In 1926, J. Gresham Machen received nomination to the chair of apologetics and ethics from the Board of Directors at the Princeton Theological Seminary. In the normal course of things, this nomination would have been routinely approved by the General Assembly as it met later that same year. Machen, however, had previously opposed in 1920 the Philadelphia Plan for merging nineteen Presbyterian denominations into a single federated body. He had published two books, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (1920) and Christianity and Liberalism (1923), both of which presented strong arguments against modernism and unbelief. In short, Machen had become a very public voice raised against modernism, and so he had enemies. A campaign of opposition was raised against his nomination and the matter remained unresolved up until the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the departure of Dr. Machen and other faithful professors.
In this brief series, we are presenting a few of the articles which appeared in defense of Dr. Machen during this troubling time.
Dr. Machen as Seen by Ex-President Patton.
[excerpted from THE PRESBYTERIAN 96.48 (2 December 1926): 13.]
There are few, if any, names that carry greater weight in Presbyterian circles than that of Dr. Francis Landey Patton, formerly president of Princeton University and Princeton Seminary, now living in retirement in Bermuda. What he thinks of Dr. Machen’s fitness for the chair to which the Board of Directors of Princeton Seminary has elected him is made clear by the following letter received from Dr. Patton by Dr. William L. McEwan, of Pittsburgh, Pa., which we are privileged to print. Some may be disposed to look askance at Dr. Patton’s reference to “an amicable settlement through a reasonable compromise,” but those who know Dr. Patton will not suppose that he would regard any compromise as reasonable that was gained at the cost of loyalty to truth. The fact that some have alleged that Dr. Patton is not in full sympathy with the supporters of Dr. Machen gives added significance to this letter. We quote it in full :
“My dear Dr. McEwan:
“I hope that, without seeming to be meddlesome, I may, as a director of the Seminary, say to a fellow director, what I would gladly say to the Board if it were possible for me to be present at their approaching meeting.
“I purposely avoid any reference to the painful controversy which exists within the Faculty, as being improper, in view of the circumstances under which the Board will meet, and as out of place because of my ignorance of all the facts which enter into the difficulties referred to. But I cherish the hope that those difficulties may find an amicable settlement through a reasonable compromise. I think that I may be pardoned for having an interest in the fortunes of the Stuart Chair — sentimental as perhaps you may regard it — and in the fitness of Dr. Machen, who has been called to fill it as the successor of Dr. Greene. I understand that some have called in question his fitness, but on that subject I have not the slightest doubt.
“In considering this matter, it must be remembered that what a man can make of himself depends largely on what God has already made him, and that Dr. Machen began life with an endowment of a very unusual nature. Besides that, he has benefited by superior educational advantages. He is an assiduous student, has a wide range of information and a commanding style. He is learned, logical and eloquent. He is well-trained in all the departments of theological study, and is an enthusiastic defender of the Confessional system of the Reformed Churches.
“The department of Apologetics covers a very wide area ; and it can hardly be expected that one who is about to enter upon the duties of a chair in this department should be as completely equipped for them, as a man of equal ability may be, who has already devoted some of the best years of his life to the department. The most that can be reasonably asked is, that a candidate for the chair shall have the qualities of mind that fit him for the work, a broad foundational preparation for it, an intellectual bent that will enable him to enter upon it with enthusiasm, and that these qualifications be revealed in some creditable work already accomplished. These conditions, I do not hesitate to say, Dr. Machen satisfies in a pre-eminent degree. They are manifest in his books, entitled Liberal Christianity and What is Faith? But Dr. Machen has given still more specific proof of his eminent fitness for the vacant chair.
“In order to defend Christianity, one must have a definite conviction in respect to what Christianity is ; and no man, I think, is better acquainted than Dr. Machen is, with the current forms of minimizing theology, which, in some respects, are the most insidious foes of Christian faith, inasmuch as the gist of their teaching seems to be that the fruits of Christianity will continue to flourish after the axe has been laid at the roots of the true that bears them.
“But Dr. Machen has done specific work of a very important kind in apologetic theology. Christianity exposes a large frontier to the attacks of the enemy, and its defenders are called upon to discuss the relations of science and Scripture, to say whether philosophy will give us leave to believe in the Living God, and to meet the challenges of history, when we are told that Christianity is only a developed Paganism.
“Some of our apologetes may be better versed in science and others more widely read in philosophy, but in the department which just now challenges the special attention of the apologete, Dr. Machen is a master. The evidence of this is found in his book on The Religion of Paul ; and I confidently say that any seminary in any part of the world might well be proud to claim the man who wrote that book as a member of its faculty ; for whether measured in the terms of learning or logic, it is unquestionably a great book.
“If I call this book the author’s ‘prentice pillar’ in the House of God, I suppose that some will say I pay it a doubtful compliment. But, on the contrary, in so doing I praise it for its strength and beauty and more than that I see that house adorned with still greater and more beautiful examples of Dr. Machen’s craftsmanship if in the providence of God, he shall live long enough to fulfill the promise of his youth.
Very sincerely yours,
Francis L. Patton
Bermuda, October 1, 1926.
[Commenting on Patton’s closing note, it should immediately come to mind that man knows not his time, since Dr. Machen died just over ten years later, on 1 January 1937.]