Machen on faith and knowledge

This morning I was reading J. Gresham Machen’s book, What Is Faith? (1925), and I found his remarks on our need to know in order to believe especially relevant to a recurring discussion on this blog.  The fact that Machen’s old words could be addressed to any number of emergent leaders reminds me that our postmodern innovators may not be all that different from his modern liberal interlocutors.  Actually, I think there is at least one important difference.  Can you guess what it is?


Machen wrote:


“But—and here we come to the point which we think ought to be emphasized above all others just at the present day—it is impossible to have faith in a person without having knowledge of the person; far from being contrasted with knowledge, faith is founded upon knowledge.  That assertion runs counter to the whole trend of contemporary religious teaching….”


After citing Hebrews 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him,” Machen makes the following comment.


“In the first place, religion is here made to depend absolutely upon doctrine; the one who comes to God must not only believe in a person, but he must also believe that something is true; faith is here declared to involve acceptance of a proposition.  There could be no plainer insistence upon the doctrinal or intellectual basis of faith.  It is impossible, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, to have faith in a person without accepting with the mind the facts about the person.”


And then this clincher:  “Confidence in a person is more than intellectual assent to a series of propositions about the person, but it always involves those propositions, and becomes impossible the moment they are denied.  …Assent to certain propositions is not the whole of faith, but it is an absolutely necessary element in faith.  So assent to certain propositions about God is not all of faith in God, but it is necessary to faith in God; and Christian faith, in particular, though it is more than assent to a creed, is absolutely impossible without assent to a creed.”







19 responses to “Machen on faith and knowledge”

  1. Thanks, Mike. Good stuff and I wholeheartedly agree. My lecture entitled Faith and Reason: Friends or Foes? clearly shows this. However, I wonder what Machen would’ve said to Plantinga’s notion of “properly basic beliefs” and the idea that one is not required to discursively unfold a belief in propositional form before asserting it to be true. Thoughts? (only if you have time)

  2. I think the words “faith” and “belief” have been largely poisoned in the culture at large (much like the word “tolerance.”) If people knew anything about grammar anymore, I would continually be reminding them that BELIEVE (or “have faith”) is a TRANSITIVE verb and needs an object.


  3. Why did this comment disappear instead of appearing under the post?

    I think the words “faith” and “belief” have been largely poisoned in the culture at large (much like the word “tolerance.”) If people knew anything about grammar anymore, I would continually be reminding them that BELIEVE (or “have faith”) is a TRANSITIVE verb and needs an object.


  4. Layman Speaks


    It has always amazed me how many people want to claim the name “Christian” and yet deny the New Testament model. It is interesting to me that “…The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:27) Now, does it not make sense that if we are to be “Christian” we would want to know what it is that made these believers at Antioch unique enough to have been given that title?

    Paul gives us a good synopsis in I Corinthians 15:1-11. There are certainly many other Truths that expand on Paul’s short outline here, his letter to the Romans comes to mind. I do believe though that all of Paul’s writings, indeed all of scripture is required to build a full understanding of just what it means to be a Christian. But Paul in this I Corinthians passage gives us the heart or the meat of the gospel. Back off, deny, water down, or in any way play down this fundamental truth and a person is not Christian in any way that Paul would recognise.

    Certainly Paul and Peter both make strong statements about the veracity and power of the scriptures. To deny the scriptures is to deny the source of the power that made those believers at Antioch “Christian in the first place. We all do well to be mindful of Paul’s warning to those who preach a different gospel: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed.” Galatians 1:8

    Machen is right on here.

  5. Joel


    I find it amazing that you bring Machen up. Yesterday was the first time I had read Machen (The Gospel in the Modern World). Today, in one of my classes, we read his address “Christianity and Culture” (, I had no idea we would be covering it today either (as it was a hand out).

    Then, I come on here and see you posting about Machen. Quite providential.

    As to your question on the key difference between the early theological liberals and the postmodern innovators; nihilism. The early theological liberals had hope of a unified epistemology. They had hope in a “historical Jesus.” They had hope they could discover these things. The postmodern innovators, however, don’t have that hope. They are far more neo-orthodox in their approach, saying that we can’t know anything of the historical truth of Christianity, but what of it? Believe it anyway!

    Another difference could be that the liberals of old were more Deistic, but still believed in a strong God, whereas the postmodern innovators believe in a weak God (e.g. John Caputo’s “Weakness of God,” Gianni Vattimo’s “After Christianity,” and Peter Rollin’s “The Fidelity of Betrayal”).

    The more I read Machen (going through his “Christianity and Liberalism” starting tomorrow) the more I realize he was a prophet.

    Oh, and what he says about faith is good too. 🙂

  6. Justin

    I’ll take a stab, but confess I am not sure regarding your question.

    The difference I observe (at least from my view on the west coast) is that most postmodern innovators reject the existence of propositional truth…a presupposition to Machen and, as far as I know, not an issue with the liberals of his time. It seems to me liberalism of his day rejected the importance of propositional truth…postmodernism of today rejects the existence of it.

    Am I in the ball park, or is right field a distant speck on the horizon?

  7. mikewittmer


    One thing I did notice in the book is that Machen was enamored with science. He repeatedly made the claim that his Christian views were as scientific as what the modern liberals held. So I suspect that he might put more stock in proof than Plantinga or Van Til (and I would side with the latter).

    But I think that Plantinga would hold that while not all of our beliefs are spelled out in propositional form, they certainly could be if we reflected on them. So my guess is that Plantinga and Machen would disagree on the need for proof but not on the propositional nature of truth.

  8. mikewittmer


    Good words. I just came from Northview High School, where I was able to present the Christian worldview to their Junion honors class. Yesterday they had a Muslim speaker, and they also invite those from other religions. I think this is my 6th year doing it, and it’s always a great time.

    Today one student asked about the status of other religions, and I answered that Christians cannot admit that they also lead to everlasting life without doing violence to our own faith. Our faith rests upon what God did in Christ in history, and these actions don’t ultimately matter if we could get to God by some other way. I don’t see how a pluralist can be an authentic Christian.

  9. mikewittmer

    Joel and Justin:

    Machen wasn’t a prophet, but he does show how the postmodern innovators are not as new and different as they claim.

    The difference that I spotted is that while the liberals in Machen’s day apparently still talked about believing in Jesus, some–and I emphasize some–emergent leaders are now saying that isn’t even necessary. Just follow the way of Jesus–inclusively love the other–and you will be fine, whether or not you believe in him.

  10. Joel

    Are you talking about the “Christian atheism” coming out of Italy? That we can deny Jesus actually existed (or that God exists), but still live as though Jesus/God does exist?

  11. Justin:
    Thanks for the insights and spot on re: the two camps. Our epistemic move over the past 100 years is large….sadly!

    Appreciate the distinguishing lines between Machen’s day of liberalism and ours. Indeed Plantinga would maintain beliefs are propositional if reflected upon. After all, Plantinga has wielded not a few propositions to prove his belief in properly basic beliefs. ;->

  12. Yooper

    As we have experienced in previous posts, the postmodern do not seem to place much importance on belief/faith. But rather emphasize the “righteous” acts of man (works based “salvation”), which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans without faith.

    Romans 4:5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.

  13. We can argue about propositional truth, but here is the more important question: If we demand propositional truth for salvation, and we are trying to convince a post-modern of salvation in Christ, it becomes necessary that we convince him/her of propositional truth.

    When someone suggests, ‘That’s good for you to believe, but it’s not for me,’ then how are we to respond?

    “Because the Bible tells me so” is no longer sufficient.

  14. Randy:
    Consider: Since Christianity makes claims about all of reality and these claims are public and not merely private, then these claims are either objectively true or not and there must be evidence to support them. If there is evidence to support objective Christian claims, then that means we can know them to be true. Some things may still be true but not supported by reason alone, for example the Christian idea of Trinity. Reason cannot comprehend this mystery and prove it, but reason can demonstrate that it’s not irrational to believe. Not all beliefs are false because we lack full comprehension.

    When Christians claim that Christianity is true, we are not simply claiming that it fulfills some function in our lives like providing peace of mind, purpose in life, etc. While it does provide these things, Christianity provides these things because they’re rooted in a larger claim about all of reality (e.g., “God exists and we need him.”). True religion must be grounded in reality and not merely in the psyche. If the claims of Christianity are true, then there is evidence to support them. Otherwise, there’s no reason to hold the claims.

  15. Randy,

    “If we demand propositional truth for salvation, and we are trying to convince a post-modern of salvation in Christ, it becomes necessary that we convince him/her of propositional truth.”

    You do realize that you just offered a form of a syllogism, correct?

    The job of the Christian isn’t to convince the postmodern that propositional truth does exist; the job of the Christian is to get the postmodern to realize that the postmodern has been using propositional truth claims all along. 🙂

  16. Yooper


    “Because the Bible tells me so” is no longer sufficient.

    Did you notice what you just did? What happened with arguing for the Biblical text? When it comes to the essentials of the Christian faith, the Bible is shelved and the writings of man (i.e. McLaren, Pagitt, Jones, Bell…) trump the Word of God.

  17. Layman Speaks


    Here is the thing. Scripture is self authenticating and so it does not need me/us to try and make it’s case. Once an individual starts to stray from “the truth we can’t ‘not know’” (ie God exists) all kinds of foolishness is possible. The believers role is to declare enscripturated Truth. The Holy Spirit will take that truth and make His own case in the heart of the individual. Where did we get this idea that we have to convince a person?

  18. Randy (you’re sure getting a lot of attention here ! )

    You may do well to read Paul Helm’s recent post on his comments about Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life and inerrancy. I suggest there are some important things there to glean on the topic of God’s Word and it’s authorial power in evangelism.

    Just thinking…

  19. Nice answer back in return of this query with solid arguments and describing the whole thing on the topic of that.

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