Was Machen a Fundamentalist? Are His Heirs Evangelicals?

Joel Osteen and J. Gresham Machen: Fellow Evangelicals?

Journalists rarely understand religion so it’s no surprise that J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was described as a “Fundamentalist” back in the day. He did oppose liberalism and he did support the initial “fundamentals,” so it was a mistake waiting to happen. But one journalist – H. L. Mencken – knew Machen was no such thing:

The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist [Evangelical] on the order of William Jennings Bryan [Joel Osteen] and the simian faithful of Appalachia… Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl.

In matters of theology and culture, Machen had a different spirit than the Fundamentalists. His involvement with early Fundamentalism was not an inevitable alliance resulting from broad common ground but a temporary alliance of necessity. At a time when Presbyterianism itself was being altered by the forces of liberalism, he was compelled to defend common ground with unlikely allies: “in the presence of a great common foe, I have little time to be attacking my brethren who stand with me in defense of the Word of God. I must continue to support an unpopular cause.” Nonetheless, “Do you suppose that I do not regret my being called, by a term I greatly dislike, a ‘Fundamentalist’ [Evangelical]? Most certainly I do.” Elaborating,

I never call myself a “Fundamentalist.” [Evangelical]. . . But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.”

So Machen also had an un-Fundamentalist historical perspective with a desire to be found within it.

Now flash forward to the early 21st century. Machen’s heirs are now known by outsiders as Evangelicals; sometimes they see themselves that way. But if we are truly his heirs we are of a different spirit. Doctrine and confessions matter to us. We happily situate ourselves in the historical Reformed context. We know what “adiaphora” means, or at least recognize the concept. We never quite feel like we belong in what passes for Evangelical culture. “Evangelical” itself is amorphous and causes collateral damage as we have recently seen.

There’s as much reason for us to be displeased with our label as there was for Machen to be displeased with his. But just as Machen had a compelling reason to suffer being called a Fundamentalist, we have a compelling reason to endure the “Evangelical” label. Clearly that reason is…well, it’s because…give me a minute now…what was the reason? I’m not seeing it; Machen wasn’t a Fundamentalist like Bryan and he wasn’t an Evangelical like Osteen. Neither are his heirs.


Filed under Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism

8 responses to “Was Machen a Fundamentalist? Are His Heirs Evangelicals?

  1. At least “evangelical” is a biblical derivative, “euangelion.” What’s the biblical derivative of “fundamentalist”? But I’m glad the OPC went with O for orthodox instead of E for evangelical or F for fundamentalist.

  2. “Orthodox Presbyterian Church” was actually the second option when the first option was taken away in litigation. Obviously there was no consultation with public relations or advertising types when “orthodox” was chosen. Not that I’m complaining, but it’s pretty obviously a word chosen by academic-types looking for an accurate name rather than an appealing name.

  3. Lily

    To be honest, MM, I was surprised to find that ya’ll called yourselves “evangelicals.” I had always thought the formal name was Calvinists or Reformed. My favorite nickname for Presbyterians is Presbys… it’s easier to write and say. 😉

    • I don’t, Lily, but a lot of OP’s do primarily see themselves as Evangelicals and even more so in the PCA. I would prefer a more NAPARC-oriented self-perception. You can see those churches under the “Other Reformed Churches” link.

  4. Lily


    Is Presby okay for the Presbyterians? If not, I’ll happily drop it and silently curse you every time I have to spell the whole word on Old Life – lol.

    Personally, I don’t call the Reformed evangelicals and cringe when I hear it used as a description. I guess that’s a pet peeve of mine because of what it’s come to mean. I was fortunate to sit in on Sinclair Ferguson’s lectures on Ephesians for several months and he gave me an appreciation for the Reformed identity. Ya’ll ain’t evangelicals!

    If it makes you feel any better, according to Lutheran lore, Lutherans were the first to be called evangelicals because they preached the evangel. Then, as others took the name for themselves, we pretty much became just Lutherans. There are still some who grumble about the loss and try to hang on to the name, but for the most part the confessional Lutherans have let it go since, as you well know, it’s lost it’s meaning. I hope you see the same kinds of changes and I hope people stop hijacking the Reformed name and/or calling themselves Calvinist when they aren’t. Another peeve of mine… I like my Reformed straight up. 😉

    • Let’s see, Presby or silent curse?, Presby or silent curse?… Yup, I’ll take Presby.

      That initial use of “evangelical” made sense. It said something coherent that opened up understanding of a period of time. Today it’s incoherent and clouds understanding.

    • Lily, I noticed how Rosenbladt spoke casually about “the Evangelicals,” you know – them, not us. Knowing what you (I, we) are not is undervalued.

  5. Lily

    MM, you are very right about it being undervalued. I very much hope that changes sooner than later in your camp. I’d love to see the Reformed identity restored. I’m thankful that Rosenbladt is leading the way in a growing number of Lutherans making the distinction between the Reformed and the evangelicals. In older American Lutheran writings and even newer ones, it’s best to keep in mind that anyone not-Lutheran may be lumped into the category “Reformed.” That’s main reason why you see the “Reformed” get beat up so much in Walther’s book: The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel.

    FWIW: Lutherans have been hard-headed about doctrinal identity from the beginning. They clearly separated themselves from other protesting groups in the beginning with the Augsburg Confession (1530) and denounced the Anabaptist groups. If Calvin had been around then, his differences from Lutheranism would most likely have been addressed too. As it is, Calvin came later and the differences with the Reformed were dealt with later in the Book of Concord (1580). Good confessional Lutheran pastors contrast what Lutherans believe versus other groups or heresies as a natural part of teaching wherever it’s appropriate. It’s part of helping us clearly understand what we do or do not believe, teach, and confess. It helps a lot to have a definitive identity in a nation like ours with such a wide variety of churches and sects to deal with in the public square. Unfortunately, we have a lot of CGM types who are undermining Lutheranism and we’re losing our identity in much of our synod. May God bless both our camps in regaining our identities from LINO and RINO groups. 😉

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