Dr. Gresham Machen - Unreconstructed Christian: A Memoir
by the Rev. H. McAllister Griffiths
Three passing years have cast their shadows over "this little landscape of our life" since that New Year's Day of 1937 when, having finished the work he had to do on earth, J. Gresham Machen was called into the presence of the Christ he loved.
Time gives perspective, just as distance gives it. It has its own manner of revealing persons and events in truer relative importance. The original facts remain unchanged. We simply see them better.
Neither the character nor the fame of Doctor Machen stands in need of any embellishment. The very attempt would be an exercise in futility. What he was, what he did, and the principles underlying his life in action speak for themselves when rightly perceived and related. And it is my profound conviction, first formed more than fifteen years ago but ever increasing in certainty, that when the long roll of Christ's servants is called out in the great day, the name "Machen" will belong in that select company of immortals that includes Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Xavier and John Wesley.
What was he, then?
|In every fiber of his being, he was a redeemed sinner. He was very fearless before men but very humble before God. Everything else sprang from a primary and overwhelming sense of obligation to the grace of God in Christ. He was not his own, never thought of himself as his own, never conserved strength or time or substance for his own indulgence. He spent himself for Christ. And even in those weeks when he could be persuaded to "rest" himself in his beloved Alpine mountain climbing (at which he was far from a novice) he would see, in those stately distances, the majesty and holiness of the sovereign God. I do not mean that he viewed the world of beauty with a merely didactic or moralizing eye. But since his life was a Christ-centered life, since the world of visible forms and events was to him permeated with an eternal purpose, everything beautiful and true and good declared the presence and glory of the One who is ineffable.|
John Gresham Machen, born in Baltimore in 1881, learned to know and to love the Lord Jesus Christ at his mother's knee. His father, as well as his mother, was an exceptional Christian, but the communion between son and mother was especially intimate and sacred. Both parents were persons of culture and refinement in the older, non-debased, meaning of the words. Doctor Machen's tender tribute to his mother in the short personal sketch given in "Contemporary American Theology" (1932) lifts only a small corner of the veil of his heart. If one is to find any real parallel one must go far back in Christian history, to read in the "Confessions" of Augustine the life and character of Monica, and of the mystical moments shared by mother and son in Ostia, before her death.
What a generation of servants of God we would have if the Christian mothers of little children would only realize what they, and they alone, can do in the forming of faith and character! What areas in developing minds and hearts can never be reached by schools or teachers, no matter how well trained or eager! Yet so many well-meaning Christian mothers think their duty done when they give to their children a bare, smattering of "Bible teaching," while the deep harpstrings of Christian experience never vibrate, because never touched. Mrs. Machen touched them in her son and their rich music of grace rang out to set the melody echoing in countless others. Behind this man, then, was his devoted mother, from whom the Gospel was not merely "learned" but through whom it entered as an essential element of the fabric of his soul.
Socially, Doctor Machen was a child of the old South. I do not mean that he ever suggested a wish that the processes of history might somehow be reversed: he recognized their finality. But there was bred in him a nostalgia, a heimwehr, for what Tennyson called "the tender grace of a day that is dead." Of his grandfather's old home in Georgia he once wrote" "Its fragrance and its spaciousness and simplicity were typical of a by-gone age, with the passing of which I am convinced that something precious has departed from human life. In both my father and my mother, and their associates whom I saw from time to time, I caught a glimpse of a courtlier, richer life, and a broader culture than that which dominates the metallic age in which we are living now." This unconcealed opinion led some persons of only rudimentary understanding to call him a "pessimist"; others attempted to explain away his love for the Gospel by declaring that it was only one phase of his "congenital conservatism." How shallow such representations were! So far as knowledge and understanding of things new are concerned, Doctor Machen was modern to his fingertips, and the mind that encompassed the world in which he lived was well-nigh encyclopedic. So far from lagging behind modern life and thought, he really was far in advance of it. Looking upon the Gospel as eternally fresh and new, he saw Modernism and all the other ephemeral little isms for exactly what they were, and envisaged the time when they would be bygone curiosities interesting only to an antiquarian. "There are things in heaven and earth," he wrote, "never dreamed of in our mechanistic world. Some day there may be a true revival of learning, to take the place of the narrowness of our age; and with that revival of learning there may come, as in the sixteenth century, a re-discovery of the gospel of Christ."
When you take a man of Doctor Machen's native ability, give him the background he had, the tender teaching that was his, the exceptional formal education that followed and, above all, the rich Christian experience that came early in life, you have the main outline of the man. Some people called him an "unreconstructed rebel"; to me the words that head this little memoir were far more fitting: he was simply an unreconstructed Christian.
Doctor Machen never liked to be called a "Fundamentalist." He said to me once, "A new name is usually applied to something new. But what we stand for is not new. It is historic Christianity. When we allow ourselves to be labelled with a new name it may lead people to think that we are exponents of something different from the historic faith of the Church." Yet he felt so strongly that if anyone asked him, "Are you a modernist or a fundamentalist?" he should reply at once, "I am a fundamentalist." Not to do so, he held, might cause some to think that he hesitated between Christianity and its opposite modernism.
Along with an intensely burning love for Christ it was most natural that he should love the written Word. And so he became its diligent student. This is neither the time nor the place to set forth his equipment for the study and exposition of the Bible. But that it was second to that of no living man seems incontrovertible. One needs but read his published books to realize this. From the lucid, stringent "Christianity and Liberalism" (which he afterward wished he had called "Christianity and Modernism"); the stimulating, inexorable logic of "The Origin of Paul's Religion" in which he marches from objective to objective like a modern mechanized army; the glowing, heart-warming "What is Faith?" (his greatest book, I think); the monumental wealth of learning revealed in "The Virgin Birth of Christ"--in every page of these shines out his knowledge of the Word. But there is something else there, too, even more noteworthy. That is, Doctor Machen's very real and sincerely humble subjection to the Word. He did not read it or use it to bolster up the ideas of J. Gresham Machen. He read it to learn the truth and the will of God. I never heard him quote any Scripture casually, in jest or, for quick advantage, out of context. He always approached the Word reverently, because it was the Word of God. And because he loved God's Word he defended its truth and its great system of doctrine. Not that the Word needs any defending at all so far as its truth is concerned, but that the minds of men need to be defended from misconceptions and from falsehoods about the Word.
One of the chief accusations hurled at Doctor Machen from time to time was that he was "gloomy." Now, while I think that anyone who is never gloomy in this world of sin probably needs a mental examination, the intimation that Doctor Machen was habitually gloomy was only modernist propaganda. I have never known anyone more really human, in the best sense of the word. When he was in Princeton he conducted what he called the "Checker Club." That is, he would hold open house in his rooms in old Alexander Hall. Students would flock in, coming and going at will. There was usually a crate of oranges, a box of apples, cookies, and staggering amounts of ginger ale (nothing stronger). "Das," as his intimates called him, would provide anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen checkerboards, and would wander around watching the games, perhaps eating an apple, with a grin that stretched almost literally, from ear to ear. When he would see anyone temporarily out of refreshment he would hurry to his side. With an expression of mock-seriousness he would wail, "Don't be a tightwad, boys, don't be a tightwad!" as he pressed them to take more and more.
As a raconteur and performer of "stunts" upon social occasions, Doctor Machen was not merely good. He was brilliant, and could be so in any company without ever cheapening himself or lowering his standards of taste. The idea that he was a "Gloomy Gus" with a dyspeptic grudge against the world is the sheerest misrepresentation. For down at his being's core he was happy because Christ had redeemed him, because that redemption expressed itself in the fullest development of every potentiality and facet of human personality.
Coupled with the charge of gloom there was often the more serious charge that he was "very bitter." That also, it needs to be said plainly, was a fabrication. But since a thousand people heard about him to every one that could know him, the lie ran faster than the truth. True, he was, as deeply human as every one of the rest of us, and he himself was the last one to claim that he was without fault. He made mistakes just as everybody else does. When he realized them he hastened to do what he could to repair them. In that respect I never met a humbler man. But to the repeated representation that he was bitter toward his opponents I repeat that it was a pure fabrication. He often excused them and the things they said because, he would say, they were not themselves just then.
Bitterness, as I understand it, is a vindictiveness of spirit that takes expression in mean words and acts. But there was nothing mean about Doctor Machen. Some, I fear, mistook his zeal for the truth of God and the emotion stirred in him at the thought of Christ's little ones being misled, together with its positiveness, for "bitterness." But many more called him bitter because he told the truth, and truth is always bitter to those whom it convicts. People who are really mean themselves sometimes try to pull a high-minded opponent down to their level by accusing him of "bitterness." What such people were really saying was, that from their point of view Doctor Machen was inexcusably tenacious. The one thing they could not endure about him was that he would hang on, and so they said that he was "bitter."
So far as ecclesiastical action was concerned, Doctor Machen's standard was very simple. Some acts are dictated by principle. They must be performed, no matter how "impolitic" they seem to be, no matter how subject to misconstruction they are, no matter how hard. Other acts, not required by principle (i.e., a duty laid down in the Word), may be debated. As to the first he was adamant. As to the second he was as reasonable a man as ever lived, and not at all dogmatic. Many of the decisions and courses for which he was blamed as not being "wise" belonged in the former category. But he had to do them, no matter what the results, or whether they were the best "strategy." That is why he was often accused of being "stubborn." But that cry has been raised against every Christian from the time of St. Peter on who has resolved to "obey God rather than men" and who has carried that resolution into practice. God send us more such Christian men and women! Far better to be called bitter, to be dubbed stubborn, to become the butt of little men's ridicule than to court the favor of men by sitting down to discuss with them whether to obey the command of God. To J. Gresham Machen the command of God meant, as it ought to mean to every Christian, great and humble, that there could be no debate. There might be debate and discussion as to how best to express obedience, but none at all as to the necessity for obedience.
Everyone observed--though his enemies could never quite grasp the reason--that Doctor Machen, almost from the very beginning, attracted and held a devoted following of younger men. Not being able to understand the nature of this attraction, his traducers were wont to refer disparagingly to his "influence over unformed minds," sometimes even hinting--ever so delicately--that it was, in some way, sinister. All this, of course, was the merest eyewash, and only highlights the inability of those who were so bitter against him to gain any insight into the man with whom they had to do.
The flower of real friendship and devotion does not sprout from the seed of mere intellectual admiration. No one ever fell in love with a bundle of qualities, whether mental or moral. Friendship can never be coerced, only drawn, and the drawing must be mutual. Sources go deep into those subtle but powerful attractions which kindred spirits fell for each other without always knowing why. In other words, friendship can submit only between persons, and the character of the persons fixes the character of the relationship. The common area on which the spirits meet may not be outwardly visible, may be felt rather than perceived, but it is always there.
Dr. Machen, while always the courteous gentleman, did not make use of artifice to gain friendship. He never flattered in order to attract. True, he was always generous when he thought praise was deserved, but the object was to show how he felt, not to solicit a following. Among his friends the kindness and the warmth which radiated from him was nothing calculated, but as natural and unaffected as breathing. He probably was not a man to strike an attitude or assume a pose; nor did he ever try to give younger men the impression that he honored them by admitting them into his circle. In a word, he was genuine. Mentally he was an authentic genius, with all the massiveness and differentiation distinguishing the mind of genius. Emotionally he was not complex at all. He loved goodness, beauty, and truth as he understood them and as wholeheartedly hated their opposites without soiling or demeaning himself into hating individuals. And that kind of simplicity is, I think, a rarer and greater possession that even mental genius.
No wonder we young men loved him! He was, in the exact sense of the word, a nobleman to us precisely because he never would have thought of himself in such terms at all. Self-acknowledged "nobility" is without exception spurious. "Das" would have honestly regarded its imputation to himself as being funny. He was never happier than when among the boys--with himself as one of them. Youth is preternaturally keen in being able to sense the difference between the assumed "good-fellowship" of an older man with an ax to grind, and, on the other hand, an older man who is genuinely interested in them, themselves, for their own sake, with no strings attached. That was what we found in Das, and acquaintanceship issued into devotion as inevitably as spring blends into full summer.
Yet, even so, the attraction is but partially explained, the greater part of what has been written could be true of similar men, anywhere, whatever their faith and creed. But this went deeper, because we were Christians, and because we had been born into an era in which Christianity is a besieged fortress.
It is no mere theoretical aridity of doctrine that those who have received the Lord Jesus Christ have been born again, that in them courses anew, a supernatural life. The fact is the basis and the explanation of all true Christian experience. And since, as has been noted, the character of the persons determines the character of their friendships, the communion of Christian with Christian can realize potentialities of which the natural man can never know. It possesses in Christ a greater, yet at once a more exclusive, common ground upon which spirits may meet. Call this mystical if you will: those who are Christ's, in whom He lives, may be uniquely fused together in Him when they believe themselves called in His eternal purpose to proclaim His Gospel and are set for its defense against an encircling world.
A great deal of superficial drivel in ridicule of "self-appointed defenders of the faith" has gained wide currency in our day. The object, of course, is to make those who love the Gospel the butt of ridicule. But that is merely the voice of raw, cocksure unbelief, speaking from the outside without even looking in. Many others in addition to the writer can rise to testify what the experience is like from the inside. No fellowship can ever match for intensity or tenderness that which subsists between those who, in obedience to a solemn dictate, try by God's grace to fight the good fight of faith. They won in defense of the One whose honor is more precious than their own mere physical welfare or being. In that fight, from which each one of us naturally shrank, there were in the beginning many leaders. In the heat of battle some of them endured all until the end. Others fell by the wayside. A few galloped their white chargers to the rear, muttering that the fight should have been held some sunnier day. But one leader, more than the peer of them all, neither fell nor ran. And to him, even long before the final denouement, the hearts of many young men were drawn closely by mystical but powerful cords.
It is in the total impact of person upon person that that which binds them together may be viewed in its wholeness. Analysis risks distortion of the picture. Yet, even so, certain attitudes and characteristics live vividly in memory. They furnish their own illumination, nor does their oil need replenishing.
To hear his opponents talk about him, one would get the impression that Dr. Machen was a modern Torquemada, a cold-blooded, soulless theological machine who looked upon orthodoxy as a mathematical equation and upon the slightest deviation from it as mortal sin. How little, again, they understood the man! Truly, he held to the great system of doctrine of the Bible as unshakably eternal. But to him it was no frigid exercise in mathematics, but a living body of truth springing from the heart and mind of God and centered in a glorious, redeeming Person.
Nor was he hard and full of censure against the young men who had to fight agonizing battles in their own souls before full certainty could be found. No,--to them he was patience and help and tenderness. He knew the long dark hours of inner conflict, when faith seems at its nadir and doubt a mocking jailer. He knew these things because he had experienced them, and because he too had walked that road he could help others over its stony places. Many a man today can thank God for the human instrument who helped him to face every problem squarely and fairly, not turning away from any difficulty, but finding the answer in the reasonableness and truth of the Word of God.
There were many who, while they lightly took ordination vows without really meaning them, scoffed at Dr. Machen's insistence that such vows should be taken sincerely or not at all and, once taken, kept with fidelity. Perhaps they did not know that he had every moral right so to hold. He was graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1905. But he was not ordained--mark the year well until--1914. During a portion of that period he did not know whether he ever could conscientiously apply for ordination. In later years he wrote, "It was not Germany, however, that first brought doubts into my soul; for I had been facing them for years before my German student days. Obviously it is impossible to hold on with the heart to something that one has rejected with the head, and all the usefulness of Christianity can never lead us to be Christians unless the Christian religion is true. But is it true or is it not? That is a serious question indeed."
Then he mentioned some of the things that helped "as I passed through the long and bitter experience that the raising of this question brought into my life." It was out of those "dark hours when the lamp burned dim" (as he himself described them) that the insight and strength came with which he helped others in the years that followed.
Thus was fused in him a deep humanity with a passionate insistence upon intellectual integrity. He never shrugged-off problems that were real, as though they did not exist. He never advocated "short cuts" either in preparation for the service of Christ or in the testing of the claims which the Bible makes for itself. He realized that there is no conflict at all between reason and faith, that when rightly understood they coincide. So he did not ask men to "have faith" in something that their minds could not believe. He took them, instead, to the Bible and helped them to see that it is credible, that its truth is demonstrable, that faith is neither a gamble nor a leap in the dark, but a resting upon the character of the self-revealing God. No wonder young men loved Dr. Machen, derived stimulation and strength from him, learned to share his passionate dedication to truth, his aversion to anything intellectually shoddy. For by example and by precept he appealed to all that was highest in them, mentally and spiritually.
Both space and personal inability prevent me from recounting the numerous other ways in which Dr. Machen was a friend, both to those of his own generation and to those who were younger. He was never a man to recall them. But because his friendship in its various manifestations was so selfless, it evoked in others a devotion of a more enduring quality than if he had sought it.
I have mentioned Dr. Machen's passion for truth. He held that truth is one and that, in a high and holy sense, it flows from the Person of God. Man may only partially and at times gradually, comprehend it. He may deny it. But truth itself is changeless because it is what it is. It does not belong to us, nor is it malleable to the impact of our desire. He held, too, that the Bible teaches a great coordinated body of Truth. This fabric is more than a catalogue of separate truths. It is a unity, and is so revealed by God. Both the fact of its separate parts and the fact of their inter-relation are divinely revealed. When we analyze we see the separate parts, each in turn. When we view them all as a whole we perceive their grand unity. In the first way of looking, we see many precious doctrines. In the second view, we see them as what, for want of a better word, we call a "system" of doctrine. Now the word "system" is our human word, but the fabric of truth in the Bible to which we apply the word is not ours at all, but God's, just as the separate doctrines are God's. Since He has revealed both, both are to be received, loved, and honored as from Him.
If we are to understand, what God has thus revealed, Dr. Machen held, we must see these two aspects of His truth in balance. We must not become so preoccupied with one doctrine, or one group of doctrines, that we lose sight of their relationship to each other. The corrective for doctrinal distortion, in which we overemphasize one truth at the expense of others, is to perceive and glory in the divinely-revealed system. That keeps us in balance and restrains us from the excesses which almost invariably accompany doctrinal distortion.
But Dr. Machen also recognized that it is sometimes possible for men so to overemphasize the fact that a system exists as to forget, or seem to give the impression of forgetting, the precious truths themselves of which the system is composed. He was as much opposed to that kind of doctrinal distortion as to the other. For him the "system" could never become a mere, mechanically conceived exercise in theology, in which living parts were combined to produce a sterile whole. It was all alive. It all combined together as a grand, heavenly symphony centered in one theme: "The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
This system is sometimes called "The Reformed Faith." But the churches of the Reformation did not invent it. They found it in the Word. It is sometimes called "Calvinism." But Calvin did not originate it. He, too, found it in the Word. Others describe it as "Augustinianism." But the great Augustine, who had been for a millennium and a half with his Lord, did not conceive it. He, also, found it in the Word. For myself, I do not care what men call it, or whether they give it a name at all, so long as they get a glimpse of its glorious mountain-tops, its fertile valleys, and its infinite distances. It is, I believe, as certainly the truth of our Lord, or His Deity, and that simply because it is revealed in the Word. That is where Dr. Machen found it, and where he taught others to seek it.
Sometimes I feel that many who sincerely love the truth of God in all its wholeness do an unconscious and unintended disservice to it when they too-often call it by the name of any of its human exponents. They do not mean, nor do they suspect, that by the continual iteration and reiteration of the names "Reformed Faith" or "Calvinism" they create popularly the impression that they are advocating something merely human, something man-made. They give the inadvertent impression of being sectarian, whereas this Divine System is not sectarian at all. Certainly Dr. Machen never thought of it in any such terms. I do not think that many, if any, of those who were trained by him so conceive it. But that a large number of people have so understood them is both undeniable and unfortunate.
Dr. Machen taught us, and for this countless others (as well as I) are grateful, that in reality this Divine System, call it what you will, is not only taught in the Bible, but has also been the instinctive, underlying faith of the Church universal. (For myself, I do not want to surrender to Rome the grand word, "Catholic," which means universal. The word belongs by historical warrant to those who hold the Faith in its grand simplicity. Protestantism is a return to the original Catholic faith, not a departure from it. The word belongs to us, not to Rome the corrupter, and we ought to claim it.) But, of this, as Dr. Machen pointed out again and again, in spite of their creeds most men and women are Calvinists (I use the word for convenience) when they pray. They ask God to take the initiative whenever they pray for the conversion of a lost sinner. Thus in their hearts they believe that the Holy Spirit is the exclusive agent in salvation. They pray as if they believed in the Divine System men call "Calvinism" simply because there is no other way to pray for the salvation of the lost. Christian instinct here universally recognizes what imperfect understanding of the Bible may deny. Beneath the diversities and discordances of men is this response of the redeemed heart to the unmerited grace of God in Christ. This is one of the lessons which I learned from Dr. Machen, and for its comforting breadth I shall be eternally grateful.
Dr. Machen is what men call "dead." But we Christians use the word only as a convenience to convey the fact that soul and body are separated until the resurrection of those who have been made "just" by the blood of Christ. The soul, the seat and center of his personality, is with Christ, "which is far better." If we really love our Christian "dead" we could never wish them back. But what of the work Dr. Machen left behind him on earth?
His work on earth was done. There are no accidents in God's eternal purpose. Though his task looked unfinished to us, God knew that it was completed. So He called His servant Home.
But what of the influences he left behind, in other men, in movements?
One of the things which Dr. Machen used to repeat over and over again in the winter of 1935-1936, when separation from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was impending, was: "We must not allow this movement to run out into the sands." He meant, of course, that it must not be dissipated by losing its distinctive witness, which was the great tradition for which the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. had once stood, but which was being abandoned. Outwardly there was every reason to tremble. The icy winds of sure "defeat" were blowing, and many who had vowed to endure and to "go out" if necessary were falling from us like dead leaves from trees in a November gale.
I shall not attempt here to deal with events from June, 1936, until the present, or to discuss the developments which led to the situation we have today. Such treatment does not properly belong in this memoir. But it is proper to ask this question: In view of the existence of two relatively small churches and the fact that a large number of his former pupils are in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and elsewhere, has the movement of which Dr. Machen became the outstanding leader "run out into the sands"?
The answer is, emphatically not, with differing emphases the two churches organized following the disruption of 1936 stand firmly for the Bible, its Christ, the precious doctrines of the Word and its Divine System. Their separation, we must believe, is in God's eternal plan and hence serves both His purpose and His glory. If Christ tarries they will grow and will furnish focal-points about which others may rally in years to come.
Nor is this all. There are many others who hold to the faith and who were deeply influenced by Dr. Machen, who are yet in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. I cannot see how they can be anything but desperately unhappy. They are, in our view, in an intolerable situation. I firmly believe, and am willing to submit this belief to the arbitrament of time, that they will eventually come to the place where they see that their fellowship with Modernism is unholy. Then they, too, will come out. In other words, the exodus from the old body has as yet hardly really begun. But it will come, as surely as daybreak, and the signs of it are not wanting.
Yet another consideration: many of those whom Dr. Machen influenced and taught are not in Presbyterian Churches at all. Now all readers of the Beacon know that I believe, as Dr. Machen believed, that Presbyterian government is founded upon and agreeable to the Word. But he did not believe, nor do very many, that the form of Church government is prescribed in Scripture. Historically Baptists, for example, were what men call Calvinistic. The truth of God, be it said to His praise, is not confined to any one form of government. The everlasting Gospel is one, whether preached from an Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Independent pulpit (I include Baptists under Independents). Nor will the power of the Gospel be stayed because those who preach it may be mistaken as to the most Scriptural method of shepherding the flock of Christ.
One should never forget that Dr. Machen's books are still widely read and will be read for a long time. The influence they are exerting and will exert is incalculable. Some of them are for the "plain man" of whom he used often to speak. Others are monumental works of learning and reasoning,--books which gained him world-wide respect even among radical modernist scholars. All his published volumes are in able elucidation or defense of the Bible.
And last of all, the Gospel with all its fulness of truth, which Dr. Machen preached and defended, will go on because it is greater than any man. Dr. Machen himself would have been the first to assert this. Truth makes its way because it is God's. It may be obscured but men cannot permanently suppress it. The history of the Church Catholic is the history of the supremacy of truth and the inability of the world, either inside or outside of the Church, to kill it. New Reformations will come, new revivals. The movement is God's, not Dr. Machen's. He was the servant of God, and with that title, and all the self-abnegation as well as the honor that it represents, he would be well content.
He loved Christ and his fellow men greatly, because Christ first loved him. And to that God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--he would even as we, give all the honor and the glory.