Last modified on April 9, 2019, at 15:56

John Gresham Machen

John Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937) was the last major representative of the Princeton Theology in the twentieth century as well as the leading spokesperson for fundamentalism in its battles with modernist theology in the 1920s. He taught New Testament from 1906 to 1929 at Princeton Theological Seminary, then left to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, as a new stronghold for his beliefs; he taught the New Testament there 1929-37. He was a leader of Calvinist Fundamentalism; they did not accept the theories of Dispensationalism.

Presbyterian battles

In 1905 Machen spent a year studying under liberal German theologian Johann Wilhelm Herrmann. Machen had no connection with Swiss theologian Karl Barth, whose rejection of modernism at about the same time led to the school of "neo-orthodoxy." Machen's 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism is considered a classic work of Anti-Modernist thought. Machen maintained that theological liberalism was both un-Christian and unscientific.[1] His book was the conservative response to Harry Emerson Fosdick's 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” and the book Christianity and Progress. Machen even won praise from Walter Lippmann.[2] Regarding Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, the Yale University literary critic Harold Bloom says "I have just read my way through this, with distaste and discomfort but with reluctant and growing admiration for Machen's mind. I have never seen a stronger case made for the argument that institutional Christianity must regard cultural liberalism an enemy of faith. ... [If] Machen, a scholar and an intellect, is rightly called a Fundamentalist, then I must insist that Wally Amos Criswell and his swarm be called something else, and Know-Nothings will do very nicely."[3]

Machen countered liberal Presbyterian figures, such as Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 1920s and Pearl Buck in the 1930s. Machen tried and succeeded in forcing Fosdick out of the Presbyterian fold. But when he set up the "Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions" in 1933 to attack unorthodox missionaries, he was tried and suspended in 1935 from the ministry in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

Machen in 1936 helped found the Presbyterian Church in America, (now called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). It holds steadfastly to the Westminster Standards, and was founded by conservatives who split away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) because they strongly opposed the pervasive Modernist theology of the 1930s.


Although Machen has always been considered a fundamentalist, he did not call himself one because he said that as a Calvinist he stood in the mainstream of "the historic Christian faith." The "central current of the Church's life," he argued, is that current "which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and the other representatives of the 'Princeton School.'"


Machen was a leading scholar of the Bible. He is famous for two major responses to historical-critical attacks upon the integrity of the New Testament. Machen set forth evidence for the reliability of the New Testament's witness to Christ. To refute the modernists who posited a radical discontinuity between the religion of Jesus and the religion of Paul, Machen wrote The Origin of Paul's Religion (1921), arguing that the religion of Paul was at its heart a religion of faith in the Jesus who lived, died, and rose again to redeem his people from their sins. In The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), Machen argued that supenaturalistic claims can better explain the New Testament's witness to Christ than arguments that a priori reject the possibility of the supernatural. Machen said that the virgin birth is an "integral part" of the gospel, and that it cannot be removed from the New Testament account of Jesus without making the whole account "harder and not easier to accept."

He died of pneumonia in the bitter January cold of North Dakota while visiting one of the churches in his new denomination.


  1. Chapter 19 "The Fundamentalist and Neo-Evangelical Traditions" in American Religious Traditions: The Shaping of Religion in the United States, Richard E. Wentz, Fortress Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8006-3616-3
  2. Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (1929) online p. 32
  3. Harold Bloom. The American Religion. Siomn and Schuster, 1992. page 228

Further reading

  • Hart, D. G. Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1994. 227 pp., the standard scholarly biography
  • Hart, D. G. "When is a Fundamentalist a Modernist? J. Gresham Machen, Cultural Modernism, and Conservative Protestantism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1997 65(3): 605-633.
  • Hart, D. G. "Fundamentalism, Inerrancy, and the Biblical Scholarship of J. Gresham Machen." Journal Of Presbyterian History 1997 75(1): 13-28. 0022-3883
  • Hart, D. G. "Christianity, Modern Liberalism, and J. Gresham Machen." Modern Age 1997 39(3): 234-245. online at
  • Marsden, George. Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006) excerpt and text search, the standard scholarly history
  • Rian, Edwin H. The Presbyterian Conflict (1940).
  • Russell, C. Allyn. "J. Gresham Machen, Scholarly Fundamentalist." Journal of Presbyterian History 1973 51(1): 41-69.

External links