J. Gresham Machen, History, And Truth -- By: George M. Marsden

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979)
Article: J. Gresham Machen, History, And Truth
Author: George M. Marsden


J. Gresham Machen, History, And Truth*

George M. Marsden

A half century ago, when in 1929 Westminster Theological Seminary first opened its doors, the intellectual and religious mood of the era differed strikingly from that of today. Naturalistic pragmatism, the dominant intellectual movement of the day, was simultaneously casting its brightest lights on modern society and burning itself out in an atmosphere of banality and meaninglessness. Joseph Wood Krutch, whose brilliant analysis of The Modern Temper appeared the same year as did Westminster, faced directly the stark implications of the prevailing assumptions of modern thought. The explanation of all aspects of human nature and society in terms of undirected natural forces, Krutch lamented, necessarily undermined all the high ideals that had been so much trumpeted by the humanistic, artistic, and religious leaders of generations past. Carl Becker, perhaps most perceptive of the American historians of the day, similarly pointed out the utter inability of modern persons to find either religious or rational certainty in an indifferent universe. “What is man,” asked Becker, “that the electron should be mindful of him!”1

J. Gresham Machen was an anomaly in that era. His intellectual contemporaries certainly considered him so. One after another they came away from his works somewhat awed that anyone with such antiquated views could argue for them so well.

* I would like to thank Lucie Marsden, Richard Mouw, Mark Noll, and Davis Young for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this paper. None of them shares responsibility for its shortcomings. This study was presented at the Jubilee Conference, August 31-September 3, 1979 at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Machen was, in terms of the categories of the day, a fundamentalist. Although he never endorsed the term, neither did he ever repudiate that movement of co-belligerants who were militantly defending supernaturalistic Biblically-based evangelicalism. Yet to be a fundamentalist and to be a genuine intellectual seemed to most persons almost a contradiction. Machen appeared fully to understand the tenets of modern scholarship; yet he was willing to concede nothing to its assumptions or implications. Many other Bible-believing Christians of the day also refused to bow the knee to the gods of modern civilization and modernism, yet Machen’s combination of fundamentalism and prowess in modern scholarship made him almost unique. While dimensions of this unique resistance to modern trends might be explained on religious, psychological, or even sociological grounds, the present analysis will focus on the intellectual or...

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