“Christianity and Liberalism” by J. Gresham Machen – A Review
On the front cover of my edition of Christianity and Liberalism, a portion of Walter Lippmann’s review of the book is quoted in order to promote its readership. The quote describes J. Gresham Machen’s book as “a cool and stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism.” Although it is true, I would argue that it is fundamentally misleading to have this quote on the front of this book. Machen’s work is not primarily an apologetic for Protestant orthodoxy, but a guideline as to where we should draw lines and a petition for clarity concerning the main tenets of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The manner of Christianity and Liberalism is reactionary. Protestant Liberalism of the early 20th century had attempted to rescue Christianity from the alleged irreconcilable differences it had with modern science. Machen argues that the attempt of Liberalism at reconciling Christianity with modern science initiated the abandonment of its certain distinctives, creating an entirely different religion. Yet, despite these abandonments, Liberalism continued to use Christianity’s phraseology, therefore causing ambiguity and confusion. Among many phrases, Machen selects doctrine, God and Man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the Church as the main tenets within Christianity which he wants to clarify. These terms also act as his table of contents. Among these main tenets, “doctrine” and “Christ” are the most important. This is evident not just by the length of the chapters, but by the aggressive defense of their biblical distinctives and attack against the modern elusive characterization Liberalism has attributed to them.
For Machen, the crisis concerning doctrine is not primarily a misunderstanding in clarity (although there certainly is that), but a misunderstanding in its importance all together. Doctrine, therefore, has been relinquished of all its significance among liberal theologians. Machen points out two broad reasons for this: (1) doctrine is naturally offensive and (2) doctrine seems to abandon the simple teachings of Jesus.
The objection to the importance of doctrine is that ‘Christianity is a way of life, not a set of doctrines .’ Machen contends that this may seem true, but in actuality “radically false.” The reason being that the Christian life was founded upon a message and a set of historical events — doctrine. The rejection of doctrine, Machen argues, will prove to eventually reject the Apostle Paul. He maintains that for Paul, historical doctrines were the mainstay of the Church and comments, “Christ died – that is history. Christ died for our sins – that is doctrine. Without these two elements joined in absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.” However, many are satisfied with abandoning the Apostle Paul and merely want to “get back to Jesus”, as the simple and non-doctrinal teacher. Yet, the simple, non-doctrinal teacher notion of Jesus disappears when we read his words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” So the abandonment of doctrine brings about the abandonment of both the Apostle Paul and Jesus. Thus, the concept of Christianity without doctrine is not Christianity at all.
Machen then works to decipher Liberalism’s concept of “God and Man.” The broad teaching on God and Man can be captured in the phrase “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Man.” This teaching is misleading from the outset. Certainly, Christianity would assume the Fatherhood of God, yet the liberal teaching is the “universal” Fatherhood of God. This is fundamentally different from orthodoxy and this teaching proves to dim the line of distinction between Man and God: God is not jealous of sin, but sin, logically, is part of the life of God. Liberalism, according to Machen, differs from Christianity in the conception of Man. Liberalism presents man as fully capable of “pulling himself up by his bootstraps”, so to say, and able to develop goodness in and of himself. Machen declares this to be nothing different from paganism, instead of Christianity.
With the explanation of the two tenets of doctrine and God and Man, the others – the Bible, Salvation, and the Church – will naturally lead away from historical Protestant orthodoxy. The Bible becomes a humanly selected, fallible collection of maxims which come primarily from Jesus. Salvation becomes a power from within man, rather than from God. The Church becomes indistinct from social institutions. Yet, how Liberalism thinks of Christ, according to Machen, has further consequences. Jesus becomes an example of faith, rather than the object of faith in orthodox Christianity. As Machen says, “The whole of early Christian history is a hopeless riddle unless the Jerusalem Church, as well as Paul, made Jesus the object of religious faith. Primitive Christianity certainly did not consist in the mere imitation of Jesus” (p. 83). Machen argues that faith in Jesus is justified by the teaching of Jesus himself and if Jesus was merely an example of true Christianity, then he was a faulty one – given his stupendous claims as Judge of all the earth and his messianic consciousness. The thought of Christ as an example of faith, rather than the object of faith is not of a Christian mind.
Machen’s work is helpful in two ways: First, it provides an understanding of early 20th century modernism and the Church. Portions of the Church began to be overly concerned with peace amongst the culture, reconciliation with science in the Scientific Age, and material betterment. The secularization of the Church did not originate in the 1920’s, but rather saw much of its foundation in Schleiermacher in the 18th and 19th centuries and it is helpful to see the idealism of humanity in the midst of World War 1 and before the second World War.
Second, it benefits an understanding of 21st century post-modernism and the Church. One of the remarkable aspects of Machen’s work was how much of his words could be applied to today’s Church and culture. A great deal of his introduction, which explained the problem within the early 20th century Church he was responding to, is actually a good account of some significant problems within today’s Church, despite the supposed radical change from modernity to post-modernity. Problems such as taking away the offense of the gospel, hostility towards the importance of doctrine, the emphasis upon merely the ethical teaching of Jesus, the so-called “Red Letter” Christians, the confusion concerning the Church as a social institution rather than a gathering of the redeemed, and so on. Many of Machen’s responses to these difficulties are not out of date, but very suitable to our times. These parallels display to us that history often repeats itself and it would do much good for the contemporary Church to glean through the difficulties of Church history and examine how godly men responded to them.
Machen also displays clear thinking and is reasonable throughout all of his arguments. The extent of the subject matter covered within his book is not limited to simply the chapter titles but burrows deep within the context of each of his themes, while remaining extremely systematic. Therefore, Machen’s book reads very well and is easy to engage in.
What is most helpful about Machen’s work is his clarification on how we should view Liberalism. He is not responding to heresy or an erroneous sect of Christianity. What Machen makes clear is that he is dealing with a way of thinking that is not Christian. Liberalism is not a sect that simply thinks wrongly on certain doctrine or misinterprets important parts of Scripture, but rejects what is historically Christian. One thing I noticed was that Machen never used the terms “Liberal Christianity” or “Christian Liberalism”. He simply used the term “liberal” or “Liberalism”. The most likely reason would be that Machen would not find the use “Liberal Christian” very fitting, since a “Liberal Christian” is not a Christian at all.
What may not be as helpful is how much Machen presumes to take on in such a modest sized book. Because of the breadth of his subject, Machen is forced to speak in generalities and not to specific persons or particular arguments. Any responses to unique cases are footnoted at best. This does, occasionally, weaken the force of the book. While Machen does not acknowledge his book as a defense of orthodox Protestantism, he does assume that role at times, reducing the effectiveness of some of his arguments.
One question remaining would be concerning practical use within the local church. If a man fills a role as senior pastor of a church that is occupied with members who are both confessional and non-confessional Christians, how does he shepherd the non-confessional membership? How does he perform the Lord’s Supper with individuals who are longtime members but have no saving faith? Does he clear the membership role of every unbeliever or does he maintain their membership, hoping to fill their ears with the gospel message? While this book was written in the setting of the Princeton Theological Seminary controversy in the 1920’s, it certainly raises further concerns for the local church that Machen does not discuss.
Machen’s work is clear and helpful, especially for gospel preachers, to see the critical line between Christianity and Liberalism. The schism between the two is not doctrine, but religion. Liberalism is another faith all together. The concern, Machen would say, is that when a Christian shifts to Liberalism, he is shifting from Christianity. This, of course, shows the need for keeping the gospel clear and historical. Machen accomplishes this service for the greater Orthodox Church.