Rereading J. Gresham Machen (& some related musings)


Over the last few months I have been under medical care due to a shoulder injury that called for surgery. Unable to exercise the ways I have done hitherto, I have spent more time in a recliner and/or on a bed than I would have liked. But these days healing post-surgery have not been wasted. I have been able to read more than usual. Better still, I have been able to reread some of my favorite books and writers. 


Last week I reread one of my favorite writers and thinkers, J. Gresham Machen. What follows are two items: 1) my thoughts on Machen’s book The Christian View of Man and 2) a short list of some books I am rereading.  


There are a few writers I return to again and again. J. Gresham Machen is one of my favorites. Why? In short, Machen excelled in getting to the bottom line in his books. He saw to the heart of the matter and then explored it with a keen mind and sharp pen. Okay, you might say, other writers have done that. Some have, I admit. But Machen saw the issues clearly and did not shy away from declaring them clearly. That is one way he distinguished himself. 


Very often I have found academic writers write largely to sound impressive. The writing contains little if anything new or noteworthy, or even particularly insightful. And often it is laden with abstruse academic jargon, as if that denoted something’s truthfulness.


If veracity is the goal, clarity of expression should be more prevalent. In academic writing, however, many books are never read except by committees, and then only to credential a peer.  


With Machen, however, we are spared those irritations. In The Christian View of Man (a book comprised of lectures Machen gave during the 1930s), Machen addressed fundamental issues with regard to the Christian worldview. The title is accurate. Machen contrasts the Christian worldview with the pagan one. He divides the book into twenty short chapters (usually five to ten pages each). And those few pages are packed with clearly defined characteristics regarding how the biblical/Christian worldview explains reality. Following is an example from Machen on how the Bible differs from secular literature:


     The Bible differs from human books on religion not merely in this point or that but in the centre about which everything moves. Human books are prone to find that centre in man; the Bible finds it in God.

     Men do not like that fundamental characteristic of the Bible. The prefer to think of the happiness of the creature as the goal; they wrongly interpret the text ‘God is love’ to mean that God is only love and that God exists for the benefit of His creatures; reversing the Shorter Catechism, they hold that God’s chief end is to glorify man. (50)


See how Machen clarifies the ways in which worldviews matter? If one comes to the Bible assuming it is just another book penned by men, (maybe even with helpful myths regarding the origin of the universe, of man, of sin, of strife, of ethics, etc.) it is still just another book. 


But if one takes the claims of the Bible seriously, and does the work necessary to understand the various types of literature it contains (history, law, poetry, wisdom, gospels, epistles, apocalyptic, et al.), and that it has one central theme uniting the myriad genres, and that there is a unifying storyline reaching its crescendo and fulfillment in Jesus the Christ, that would mean it’s a very different sort of book, would it not? Then it would not be “just another book.” Then there might be good reasons the apostle Paul, imprisoned for declaring the truth of the biblical worldview and Jesus as the Christ, would write to his younger child in the faith, Timothy, instructing him to do one thing above all–bring him the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).


This is what I mean when I write Machen’s book clarifies what’s at stake. Here is another example of how Machen reveals the mutual exclusivity of the pagan worldview vs. the biblical worldview:


At the heart of everything that the Bible says are two great truths, which belong inseparably together—the majesty of the law of God, and sin as an offence against that law. Both these basic truths are denied in modern society, and in the denial of them is found the central characteristic of the age in which we are living.

    Well, what sort of age is that; what sort of age is this in which the law of God is regarded as obsolete and in which there is no consciousness of sin? 

I will tell you. It is an age is in which the disintegration of society is proceeding on a gigantic scale. Look about you, and what do you see? Everywhere the throwing off of restraint, the abandonment of standards, the return to barbarism. (189-90)


See the differences? On the one hand is the biblical worldview, with God and his holy nature revealed in his law. On the other hand is the secular/atheistic view, with man at the center and moral chaos as its distinctive characteristic. 


I was reminded today of how current—how relevant–Machen’s writing still is. Today as I went to the library, I heard the news on my radio. The story was of newborn infants left to die in a “comfort room.”


No, this story was not of babies under Herod in 1st century Palestine. No, it was not of babies under Josef Mengele in 1940s Nazi Germany. No, this was a story from our day, in our world, of Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois in the U.S. Here’s a link to read about it, if you dare:


This is the value of rereading Machen. He clarifies the importance of worldviews. He explores winsomely the truism that ideas have consequences. And he points us to the Scriptures which are able to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). 


I am looking on my desk now at other books I am rereading. They are among my favorites: Dickens’ David Copperfield, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. There are more. And they are worth our time, dear readers, as much is at stake.  







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