04 February 2006

How J. Gresham Machen helped (and revolutionized) a young convert

by Dan Phillips

My first encounter with Machen was in 1973, when I began studying Greek using his rather stilted, basic textbook (since revised). I thought Greek would kill me; if it didn't, Machen surely would. But I had no idea he had written, or done, anything else.

Then I remember one of my first experiences of a well-stocked Christian bookstore. (For you kids, such establishments used to exist in California in the 1970's and early '80's. Ask your parents.) I found this book by Machen called What Is Faith? The title raised quite a live question for me, and to find (A) an entire book devoted to the subject, (B) by a man as scholarly as Machen, was intriguing.

The Lord had saved me out of a cult called Religious Science, or Science of Mind. It was 1973, and I was seventeen, when the Lord saved me. The bulk of my early growth and fellowship was in a loose, earlier form of Charismaticism. My conversion to faith in Jesus Christ was grounded in the Word of God, and in deep conviction of sin. Becoming a Christian meant a radical overhaul in my way of thinking and living -- "Root and branch," Treebeard might have said.

I struggled to find my way. Very soon after conversion, I came to believe I'd been gifted to be a pastor; and so within the year, I began studying Greek. In fact, I could have said "began studying," and just left it there. I'd been a thoroughly lazy and indulgent student until Christ saved me. I was articulate and smart(-alecky), but not a disciplined student in any sense of the words. The process of learning how to learn began the day of my conversion, and it was grueling. My memory is that I literally sweated as I started learning the Greek alphabet, and practicing it by reading a Greek New Testament aloud in the public library.

Many of the Christians I came to know were Charismatics whose attitude towards study and doctrine ranged from suspicion to open hostility. It was "carnal" to study too hard. Doctrine and "head-knowledge" was "of the flesh," not of the Spirit. Study made one proud, boastful, unspiritual.

But I had been powerfully brought to believe that Jesus was exactly who He said He was, which necessarily involved believing everything Jesus said. God worked this in me by using the Word itself, and leading me to think through its implications. So how could I believe what Jesus said, and how could I walk and grow in that faith, if I didn't understand His Word? And how could I understand it if I didn't study it? Jesus made so many categorical, propositional statements! What's more, He pointed me back to the Old Testament which, itself, was chock-full of categorical, propositional statements, things that were either true or false, and which had to be fit together in some fashion and applied to my world....

And none of this was going to happen if I just "let go and let God," collapsing into spiritual Jello.

What, then, was the relationship of faith to my mind? And what was the relationship of faith to study, to analytical thought? Were they fellow-combatants, or just combatants?

Along came Machen, and what he said started fitting everything together for me. It made sense of the Bible, and it made sense. He'd lived 1881-1937, but what he said was so contemporary that it was positively startling.

For instance, Machen said, "Thinking cannot be carried on without the materials of thought; and the materials of thought are facts, or else assertions that are presented as facts" (p. 20). I knew that I was to love the Lord my God with all my mind, with all my understanding (dianoia; Matthew 22:37). So that meant I needed to fill my mind with God's truth, with facts, with true assertions. Not only was it okay to think and study -- it was literally mandatory. I could not love God otherwise. That made sense.

But what of all my friends who said that Christianity wasn't a religion, it was a relationship? What about them saying that doctrine didn't matter, but what mattered was just loving Jesus? Machen spoke to that as well:
All personal communion seems to be a simple thing; yet it is in reality very complex. My friendship with a human friend, for example, depends upon years of observation of my friend's actions. So it is exactly in the case of the communion of the Christian with his God. The Christian says: "Lord, thou knowest that we are on the same old terms." It seems very simple and very untheological. But in reality it depends upon the whole rich content of God's revelation of Himself in the salvation which He has provided through His Son. At any rate, pure feeling, if it ever exists, is non-moral; what makes our relation to another person, whether a human friend or the eternal God, such an ennobling thing is the knowledge which we have of the character of that person (p. 37)
I came to realize that anything that comes after the word "Jesus" is doctrine. The only issue is whether the doctrine is true, or false.

Therefore, the learning of Biblical doctrine, so far from being opposed to my knowledge of God, actually is foundational to it. I am not learning arid theories to puff up my head; I am learning and observing facts and truths about God from His Word, so that I can know Him and love Him (Deuteronomy 6:4ff.; 1 Samuel 3:21; Psalm 103:7). They do not oppose a vital relationship; they are essential to a vital relationship with God.

But I knew that my friends would think ill of me, and look fish-eyed at me. They'd think I'd gone cerebral, intellectual. They'd despise me for trying to be a brainiac. They'd find my growth in doctrinal understanding "divisive." Oh well; as Machen said, "Let us not fear the opposition of men; every great movement in the Church from Paul down to modern times has been criticized on the ground that it promoted censoriousness and intolerance and disputing" (p. 41). Besides,
In the first place, religion is here [Hebrews 11:6] made to depend absolutely upon doctrine; the one who comes to God must not only believe in a person, but he must also believe that something is true; faith is here declared to involve acceptance of a proposition. There could be no plainer insistence upon the doctrinal or intellectual basis of faith. It is impossible, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, to have faith in a person without accepting with the mind the facts about the person (p. 47)
If it was a by-product of pursuing the knowledge of God with all my being, any rejection or slander could be borne. I later learned that, when Machen spoke of dissension and controversy, he wasn't speaking in the abstract. His insistence on truth, and on specific truths, led to his being defocked by the PCUSA, and ultimately resulted in the founding of a new denomination, and of Westminster Seminary. Machen was a theoretician, but he was not a mere theoretician.

Since I wanted to know God, I would need to know things about God. And that would mean study, learning, thought -- and doctrine.

Machen settled that for me, some thirty years ago. I remain indebted to him, and to the God who used Machen's hard-won wisdom to put my feet on solid ground. This is why, when asked which books apart from the Bible have been most influential in my life and thinking, What Is Faith? usually heads the list. Machen's Biblically-grounded farsightedness makes his words as relevant today as when spoken.

Thinking of Machen, I'm tempted to rephrase the KJV of Hebrews 11:4 as "he being dead yet naileth."

Some Online Machen Resources:
(This is the "later post" promised here.)

Dan Phillips's signature


Ian said...

you need to meet me a pentecostal with a healthy attitude toward studying and doctrine

Student of History said...

I happen to be blessed to attend the new denomination that he founded. His work and thoughtful study still lives in our churches. It is truly a blessing to me.

Thanks for the important post.


Screaming Pirate said...

Its funny you put all this up about Machen. I have only heard about him in the past couple of days. But it seems like i am getting swamped with information about him. I am in the middle right now of lissening to Piper's sermon on his life. I just love the orthodox rebel he is, his life enboldens my life.

Impacted Wisdom Truth said...

Well said. An author that has influenced my faith to a similar extent is Octavius Winslow; I highly recommend his book The Work of the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dan,

Thank you very much for your wonderful testimony of the link between "headknowledge" and true faith. I shall refer this post to many of my friends and readers.

Oh, how we all need to learn how our objective theological education and our subjective experience of communion or, as it is commonly called today,"relationship," with our triune Lord should go hand in hand.

Modern evangelicals are great at dividing so many things that should never be separated. Is this the product of Dispensationalism, among whose chief values is "rightly dividing the word of truth"? The Christian Faith and Life (notice, they go together, aka, Doctrine and Practice, Belief and Behavior, or as Rick Warren's now splitting it up, "Creeds and Deeds")is not an "Either/Or" proposition, but a "Both/And" proposition.

Onward, Christian Soldier!

étrangère said...

Thanks for this post. My Grandfather was lectured by Machen and was then in a similar situation to him in N.Ireland, also ending up (being forced into) forming a new denomination, which, as with Machen, wasn't his intention. I've been discovering more of Machen recently - Christianity and Liberalism is indeed a brilliant book. There is also of course his 'God Transcendent'.

Steve said...

Thanks, Dan, for stressing the importance of doctrine--you said it well.

DJP said...

Student of History, thanks for that link; it's definitely a point worth making.

Screaming Pirate -- it's a sign from God! He's telling you, "Read Machen, Screamer." (I hope you know I'm kidding. Except for the "read Machen" part.)

Impacted Wisdom Truth -- I don't know Winslow. Care to say a brief word about him? Unless he's, you know, eeevil?

"Capt. HeadKnowledge" -- people who don't agree with us will raise an eyebrow at someone with your screenie commending my article! [grin] Thanks for the encouragement. You ask, wrt dividing what shouldn't, "Is this the product of Dispensationalism?" The short answer is, No. Leading dispensationalists have stressed and/or modelled the teaching, preaching, and study of the Word (Maclain, Ryrie, Swindoll, MacArthur, etc.). If dispensationalism is to be faulted, it can't be on that account.

étrangère [agh! you made me say a French word!] -- That's a neat connection. Did he tell you about hearing Machen? It sounds as if you have a rich family legacy. Thanks for the book-tip; I'll have to read GT. After What Is Faith?, I got every book of his I could find and ate them up.

And finally thanks for the kind words, Steve.

DJP said...

ian, sorry, didn't mean anything by skipping you. You're saying that you're a "pentecostal with a healthy attitude toward studying and doctrine"? Praise God for the latter part! I know such do exist -- though I still do find, in conversation, that they are the minority, and still looked on with suspicion by their peers. Stay in the Word, grow in your appreciation of its richness and sufficiency.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

A few examples of Dispensationalism's unwarranted divisions:

Israel and the Church;

Receiving Christ as Savior and receiving Him as Lord;

Repentance, namely, confessing one's sins and turning from one's sins;

faith and faithfulness;

Old Testament and New Testament;

Law and Grace . . .

I know some Dispensationalists have returned to recognizing the inviolable unity of at least some of these doctrines. Yet it is a testimony to the questionable origin of that tradition which featured many, if not all, of these and other errors before they were exposed to the light of day and pressured into returning to orthodoxy.

Sorry for diverting the topic into a hermeneutics debate, but from my perspective it's the source of so many biblical things being divided--chief among these, headknowledge and heartknowledge!

Just why is it that so many preachers cannot extol the virtues of the power of the Spirit in leading us into all truth while at the same time upholding the value of the ministry of God's gifts to the church, namely, the gifts of pastors and teachers? To them, you either rely on the Spirit, or you rely on "the wisdom of men;" they just can't bring themselves to admit that God uses the means of godly, albeit, uninspired (hence the nobility of the Bereans) teachers to pass on the torch of truth from one generation of the church to next, while utilizing those very means themselves? They seem to assume we understand this, if they understand it at all themselves, yet the ferocity with which they preach against it leads the uninformed to fear Christian scholarship, opting for the subjectivity of their own misunderstanding of Scripture, assuming that the variant conclusions to which they come must be the product of the Holy Spirit rather than their own ignorance.

Again, headknowledge and heartknowledge is not an either/or proposition, but a both/and proposition. I mean this in the sense of the classic Protestant definition of faith as 1)knowledge of the Law and Gospel, 2)assent to the truth of the Law and Gospel, and 3)trust in the God of the Law and the Gospel.

Thanks for reminding me to read Machen, I haven't personally read enough of him, but have always intended to get to him.

étrangère said...

djp - I would apologise for making you say a French word... except that I'm not apologetic ;-) - how bout this: when you find yourself reading or saying(!) a French word, pray for the French-speaking church in Europe :)

Yes I do thank God for a rich heritage. Unfortunately I didn't know my grandfather so he didn't tell me himself - he saw me once and died soon after, although they assure me the two weren't causally connected. I'm gradually trying to form a fuller idea of him and reading Machen helped a lot! He studied under Machen at Princeton which prepared him for objecting to the modernist heresy he found on his return to his denomination's Theological College in N.Ireland. My copy of C&L is his, complete with notes etc. :) He wrote himself actually (yeah, shameless & sentimental plug). Anyway, back to Machen :D ...

TulipGirl said...

If son #5 comes along, he will be named Machen.

Aaron Shafovaloff said...

Of interest:


Ian said...


I would even go as far to say if someone has a healthy attitude toward studying and doctrine becoming a pentecostal is unavoidable.


Chuck said...

My major is historical theology, and my main teacher these past four years introduced me to Machen. In fact, his doctoral dissertation was on Machen's early education in Germany. His approach to history and education was mindblowing to me. The fact that he came out of places like Marburg without being a flaming liberal is a testimony to God's faithfulness. You should read the book. It's called "Toward a Sure Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism, 1881-1915" by Terry A. Chrisope.

James Spurgeon said...

Many of the Christians I came to know were Charismatics whose attitude towards study and doctrine ranged from suspicion to open hostility. It was "carnal" to study too hard. Doctrine and "head-knowledge" was "of the flesh," not of the Spirit. Study made one proud, boastful, unspiritual.

Sounds like Baptists to me.

James Spurgeon said...

djp, this is an excellent post. The weaving in of your personal testimony and theological journey with the encouragements to connect with Machen show how vital it is that we who are alive now make the effort to learn from our spiritual ancestors and in that way show a unity of God's people on essential doctrine throughout history.

Good stuff.

DJP said...

Yes,that's true, moonlight -- but Machen did flirt with liberalism. Machen was immensely impressed with Wilhelm Herrmann, who was basically a total liberal. As Piper quotes Machen writing his mother during this period:

"I have been thrown all into confusion by what he says —so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known in myself during the past few years ... Herrmann affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type. He is a Christian not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is (practically, if anything even more truly than theoretically) unbounded ..."

These were the stormy times that honed his understanding, and fit him for the service by which he'd make his lasting mark.

ib.carlos said...

Dan: Thanks so much for the post; informative & helpful! Perhaps you and the pyros can include/post a list of books very much worth reading here on the blog.

FYI ~ I, too, am formerly of the classical pentacostal/charismatic bent which means that...

ian: oops, I guess I'm stumbling backwards, then...

DJP said...

capt. headknowledge -- yes, you do seem to have some issues with what you see as dispensationalism. But to try to stay with the subject, as I demonstrated, you can't lay denigration of teaching, doctrine, study, or Bible teaching at the doorstep of dispensationalism. You may not like its doctrines, but it has always emphasized (and grew out of) Bible study, teaching, and preaching.

DJP said...

(If Blogger doesn't crash and lose my bee-yooty-full post again!)

étrangère -- thanks for your delightful and gracious response, and for the good suggestion. And you're related to a real-live bona fide author-of-a-book-I've-seen; that's very cool. (I'm guessing Grandpa didn't love dispensationalists, either.)

tulipgirl -- so, what are the other four named? If you're naming #5 "Machen" because of this essay -- good thing I didn't write about Theophylact of Mopsuestia... or Oecolampadius! (c;

James, thanks for the encouragement.

Thanks, Carlos. I think your picture's grown a little backwards, too!

Darel said...

Out of curiosity, would you say that you were inspired by God through the words of Machen?

DJP said...


Darel said...

Just checkin'... ;)

Darel said...

Sorry to double post... but you're right. My avatar gives that almost disapproving look to everyone....

It's awesome...

étrangère said...

djp - I'm sure he loved many dispensationalists, but yes, indubitably he wasn't a fan of dispensationalism ;-)

tulipgirl - my Dad, first name John, almost got second name Machen (see the connection above) but my Grandmother won that argument and he ended up without a second name. In Norn Ireland it could amount to child abuse to call a boy Machen. No doubt it'd work better in the US though :D

Anonymous said...

To clarify, dispensationalism is just an example of the tendency, I repeat tendency, toward anti-intellectualism. I know many dispensationalists are very intelligent men, and very staunch on the essentials of Christianity, and that anti-intellectualism isn't their invention, but they're just another example of the inherent anti-intellectualism that creeps up in all of us when we are suspicious of God's use of the means of the church's teaching office to illuminate Scripture (not that I affirm implicit faith in the church's teaching office, that's the Roman extreme--prove all things, hold fast to the accurate, reject the erroneous).

Dispensationalism became the favored eschatological option of those fundamentalists who were so burned by the liberals' tendency to explain away the Faith by their "intellectualism," causing the fundamentalist overreaction to distort the faith in some ways, such as dispensationalism, among other things, like the simplistic manner of teaching opted by so many, which touches all of their doctrine, to varying degrees. Notice, there is a difference between simple (making the complex understandable) and simplistic (denying complexity in the complex and presenting it in a cartoonish version of itself).

It's just interesting to me that everything that's right about dispensationalism, they got from their orthodox Reformed forefathers, and every change I've seen them make does nothing but bring them back into closer proximity to the position of those orthodox Reformed forefathers. Which raises the question: why bother to divert from the faith handed down to them in the first place, if they keep having to make such corrections?

DJP said...

I appreciate the more congenial tone and the broader perspective. Still can't agree with your criticisms, however.

First, I daresay that whatever is good about dispensationalism, comes not so much from the Reformed, as from the same place as the Reformed: that is, from the Bible.

Second, as I've said, one of the greatest Reformation changes was the embrace of grammatico-historical exegesis. The other Reformed doctrines arise out of its implementation on Paul's letters. It could be argued that dispensationalism's core and distinctive doctrines arise from its implementation on prophetic scriptures.

Third, I've run into the attitude among some Reformed that Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards and the gang mined all the gold out of the hills. That leaves us to read stories about those grand old days when there was still gold to be mined, and to reminisce, and admire those miners, who stripped the hills bare. That sort of attitude makes a kind of sense in Roman Catholicism. It doesn't, among Biblically-oriented Christians.

Lane Chaplin said...

I just started "What is Faith?" a few days ago, and the introduction alone seems like it was written just a couple hours ago in respect to how he he speaks of the unashamed bashing of the intellect from the modernists and pragmatists of his day. I highly recommend the introduction! (I'll have to get back to you on the rest of the book, but from what I've read and heard of his other works, I don't expect this one to be much different in regard to quality. A man of faith doesn't commit apostacy when he is controlled by the Spirit.)