MACHEN, J. GRESHAM (1881–1937)
American Presbyterian apologist, theologian, and educator
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Machen was the son of a prosperous lawyer. His mother came from a prominent family in Georgia, and both parents, who were strong Christians, exerted a deep influence on Machen through most of his life. Machen graduated from Johns Hopkins University and Princeton Theological Seminary. He was greatly influenced by the strong Calvinism of Princeton, especially as held by Benjamin Warfield and Francis Patton. Following his graduation from Princeton in 1905, he studied in Germany at Marburg and Göttingen. At Marburg he was greatly impressed by Professor Wilhelm Herrmann, whose attractive presentation of liberal theology captivated him for a time. However, Machen gradually came to the conviction there was a vast gulf between religious liberalism and orthodox Christianity. The experience affected him profoundly and made him determined to stand firm against religious liberalism.
After his studies in Germany, Machen returned to Princeton in 1906 as an instructor in New Testament. As a bachelor he was free to devote his full time to his work and gradually became well known in Presbyterian circles as an excellent scholar, teacher, and preacher. Following ordination in 1914, Machen was elevated to full faculty status at Princeton.
During this time many American denominations were becoming increasingly divided over the fundamentalist–modernist controversy. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was no exception, and Princeton, as that denomination’s leading seminary, found itself reluctantly drawn into the struggle. In 1914 Dr. J. Ross Stevenson became the seminary’s new president. It soon became clear that Stevenson, while not, strictly speaking, a theological liberal, favored a policy of tolerance and inclusivism toward those who held modernist views. In this attitude Stevenson was clearly reflecting the opinion of many in the Presbyterian Church.
Machen found such ideas repugnant, believing that they would eventually lead to the rejection of the basic reformed beliefs for which Presbyterians—and Princeton—were noted. Before long, after a stint with the YMCA in France during World War I, Machen found himself thrust into the leadership of the conservative Presbyterian ranks. A proposal to allow united efforts with non–Reformed bodies was passed by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1920. Machen vigorously fought against its approval by the Presbyterians, and was unquestionably a major influence in its defeat. His books The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) and Christianity and Liberalism (1923) further established his reputation as a scholarly and articulate conservative apologist, as did his later (and possibly most significant) work, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930).
Machen’s role in the Presbyterian Church became increasingly prominent, especially after the publication of the Auburn Affirmation (1924), which showed the depth of liberal sentiment among Presbyterian ministers. Confirmation of Machen’s election to the chair of apologetics at Princeton was tabled by the 1925 General Assembly, which also appointed a committee to investigate the growing tensions in the seminary faculty and governing bodies. The committee recommended that the seminary be reorganized, a move that would bring much greater liberal influence to the seminary. By 1929 the proposed reorganization had been passed by the General Assembly in spite of the objections of Machen and other conservative Presbyterians. The move was widely seen as heralding the end of Princeton’s strict Reformed theological stance.
Almost immediately Machen and other conservatives began plans for a new seminary that would carry on Princeton’s tradition of close adherence to the Westminster Standards. The new institution (known as Westminster Seminary) opened its doors in the fall of 1929, with Machen as president and professor of New Testament.
The controversy over liberalism continued. The publication of Rethinking Missions (1932), a liberal attack on many traditional missionary concepts, led to new tensions. The refusal of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to renounce unequivocally the book’s position led to heightened conservative worries over the direction of denominational missions. Again Machen became the principal defender of the conservative course. When it became clear the denomination’s mission program was moving toward doctrinal latitude, Machen led in the formation of an independent mission board. The move caused widespread dispute and led to Machen’s suspension from the ministry by his presbytery (1935). This action gave impetus to the formation in 1936 of a new denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) with Machen as the first moderator. To his disappointment, many Presbyterian conservatives who had supported him elected not to join the new denomination. J.N.Akers
J. D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History, Illustrated Lining Papers. (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997, c1992).