J. Gresham Machen and the Purpose of Reformed Theological Education

In 1929 J. Gresham Machen wrote to his mother, “I hate this whole ecclesiastical business, for my part, with all my soul.” The reason for his discouragement was Machen’s imminent departure from Princeton, New Jersey, to nearby Philadelphia. And the reason for his sudden change of address was the founding of a new school of theological education, Westminster Seminary. If Machen had been on his own, he also wrote in the same letter, he would have kept out of the Presbyterian Church’s controversy, “write conservative books and enjoy the plaudits, perhaps, of liberals and conservatives both.” But Machen was haunted by the fear of being disloyal to Christ. “In my inmost soul,” he confessed, “I should know that I had been unfaithful.” According to Machen’s understanding of Christianity, believers could not avoid contending for the faith “just because there are dangers to our souls in that contention.”

When Machen left Princeton to start a new Reformed seminary he suffered a great personal loss. Princeton Seminary had been the place where he had resolved his own doubts about and deepened his understanding of the Christian faith so that he not only embraced fully the teachings of the Westminster Standards but also became one of the great defenders of historic Christianity in the United States. As the oldest Presbyterian theological institution—it was founded in 1812—Princeton also possessed the resources, both financial and academic, to sponsor scholarship of a high caliber, the kind for which Machen was known. He also enjoyed the friendship of a number of his colleagues on Princeton’s faculty, men with whom he had studied and who continued to provide intellectual and theological sustenance. To leave a place that he had called home for twenty-three years and to start all over again at the age of forty-nine was undoubtedly a great sacrifice.

But the conflict with liberalism would not allow Machen to sit on the sidelines. Most importantly, he believed that the situation demanded faithfulness. The Northern Presbyterian Church had compromised its witness precisely because other individuals, both officers and church members, had failed to object to the liberal drift of the denomination, preferring instead the comfort of inactivity. Machen also recognized the practical importance of having an institutional voice for conservatives within the church. To be sure, individuals were called to oppose error in all the assemblies of the church,no matter how much they might fmd themselves in the minority. But a seminary or periodical could speak to the whole denomination in a way that most individuals could not while also creating a network of camaraderie. A seminary was particularly important for training the next generation of ministers who would be courageous in their stand for the gospel. Consequently, the conflict with liberalism eventually drove Machen out of his comfortable surroundings in rural Princeton to a new seminary in downtown Philadelphia that he hoped would be dedicated both to the truth of the Reformed faith and to opposing liberalism within the church.

The Danger of Denominational Seminaries

The history of Princeton Seminary proves the point that denominational agencies face the perennial problem of meddling church bureaucrats. Founded in 1812 as the Presbyterian Church’s first institution of theological training, Princeton remained throughout the nineteenth century the West Point of Calvinist orthodoxy among the United State’s largest seminaries. Even into the 1920s, despite the presence on the faculty of moderate evangelicals, the seminary maintained a militantly Reformed outlook. But as an agency created by the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church, Princeton was also subject to the good will of the denomination at large. As such, the school could easily become a political football, tossed back and forth between shifting majorities of commissioners attending anyone General Assembly. This was precisely what happened from 1925 until 1929 when the opposition Princeton faculty displayed toward liberalism—most visibly in Machen’s incisive critiques—became a problem that denominational officials, concerned about the positive work and image of the church, needed to address.

At the 1926 General Assembly Machen experienced first hand the way that church politics can affect the life of a denominational seminary. He had been nominated to be promoted to the chair of apologetics at Princeton when William Brenton Greene, Jr., longtime member of the seminary’s faculty, retired. In some ways Machen was an odd choice since his expertise was in the language and literature of the New Testament, a subject he loved to teach. But in other respects Machen was a natural selection by Princeton’s board of directors. His first book, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1921) was a masterful and forthright defense of the historical truthfulness and supernaturalism of the New Testament. What is more, his critique of liberalism in Christianity and Liberalism (1923) was also an apology for the historic faith. And his sequel, What is Faith? (1925), attacked the liberal Protestant strategy of defending Christianity by separating the claims of faith from the findings of science. In other words, Machen was well-equipped to teach apologetics.

Inthe entire history of Princeton Seminary a nomination for a faculty post by the board of directors had never been denied. But a different outcome awaited Machen. The committee of the General Assembly assigned to oversee Presbyterian theological education heard reports from Machen’s moderate evangelical colleagues on the faculty who believed his criticism of liberalism was dangerous and extreme, and that he was temperamentally deficient and narrow. It did not help matters either that Machen had voted (by voice) against a resolution adopted by his presbytery in New Jersey in support of the United States’ policy of prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol. His opponents made a great deal of Machen’s attitude toward the Eighteenth Amendment, suggesting that a professor who did not recognize the evils of drunkenness was not fit to teach apologetics and the related field of ethics. (For the record, Machen opposed drunkenness but also opposed the Eighteenth Amendment as an effective or prudential way of stopping it. He was especially concerned about adding to the size and power of the federal government and preferred that the regulation of alcohol be left to the individual states.)

To add insult to injury, not only did the 1926 General Assembly fail to ratify Machen’s nomination for promotion to the chair of apologetics, but it also appointed a committee to investigate the affairs of Princeton Seminary. Some of the commissioners were not keen on witnessing antagonism develop between faculty on the denomination’s premier seminary. So a committee conducted a series of interviews in 1926 and 1927 to determine the cause of controversy at Princeton. The outcome was a report that blamed conservatives, especially Machen, for not trusting their colleagues—even though these colleagues openly promoted policies that Machen thought were destructive to the witness of the church. The report also recommended reorganization of the seminary’s administration. It consolidated the two governing boards (one theological and one financial) into one board, with the conservatives on the old board of directors (theological affairs) going from a majority to a clear minority on the new board. In effect, the denominational hierarchy had silenced the only surviving voice of Calvinist theology within the Northern Presbyterian Church. After two years of protests, the General Assembly of 1929 finally approved the reorganization of Princeton Seminary.



That decision was the impetus for Machen’s choice to found a new seminary, one like Princeton that was thoroughly Reformed in its instruction but also would not shrink from controversy. At the opening of Westminster in the fall of 1929 he outlined the new seminary’s presuppositions: “first, that the Christian religion as it is set forth in the Confession of Faith of the Presbyterian Church is true;. . . second, that the Christian religion welcomes and is capable of scholarly defense; and. . . third, that the Christian religion should be proclaimed without fear or favor, and in clear opposition to whatever opposes it, whether within or without the church, as the only way of salvation for lost mankind.” This adversarial posture meant that Westminster would be an independent seminary, free of the designs of church executives who were more often concerned with the denomination’s corporate image than with the ministry of Word and sacrament in local congregations.

A Very Practical Theology

But the new seminary that Machen led in founding was more than simply a political statement in the context of the Presbyterian controversy. As he also made clear in his address at Westminster’s opening, the seminary was dedicated to training ministers of the gospel. This task required hard academic work that started with knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and culminated in the study of systematic theology, “the very center of the Seminary’s course.”

This educational mission made Westminster an anomaly in the context of American theological education. It stood between liberalism and fundamentalism, combining the best of both. With fundamentalists, Machen opposed liberalism and knew it was corrupting seminary education, thus the necessity of founding a new school. But this did not mean that seminary education was useless or that the graduates of fundamentalist Bible institutes and colleges were adequate for ordained ministry. With liberals, Machen held a high view of the minister as a man of learning and believed that theological training should be academically rigorous. But this did not mean that a good education, leadership in community affairs, or promoting certain social reforms were worthwhile criteria for evaluating a minister. Machen wantedWestminster to be a place that would train pastors who possessed a good education and so could command the respect of church members and neighbors. He also wanted graduates, however, to be prepared to stand up for the cause of Christ even if that stand appeared to violate accepted standards of good taste.

Consequently, Westminster, like most Reformed seminaries, had the reputation for being overly intellectual, for making Christianity more a matter of the head and not of the heart. Similarly, the new seminary was criticized for not providing a practical theological education that equipped students with the skill necessary to be a pastor. But in Machen’s mind nothing could have been more practical than a course of instruction that prepared students to preach and interpret the Word of God from a Reformed perspective. He believed the task of the church in modern times was the same as it always had been, namely, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Equipping students who would be able and willing to care for the souls of God’s elect through the preaching of the Word, administering the sacraments, and through discipline was the most relevant form of theological education. As he told Westminster’s graduating class of 1931, “Amid all the noise and shouting and power and machinery” of modern society were “hungry hearts—hearts thirsting for the living water, hearts hungry for the bread that is bread indeed.” Only “ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ” could satisfy this hunger.

Machen’s conclusion to this address underscored dramatically the close connection between the new seminary’s arduous course of study and the weighty task of the ministry.

Remember this, at least—the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s Word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you, alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God.

This was the reason for Westminster’s demanding education. It was not because Americans valued good education. Rather, it was because of the tremendous responsibility that ministers of the Word possessed, a responsibility that involved faithfulness not just in the study and pulpit, but also in the courts and assemblies of the church.

D. G. Hart is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the author of Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (1995).