May 10, 2019

Reconciling Statements Made by J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) on the Love of God

I recently saw this quote on social media1:
God, according to Jesus, was a loving Father; but He was a loving Father, not of the sinful world, but of those whom He Himself had brought into His Kingdom through the Son.2
Admittedly, at first glance, this reads badly. It appears as though Machen is denying that God the Father loves all men, and this is exactly how hyper-Calvinists (who deny the same) will want to read it. But this unqualified statement by Machen needs to be qualified by what he also said earlier in the same work:
God is indeed represented here [in Matthew 5:44–45] as caring for all men whether evil or good, but He is certainly not called the Father of all. Indeed, it might almost be said that the point of the passage depends on the fact that He is not the Father of all. He cares even for those who are not His children but His enemies; so His children, Jesus’ disciples, ought to imitate Him by loving even those who are not their brethren but their persecutors. The modern doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God is not to be found in the teaching of Jesus.3
Here we see that Machen affirmed, in accord with Matt. 5:44–45, that God indeed “cares” for all men, and that Jesus “loved” even those who were not His brethren, and therefore so should we. It should also be noted that Machen affirmed common grace in the same work, and also taught in another work that God wishes the salvation of all men according to Ezek. 33:11 and possibly 1 Tim. 2:4. So what is the explanation? Did Machen contradict himself on the issue of the love of God, even in the context of the same book?

My Explanation

I do not think it is reasonable to interpret Machen as contradicting himself on this point. In Christianity & Liberalism, as in several other works, Machen was countering the modernistic conception of the universal fatherhood of God. Mainstream Reformed theologians have acknowledged that there is a sense in which God is the father of all, in a creational sense (or God as creator), in accord with Isa. 64:8, Acts 17:28–29, and Luke 3:28, but they have also denied that God is the father of all by way of adoption (or God as redeemer4), obviously. It is in this latter sense, or the sense that “our Father” is being used in Matthew 5, that Machen denies that God is the father of all.

Notice in the original quote that Machen is contrasting the “sinful world” with those who have been brought into Christ’s Kingdom. He is not contrasting the non-elect with the elect as such, as hyper-Calvinists are prone to read things, but rather unbelievers (“the sinful world”) as over against believers (“those whom He Himself had brought into His Kingdom through the Son”). Even the unbelieving elect are not God’s children, yet, by way of adoption, and so they are also a part of “the sinful world” when still dead in their trespasses and sins. God is not even the “loving Father” of the unbelieving elect, in that adoptive sense.

I submit that the best reading of the Machen quote above should put the stress on the term “Father,” and that “loving Father” should be read in an adoptive sense, in contrast to the corrupt, universalizing modernistic sense. Machen should not be read as denying that God loved all men in any sense. He does love all, by way of “common grace,” in “caring” for all men, and in “wishing” the salvation of all men, as Machen elsewhere affirms. That is called God’s love of benevolence (amor benevolentiæ). Machen was rather denying that God was the Father of all in the sense that He is at peace with all men, with a love of friendship or amity (amor amicitiæ), or what is often called God’s love of complacency (amor complacentiæ5).

The quote is better read this way:
God, according to Jesus, was a loving Father; but He was a loving Father [by way of adoption], not of the sinful world, but of those [i.e. believers only] whom He Himself had brought into His Kingdom through the Son. (emphasis mine)
Machen should have been more careful in his terminology, or added some qualifying context to avoid confusion. But readers of Machen today should also be more careful if they are prone to read him as denying that God loves all men. That idea is not only against scripture and virtually the entire Reformed tradition, but it is also against the context of what Machen affirmed in the very same book.

1. I do not know if Matt Estes was using the Machen quote to deny (or to say that Machen denied) that there is any sense in which God loves the non-elect. As of today, he has not responded to the tweet comments I posted.
2. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 84.
3. Ibid., 60.
4. I am using “redeemer” in the sense of redemption applied. But in Machen’s own theology, it is right to limit the sense of the term “redemption” to the elect alone since Machen held to a strict view of the atonement. See “Constraining Love,” in God Transcendent (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982). Also in “Constraining Love,” The Presbyterian Guardian 3.5 (December 12, 1936): 98–102.
5. Amor amicitiæ (love of friendship) is the sense in which God’s amor complacentiæ (love of complacency) is commonly used, though it may be distinguished from God’s simple love of complacency that He has for all of his creation as good (Wisdom of Solomon, 11:4). It is quite common for Reformed theologians to limit God’s love of complacency to God’s children who are in the obedience of faith. God’s love of complacency refers to God’s delight in that which is good. “In theological language the term ‘complacent’ is used more in line with its etymology than with its current usage. The Latin root [complӑcӗo, complacēntia, or complacēre] originally meant ‘to please greatly.’ In this sense, God’s love of complacency refers to His being pleased with His children.... Classical theologians saw this love of complacency as the delight God has for His creatures who manifest the light of His image” (R. C. Sproul, Loved by God [(Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2001], 143).