Machen’s Wars: aspects of the life of J Gresham Machen
The year 2012 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of J Gresham Machen, who died on January 1, 1937, at the age of 55.
Machen was born, the middle brother of three, in Baltimore, Maryland on July 28, 1881, 16 years after the American Civil War or what he would probably have known as The war between the States as although Maryland is a border state, his mother was from Macon, Georgia.
Through inheritances, he became wealthy as a young man. At one time and another, his grandfather on his mother's side and his own father each left him $50,000 and this in a day when a family could live well on $3,000 a year. His financial circumstances freed him to study in Europe and later to support Christian publications and Christian work.
But his family left him more than money. They gave him an inheritance of Southern views, social connections and solid achievement. His cultured mother wrote a book on The Bible in Browning. His father was a successful Baltimore lawyer and also wrote detective novels. US President Woodrow Wilson was a family friend.
The family were Presbyterians and Gresham was taught the Bible and the Westminster standards from a young age. He would later say that at twelve he had a better understanding of the Bible than many students entering seminary. In 1896 he became a communicant member of the church.
His higher academic career began locally at Johns Hopkins in 1898, where he studied for three years before doing post-graduate work in the classics department. After a brief period studying banking and international law in Chicago he enrolled at Princeton Seminary to study theology, graduating in the Spring of 1905. He then spent an important year in Germany, in Marburg and Gottingen, studying under some of the leading liberal teachers of the day. On his return to America he spent a year assisting in the New Testament department at Princeton.
He was eventually ordained as a minister in 1914, after discovering that Christ “keeps a firmer hold on us than we keep on him.” He became assistant professor of New Testament at Princeton that same year and full professor in 1915. He spent 1918 and the early part of 1919 in Europe serving with the YMCA in the Great War.
Machen is best remembered for the battle he waged with others against modernism, chiefly at Princeton and then Westminster Seminary. He insisted that Modernist Christianity and Bible Christianity were two different religions. Modernism doubted the truth of Christ's resurrection and virgin birth, miracles and the Bible's accuracy, all of which Machen defended.
His most famous book appeared in 1930, his doctoral thesis on The Virgin Birth of Christ which answers objection after objection. He began by showing that the doctrine was very old and that differences in Matthew and Luke can be reconciled. He argues that the virgin birth was a crucial element of the whole story of Jesus: “Remove the part and the whole becomes harder not easier to accept; the New Testament account of Jesus is most convincing when it is taken as a whole.”
Eventually, in 1929, Machen felt it necessary to leave Princeton and with others to found Westminster Theological Seminary in (founded “to carry on and perpetuate policies and traditions of Princeton Theological Seminary, as it existed prior to the reorganisation thereof in 1929, in respect to scholarship and militant defence of the Reformed Faith.”) In 1933 he formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Missions. He was suspended from the ministry for this, which led to the founding in June 1936 of what he called the Presbyterian Church of America, known today as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It was less than six months later that Machen unexpectedly died in a Roman Catholic hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota and so was with the Lord, which is far better.
Here I want to concentrate on three things
1. Machen's wars – serving hot chocolate for the YMCA
2. Machen's wars – the battle with modernism
3. Machen's wars – consolations in the midst of battle