J. Gresham Machen's Concern for Liberty, Part One

As a long-time admirer of J. Gresham Machen and having been a student of his writings for several years, it is simply fascinating just how prophetic both his perception of reality and his projection of Liberalism’s ideals were, one century ago. His line of argumentation—perhaps most popularized by Christianity and Liberalism (1923)—speaks even now to men of the twenty-first century, just as clearly as to his own intended audience.[1] However, for as articulate and relatively succinct a writer as Machen was (when compared to other, well-studied defenders of the Faith), he was, and still is, often misunderstood as being primarily disruptive and antagonistic.[2] In contrast, many of his readers might reasonably be entirely unaware of his otherwise tender tone and kindhearted spirit when seeking to comprehend his apologia.

           Machen’s closest friends and colleagues knew him to be composed by a reserved and humble personality.[3] However, these marked traits are often overlooked due to his strategically-pointed reasoning. For instance, though the message within Christianity and Liberalism is a compassionate call to embrace the historic Faith once delivered to the saints, his thesis can be properly summarized as the following: Liberalism is “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.”[4] Over the past few years, this writer in particular has had the privilege of investigating and appreciating the life and influence of Machen, and one particular nuance of his applied apologetic has been of considerable interest: Machen’s concern for liberty.

           Similar to his appeals to Christian brotherhood and ecclesiastical, truth-oriented unity—both of which underscored much of his writing—Machen made a persistent appeal to the concept of liberty throughout the grand course of his works. Machen understood the concept of liberty (the exercise of the will under guiding principles) as being correlative to both the preservation and propagation of the Christian religion. Arguably, his apologetic method was informed by this two-fold, symbiotic relationship. In protecting liberty, Christianity would more naturally flourish; and in protecting the practice of the Christian Faith, liberty itself would flourish.

           As such, the purpose of this paper is to elaborate upon the concourse of Machen’s thought as it regards his concern for liberty in relation to the gospel’s advancement, and so not only prove its presence within Machen’s broader apologetic, but also its influence upon it. To systematize this venture, two categories of thought will be examined at length as they relate to Machen’s lifelong concern: 1) liberty and the preservation of the gospel, and 2) liberty and the propagation of the gospel. Finally, some conclusory thoughts will be provided, in light of the present age.


Machen’s View of Liberty

For as simple as the word “liberty” is, its definition must be carefully deduced, prior to understanding Machen’s concern for so noble a concept. While Machen appears not to give an explicit definition of liberty in his own writings, he did appeal to the term as that same notion which birthed the American Revolution.[5] For that definition of historic American liberty, then, Os Guinness’ modern elaboration of such liberty—including its societal constructs and implications—appears to be both consistent and compatible with Machen’s own understanding and use of the word within his works such as Christianity and Culture (1912), Christianity and Liberalism, and Christianity and Liberty (1931).[6]

           According to Guinness, liberty—or freedom, which he uses interchangeably in his book Last Call for Liberty—can be simply defined as “the absence of coercion.”[7] However, the principles of American liberty, unto which Machen also subscribed, are far more nuanced. Guinness explains that this particular liberty, informed by Reformation principles, concerns a matter of the will that is rooted in promise-bound covenant. It includes, then, notions of human responsibility, power, choice between options, a purpose or goal, and an emphasis on the social or collective dimension of the constitutionally-united people.[8]

           According to Guinness, Richard Niebuhr “captured the gravity of the earlier American view of covenant” eloquently with the following summation:

“Covenant was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise responsibility to and for each other, and for the common laws, under God. It was government of the people, for the people, by the people, but always under God, and it was not natural birth into natural society that made one a complete member of the people, but always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibility of a citizenship that bound itself in the very act of exercising freedom. For in the covenant conception the essence of freedom... [lies] in the ability to commit oneself for the future to a cause.”[9]

           In essence, freedom is marked by charity and a sacrificial spirit. It is concerned with not only the welfare of oneself, but with the “good” of the body politic. Freedom can be bifurcated into two complementary ways, then: freedom from enslavement to injustice and freedom for, or unto, the good.[10] Under this twofold emphasis, freedom then is not primarily concerned with simply “doing no harm,” but rather a promotion of the good. According to Guinness, under this paradigm—with both a sense of justice for all and the welfare of a people operating from a heart of humility—it is fitting to posit that “freedom requires virtue.”[11]

“ In essence, freedom is marked by charity and a sacrificial spirit. It is concerned with not only the welfare of oneself, but with the “good” of the body politic. ”

           Such was the insistence of the Founding Fathers, whom Machen himself admired and often alluded to in a favorable light.[12] For instance, Benjamin Franklin is oft-quoted for saying, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”[13] Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison all expressed the same sentiment. [14] Such was the ideology of liberty that Machen had in view. Machen admired the cause of liberty and the covenantally-formed principles which led to the American Revolution.[15] In his short article entitled The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age (1933), Machen referred to this liberty as “the glories of the past,” that “civil and religious liberty, for which our fathers were willing to sacrifice so much.”[16] He admitted that such a noble cause was “something very precious, though very intangible and very difficult of defense before those who have not the love for it in their hearts.”[17] In fact, Machen viewed the remarkable securing of the nation’s religious and civil liberty as being “more valuable than any other earthly thing.”[18]

           However, there was one supreme qualifier for Machen, that must not be neglected. Such liberty was more valuable than any other earthly thing to him, “short of the truer and profounder liberty which only God can give.”[19] Positively, Machen understood that there was a direct correlation between the exercise of liberty within a culture and its welcoming embrace of historic Christianity. However, the “common ground” of morality might provide a nation with the fruit of comfortability for a time, Machen recognized that humanistic virtue alone—devoid of Christ and his gospel—was neither sufficient to usher in a heavenly kingdom, nor protect a people against the vices of human depravity. In other words, the so-called “good” of the body politic, could not be established apart from submission to Christ and an embrace of his authority.[20]

Machen’s Esteem of Liberty

In understanding Machen’s thought process regarding liberty, it is important to reiterate that he maintained the distinction between civil and religious liberty. In the words of D. G. Hart, “Machen believed that spiritual liberty was markedly different from civil liberty.”[21] However, for Machen, the preponderance of civil liberties was contingent upon the sanctioned exercise of religious liberty. And in tandem, the protection of religious liberty was upheld and affirmed by the conditions of a culture which viewed Christianity favorably.

           According to Dr. Hart, Machen differed from fellow Reformed thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper and H. Richard Niebuhr in regard to the relation of the Church and State. Men such as these held to a “transformation-of-culture model,” while Machen seemingly offered a “less aggressive and triumphalist vision of Christian cultural involvement.[22] This was perhaps out of a healthy fear of conflating the two aforementioned spheres and, in turn, falling prey to a form of the social gospel—blatantly characteristic of the Progressivism of his day.[23] However, Hart’s well-informed assertion raises the following speculation: if this was true of Machen, was his understanding of liberty inevitably incompatible with that of the Old Princeton theologians?

           If Machen is taken at his word, it would seem as though this were not the case. For instance, his address at Westminster’s first convocation, detailing the purpose and plan of the seminary is quite telling. On September 25, 1929, Machen encouraged his colleagues with the following words:

“Christianity flourishes not in obscurantist darkness, where objections are ignored, but in the full light of day... I verily believe that the new reformation, for which we long, will be like the Reformation of the sixteenth century in that it will mean a return to plain common honesty and common sense... In our work in exegesis at Westminster Seminary, at any rate, we shall seek to cultivate common sense... In true biblical exegesis, the Bible must be taken as God has been pleased to give it to the church... We believe for our part that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that he has given us not merely theology, but a system of theology, a great logically consistent body of truth [the Reformed faith]... which is set so gloriously in the Confession and catechisms of the Presbyterian church.”[24]

           It is clear by Machen’s conclusory statements later in this same speech that he understood Westminster’s mission as a continuance of “the noble tradition of Princeton Seminary.”[25] Princeton had long been admired as an evangelical institution that emphasized the thorough development of theological accuracy alongside that spiritual formation becoming of its ministers. And though its influencers were great in number, two in particular were especially articulate in regard to liberty: Samuel Miller (1769–1850) and ArchibaldAlexander Hodge (1823–1886). Both men’s writings not only share the sentiments of Machen’s own pen, but he was almost certainly influenced by their theological-cultural constructs to varying degrees.

           Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating of Samuel Miller’s writing in regard to liberty was his sermon entitled Christianity: the Grand Source, and the Surest Basis, of Political Liberty. Delivered on July 4, 1793, the young Presbyterian minister and self-proclaimed “patriot” compelled the Tammany Society (also known as the Colombian Order) to “inquire into the secret springs” that were ideologically responsible for the celebrated outcome of American liberty.[26] Miller explained that the political advancement of freedom procured just seventeen years prior was worthy of the fondest honor and cheerful retrospect, for the infinite wisdom that had ordered the affairs of independence could be attributed to nothing short of a “grand Source.”[27] By name, Miller unquestionably stated that the Christian religion was that grand source, and to preserve the free exercise of Christianity was of utmost importance “in promoting political freedom.”[28]

           As such,Miller chose to exposit 2 Corinthians 3:17 in light of its societal implications. He readily shared that the believer in Christ has been “[gloriously delivered] from the power, and the ignoble chains of sin and Satan, which is effected by the Spirit of the Lord, in every soul, in which his special and saving influences are found.”[29] The immediate context of this passage has in view “that release from the bondage of the legal administration, which the gospel affords to all who receive it in sincerity and truth.”[30] But further extending, the proposition of the verse—“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”—has direct application not only in terms of spiritual liberty, but political liberty, also. He urged his company to receive the following tenet:

“[T]he general prevalence of real Christianity, in any government, has a direct and immediate tendency to promote, and to confirm therein, political liberty... The truth is, that political liberty does not rest, solely, on the form of government, under which a nation may happen to live... [nor] the balance of power [nor] ... the constitution... Human laws are too imperfect, in themselves, to secure completely this inestimable blessing. It must have its seat in the hearts and dispositions of those individuals which compose the body politic; and it is with the hearts and dispositions of men that Christianity is conversant. When, therefore, that perfect law of liberty, which this holy religion includes, prevails and governs in the minds of all, their freedom rests upon a basis more solid and immoveable [sic], than human wisdom can devise.”[31]

           Samuel Miller constructed the rest of his message by insisting that the very doctrines of Christianity promote the illumination of the minds of men and so constructively develop human character, the respect of one’s fellow man and his unalienable rights, and make commonplace the basic virtues which benefit all members of a society (cf. Jeremiah 29:7). Miller emphasized not only the pragmatic usefulness of Christianity in promoting the good of a free society, but—with great excitement and a optimism—expressed his enthusiasm for the project of liberty to have its way in the free exercise of the Christian faith.[32] Like Machen, he appreciated the concept of the Church and State being mutually beneficial, while of distinguished roles within society.

           In contrast, though he was also steeped in the Princeton tradition—albeit removed from the revolution of1776—Archibald Alexander Hodge expressed a more similar sentiment with that of the historic, Scottish Presbyterian line of thinking.[33] His address to the PresbyterianHistorical Society entitled The State and Religion (1878) is demonstrative of his theory of the relation between the Church and the State. The power of theState is derived by God, and no earthly power is greater than that a vassal before the Almighty King.[34] Additionally, Hodge understood that the depraved human nature, apart from the blissful reception of the whole counsel of God, was insufficient in any form of governance—whether in the power of the Church or the State. For Hodge, the “new American theory” of Church and State was wrong in the precursory sense, in that both merely existed without relation, aside from being composed of “the same personal constituents.”[35] Hodge emphasized in his speech that, by the time of his writing them in 1878, this novel theory was already showcasing its gravest flaw: the State was perceived as “purely secular and naturalistic.” According to Hodge, it recognized “no law but that of the human reason and will, no obligation other than that of the individual to society, and no end beyond the well-being of man considered as arational animal.”[37] With that reasoning considered, he declared that he adamantly protested such a non-religious ideology.

           In terms of Hodge’s concern for the genuine welfare of society, then, he found such a society, given to Humanistic secularism to be altogether inoperable. The solution, which he believed to be derived from theScriptures of both Old and New Testaments, was to hold firmly to the understanding that the State, like the Church, is a divine institution—deriving its authority solely from God (cf. WCF, XXIII.3).[38] A non-Christian State is purposed to exercise its authority in the form of justice under natural revelation of God’s will—that is, by means of “reason and consciousness”—whereas a Christian State would do so on the basis of the supernatural revelation of God’s will provided in his word, insofar as “his word expresses his will upon subjects coming within the sphere of the State.”[39]

           Such were the positions of two great Princeton thinkers, who not only heavily influenced their own students, but those religiously-sensitive members of American society. And so, returning to Machen, one can see then how his collected body of work on the issue of not only the relation of the Church and State, but on liberty itself was informed. In line with Samuel Miller, Machen carried a kind of optimism of God’s working within the world to a healthy extent. He recognized a distinct need for the preservation of the gospel message’s articulation, which the exercise of religious liberty promoted, when guided by God’s unchanging law and in light of the authority of Christ over all earthly powers (Matt 28:18).[40]

“Machen carried a kind of optimism of God’s working within the world to a healthy extent.”

           And under a Reformed understanding of the Church and State (in line with A. A. Hodge),Machen firmly believed that his membership within society fell under the headship of but one King, Jesus, though taking place within the two spheres. As both an under-shepherd of Christ and a well-respected member of society, Machen saw the healthfulness of welcoming the sanction which constitutional liberty provided for the sake of the gospel’s advancement. However, he was not blind toward the intrinsic dangers ofSecularism which had given rise in the Progressive culture at large—which were effecting both the political spectrum in seemingly embracing utilitarianism, as well as the broader evangelical Church of his own day into accepting opposing views of the message of the cross of Christ, never mind the essential doctrines of the Faith.

           [1]This writer is hardly alone in this sentiment. For example, in his foreword to Christianity and Liberalism, Dr. Carl Trueman posits that “Machen still speaks...obviously to our times.” And “the world of today is perhaps not so different from that faced by... Machen. Human beings still try to make God in their own image, still project their own values onto the divine, and still operate as theologians of glory.” Carl R. Trueman, foreword to Christianity and Liberalism, by J. Gresham Machen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009)xiii–xiv.

           [2]Granted, a well-founded case for Machen’s disruptive behavior within ecclesiastical matters of importance and their consequences, intended or otherwise, can reasonably be made. Cf. John Frame, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” in Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 113–146.

           [3]One need only look at a handful of his personal correspondences to see a more compassionate and emphatically friendly side of Machen. These characteristics were not overtly expressed in his methodical writings, which were purposed for an academic audience. Examples of such cordial, personal correspondences with his family and fellow pastors can be seen in the following materials: J.Gresham Machen, Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I, ed. and trans. Barry Waugh (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012); J. Gresham Machen, “Karl Barth and ‘The Theology of Crisis,’”WestminsterTheological Journal 53 (1991): 197–207, accessed November 9, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.

           [4]J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, NewEdition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 6.

           [5]Machen notes in Christianity and Liberty, “The real indictment against the modern world is that by the modern world human liberty is being destroyed.”He then directly dovetailed the liberty championed by Patrick Henry, the “boys of ‘76” and the like as being the kind of liberty he had in mind. J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Liberty,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D.G. Hart, 355–363 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 357.

           [6]Guinness is an influential speaker and advocate for religious freedom and was the lead drafter for the Global Charter of Conscience and the WilliamsburgCharter. William Edgar, and K. Scott Oliphint, “Os Guinness,” in Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar, and K. Scott Oliphint (Wheaton, IL:Crossway, 2011) 2:631–632.

           [7]Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 67.

           [8]Guinness distinguishes such covenantal liberty which led to the formation of the United States with its covenantally-based ideology as being drastically distinct from that of the French Revolution. Ibid., 68–74.

           [9]H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy” ChurchHistory 23 (June 1954): 133, quoted in Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 67.

           [10]Cf. Guinness, 85–86. Guinness later addresses the key difference between federal and natural liberty. The former being rooted in foedus, or covenant, and the latter being left to relativistic Individualism. Ibid., 263.

           [11]Ibid., 125.

           [12]J. Gresham Machen, “The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 364–376 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 365.

           [13]Guinness, 125.

           [14]Ibid., 129-32.

           [15]Machen did not shy from quoting Patrick Henry’s most-famous line, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” in a favorable light. Machen, “Christianity and Liberty,” 357.

           [16]Machen, “The Responsibility of the Church,” 365.


           [18]Ibid., 365–366.

           [19]Ibid., 366.

           [20]Cf. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. K. Scott Oliphint, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 90–99.

           [21]D. G. Hart, introduction to Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 1–20(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 13.

           [22]Hart readily admits that “trying to separate Machen’s political and cultural interests is a feat not easily accomplished. Ibid., 13–14.

           [23]Hart attests to this as being one potential reason some wrongly assumed that Machen was himself a Fundamentalist. Ibid.

           [24]J. Gresham Machen, “Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 187–194 (Phillipsburg, NJ:P&R Publishing, 2004) 188–191.

           [25]Ibid., 194.

           [26]The Tammany Society included the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Samuel Miller, “Christianity, the Grand Source and Surest Basis for Political Liberty,” New York, NY: Thomas Green leaf (July 4, 1793): 7, accessed March 29, 2020, Log College Press.

           [27]Ibid., 7–10.

           [28]Ibid., 11.



           [31]Ibid., 12–13.

           [32]In the words of Samuel Miller, “Can oppression and slavery prevail among any people who properly understand, and are suitably impressed with, those greatGospel truths, that all men are, by nature, equal...?” For further insight in regard to Miller’s elaboration of such a paradigm, the remainder of his sermon unpacks in detail immediate implications of this passage on the instruction of slavery, charity, and Spirit-led virtue and is useful for historians and believers in this age, alike. Ibid., 15–22.

           [33]Archibald Alexander Hodge, “The State and Religion” (Philadelphia, PA: National Reform Association, date unknown): 1–4, reprinted by T. P. Stevenson from Archibald Alexander Hodge, “The State and Religion,” Christian Statesman Tracts, no. 14 (1878), accessed April 5, 2020, Log College Press.

           [34]Ibid., 4. Cf. Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), 3–9.

           [35]Ibid., 5.



           [38]Ibid., 8.

           [39]Ibid. Pastor Wang Yi, the Chinese pastor who was incarcerated roughly a year ago for the exercise of the Christian religion expressed the same Reformed convictions in his now widespread letter. His thoughts are more than worthy of contemplation. Wang Yi “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” China Partnership, accessed on April 6, 2020, https://www.chinapartnership.org/blog/2018/12/my-declaration-of-faithful-disobedience.

           [40]J. Gresham Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 161–173 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 161, 169.

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