Into this fray came J. Gresham Machen. Machen was the son of a Baltimore attorney, and his mother (née Gresham) was from Macon, Ga. He studied classics at Johns Hopkins and then pursued master’s degrees at both Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Then he headed to Germany for further study. He returned to Princeton Seminary, where he served as a professor from 1906 to 1929, interrupted by two years of service with the YMCA in France during World War I. He was mentored by the “Lion of Princeton,” Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. When Warfield died in 1921, the mantle of defender of the faith fell to Machen.
Machen had earned his credentials, had faced German higher criticism directly, and possessed a keen mind. He loved orthodox doctrine, the supernatural, and the gospel. All that came to bear on the book he published in 1923, Christianity and Liberalism. The book walks through the essential doctrines of Christianity, showing that liberalism is not a new version of Christianity but a false gospel altogether. Consequently, liberalism holds out no hope. It offers stones instead of bread.
Machen’s book was hated by theological liberals and scathed by them in reviews. Curiously enough, the intellectual moderns, such as Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken, respected the book and recognized the validity of Machen’s arguments. For fundamentalists, the book added steel to their spine as they continued the fight for the faith. But what happened to Machen after his book?
In 1929, Princeton Theological Seminary reorganized the board and took a turn directly toward liberalism, effectively forcing Machen out. He crossed the Delaware River and opened Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. When Machen organized a new mission board because the denomination’s mission board had shifted the focus from gospel proclamation to social transformation, he was defrocked. In 1936, he led in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A few months later, on January 1, 1937, Machen died of pneumonia in North Dakota, where he had traveled to smooth troubled waters in a church in the new denomination.
Machen’s first biographer and colleague, Ned Stonehouse, called him “Valiant for Truth,” after John Bunyan’s courageous character. That he was. There was a timeliness to Machen’s book and his fight. But there is also a significant timelessness. Consequently, Christianity and Liberalism may be even more applicable today, one hundred years after it was first published, than it was originally. As we contend for the faith in the perennial, ceaseless struggle as it manifests in our day, we can give thanks to God for Machen and his book, and we would do well to spend some time in its pages.