Review of J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir by Ned B. Stonehouse

machen 2Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was a figure who towers above most of the rest in the history of Christianity in the 20th century.  He is best known for his valiant fights against liberalism: at large, for Princeton Seminary and especially in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, for founding an institution, Westminster Theological Seminary, and a denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  But his influence on Christianity in America today goes far beyond the latter two accomplishments.  In a biography of Machen by one of his close associates, Ned Stonehouse, Machen is described as a student, a scholar, a professor, a vibrant Christian, a friend, a son, and finally, as a leader of a movement for reformation.

This biography gives many details about Machen’s personal life and character.  Stonehouse draws heavily from personal correspondence between Machen and the most important person in his life, his mother.   This is a book that I had started reading some time ago, but to tell the truth, I had been discouraged by the incessant details toward the beginning of his life detailing his childhood in Maryland and undergraduate studies.  I wanted to get to the exciting stuff!  At times I had the feeling Stonehouse was idealizing the mundane in a way that smacked of hagiography.  But when I finally picked the book back up, and got through the portion on Machen’s early life, my interest picked up quickly in the narrative of Machen’s graduate studies in Germany.

The parts that I benefited from the most in this book were the interesting details of Machen’s life that I hadn’t read about already in various other accounts, especially events other than the events of 1926-1937 concerning Princeton Seminary and the Independent Board of Foreign Missions.  (Imagine a day when events at these institutions was covered intensely by the New York Times!)  When he went to Germany as a graduate student, for instance, he was confronted by the arguments of some of the most renowned voices of liberal theology and biblical interpretation.  I had been unaware of just to what extent Machen was impressed by their version of Christianity and their religious fervor!  He was really shaken in his faith, at moments.  Under the instruction of the leading biblical scholars in the world, he sometimes was driven to doubt basic orthodox Christian tenets like the inerrancy of Scripture and the literal, physical resurrection of Christ.  It was wrestling with the best arguments that the liberals had to offer, and his later coming to terms with the old paths laid out in Holy Scripture, that later made him such a capable defender of biblical orthodoxy.  In his experiences in the German Academy, Machen was being prepared for the work that God would have for him.  It is notable that even after having served for many years as Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary where he had built a reputation for stalwart biblical conservatism, he still recommended Germany as the top choice for advanced studies, that is, for students that he believed had real potential.

Machen served during the Great War with YMCA, performing retail duties in France before he got to do any spiritual work near the close of his tour.  But his response to the political climate of World War I shows his continuing love for Germany and the German culture, even as he was convinced that the only acceptable outcome would be an outright victory for the Allies.  His sense of fairness, however, would not permit the Germans to be demonized or those of German decent in the United States to be abused without protest.

Several things stick out in my mind about Machen after reading Stonehouse’ biography.  First of all, his thoroughness and skill as a scholar is prominent.  Machen’s articles and books were universally respected, even by unbelieving liberal scholars, in an age dominated by secular Bible scholarship, despite the fact that his conclusions were solidly orthodox and evangelical.  Here was a man of high intellectual ability, applied to the science of the New Testament, who was known and regarded for his forthright yet congenial manner of writing and speaking, even in important debates.  His major works, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, Christianity and Liberalism, and The Virgin Birth have not lost their relevance to this day.  Secondly, he was a true man of culture.  Here was a man who spoke several languages, enjoyed sports, hiking in the alps, an occasional cigar, and was able to enjoy God’s gifts with humility and thankfulness to the Creator.  His dedication to his work sticks out.  Machen had the freedom to give himself wholeheartedly in the Lord’s service to whatever he laid his mind to.  He remained single throughout his life, and this doubtlessly gave him liberty, time, and energy to contribute many things for the Lord’s cause.

As I review the details of Machen’s concluding judicial process and trial, I can’t help but think of it as an echo of the Protestant Reformation 400 years before his time.  In Machen’s bold yet humble stand for the truth of God’s word and the rule of law in the Presbyterian Church, (when it had come under the influence of unbelieving modernism,) Machen is a 20th century Luther.  Here was a man that God had raised up just for these moments of crisis.  His childlike faith in the Savior is what sustained him even to the day of his death.  As his final telegraph states, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”

This book is available for purchase here.

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