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Who was J. Gresham Machen?

J. Gresham Machen

John Gresham Machen (1881—1937) was an American Presbyterian apologist, scholar, and zealous defender of conservative Reformed theology. For most of his career, he served as a professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He became a leading figure and outspoken voice in the Fundamentalist-versus-Modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. In 1923, J. Gresham Machen published Christianity and Liberalism, a famous defense of traditional Christian theology. He also founded the denomination known today as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Machen was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the second of three sons born to a prosperous and prominent attorney, Arthur W. Machen. John inherited his father’s passion for classical literature and logical thinking. His mother, Mary Gresham, who was brought up in the Old School Presbyterian Church, instilled in John a thorough education in the Scriptures and the Westminster Catechism.

After obtaining a classical education at nearby Johns Hopkins University, J. Gresham Machen enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1902. During his years as a seminary student, John struggled with the idea of becoming an ordained clergyman. He believed a ministerial path conflicted with his intellectual and academic aptitude. For a while, he considered a future in banking or international law. But by the time he graduated in 1905, Machen felt drawn to a life of scholarship in New Testament studies. He spent a year in postgraduate study at Marburg and Göttingen in Germany.

In the fall of 1906, Machen accepted a position at Princeton Theological Seminary teaching elementary Greek, Bible exegesis, and an introductory course on the New Testament. He still battled internally with doubts, but Machen’s uncertainties about his calling were eventually resolved within the intellectual and spiritual environment at Princeton and under the mentoring influence of Professor Benjamin B. Warfield—an exceptional scholar and defender of biblical doctrine.

J. Gresham Machen dedicated himself to the Lord as a Christian scholar and seminary professor and was ordained to the pastorate in 1914. Throughout his tenure on the Princeton faculty, Machen argued against liberal Protestantism and defended traditional Christian teachings. He worked tirelessly to preserve the seminary’s conservative character. His 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism, placed him at the center of the growing controversy. In the book, Machen compares the teachings of liberalism with Christianity’s beliefs about God, humanity, Jesus Christ, salvation, and the church. He concludes that “the chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism’” and “that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 53).

In 1929, J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Theological Seminary in response to the school’s reorganizational move toward more liberal and inclusive Protestantism. That same year, Machen led the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the goal of preserving historic Reformed theological traditions. He also sought to establish a missions board that could certify the orthodoxy of missionaries independent of the Presbyterian General Assembly. As a result, Machen and several other conservative leaders were expelled from the Northern Presbyterians (the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America). Eventually, in 1936, Machen founded the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with the Presbyterian Church in America), later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Two of Machen’s better-known scholarly works defending traditional views of New Testament topics are Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930). He also published New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923), a textbook still found in seminary classrooms today.

J. Gresham Machen never married. At age 55, he died suddenly of pneumonia while on a preaching tour. His life remains an exemplar of careful scholarship and doctrinal integrity, particularly for young Bible students and ministers in an age of drifting theological currents.

Here are a few quotes from the works of J. Gresham Machen:

“Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end” (Christianity and Liberalism).

“The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the cross” (Christianity and Liberalism).

“The religion of Paul was rooted altogether in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Jesus for Paul was primarily not a Revealer, but a Saviour” (The Origin of Paul’s Religion).

“The Biblical writers, after having been prepared for their task by the providential ordering of their entire lives, received, in addition to all that, a blessed and wonderful and supernatural guidance and impulsion by the Spirit of God, so that they were preserved from the errors that appear in other books and thus the resulting book, the Bible, is in all its parts the very Word of God, completely true in what it says regarding matters of fact and completely authoritative in its commands” (Christian Faith in the Modern World).

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This page last updated: March 20, 2024