December 22: “Northern Aggression”

This continues our series on the Auburn Affirmation and its after-effects, as told by Chalmers W. Alexander, a lawyer and ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS.  These next several parts of the series specifically concern Dr. J. Gresham Machen.

What The Northern Presbyterian Church Did To Dr. J. Gresham Machen
(“Exploring Avenues Of Acquaintance And Co-operation”)

By Chalmers W. Alexander, Jackson, MS
[excerpted from The Southern Presbyterian Journal 8.10 (15 September 1949): 6-10.]

In 1936 Dr. J. Gresham Machen (pronounced “may chin”) was kicked out of the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church.

On January 1, 1937 Dr. Machen died of lobar pneumonia, after an illness of only four days, in Bismark, North Dakota, while on a preaching tour for the Lord Jesus Christ. At the time of his death he was no longer a minister in, or a member of, the Northern Presbyterian Church.

Dr. Machen was fifty-five years old, and at the height of his intellectual powers, when he died. He had never married, and he left an estate estimated at $175,000.00.

What H. L. Mencken Said

Dr. Machen’s sudden death evoked comments by newspaper and church paper commentators all over America, and from Christians and non-Christians alike.

What Dr. Machen had fought for, and what his opponents had been doing in recent years in the Northern Presbyterian Church which had aroused his opposition, were very clearly summarized, strange to say, by H. L. Mencken. H. L. Mencken has never professed to be a Christian, and no one has ever accused him of being very reverent in matters of religion. But no one can deny that he has a keen, incisive mind, and that he is one of America’s best known critics. Writing in the January 18, 1937 issue of the Baltimore Evening Sun, of which he himself was at one time the Editor, he remarked (the emphasis in the quotation is added):

“The Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D.D., who died out in North Dakota on New Year’s Day, got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived, and even his obituaries did much less than justice to him. To newspaper reporters, as to other antinomians (those not binding themselves by any moral law), a combat between Christians over a matter of Dogma (or doctrine) is essentially a comic affair, and in consequence Dr. Machen’s heroic struggles to save Calvinism in the Republic were usually depicted in ribald, or, at all events, in somewhat skeptical terms . . . But he was actually a man of great learning and what is more, of sharp intelligence . . . He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.

“Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works . . . His one and only purpose was to hold it resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.

“My interest in Dr. Machen while he lived, though it was large, was not personal, for I never had the honor of meeting him . . . Though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.

“These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and re-enact with amendments the body of doctrine on which the fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.

“Upon this contumacy Dr. Machen fell with loud shouts of alarm. He denied absolutely that anyone had a right to revise and sophisticate Holy Writ. Either it was the Word of God or it was not the Word of God, and if it was, then it was equally authoritative in all its details, and had to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Anyone was free to reject it, but no one was free to mutilate it or to read things into it that were not there. Thus the issue with the Modernists was clearly joined, and Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court, and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological ‘Kaffee-klatsche’ (Coffee-and-chatter gatherings) . . .

“It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however improvable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.

hese postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, ‘education,’ or osteopathy.

“That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty of psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people, and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again — in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mud-upbringing. Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed — but he was undoubtedly right.”

Dr. Machen Had Voluntarily Left Princeton Theological Seminary

When Princeton Theological Seminary was reorganized in 1929, Dr. Machen had resigned his position on its faculty as a vigorous protest against the reorganization. Other members of the faculty who similarly had resigned were Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, Ph.D., probably the world’s greatest Old Testament scholar at that time, and Dr. Oswald T. Allis, Ph.D., who is one of America’s most outstanding Old Testament scholars today, and Dr. Cornelius Van Til, Ph.D., who is now recognized as one of the country’s leading Professors of Apologetics.

These four unusually great professors, together with other Christians of like mind, then proceeded to found Westminster Theological Seminary, at Philadelphia, in the autumn of 1929. They did this because they were firmly convinced that the reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary would result in changes being made in its hitherto consistently and thoroughly orthodox position in theology.

And, it might be added, since its reorganization in 1929, signers of the heretical Auburn Affirmation have served on the Board of Trustees of Princeton Theological Seminary and one Auburn Affirmationist has taught there as visiting Professor of Homiletics. And in addition, such men as Dr. Emil Brunner, who specifically rejects belief in the virgin birth of Christ and who does not believe in the full inspiration of the Holy Bible but who nevertheless taught as Professor of Systematic Theology in the Seminary during the school year 1938-39, have also taught there.

Dr. Machen’s Background

Dr. Machen was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 28, 1881. He was from a Southern Presbyterian family. His father and brother were distinguished lawyers, and both were Southern Presbyterian elders. Judge Gresham, his grandfather, was for many years one of the leading citizens of Macon, Ga., and in addition to being an elder in the First Presbyterian Church there he also contributed heavily to the Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church of that city.

Dr. Machen received his A.B. degree from Johns Hopkins University, and after one more year in that institution, as a graduate student in Greek (under B. L. Gildersleeve), he received his M.A. from Princeton University and his B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Then he studied abroad for a year, in the Universities of Marburg and Goettingen, both in Germany.

In 1906 he joined the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary and, except for an interval of some fourteen months during which he was engaged in Y.M.C.A. work in Prance and Belgium in World War I, he continued to teach New Testament in that Seminary until its reorganization in 1929. From 1929 until his death, Dr. Machen was Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Dr. Machen was the James Sprunt Lecturer at our Union Theological Seminary, at Richmond, in 1921, and he was the Thomas Smyth Lecturer at our Columbia Theological Seminary, at Decatur, in 1927.

Dr. Machen As A Man

As H. L. Mencken stated, Dr. Machen got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived. This was because, to a very large extent, he was much spoken against by those whom he had opposed in the Northern Presbyterian Church. As one of the church papers in that denomination once remarked: “We have no hesitation in saying that for the most part he was a victim of grave as well as wide-spread abuse and misrepresentation.”

What kind of man was Dr. Machen? What was he like personally?

From various news items and comments written at the time of his death a true picture of Dr. Machen emerges.

For instance, the Boston Evening Transcript remarked: “Newspaper readers and the uninformed opponents of Dr. Machen within has own household have fashioned in their minds a characterization of the man which is in fact a caricature. J. Gresham Machen was a gentleman. That is the word. Born of an excellent family of the South, in Baltimore, Machen was a Christian after the Presbyterian order. And that means living, doctrinal, cultured and spiritual faith.”

The Editor of Christianity Today, one of the sound church papers in the Northern Presbyterian Church, said: “In the death of J. Gresham Machen the Christian religion has lost one of its ablest and finest representatives. Of all those with whom we have been privileged to associate, he was the most like what we conceive Paul (apart from special supernatural equipment) to have been. In him breadth and power of thought were combined with simplicity of faith, humility of spirit, great courage and unlimited readiness to spend and be spent in the service of his Lord.”

Across the Atlantic, in The British Weekly, the following statement appeared: “The death, at the age of fifty-five, of Dr. Machen will have been sincerely lamented by all the churches of the United States. Dr. Machen was a strong and resolute man, who from the beginning of his theological career at Princeton took an unyielding attitude to all that goes by the name of Modernism. It sometimes seemed to ourselves that Dr. Machen’s attitude was made all the harder by the falling away from him of former friends. We had the privilege of something deeper than a casual acquaintance with Dr. Machen. We have met few men of his rank and scholarship who have so impressed us with a grave, deep sense of God. Nothing of the kind is more memorable in our experience than the lectures on ‘Galatians’ which we heard from him in Grove City. He was for those with whom he could be at ease one of the most charming of men.”

he Editor of The Banner, of the Christian Reformed Church, wrote: “The cause of orthodoxy has lost its most prominent champion in our country, the church of Christ a truly great reformer, the Presbyterian Church of America its foremost member and leader, the students of Westminster Seminary a beloved teacher . . . We knew him to be, not the pugnacious individual which his enemies imagined or pretended he was, but a most gentle and gracious Christian, a man with a tender and loving heart.”

Dr. Maitland Alexander, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church and, until its reorganization in 1929, the President of the Board of Directors of Princeton Theological Seminary, stated: “Then Dr. Machen was a humble Christian. I do not know any man that I have ever known that was as truly humble before his God as he was. He was a man of principle; of course he was a man of intense Bible study. He was a man who gave his heart wholly and unreservedly to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And, it is indeed strange to relate, Dr. William P. Merrill, of New York City, one of the Northern Presbyterian ministers who signed the heretical Auburn Affirmation, and who was a member of the “Commission of Appraisal” which in 1932 issued that un-Christian book entitled “Re-Thinking Missions” (which will be mentioned later in this article), wrote in the Modernist church paper, The Presbyterian Tribune: “In a very true sense he gave his life for what he believed. In an age when such firmness is far too rare, when goodwill and tolerance too easily slip into indifference, all real lovers of truth and rights should feel above all a very real respect for so sturdy a soul. While others, who shared his convictions, temporized and compromised when the crucial test came, he held firm and paid the price; and we honor him as a steadfast example of faithfulness even unto death.”

In the summer of 1933 Dr. Machen was once a dinner guest in my house in Jackson, Mississippi. He was one of the most charming and delightful Christian gentlemen with whom it was ever my privilege to be associated.

Dr. Machen As A Scholar

At the time of his death in 1937, Dr. Machen was probably the greatest New Testament scholar in the entire world.

Dr. Clarence E. Macartney, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church, and the nationally-known Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, stated: “He was the greatest theologian and defender of the Christian faith that the church of our day has produced. More than any other man of our generation, Dr. Machen tore mask from the face of unbelief which parades under the name of Modernism in the Christian Church . . . Like Paul he kept the faith delivered unto the saints, and like Paul’s noble companion, Barnabas, ‘He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost.’ ”

Dr. Caspar Wistar Hodge, Ph.D., Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary for many years, and a distinguished member of the famed Hodge family, remarked: “I not only loved him as a personal friend, but I regarded him as the greatest theologian in the English-speaking world. The whole cause of evangelical Christianity has lost its greatest leader.” In speaking of Dr. Machen as a scholar, Dr. Maitland Alexander stated: “I do not hesitate to say that he was the world’s greatest New Testament scholar, and those who attempted to answer him were thrown back like waves that beat against an eternal rock. He was the greatest champion of the Reformed Faith (or Calvinism) of the world . . . Here was a man who was the greatest of all in his life, and in his death generated a power that will almost pull down the adversaries of the Son of God and exalt Him and His Cross high above all things, that men will return from the uttermost end of the earth to be sprinkled with the blood of the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.”

r. R. A. Meek, formerly Editor of the New Orleans Christian Advocate, and of The Southern Methodist, said: “I regarded him, in point of scholarship, force of personality, and effective service, as the first Protestant minister in the nation; and in his lamented decease I feel that the cause of evangelical Christianity in this country has lost its ablest exponent and defender.”

The late Dr. J. B. Hutton, long the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, and one of the ablest thinkers of his generation in the entire South, stated: “The immorality of the truths of which Dr. Machen was in his day the truest, ablest, and most uncompromising defender and exemplar will attach to him. While these truths live his name cannot die.”

In the Boston Evening Transcript, Albert C. Dieffenback wrote: “J. Gresham Machen will be honored wherever men understand his character and his mission. Those who disagreed with him knew his power . . . No other man equalled Dr. Machen in recognized command of the situation. That his passing brings into relief the lack of success of the great religious adventure only slightly dims the significance of the fundamental character of the issue. There has not been and there will not be a surrender by the conservative Presbyterians . . . Out of the historic issue of fundamentalism, which began about 1920 in the Northern Baptist Churches but continued unabated among a minority in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., that is, the Northern Presbyterian Church, he emerges in death as the theologian and crusader, as learned and valiant a spiritual warrior as the Protestant church has produced in modern times.”

And, in speaking of Dr. Machen as a scholar, The Presbyterian Guardian remarked: “Union Theological Seminary of New York City is known as one of the leading modernist institutions in the United States. On four different occasions Dr. Machen was invited to address its undergraduates on historic Christianity because that seminary regarded him as the leading exponent of that viewpoint in America. He accepted those invitations so that he might bear testimony to the gospel with the hope that some student might see the truth.”

Dr. Machen As An Author

Not only was Dr. Machen known as a great theologian and scholar, but he was also widely acclaimed both in America and in Europe because of the books which he wrote. He was the author of The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), Christianity And Liberalism(1923), New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923), What Is Faith? (1925), The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), The Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936), The Christian View of Man (1937), God Transcendent (1949), and numerous articles in periodicals.

His books won the very highest praise from Christians and from non-Christians alike. For instance, Walter Lippmann, the Harvard educated news columnist, who is not a professing Christian but who is acclaimed as one of America’s ablest commentators and critics, said of one of Dr. Machen’s volumes: “There is also a reasoned case against the Modernists. Fortunately, this case has been stated in a little book called Christianity and Liberalism by a man who is both a scholar and a gentleman. The author is Professor J. Gresham Machen of the Princeton Theological Seminary. It is an admirable book. For its acumen, for its saliency, and for its wit this cool and stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism is, I think, the best popular argument produced by either side in the current controversy. We shall do well to listen to Dr. Machen.”

And The Presbyterian Guardian remarked in 1937 of Dr. Machen as an author: “Some years ago Dr. Kirsopp Lake, a noted liberal theologian, now professor of history at Harvard University, was asked to recommend a book on Paul the Apostle from the historic Christian viewpoint. He replied that The Origin of Paul’s Religion, by J. Gresham Machen, was the best. Dr. Adolph Deissmann, one-time professor of New Testament at Berlin University, as far back as ten years ago was using Dr. Machen’s Pamphlet on the Virgin Birth and referring to it as authoritative on the subject. This was before the publication of Dr. Machen’s monumental work on the Virgin Birth of Christ.”

“The Virgin Birth Of Christ”

Of all of the books which Dr. Machen wrote, probably The Virgin Birth of Christ is his greatest; and it is probably the greatest volume on that subject which has yet been written. Its publication caused immediate and wide-spread comment.

For instance, in speaking of this monumental volume, the London Times (England) said: “Professor Machen’s work is elaborate, learned, and full. The writer possesses an acute mind and a competent knowledge of modern critical literature.”

The Glasgow Evening Citizen (Scotland) stated: “In the literature of Biblical Criticism no greater book has been written for some time.”

The Church Quarterly Review (London, England) observed: “We hazard the conjecture that Dr. Machen’s contribution may well mark a turning point in the whole discussion, and for some years to come will exercise a steadying influence in helping many to retain their belief in the Virgin Birth in spite of all that can be said against it from the point of view of liberal criticism.”

The Edinburgh Expository Times (Scotland) said: “Whatever we may think of Dr. Machen’.s doctrinal standpoint, we cannot but be impressed by his learning and ability …”

Ferd. Kattenbusch, a noted liberal theologian, in a twenty-page article commenting on Dr. Machen’s volume in Theologische Studien und Kritiken (Germany), remarked: “It is no doubt the most extensive book on the subject that has hitherto appeared, an impressive volume. But it is—this testimony I must render to it—also so earnest, so circumspect, so intelligent in its discussions, that it must be recognized unqualifiedly as an important achievement.”

Maurice Goguel, in Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses (France), wrote: “He knows all the theories which have been proposed concerning the birth of Jesus, and by the very precise references which his book contains he will render the greatest service to all those who may take up the study of the subject even if they do so from a point of view different from his.”

The British Weekly (England) observed: “Professor Machen has written a book on the Virgin Birth which is certain to gain the attention of all, friends or foes, who have an interest in this perplexing subject. His work is genuinely learned; it displays a thorough mastery of relevant literature, even when rather out of the way, and it is surrounded by a wider zone of scholarship than discussion of this special subject might seem to require, but one which testifies the more to the writer’s extreme carefulness.”

The Christian Century, one of the noted Modernist religious papers in America, stated: “The author has thought all around his subject and has left no phase unconsidered. His earlier published studies show that he has been thinking about it for a quarter of a century. I am not aware of any important literature on either side of the subject that he has overlooked, unless it be the more recent work on Quirinius and the census. But that problem plays a small part in his discussions anyhow.”

And The New York Herald Tribune remarked: “Whatever one’s opinion may be concerning the great problem of which he writes here, it is the first duty of a reviewer to say that his book is in a high degree creditable to the reputation of America in theological learning, and is an achievement that gives its author a distinguished standing among New Testament scholars everywhere.”

Why Was Dr. Machen Kicked Out Of The Ministry In The Northern Presbyterian Church?

From all of these comments regarding Dr. Machen as a man, as a scholar, and as an author, it is easy to see that he was one of the greatest figures that Presbyterianism in America has yet produced.

Possessed of massive learning, and of a clear and profound and powerful mind which the liberal Christian Century termed

“Skilled to divide
A hair ‘twixt south and southwest side,”

Dr. Machen believed in the full inspiration of the Holy Bible. And he championed all of the great doctrines of the Christian Faith as they are summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

Nevertheless, Dr. Machen was kicked out of the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church. Now none of the signers of the Auburn Affirmation were ever dismissed from the ministry of that denomination; in fact, many of them were honored by being placed on prominent Standing Committees of the General Assembly of that church, and by being put on the faculties and boards of trustees of some of its theological seminaries. And some of them were even elected to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of that denomination.

But Dr. Machen, on the other hand, was placed on trial by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. He was found guilty as charged. On appeal to the Synod of New Jersey, and later to the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church, the judgment of the Presbytery of New Brunswick was affirmed.

And thus, in 1936, Dr. Machen was dismissed from the ministry of the Northern Presbyterian Church!

Now why was Dr. Machen kicked out?

(Continued in the next issue)


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