Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today. This review is adapted from Tim Keller’s introduction to Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology (Westminster Seminary Press), and is republished with permission.
Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology presents J. Gresham Machen’s popular radio addresses, delivered over station WIP-FM in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoons during 1935 and 1936. He wrote and gave 50 such “little talks,” as he often referred to them.
According to John Murray, he had envisioned at least four series that would have been published in four volumes. The first series, of 18 messages, was broadcast over the first four months of 1935, covering the doctrines of the knowledge of God, of the Word, of God, of Christ’s person, and of the Holy Spirit. It was published in February 1936 as The Christian Faith in the Modern World.
The second series, of 20 messages, was broadcast in late 1935 and early 1936, covering the doctrines of the decrees of God, creation and providence, of man, and of sin and grace. These were published in early 1937 as The Christian View of Man, just after Machen’s death.
Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology
J. Gresham Machen
On a Sunday afternoon in 1935, J. Gresham Machen stepped into a broadcast booth at WIP Radio in Philadelphia and began something no one had tried before: teaching Reformed theology over the radio. In the vein of C. S. Lewis’s landmark “Mere Christianity” talks, Machen’s addresses are a crystal-clear articulation of the basics of the Christian faith, unfolding into an exceptional and persuasive explanation of Reformed theology. ‘Things Unseen’ is both an accessible systematic theology, and also a masterclass in evangelistic apologetics.
Introduced by Timothy J. Keller, Foreword by Sinclair B. Ferguson, Historical Preface by Stephen J. Nichols, Afterword by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.
He had begun a third series in the fall of 1936, and broadcast 12 of them. Five of these were published in a volume of sermons and addresses, God Transcendent, in 1949. The remaining seven were published in The Presbyterian Guardian in 1940.
The word “innovative” is not one we usually associate with J. Gresham Machen, but he was carefully breaking new ground with these messages. Not that he was the first minister to go on the air. Radio preachers had been doing that since the early 1920s, and they were not just fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Sunday broadcasts were delivered by prominent mainline Protestants such as S. Parkes Cadman, Ralph W. Sockman, and Harry Emerson Fosdick. But these were all sermons, even sometimes aired on Sunday mornings, which enabled Americans to get their inspiration in the comfort of their homes without the need for church participation.
Machen was much more judicious. His Sunday afternoon talks were not sermons but expositions of doctrine—a layman’s systematic theology. And Machen was the only first-class theologian and scholar I know of who took to the airwaves to popularize historic Christian truth without watering it down in the slightest, and to do so with a strong apologetic bent, including a direct appeal to skeptics.
Preaching to a Generation
We know this much about the material. What are less well-known are Machen’s aims and motives for engaging in such an ambitious project while he was under so much pressure. Indeed, he began these broadcasts the very year he was being tried by the Presbytery of New Brunswick and suspended from the ministry. He continued writing and delivering them as he was founding a new denomination and leading the still-new Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, founded in 1929. The talks aired right up to Sunday, December 27, just five days before he died.
Machen was the only first-class theologian and scholar I know of who took to the airwaves to popularize historic Christian truth without watering it down in the slightest, and to do so with a strong apologetic bent, including a direct appeal to skeptics.
Why did he do it? The basic idea came from his young friend Edwin H. Rian, a member of Westminster’s Board of Trustees, and a chief fundraiser and recruiter for the school. Machen only mentions the seminary four times in the talks, but by the beginning of the final series he calls the broadcast The Westminster Seminary Hour, a title that does not appear earlier.
It’s likely that Rian and Machen hoped to use the radio addresses to promote the seminary, and it does appear that increasing the profile of Westminster loomed larger in Machen’s mind over the two years he was writing them. In early 1936, nearly half of the seminary’s Board of Trustees resigned in a dispute over Machen’s establishment of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
With that loss, the importance of promoting the seminary and finding new students and supporters became even more crucial. Several times in the talks, Machen takes the opportunity to make his case that “the more Christian scholarship you have, so much the more evangelism. Out of real theological seminaries, where the Bible is expounded and defended, come ministers and evangelists who know what they believe and why they believe it.”
Machen tells us something about his motives is in the preface to The Christian View of Man, where he writes that he is not content simply to teach Christian doctrine “in the classroom.” Rather, in these talks he tries “to preach it . . . and preach it very specifically to the people of our generation.”
In the very next sentence he clarifies that the addresses are not sermons, yet he can still call it “preaching” because he is here showing that solid and clear doctrine is “not something useful merely to the theologian but a matter of the most vital concern to every man.” Machen’s comment that he was especially aiming at this “generation” is echoed in Stonehouse’s observation that these were “popular expositions of Christian doctrine” in which he was seeking to be “helpful especially to college students.”
This explains Machen’s style of speaking in these addresses. It is remarkably jargon-free, clear, personal, reasonable, and calm—all traits that make the talks highly accessible. They are indeed talks, not merely essays read over the air. There are plenty of oralisms (e.g., “but wait a minute”). He speaks dialogically—stopping to pose typical objections and questions and then answer them, giving the hearers the sense that they are engaged in a back-and-forth conversation with Machen. He deploys down-to-earth illustrations and references to his personal experiences. And even though each talk is still more like an instructor’s lesson than a preacher’s sermon, Machen continually breaks into expressions of admiration and even wonder at God and his truth.
Shifting His Audience
While these are the marks of his style throughout the 50 talks, as we read them in order, it becomes clear that there is a change in the primary audience he is addressing across the three series.
Machen continually breaks into expressions of admiration and even wonder at God and his truth.
The early chapters most frequently speak to people who do not believe in the Christian faith, or at least not in orthodoxy. His first talk uses the darkening world situation of 1935 to argue that human understanding and knowledge is inadequate to deal with our problems, and that we need a revelation from God.
Throughout this first series, Machen makes his case for the authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection, using arguments similar to the classical apologetics of Old Princeton. But while he may have taken his basic lines of reasoning from Warfield and the Hodges, he presents them with such easy-to-grasp, compelling clarity that (I believe but cannot prove) later popular apologists in the 20th century took their basic approaches from him.
Even though he is rigorously logical, he also reaches at times for the heart. When he makes the case for the Bible being the inspired Word of God, he certainly asserts it as an objective truth, but he is not above recommending it for its sublime, subjective comfort: “[I]f a man founds his life upon it he can be very joyous and quite undismayed in all the sorrows and all the battles that may come upon him in this world.” Here he addresses primarily listeners who do not believe the basic doctrines of the Word and of God, and he always distinguishes the historic and orthodox view from modernist substitutes.
The most striking thing about this first series is how directly evangelistic Machen is. He ends the talk on “God, the Creator” with a call to find peace with God through his Word. He ends “Does the Bible Teach the Deity of Christ?” with a word to “that great army of persons who stand outside the household of faith.” He urges them to pray to God, saying “help my unbelief.”
He ends “The Sermon on the Mount” with an appeal that listeners not see Jesus as merely “a religious genius” but rather that they would fight through their doubts to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” At the conclusion of “What Jesus Said About Himself,” he confronts listeners: “Which are you, my friends? . . . Do you belong to those who rely upon the wisdom of this world and turn aside from Christ? Or . . . will you come to him that he may give you rest?” Of the last 10 talks in the first series, eight end with an evangelistic call—some gentle, others remarkably forceful.
When we get to the second series, however, Christians are his primary audience. Only one of these 20 talks ends with any reference to those who may not yet believe. And while in the first series Machen quotes the Shorter Catechism several times, he never uses the term “Reformed” to talk about his faith or doctrine in either his introduction or his addresses.
That changes completely in the second series. His preface says that these talks present the “Reformed Faith” and that the doctrines he is expounding are the “Reformed doctrines” of man, sin, and grace. Within this second series Machen expounds the Reformed doctrines of predestination and providence. In the second-to-last talk, after citing Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Machen says that “for my part I rejoice greatly in trying to stand in the great current of the Reformed faith. If I can show you a little bit of what that great system of doctrine is and a little bit of the basis for it in the Word of God, the purpose of these talks will have been fully attained.”
Why the change in audience focus? I believe it was appropriate and inevitable with the change in topics. In general, the doctrines of the first series were doctrines held by all Protestants. In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen says that while “a Calvinist is constrained to regard the Arminian theology as a serious impoverishment of the Scripture doctrine of divine grace” and adds that Arminians think Reformed thought is similarly impoverished, yet “true evangelical fellowship is possible between those who hold, with regard to some exceedingly important matters, sharply opposing views.”
That passing comment helps us understand the difference between the first and second series. There is no need to call the deity of Christ a “Reformed” doctrine, since it is held in common by Christians in all theological traditions. To convince people who do not believe is to evangelize them, and that is exactly what Machen does, with vigor.
But in the second series Machen gets to the topics of the character of our fallen condition and how God’s grace saves us, and here we arrive at contested territory within the Christian church. When Machen seeks to convince people who do not believe in total depravity and electing grace, he rightly speaks to Christians. They are the people who are in a position to believe these doctrines because they accept the doctrines in the first series.
In short, when Machen makes his case for the doctrines of the Word, of God, and of Christ, he is seeking to turn non-Christians into Christians. But when he makes his case for the doctrine of sin and the need for God’s predestination and grace, he is trying to bring Christians into the Reformed faith.
In the third, unfinished series, Machen continues to speak largely to believers and to show them the beauties of the Reformed understanding of grace. Even when he returns to a “gospel invitation” at the end of “God, Man, and Salvation,” he does so in a way that differs from the earlier messages.
He says, “if any one of you has not received Jesus as your Savior you may do so at this very moment,” but immediately adds, “God grant that some of you within the sound of my voice today may receive the message and may show thereby that from all eternity you have been foreordained unto adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Unlike the earlier invitations to put faith in Christ, this one assumes the listener has much more understanding of—and even agreement with—the doctrine of predestination. And yet in these very last talks on the atonement, Machen returns to touching gospel appeals, even when teaching rather advanced lessons in doctrine. At the end of “The Active Obedience of Christ,” he says:
People sometimes say, indeed, that it makes little difference what theory of the atonement we may hold. Ah, my friends, it makes all the difference in the world. When you contemplate the cross of Christ, do you say merely, with modern theorists, “What a noble example of self-sacrifice: I am going to attain favor with God by sacrificing myself as well as he.” Or do you say with the Bible, “He loved me and gave himself for me; he took my place; he bore my curse; he bought me with his own precious blood.” That is the most momentous question that can come to any human soul.
What Lessons Can We Learn?
What, then, can preachers and communicators of God’s Word today learn from Machen?
A great deal, but first we may need to do some ground-clearing. Contemporary readers should not be put off by the somewhat antiquated language, which may strike our ears as flowery or patronizing at times. Nor should we be too troubled by the places where he seems to emphasize classical argumentation more than his successors, such as Cornelius Van Til, would have.
Despite the influence of Scottish “common sense realism” on Machen, he is too biblically grounded to have his evangelistic appeals depend on human reason. He continually reminds his audience that none of his arguments will make any sense without the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
He continually reminds his audience that none of his arguments will make any sense without the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
One more thing to keep in mind is this: Even though Machen speaks directly to non-believers, mid-1930s American society was still heavily influenced by Christianity. Critics of the faith, too, were more traditional in their ways of thinking and particularly in their views of morality than they are today.
Machen was indeed unusually far-sighted about the implications and potential consequences of modernist thinking, but the “triumph of the therapeutic” and the sexual revolution had not yet happened. So, the skeptics and non-believers of his day were not in every way like the skeptics that we encounter today. And yet unbelief in any age shares enough common elements that Machen’s exhortations and arguments remain an enormous help.
So, what should we learn from him?
1. We should learn to both propagate and defend the faith, rather than only one or the other.
When we look at the old purpose statement of Princeton Seminary—to produce graduates who “propagate and defend” the Reformed faith—we can say Machen is one of the few who could do both. We marvel at how easily Machen goes back and forth from being an incisive apologist in evangelism to the skeptics (not just writing about apologetics but doing it) to being a profound instructor in Reformed doctrine to the baptized.
I can’t think of any of his peers or even successors who combined these abilities so successfully. We should not look at his gifts and be discouraged, however. We should learn from him and emulate him to the degree we are able. We who are academics should strive to propagate the faith, not just defend it with scholarship. We who are practitioners should not despise the scholarly defense of the faith, but incorporate it into our evangelism.
2. We should freely glean from him.
On virtually every page these addresses bristle with ideas for preaching and communicating the great doctrines of the faith. Machen’s talks have been an enormously formative influence on my preaching, especially after I came to New York City. While seven of his messages here are new to me, I have returned to the rest of them repeatedly over the years as an unparalleled storehouse of great illustrations, delineations, and arguments for Christian doctrines. There is nothing quite like it, except for C. S. Lewis’s broadcast talks. But Lewis never provided a case for the Reformed faith.
For years I have used Machen’s illustration of Paul in the storm (Acts 27) to explain the congruence of divine sovereignty with human responsibility. There is another place in the early talks were Machen makes a startling rhetorical move. He confronts the view that the Bible is only true regarding its moral ideals but not necessarily true when it deals with history. Instead of merely refuting the objection using rational arguments, he turns intensely personal.
He tells any listeners who hold that view they are actually “mocking” him and failing to give him what he really needs as a flawed, sinful man: “What I need first of all is not exhortation but a gospel, not directions for saving myself but knowledge for the way God has saved me. Have you any good news for me? . . . [Y]our exhortations will not help me.” Those who have heard my preaching know that this approach and way of describing the contrast between moralism and grace has been crucial to how I’ve worded my appeals over the years.
3. Another more controversial way in which Machen can be a guide (and has been for me) is in how he approaches science, and particularly the area of creation and evolution.
Remember that this is the author of Christianity and Liberalism, in which it was argued that modernist Christianity is not really Christianity at all but a different religion altogether. There is no more staunch and uncompromising defender of orthodox Christianity than Machen. And yet he writes: “It is certainly not necessary to think that the six days spoken of in that first chapter of the Bible are intended to be six days of twenty-four hours each.”
In “Did God Create Man?” he contradicts both what today is called Young Earth Creationism and theistic evolution. He argues both for an old earth and for the special creation of Adam and Eve. This shows that Machen was not afraid to use innovative arguments when speaking to issues of science and faith.
4. We should be as open, as Machen was, to new ways of reaching people with gospel truth.
Machen was by no means prone to like new technologies just because they were new and “cool” (a word that for him, thankfully, hadn’t yet been given its new meaning). Indeed, his temperament seems to have made him ordinarily skeptical of modern developments. Yet he was open to this new technology of radio. He didn’t reject it, even though its use was dominated by Pentecostal, Catholic, and liberal ministers.
He envisioned accomplishing something new and ambitious with it—the popularization of orthodox, Reformed Christian doctrine—and, on its basis, doing direct evangelism to the masses. None of his Princeton colleagues and predecessors in the academy had ever tried anything like it. Nor, really, were any of his contemporaries in the gospel ministry of the church capable of it, even if they were motivated to try.
We should be as ready as Machen was to be open to new ways of reaching people with gospel truth.
There has always been a pessimism among conservative Reformed people that our doctrine simply can’t be expressed in a fashion that has any kind of broader appeal. Machen, on the other hand, did not refrain from media just because it had been misused. He did not fear or oppose innovation, even though he was judicious in his use of it. And he was not pessimistic about the popular appeal of orthodox doctrine, even as he was experiencing heartbreaking rejection on so many fronts because of his stand for it.
5. We should learn from Machen that we must not just hold our doctrine intellectually—we must let it shape our inward life and heart.
Repeated readings of this material have impressed me with how much Machen simply rejoiced and exulted in the doctrines of the Reformed faith. Despite his being a very rational thinker, he is constantly, spontaneously falling into expressions of gratitude and amazement at the truths he is presenting.
The greatest testimony to this is the now well-known way that Machen faced death itself, recalling the doctrine presented in the second-to-last talk, “The Active Obedience of Christ.” On the day of his death he sent John Murray a telegram message dictated through his nurse. “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” Indeed.