BORN IN 1881, J. Gresham Machen grew up in an educated, well-to-do Presbyterian family in Baltimore. He majored in classics at Johns Hopkins University and graduated first in his class in 1901. He then entered the graduate program but after one year enrolled in Princeton Seminary. Following his graduation in 1905, he studied in Germany for a year and then returned to Princeton Seminary as a professor of New Testament in 1906.
Gresham Machen was known for his serious research and scholarly writing on various New Testament topics. He also became known for his defense of conservative theology, especially the authority of Scripture. After publishing Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, he became a nationally recognized figure. He maintained that liberalism was not a variety of Christianity but was instead an entirely different religion.
“Liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.” He argued that historical Christianity had always been rooted in the saving acts of Christ’s death and resurrection, whereas liberal Protestantism reduced Christianity to a set of general religious principles regarding the moral teachings of Jesus.
These beliefs caused Machen to become a controversial figure both at Princeton Seminary and within his denomination, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., as these institutions were beginning to shift toward a more liberal theological stance. Princeton’s drift into liberalism was heartbreaking for Machen, who fought hard to keep the seminary committed to the creeds of the Presbyterian Church. He pleaded with the seminary faculty to stand for “the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God and for the vigorous defense and propagation of the Reformed or Calvinistic system of doctrine, which is the system of doctrine that the Bible teaches.”
It was a losing battle. Princeton officially reorganized in 1929 to ensure a more inclusive theological curriculum. This left Machen and other Reformed professors worried about the lack of evangelical training for future Presbyterian ministers. In response, Machen and other Reformed faculty members left Princeton and founded Philadelphia’s Westminster Theological Seminary, an institution that would stand for theological orthodoxy and academic excellence. Gresham Machen was a professor of New Testament there until his death.
At Westminster, Machen continued to fight liberalism within the Presbyterian Church. In 1933 he helped form the conservative Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in order to counteract the liberalism that was infiltrating Presbyterian foreign missions. The Presbyterian General Assembly rejected this new mission board, and in 1935 Machen was tried and suspended from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church for refusing to break his ties to the Independent Board.
Machen then played a central role in founding a new denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (later the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), which over time continued to uphold theological orthodoxy.
While speaking in Bismarck, North Dakota, in December 1936, Machen came down with pneumonia, yet he continued preaching even though it was extremely cold and he was very sick. Finally he was hospitalized. When a friend visited him New Year’s Eve, Machen told him about a vision of heaven he had had in the hospital: “Sam, it was glorious, it was glorious.” He died the next day on January 1, 1937.
Respond to Gresham Machen’s statement that “liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces . . . a gracious act of God.” Where does your church or denomination stand on the conservative/liberal theological continuum? Where do you stand?
What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone. 10 God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.
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