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Was Machen’s Fight with Modernism Successful?

15 February, 2008


A meditation from our friend, Stephen Roberts:

The success of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism for Christians of all stripes is found in Machen’s ability to provide an erudite critique of modernism and to contrast its idolatrous outgrowths with orthodox Christianity. Yet for all the success of this book in reaching and sharpening the orthodox in generations to follow, it always carries with it a shadow. If Machen was right in his assertions, then why did he only attract a following of 5,000 Christians when he left a denomination of over 2,000,000? This may be answered in such a way as to both warn and encourage Christians today:

First, while Machen was naturally handicapped in his fight against a worldview that had permeated all machencorners of the Church, he was also unable to “consecrate” (to use his term) the modernist devices to his advantage. There was perhaps no greater critic of modernism in the Church than Machen, but leadership involves two parts: the ability to convince others of the rightness of one’s position and the ability to convince them the follow. Machen lacked this second part, which is likely why he bemoaned that the Church had no leader like Abraham Kuyper to guide them through the murky abyss of modernism. For example, Machen could have appealed to the highly-prized modernist ideal of unity within the confines of Confessional orthodoxy on personal level, rather than in abstractions. Machen’s pupil and first biographer, Ned Stonehouse, noted that Machen should have done more to personally galvanize support before his departure from the PCUSA, and that he could have really used an aged and persuasive pastor alongside of him for such purposes. Let that be a lesson to those still fighting for the hearts and souls of embattled denominations–it is not enough to critique a faulty worldview. One must also have the courage and winsome personality to lead, while harnessing and “consecrating” the devices of the predominant worldview to one’s own advantage.

Second, while Machen was presumed to have lost his fight against modernism (not intellectually, but historically), a persuasive case could be made in the opposite direction. Modernism is quickly finding itself on the trash heap of historical movements, finding itself critiqued on all levels by the postmodern reaction. The quest for unity destroyed diversity and individuality; the quest for uniformity destroyed creativity and advanced opportunity; the quest for utilitarian ethics destroyed morality and nobility. What is remarkable about these critiques is that they were all also made by Machen in the 1920’s. History wields a remarkable power–the power to vindicate a man and his ideas. While the bloody carnage of modernism writhes on the trash heap, Machen has a legacy that includes several seminaries and a denomination directly, and many more of each indirectly. Let that be an encouragement for those who helplessly watch the mighty oak of the Church swaying and straining against hostile forces–the gates of hell will never prevail. The course of Christian history has been navigated by God-appointed leaders who have found a lighted path in a world enshrouded by darkness.

And all of this calls out for a final question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:32). That question has been answered in history and in the heavenly places for God’s faithful servant, J. Gresham Machen, and will one day be for Machen’s ‘warrior children’ as well, by God’s assured grace.

~Also make sure to check out our interviews with Stephen on the work that the the Lord is doing in Malawi, on our All Earth to Him page, or by clicking here.

  1. thomasgoodwin permalink
    15 February, 2008 4:49 pm

    Is Stephen from Malawi? Is he the guy Hugh Fraser from the APC has in mind to come up here for a few weeks? I’m not sure Canada can handle a Machen warrior.

  2. 16 February, 2008 8:23 am


    Steve’s not from Malawi, although I think he’d say that he’s been involved in Malawi ebough that it’s now in his blood :). I’m sure Canada could handle him–it handled Phil, right? Or did it??


  3. 16 February, 2008 3:31 pm

    I think that’s fletcher matandika that’s interested in heading up to B.C.
    just google his name. he’s a super stud.

    roberts really is the ultimate machen warrior. he has plenty more to post concerning G.M.

  4. 19 February, 2008 8:45 pm

    RSC talks more about Machen in his article about American Religion:

  5. Francis Mac Donald permalink
    15 July, 2008 9:27 am

    There comes a time when those who have been warned of a danger must take personal responsibility to avoid it and where possible warn others to flee it as well. Perhaps this alone was such a huge undertaking for Machen that it was the most he could do. If orthodox foundational truths are being attacked or otherwise undermined then my course of action and advice to others is to leave. Spurgeon was fighting similar battles and like Machen it undoubtedly led to an early death as it did Machen. These faithful servants of Christ will no doubt be greatly rewarded by the Lord.

    Francis Mac Donald
    Nova Scotia, Canada

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