As I take an intensive summer Hebrew class here on the campus of Westminster Theological Seminary, I periodically have a minute and thirty seconds for deep reflection as I stop to reheat my coffee in the student lounge. When I stand in the student lounge, my gaze and thoughts are routinely drawn upward to a large portrait of founder and professor of New Testament, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).
After repeating this process several times, I decided to take a few minutes and pull out John Piper’s book, Contending for Our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen.
Let me say, this is a thrilling read and there is much more in this book than I could begin to put into a single blog post. But to understand Machen’s contribution to the church of his day we have to understand the battle with Liberalism (or Modernism) that was being waged all around him. Liberals wanted to maintain that Liberalism was still true Christianity. In fact, it thought of itself as a much freer and enlightened kind of Christianity than the stilted Christianity of the obscurantist and stodgy fundamentalists.
Machen, on the other hand, recognized that while Liberalism continued to use many of the same words as historic Christianity, and frequently affirmed the same creeds, and continued to live in the same institutions and churches, it had nevertheless become a different religion altogether. If I can summarize Machen’s concerns with Liberalism as Piper presents them in three points, they would be as follows:
1) The past is viewed with suspicion and contempt. In light of tremendous advances of intellect in modern times, the past appears relatively useless. The great doctrines and lives and accomplishments of great men of the past were being obscurantized into irrelevancy and quickly being forgotten.
2) There is a skepticism regarding the accessibility of truth. Truth, as a category, then took on a more flexible character. Inevitably when truth is devalued, there is a “replacement of the category of true with the category of useful (pragmatism, utilitarianism).” As Piper says, Liberalism of Machen’s day thought “the question of what works seems to be more scientifically productive” (p. 132).
3) The strong supernaturalism of the Reformed Christian faith is neglected or denied and a practical do-it-yourself-ism wins the day. The social pressure against strong supernaturalism was subtle but unrelenting.
Ultimately, Machen was contending with his all for a God-centered, in fact God-saturated, worldview. Machen’s legacy then should be readily apparent to us. The battles he fought are the same battles we are fighting today. As Machen argued in his book, Christianity And Liberalism, we must preach and guard a historically humble, truth driven, solidly supernatural Christianity. This alone is the true Christian faith. All imitations are idols.