Meet John Gresham Machen
– by Joel Sienkiewicz
John Gresham Machen was an influential theologian who lived during the eve of modernism. He not only made a significant impact during his time against many of the “heresies” of his day, but his work also has had lasting significance even to this day. Machen is most famous for his book Christianity and Liberalism. and the establishment of Westminster Seminary.
He was born to Arthur Machen and Mary Gresham in Baltimore in the year of 1881. Both of his parents were religious but differed in their expression – his father was an Episcopalian, and his mother a Presbyterian. Throughout John’s upbringing he was the recipient of significant religious influence. His mother taught him the Westminster Catechism as he was growing up, and his family regularly attended Franklin Street Presbyterian Church together.
Machen had a somewhat privileged upbringing. His father was an influential lawyer, and secured for him a quality, private education at Johns Hopkins University. In 1902, after graduating from Johns Hopkins, he chose to attend Princeton Seminary, where he simultaneously pursued a Master of Divinity and a masters degree in Philosophy.
Upon graduating, Machen joined the Princeton Seminary staff as a scholar and lecturer. He was hesitant, but agreed to join the staff on the condition that he would not have to sign a statement of faith. Throughout Machen’s theological education he was heavily influenced by B. B. Warfield, whom he called “the greatest man he had ever met.”
While teaching at Princeton the First World War broke out. Instead of serving as a soldier, Machen chose to serve in an unconventional way – by volunteering with the YMCA.
After the war, he returned to Princeton Seminary and continued his work. By this time, he began to gain a reputation for being one of the few theologians who was able to debate the rising modernist ideas within the Christian world. In doing this, Machen composed two of his most famous works. The first one was called The Origin of Paul’s Religion, composed in order to combat the idea of modernist theologians that Paul the Apostle had fundamentally changed the religion that was handed down to him by Jesus. His other work, Christianity and Liberalism, aimed at critiquing the basic ideas of theological liberalism and showing the vast distance this theology had traversed from true Christianity.
While at Princeton Seminary there was a big controversy between the Modernists and the Fundamentalists. This controversy occurred not only in academic institutions, but also in most denominations, including his own Presbyterian church. The Modernists were trying to reinterpret and reshape many of Christianity’s foundational doctines in order to reconcile them with modern practices and the modern world view. The Fundamentalists were the more conservative thinkers who were standing up for more traditional views of Christian doctrine. Machen fell within the camp of the Fundamentalists.
In the end, the conflict proved to be irreconcilable, resulting in Machen and several other Fundamentalists leaving the Presbyterian denomination and starting the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Machen also left Princeton Seminary and founded Westminster Seminary, a school that is still functioning to this day.
In the end, Machn is best known for his engagement within the Fundamentalist/Modernist controvery. His legacy lives on through his writings, as well has through the flourishing of Westminster Seminary.