Reviewing J. Gresham Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” (Part I)

Gresham Machen is considered one of the greatest theologians in the history of Princeton Theological Seminary. Because of the turn of Princeton in theological stance enforced by the Northern Presbyterian Church (now PCUSA) to liberalism, he led a revolt to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. His career is clearly indicative about his theological stance. In 1923, he published the book Christianity and Liberalism to strongly defend the orthodox Reformed Christianity against liberal Christianity at the times. In this paper, the first four chapters of this book are reviewed and discussed.

Machen started out with the meaning of liberalism, and stated its dangers. It has to be careful that this liberalism is theological, while social, political, and economical liberalism carry very different meanings. Liberalism, unlike other cults or religions in the history of Christianity, is dangerous because it is articulated with the traditional Christian terminologies.[1] Liberalism is rooted in naturalism,[2] in the context of the world celebrating the modern success of scientific development.[3] He rightly pointed out that the scientific success led the modern people to be so excessively confident about the pursuit of truth using the scientific method that they abandoned the biblical teachings regarding anything supernatural or metaphysical. The rise of liberalism within the Christian churches also aimed at apologetics, defending Christianity amid the conflicts between science and religion.[4] However, as he rightly asserted, the liberal apologetics removed the very foundation of Christianity. Instead of defending the faith, liberalism can irreversibly destroy the faith.[5] As a work in the 20th century, he strongly criticized liberalism. Liberalism is still influential nowadays, but postmodernism has become prevalent. Liberalism presupposes naturalism: modern people base their thinking on something else other than the biblical point of view; postmodernism appeals to individuals’ existential feeling and rejects any types of authority, that liberalism is no longer as prevalent. Machen did not respond to postmodernism, which is way ahead of his time.

In the second chapter, Machen attacked the teachings or doctrines of liberalism. The first is “Christianity as a life.”[6] He did clarify that Christianity is indeed a way of life,[7] that the early disciples experienced huge life transformation since Christ’s Resurrection or conversion. Liberal preachers probably talk about some sort of piety in this teaching. However, this teaching is due to a sentiment against organized religions or creeds, and an ignorance or disbelief of the fact of the Resurrection. I believe that some previous theological scholars had not communicated clearly about the theology to the lay Christians, who developed a distrust to this apparently purely academic discipline. However, theology is indeed practical. Christianity is rooted in doctrines, the teachings in the Scriptures, proclamation of the gospel… And with these doctrines, the life as a Christian has a substance.[8] He also raised the example of Paul, who tolerated the teaching of the same gospel by others who were hostile to him, arguing that, to Paul, doctrines logically came first.[9] The Christian life found its foundation in Christ’s redemptive work,[10] but the teaching of “Christianity as a life” undermines Christ’s work. Hence, Paul’s criticism on the Judaizers is not simply theological subtlety, but real impact of how Christians should live.[11] Machen strongly crushed the liberal theologians’ attempt to give the false impression that liberalism is a continuity of Apostolic teaching.[12]

The second liberal doctrine Machen tackled is “back to Christ.”[13] This slogan sounds spiritual, but actually void in meaning. The liberal preachers teach to defend “Christianity as a life,” and by proclaiming “back to Christ” the churches would be back to the Early Churches. It is always right to look up to the Early Churches, but the liberal abandonment of doctrines, as he said, actually makes this impossible. In the account of the Four Gospels, Christ taught many things. He proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom.[14] He was not simply a teacher, but also a prophet who was conscious of the turning point of his age.[15] Christ’s teaching presupposes the doctrines found in the Scriptures.[16] And Jesus is the Messiah, and from His Words recorded in the Four Gospels, He was well aware of that.[17] The Sermon of the Mount demonstrated His messianic consciousness. And the first audience of the Sermon were aware of the reality that the guidance given from the Sermon was not enough. And when Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” He indicated He is more than a philosophical teacher but a provider of the divine grace.[18] Therefore, it would be impossible to be “back to Christ” as the liberal preachers teach if doctrines were abandoned. Further elaborating from Machen’s point, the doctrines that we believe in should be based on the Scriptures, as once the Reformers in the Age of Reformation upheld sola scriptura. Nowadays, many cults or alternative teachings abandon or selectively abandon the texts in the Scriptures.

The third point that Machen tackled is the criticism of the liberal theologians on the time gulf between the New Testament period and modern times.[19] It is fair to say that there is a huge gap between the cultures of the first century and 20th century, but the Christian Church history based on the Resurrection makes us in the continuity from the Resurrection. Machen asserted that wiping out all the history and starting fresh, the loss, even if the Bible was retained, is immense.[20] The teachings in the church history are too rich to be ignored. Besides liberals, many contemporary evangelicals should be aware of the danger of ignoring the history.

Machen named the title of the third chapter “God and Man,” on the the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Man. Many of the liberal teachings on theology proper and anthropology are problematic, and make Christianity un-Christian. The first problematic teaching that he attacked is that the knowledge of God can be attained only through Jesus.[21] This statement looks spiritual, but confuses many lay Christians who have been taught about Jesus saying “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In fact, as Machen reminded the readers, Jesus Himself asserted that there are many ways to know God.[22] Liberal preachers also teach “Jesus is God,” but Machen insightfully pointed out this assertion is vain if the liberal theologians have a different knowledge of God.[23] Unlike the liberalism motivated by the obsession with naturalism and the sentiment against institutionalized religions, the orthodox knowledge is very rational. “Rational theism, the knowledge of one Supreme Person, Maker and active Ruler of the world, is at the very root of Christianity.”[24]

Then Machen turned to another liberal teaching that instead of being rationally theistic, Jesus had a very “practical,” not “theoretical,” knowledge of God.[25] Pragmatism is another prevalent worldview of the modern times. But without the objective knowledge that looks “theoretical,” it is impossible to be practical. This might be a sentiment against some orthodox theologians who did not communicate well enough regarding the links between theology and daily life. However, disconnecting practical Christian living and theoretical theology is disastrous. “True religion can make no peace with a false philosophy.”[26] And I believe this false short-sighted pragmatic notion is one of the causes of some Christians using under-verified information for apologetics, or some Christians embracing of “alternative facts” nowadays, although these Christians are self-proclaimed evangelicals.

Another attack Machen fired is on liberal calling God the “Father.”[27] Liberal theologians teach universal fatherhood, but the Scriptures clearly state that God is the Father of the elect, not all people.[28] Like the pragmatism above, this problem is due to an incorrect knowledge of God. He also criticized the liberal teaching that eliminates the “gulf between creature and the Creator,”[29] particularly between God and Man. The liberal preachers are correct that God is immanent, but they ignore the awful transcendence of God.[30]

For the doctrine of man, Machen was upset that liberalism abolished our consciousness of sins. This is appealing to the modern supreme confidence of human goodness.[31] People are tempted to think they are good enough, and need no external agency for salvation. It is refreshing for me to think of it as a substitution of paganism for Christianity, as the author suggested: “Paganism is [the] view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties.”[32] Liberalism indeed undermined the core of Christianity as it denies our status as being sinful and our needs for salvation. Liberal preachers teach about human achievements with Jesus as a good teacher, but true Christian ministers preach about recognizing our sins and brokenness that lead to our need for divine grace.

The fourth chapter is on the doctrine of Scripture. Machen first tackled the question about time gap between the New Testament and modern times again.[33] He reiterated that salvation absolutely depends on what happened during the New Testament period. We did not have salvation if the account of His redemptive work in the Bible were false.[34] If the Scriptures were not correct, the experience that the liberal preachers have been talking about is not Christian experience at all.[35]

Then Machen focused on the doctrine of inspiration,[36] regarding that God is the source of inspiration, so that the Bible is the “infallible rule of faith and practice.”[37] (This infallibility refers to infallibility and inerrancy nowadays.) The Bible contains no errors, but the authors wrote with their own temperament. Machen teased the liberal theologians for committing the straw-man fallacy, by twisting the doctrine as the writers dictating the Holy Spirit’s words.[38] However, he would be also committing the straw-man fallacy if this book were written today: many scholars attacked this doctrine by picking details, or laying out seemingly contradictory verses, or raising examples of “inhumane God,” in an attempt to prove the Word of God wrong. Christians nowadays ought to be more well prepared, especially by studying the Bible more thoroughly.

Lastly, Machen attacked the liberal theologians that they do not accept the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Instead, they selectively pick Jesus’ Words that conform to their pre-conceived ideas.[39] This actually undermines the liberal claim that they upheld the authority of Christ, as they do not really accept what Jesus taught.[40]

In summary, Machen strongly defended the orthodox teaching of Christianity by disputing the doctrines and claims of the liberal theologians. Liberalism stems from the need of apologetics in the age of reason and science, by sadly by compromising the gospel to the modern worldview. It removed the supernatural component of Christianity, and disastrously abandoned the authority of the Scriptures and the redemptive account of Christ’s work. Although this book was written almost 100 years ago, and the world is becoming more post-modern, the defense laid out by Machen is still relevant nowadays.

 

 

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1923), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid., 5-6.

[5] Ibid., 8-9.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid., 22-23.

[10] Ibid., 24.

[11] Ibid., 25.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 29-30.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 32.

[16] Ibid., 33.

[17] Ibid., 35.

[18] Ibid., 38-39.

[19] Ibid., 40.

[20] Ibid., 46.

[21] Ibid., 55.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 56.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 58.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 62.

[29] Ibid., 64.

[30] Ibid., 62.

[31] Ibid., 64.

[32] Ibid., 65.

[33] Ibid., 70.

[34] Ibid., 71.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 73.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 77.

[40] Ibid., 78.

  • John Gresham Machen. [Wikipedia]
  • Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (1923). [Reformed]
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