Saturday à Machen: On the Causes for the Rejection of Christianity

Lately I have been reading various books on apologetics: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God and Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion?, both of which are excellent, and more recently David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions and Mel Lawrenz’s I Want to Believe. A common complaint in works of this kind is that the “fashionable enemies” of Christianity fail to engage their chosen foe with any degree of seriousness, and in the end, they reject the Christian faith not for what it is, but for that they think it is. Machen agrees, of course; he bemoans the loss of real education and cultural refinement (which loss is often identified as the reason behind this sorry state of affairs) more loudly than any contemporary apologist. But, typically, Machen goes a step further: at the root of such ignorance of Christianity in the culture at large is the scandalous ignorance of Christianity in the church. It is this call for us Christians to own up to our own neglect in this connection that is not very often articulated, and much less heeded.

J. Gresham Machen“The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is. An outstanding fact of recent Church history is the appalling growth of ignorance in the Church. Various causes, no doubt, can be assigned for this lamentable development. The development is due partly to the general decline of educationat least so far as literature and history are concerned. The schools of the present day are being ruined by the absurd notion that education should follow the line of least resistance, and that something can be “drawn out” of the mind before anything is put in. They are also being ruined by an exaggerated emphasis on methodology at the expense of content and on what is materially useful at the expense of the high spiritual heritage of mankind. These lamentable tendencies, moreover, are in danger of being made permanent through the sinister extension of state control. But something more than the general decline in education is needed to account for the special growth of ignorance in the Church. The growth of ignorance in the Church is the logical and inevitable result of the false notion that Christianity is a life and not also a doctrine; if Christianity is not a doctrine then of course teaching is not necessary to Christianity. But whatever be the causes for the growth of ignorance in the Church, the evil must be remedied. It must be remedied primarily by the renewal of Christian education in the family, but also by the use of whatever other educational agencies the Church can find. Christian education is the chief business of the hour for every earnest Christian man. Christianity cannot subsist unless men know what Christianity is; and the fair and logical thing is to learn what Christianity is, not from its opponents, but from those who themselves are Christians. That method of procedure would be the only fair method in the case of any movement. But it is still more in place in the case of a movement such as Christianity which has laid the foundation of all that we hold most dear. Men have abundant opportunity today to learn what can be said against Christianity, and it is only fair that they should also learn something about the thing that is being attacked.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 176-177.)

8 responses to “Saturday à Machen: On the Causes for the Rejection of Christianity

  1. Many do believe Christianity to be merely a life style, marked by “good works,” leaving the uneducated easy prey for the “Oprahesque” version of Christianity and wondering why it is impossible for one to come to God by any means outside of Christ. At the very least we should know what Christ did and why!


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  3. Boy, would he pop a gasket at seeing our situation today!

    Are we even allowed to say things like “the high spiritual heritage of mankind” and “the sinister extension of state control”?

    I don’t think we are, in Berkeley.


  4. Nancy> Yes indeed — and the operative word here is Machen’s “also” (and your “merely”). Christianity is not only a way of life, but also a “doctrine,” to borrow Machen’s word; to suggest anything to the contrary, as he clearly saw, merely strips the Christian proclamation of its power.

    Kevin> Happily, Machen doesn’t care if he’s allowed to say such things or not! :-)

    I am convinced that the reason why Machen died at a relatively early age (he was only 55 when he died on January 1, 1937) is that he had no gaskets left to blow, and God, knowing what lay ahead, mercifully took him.


  5. It seems to me that Machen’s student, the late Francis August Schaeffer IV, carried the same torch and brought it to many new areas of cultural thought, and quite rigorously too. In my mind he stands out even more than Machen for that same cause but also with tears in his eyes as he preached to that lost generation from his own living room at L’Abri.


  6. Matthew> I appreciate your assessment of Schaeffer, but I cannot follow you there. I certainly do not think that Schaeffer stands out more than Machen (except in influence among American Evangelicals, which to me is a matter of great regret), and the notion that Schaeffer was Machen’s brilliant disciple that took his teacher’s thought to new frontiers in cultural thought seems odd to me at best. After all, Schaeffer didn’t follow MacRae and McIntire to Faith Seminary and the Bible Presbyterian Church for no reason, and I think that the evidence of his intellectual alignment with teetotaling, premillenial, true fundamentalism is writ large in his works. That Machen was an early influence on Schaeffer is undeniable; but, to my mind, it is equally undeniable that he departed from Machen in fundamental ways (no pun intended), and that , in the end, his work ends up being something else entirely. And, as you might surmise from my comments, I think this was a fatal mistake. This is particularly evident in the matter of Evangelical involvement in politics and the broader “culture wars.”

    Well, at least you can take comfort in this: my views on Schaeffer and his work are nowhere near as grim as those of his son! ;-)


  7. Thank-you for those thoughts Esteban. I might not agree on some of your assessments of him but I see what you mean in that he didn’t follow others to Faith Seminary. Regarding Franky, “Yes” he is different than his father, isn’t he, but there you go. Thank-you for all the work that goes into your blog posts. I keep on top of them and you might see me comment again but I have nothing to say but just enjoy the reading. :)


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