J. Gresham Machen’s Response to Modernism

I found this article over at Desiring God recently and thought I would share it. Thankfully, if you don’t have time to read it all, Desiring God is now providing audio recordings of many of their past articles. I encourage you to listen to it in your car or while you work one day. Machen’s work and writings continue to be a strong influence today in the Reformed Protestant tradition and I think you will find this biographical sketch by John Piper a very enjoyable read. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Here is the audio:


Here is an exceprt from the article:

Machen’s Response to Modernism and to Fundamentalism

Machen’s years at Princeton were the two decades which are known for the ongoing mondernist-fundamentalist controversy. We will see Machen’s distinctive response to Modernism if we contrast it with what was known most widely as fundamentalism. In the process of defining his response the meaning of Modernism will become clear.

He was seen as an ally by the fundamentalists; and his ecclesiastical opponents like to make him “guilty” by association with them. But he did not accept the term for himself.

In one sense fundamentalists were simply those who “[singled] out certain great facts and doctrines [i.e., Fundamentals] that had come under particular attack, [and] were concerned to emphasize their truth and to defend them” (see note 18). But there was more attached to the term than that. And Machen didn’t like that. He said,

Do you suppose that I do regret my being called by a term that I greatly dislike, a “Fundamentalist”? Most certainly I do. But in the presence of a great common foe, I have little time to be attacking my brethren who stand with me in defense of the Word of God (see note 19).

What he didn’t like was

1) the absence of historical perspective;
2) the lack of appreciation of scholarship;
3) the substitution of brief, skeletal creeds for the historic confessions;
4) the lack of concern with precise formulation of Christian doctrine;
5) the pietistic, perfectionist tendencies (i.e., hang ups with smoking (see note 20), etc.);
6) one-sided other-worldliness (i.e., a lack of effort to transform culture); and
7) a penchant for futuristic chiliasm (or: pre-millenialism).

Machen was on the other side on all these things. And so “he never spoke of himself as a Fundamentalist” (see note 21).

But none of those issues goes to the heart of why he did not see himself as a Fundamentalist. The issue is deeper and broader and gets at the root of how he fought Modernism. The deepest difference goes back to Machen’s profound indebtedness to Benjamin Warfield who died February 16, 1921. Machen wrote to his mother, “With all his glaring faults he was the greatest man I have ever known” (see note 22).

In 1909 at the 400th anniversary of Jon Calvin’s birth Warfield gave an address that stirred Machen to the depths. Warfield made plea that the Reformed Faith—Calvinism—is not a species of Christian theism along side others, but IS Christianity come to full flower.

Calvinism is not a specific variety of theistic thought, religious experience, [or] evangelical faith; but just the perfect manifestation of these things. The difference between it and other forms of theism, religion, [and] evangelicalism is difference not of kind but of degree … it does not take its position then by the side of other types of things; it takes its place over all else that claims to be these things, as embodying all that they ought to be (see note 23).

So he says Lutheranism is “its sister type of Protestantism” and Arminianism is “its own rebellious daughter” (see note 24). Calvinism’s grasp of the supremacy of God in all of life enabled Machen to see that other forms of evangelicalism were all stages of grasping God which are yet in process of coming ot a full and pure appreciation of his total God-centeredness. (Continue Reading)