Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Classic Restated: "Christianity and Liberalism"

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen, Professor of the New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, published a classic study of the postmodern ideas that had begun to replace traditional theology, titled Christianity and Liberalism.

I was reminded of its relevance to the debate that is still being carried on in The Episcopal Church by this useful short summary of its main arguments, authored by Prof. Michael Wittmer of Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and published over at the Koinonia site. I give here just his summary itself, but I urge you to follow the foregoing link and read the whole essay. As you do, you will be impressed, I hope, by how directly Machen answered in 1923 the same old tired points that are still being thrown out by the Church's activists today. (The page references are to the published edition of Christianity and Liberalism.) Prof. Wittmer uses the bold headings to summarize the liberals' "talking points", and then quotes in response what Prof. Machen wrote in his book. Read, mark, and inwardly digest (it's good for you):

1. Living like Jesus is more important than believing in him. Machen wrote that the liberals in his day insisted that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine,” and that conservatives should focus on “the weightier matters of the law” (Christian ethics) rather than use the “trifling matters” of doctrine to divide the church. (Pp. 19, 160.)

Machen responded that doctrines such as Christ’s “vicarious atonement for sin” are not “trifling” and that Christ is not merely “an example for faith” but is “primarily the object of faith.” He explained: “The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus. …The plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important still. Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.” (Pp. 160, 81; emphasis in original.)

2. People are basically good and free from original sin. Machen observed that the defining belief of modernity was its “supreme confidence in human goodness.” He wrote that “according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.” This absence of sin led Machen to wryly observe that the liberal church “is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance.” Machen countered that the gospel must begin with sin, for “Without the consciousness of sin, the whole gospel will seem to be an idle tale.” (Pp. 64, 66, 68.)

3. Penal substitution is unnecessary because a loving God would forgive without demanding a sacrifice. Machen wrote that “Modern liberal teachers…speak with horror of the doctrine of an ‘alienated’ or an ‘angry’ God,” for this implies that God is “waiting coldly until a price be paid before He grants salvation.” Liberals deny that “one person” may “suffer for the sins of another,” and “persist in speaking of the sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by some other than God.” They insist that a loving God would forgive without penalty. (Pp. 125, 129-32.)

4. Christians and non-Christians may unite around their common journey with God. Machen agreed that “The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man. But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man, and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term ‘brother.’ The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.” (Pp. 157-58.)

5. Salvation includes many who do not believe in Jesus. Machen said that liberals in his day wanted “a salvation which will save all men everywhere, whether they have heard of Jesus or not, and whatever may be the type of life to which they have been reared.” He replied that such openness would remove the offense of the gospel and change its historic meaning. He wrote: “What struck the early observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected. The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion to Christ. …Salvation, in other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.” (Pp. 122-23.)

6. This life matters at the exclusion of the afterlife. Machen said that liberals in his day believed that concern for the next life is “a form of selfishness.” Consequently, “the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the centre of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.” (Pp. 147-48, 149.)

Machen agreed that our Christian faith must change the way we live here and now, but he insisted that “there can be no applied Christianity unless there be ‘a Christianity to apply.’ That is where the Christian man differs from the modern liberal. The liberal believes that applied Christianity is all there is of Christianity, Christianity being merely a way of life; the Christian man believes that applied Christianity is the result of an initial act of God.” (P. 155.)

[End of quote.]

Machen's observations quoted above are both priceless and timeless. Our present-day Episcopal Church is engaged in the "absolutely impossible task . . . of calling the [self-defined] righteous to repentance"; that is why its message is increasingly falling on deaf ears. Why would those who see themselves as inherently good need a church for other than purely social reasons---to see and be seen?

I don't know about you, but I have printed out the above summary and posted it above my computer, where I can refer to it easily when the next liberal piece of postmodern nonsense comes my way. The classics are called "classic" for good reason!


  1. It's interesting to note that Machen wrote this in the wake of World War I, which blew apart (literally) many of the liberal assumptions about the nature of man. The overwhelming stench of death that surrounded that war should have made people more aware of the value of eternity.

    But liberals never learn. I guess we'll have to wait for the next World War I size catastrophe to have another chance to educate liberals in the error of their ways.

  2. This is very useful! I would like the one sentence version of the Christian response at the conclusion of Items 3 and 6.

  3. Thank you for this summary. I will certainly try to read the whole thing as well as bookmark it for future reference.

  4. Mr. Haley,

    I haven't yet fully read your post, let alone the whole essay. But I think one thing needs to be noted. The author, Prof. Machen, has used the terms "liberalism" and "liberal." By 1923 when Machen published his study, the hijacking of those terms by progressives was well nigh complete. It is today so thoroughly successful a piracy in the USA that we, almost to a person, routinely use that term in reference to persons who subscribe to the beliefs, especially the fundamental underlying assumptions, of the progressive movement of the early 20th century. Interestingly, these same assumptions were shared to an exceedingly great degree by the National Socialists (German Nazis and Italian Fascists), not to mention the International Socialists (Communists). This is doubly unfortunate, as most Americans are pretty thoroughly ignorant of the connection between what are now called "liberals" and the various movements of the left. Yet clearly, the people about whom we are, and Prof. Machen was, talking are people who have little, if anything, in common with the classical liberals of history, a group which included the 18th century writers and thinkers, many of them British, who propounded the ideas on which this nation was founded, as well as many of our nation's founding fathers themselves. I think that the consequences of such verbal inaccuracy, and probably manipulation, have been seriously underappreciated.

    Blessings and regards,
    Keith Toepfer

  5. Thanks for this posting. I have copied it and saved in Word for reference.

  6. Thanks very much for this post; I plan to funnel people here from my blog, if I can, to read this.

    I have an early hardcover version (possibly 1st Edition, I'd have to check) that I inherited from my grandfather (about which, see below). I read it while in my mid-twenties, and it astounded me how clearly Dr. Machen dealt with things ... the same Liberal threat really that we face today.

    What Anglican could read the quote from Machen which you have in paragraph 6, and not think of TEC and its idolatrous pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals?

    I have some "family connections" with Dr. Machen. My grandfather knew him at Princeton, and respected him so highly that he gave the name "Gresham" as a middle name to one of my aunts!

    When I was growing up, it was not at all uncommon for my mother to refer to Dr. Machen, to quote something he said, or recall something he did. I think she remembers him visiting my grandfather at their house.

    On my wife's side, her great uncle (Henry Coray) wrote -- or possibly ghost-wrote, I cannot recall -- a biography of Dr. Machen. What a humble man he was, on top of everything else.

    The one thing that sticks with me, though, about the Machen biography is a story of his quick-wittedness in answering a certain newspaper reporter. It went something like this:

    Reporter: Well, now, after all, Dr. Machen ... what difference does it really make what someone believes?

    J. Gresham Machen: He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18)

  7. ABP, thank you very much for sharing those connections between your family and J. Gresham Machen! It makes him that much more of a real person than could be determined from just his words on a page.

  8. I have only gotten through Chapter 1, but already had to reference Machen (and the Curmudgeon) at Musings from the Hinterland in a posting about public education.

  9. Liberal Christianity always had a problem with distain for the simple believer. This distain has grown into arrogance and sarcasm of a most un-Christian quality.