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Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America Paperback – March 1, 2003
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"Defending the Faith reads with the passion and pathos of historical reconstruction at its best. Hart is a gifted writer, and his subject is a fascinating individual." --R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
"A readable and compelling narrative. . . . Machen remains worth hearing, and Hart succeeds admirably at making him audible." --Allen C. Guelzo
"A challenging, informative, and nonprejudicial look at the most highbrow of the fundamentalists, J. Gresham Machen. . . . For a scholarly book that will provide edifying challenges and enough food for thought to support a hibernation, read Defending the Faith." --Thomas J. Nettles
About the Author
D. G. Hart studied American history at the Johns Hopkins University and has served as Director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College and Academic Dean and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary in California. He is currently Visiting Professor of History at Hillsdale College.
His books include Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism (1994); The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (2002); With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (2002); John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (2005); and A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (2006).
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The only disappointing aspect of the book was the lack of information about the founding of Westminster and the OPC. The forces leading up Machen’s founding of each are chronicled much better than the founding of each and their early days. Granted that Machen died very early in the life of each institution, but I had expected more detail about Machen’s decision making process and consultation with others in the logistics of starting these institutions.
One of the most fascinating aspect of this bio was the way in which the forces of theological liberalism and evangelical romanticism & revivalism to which Machen stood opposed are still active today. The forces at work in destroying the PCUSA today were active and present in Machen’s day. Most notable is the role of evangelical moderates in marginalizing Machen. Conservative Protestants may often think that Machen’s undoing was theological liberalism in the Presbyterian Church. However, the real force that drove him out was evangelical moderates who were willing to overlook theological liberalism and false teaching in order to preserve the organizational unity of the church. On paper, these evangelical moderates had the same theology as Machen, but they viewed Machen’s stand for the historic truths of the Christian faith as “unloving” or “unchristian” or “aggressive.” Machen was vaguely labeled as unsocial and unwilling to work with others. He was branded as “divisive” for insisting that the denomination take a stand against those who deny the church’s stated doctrine.
It is amazing how these same forces are at work today, not only in the PCUSA, but in evangelicalism more broadly. Modern readers who love biblical truth can learn from this book that they need to be wary of evangelical moderates who may seem like they are on the same page, but in reality will not stand with you when you stand up for the truth. This lesson from Machen’s life is eerily relevant for today.
Hart examines Machen's family background and especially the context of Southern Presbyterianism on his mother's side of the family. He examines Machen's paradoxical position in the debate surrounding Biblical criticism, which was that while he was squarely in the tradition of confessional orthodox Presbyterianism as opposed to the higher critical schools of theology, he was still eager to exploit all the methods and results that the latest scholarship could provide. In his academic position he wrote scholarly books that defended such doctrines as the virgin birth of Christ, but were nonetheless highly regarded and favorably reviewed by his modernist academic peers because of the high level of scholarship that he was able to bring to bear. For understanding this aspect of his thought, Hart discusses his educational background, and especially his experience studying in Germany and his personal crisis leading up to his accepting a position at Princeton Seminary. Hart also spends a considerable part of the book examining Machen's relationship to the rest of the fundamentalists, especially on confessionalism, evolution, and the role of the Church in society, where Machen diverged from most of his fundamentalist contemporaries.
The most interesting part of the book for me was the discussion of Machen's political views and how he saw parallels between the events surrounding the crisis in the Presbyterian church and the developments in American political life. Machen was a full-fledged libertarian politically: he opposed Prohibition (a deeply unpopular view among both fundamentalists and theological liberals at the time); he opposed the creation of a Federal Department of Education, and he also opposed the rise of the welfare state during the New Deal and the Great Depression, which he (rightly) saw as coercive wealth redistribution by the state and a denial of private property. In all these things, he opposed and feared the expansion of state power as the greatest political threat the church faced. He was also aware that a parallel centralization of power and bureaucratization of the church hierarchy was a major part of the driving force behind his opponents in the mainline Presbyterian church. Many are aware of the theological issues that Machen stood for. I don't believe that nearly so many are aware of his social and political views, which were intricately connected to his theological views and especially his view of the role of the church. It is a shame that the Reformed Church seems to have ignored that aspect of Machen's thought.
I highly recommend reading this book to get a better understanding of the issues and ideas that were influential for Machen. It is scholarly but accessible, and it also has an extensive bibliography at the end. I would recommend reading Longfield's book "The Presbyterian Controversy" first, because it gives a broad overview of the period for context.