Christianity and Liberalism

It seems that Christianity is always responding to error. If it’s not arianism, it’s sabellianism. If it’s not adoptionism, it’s docetism. If it’s not donatism, it’s transubstantiation.

Every time error rises in the church, it must be stamped out in order to preserve the unity and purity of Jesus’ church. The 20th century was not immune to this back and forth of error and correction. John Gresham Machen, seeing how modernism eroded the core Princeton Theological Seminary’s rigorous biblical and theological basis for the preparation of ministers for gospel ministry, waged war (a common metaphor throughout his work) on the idea of “liberalism.”

Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism is a thorough and robust 20th century response to the erosion of Christianity in the United States. He provided a conservative (or, “fundamentalist”) response to attacks on doctrine, God, man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church. Though contextualized to this specific time period, readers of this Christian classic will glean valuable insight concerning church history in the last century and how it has impacted the church today.

The Breakdown

  1. Chapter 1: Introduction—Machen sets up the purpose of his work. He is not telling people what to think, but “present[ing] the issue [of Christianity and liberalism] as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself” (1). He considers this debate of real importance. He identified the root cause of liberalism in naturalism—”the denial of any entrance of the creative over of God … in connection with the origin of Christianity” (1).
  2. Chapter 2: Doctrine—Liberalism is not merely relegated to the halls of Princeton, but has seeped into churches through “Sunday-School[s], ‘lesson-helps,’ but the pulpit[s], and by the religious press[es]” (15). The main issue when it came to doctrine was whether experience had supremacy over creeds or vice versa. Machen helpfully answers that “[a]ccording to the Christian conception, a creed it not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based” (17). He did not fall for the false choice fallacy, but set the two in proper relationship to each other.
  3. Chapter 3: God and Man—Do you know what the foundations of the gospel are? For Machen, the foundations of the gospel were a proper understanding of God and a proper understanding of man (47). Liberalism made God seem small by attacking his transcendence and immanence—his distance, yet nearness (54)—and making humanity not seem so bad (55).
  4. Chapter 4: The Bible—The crux of the 20th century debates centered around the Bible. The transmission and trustworthiness of the text came under attack through increased skepticism. It came to a head in the Barthian (named after Karl Barth) distinction between the Word and the Word—between the Bible and Jesus. In an effort to venerate the supremacy of Jesus, his authority and trustworthiness was considered supreme over the Bible (65). While this veneration seems admirable, it subverted how we actually come to know Jesus—through the Written Word. Essentially, the Word was seen as subpar and even untrustworthy. As Machen helpfully framed earlier, it’s not an either/or, but a both/and. Both Jesus and the Bible are trustworthy and authoritative. God has given us the Word to know about Jesus.
  5. Chapter 5: Christ—Speaking of Jesus, the liberal attacks on him continued. In an order to tame the supremacy of Jesus, he was painted “as a mild-mannered exponent of an indiscriminating love” (72). However, as Machen and Scripture are quick to remind us “it was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, of the sins that shall not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come” (72). Again, a frequent theme of Machen’s work is that these propositions are not an either/or, but a both/and. After this he highlights a beautiful reminder for all Christians: “Great was the guilt of sin, but Jesus was greater still” (73).
  6. Chapter 6: Salvation—If you attack so many of these foundational issues, it’s only a matter of time before attacks on salvation start. In short, “[l]iberalism finds salvation … in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God” (99). Essentially, liberalism [argues that] the world’s evil may be overcome by the world’s good; no help is thought to be needed from outside the world” (115). Surprisingly, Machen agrees! And so should we because of our understanding of “common grace”: “There is something in the world even apart from Christianity which restrains the worst manifestations of evil” (116). However, lest anyone thinks that this is enough, “[i]t will not remove the disease of sin … . What is really needed is not a slave to palliate the symptoms of sin, but a remedy that attacks the root of the disease” (116-7). And that is the “new birth … taught in the Word of God” (117).
  7. Chapter 7: The Church—This war is waged in the church. Without the church, there would be no war to rage. A man ahead of his time, he expressed his fear that “[i]f the liberal party, therefore, really obtains control of the Church, evangelical Christians must be prepared to withdraw no matter what it costs” (140). This seems extreme, but he reminds his readers of the importance of the church: “Our Lord has died for us, and surely we must not deny Him for favor of men” (140-1). To stay in the liberal church is to implicitly support their mission without furthering the evangelical mission. This split eventually did happen in the presbyterian church for the next 50 some years.

The Good

Machen provided a thorough analysis concerning the present threat of liberalism in all facets of theology and the church. His defense—at least, specifically—set up the presbyterian church in the United States for its first split that formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Machen, convinced of the dangers of liberalism, took his own advice and formed Westminster Theological Seminary after departing with core conservative faculty from Princeton Theological Seminary.

The Improved

Common with the literature of Machen’s day between two world wars, the imagery of “battles” and “wars” and throughout his work. Certainly, there are times when this imagery is useful, for as Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

However, this imagery can be hyped up. Doctrine must be protected. God must be protected. The Bible must be protected. Jesus must be protected. The church must be protected. However, more often than not, we are not the protectors—God is the Protector. We should defend truth, especially truth that matters (1), but we should not place ourselves in a position that we are the sole protector of all things true.

As Charles Haddon Spurgeon helpfully reminds us, “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

Living as Exiles

The effects of the modernist controversy are still felt today, even if the philosophical winds have changed. Many of the same beliefs are still held today (if any choose to hold beliefs at all): God is small, man is large; the Bible isn’t trustworthy and it’s not God’s Word; sin isn’t that big of a deal. We would do well to read Machen’s important work for his response and further the true biblical doctrine: God is vast and humanity is small; the Bible is trustworthy and God’s Word; and sin needs remedied by Jesus.

Where to Get It

Though it feels like a modern work with how regularly it is read and talked about, this work is actually quite old—almost a 100 years old!

I’m not one to over elevate a particular format like eBook or physical books. However, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this classic work physically!

If money is an issue, you can pick up a free electronic copy from Monergism.

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