Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 10/09/2007 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. A brief introduction to Machen the man, and his mission, the Gospel.
The writing style of J. Gresham Machen requires some acclimatization for those accustomed to twenty-first century speech patterns. A mite more cerebral-sounding than C.S. Lewis and subtler than G.K. Chesterton, Machen seems to be the dark horse among twentieth century religious pundits. But he deserves to be heard today, as he was in his time, both by secularists and religionists. Thanks to the prolific Stephen Nichols of Lancaster Bible College, who seems to specialize – among many other ventures – in rendering religious history and theology accessible for the average Christian reader, we now have a Machen taster at our disposal. Entitled The Gospel in the Modern World and Other Short Writings, Nichols has compiled what he believes to be the most relevant and underrated shorter writings from Machen’s hand. His hopes are that this booklet will act as a springboard for other Machen works, that it will “whet the reader’s appetite for more of Machen’s writings.”
Nichols begins with a biographical sketch of Machen’s life from 1921 onwards, when he received an honorary doctorate of divinity in recognition of his publishing efforts. At this time Machen was spearheading the orthodox resistance against the forces of liberalism. The battle for North American Christendom claimed many denominations, churches and seminaries, not to mention the theologians, pastors and laypeople comprising those institutions. Machen published and preached often against this gospel-less Christianity, and eventually was instrumental in founding a seminary and a denomination adhering to orthodox Christian principles. This booklet includes four pieces of varying renown from that period: “The Gospel and the Modern World” (originally “Christianity and Liberty, re-titled by Nichols), “Preaching the Gospel in the Modern World”, “Skyscrapers and Cathedrals”, and the unfamiliar and dully-titled “Selected Correspondence with Harold John Ockenga.” Half of these texts had never before seen print, which Nichols considered an oversight.
The embattlement Machen felt during his often lonely fight emanates loud and clear from one of his opening statements in “The Gospel and the Modern World:” “A Christian who proclaims such a gospel [the one contained in the Word of God] is bound to face the opposition not only of the world but increasingly, I fear, of the church.” Appropriately, Machen de-capitalized the ‘c’ of ‘Church,’ implying that a gospel-less Church is not the Church at all. Later, in “Preaching the Gospel in the Modern World,” Machen references the “sweet and precious…fellowship of those who meet in prayer and praise to Almighty God, united at the foot of the cross.” The letters from Machen to Ockenga, and vice versa, demonstrate the extent to which these gospel-centered men sought to lean on each other for support and encouragement during the battle for orthodoxy. What is so admirable about Machen is that despite his loneliness, both personal (he never married) and professional (many colleagues deserted him), he nevertheless advocated a response to modernism that promoted defensive maneuvers rather than adopting a siege mentality. It could be said of Machen that he preferred a reformed style of trench warfare to fundamentalist bunker-hunkering. He proved an apt social commentator, from the weighty (he prophesied the next major world war) to the mundane (Ford cars experiencing breakdowns). And it doesn’t take a literary analyst to see Machen’s rhetoric in action, from the striking repetition of liberalism as “an unpalatable truth…that unpalatable truth,” to the construction of his arguments, which progress from the general and mundane to the specific and urgent with very little effort.
But what struck me most about Machen was that he was essentially fighting the same battles we fight today. Call it postmodernism, post-denominationalism, call it whatever you like; modernism and its current flavor have many similar characteristics. As Machen shows, the religion of tolerance was widely practiced in his day. Since John Piper included Machen in his latest installation of The Swans Are Not Silent biography series, I feel justified in incorporating this quote from a March 5, 2000 Piper message entitled “Building Our Lives On the Bible,” from his Education for Exaltation series. Piper was off notes at this point, so this quote is unavailable in the official transcript.
“The fastest way to be out of date is to devote yourself to being up to date. Because in the twenty-first century, fashions are changing way faster than you can catch onto. And you will become one glib, trifling, superficial, ever-changing chameleon if you try consistently to be in sync with the times. But if you root yourself in the Creator of all times, and the triumphant Victor over all times, you will always bring to bear on all times a message that will be perpetually relevant and radically up to date; in fact, it will be so far ahead of the lagging-behind fashion makers that they won’t be able to see it, except by the power of God working in their hearts.”
This is the heart of the message of J. Gresham Machen.