Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, by D. G. Hart. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing Co., 2003. 227 pages.
Hart has served as director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and academic dean and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary in California. He also taught church history and theological bibliography at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and directed Montgomery Memorial Library. He is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Who was J. Gresham Machen? A professor and world-renowned scholar at Princeton Seminary in the early 1900s, he made it into the New York headlines for his efforts to get the Presbyterian Church to discipline its liberal pastors and missionaries—that is, those who denied fundamental doctrines such as the virgin birth of Christ or the vicarious atonement. Machen’s most well-known book is Christianity and Liberalism. He founded Westminster Theological Seminary, at which Hart, the book’s author, taught, and founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, to which Hart belongs.
The point of Hart’s book is that J. Gresham Machen wasn’t a fundamentalist. Machen was too thoughtful, too scholarly, too libertarian, too Christ-centered, too confessional, and too well-esteemed by secular intellectuals like H.L. Mencken to fit the stereotype of a Christian fundamentalist.
Hart’s book is a somewhat cursory biography of Machen’s life and ministry. It is mostly, but not always, in chronological order. As you might expect from a former professor of theological bibliography, Hart marshals a lot of evidence to support his thesis. Almost every paragraph has an endnote citing several books or periodicals. I found particularly interesting Hart’s documentation of how Machen declined an opportunity to testify at the Scopes Trial on behalf of William Jennings Bryan (84-85), how the special committee investigated whether Machen’s “divisiveness” disqualified him for receiving tenure at Princeton (120f), and how the Presbyterian Church was much more willing to tolerate pastors who disagreed with the virgin birth than to tolerate pastors like Machen who disagreed with Prohibition (120, 145-147).
Unfortunately, one book hardly ever cited by Hart is the Bible. I was surprised by the lack of Scripture references in the book. Again and again, Hart tells us what Machen “believed” or “claimed,” or what his “convictions” or “arguments” or “ideas” were. But were Machen’s beliefs biblical, or were his opponents’ beliefs? Hart won’t say. He won’t take sides. From his membership in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I would assume that in most cases Hart agrees with Machen, the O.P.C.’s founder, but Hart never does indicate either way. This was strange to me. Then again, Hart’s purpose in the book is not to prove that Machen was scripturally right, but to prove that Machen was not a fundamentalist.
Although he sticks to his purpose doggedly, I did not find the main point of Hart’s book to be very practical for me in my ministry. I was not interested in Machen’s similarities to the Southern Agrarians and New Humanists, for example (102), probably because I don’t know who they were. Or again, Hart demonstrates that perhaps Machen did not believe in six-day creationism (96-99): this would separate Machen from most fundamentalists, yes, which is very much to Hart’s purpose in writing the book—but it seems this would be a much more interesting or practical point to a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church than it is to me.
For my two cents, the book is at its best when Hart is talking about what Machen did in defense of Christianity, rather than what made Machen different from fundamentalists.
The main value in a study of J. Gresham Machen, whether in this book or in one less dry, is his thoughtful, exegesis-based exposés of so-called “scholarly liberal Christianity.” He shows that it should neither be considered Christianity at all, nor scholarly. I will not soon forget a few years ago reading an article of Machen’s. In it, Machen walked the reader through the Sermon on the Mount, showing how, in paragraph after paragraph, Jesus talks like only the almighty Son of God would talk. And yet the so-called “liberal Christian” points to the Sermon on the Mount as something the so-called “real Jesus” said, the Jesus who didn’t claim to be God but just wanted to teach people how to love. If you Google “Machen Sermon on the Mount”, you can read the article yourself. I think you will find that article much more practical than this book, and it will give you in just a few pages a taste of how dynamic Machen was as a teacher and as an opponent of liberalism in the church.