After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
(C.S. Lewis)

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, (Grand Rapids Mi: Eerdmans; 1923. New Edition with foreword by Carl R. Trueman 2009), 152 pages + foreword

On Growing Up

In my early twenties, not long before I began formal theological study and ministry training, I remember speaking with a senior minister in the denomination in which I was considering future opportunities for ministry. Interested in my next steps he asked… 

Christianity & Liberalism

Christianity & Liberalism

Eerdmans. 152 pages + foreword.
Eerdmans. 152 pages + foreword.

You evangelicals is that you get young people into the church; well and good. But we liberals take people to the next step and mature them.

M: And where are you planning to be trained for the ministry?
A: Ridley College.
M: Ah yes, the evangelical college.
A: That’s right.
M: Of course, the thing about you evangelicals is that you get young people into the church; well and good. But we liberals take people to the next step and mature them.
A: Mmm … sounds like we might not share the same idea of Christian maturity.
M: Don’t worry, Andy, you’ll grow out of it! 

Of course, I’m not the first to be challenged in this way, and I’m certainly not the last. Christians have recently faced similar arguments from authors such as Rob Bell who affirm that, because ‘Love Wins’ in the universe of a loving God, there is really no longer any need to be troubled about the thorny problem of God’s eternal judgment. And just the other day I came across someone on a website offering instruction to ‘post-evangelicals’ on how to navigate the process of ‘de-constructing your faith.’

At a time when self-creation and individualism rule, ‘my theological position’ often means whatever I think or feel. God’s revealed will is marginalized and sometimes even ignored. 

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, (1923)

These issues are all part of a larger debate that has been going on since the dawn of the twentieth century. In several denominations which retained reformed and Evangelical confessions of faith in their constitutions, there was simultaneously a growing movement away from ‘the fundamentals’ of biblical faith—even among many who still gave the truths of the gospel formal assent. Focusing on the ‘supernatural,’ or our future glorious state, they said, distracts us from the urgent social and political issues of the day. Only a theologically generous—that is to say, a liberal expression of the Christian faith—would work for modern times. [1]

Yet others stood their ground and continued to uphold the historic truths of the Christian faith. J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), the former Professor of New Testament at Princeton, and founder of the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia was one of them.

To Machen, liberalism was not simply a different style of churchmanship, or a rival Christian theology. It was an entirely different, and man-made, religion founded on a sentimental and superficial view of God. Liberal theology took John’s statement that ‘God is love’ (1John 4:8 & 16) while ignoring the earlier statement that, ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’ (1John 1:5). 

Machen was deeply concerned that, while claiming to be in touch with the real world of practical human need, liberal theology failed to adequately account for, and respond to, the ongoing presence of human evil at both an individual and societal level. Two quotes from Chapter VI on Salvation illustrate Machen’s thinking on this point:

How do you know that God is all love and kindness? Surely not through nature, for it is full of horrors. 

Human suffering may be unpleasant, but it is real, and God must have something to do with it.

Religion cannot be made joyful simply by looking on the bright side of God. For a one-sided God is not a real God, and it is the real God alone who can satisfy the longing of the soul. God is love, but is He only love? 

God is love, but is love God? Seek joy alone, then, seek joy at any cost, and you will not find it. [3]

Machen faces the challenges of liberalism head-on; for it is the glory of God, and the salvation of men, women and children which is at stake (e.g. John 5:31-47; 1Timothy 4:15-16). Included here are some representative soundings from Christianity & Liberalism. (The numbers in brackets refer to the page numbering of the 2009 revised edition)

Theological Soundings

1. Introduction – The necessity of controversy

Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. (1)

In setting forth the current liberalism…over against Christianity, we are animated…by no merely negative or polemic purpose; on the contrary, by showing what Christianity is not we hope to be able to show what Christianity is, in order that people may be led to turn from the weak and beggarly elements and have recourse again to the grace of God. (13)

2. Doctrine

From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name “gospel’ or “good news” implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. “Christ died” – that is history; “Christ died for our sins” – that is doctrine (1Cor 15:3-11). Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity. (23) 

The great weapon with which the disciples of Jesus set out to conquer the world was not a mere comprehension of eternal principles; it was an historical message, an account of something that had recently happened, it was the message, “Christ is risen.” But the message of the resurrection was not isolated. It was connected to the death of Jesus, seen now not to be a failure but a triumphant act of divine grace. The coming of Jesus was understood now as an act of God by which sinful people were saved. (24-25)

3. God and People

At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin. (53)

Christianity means that sin is faced once and for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea … The problem with paganism…is that there is always something to be covered up… In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given them. Such is the higher humanism – a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace. (57)

4. The Bible

The doctrine of plenary inspiration [I.e. that all Scripture is God-breathed/Spirit-inspired, 2Tim 3:16; 2Pet 1:16-21] does not deny the individuality of the Biblical writers; it does not ignore their use of ordinary means for acquiring information; it does not involve any lack of interest in the historical situations which gave rise to the Biblical books…It supposes that the Holy Spirit so conformed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into the errors that mar all other books…According to the doctrine of inspiration, the Biblical account is, as a matter of fact, a true account; the Bible is “an infallible rule of faith and practice.”’ (63)

Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God. The Bible, to the Christian, is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty. (67)

5. Christ     

Jesus was no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but one who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Saviour whom people could trust. (73)

…in the Gospels, Jesus is represented constantly as dealing with the problem of sin. He always assumes that other people are sinful; yet He never finds sin in Himself. A stupendous difference is found here between Jesus’ experience and ours. (77)

The religion of Jesus was a religion of untroubled sonship; Christianity is a religion of the attainment of sonship by the redeeming work of Christ.(79) 

Paul’s conception of the Person of Christ was a matter of course in the primitive Church…The people who walked and talked with Jesus and had seen Him subject to the petty limitations of earthly life agreed with Paul fully in regarding Him as a supernatural Person, seated on the throne of all Being. (84)

The truth is, the witness of the New Testament is everywhere the same; the New Testament everywhere presents One who was both God and man. And it is interesting to observe how unsuccessful have been all the efforts to reject one part of this witness and retain the rest. (97)

6. Salvation

Regeneration means a new life, new creation; but there is also a new relation in which the believer stands toward God. That new relation is instituted by “justification” – the act of God by which a sinner is pronounced righteous in His sight because of the atoning death of Christ. (Romans 3:21-25 cf. 2Corinthians 5:16-21)

The Christian has not merely the promise of a new life, but he has already a new life. And he has not merely the promise of being pronounced righteous in God’s sight (though the blessed pronouncement will be confirmed on the judgment day), but he is already pronounced righteous here and now. At the beginning of every Christian life there stands not a process, but a definite act of God. (118)

Faith…according to the Christian view, means simply receiving a gift…the person who believes; has faith in Christ, simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God. (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-10) (120)

If one thing is plain it is that Christianity refuses to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end…Jesus said: “If anyone come to me, and hate not his father and mother…he cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:26) Whatever else those stupendous words may mean, they certainly mean that the relationship to Christ takes precedence all other relationships…Those other relationships exist for the sake of Christianity and not Christianity for the sake of them. Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in the world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity… (127-128)

7. The Church

… in remaining in the existing churches the conservatives are in a fundamentally different position from the liberals; for the conservatives are in agreement with the plain constitutions of the churches, while the liberal party can maintain itself only by an equivocal subscription to declarations which it does not really believe. (141)

There is sometimes a salutary lack of logic which prevents the whole of a person’s faith being destroyed when they have given up a part. But the true way in which to examine a spiritual movement is in its logical relations…And taken as a whole…naturalistic liberalism…differs from Christianity in its view of God, of mankind, of the seat of authority and the way of salvation. And it differs from Christianity not only in its theology but in the whole of life…One can only confess that if liberalism is to return into the Christian communion there must be a change of heart fully as much as a change of mind. God grant that such a change of heart may come! (146)

If the Word of God is to be heeded, the Christian battle will be fought both with love and faithfulness. Party passions and animosities will be put away, but on the other hand, even angels from heaven will be rejected if they preach a gospel different from the blessed gospel of the Cross of Christ (Galatians 1:6-12). Every person must decide on which side they will stand. God grant that we may decide aright! (150)

Growing up in Jesus

Thinking back to that conversation I had on the eve of entering theological college, Machen’s book is one that I would have handed my 22 year old self if I had known about it. Although written almost 100 years ago, his writing continues to speak with simple clarity and precision into our contemporary situation. The true strength of this book however, is that it was written by one who like all faithful servants of Jesus, points us back to our loving Master and to His words of life. We are not left alone and in the dark, trying to figure out meaning and find love and hope. God has spoken to us in His Son. God became one of us; and He has loved us with the everlasting love that led him to the cross, and through His atoning death into the triumph of His resurrection. He has told us that He will never leave us or forsake us. Behold, the Saviour; behold your God!

Jesus invited confidence by the presentation of His own wondrous person. Great was the guilt of sin, but Jesus was greater still. God, according to Jesus, was a loving Father…of those He Himself had brought into His Kingdom through His Son. (73)

Who can fathom the mystery of His Person? But the mystery is a mystery in which a man or a woman can rest. The Jesus of the New Testament has at least one advantage over the Jesus of modern reconstruction–He is real. (98)

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

[1] For more on the emergence of liberalism in the early 20thC, and the response of the (so-called) ‘fundamentalists,’ see Arcane & Germane Review, #9: ‘J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God.’ (TGC, 3/7/20)   

[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, (Grand Rapids Mi: Eerdmans; 1923. New Edition with foreword by Carl R. Trueman 2009), xiv.

[3] Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, xii-xiii.

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