Machen the Magnanimous?

The popular heretic John Piper wrote a book entitled, “Contending for Our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen” (This book was published in 2006). The following are some excerpts taken from a free PDF version of the book that is offered at Piper’s website.

“John Gresham Machen was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 28, 1881 … The family hobnobbed with the cultural elite in Baltimore, had a vacation home in Seal Harbor, Maine, and traveled often. Machen sailed to Europe and back some six times. In a word Machen was a well-to-do southern aristocrat.” (p. 120)


“When he was twenty-one he inherited $50,000 from his maternal grandfather. To put that in perspective, his first annual salary at Princeton was $2,000. So he inherited twenty-five times an annual salary when he was twenty-one, and when he was thirty-five he inherited a similar amount when his father died. When he died, his assets totaled $250,000 dollars.15 This explains why we can read time after time of Machen’s funding ministry and publishing efforts with his own money.” (p. 122)

15 Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, p. 393

Machen publishing his heretical views with his own money.  A lot of money.

“As with most of us, therefore, the level at which Machen engaged the culture of his day was being powerfully shaped by the level of his upbringing and education. He went to Johns Hopkins University and majored in Classics and then, with the urging of his pastor, went on to Princeton Seminary, even though he was not at all sure he would enter the ministry. And after seminary he spent a year in Germany studying New Testament with well-known German scholars.”(p. 122)

Piper continues:

“Here [in Germany–CD] Machen met Modernism face to face and was shaken profoundly in his faith. Almost overpowering was the influence of Wilhelm Herrmann, the systematic theologian at Marburg, who represented the best of what Machen would later oppose with all his might. He was not casting stones over a wall when he criticized Modernism. Machen had been over the wall and was almost lured into the camp. In 1905 he wrote home:

‘The first time that I heard Herrmann may almost be described as an epoch in my life. Such an overpowering personality I think I almost never before encountered — overpowering in the sincerity of religious devotion. . . . My chief feeling with reference to him is already one of the deepest reverence. . . . I have been thrown all into confusion by what he says — so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known in myself during the past few years. . . . Herrmann affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type. He is a Christian not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is (practically, if anything even more truly than theoretically) unbounded. . . . Herrmann represents the dominant Ritschlian school . . . . Herrmann has shown me something of the religious power which lies back of this great movement, which is now making a fight even for the control of the Northern Presbyterian Church in America. In New England those who do not believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus are, generally speaking, religiously dead; in Germany, Herrmann has taught me that is by no means the case. He believes that Jesus is the one thing in all the world that inspires absolute confidence, and an absolute, joyful subjection; that through Jesus we come into communion with the living God and are made free from the world. It is the faith that is a real experience, a real revelation of God that saves us, not the faith that consists in accepting as true a lot of dogmas on the basis merely of what others have said. . . . Das Verkehr des Christen mit Gott is one of the greatest religious books I ever read. Perhaps Herrmann does not give the whole truth — I certainly hope he does not — at any rate he has gotten hold of something that has been sadly neglected in the church and in the orthodox theology. Perhaps he is something like the devout mystics of the middle ages — they were one-sided enough, but they raised a mighty protest against the coldness and deadness of the church and were forerunners of the Reformation.’ 16

16 Ibid., pp. 106-108. This quote is a composite of excerpts from letters that year to his parents and brother.

The Lasting Impact of His German Experience

What Machen seemed to find in Herrmann was what he had apparently not found either in his home or at Princeton, namely, passion and joy and exuberant trust in Christ. At Princeton he had found solid learning and civil, formal, careful, aristocratic presentations of a fairly cool Christianity. He eventually came to see that the truth of the Princeton theology was a firmer ground for life and joy. But at this stage the spirit in which it came, compared to Herrmann’s spirit, almost cost evangelicalism one of its greatest defenders. There is a great lesson here for teachers and preachers: to hold young minds there should be both intellectual credibility and joyful, passionate zeal for Christ.

This experience in Germany made a lasting impact on the way Machen carried on controversy. He said again and again that he had respect and sympathy for the modernist who could honestly no longer believe in the bodily resurrection or the virgin birth or the second coming, but it was the rejection of these things without openly admitting one’s unbelief that angered Machen.” (pp. 122-125)

In Romans 10:1-4 Paul judges unregenerate those having a zeal to God that is not according to knowledge. Machen judges regenerate for the very same reason that Paul judges unregenerate. Both Herrmann and Machen judge unrighteous judgment. In their self-righteous scheme, ignorant zeal trumps essential gospel doctrine.

I think (surmise) it was Machen’s sympathy and affection for the ignorant, passionate, ardent, and zealous God-hater Wilhelm Herrmann that compelled him to make room for the possibility that other similarly-minded heretics were true Christians:

“The greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core. We are not dealing here with delicate personal questions; we are not presuming to say whether such and such an individual man is a Christian or not. God only can decide such questions; no man can say with assurance whether the attitude of certain individual ‘liberals’ toward Christ is saving faith or not. But one thing is perfectly plain — whether or no liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity” (Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 159-160).

In 2 John 9-11, John warns against the kind of spiritual fornication committed by Machen with Herrmann. Here again is Machen showing the reader which “gospel” he believes to be the power of God to salvation (Galatians 1:8-9):

“Herrmann affirms very little of that which I have been accustomed to regard as essential to Christianity; yet there is no doubt in my mind but that he is a Christian, and a Christian of a peculiarly earnest type” (Machen).