberalism but eventually repudiated it.  This shows that Machen’s eventual embrace of Christian orthodoxy was not untested but had been proved in the fires of the European theological schools.

At the end of his time in Europe Machen accepted the teaching position at Princeton and returned there in 1906.  His initial commitment of one year eventually turned into 23 years.  Needless to say, he found his work with students in the New Testament department, as well as his scholarly pursuits, rewarding and enjoyable.

In the early years of his teaching career Gresham was still sorting out his personal faith, trying to discern his life’s calling.  Initially he balked at the idea of becoming an ordained minister.  It’s ironic to think that originally Machen merely accepted the job at Princeton because he didn’t know what else to do.  He really sort of backed into his career as a New Testament scholar; but he definitely had the gifts for it, and he was loved by his students.

Doing a little more research into Machen’s life, I came across this website at which a one-time student of Machen’s at Princeton and Westminster described his former teacher:   The article’s author describes Machen as a fun-loving, extroverted cut-up who lived in the dorm and who enjoyed fraternizing with the students on weekends.  We don’t see much of this Machen in Stonehouse’s biography.  Rather, the picture we get in Stonehouse is of an earnest, studious, sometimes-perplexed individual–so much so, that I mistakenly took Machen for an introvert when, based on the description offered by Coray above, it sounds like he was anything but.

Machen seems to have finally resolved the question of his life’s direction by 1913, at which time he sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church.  He was ordained in 1915.  From this point on Machen provided much fruitful labor for and in the church.  In addition to his seminary work he began writing Sunday School lessons for the denomination.  Over time he became a sought-after speaker in churches throughout the northeast; in his later years this extended to the entire country, and even the world.  Professor Machen became a tireless advocate for orthodox theology in his denomination, and for the fundamentalist movement in general.  (At this point I should explain that back in those days, the word “fundamentalist” wasn’t the pejorative term it is today; in Machen’s day a “fundamentalist” was simply someone who stood for the core or “fundamental” doctrines of Christianity, such as the infallibility of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, the truthfulness of biblical miracles, and the future bodily return of Christ.)  At one point Machen also filled the pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, until certain prominent members began complaining about his bold defense of biblical orthodoxy from the pulpit.

During the 1920s, Machen’s public stand for biblical, supernatural Christianity and against liberalism brought him into increasing conflict with certain high profile leaders in the Presbyterian Church, some of whom were among his colleagues in the faculty and administration at Princeton.  The majority of the faculty were on Machen’s side; however, the president of the seminary and a few professors who had served as moderators of the General Assembly did not see eye to eye with Machen and his allies.  The seminary Board of Directors also sided with the conservatives but the Board of Trustees was dominated by a faction who were loyal to the seminary president.  A power struggle ensued in which the liberal sympathizers sought to eliminate the Board of Directors and consolidate their authority under the more sympathetic Trustees.

Until the mid-1920s orthodox Christianity still had the upper hand in the Presbyterian denomination, but through the ’20s Machen saw modernism gaining ground with each subsequent meeting of the General Assembly.  While the Assembly of 1923 had re-affirmed the fundamentals of the Christian faith (outlined above), in 1924, 1300 Presbyterian ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation, which claimed that requiring ministers to subscribe to specific fundamental points of doctrine went against the Presbyterian denominational constitution.  This development, along with the failure of subsequent General Assemblies to discipline the signers of the Affirmation, was seen by Machen as a watershed moment in which the modernists had prevailed.

Machen continued to fight against liberalism but with each passing year it seemed more and more like a losing battle.  Finally in 1929 the president and Board of Trustees at Princeton succeeded in maneuvering the General Assembly to reorganize Princeton Seminary to include liberal professors on the faculty.

Machen believed that to remain at Princeton any longer would be a capitulation to, and tacit approval of, modernism–something his conscience wouldn’t let him do.  He submitted his resignation and began working toward the establishment of a new seminary that would carry on the old Princeton tradition of solid Calvinistic orthodox Christianity.

Machen was saddened to learn that several of his stalwart conservative allies at Princeton did not share his conviction that the liberal reorganization of the seminary required them to resign.  Machen had already been disappointed by his denomination, and by the liberal element at Princeton.  Now he was let down by some of his closest friends who had fought modernism in the trenches with him.  Fortunately there were others, including many supportive laymen, who came to his aid in starting the new Westminster seminary.  He also found allies among some in the conservative Christian Reformed denomination, most notably Cornelius Van Til, who had been a colleague at Princeton, and whom Machen was eventually able to persuade to join the faculty at Westminster.

Machen’s disappointments weren’t over, though, and neither were his battles in the Presbyterian Church.  In the early ’30s it became increasingly apparent that the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions had embraced modernism.  A new book entitled “Rethinking Missions” questioned the evangelistic purpose of missionary work and instead called for a dialogue with other religions in which adherents of Christianity and other religions would work together to seek truth.  It became apparent that this kind of thinking was being promoted by some on the Presbyterian Mission Board.  Machen brought an overture before his presbytery calling for the Mission Board to repudiate liberalism and reaffirm its evangelistic purpose.  The overture was defeated.  Though it was eventually passed by some other presbyteries, it was rejected by the General Assembly.

When Machen saw that the Assembly wasn’t going to take any action against the Board of Foreign Missions, he worked with others in the denomination to start a new Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  The General Assembly and its judicial commission eventually responded that the Independent Mission Board violated the Presbyterian constitution and demanded that Machen and his cohorts dissolve the new board and pledge their loyalty to the official Mission Board.  When Machen and others refused, their ordination was suspended.

Machen decided it was time to leave the Presbyterian Church in the USA and form a new Presbyterian body founded on an orthodox interpretation of Scripture and a strict reading of the Westminster Confession.  This decision was also accompanied by disappointment as some of his dearest colleagues and friends chose not to leave the PCUSA with him.  The new denomination was originally called the Presbyterian Church of America, but the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America sued them to change their name and won, so the new denomination was renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  (Ironically, in 1973, when a group of conservative churches and ministers decided to break away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States, they chose as the name for their new denomination the “Presbyterian Church in America” (PCA)–very similar to the original name of Machen’s conservative denomination.  In a note of further irony, the PCA and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are so similar doctrinally that the two denominations considered union for some years, but ultimately decided against it. )  The Orthodox Presbyterian church was formed in 1936; J. Gresham Machen died the following year, in 1937.

This biography has a sad ending.  The final years of Machen’s life were full of struggle, difficulty, and disappointment.  From about 1924 on, Machen experienced setback after setback in his fight against modernism in both the seminary and his denomination.  The triumph of liberalism in both the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary was a bitter disappointment which was compounded by the seeming defections from the cause by some of his closest friends and allies.  While the formation of the new seminary brought a welcome relief from the constant battles Machen had known at Princeton, the new school also struggled to acquire the faculty and financial resources needed to become a respected theological institution–a struggle which Machen himself bore the brunt of.  The increasingly bitter and more strident battles in the Presbyterian Church no doubt also took their toll on his frame of mind.

Though I’m sure Machen found joy in starting Westminster despite the stresses involved, the formation of the new denomination was a concession.  I imagine he would have much preferred his beloved PCUSA to have remained faithful to orthodox belief, and the suspension of his ordination was no doubt a major disappointment.  The founding of the new denomination must have been bittersweet for him.

Little medical explanation is given for the deterioration of Machen’s health in his final years.  He was only 56 when he died, which is young by today’s standards (it’s my present age), though the life expectancy wasn’t as long back in those days.  Medicine being what it was back then, they may not have known what caused his physical deterioration and death.  However, as I read about Machen’s last few years, I couldn’t help thinking that the strain of all the disappointments he experienced, plus the pressures of his ever-increasing responsibilities with the new seminary and denomination, may have been what did him in.

The ending of the book is sad because Machen had just begun two important new endeavors which he had in some sense worked toward all his life, and he didn’t live to see them through.  However, both Westminster Seminary and the denomination he helped found have continued to this day, 85 years later, as part of his important legacy.  His writings also live on, and while most of them have fallen into obscurity, Christianity and Liberalism still instructs Christians today.

In reading this biography I realized that what distinguished Machen from a lot of his contemporaries at Princeton and in the Presbyterian denomination was his firm unwillingness to compromise in any fashion with modernist Christianity or its supporters.  Perhaps more perceptively than his colleagues, Machen saw that liberal Christianity was not merely a different form of Christianity; it was in fact not Christianity at all, but an entirely different religion.  Machen saw modernist Christianity as a counterfeit unworthy of the name “Christian.”

This conviction informed all Machen’s actions.  Because theological liberalism was not Christianity but a fake, Machen strongly believed there could be no compromise with it on any level. 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 comes to mind:

14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,

“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And do not touch what is unclean;
And I will welcome you.
18 “And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty.

7 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

To put it in biblical terms, Machen felt that a compromise between orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism was an unequal yoking, a mixture of light and darkness, trying to bind together two incompatible religions.  Such a compromise would dilute Christian doctrine until it ceased to be Christian at all.  This was something Machen felt should not be allowed in any measure.  Therefore he felt it was impossible to compromise with those in the Presbyterian Church who failed to subscribe clearly to fundamental Christianity.

For this reason, Machen repeatedly called upon Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church to repudiate modernism and to fully embrace the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.  The hope was that ministers and seminary professors who professed liberal views would either leave the denomination of their own accord or, failing to do so, would be properly discipline by the church.  However, after 1923 every effort Machen and the other fundamentalists made to this effect failed.  The liberals had gained the upper hand.

Eventually Machen was faced with a dilemma: Do I stay at Princeton and in the Presbyterian Church even though they no longer require assent to the fundamentals of the faith, or do I leave and start a new group which will adhere to orthodox Christianity?  Machen felt constrained to choose the latter, while a number of his friends chose to continue their ministry in the now-ambiguous Presbyterian Church in the USA.  Machen’s unwillingness to compromise on the essentials of the faith is what set him apart.

As I read about Machen’s life, I felt I could identify with him in some small ways.  I can relate to his turn of mind pertaining to the Bible and theology.  I attended Princeton Seminary, and as I read about his life there it brought back my own memories of Princeton, though in a very different time.

And like Machen, I’ve also never married.  Gresham was incredibly close to his mother through his entire life.  The kindness and admiration they expressed for one another in their letters is remarkable.  They expressed their affection in flowery language which seems quaint today; and yet is also touching.  I’ve wondered if the reason Machen never married is because of his extreme closeness to his mother.

Something else that struck me about the book was the writing style, both of the book itself, and of the letters therein.  Machen, his friends, and his family expressed themselves with a politeness and courtesy which seems formal today.  They didn’t write in the casual language we use.  And yet there’s also a warmth and mutual respect in their letters.  Even though Stonehouse wrote his biography a little less than 70 years ago, his writing conveys something of the same felicity found in the writings of his subjects.

One slight criticism I have is that this biography suffers from the same problem true of many older biographies of Christian figures: It’s prone to hagiography; that is, a tendency to idealize the person and minimize or not acknowledge their shortcomings or faults.  Stonehouse was no doubt an admirer of Machen’s and that comes through in his writing.

Though the author knew Machen personally, he doesn’t include many of his own recollections.  Perhaps he wanted to make sure he didn’t intrude into the story.  Nevertheless, I think a chapter in which the author shared his own reminiscences of Machen would’ve made a nice conclusion to the book.

That said, Stonehouse has performed a wonderful service by providing such a thorough and well-researched account of Machen’s life.  I highly recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about this important man.