John Gresham Machen was born into a loving Christian family in 1881. “Gresham”, as he was called, respected his father but was closest to his mother, Minnie. She would spend tireless hours teaching him and his two brothers all she knew. Central to their learning was the Bible, which Gresham knew better at the age of twelve than most adult scholars in his day.
After graduating from Princeton in 1905, Machen would travel overseas to further his education. His first stop would be to the University of Marburg, where he would receive instruction from the famed scholar Wilhelm Hermann. But biblical studies in Germany was nothing like it was in America. German universities, embedded in liberal theology, were hotbeds for higher criticism—the scholarly dismantling of the Bible. Wilhelm would impress on Machen a sense of emotionalism and the spiritual experience of Christianity, all while undermining the foundational authority of the Bible. Machen would recall that this period of his life was “a time of struggle and of agony of soul.”
From Marburg, he would travel to Göttingen, where he would sit under the teaching of theological giants such as Emil Schürer, Wilhelm Bousset and Adolf von Harnack. While Machen was fond of his teachers personally, their instruction would assault the foundations of his faith in ways he never dreamed. He would frequently write home to his mother for encouragement, who would give it freely. But Machen struggled so greatly that he feared he might even lose his orthodox faith.
“Why did I come here?” he would think to himself. “Why did God bring me here?”
Toward the end of his time, however, he would hunker down and confront German critical scholarship, putting it to the highest tests. Machen arranged a debate between himself and one of his professors, rigorously defending orthodox Christianity. The more he tested the truths of Scripture, the more he would become affirmed in their trustworthiness.
In the coming years since his arrival back in the States, he would encounter a strong wave liberal theology, which he would trace back to his teachers in Germany. While teaching at Princeton, Machen would publish a series of game-changing books that would establish a firm basis for Christian thought. His books The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921), Christianity & Liberalism (1923), What Is Faith? (1925) and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930) would rattle the tenets of liberal theology. Conservatives, Liberals and non-Christians alike would marvel at his brilliant argumentation and impeccable scholarship. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, J. Gresham Machen would be the single most influential theologian for conservative Christianity.
How did God bring this about?
Much like the Apostle Paul, who was trained as a zealous Pharisee and then radically converted to Christ, Machen would use his encounters with German higher criticism to fuel his zeal for truth, all the while making him a fierce opponent of liberalism since he knew the theology forward and backward.
But for his two years in Germany, Machen would have to endure the worst crisis of faith of his life. While in the midst of it he would wrestle terribly, wondering about God’s purpose. But God is faithful and would use the trials for the ultimate advancement of the Kingdom of Christ. (Of note, between 1929 and his death in 1937, J. Gresham Machen would found a theological seminary, a foreign missions board, and a new Presbyterian denomination.)
Are you in the trial of your life? Does it feel like your faith hangs in the balance? The apostle Paul wrote, “For we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Be encouraged! Keep the Faith! God is working in the midst of your deepest darkness for a purpose that is unclear to you at this time. But the Lord is faithful.
J. Gresham Machen bears witness to that.
Note: Find the rest of the Portraits of Faith series here: EntreatingFavor.com/PortraitsOfFaith