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


Christianity’s Consecration of Culture

Provided that the religious and civil liberties which Machen so much enjoyed were ushered in through an advancement of the kingdom of grace in the first place, it follows that he sought to use his position of influence as a pastor and educator to articulate the necessity for a proclamation of this gospel of grace.The mere projection of morality without dependence upon the grand Source (to borrow from Miller) would undoubtedly lead to inefficiency in governance and providing true welfare for the nation’s own. In the words of Machen, “A proclamation of [State-instituted] morality which regards itself as all that is necessary... is very different from that true proclamation of the law of God which may be a schoolmaster to bring men toChrist.”[1] According to Machen, character-building, when left to the general public, would inevitably lead to character-destruction, for there is one law of God for both the believer and unbeliever, alike.[2]

           So, for Machen, a divorce of Christianity from its relation to American society left the general public with nothing more than impending defeat. Machen stated the following: “[I]t is far easier to destroy than to create. It took many centuries of struggle—much blood and many tears—to establish the fundamental principles of our civil and religious liberty, but one mad generation is sufficient to throw them all away.”[3] As such, it was the duty of everyChristian, no matter their vocation, to engage with the culture—of first importance, for the sake of evangelism, the salvation of men’s souls, but also for the secondary benefit of the society’s ultimate welfare.

           With such a noble cause in view, then, it is of particular interest to explore Machen’s admonition to those whom he influenced in how best engage the culture. While Machen certainly addressed such issues within his popular work Christianity and Liberalism (most notably within his introduction to the work), his earlier work Christianity and Culture (1912) provides a particularly clear and concise summary of his thoughts. As such, his convictions about engaging culture with the truth of Christianity will now be explored.

           “One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity.”[4] By the dichotomy of knowledge and piety, Machen meant that those within the church tend to veer toward either an academically-oriented faith or a pragmatic faith. Some have a tendency to err in valuing a “right conception of Christianity and its foundations” at the dismissal of Christian charity, while others err by clinging to the “essential simplicity of the gospel,” in too elementary a manner.[5] While both approaches certainly have their merits in embracing the faith with the mind or the heart, the wedding of both emphases promotes the mutual edification of both the individual believer and those within one’s sphere of influence who might veer oppositely (cf. James2:18–24).[6]

           If those within the church are given to one of these two dispositions, Machen argued, how much more so the collective whole of society—the general population—in regard to knowledge and piety.In the pre-World War era of Modernism, Machen described the following dilemma as such a breed of societal developments:

“Our whole system of school and college education is so constituted as to keep religion and culture as far apart as possible and ignore the question of the relationship between them. On five or six days in the week, we were engaged in the acquisition of knowledge. From this activity the study of religion was banished. We studied natural science without considering its bearing or lack of bearing upon natural theology or upon revelation. We studied Greek without opening the New Testament. We studied history with careful avoidance of that greatest of historical movements which was ushered in by the preaching ofJesus.”[7]


           While this separation of religious life from that of the State was inherently off-base from the intent of the founders of the nation, Machen saw a kind of subjection of Christianity unto the whims of Modernism occurring within his own era. By this point Modernism itself had begun to take a toll on the church’s pursuit of faithful witness to the truth claims of the Bible. But on the other extreme, those within the camp of Fundamentalism often viewed a Christian’s interaction with the State to be of necessary evil. Machen understood this approach to be illogical, for if “God has given [men] certain powers of mind, and has implanted within [them] the ineradicable conviction that these powers were intended to be exercised,” then these convictions were best utilized for the glory and enjoyment of God and the good of society.[8] Additionally, the Bible itself contains poetry and the arts, brimming with enthusiasm, exuberance, and a “keen appreciation of beauty.”[9] Resultant of God’s gifts to mankind, the desires for mankind to employ empirical knowledge, contemplate finer things, and exercise the enhancement and beautification of creation and culture were of most natural consequences.

“Machen saw a kind of subjection of Christianity unto the whims of Modernism occurring within his own era.”

           Accordingly, Machen insisted that there were three basic approaches for the church to interact with the culture:1) subordinate unto it; 2) destroy it; or 3) consecrate it for the Lord.[10] To subordinate unto the culture would be in keeping with the Liberal mindset of stripping Christianity of its supernatural truths. A trimmed, manufactured Christianity would be deprived of its authority and serve as a counterfeit at best—“a check for untold millions... without the signature at the bottom.”[11] In contrast, for those who sought to usurp or destroy culture, Machen warned against the plight of indifference toward God’s creation and image bearers. The temptation for those who recognized the profundity of evil within the world and embraced the truth of total depravity that culture, in and of itself, was “so evil that it cannot possibly produce the means for its own salvation... coming directly from God” was to neglect the common grace of God present within the world.

           Rather, a third option, formed from a healthy understanding of Scripture, is present for the believer: to take part in the consecration of the culture as the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matt 5:13–16).Machen motivated his hearers with the following message:

“Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest that humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God. Instead of stifling the pleasures afforded by the acquisition of knowledge or by the appreciation of what is beautiful, let us accept these pleasures as the gifts of a heavenlyFather. Instead of obliterating the distinction between the Kingdom and the world, or on the other hand withdrawing from the world into a sort of modernized intellectual monasticism, let us go forth joyfully, enthusiastically to make the world subject to God.”[12]


           This mission of making the world subject to God, though simple in intent, would have a profound impact on the rest of Machen’s own life, from 1912 onward. Like A. A. Hodge before him, Machen held that “The church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, also the whole of man,” or, in other words, all that pertains to the being of man and his involvement with the world.[13] All of human thought must be extensively brought to obedient and joyful captivity unto the lordship ofChrist (2 Cor 10:5). To that end, Machen desired that approaching time of blissful consummation, “when doubts have disappeared, when every contradiction has been removed, when all of science converges to one great conviction, when all of art is devoted to one great end, when all of human thinking is permeated by the refining, ennobling influence of Jesus.”[14] According to Machen, artistry and intellectualism have always been characteristic of the church, so in relation to the world, men should not misjudge the importance—nor possibility—of the consecration of culture as being a desirable endeavor, worthy of effort.[15]

           But Machen was also convinced that such an arrival at such a subjection unto the kingly reign of Jesus would be most suitable given the proper conditions. He held the following stance: “It is true that the decisive thing [i.e. consecration] is the regenerative power of God... But as a matter of fact, God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel.”[16] Therefore, under the operation of the free exercise of religion, Machen insisted that the consecration of culture must occur through both the propagation of the gospel message through the meansGod has given (i.e. word and sacrament) and the church as a body, engaging the culture through the means of theological education.[17]

Christianity’s Consecration of the Church

However, the hearts of men are not naturally inclined to seek after God. Writing in 1932, Machen noted, “Men are wondering today what is wrong with the world. They are conscious of the fact that they are standing over some terrible abyss... It is perfectly clear what is wrong. The law of God has been torn up... and the inevitable result is appearing with ever greater clearness. When will the law be rediscovered?”[18] Men are fundamentally aware of the irrelation with God as Maker and Judge and feel within their souls the covenantal disjointedness with him, resultant of sin (Rom 1:19–23).[19] However, in Christ, there is an anchored hope which answers this state of misery. And this hope, when embraced by a society, collectively, will bring restoration to the brokenness of civilian life, healing to the wounded, and justice to the oppressed.

           Machen was convinced that such a day would come only as the religious affections of a culture set against the things of God would be brought to a place of beholding the riches of Christ. And when the law of God is rediscovered, the society would not only be met with the frightening terror of the law that accompanies its true reception, but the joy of the freedom of knowing Christ, the Savior of sinners. But only when “the majesty of the transcendent God and the guilt and misery of man in his sin,” will the gospel of unmerited grace be embraced.[20]

           Thus, the duty of the Church, given by Christ, is clear (Eph 4:11–16). The Church, as a whole, must bear witness to the sufferings and glories of Christ, while maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace—in accordance with God’s unchanging truth (Eph 4:3). As such, Machen conveyed to his readers that the proclamation of the gospel message will gain ground only as the church takes up herGod-given responsibility in three distinct ways.

“The Church, as a whole, must bear witness to the sufferings and glories of Christ, while maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace...”

           The first, is that the church must seek to be doctrinal—thoroughly biblical in her convictions and rooted not in religious experience, but in the revelation of God.[21] The second—which is similar in approach, though categorically different—is that she must be intolerant. She must not be intolerant in terms of stifling the lawful liberties and free associations of others, but rather in terms of safeguarding her own members against the false “gospels” which threaten the “high exclusiveness and universality of [Christianity’s] message.”[22] But beyond the doctrine of the church and the protection of its integrity, the church must also bear fruit in keeping with the gospel of the Lord Jesus (Col 1:10). As such, the third responsibility of the church is that she must be radically ethical. Her ethic must not be acquired or influenced by the shifting paradigms of the world, but rather set upon the foundation of the truth and wisdom of Almighty God (cf. Prov 3:18).

           But a world so blessed by the gospel of Christ, embraced only by Christians, is arguably not the understanding of the prophets and apostles, nor of Christ Jesus in his optimistically-great commission, given to his own from a position of all authority (Ps 22:27; Hab 2:14; Matt 28:18–20).Accordingly, Machen insisted that the church—by taking upon herself the burdens of responsibility in doctrine, intolerance, and ethics—will in fact be a beacon of light to a darkening world. When committed to the cause of Christ and the spiritual liberties that accompany the gospel, “[The church] will seek to bring all men everywhere, without exception, high and low, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, compatriot and alien, into the full warmth and joy of the household of faith.”[23] And in turn, the light of the gospel, which liberates men’s souls will so bring forth the fruits of the gospel to bear within society.[24]

           It follows, then, that if the earth should be so “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea,” that the means to arrive at such a liberty-loving, life-giving time would not be foreign to proper theological education—starting within the church and extending to the home and private sectors. And so Machen cherished the work ofChristian educators, even calling the existence of the Christian school an absolute necessity.[25] Having said this, Machen understood indeed that there was a rise of a centralized bureaucracy taking place within his own day—such an existence “against which the Constitution of the United States was most clearly intended to guard.”[26] And given undue ground, the field of education and, through it, all of society, would be under its sway. Machen, with a spirit of great concern, shared that the tyrannical attack upon civil and religious liberty, though nothing new, was already at the doorstep of public education in the United States.“In Oregon, a law was actually passed some years ago requiring all children to attend the public school—thus taking the children from the control of their parents and placing them under the despotic control of whatever superintendent of education might happen to be in office in the district in which they resided,” Machen recalled.[27]

           So again, Machen favored the opportunity for Christian schooling in the better interests of American liberty. He supplemented his line of reasoning with the following insight:

“Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest [to bureaucratic control]. In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools. On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised.”[28]

           In light of these grave concerns, it must be said that Machen favored the Christian school, for a far more important reason: “it is necessary to the propagation of the Christian faith.”[29] Beyond a healthy fear of misplaced power, the benefits of providing a marketplace of options for education would be manifold. And the Christian school, when recognizing her place within society, would stand at the forefront, so shining a light into all matters. Of course, the Reformed tradition is no stranger to the benefits of catechesis within the functions of a healthy church, but Machen held that the extension of religious education, when offered by Christians into subject matters beyond the theological, would provide a surer basis for societal life and the fullness ofAmerican prosperity. For Machen was convinced, “[The] religion of the Christian man embraces the whole of his life... True learning and true piety go hand in hand.”[30]


           Being now one century removed from Machen’s writings, it is fairly straightforward to see how the idealistic notions of those who have gone before have influenced those within their own social constructs. There is an intrinsic value in understanding and appreciating Machen’s own concern for liberty, as it compels those readers of his to interpret the degree in which liberty aids in the preservation and propagation of the gospel’s advancement within a broader society. The prospect of liberty, as Machen would most certainly affirm, should never be prioritized above the proclamation of the gospel message itself, nor be confused with the gospel message. However, if men such as Samuel Miller, A. A. Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen, along with modern-day contemporaries of this school of thought like Os Guinness, are correct in their deliberations, liberty is to be esteemed by believers as a wonderful gift from the Father of lights (James 1:17).

           At the time of this writing, though the subject matter of liberty had been decided upon months prior, there is great deal of civil unrest over the issue of liberty and the attendant comforts belonging to a free society which are being restricted.There is also reasonable concern over the extent to which men are to submit to the governing authorities. While too broad of an application would not be most wise, and while civil and religious liberties are to be cherished and protected in light of the scriptural basis, the clear biblical mandate is that believers in Christ must always seek to maintain the peace and purity of his church over their earthly welfare, eagerly ready to give a defense for the hope within them(1 Pet 3:13–15).

           Wisdom to this day still cries aloud in the streets and is to be heeded as we submit unto the governing authorities with a view toward Christ the King himself, under whose reign they serve (Prov 1:20; Rom 13:1–7).But given the uniqueness of the American experiment—a representative, constitutionally-binding government that is “of the people, for the people, and by the people”—Christians would do well not to shrink away from exercising liberty of conscience and promoting the good of their fellow citizens. Truly, the church is rising to the occasion set forth in God’s providence.

           In light of such hardships and weighty losses, prayers are being ever continually made for those in high positions and for those caught in the most dire of situations alike. Denominations are coming together, collectively, around the cause ofChrist and his kingdom. The light of the gospel is shining forth as believers are decidedly loving their neighbors as themselves and walking by faith in such manners as are becoming of followers of the Lord Jesus. As the gospel is proclaimed faithfully—that is to say, doctrinally, intolerably, and ethically, as Machen would have it—we can wait upon the Lord with truest hope and patience, marked by his peace and the dignity of a clean conscience (1 Tim 2:1–2; WLC 55).

           [1]Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” 169.

           [2]Ibid., 168–169. Cf. Romans 13:1–7.

           [3]Machen continued, “It is true, the attack upon liberty is nothing new. Always there have been tyrants in the world; almost always tyranny has begun by being superficially beneficent, and always it has ended by being both superficially and radically cruel.” Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School,” 162.

           [4]Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” 399.

           [5]Ibid. Machen’s later writing entitled Christian Scholarship and Evangelism, which was delivered to the Bible League of Great Britain twenty years later, insisted upon the necessity of the preacher—and truly any man who made intent to proclaim the gospel—to commit himself to Christian scholarship for the sake of evangelism. A simple faith that despised doctrine and sought to exalt their own conversion experience and religious phenomena would bear little to no weight before an intelligent society. Christ himself and his apostles employed reason in the proclamation of the gospel; no less should ministers and evangelists use such logic. J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship andEvangelism,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 135–142(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 137–138. To the same audience, Machen also wrote concerning Christian scholarship’s necessity in regard to apologetics. Though true Christianity is indeed “radically contrary to the natural man,” the defender of the faith must skillfully construct sound arguments. J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 143–152(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 144.

           [6]Machen stated, “The Christian of academic tastes accuses his brother of undue emotionalism, of shallow argumentation, of cheap methods of work. On the other hand, your practical man is ever loud in his denunciation of academic indifference to the dire needs of humanity. The scholar is represented either as a dangerous dissemination of doubt, or else as a man whose faith is a faith without works.” Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” 400.




           [10]Ibid., 401–402.

           [11]Ibid., 401.

           [12]Ibid., 402

           [13]Ibid., 403.


           [15]It is important to note that Machen did not appear to hold to an understanding in which there would be an utterly Christianized society, only rather one that was so permeated by Christianity. His closest and lifelong friend, John Murray, took up the task of writing about such an understanding of what would constitute a “Christian World Order” for The Presbyterian Guardian in October, 1943. Logically, Murray speculated that such an order would inherently require that “the whole of life be brought into willing captivity to the obedience of Christ.”John Murray, “The Christian World Order,” in Collected Writings, ed. Valerie Murray(Banner of Truth, 1976), 1:356. However, an order of this magnitude would imply that the effects of the gospel—its “redemptive, regenerative and restorative forces”—would be fully actualized and that sin would be more. Such a world order prior to Christ’s coming, Murray insisted, even the most extremePostmillennialist would not espouse. Ibid., 359.

           [16]Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” 404. For the world to experience such favorable conditions with the end being an order that was uniquely Christian (such as the ideal picture here seen in Machen), Murray understood that the three divine institutions of family, church, and state would have to find themselves in conformity to Christ’s lordship. “The kingdom of God [would begin] its reconstruction with the individual,” lending itself to both the family unit and the church bowing to the headship of Christ.Murray, “Christian World Order,” 359–360. Finally, the state would support the"God-given rights and prerogatives of the individual.” Ibid., 362. While these three institutions surely do not envelope all of the human experience, for Christ’s lordship to be experienced here on earth, these institutions must find themselves in submission unto him.

           [17]Machen stated, “Many men of many minds are needed. What we need first of all, especially in our American churches, is a more general interest in the problems of theological science. Without that, the specialist [i.e. the professor in theology and the minister of the word] is without the stimulating atmosphere which nerves him to do his work.” Ibid., 405.

           [18]J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Building up of the Church,” in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D. G. Hart, 153–160 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 158.

           [19]Van Til, 115.


           [21]Machen, “The Responsibility of the Church,” 373.

           [22]Ibid., 373–374. At the Machen’s writing of The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age (1933), he understood that something special was being lost within the realm of both the social sciences and political science: civil and religious liberty. Machen unapologetically took his stance on this subject with the following message: “To those lovers of civil and religious liberty I confess that I belong; in fact, civil and religious liberty seems to me to be more valuable than any other earthly thing—than any other thing short of the truer and profounder liberty which only God can give... If liberty is crushed out, if standardization has its perfect work, if the worst of all tyrannies, the tyranny of the expert, becomes universal, if the finer aspirations of humanity give way to drab efficiency, do not blame the external conditions in the world today. If human life becomes mechanized, do not blame the machine. Put the blame exactly where it belongs—upon the soul of man.” Ibid., 366–367.


           [24]The Lord Jesus himself is the one who will bring such things. Of himself, he declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18–19, ESV.

           [25]Machen, “Christian School,” 161.


           [27]Ibid., 162–163.

           [28]Ibid. In 1887, A. A. Hodge said the following, in a similar light: “It is agreed that the perpetuity of a free state necessarily requires the general education of the people. It is also agreed that no agency can so effectually secure this necessary end as a school system supported by public taxation and controlled by the state herself. But if the American principle of the absolute divorce of church and state be maintained, how can it administer a system of education which embraces a religious element? Of all the conflicting systems of religion, represented in the national population, how is it possible for the state to select one in order to embrace it in its educational system? ... It is absolutely impossible to separate religious ideas from the great mass of human knowledge.” Archibald Alexander Hodge, “Religion in the Public Schools,” TheNew Princeton Review (1887): 28–30, accessed April 5, 2020, Log CollegePress.

           [29]Machen, “Christian School,” 167. To the extent that education on the part of religious instructors be lost, Samuel Miller believed this to be a grievous error on the church. He elaborated that the most serious of all mischiefs in the neglect of early religious education in particular—not only of those within the church, but also within society—is “its tendency to destroy the souls of our children.” Samuel Miller, “Christian Education,” in Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, ed. James M. Garrison, 730–746 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012), 1:734–735. Furthermore, another dreaded consequence of the lack of Christian education is “the frequency with which our young people may be expected, in such case, to depart from the church of their fathers, and either stray into communions of the most corrupt character, or become totally regardless of religion in any form.” And similarly, a pastor who neglect the training of younger members, “will find them altogether unprepared to profit by his public ministry.” Ibid. Miller continued his discourse in the positive, regarding recommendations for those ministers and church leaders within the Presbyterian Church to intentionally establish schools fit for children of all ages, from “infant schools” to primary schools to the establishment of “Bible classes” in every congregation. Ibid., 739–746.

           [30]Machen, “Christian School,” 171–172.

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