Machen Challenges Experience Theology

McKendree R. Langley

New Horizons: October 2003

The Deceitfulness of Sin

Also in this issue

The Genesis of Sin

Putting Sin to Death

The recent election of an openly homosexual bishop in the Episcopal Church and an informal talk I heard by a Reform rabbi both dramatize what can be termed "experience theology."

Said Bishop V. Gene Robinson in Time magazine after his election, "I answered God's call to acknowledge myself as a gay man. Now God seems to be calling me to another journey." A religion professor explains that people like Robinson take their cue from evolving "cultural standards."

At about the same time, I heard a Reform rabbi tell a group of curious evangelicals that he did not believe in sin. His idea of God seemed to be some notion of progress. I also found out that atheists can be members of his synagogue.

Robinson and the rabbi are examples of the idea that doctrine is based on experience; when experience changes, so does doctrine. Experience theology is the dominant view in much of organized religion in America today. Is this view something new? No!

Young Machen

Meeting the challenge of experience theology was a concern of J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) in his early career at Princeton Seminary. We will focus on his private letters and short articles from the period 1918-1924, which are housed in the Machen Archive at Westminster Seminary.

Machen was appointed assistant professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary in 1915. During World War I, he spent the period from January 1918 to March 1919 in France helping the troops. The book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) made him famous as the controversy with "modernism" (an unbelieving experience theology) grew. In his teaching and writing, he warned against any theology that claimed to "update" Christian doctrines, while in reality denying them.

War Experience

Machen was determined to minister to the American troops fighting in France. So he joined the YMCA staff as a traveling coffee shop host, and preached and counseled whenever possible, both at the front and in the rear areas.

Machen's article, "The Minister and His Greek Testament," was published in The Presbyterian on February 7, 1918. Machen emphasized that because of the clash between naturalism and supernaturalism, pastors must remain specialists in the Bible in order to build up their congregations in supernatural redemptive truth.

In a letter to his mother dated December 17, 1918, our YMCA worker confessed that it was hard to direct the attention of soldiers to spiritual matters. At one place, he was a "curtain-raiser" at a YMCA theater, where the men wanted to see the movie, not hear a speaker go on about God.

Then the YMCA reassigned him to lecturing. He went around speaking, but not announcing his topics in advance, fearing that many would stay away. Yet he did lecture on "The Spiritual Battle," which had to do with the religious resources in the Allied countries and Germany during and after the war.

The reference to the international "spiritual battle" acknowledges the secularization of Western culture and the decline of Christianity-the theme that undergirds his argument in Christianity and Liberalism.

Before Machen returned from France, the modernist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick published a strongly unbelieving article entitled "The Trenches and the Church at Home" in the Atlantic Monthly for January 1919. Fosdick did a hatchet job on orthodox biblical Christianity, declaring that the church had lost the soldiers because it proclaimed a negative religion of outmoded doctrines that failed to measure up to their self-sacrifice at the front. "The only use of the church is to gather up humanity's best," he declared, to unite people in common cause of progressive social aims. Here is a clear example of experience theology at work.

Princeton Address

Machen undoubtedly knew about Fosdick's modernist article when he addressed the Princeton alumni on May 6, 1919, on "The Church in the War." Machen frankly declared that the church had failed in the war because it had abandoned the reality of sin, the gospel of personal salvation, and the sanctified life.

"One drop of the precious blood of Jesus is worth more, as a ground for the hope of the world, than all the rivers of blood which have flowed upon the battlefields of France," he observed. It was not merely a matter of learning more about Jesus, but believing in his divine holiness in distinction from our sinfulness.

The self-satisfaction argument declared that the soldiers' sacrifice kept God happy, since the Germans were the real sinners in the war and the Allies had won a great victory by their stupendous efforts.

"But the roots of modern self-satisfaction lie far deeper than the war. During the past century a profound spiritual change has been produced in the whole thought and life of the world-no less a change than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant principle of life," he observed. By "paganism," he meant "a healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties," which was the opposite of Christianity as the "religion of the broken heart." For the Christian, after repentance comes joy in being the Lord's steward in all of life.

Here again the secularization theme arises. Preachers like Fosdick were criticized for simply telling the soldiers that they were good enough to be interested in the life of the good man Jesus. Rather, the cross of Christ must always be preached as the true source of hope for this life and the next. Here we see a criticism of experience theology in the lives of soldiers who felt that their self-sacrifice was sufficient to gain God's favor.

A Letter to the Editor

After returning to Princeton Seminary, Machen published Christianity and Liberalism in 1923 and received widespread attention for it. After his book was reviewed in the British Weekly, Machen responded with a letter to the editor that was published in the London paper on September 11, 1924. Here he addressed the experience theology directly.

The reviewer of his book, he began, had missed his central argument that genuine doctrine is based on the facts of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The British writer had assumed that doctrine is based on experience, so that when experience changes, doctrine must change, too.

If doctrine is based on experience, Machen continued, all doctrines will eventually be overturned. But, he noted, "the adherents of New Testament Christianity hold ... that doctrine, far from being the product of experience, is a setting forth of the facts upon which the experience is based.... It is not a conflict, then, between different forms of Christianity, but between the Christian religion on the one hand and a pragmatist skepticism, either mystical or neo-positivist, on the other."

The British Weekly reviewer had written about a common program of social service for fundamentalists and modernists on the basis of "Jesus is Lord." But Machen asked, "Which Jesus? Which Lord? The modernist opposes the biblical Lord Jesus as just a good man." "Naturalistic or agnostic modernism," he argued, is "fundamentally hostile to the Christian faith."

In the hands of preachers like Fosdick, Machen said, even the word God had been reinterpreted to mean "the moral life of the man Jesus of Nazareth or to symbolize the experience of moral renewal which comes to us through contemplation of Jesus' example."

"The presentation of the issues between these two is, I am constrained to think, one of the crying needs of the hour," Machen concluded.


1. Familiarity with experience theologies, past and present, helps us understand why progressive theologians are constantly updating doctrines, be they about God or morality. They want to stay in agreement with the secular consensus, so the "experience" argument justifies their rejecting of Christian doctrine while claiming the "Christian" label. In his books, Machen pointed out that behind the modernist popularizer Fosdick there were academic skeptics who based their work on unbelieving experience.

2. Whether we ask why the church failed at the front in World War I or how to vote in the election of a homosexual candidate for bishop today, the question remains: "Upon what standard do we make a decision?" On the basis of experience, both Fosdick and Robinson say, "Go with the flow!" But on the basis of what the Bible reveals about the sovereign God and salvation, we must say, "Obey the biblical standards!" The conflict rages on between sinful, subjective human experience and the unchanging biblical doctrines of faith and life. The young Machen gives us clear direction on this matter, which we would do well to heed today as we live our lives in a confused world.

The author is a member of Calvary PCA in Willow Grove, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2003.

New Horizons: October 2003

The Deceitfulness of Sin

Also in this issue

The Genesis of Sin

Putting Sin to Death

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