Steering a Course between Fundamentalism and Transformationalism: J. Gresham Machen’s View of Christian Scholarship, Part 2

Dariusz M. Bryćko

Ordained Servant: December 2012

Face to Face

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Face-to-Face: The Importance of Personal Presence in Ministry and Life

“Thou Art the Christ”: Reflections on the Name of the Lord

To a Snowflake

What Makes Education Christian?

Presbyterians in America were not always strong advocates of distinctly Christian education, and in many cases were comfortable supporting public and private schools that did not possess explicit Christian identity. This was not the case with the Dutch Reformed churches, which much earlier came to advocate distinctly Christian education. In large measure, the growth of Christian scholarship among the Dutch is credited to Abraham Kuyper, the renowned Reformed theologian and politician who, in 1901, became prime minster of the Netherlands. Politically, Kuyper introduced a new model of society in which various religious and social groups enjoyed separate yet equal spheres of sovereignty.[1] This political system enabled the Dutch Reformed to develop a network of Christian schools, including the well-known Vrije Universitet in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Kuyper’s political model fell out of grace, as Dutch society perceived it as highly divisive. Despite this setback, the Dutch Reformed continued to promote Christian education, supplying powerful theological justification for it. Further, many followers of Kuyper immigrated and became some of the most outspoken supporters of Christian scholarship on the American continent—something that, as Marsden notes, competed with the classic Presbyterian model. Neo-Kuyperians also had a deep impact on the philosophy of cultural involvement held by many mainline evangelicals (such as the late Chuck Colson and others). It is important to note here that the Dutch Reformed philosophy of Christian education was partially due to the amicable political situation in the Netherlands, where churches, with the government’s help, were seeking to fulfill their cultural mandate in the sphere of culture and education—something that became very important for the Dutch, especially during the Second World War, during which Dutch churches took a stand against Nazi Germany and German Lutherans who failed to oppose (and even supported) Hitler.

Perhaps because of their initial success, Kuyper and his followers assumed a triumphalist tone in proclaiming their ideas. This is apparent in Kuyper’s famous speech in which he said, “There is not a square inch in the world domain in our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’ ” and more explicit when he writes:

Calvinism means the completed evolution of Protestantism, resulting in a both higher and richer state of human development. Further ... the world-view of Modernism, with its starting-point in the French Revolution, can claim no higher than that of presenting an atheistic imitation of the brilliant ideal proclaimed by Calvinism, therefore being unqualified for the honor of leading us higher on.[2]

Kupyer’s triumphalism, which sounds so odd—if not vexing—today, was not out of the ordinary for the intellectual elites of the early twentieth century, and in many ways embodied the optimistic expectations of those who taught that the approaching era would be a “Christian century,” or, as in the case of Kuyper, a Calvinist century. Kuyper’s triumphalistic Calvinism and high expectations of Reformed Protestantism went beyond the church and evangelism. It became a worldview that penetrated political, social, and cultural convictions, seeking to transform the whole of human society and culture. This worldview found its stronghold in Western Michigan.

Without a doubt, Machen and Kuyper shared much in common. As Calvinists, both were committed to the historic Christian faith and adhered to creeds of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. They were also influential in their day—part of the upper class with political, religious, and cultural connections. Finally, in 1898 Kuyper delivered the famous Stone Lectures at Princeton, which continued to be discussed when Machen attended and later started teaching at Princeton. In Machen’s speech titled “Christianity and Culture,” delivered in 1912 at the opening of the fall semester, we can hear echoes of Kuyper’s triumphalistic transformational imperative.[3]

However, Machen later moves away from Kuyperian ideas, forming his own views on faith, culture, and Christian scholarship. It has been observed that Machen’s nonmilitary service with the YMCA in France during the First World War had a powerful impact on him. Experiencing the horrors of war far from the comforts and luxuries of American life planted doubts in Machen’s mind about whether the twentieth century really would bring peace, prosperity, and the growth of the Christian faith. His optimism continued to wear out later, after he returned to America, where he carefully observed the rise and spread of Nazism, Fascism, and Marxism.[4] Further, the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church’s acceptance of the Auburn Affirmation[5] caused Machen to realize that the challenges facing the church might have been greater inside the church than outside of it. All of this eventually brought him to believe that the church, when set on “redeeming the culture,” loses its integrity and becomes very much like the surrounding culture.

In effect, Machen developed a vision that no longer directly burdened the church with the task of cultural transformation. Instead it set before the church the spiritual goal of proclaiming the gospel though Word and sacrament. Although Machen no longer saw a direct role for the church to affect culture, this did not mean that he withdrew from or avoided political and cultural involvement in society. Quite the contrary: Machen’s activism continued when he addressed a number of political and social issues, including prohibition, jaywalking, prayer in school, environmental preservation, and the establishment of the Department of Education, against which he testified before the U.S. Congress. However, his activism here was motivated more by his libertarian and civic (rather than purely religious) sensibilities. As Hart puts it:

Machen was not implying that Christianity is unrelated to any range of activity beyond the ministry or fellowship of the church. Instead he was raising questions about the much more difficult issue of how Christianity is related to these other areas of human activity [and how] ... Christians, even Reformed ones, may actually give different answers to the questions about the best form of government, cultural and religious diversity in a single nation, the value of mountain climbing or the significance of advanced learning.[6]

The conviction that Christianity was not able to provide a sufficient basis for public life in a pluralistic American society came from Machen’s deep conviction that “historic Christianity was fundamentally narrow, exclusive and partisan.”[7] Thus Christians who used the church as a vehicle for political involvement were in danger of being intolerant or of treating the Christian faith instrumentally, to promote morality or American culture.

The spiritual aspects of Machen’s Christianity become evident in his commencement speech, titled “Consolations in the Midst of Battle,” delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1931, when he said:

Remember this, at least—the things in which the world is interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash, and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still water; you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give—the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God.[8]

Furthermore, Machen argued that the spiritual direction of the church needs to be accompanied by a strong militant approach, which, as he argued, stands in continuity with the New Testament’s witness. He writes, “Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to really great heights on the celebration of truth.”[9]

The theme of the spiritual militancy of the church finds its best application in Machen’s view of Christian scholarship. In “Facing the Facts before God,” a speech he delivered before the League of Evangelical Students, Machen compared the situation in which the church found itself to the biblical battle of King Hezekiah, described in the book of 2 Kings. He warns believers against the danger of complete annihilation if they do not seek their refuge in the Lord, writing: “Do you think that this is a happy or blessed age? Oh, no my friends. Amid all the noise and shouting and power and machinery, there are hungry hearts. The law of God has been forgotten, and stark slavery is stalking through the earth—the decay of free institutions in the state and a deeper slavery still in the depths of the soul.”[10] It is when we read words such as these that we see Machen no longer possessing the optimism and triumphalism of his earlier days of Kuyperian Calvinism. Instead, he holds to a pessimism that can be overcome only when the Christian seeks refuge in God by claiming his revealed Word, and openly challenges the world with it. Rhetorically, Machen expresses this challenge in militant terms.

Machen is not interested in negotiating with modernism (or the culture) because he ultimately sees it as anti-Christian and anti-academic in nature, seeking to destroy not only the historic Christian faith but scholarship altogether. Thus he calls for battle, and for conservative Protestant theologians who are committed to biblical truths and serious intellectual engagement to aid the evangelistic work of the church, writing that

evangelists, if they are real evangelists, real proclaimers of the unpopular message that the Bible contains, are coming more and more to see that they cannot do without those despised theological professors at all. It is useless to proclaim a gospel that people cannot hold to be true; no amount of emotional appeal can do anything against truth. The question of fact cannot permanently be evaded. Did Christ or did he not rise from the dead; is the Bible trustworthy or is it false?[11]

However, theologians are not the only ones who can be involved in truly Christian scholarship. For Machen, all academics, to some extent, are to participate in it; that is, if they continue to take Christian revelation into consideration in their academic work. He explains:

A Christian boy or girl can learn mathematics, for example, from a teacher who is not a Christian; and truth is truth however learned. But while truth is truth however learned, the bearings of truth, the meaning of truth, the purpose of truth, even in the sphere of mathematics, seem entirely different, to the Christian from that which they seem to the non-Christian; and that is why a truly Christian education is possible only when Christian convictions underlie not a part, but all of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life—those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian School.[12]

So then, for Machen, non-Christians can effectively practice the non-theological sciences (or disciplines), as “all truth is God’s truth”; however, he believed that modernity’s anti-religious bias had rendered this impossible. Therefore, Christian academics need to take a stand not only to defend Christianity but also the integrity of faith and science. This is where Machen’s philosophy of Christian education takes root, rather than a biblical imperative to make Christian education binding or compulsory, as was the case with the Dutch Reformed. For Machen, defending the integrity of a discipline itself is in the Christian’s interest, as both theology and philosophy (or, the truths found in every discipline) are true and cannot contradict one another.

On the margin, it could be argued that this approach has a long trajectory in the Protestant approach to education, and can be traced back to the Calvinist theologian, philosopher, and pedagogue Bartholomäus Keckermann (ca. 1572–1609) who, during his tenure at the Academic Gymnasium in the Polish city of Gdańsk (Danzig), implemented a curriculum reflecting this conviction. Since Keckermann’s work influenced Reformed academics in Europe and the New World, we can suspect that it also had an impact on the way some at Princeton viewed the relation between theology and science.[13]

On a practical level, Machen argued that Christian education must be all- encompassing and in clear contrast to secular science, which does not take divine revelation into consideration. This comprehensive approach to Christian education must originate with doctrine and not with a general Christian ethos in the schools. In other words, Christian education is not so because it is done by Christians, but rather because of its content. An institution whose primary goal is to promote Christian culture, civic society, gender equality, or social justice is not what Machen had in mind. Instead, he saw Christian scholarship as based on a set of nonnegotiable principles expressed in Scripture and the historic confessions, and anyone departing from these in the name of academic freedom was no longer practicing scholarship that could call itself “Christian.”

Machen set forth as a positive example the classic Roman Catholic system of education, which roots the whole academic curriculum in the context of established doctrine and with consideration for natural law. Scripture and the creeds guide students in the discovery of the natural world, and that forms the dialogue with the non-Catholic and secular culture. Further, studying ancient languages and authors, logic, and metaphysics is an essential prerequisite for any fruitful academic labor.[14] This model of Christian education sees the world as already integrated where sciences are consecrated to the person and work of Christ and his church; and where the students who are broad in their interests, cultured, and well rounded are always ready to defend the hope they have in Christ.[15]

In the face of the modern hostility toward historic Christianity among secularized academics and liberal theologians, Machen argues for the necessity of narrowly defined Christian scholarship. For Machen, Christian scholarship becomes essential not only for the proper functioning of the church but also of science itself. Just as the church desperately needs well-educated scholars who will defend the historic Christian faith and her truth claims, so also science needs to be practiced in an unsecularized form. Machen held that faith and science must relate to each other, otherwise neither would be able to find truth—or, worse, science without religion would fall into decadence, while religion without science would become superstitious.

The reactionary nature of Machen’s philosophy of Christian education caused him to adopt a militant tone, helpful in communicating great urgency as well as the antithetical relationship between the church and the world. Further, Machen’s definition of Christian scholarship is narrow, pointing to doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesiastical commitment rather than to the general religious ethos of the school or its honorable heritage. Community-oriented goals—such as the preservation of liberty, civic society, or culture—are not the direct tasks of Christian scholarship (nor of the church), just as they are not the goal of even nonreligious academic work, but rather are byproducts (or desirable side effects) of education. Chasing after the results of education—no matter how noble—instead of its principles is a dangerous exercise in utilitarianism, defeating the purpose of scholarship and rendering it inherently unreliable. At the same time, liberty, civil society, tolerance, and open dialogue are naturally and organically preserved when good scholarship is practiced, and most effectively when Christian scholarship is practiced. Therefore, while it is not the direct task of Christian education to promote these values, they are indeed promoted when Christian scholarship is practiced faithfully.


[1] Richard Mouw, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship: Essays in the Line of Abraham Kuyper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 33–57.

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 41.

[3] Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” delivered at the opening of the fall semester at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1912. It is available in Machen’s Selected Shorter Writings, 399–410.

[4] Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, 137, 154.

[5] In May of 1924, the Presbyterian Church in the USA signed a document that pledged the church’s fidelity to the ministers who no longer affirmed the Fundamentals of Faith (the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of miracles). The document was supported by moderates who, although they did not agree with modernists, saw it as necessary to preserve the unity and liberty of the church.

[6] Hart, introduction to Machen’s Selected Shorter Writings, 14.

[7] Hart, Defending the Faith, 138.

[8] Machen, “Consolations in the Midst of Battle,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 205.

[9] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of Faith,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 149.

[10] Machen, “Facing the Facts Before God,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 199–201.

[11] Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of Faith,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 146.

[12] Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 172.

[13] Keckermann writes: “True philosophy in no way disputes sacred theology,” and elsewhere, “In sum, the natural knowledge of God is not contrary to the supernatural, knowledge gained from nature is not repugnant to knowledge gained by grace, the book of nature does not overturn the book of scripture: therefore neither does philosophy conflict with theology.” For these quotes and a discussion, see Richard Muller, After Calvin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 122–36, 127–28. See also: Edmund Kotarski, Lech Mokrzecki, and Zofia Głobiowska, eds., Gdańskie Gimnazjum Akademickie. Szkicie z dziejów, vols. 1–4 (Gdańsk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego, 2008); William, T. Costello, The Scholastic Curriculum at Seventeenth Century Cambridge (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958); Joseph Freedman, “The Career and Writings of Bartholomew Keckermann (d.1609)” (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 141, no. 3, 1997), 305–28.

[14] Machen, “The Minister and His Greek Testament,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 210.

[15] Machen, “Consolations in the Midst of Battle,” in Selected Shorter Writings, 204.

Dariusz M. Bryćko, PhD is a member of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, and volunteers as director of Tolle Lege Institute. His new book, The Irenic Calvinism of Daniel Kałaj: A Study in the History and Theology of the Polish-Lithuanian Reformation is now available from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Ordained Servant Online, December, 2012.

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Ordained Servant: December 2012

Face to Face

Also in this issue

Face-to-Face: The Importance of Personal Presence in Ministry and Life

“Thou Art the Christ”: Reflections on the Name of the Lord

To a Snowflake

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