To Resist the Currents of the Age: J. Gresham Machen’s Timeless Example for Today

By Tom Gilson Published on May 1, 2024

In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. – J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism

The Western world is in the midst of an alarming turn away from Christ. It’s taking out some of the people we love most in the process. We all feel the pressure. How do we resist the current of the age?

Some of the best advice is almost 100 years old. J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937), an American Presbyterian professor and theologian, called himself “not at all remarkable,” but in fact was one of the 20th century’s most important guardians of Christian truth.

If the 1920s sound like a long time ago, read his “little book” (as he called it) Christianity & Liberalism, and you’ll find it reads almost like the religion section in today’s news.  

Nine years later Machen followed that book with an even shorter one, Christianity in Conflict. It’s a condensed autobiography of sorts, written specifically to show through his own “very imperfect … experience” how he and others were able to “resist the current of the age,” and thus “hold with mind and heart” to the supernatural religion of Christianity.

You would expect him to say nothing mattered more than his own Christian convictions and his walk with Christ, and you would be right. Others with deep convictions have fallen away, however. How did Machen stand strong? What can we learn from him?

Respect for Opponents

Almost the first point that stands in Christianity in Conflict is Machen’s respect for Christianity’s spiritual opposition. He respected the men driving the liberalism of the day. He personally had studied theology under many of these men. His remembrances of them are entirely appreciative, sometimes even affectionate.

“I have never been able,” he said, “to give myself the comfort which some devout believers seem to derive from a contemptuous attitude toward the men on the other side of the great debate.”

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He respected their beliefs, too, but in an entirely different sense of the term. Firefighters learn to respect a burning roof, otherwise they might die. You must respect a danger to respond to it adequately.

Some of Machen’s contemporaries, however, preferred simply to let liberalism alone. Frankly, they sounded a lot like some Christians today, urging fellow believers to call off the culture wars: “Don’t make a fuss about it. It’s unseemly. You’ll embarrass us. Just give them what they want and let them be, and they’ll let you be, too.”

Machen knew better than to dismiss it so lightly:

Mere concessiveness … will never succeed in avoiding the intellectual conflict. In the intellectual battle of the present day there can be no “peace without victory”; one side or the other must win.

Call It What It Is

He respected it enough, too, to call it those ideas what they were: not liberal, and not Christianity. “The movement designated as liberalism is regarded as ‘liberal’ only by its friends,” he wrote. “To its opponents it seems to involve a narrow ignoring of many relevant facts.”

He didn’t think much of its being labeled “Christian,” either. It was a religion of optimism centered on faith in human goodness. Its “highest goal,” he wrote, was “the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties.” The word he chose for that was paganism.

Was Machen picking a fight with that? No, just stating reality.

He could not have known that those “healthy” pagan faculties would someday include the ability to define one’s sex and gender – and to celebrate children’s chemical and surgical mutilation for that “joyous development.”

I wonder, though, how much today’s developments would surprise him. This pagan “Christianity” had already cut itself loose from “the very center and core of the Christian teaching,” which begins, said Machen, with “the awful transcendence of God.” Let go of the core, and already you’re on the path toward dismantling everything.

That Old-Time Irreligion

The liberals claimed great devotion to “Jesus,” but it was a “Jesus” of their own creation, built to suit. They followed “certain ethical principles … not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.” They made themselves lords over their Lord, letting him (small h!) say only what they wanted him to say.

We could say exactly the same of today’s “progressive Christianity.” Our supposedly new “progressivism” was already starting to get old 100 years ago. It was already wreaking damage, too, not just in faith but throughout culture, including the arts and political life.

He knew his God and his Savior, he knew truth from falsehood, and he knew it well enough to know that he knew it.

“Despite the mighty revolution which has been produced in the external conditions of life,” he wrote, “no great poet is now living to celebrate the change; humanity has suddenly become dumb.”

America, which “formerly prided itself on its freedom from bureaucratic regulation” had turned toward “a drab utilitarianism in which all higher aspirations are to be lost.”

And if that doesn’t sound familiar enough, maybe this will:

In the state of Oregon, on Election Day, 1922, a law was passed by a referendum vote in accordance with which all children in the state are required to attend the public schools. Christian schools and private schools, at least in the all-important lower grades, are thus wiped out of existence.

What Can We Learn?

Several patterns emerge from all of this. Machen knew the truth, for one. He was diligent with his homework, both in Scripture and in the lessons God teaches through nature and human life.

He knew his opposition, too. Having studied it closely, he understood its reasoning, and he knew its strengths. By his knowledge of the truth, he could see its weaknesses.

Knowing all that would have done no good, though, had he not spoken up. One might think that required courage, and in a way it surely did, but Machen’s courage appears more in the form of calm confidence.

He knew his God and his Savior, he knew truth from falsehood, and he knew it well enough to know that he knew it. What else could he need?

Christianity Still in Conflict

Machen died in 1937, so he could not have seen the post-WWII resurgence in evangelical religion. He hoped for it, but never passively: He fought for it, too. He knew very well the dark anti-Christian culture was growing at the same time, carried along by currents as diverse as philosophical pragmatism, evolutionary naturalism, Freudian psychology, and Marxism.

The battle goes on. J. Gresham Machen’s experience may have been “very imperfect,” but we who fight today stand to gain much from these two very powerful “little books” of his.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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