Machen and Scholarship

July 26, 2019

by Sandy Finlayson

Machen’s life was remarkably busy. Along with his regular labors at Westminster Theological Seminary and in the church, he accepted many invitations to speak and teach. One such invitation came to him from the Bible League of Great Britain, where he spoke on multiple occasions. First, in 1927, he presented three lectures that were focused on what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Then, in June of 1932, Machen again spoke at the same organization—this talk was subsequently published in a pamphlet titled, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship.” In these lectures, Machen challenged his audience to consider the role that Christian scholarship plays in the growth of the gospel. His message is as relevant today as it was then.

Humility was the first thing evident in Machen’s approach.

By 1933, Machen had a well-established reputation as a major New Testament scholar who frequently tackled controversial topics, such as the authority of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, and the claims of Paul’s theology. He was unafraid to speak plainly to those with whom he disagreed, a fact that is strongly evidenced in Christianity and Liberalism. But this kind of posture required scholastic credibility. So, what was Machen’s approach to scholarship? The addresses he gave at the Bible League provide a number of insights.

In these talks, Machen argued that the spirit of the age encouraged people to be skeptical, to question anything and everything. This phenomenon placed a heavy strain on Christianity, which places a high value on facts, evidence, and truth. No conservative Christian would have argued that truth should not be defended; the question was, how should it be done?

For a man who was renowned as an apologist of Reformed orthodoxy, it is worth noting that his first argument is evangelistic.

Humility was the first thing evident in Machen’s approach. He began by saying, “it is no doubt unfortunate that the person who speaks about this subject should have so limited an experimental acquaintance with the subject, about which he is endeavoring to speak.” Of course, Machen could be accused of false modesty here. But it should be noted that while Machen’s defense of the faith—in both his writings and interactions with others—could be harsh in tone, a genuinely irenic spirit permeated these lectures.

Given Machen’s reputation as a staunch defender of Christian orthodoxy, some might expect him to begin a series of lectures on scholarship by outlining its importance as the key to defending Christianity. Instead, he begins by making the case that scholarship is essential for evangelism. For a man who was renowned as an apologist of Reformed orthodoxy, it is worth noting that his first argument is evangelistic. To be sure, the scholarship he calls for sets forth and defends the good deposit of the faith, but this again is for evangelistic purposes.

In contrast to those who claimed that a religious experience was the central element to Christian belief, Machen argued that the biblical model of evangelism calls for Christians to teach the facts of the gospel so that it may be known and believed. While faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the gospel message, this faith is not a faith apart from knowledge. As Machen said, the “New Testament gives not one bit of comfort to those who separate faith from knowledge, to those who hold the absurd view that a man can trust a person about whom he knows nothing.” Therefore, according to Machen, scholarship is necessary for a correct understanding of the Scriptures so that the truth of the gospel can be embraced. In a world where scholarship can be viewed as an end in itself, this is a helpful reminder.

A scholarly defense of the Christian faith, according to Machen, can “set the world aflame.”

Only after he had emphasized the outward, evangelical importance of scholarship did Machen turn his attention to the apologetic importance of scholarship. At this point in his life, he had already spent significant time defending the faith. In his these lectures, Machen urged his audience to be willing, trained, and ready to engage those who did not accept the truths of Christianity. To do this, he said, they needed to understand Christianity first and foremost. He stated explicitly that it was for this purpose that Westminster Theological Seminary was founded—to teach the doctrines of the faith. Rather than being merely defensive, a scholarly defense of the Christian faith, according to Machen, can “set the world aflame.” True scholarship, Machen said, must be characterized by being “open and above board . . . and always [observing] the Golden Rule.” In other words, treating those with whom we are engaging in the same way we would like to be treated.

Lastly, Machen told his audience that Christian scholarship was essential for the establishment and growth of a healthy church. He was quick to point out that sermons should not be lectures but rather shaped so as to build up the saints in their knowledge of the truth. And what truths should be most emphasized? According to Machen, the “majesty of the transcendent God . . . the guilt and misery of man in his sin [and] the mystery of salvation.”

Machen’s legacy—his defense of the virgin birth and the teachings of Paul, his classic call for defense of the faith in Christianity and Liberalism—is evidence that he took his own advice on scholarship seriously. While his efforts were not always appreciated, his passion for defending biblical truth was always present.

Machen’s lectures on Christian scholarship, written more than eighty-five years ago, still ring true today. As Westminster Theological Seminary trains experts in the Bible, we must heed Machen’s advice that scholarship is to be done so that the lost may be won for Christ, the church built up, and the glory of God revealed—and that all of this be carried out with integrity and humility of spirit.


Excerpted from Christianity and Liberalism: Legacy Edition, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 221–224. Used with permission of the publisher.

Sandy Finlayson

Mr. Finlayson (MTS, Tyndale Seminary) is library director and professor of theological bibliography at WTS.

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