January 2024
Applying J. Gresham Machen in the 21st Century

How do we apply the work of J. Gresham Machen today? This article sets out an approach to applying one of the greatest works of popular Reformed theology.

How do you turn a portrait into a window? How do you take what many people looked at and start looking through it? That’s the question we face with every great work of literature. And the same applies to classic works of theology. The goal isn’t just to appreciate a work of theology in itself; the goal is to have it reframe our view of the world around us and all the people and places in it. Maybe that sounds like too much to ask of readers. But, then again, isn’t that why we read in the first place—to shape our view of the world, to turn portraits into windows so that we see more of what’s around us, and in a better light? That’s why I read, and I’m guessing that’s why many others do as well. But to turn a portrait into a window is no small thing. I hope the remarks below help you along the way. It will take time and dialogue, but you’ll be rewarded with widened vision.

From There to Here

Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism spoke boldly to his own generation. But as we hold the book in our hands today, the world has changed. Not many people these days know what “liberalism” means outside of political contexts. We’re not standing between two great World Wars, as Machen was when the book was first published. The Prohibition Act, marking alcoholism as one of the defining evils of the day, had just been passed in 1919, four years earlier. And no one could even imagine something like that being passed today. And whereas the great technological advancements of Machen’s day included traffic lights and drive-in restaurants, ours include globally connected smartphones and the mass use of artificial intelligence. And in fifty years, even those will draw the smirk of chronological snobbery. In historical contexts, it’s always a long way from there to here.

Because of that, we might be tempted to describe great works of theology with that dreaded  and ironic adjective: outdated. The word is dreaded because it suggests that our fear of living an insignificant life could actually be realized; it’s ironic because everything is already “dated” as soon as it happens, and so being outdated is the mode in which everything exists anyway. We’re all outdated. The only difference between us and Machen is that he’s not here to defend himself.

More to the point, passing off Machen’s work as outdated will mean we never turn the portrait into a window. And that’s why we’re reading it. So, how do we do it? How do we move from there to here?

What Stays and What Changes

We sometimes hear the words, “People never change.” That’s true and false. The truth is that people will always be people: limited, longing for purpose, looking for love. But it’s false to say that God doesn’t mature and develop us as we face our perennial problems. So, on the one hand, we have stable questions and values handed off from one generation to the next. Great works of literature and theology address these problems. On the other hand, God develops his people in their given context, dancing through the decades on a changing landscape. And here’s the key: to learn from a work such as Machen’s, all we need to do is place what stays the same next to what changes.

For example, all people have a divinely implanted knowledge of and longing for God. That never changes. People are parched for the presence of God. Those in Machen’s day had a yearning for God’s immanence—his closeness—in a post-World War I era, and so the tenets of liberal theology drew them in. In our day, people still long for the presence of God, but in a new context, a context of digital technology and social media, where God seems silent amidst the din of rhetoric, self-promotion, and tribalism. What did people in Machen’s day need to hear about? The transcendence of God, the blinding holiness of the one who called them to repentance and faith. What do people in our own day need to hear about? The immanence of God, his closeness to us even while the chaos rages on and we feel helpless and insignificant. Of course, we always need both—transcendence and immanence. But the point here is to show that our underlying longing for God always has a biblical response.

So, we might have something like this.

If we can identify what stays the same amidst God’s ongoing work to change his people in their unique circumstances, then we have all we need to turn a portrait into a window.

Guidelines for the Rest of the Book

A longing for God, of course, is just one of the things that stays the same between Machen’s time and our own. Here are a few others, expressed as questions. We’ll need to be creative and engage with each other on how these unchanging issues confront our own generation. Doing this work will add frames to our window.

  • Who is the true God and what is he like?
  • What does it mean to be a person, an image-bearer of God?
  • What holds authority for us?
  • Who was Jesus and what did he do?
  • What does a saved life look like?
  • How should the redeemed community function?

Smaller questions are embedded in these bigger ones. For instance, discerning what God is like opens up the biblical vista of God’s attributes and how those attributes harmonize with each of the others. There’s plenty to discuss. In each case, there will be an answer for Machen’s generation and an answer for our own. (Hint: The answer will always be faithful to Scripture, since that is God’s unchanging word.)

Christianity and . . .

Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism because he was identifying liberalism as the main threat to biblical Christianity. The word “and” was key. As Kevin DeYoung has written in the foreword, “With that little word, Machen made the central thesis of his book unmistakable: there is Christianity, and there is liberalism. They are not the same thing.”

Imagine Machen was living in our time. What would he title the book now? What is the theology or worldview striving to usurp biblical Christianity? Would it be Christianity and Conservatism? Or Christianity and Tolerance? Or Christianity and Critical Theory? Or something else?

Going through this retitling activity with a friend might help us identify some of the greatest threats to the gospel and get us thinking about how Scripture would have us respond.

Whatever title you come up with, I’m guessing by that point you will have already made Machen’s portrait of faith into a window for your own world.

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