If someone had penned an obituary for Jesus the day after his death, it might have very well concluded with the same words: “He failed.” But such a memorial would betray an ignorance of the God of resurrection. Often what appears to be failure and defeat is, in fact, success and victory. What was Machen’s success? With clarity and consistency he drew a line in the sand. He sharpened the creedal edge that had long been blunted by compromise. You either stand on the side of biblical Christianity or you don’t.
Appearing in the Baltimore Evening Sun on January 18, 1937 was an obituary for J Gresham Machen written by cultural critic and essayist HL Mencken. It’s an interesting tribute from an unlikely source. Machen’s life was a heroic struggle against the influence of Modernism within the mainline Presbyterian church, and a tireless attempt to contend against fake Christianity that revised and rejected the Bible. For his part, Mencken wasn’t a Christian and believed that the doctrine Machen espoused was a horror little removed from cannibalism. Yet, Mencken highly praised Machen as more clear, cogent, and consistent than his adversaries. The closing words of the epitaph simply read: “He failed — but he was undoubtedly right.”
In one sense, that assessment is understandable. If we measure success in human terms then Machen did appear to fail. His compelling and intellectual defense of the orthodox faith — summarized so well in his book Christianity and Liberalism — didn’t persuade most of his contemporaries. The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and Princeton Seminary theologically collapsed forfeiting biblical Christianity, and America’s other mainline denominations followed a similar course.
The inability to stem the tide is still felt today. One hundred years after first being published, World Magazine named Christianity and Liberalism as their 2023 book of the year. Why? They explained: “If you want to explore the background of the moral collapse in churches today over same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues, this book is a good place to start. That collapse follows logically from the more important and foundational fight of 100 years ago.”