Volume 30 - Issue 3

The Quest for the Historical Machen

By Joshua W. Jipp

‘The mantle of Warfield fell on J. Gresham Machen, and with it, a double portion of the polemic spirit’. So begins William Baird’s introductory sentence to the work of Machen in his masterful second volume of History of New Testament Research.2 Machen (1881–1937), along with his Old Princeton colleagues, most significantly Charles Hodge (1797–1878) and B.B. Warfield (1851–1921), has become a whipping boy for some American historians. Labelled as a fundamentalist for his strict views on biblical inerrancy, reprimanded for helping ignite the so-called ‘Evangelical Enlightenment’, condemned for his polemic personality, and ignored for an over emphasis on propositional truth, the modern Christian scholar may be tempted to ignore or even disparage Machen—the old curmudgeon. Yet to do so, would be to ignore the value of the lessons learned from Machen’s struggles and to be content with faulty caricatures. The largely positive view of Machen which is found in a fairly recent history suggests that a re-evaluation of the received opinion on him may be in order.3

The significance of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism,4 and its implications for every generation, should be familiar territory for NT students.5 His erudite defence of orthodox Christianity with respect to the continuity between the religion of Paul and Jesus, against the likes of Bousset, Wrede, and Ritschl, in The Origin of Paul’s Religion remains a significant work for those concerned with Christian origins.6 Machen’s healthy obsession with the facts of history can be seen in his The Virgin Birth of Christ.7 The virgin birth, along with the resurrection and other critical Christian doctrines, is not simply a matter for faith (contrast Barth) but a fact of history. To relegate the virgin birth exclusively to the realm of faith is to drive a disastrous Kantian wedge between faith and history. Christianity, according to Machen, was nothing if not based on historical facts. As a result, Machen’s NT work was historical to the core. Liberalism’s primary fault was that it had given up on the historical necessity of Christianity and had relegated science and religion to separate categories of knowledge. For Machen, separating faith and history could only lead to disastrous consequences. As a result, the Bible must be interpreted and read as a historical document since it is primarily a historical book. Machen criticised the chic German dialecticism of Karl Barth for its epistemological scepticism regarding history, which resulted in subjectivism.8 He rejected Barth’s scepticism regarding the modern historian’s knowledge of first-century historical facts. Somewhat shockingly, Machen’s NT methodology was quite close to that of Adolf von Harnack. They both sought to found Christianity on historical facts. What accounted for the major difference between the two was that Machen was open to the supernatural and Harnack closed.9

Perhaps most foundational for Machen’s work, and his defence of historic biblical Christianity, is his view of history, truth, and faith.10 Yet even among evangelical historians it is precisely this aspect of Machen’s thinking that has been most maligned. Charles Hodge wrote that ‘to understand any theological system we must understand the philosophy that underlies it and gives it its peculiar form’.11 Unashamedly, Machen and his colleagues supported a version of epistemology known as ‘Scottish Common Sense Realism’ (SCSR). The roots of SCSR go back to the early 19th century.

In order to combat the scepticism of David Hume, Thomas Reid advocated this epistemology, ultimately indebted to the inductivism of Francis Bacon and the Newtonian view of the world, based on three essential components. First, the universality of epistemological foundations for knowledge was stressed as something that is common to all people. The second principle was the basic reliability of language as a medium for expressing truth and the external world. Thirdly, some degree of knowledge of the past was possible as a result of the reliability of testimonies based on memories.12

As a result, Machen never tired of stressing that Christianity was at root a historical faith. One did not begin with philosophic ideals (Hegel, F.C. Baur), with the personality of Jesus (Ritschl), or with Heideggerian existential principles (Bultmann). For Machen Paul’s religion

was founded not upon what had always been true, but upon what had recently happened; not upon right ideas about God and His relations to the world, but upon one thing that God had done; not upon an eternal truth of the fatherhood of God, but upon the fact that God had chosen to become the Father of those who should accept the redemption offered by Christ.13

For Machen, faith was organically connected with history. As a result, the NT critic must be thoroughly committed to establishing and interpreting historical knowledge.14 Thus, if Paul is some sort of second founder of Christianity who perverted the pure and simple teaching of Jesus, then historic Christianity must be abandoned. Theological liberalism, in order to save some form of Christianity, had separated theology from history and science in important respects. As a result Machen’s primary aim in Christianity and Liberalism was to argue that liberalism, whatever it may be, as an outcome of its ahistorical tendencies and unscientific methodology was most definitely not historic Christianity.15

Though the connection has not been made publicly (at least as far as I am aware), there are some interesting similarities between Machen and the great Swiss scholar Adolf Schlatter (1852–1938) which may be helpful in reconsidering the received view on Machen.16 Like Machen, Schlatter saw that NT theology and interpretation was a matter of ‘seeing’ and ‘observing’ the historical connectedness of the historical facts.17 For Machen, the prerequisite for a good NT theologian was that he be a first century historian. Schlatter concurred, which explains his massive contribution to first century historical studies. As a result, it is not at all surprising that both Machen (see above) and Schlatter criticised Karl Barth’s largely ahistorical exegesis and scepticism regarding the historical origins of Christianity. For Schlatter, ‘the Letter to the Romans is for Barth a timeless, entirely modern, entirely contemporary word. All that is human, all that is historical, sinks away’.18 Additionally, Schlatter’s opposition to the history of religions school can be seen quite clearly in his work on the Fourth Gospel. Exegeting the Fourth Gospel without recourse to parallels in pagan mystery religion literature or hypothesised pre-Christian Gnosticism, Schlatter argued for the Palestinian provenance for the work. His interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in light of first century Judaism instead of syncretistic Hellenism has been decisively vindicated by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.19Schlatter defended historic Christian orthodoxy from the remnants of Tübingen School influence, the history of religions school as embodied in Troeltsch and Wrede, and the Marcionite tendencies of his colleague at Berlin, Adolf von Harnack, whereas Machen’s primary opponent was theological liberalism. Against the consensus of critical scholarship, Schlatter and Machen denied that first century Christianity was a product of an amalgamation of syncretistic religion. Most importantly, Schlatter and Machen held in common the belief that true science and historical research were justified in a critical openness to the supernatural—to God’s working in history. Both concurred that the majority of critical scholarship’s NT methodological presuppositions were blindly indebted to Cartesian scepticism, in Schlatter’s words, ‘Atheistic Methods’.20

Machen did not, then, a priori rule out the possible material influence of the supernatural in the earthly and historical sphere. Taking the testimony of the biblical accounts at something like face value made better sense of the facts than the critical scholars’ reconstructions did. Further, as a result of his Augustinian adoption of ‘All truth is God’s truth’, Machen believed that facts had divinely intended significance.21 In opposition to Kant (and most who have adopted some version of his epistemology), Machen posited that the human mind does not merely and necessarily impose its own categories of interpretation upon the evidence or the facts.22 Rather, God has created the human mind in such a way that we are capable of discerning the true meaning of historical facts. Surprisingly, it has been George Marsden and Mark Noll who have come down the hardest upon Machen at this point. For Marsden, Machen has overestimated the power of rationality and has failed to account for the subjective tendencies of the interpreter’s point of view.23Additionally, Marsden and Noll have criticised Machen’s (as well as his predecessors’) adoption of SCSR as culpable compliance with outmoded Enlightenment epistemology.24 Ironically, even the late Greg Bahnsen, a committed Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and teacher25 and disciple of Cornelius Van Til, has criticised Machen’s epistemology for being too evidentialist.26

Was Machen’s epistemology, primarily its advocacy of SCSR, culpably indebted to the Enlightenment? I think we must answer with a resounding ‘No!’ Rather, Machen’s confidence in the universality and absoluteness of truth, the trustworthiness of human language, and the reliability of memory follow (ironically in light of Bahnsen’s critique of Machen) from his presuppositions concerning God’s self-revelation to humanity in the Word of God. Machen correctly saw the fundamental importance of historical grammatical exegesis for letting the biblical authors speak for themselves.27 Furthermore, in light of the fundamental reliability of human memory and language, Machen viewed the Gospel accounts as reliable first-hand eyewitness documents.

Recently Paul Helseth has argued convincingly that the historiographical consensus labelling Old Princeton as scholastic rationalists is almost completely wrong.28 It appears that at least two factors have misinformed the consensus. First, despite Machen’s emphasis upon ‘historical facts’ as the foundation of Christianity, he did not fail to account for the subjective point of view of the interpreter. Machen knew that a right understanding of Christianity required more than laying forth the facts and the evidence. It will not do to dismiss Machen as a positivist at this point. For Machen, the truth of the historical claims of Christianity could be attained by anyone who was ‘truly scientific’. The truth of Christianity does not change, regardless of whether one accepts its claims or not. It is, however, only the Christian, the one who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, who is able best to operate scientifically.29 Just because the noetic effects of sin cause interpreters to twist and impose their interpretation of the evidence, this does not necessarily mean that the objective truth-value of the historical facts is subjective or unknowable. Though the demands of the day called for an emphasis upon the intellectual aspects of the faith that had come under attack by the likes of Harry Emerson Fosdick and others, Machen did not deny that the whole person was involved in an acceptance of the truth of Christianity, nor did he deny the noetic effects of sin upon man.30

We are not ignoring the emotional and volitional aspects of faith; we are not denying that as a matter of fact, in humanity as it is actually constituted, an intellectual conviction of the truth of Christianity is always accompanied by a change of heart and a new direction for the will … But for a thing to be true is one thing and for it to be recognized as true is another; and in order that Christianity may be recognized as true by men upon this earth the blinding effects of sin must be removed … Regeneration, or the new birth, therefore, does not stand in opposition to a truly scientific attitude towards the evidence, but on the contrary is necessary in order that the truly scientific attitude may be attained.31

As a result, it is admittedly somewhat strange to read, ‘In their case [non-Christians], the limit was only in the extent of their knowledge, not in quality’.32 Oddly, after noting Machen’s accounting for the noetic effects of sin Marsden summarises Machen, ‘So all they lacked were some crucial facts’. That Machen’s epistemology was not a form of Enlightenment rationalism may also be seen in his appeal to ‘true science’. As opposed to the limited Troeltschian principle of defining history as that which can be studied under the auspices of physical causation, Machen advocated an epistemology and form of historical research that was broad enough to include the supernatural.33 Likewise, Paul Helseth has argued that a faulty caricature of Machen has stemmed from scholars’ failure to see that Machen ‘recognised that science is a moral rather than a merely rational enterprise precisely because the perception and conception of the intellect is itself conditioned by the moral character of the “whole man”.’34 This explains why Machen, though one might never know it from some interpreters, placed such a heavy emphasis upon reckoning with the noetic effects of sin. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit is necessary in order to sanctify the presuppositions that control a man’s epistemology and historical research. Thus, for Machen, epistemology is an inherently moral and not merely a rational issue.

Second: Machen’s view of language and memory is entirely compatible with a biblical worldview. Despite the effects of sin upon all human senses, it is by no means wrong to trust human communication or memory—unless we have good reason to do so in particular instances. Global scepticism regarding the trustworthiness of language and memory ultimately leads to deconstructionist and radical reader-response hermeneutics. As Kevin Vanhoozer and others have argued, trusting and relying upon human testimony is a necessary and serious form of intellectual activity and research.35 Within the last twenty years or so Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga (the two leading advocates of Reformed epistemology) have advocated an epistemology that is very much in line with the three central tenets of SCSR as seen above. Arguing that belief in God is properly basic, Plantinga argues: ‘What the Reformers meant to hold is that it is entirely right, rational, reasonable, and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all; in this respect belief in God resembles belief in the past, in the existence of other persons, and in the existence of material objects’.36 I think one may justifiably wonder why George Marsden, Mark Noll, and others have withheld critique from Reformed Epistemology’s adoption of a form of SCSR. Ironically, Marsden blames Old Princeton for an over-confidence in SCSR and a failure to account for man’s subjective point of view in a work edited by Plantinga and Wolterstorff.37 If no critique is forthcoming, a revocation of their critique of Machen, and Old Princeton in general, should be in order.

Furthermore, it may be argued that Machen’s NT methodology bears some striking similarities with the somewhat recently advocated ‘critical realism’ of Ben Meyer and N.T. Wright. Wright defines critical realism as:

a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).38

On the one hand, knowledge of reality is possible. Yet on the other, knowledge is never divorced from the point of view of the knower. Thus, positivism (the idea that one can have objective, unmediated truth) and phenomenalism (knowledge is only of my own sense-data) should be rejected. For Wright the strict dichotomy between ‘objective’ (positivism) and ‘subjective’ truth (phenomenalism) must be abandoned as naīve and unhelpful.39 Clearly, this much is neither revolutionary nor novel. Furthermore, Wright’s critical realism is, at this point, utterly dependent upon the same principles as SCSR and, in broad outline, similar to the work of J. Gresham Machen. For example, both agree that knowledge of external reality is accessible to the historian; both are unwilling to exclude the possibility of the supernatural within history; both must, to some extent, affirm the trustworthiness of memory, language, and testimony. Furthermore, both agree that the path to knowledge of external reality is one of hypothesis and verification. The hypothesis/verification method permeates Wright’s work on Christian origins. The same can be said for Machen’s historical work on Paul in The Origin of Paul’s Religion. Machen believes that his hypothesis, which finds continuity between the Jesus tradition and Paul’s theology, explains the historical documented evidence better than the hypothesis of Bousset, Wrede, Ritschl, and other critical scholars who have, in the words of Schlatter, ‘atheistic methods’. Where Wright’s critical realism presents an especially helpful corrective to epistemology (and NT methodology) is in his insistence that the hypothesis/verification model must work within a larger story/worldview.40 For Machen, the God of the patriarchs, as seen in historic Christianity, was the larger story/worldview which endowed the historical facts with meaning and significance. Certainly, critical realism, having gone through the purifying forces of postmodern hermeneutics, offers a more chastened and nuanced epistemology than Machen did. Nevertheless, the similarity between Machen and Wright’s critical realism suggests we rethink the received opinion on Machen.

Perhaps it is time for some of the stock criticism of Machen (and Old Princeton) to end. From Machen we learn that NT scholars need not accept the implicit Kantian principles which permeate NT scholarship and the history of the discipline, for their own methodology. In Machen we have an outstanding example of one who helped to uphold historic Christianity by interaction with the best of critical scholarship. For Machen, Christianity had its foundation in ‘historical facts’—not in religious experience or philosophic ideals. If God has vested memory, language, testimony, and reason with a significant degree of potential reliability and trustworthiness—and if he has acted to reveal himself within history—then something resembling J. Gresham Machen’s epistemology may be critically appropriated by NT scholars as a template for a fruitful methodology.

2 William Baird, History of New Testament Research, Vol. 2: From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 351.

3 David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, Vol. 2: The Majestic Testimony 1869–1929 (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), especially 221–35.

4 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999 [1923]).

5 Note an attempt to remind us of its continuing significance in Darryl G. Hart, ‘Christianity and Liberalism in a Postliberal Age’, WTJ 56 (1994), 329–44.

6 J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978 [1921]).

7 J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Bros, 1930).

8 See Annette G. Aubert, ‘J. Gresham Machen and the Theology of Crisis’ WTJ 64 (2002), 337–62; J. Gresham Machen, ‘Karl Barth and “The Theology of Crisis” ’, WTJ 53 (1991), 197–207; Darryl G. Hart, ‘Machen on Barth: Introduction to a Recently Uncovered Paper’, WTJ 53 (1991), 189–96.

9 Ibid., 348–49.

10 See his work What is Faith? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 [1925]).

11 Charles Hodge, ‘What is Christianity?’ PR 32 (1860), 121.

12 See Darryl G. Hart, ‘The Princeton Mind in the Modern World and the Common Sense of J. Gresham Machen’, WTJ 46 (1984), 10–11.

13 J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978 [1921], 22).

14 See the introduction to Machen’s The New Testament: an Introduction to its Literature and History W.J. Cook (ed.) (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976 [1914–1915]).

15 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999 [1923]), 7.

16 For orientation see the short biography by Werner Neuer, Adolf Schlatter, trans. R. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).

17 For what follows see his essay ‘The Theology of the New Testament and Dogmatics’, in The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter, Robert Morgan (ed.) (Naperville: Alec R. Allenson, 1973), 117–66.

18 Adolf Schlatter ‘Karl Barth’s Römberbrief’ in James M. Robinson, ed., The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1968), 121.

19 Adolf Schlatter, Der Evangelist Johannes: Wie er spricht, denkt und glaubt. Ein Kommentar zum vierten Evangelium (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1960).

20 See his essay ‘Atheistic Methods in Theology’ now in Werner Neuer, Adolf Schlatter: A Biography of German’s Premier Biblicla Theologian, trans. Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 211–25.

21 See George Marsden, ‘J. Gresham Machen, History and Truth’ WTJ 42 (1979–1980), 157–75.

22 Comparing the epistemologies of Machen and his younger counterpart Cornelius Van Til would make for an interesting discussion. Van Til argued that the unregenerate human mind does indeed impose its own manmade constructs and categories upon the evidence. As a result of the noetic effects of sin, for Van Til, the unregenerate will always skew and misinterpret the evidence. For this reason his apologetic approach made little use of evidence as opposed to Machen.

23 George Marsden, ‘Understanding J. Gresham Machen’, Princeton Seminary Bulletin 11 (1990), 58–60.

24 See Noll’s chapter on ‘The Evangelical Enlightenment’ in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 83–107. Also note Marsden’s chapter ‘The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia’ in Alvin Plantinga (ed.) Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University Press, 1983), 219–64.

25 Machen was, of course, the primary founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

26 Greg Bahnsen, ‘Machen, Van Til, and the Apologetical Tradition of the OPC’, Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, eds., in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the OPC, 1986).

27 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 [1925]), 24.

28 See especially his most recent article, ‘ “Re-Imagining” the Princeton Mind: Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism’ JETS 45 (2002), 427–50.

29 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 [1925]), 130.

30 Clearly Machen was not as Kuyperian in his approach to apologetics as Cornelius Van Til and his notion of the ‘antithesis’ between believers and non-believers. OPC hardliners still frequently debate over whether Machen belongs in the evidentialist camp (supposedly Warfield) or the presuppositionalist camp (Van Til).

31 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1991 [1925]).

32 George M. Marsden, ‘J. Gresham Machen, History, and Truth’, WTJ 42 (1979–80), 171.

33 See especially J. Gresham Machen, ‘The Relation of Religion to Science and Philosophy’, PTR 24 (1926).

34 Paul Kjoss Helseth, ‘The Apologetical Tradition of the OPC: A Reconsideration’ WTJ 60 (1998), 117–18.

35 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2002), 257–74.

36 Alvin Plantinga, ‘Reason and Belief in God’ in Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University Press, 1983), 17.

37 George M. Marsden, ‘The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia’ in Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University Press, 1983).

38 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress: Minneapolis, 1992), 35.

39 Ibid., 44–45.

40 See the helpful assessment of Wright’s critical realism by Thorsten Moritz, Renewing Biblical Interpretation.

Joshua W. Jipp

Joshua W. Jipp
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA