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Defending the Faith: J.Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America [Hardcover]

Professor D. G. Hart

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1 Mar 1994

"One of the great achievements of Hart's biography is his contextualization of Machen, in which these anomalies resolve themselves into a coherent if not always attractive personality... What makes Hart's achievement remarkable is the skill with which he has synthesized these interpretive pieces into a readable and compelling narrative."--Allen C. Guelzo, Christianity Today.

"Hart's portrait of Machen provides a novel perspective that merits the attention of those interested not just in fundamentalism but in the place of faith in modern America."--Bradley J. Longfield, Christian Century.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press (1 Mar 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080184701X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801847011
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.5 x 1.9 cm

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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Informative Look at Crucial 20th Century Figure 5 Jan 2004
By J. F Foster - Published on Amazon.com
This is a very good book by Hart. Both admirers and detractors of J. Gresham Machen will likely have their views of him challenged by this biography in healthy ways.
Hart's most provocative premise in this book is his argument that Machen actually had quite a bit in common with skeptics like H.L. Mencken at least so far as their mutual criticisms of modernist theology and the mainline churches that became infected with it. Machen was the famous 'fundamentalist' who did battle against the encroachment of modernistic philosophy and theology in the mainline Presbyterian denomination, as well as at Princeton Seminary - battles that Machen ultimately lost. But Hart goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Machen was no typical fundamentalist, but was in fact one of the few evangelicals who commanded a high degree of respect within secular academic circles for his astute and intellectually rigorous critiques of liberal theology as well as his strong defenses of orthodox Christianity. Hart further highlights Machen's clear differences with the fundamentalists of his time on a number of issues. These differences were defined mainly by Machen's loyalty to presbyterianism and the Westminster Confession, both of which were not endorsed within fundamentalist circles of the time.
Hart's examination of Machen's social conscience as well as his attitudes toward matters of the state are very illuminating and are likely to cause many readers who thought they knew Machen well to do some double-takes. Machen strongly resisted both fundamentalist and liberal tendencies to inject the church into politics and matters of state policy, though the fundamentalists and liberals clearly disagree (and continue to disagree even now) about the role of church in political and social activism. Machen rejected both. Hart draws from many personal correspondences that Machen wrote to his mother and others to paint a picture of a very complex man who held views that were very distinctive.
I was very surprised and impressed that Hart, a teacher at the seminary Machen founded, and an elder in the denomination that Machen started, gives us a very balanced and sober look at Machen. This is not a book that fawns over Machen as might be expected by an author of Hart's theological and ecclesiastical pedigree. Instead we have here a thoughtful examination of a critical Protestant figure of the 20th century that puts forth an extensively documented look at Machen and the times in which he lived. A very good book.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional 1 Jun 2005
By David A. Booth - Published on Amazon.com
D.G. Hart has proven himself to be one of the finest contemporary historians who focuses on American evangelicalism. For fans of Machen or contemporary North American Presbyterians - this book is absolutely a must read.

What distinguishes this work from other biographies of Machen is Hart's tremendous ability to bring out the historical situation and cultural currents that swirled around the pivotal events in Machen's life. Hart provides us with a richly textured vision of the tensions within North American protestantism during the first half of the twentieth century.

The book is ably written in clear prose. Even though the issues and arguments surrounding Machen's work are often quite complicated, this book is as much of a "page turner" as any work of such meticulous scholarship can be.

Hart's theological astuteness is also indirectly evident throughout the book. This allows him to portray individuals on all sides of the various issues as full and interesting individuals rather than as cardboard characters. We can easily understand why many would find Machen's opponents to be attractive figures, even though one suspects that Hart would often have sided with Machen.

Highly recommended.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Time Was When Religion Was Serious And Intellectual 28 Feb 2005
By Edmund Lau Kok Ming - Published on Amazon.com
J. Gresham Machen is one of the most maligned men in Christian history. Most accounts I know present him as a bad-attitude, polemical and intolerant religious bigot. Here, D.G. Hart presents the man in a very sober and objective manner - correctly placing him within the socio-political-religious background of his day. Thus, we come to a much better appreciation of the man and his views. Additional insights into his family life and one-time-possible-romance adds colour to the typically sombre portrayal of the man. In fact, sombre isn't the word that I would ever use to describe Machen after reading this book. Machen was known chiefly among his students as one of warmest and most humourous lecturers at Princeton while at the same time truly uncompromising in his belief that the Christian faith owes its origin to God Almighty in Christ Jesus. Finally, I think the greatest contribution of the book is that Hart here presents a Machen who was as much opposed to "brain-dead" Fundamentalist who preached "easy-believism" as he was the Modernists/Liberals. With this book, we finally get a Machen who was a Churchman, Scholar and "Mr-Valiant-For-Truth". Oh, for more like him in our decadent times.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Luther of the 20th Century 25 Nov 2008
By B. C. Richards - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent account of one of the most significant Christian leaders of the 20th century. It is not a biography, because Hart restricts the account to the events and issues surrounding Machen's involvement in the Presbyterian controversy over confessionalism and modernism that led up to the reorganization of Princeton Seminary and the founding of Westminster Seminary in 1929, and the subsequent founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1937. However, Hart does give a lot of attention to the cultural and ideological background that informed Machen's writings and actions during that tumultuous period, and so I did finish the book with a much deeper picture of who Machen was.

Hart examines Machen's family background and especially the context of Southern Presbyterianism on his mother's side of the family. He examines Machen's paradoxical position in the debate surrounding Biblical criticism, which was that while he was squarely in the tradition of confessional orthodox Presbyterianism as opposed to the higher critical schools of theology, he was still eager to exploit all the methods and results that the latest scholarship could provide. In his academic position he wrote scholarly books that defended such doctrines as the virgin birth of Christ, but were nonetheless highly regarded and favorably reviewed by his modernist academic peers because of the high level of scholarship that he was able to bring to bear. For understanding this aspect of his thought, Hart discusses his educational background, and especially his experience studying in Germany and his personal crisis leading up to his accepting a position at Princeton Seminary. Hart also spends a considerable part of the book examining Machen's relationship to the rest of the fundamentalists, especially on confessionalism, evolution, and the role of the Church in society, where Machen diverged from most of his fundamentalist contemporaries.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the discussion of Machen's political views and how he saw parallels between the events surrounding the crisis in the Presbyterian church and the developments in American political life. Machen was a full-fledged libertarian politically: he opposed Prohibition (a deeply unpopular view among both fundamentalists and theological liberals at the time); he opposed the creation of a Federal Department of Education, and he also opposed the rise of the welfare state during the New Deal and the Great Depression, which he (rightly) saw as coercive wealth redistribution by the state and a denial of private property. In all these things, he opposed and feared the expansion of state power as the greatest political threat the church faced. He was also aware that a parallel centralization of power and bureaucratization of the church hierarchy was a major part of the driving force behind his opponents in the mainline Presbyterian church. Many are aware of the theological issues that Machen stood for. I don't believe that nearly so many are aware of his social and political views, which were intricately connected to his theological views and especially his view of the role of the church. It is a shame that the Reformed Church seems to have ignored that aspect of Machen's thought.

I highly recommend reading this book to get a better understanding of the issues and ideas that were influential for Machen. It is scholarly but accessible, and it also has an extensive bibliography at the end. I would recommend reading Longfield's book "The Presbyterian Controversy" first, because it gives a broad overview of the period for context.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Job 18 Oct 2005
By Justus D. Doenecke - Published on Amazon.com
We have long needed a superior biography of Protestantism's leading conservative theologian of the first half of the 20th century. Hart has written an excellent work, in the process showing that he is as much at home in general American intellectual history as in the more narrow field of church history. The observations are perceptive, the prose clear. After mastering Hart's work no will be able to talk about "fundamentalism" in the same way again. Justus D. Doenecke, Emeritus Professor of History, New College of Florida
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