December 2023
Book Reviews
Things Unseen by J.G. Machen

The publication of J.G. Machen's Things Unseen is a welcome addition to Reformed theology at an accessible level.

There's a lot of hype around this book, as there should be for anything written by Machen. So I was excited to dive into it. This a series of radio talks that Machen delivered to a general audience in the 1930s, which makes the tone conversational and the reasoning accessible. If readers are looking for an introduction to the Reformed faith from one of it's strongest proponents, here it is. Below, I unpack some of my thoughts for you.  

What I Loved

As I read Machen's words, I was struck by how relevant they are to our time. He wrote in the presence of great evil that threatened the whole globe, and 2020 has shown us its own global evil. He wrote against liberal teachings that sought to remove all supernatural elements from the Christian religion. Our own generation still laughs at those who believe in angels, miracles, God incarnate, and the resurrection. That makes much of his discourse in this book timely. In fact, as I read, I felt there was not so much space as you might expect between a 1930s radio series and 2021 readership, poised on what Machen calls in this book "the abyss." Indeed, we are on the edge of a great precipice. The valley below threatens to swallow any biblical notion of identity, authority, and overarching purpose. If we stand on the edge of they abyss, this book is a simple but strong rope that can draw us back to the safety of God's revealed truth.

If I had to give a one-sentence summary of the book, here's what it would be. Things Unseen is a conversational yet thorough introduction to Reformed theology, addressing both the foundation of our beliefs and many of the common attacks it receives. Machen is always clear, and his conversational context allowed him to cast some real jewels before us. Some of my favorites are listed below. My favorite chapter in the book is "Life Founded Upon Truth." Read that one slowly.  

Favorite Quotes

  • "God, as he is known to the Christian, is never content to be thus a mere instrument in the hands of those who care nothing about him. The relation to God is the all-important thing. It is not a mere means to an end. Everything else is secondary to it" (9).
  • "WSC Q&A 3 makes the Scriptures principally teach, first, what man is to believe and, second, what man is to do. It puts truth before conduct, doctrine before life. It makes truth the foundation of conduct and doctrine the foundation of life" (58).
  • "This notion that doctrine is unimportant and that life comes first, is one of the most devilish errors that is to be found in the whole of Satan's arsenal. . . . Does the Bible begin with exhortation; does it begin with a program of life? No, it begins with a doctrine" (63).
  • "God is not a force or a principle or a collective something of which we are parts. He is a person to whom we can say 'Thou,' a person who can, if he will, speak to us as a man speaks to his friend, and who can, if he will, become to us a heavenly Father" (74).
  • "To God all things are eternally present" (165).
  • "God is never content with second best; there are no limitations either to his wisdom or to his power; nothing that he does varies by a hair's breadth from that which is absolutely best" (205).
  • "All nature, including the nature of man, is a wondrous instrument of many strings, delicately tuned to work God's will and upon which he plays with a master hand. But all such figures of speech go only a little way; there is a point at which they break down. The relationship of God to the course of nature is vastly more intimate than the relationship of a musician to the instrument upon which he plays. The musician is outside of his instrument as the engineer is outside of the machine that he controls and guides. But God pervades the course of nature. No recess of it is apart from him; he pervades it through and through. Infinitely separate, yet everywhere near--such is the great mystery of the immanence and transcendence of God" (215).
  • "Unless men are right with God, they will never be right in their relations with one another" (285).
  • "The truth is, there can be no real progress unless there is something that is fixed. Archimedes said, 'Give me a place to stand, and . . . I shall move the world.' Well, Christian doctrine provides that place to stand. Unless there be such a place to stand, all progress is an illusion. The very idea of progress implies something fixed. There is no progress in a kaleidoscope" (342).

What I Would Have Liked

There's so much to love in this volume, but I would have loved Machen to delve a bit more deeply in the doctrine of the Trinity. But that's my bread and butter, so it's not fair to hold him to something like that. There are also places where I would have loved him to go into intricacies of certain doctrines, such as the incarnation and the personhood of the Holy Spirit, but he has written of those things elsewhere. For what it is, the book is an excellent introduction. If you're looking for something in the area of systematic theology that goes into greater depth, there are other books I would go to. But for a solid introduction to the Reformed faith by one of its key figures, you can't go wrong here.  

Should You Read It?

Yup. No surprise there. I mean, this is Machen.

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