Machen Day 2018


The undergraduate student of the present day is being told that he need not take notes on what he hears in class, that the exercise of the memory is a rather childish and mechanical thing, and that what he is really in college to do is to think for himself and to unify his world. He usually makes a poor business of unifying his world. And the reason is clear. He does not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has ho world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge or a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. He is being told to practice the business of mental digestion; but the trouble is that he has no food to digest. The modern student, contrary to what is often said, is really being starved for want of facts.

Certainly we are not discouraging originality. On the contrary we desire to encourage it in every possible way, and we believe that the encouragement of it will be of immense benefit to the spread of the Christian religion. The trouble with the university students of the present day, from the point of view of evangelical Christianity, is not that they are too original, but that they are not half original enough. They go on in the same routine way, following their leaders like a flock of sheep, repeating the same stock phrases with little knowledge of what they mean, swallowing whole whatever professors choose to give them and all the time imagining that they are bold, bad, independent, young men, merely because they abuse what everybody else is abusing, namely, the religion that is founded upon Christ. It is popular today to abuse that unpopular thing that is known as supernatural Christianity,
but original it certainly is not. A true originality might bring some resistance to the current of the age, some willingness to be unpopular, and some independent scrutiny, at least, if not acceptance, of the claims of Christ. If there is one thing more than another which we believers in historic Christianity ought to encourage in the youth of our day it is independence of mind. (What is Faith? 16-17)


The Best Decision I ever Made

Maybe not ever. Marrying the missus has to be at the top since deciding to trust Jesus was not really my decision. But my conversation yesterday with Tom Woods about Machen was one of those rare moments when you see directly the consequences of a choice made longer ago than you care to admit. The closest I could come most easily to that decision was to resurrect the preface to my dissertation (“‘DOCTOR FUNDAMENTALIS’: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY OF J. GRESHAM MACHEN, 1881-1937,” Johns Hopkins University, 1988):

The central argument of this study is that Machen’s involvement in the fundamentalist controversy, his eventual expulsion from the Presbyterian Church, and his founding of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church were logical outcomes of his biblical scholarship and critique of religious liberalism. In fact, when understood in the light of his theological convictions, Machen’s behavior appears thoroughly reasonable.

This reading of Machen stems in part from my concerns as an intellectual historian. One of my presuppositions is that ideas, both religious and secular, operate with some autonomy from social and cultural settings. More importantly, I assume that religious thought cannot be reduced to or interpreted narrowly by social experience. These suppositions imply that Machen’s studies and beliefs were causal factors in his career and explain his behavior as well as, if not better than, his personality. I have not pursued psychological interpretations, then, because Machen’s ideas seem to offer an adequate explanation. Having said this, however, I must still admit that this approach stacks the deck in Machen’s favor since he also insisted throughout the fundamentalist controversy that differences stemmed from intellectual, not personal or administrative factors.

Because many recent studies have stressed the intellectual dimension of fundamentalism, I should also explain why I think mine is different. By emphasizing Machen’s Calvinistic outlook, this dissertation breaks with previous interpretations which explain fundamentalism largely by reference to such epistemological considerations as the persistence of Scottish Common Sense Realism among conservative Protestants. As helpful as these studies have been, I believe they overdramatize the philosophical differences between Protestants and overlook the significance of doctrine to the fundamentalist controversy. Yet, rather than stressing the theological convictions that united conservative Protestants, I have focused on one fairly specific rationale for opposition to modernism, namely, Machen’s Old School Presbyterian heritage, not Princeton Seminary’s defense of biblical inerrancy. Without considering Machen’s confessional concerns, students of twentieth-century evangelicalism cannot understand properly Princeton Seminary’s relationship to fundamentalism.

Still, my personal beliefs have informed this study, perhaps even more than I imagine. To be sure, my upbringing in a fundamentalist home as well as my education at Westminster Seminary account for many of my sympathies. Nonetheless, my interest in Machen is still relatively fresh because ironically I learned little about him at Westminster. A survey course in American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, which required the reading of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, generated my initial interest and led to a greater appreciation of Old Princeton Theology and Machen’s efforts to preserve it.

Nevertheless, I have tried to account for my own biases and present as correct an understanding of Machen as possible. To do so I have relied on my dissertation advisor, Professor Timothy L. Smith, whose knowledge and perspective on American religion challenged me to keep in mind the diversity of evangelicalism. Furthermore, his careful editing often cleaned up wooden prose and improved this dissertation considerably. Professors John Higham and Ronald A. Walters also deserve credit for their helpful criticisms throughout my studies. I must also thank Professors Mark A. Noll, George M. Marsden, and Richard B. Gaffin, who read earlier drafts and made helpful suggestions, and Professor William R. Hutchison, who first introduced me to Machen and offered advice at a preliminary stage. I am especially indebted to the librarians and staff members of the Montgomery Library at Westminster Seminary, particularly John R. Muether, Grace Mullen, and Jane Patete, who guided me through the Machen Archives, allowed me liberal use of the library’s holdings, and answered many questions. Jeff Charles and David Harrington-Watt have been good friends throughout my time in graduate school, offering as much aid through informal chats and rounds of golf as through their comments on various chapters.

Above all I must acknowledge my wife’s contribution. Her patience and support would have been more than sufficient. But her genuine interest in American history as well as her willingness to edit, proofread, and criticize my research and writing have been a tremendous encouragement. My debt to her is emphasized by the dissertation’s dedication.