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:
- Transcript of John Piper's talk, J. Gresham Machen's Response to Modernism
- MP3 of the same talk
- Christianity and Liberalism, by Machen (ephocal work, farsighted, razor-sharp, splendid)
- Sean Richardson's Machen links (some broken links)
- PCA Historical Center's Machen page
- Henry Coray's personal remembrance of Machen