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.

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

Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin

Thomas Aquinas was an Italian friar, a Catholic priest, and the Doctor of the Church in the 13th century. He was one of the best theologians in Western Europe in the Medieval Ages. His work titled Summa Theologiae highlighted the accomplishment of theology of the period. A lot of his teachings, especially sacraments and grace, are controversial, but on original sin, it is good. His answer to Question 82, Prima Secundæ Partis (First Part of the Second Part), Summa Theologiae, concerning the original sin, is summarized.

Question 1: Is original sin a habit?

According to Aquinas, original sin is a habit.

He explained that habit is two-fold. The first kind of habit is one’s inclination to act, like our framework of knowledge or worldview (“science”) and virtues are habits. Original sin, as a lack of original righteousness, is not a habit in this sense. The second kind is “the disposition of a complex nature.” Original sins, as the lack of original justice, means the souls have been spiritually corrupted, and being impossible not to sin. This impossibility not to sin is the disposition of the corrupted souls, and from this point of view, original sin is a habit. This answered the Objection 1 he listed.

It is true that with the definition of the first kind, evil habits have to be acquired through a wicked act. It contradicts that the original sin is not something we acquire. However, using the definition of the second kind of habit, we are inborn with evil habits because of the original sins. Aquinas thus disputed the Objection 3.

Then Aquinas discussed about the Objection 2 regarding the original sin and the actual sin. While an actual sin is an act beyond a permissible limit, the original sin is basically a disposition, passed on from Adam and Eve, to perform an actual sin. Even if one is asleep, he is regarded as being sinful, unlike what the Objection 2 claims.

Question 2: Are there several original sins in one man? How does Aquinas defend himself?

According to Aquinas, there is only one, instead of many, original sin in one man.

Aquinas cited from John 1:29, where John the Baptist said, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The “sin” here refers to the original sin, and it is clearly singular, not plural. Objection 1 quoted a verse in Psalm: “Behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me.” But these sins are actual sins like pride, disobedience etc., instead of the original sin. He thus disputed Objection 1.

Aquinas explained it with the cause and essence of it. The cause of the original sin is the first sin committed by Adam and Eve, and the sinful state was then passed on to us. Therefore, there is only one original sin. For the essence of it, the original sin refers to the disposition of a corrupted human nature. This disposition is numerically one. He illustrated with the sickness analogy: the original sin is like the cause of of the sickness, and various symptoms like the various actual sins. In this way, he disputed Objection 2, because the various sins in one man stem from one original sin; and he also replied to Objection 3, because it is this numerically one original sin infects different parts of the soul, which does not make this original sin to be plural.

Question 3: Is original sin the same thing as concupiscence?

According to Aquinas, the original sin is materially concupiscence, but formally the lack of original justice. Given that the original sin is the lack of original justice, man is no longer submitting to the will of God, but pursue the cause of things other than God, or “mutable good” according to him. This desire for other things other than God is concupiscence, or spiritual lust. This makes the original sin materially concupiscence. From the context, Aquinas’ concupiscence is not limited to inappropriate sexual desires.

Objection 1 argued that concupiscence is natural to man so that it cannot be of the original sin which is contrary to the human nature. But Aquinas stated that the act of concupiscence is beyond the permissible boundary, as in the corrupted human nature, and thus it is of the original sin.

Objection 2 argued that the sins are of a wide diversity besides concupiscence, but Aquinas added that these sins stem all from concupiscence, the pursuit of things other than God. The original sin, as the misplaced passion because of the lack of original justice, is therefore concupiscence.

Aquinas argued in a previous question (Question 77) that man is motivated by a strong passion instead of intellect. The corrupted nature of human being made man pursue inappropriate passion, even though his intellect should not have led him to. Original sin is thus concupiscence, although it comprises of ignorance. Hence, he disputed Objection 3.

Question 4: Is original sin equally in all of us?

According to Aquinas, original sin is equally in all of us.

Aquinas explained that as the original sin is simply the lack of original justice, there is no degree of it, as it is just the entire righteousness was removed. In addition, since all of our original sin is equally related to the sin of Adam and Eve, it is evident that no one’s original sin is greater than the other. This disputed Objection 1, which argued acts of concupiscence can be of various degrees, that this concupiscence is not something of continuous degree, but simply the lack of righteousness (a value of a binary variable). It similarly disputed Objection 2, because as in the sickness analogy, while the severity of the sickness is continuous, the cause of sickness is one.

Objection 3 cited Augustine’s quote: “lust transmits the original sin to the child.” And this lust, believably sexual in nature, is of various degrees, implying that the original sin is not equal in all of us. However, Aquinas disputed this objection that the original sin is transmitted to children even without lust.

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Knowing the Law and the Lawgiver: John Lennox speaking on “Science and God”

It is such an excitement that Dr. John Lennox came in town to speak about “Science and God” at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, organized by C. S. Lewis Institute. Dr. Lennox is a professor at University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He is a pure mathematician and a philosopher. He is also a Christian apologist, responding to attacks on Christianity posed by other atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, and Stephen Hawking. Dr. Lennox is a clear thinker.

Scientists are not necessarily atheists and naturalists, although a majority of them are. Dr. Lennox rightly pointed out that what divides scientists regarding the issue is not science, but worldview. As a body of knowledge and a philosophical method, science can be nicely fit into both the frameworks of naturalism and theism. While some prominent scientists made statements to support naturalism, their statements are not necessarily scientific.

Being a scientist, hence, science and God are not mutually exclusive. In Dr. Lennox’s line of thought, scientists are given two choices: naturalism and theism. But he pointed out that when modern science started in Western Europe, people’s worldview were definitely theistic. Sir Isaac Newton was a theist. But after a few hundred years, scientists have turned to atheism and naturalism. Stephen Hawking, who also studies gravity like Newton, is an atheist. Not to mention the philosophical development in Western Europe, some people unfortunately turn from theism to atheism because of the church. However, given the two choices, Dr. Lennox still chooses theism because, as he cited C. S. Lewis:

“Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.” — C. S. Lewis, Miracles

A passion about science is a passion about the law of nature, given by a supernatural lawgiver. A curiosity about the nature should lead to that about the One who imparted laws into it.

He also insightfully pointed out that scientists turned to atheism because of the false ideas of God, or a wrong/incomplete doctrine of God, such as a materialistic god (but God is a spirit), or an ancient god that has a jurisdiction (such as those gods in Greek mythologies). A lot of scientists forsake God because they do not appreciate the doctrine of God, that He is both transcendent and immanent, and He is triune.

On the other hand, people misunderstand the nature of science. Science is just finding a general description over something, but not to explain something. In fact, science explains nothing. Dr. Lennox cited Bertrand Russell who asserted the connection of the meaningfulness of things to its verifiability. He teased Russell’s idea of scientism as “scientific fundamentalism.”

Dr. Lennox spent some time talking about the reductionism in science. A lot of materialists and naturalists believe that they can reach the truth of the world through successive reductionism. He ridiculed reductionism as a means to a fundamental description, with an example of image recognition of our brain. He illustrated that recognizing a character with two strokes cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the meaning of the character with any existing theories. (But of course, nowadays, computer scientists can train models with neural network or deep learning algorithms that perform the recognition.) I submitted a question that Dr. Lennox didn’t reply at all: reductionism is not the only dominant approach in physics nowadays. Statistical description of various levels of science are meaningful if they are scientifically tested as well. Philip Anderson discussed a lot about it in his famous article in Science titled “More Is Different.” [Anderson, 1972] However, these statistical scientists are still atheists. How does he want to tackle with these ideas? I am not sure if John Polkinghorne said something about it as well.

He lastly mentioned about the creation of the Universe. Christians believe that God’s creation is ex nihilo, i.e., out of nothing. [Bavinck, 2003] Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas proved the existence of God with the cosmological argument. The naturalists tried to escape the cosmological argument by redefining the word “nothing.” They said that “nothing” is the “absence of something.” The law of gravity said that the Universe is created out of a quantum fluctuations, which implies there is something physical outside the Universe, which implies that there is something eternal other than God. We know all this is speculation if one has to look for an alternative description other than theism, instead of doing science. They want to do physics instead of metaphysics. This framework of knowledge is fascinating in some sense, but, as Dr. Lennox said, it does not take away pain and suffering (as a lot of atheists aim at while suppressing religions); instead, it takes away hope.

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