Machen’s “The New Testament: An Introduction”
At the end of the Banner of Truth ministers’ conference in Messiah College, Grantham, Pennsylvania, on June 1, Sherman Isbell took me to Baltimore airport and on the way we called in at the Green Mount Cemetery to visit the grave of Dr J. Gresham Machen. He is buried next to his parents and his brother (Dr Machen never married). I had been edified on the trip from Wales in reading Terry A. Chrisope’s “Toward a Sure Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism” (Mentor, 2000, 240 pp.). It is a spendid sympathetic and fresh study of one of the greatest Christians of the 20th century, and indispensable to all those who revere Dr Machen. It chronicles his titanic struggle with liberalism at its zenith in the lion’s jaws of German higher criticism (Machen attended two of their top universities a century ago) and how he came to settled convictions about the truthfulness of the Bible. Thank God for Dr. Machen. A substantial part of this book sets the Banner of Truth’s “The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History” by Dr Machen within its context in his life, and amongst the lessons Terry Chrisope comes to are these (pp. 144-146 [quoted by permission]):
A noteworthy feature of Machen’s New Testament survey was his forthright application of biblical teaching to the contemporary church and the world scene. The entire sixth division of his treatment, one quarter of the lessons, was devoted to modern application of the New Testament message. Two of Machen’s emphases here are especially significant.
First, he spoke emphatically in behalf of “the Christian use of the intellect,” the title of the fiftieth lesson in the series. Careful intellectual effort is necessary, Machen argued, for several reasons: in order to acquire a knowledge of the facts about Jesus, which is accomplished through patient study of the Gospels; in order to grasp the Bible’s explanation of these facts, which provides the content of sound theology; in order to refute error; in order to properly interpret the Bible generally; and in order to understand modern culture from a Christian perspective. It was this last task which he considered perhaps the most urgent, and he concluded the chapter with an appeal reminiscent of his 1912 address on Christianity and culture, calling for vigorous Christian intellectual engagement with contemporary thought. He then reached perhaps to the very heart of the crucial problem of relating Christianity to modern culture a culture which was being increasingly dominated by historical consciousness – in some of the closing words of the chapter.
Men cannot be convinced of the truth of Christianity so long as the whole of their thinking is dominated by ideas which make acceptance of the gospel logically impossible; false ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. And false ideas cannot be destroyed without intellectual effort.
It is impossible to say whether Machen had in mind the “false ideas” embodied in historicist assumptions, but it is not unlikely, given his own intellectual history to this time. Machen went on to affirm the inadequacy of intellectual argument apart from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, but he also denied that this made argumentation.
Throughout this chapter Machen seems to have been combatting what he perceived as a pervasive anti-intellectualism, the spirit of which he saw active not only in the world at large but also within professing Christianity. His later writings reveal that what he had in view was the anti-intellectualistic strain discernible in theological liberalism. From his perspective, liberalism was anti-intellectual in that it had largely given up any distinctly Christian theological content. Furthermore, liberalism had certainly not engaged in a constructive Christian critique of current thought, but rather had capitulated to it -which indeed it had, to the extent that it was dominated by historicist modes of thought.
A second point of application was really an extension of the first: Machen called for a Christian theology of substantial (and biblical) content. This emphasis was also directed against theological liberalism, which he believed to be promoting both a dilution of traditional Christian teaching and a spirit of agnosticism because of its tolerant attitude toward heterodox teaching. Machen’s response was twofold: he affirmed the necessity of theology, and he sought to clarify the content of that message which the church was obligated to proclaim. First, in his chapter on the Christian use of the intellect, Machen affirmed the necessity and value of Christian theology. Theology, he claimed, is nothing other than “thinking about God.” Since every Christian must think about God, it follows that every Christian will be a theologian; “the only question is whether he is to be a bad theologian or a good theologian.” If the Christian derives his thinking about God from his feelings or bases it on preconceived notions, he will be a poor theologian. But if he draws it from an intimate acquaintance with the Bible’s teaching about God and with the great acts of God which the Bible records, he will be a good theologian. Such a theology need not even bear the name, nor need it be technical; “but whatever it is called and however it is expressed, it is absolutely necessary for a genuine Christianity.” A Christianity without such substantial theological content is not Christianity at all.”
And what exactly is that content? In an earlier chapter of the book, entitled “The Christian Message,” ‘Machen spelled out the content of the apostolic preaching. Based on a study of the evangelistic speeches in the early chapters of Acts, Machen’s analysis of the apostolic kerygma or message to some degree anticipated the findings of New Testament scholars several decades later. He argued that there were three essential elements in the apostolic church’s proclamation: first, the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry; second, the narration and explanation of Jesus’ death; third, the proclaiming of the resurrection of Jesus. Machen implied that this content of the primitive gospel was normative and authoritative for the contemporary church. In this message alone was to be found true spiritual power, and its abandonment left the church without its good news. When in a later chapter on the relief of the poor Machen applauded the modern church’s renewed concern for the needy, he also added a warning. The church was coming to a new realization of her duty to help the poor, he said, in an obvious reference to the social gospel. “It is useless to give a man a sermon when he needs bread”; poverty “sometimes prevents the gospel even from being heard.” But, “material benefits were never valued in the apostolic age for their own sake, they were never regarded as substitutes for spiritual things. That lesson needs to be learned. Social betterment, though important, is insufficient; it must always be supplemented by God’s unspeakable gift.”
For Machen the essential message of the gospel must not be obscured by other aspects of the church’s life and work. To an uncomfortable degree, in his view, just such an obfuscation was being accomplished in contemporary Christianity, and his antidote was a return to the New Testament message.
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