Machen is widely known for his involvement in the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and of the denomination that eventually came to be called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The commencement of Westminster was caused by the inroads of liberal theology into previously conservative denominations and theological institutions, including Princeton Theological Seminary, where Machen had taught.
The opposition to liberalism involved stressing correct doctrine, and Machen wrote several important books on doctrinal matters, including on the virgin birth of Christ, the origin of Paul’s religion, and Christianity and Liberalism. Moreover, in Machen’s situation, the opposition also included the understanding of Christian mission.
Fighting liberalism involved more than pointing out the errors connected to it. Inevitably, the existence of liberalism would lead to leaving a denomination affected by it, and this raised the question for Machen as to what a Presbyterian church should be and how it should be connected to the Westminster Standards. It is not surprising to discover that some who had fought alongside him against liberalism had different ideas from him as to what should be allowed within a Presbyterian denomination.
Machen had been born into a devout Christian family in Baltimore in 1881, but this did not prevent him later having doubts about the Christian faith. Nevertheless, he wrestled with them, and because he did so he became a great help to others going through similar concerns. His experience reminds us that the Christian faith is intellectually coherent and study of it provides answers for our most difficult questions.
Machen died in 1937 at the age of fifty-five from pneumonia. He had gone to help new churches in North Dakota by preaching in several of them. The weather was very cold and he contracted pleurisy. He was advised to go into hospital, but he refused in order to fulfil his preaching engagements. Eventually he was taken to hospital, but sadly died. Among his last messages was a telegramme to John Murray: ‘I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.’
There are other biographies of Machen available, but this short account of his life is a good introduction to one who was a gifted scholar devoted to the cause of Christ and prepared to suffer for it. The author is minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and teaches Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
This review appeared in the November 2015 issue of the Record of the Free Church of Scotland.