This year marks the 100th anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s magnus opus, Christianity and Liberalism, first published in February 1923. Born in 1881, Machen studied classics at Johns Hopkins University and theology and philosophy at Princeton University before serving as a professor at Princeton Seminary. He went on to found two enduring institutions: Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.
Christianity and Liberalism (1923)
Against a rising tide of modernism in the early 20th century, Machen published Christianity and Liberalism. To be clear, by “liberalism,” Machen meant to address theological liberalism, which he described as “a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology” (C&L, p. 2). Modernists like Pearl Buck denied the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, along with fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, including the doctrines of Christ, redemption through His death and resurrection, Creation, and Christ’s miracles.
Machen observed that a serious deterioration of education was coinciding with the rise of modernism. Modernists loved appealing to scientific discoveries and progress. Control of children’s education was taken away from parents and placed “under the control of psychological experts, themselves without the slightest acquaintance with the higher realms of human life, who proceed to prevent any such acquaintance being gained by those who come under their care” (C&L, p. 11). If Christian education is truly to lay claim to the name “Christian,” it must be firmly committed to the teachings of the Christian faith.
When it came to education policy, Machen was far ahead of his time. As policy threatened (and has since succeeded in many ways) to standardize and centralize education, Machen argued that the parental prerogative to govern their children’s education must be defended. “Place the lives of children in their formative years, despite the convictions of their parents, under the intimate control of experts appointed by the state, force them then to attend schools where the higher aspirations of humanity are crushed out, and where the mind is filled with the materialism of the day,” Machen lamented, “and it is difficult to see how even the remnants of liberty can subsist” (C&L, pp. 13-14).
“The Necessity of the Christian School” (1933)
Ten years after the publication of Christianity and Liberalism, Machen delivered a lecture “The Necessity of the Christian School” at an educational convention of the National Union of Christian Schools. In this lecture, Machen argued that the Christian school was necessary, not only as a bulwark of liberty against tyranny, but also for the propagation of the Christian faith to the next generation.
When Machen penned Christianity and Liberalism, he feared that a monopolistic public school system and compulsory education laws would create “the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised” (C&L, p. 13). The Christian school provided a necessary defense of liberty through competition with public schools because “it contends for the right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with the dictates of their conscience and not in the manner prescribed by the State” (“NCS”).
To be clear, it would be wrong to claim that Machen was opposed to public education. He argued that a public school system “is indeed of enormous benefit to the race” (C&L, p. 13) and expressed his “desire to pay the warmest possible tribute to many thousands of conscientious men and women who are teachers in the public schools” (“NCS”).
But public education cannot adequately train up children in a biblical worldview. Even if public schools provided character education, for example, it would “prove to be character-destruction” because it would be based on human experience, and thus “radically opposed to the Christian doctrine of sin” (“NCS”). Even if the Bible were to be read in public schools (a bygone time, to be sure), it could not be separated from “propaganda about the Bible” (“NCS”). “The truth is that a garbled Bible may be a falsified Bible,” he concluded, “and when any hope is held out to lost humanity from the so-called ethical portions of the Bible apart from its great redemptive core, then the Bible is represented as saying the direct opposite of what it really says” (“NCS”).
Thus, the Christian school is necessary, not merely because it serves as a defense of liberty, but because it promotes the Christian faith to the next generation. Machen reasoned, “True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life—those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian school” (“NCS”).
The Heroic Christian School Teacher
The Christian school stands as a fortified defense—against liberalism through its commitment to the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, against tyranny through its contention that parents have the right to raise their children, and against atheism through its cultivation of a biblical worldview in the coming generation. If this is true, then the work of a Christian school teacher is nothing less than heroic. Machen concludes his address with a rapturous tribute:
“You are set like a city on a hill; and may that city never be hid! May the example of your Christian schools be heeded everywhere in the Church! Above all, may our God richly bless you, and of His grace give you a reward with which all the rewards of earth are not for one moment worthy to be compared!”
As Christian school teachers everywhere prepare for the start of another school year, may you be encouraged by the great work you are doing and the awesome task which God has laid before you.
Machen, J. G. 1923. Christianity and liberalism. New edition (2009). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Machen, J. G. 1933. “The necessity of the Christian school.” Chicago, IL: Educational Convention of the National Union of Christian Schools. https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/necessity.html.
About the Author
Matthew Lee, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at ACSI, co-author of Future Ready (ACSI/Cardus, 2022), and co-editor of Religious Liberty and Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). He previously served as a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the denomination Machen founded.