John Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was an influential American
Presbyterian theologian in the early 20th century. He was the Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary between 1915 and 1929, and led a conservative revolt against modernist theology at Princeton and formed Westminster
Seminary as a more orthodox alternative. This split was irreconcilable, and Machen led others to form the
Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Machen is considered to be the last of the great
Princeton Theologians who had, since the formation of the college in the early 19th century, developed Princeton Theology - a conservative and Calvinist form of
Evangelical Christianity. Although Machen can be compared to the great
Princeton Theologians (
A. A. Hodge and
B. B. Warfield) he was neither a lecturer in theology (he was a New Testament scholar) nor did he ever become the seminary's principal.
Machen's influence can still be felt today through the existence of both institutions that he founded - Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Machen was born on July 28, 1881 in Baltimore to Arthur Webster Machen and Mary Jones Gresham. Arthur, a Baltimore Lawyer, was 45 and Mary was 24 when they married. While Arthur was an
Episcopalian, Mary was a Presbyterian, and taught her son the Westminster Shorter Catechism from an early age. The family attended Franklin Street Presbyterian Church.
Machen's upbringing was considered to be privileged. He attended a private college and received a classical education including Latin and Greek. Although no records exist, it was probably
The University School for Boys. He was also taught the piano.
In 1898, the 17-year old Machen began studying at Johns Hopkins University for his undergraduate degree, and performed sufficiently well to gain a scholarship. He majored in classics and was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity. Machen was a brilliant
scholar and in 1901 was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society after graduation.
Despite having some indecisiveness about his future, in 1902 Machen opted to study theology at Princeton Seminary, whilst simultaneously studying a Master of Arts in Philosophy at Princeton University.
He also pursued theological studies in Germany for a year in 1905. In a letter to his father, he admitted being thrown into confusion about his faith because of the liberalism taught by Professor Wilhelm Herrmann. Although he had an enormous respect for
Herrmann, his time in Germany and his engagement with Modernist theologians led him to reject the movement and embrace conservative Reformed theology more firmly than before.
In 1906, Machen joined Princeton Seminary as an instructor in New Testament after assurances he would not have to sign a statement of faith. Among his Princeton influences were Francis Patton, who had been the prosecutor in a nineteenth century heresy
B. B. Warfield, whom he described as the greatest man he had ever met. Warfield maintained that correct doctrine was the primary means by which Christians influenced the surrounding culture and he emphasised a high view
of scripture and the defence of supernaturalism. It appears that under their influence Machen resolved his crisis of faith. In 1914, he was ordained and the next year he became the Assistant Professor of
World War One
Machen did not serve "conventionally" during World War I, but instead went to France with the YMCA to do volunteer work near and at the front. Though not a combatant, he witnessed first-hand the devastations of modern warfare.
After returning from Europe, Machen continued his work as a New Testament scholar at Princeton. During this period he gained a reputation as one of the few true scholars who was able to debate the growing prevalance of Modernist theology whilst maintaining
an evangelical stance.
The Origin of Paul's Religion (1921) is perhaps Machen's best known scholarly work. This book was a successful attempt at critiquing the Modernist belief that Paul's religion was based mainly upon Greek philosophy and was entirely
different to the religion of Jesus.
Christianity and Liberalism (1923) is another of Machen's books that critiqued theological modernism. The book compared conservative and protestant Christianity to the rising popularity of Modernist (or "Liberal") theology. He
concluded that "the chief modern rival of Christianity is Liberalism".
These books, along with a number of others, placed Machen firmly in one theological camp within the Presbyterian Church. His work throughout the 1920s was divided between his time at Princeton and his political work with evangelical Presbyterians.
Despite his conservative theological beliefs, Machen was never able to fully embrace popularist
fundamentalism either. His refusal to accept
premillennialism and other aspects of Fundamentalist belief was based upon his belief that Reformed Theology was the most biblical form of Christian belief - a theology that was generally missing from Fundamentalism at
the time. Moreover, Machen's scholarly work and ability to engage with modernist theology was at odds with Fundamentalism's anti-intellectual attitude.
Indeed in a letter to the board of trustees of Bryan Memorial University refusing their offer to make him president Machen wrote:
I never call myself a "Fundamentalist." There is indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between "Fundamentalism" and "Modernism," then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most
pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a "Fundamentalist" but a "Calvinist"—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the
Church's life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and
the other representatives of the "Princeton School."
Between 1924 and 1925, relations among the Princeton faculty deteriorated when The Presbyterian questioned if there were two different parties on the faculty. In response Machen remarked that his differences with Charles Eerdman related to the
importance they attributed to doctrine. He noted that Eerdman was tolerant of those in doctrinal error. Eerdman wrote privately ‘he (
Dwight L. Moody) knew that controversialists do not usually win followers for Christ.’
The 1929 General Assembly voted to reorganise Princeton Seminary and appointed two of the Auburn Affirmation signatories as trustees. The Auburn Affirmation was a response by liberals within the Northern Presbytery Church that condemned the General Assembly's
response to the contoversy arising out of Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermon ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’ in May 1922. Machen and some colleagues withdrew and set up
Westminster Theological Seminary to continue Old School theology.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church
In 1933, Machen became concerned about liberalism tolerated by Presbyterians on the mission field and formed an independent mission board. The next Presbyterian General Assembly reaffirmed that independent mission boards were unconstitutional and gave
the associated clergy an ultimatum to sever their links. When Machen and seven other clergy refused, they were suspended from the Presbyterian ministry. The controversy divided Machen from many of his fundamentalist friends including Clarence Macartney
who dropped away at the prospect of schism. Ultimately, Machen withdrew from the Northern Presbyterian Church and formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Much to the sadness of those who had been involved in the movements that he had led, Machen died in 1937 at the relatively young age of 56. Some commentators (notably Stonehouse) point out that Machen's "constitution" was not always strong,
and that he was constantly "burdened" with his responsibilities at the time.
Machen had decided to honor some speaking engagements he had in North Dakota in December, 1936, but developed pleurisy in the exceptionally cold weather there. After Christmas, he was hospitalized for pneumonia and died on January 1, 1937. Just before
his death, he dictated a telegram to long-time friend and colleague
John Murray -- the content of that telegram reflected deeply his life-long faith: "I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it." .He is buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
- Noll, M. A. (1988). "John Gresham Machen", In S. B. Ferguson, D. F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Eds.),
The New Dictionary of Theology. Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester.
- Stonehouse, Ned B. (1987).
J. Gresham Machen - A Biographical Memoir (3rd ed.). The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh.
ISBN 0851515010. (Republished by the Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
- Hart, D. G. (2003).
Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. P & R Publishing.
- Machen, J. Gresham (1923). Christianity and Liberalism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Princeton Review articles