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Christianity & Liberalism

Recently, progressive theologian and social media activist, Jo Luehmann tweeted: “I know this is hard for many Christians, but people don’t NEED Jesus. You may need Jesus, that’s ok, that doesn’t mean everyone else does. Believing that you know what others NEED is both supremacy in you and wildly disrespectful of others.” You may be surprised to hear that the person who tweeted these words, not only claims to be a Christian, but she is apparently also a Pastor. Sadly, statements like these are only all too common among many so-called Christian theologians, pastors, and professing Christians. But what if I were to tell you, that despite their profession of faith, those who hold to the kind of theology expressed in the tweet above are not really Christians? That to claim to be a liberal Christian is an oxymoron? That Christianity and liberalism are mutually exclusive?

In the religious climate in which we live, those words would probably be interpreted by many as being narrow-minded, unkind, and bigoted. But in a book that in a few months will be a hundred years old, J. Gresham Machen, founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary made this exact same point. In his classic work Christianity and Liberalism, Machen argues that theological liberalism is so far removed from Biblical Christianity, that it must be viewed as a different religion altogether. As Machen would later write in a letter to The British Weekly, though liberalism and Christianity may share similar language and ideas, the two spring from two completely different roots. As he goes on to explain: “One root is Christianity; the other is naturalistic and agnostic modernism which, despite Christian influences in detail, is fundamentally hostile to the Christian faith.”[1]

Before I get into the contents of this book, it may be helpful to define what Machen meant when he used the words Christianity and liberalism in the title of his book. By Christianity he means classical or orthodox Christianity. That which Jesus and the Apostles taught and that which the Church has believed and taught for the last two thousand years. When he speaks of liberalism, he is referring to a theological system that, as he says in the quote above, is naturalistic. What that means is that liberal theologians approach the Bible with the preconceived idea that whatever is supernatural in it must be rejected. For this reason, Machen also calls it agnostic, because it really is not all that concerned with whether God really exists. Liberalism attempts to reduce all of Christianity down to the Sermon on the Mount (although they reject a great deal of that too). As a result, liberals have no use for Christian doctrine. It matters not what you believe, they say, only how you live. Liberal theology teaches that belief in Jesus is irrelevant, what matters is following his example (which again, they do very selectively).

Machen’s work on this issue is simply phenomenal. It is remarkable that a man with his learning, writing on a subject so technical, was able to write a book that is so simple and accessible. This quality in his writing is well summarized by Carl Trueman as: “plain speaking combined with straightforward comprehensibility, and that of a kind which, with its passion, forces the reader, even the hostile reader, to reflect upon his or her convictions.[2] Machen tells his readers up front that his intention in this book is not to say the final word on the issue, but instead to “present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible.”[3] His intention is to define the issue and to show that Biblical Christianity and liberalism are so divergent that they simply cannot be reconciled. He wants to show his readers that Christians can’t embrace liberals as brothers in Christ, when liberals are so violently opposed to that which lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

After introducing his readers to the issue in the first chapter, Machen goes on to show how liberalism departs from Christianity at several critical points. In chapter 2, Machen shows that the idea that Jesus was the founder of a non-doctrinal religion, who was merely interested in being an example of how we ought to live, is completely inconsistent with the teaching of the New Testament. He shows that the message proclaimed by the early disciples of Jesus was not an exhortation first and foremost to follow the example of Jesus, but it was a proclamation of the good news of who Jesus was and what he came to do to save sinners. In Machen’s words: “What was it that within a few days transformed a band of mourners into the spiritual conquerors of the world? It was not the memory of Jesus’ life; it was not the inspiration which came from past contact with Him. But it was the message, “He is risen””.[4]

In the next chapter Machen compares the liberal understanding of God and man with that of the Bible. Liberalism, he points out, with its naturalism (or anti-supernaturalism) cannot conceive of a God who is transcendent, who exists separate from that which is natural (creation). But it also holds to a view of man that radically differs from that of the Bible. Liberalism denies that man is a sinner under the just condemnation of a righteous God. “Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness,[5] writes Machen. This confidence in man’s intrinsic goodness, he argues, has led to a loss of the consciousness of sin and when man no longer believes he is a sinner, he no longer believes he needs a Savior. Man does not need Jesus to save him from his sin, because he has no sin to be saved from. Again, Machen shows, there is no reconciling the views of Christianity and liberalism on this issue.

In chapter 4 Machen looks at what serves as the authority for the beliefs of Christians and liberals respectively. He argues that Christianity and liberalism are irreconcilably at odds. As much as liberals say they follow Jesus, in practice they deny it, since they refuse to believe most of his teaching. Instead, as Machen points out, it is the emotions and experiences of the individual that serves as the authority for what liberals believe. Machen explains that: “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”[6]

In the chapters on Christ and Salvation (chapters 5 & 6), we come to what I believe is probably the most important part of the book. Here the author contrasts the Christ of Christianity with the Christ of liberalism. He shows that as much as liberals may use evangelical categories when speaking of Jesus, they really worship a Jesus far removed from the Jesus of the Bible. For liberals, Jesus is merely an example to be followed. He was the first Christian, and he was a good teacher, but there was nothing supernatural about him and he certainly did not die for anyone’s sin. But as Machen points out, this goes against everything that Jesus and the Apostles said about him. Jesus was not the first Christian, because the very definition of a Christian is someone who puts their faith in Christ for salvation from sin. Christianity is first and foremost about sinners finding forgiveness for their sins. But, as Machen writes: “if Christianity is a way of getting rid of sin, then Jesus was not a Christian; for Jesus…had no sin to get rid of.”[7] The Jesus of the New Testament is not only the example of our faith, but he is the object of our faith. This idea liberalism vehemently denies.

Continuing this conversation in chapter 6, Machen explains that Christians and liberals not only worship a different Christ, but they hold to a completely different view of salvation. For Christians, Jesus: “is our Saviour not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that he lived, but because he took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross.”[8] This is very different from the liberal view of salvation (if there even is such a thing). In liberalism Christ’s death on the cross is nothing more than an exemplary act of self-sacrifice. Sin, if it exists, cannot possibly be so serious as to require the death of the Son of God. God is love and therefore whatever he sees in us that might be contrary to his will, he can simply overlook. In liberalism then, there is no need for doctrines like the exclusivity of Christ, justification by faith or the need for repentance and regeneration to be saved. The Christ of liberalism and its doctrine of salvation is simply not Christian – it is in fact opposed to the very heart of Christianity.

The final chapter of the book deals with the Church’s response to liberalism. As Machen points out, fellowship and partnership in the gospel is simply impossible across this great theological divide. Machen raises some very practical issues in this chapter. Should Christians give their money to a denomination knowing that some of its missionaries and preachers are proclaiming a message that is anti-Christian? Should the Church only be concerned about Evangelism and not concern itself with the defense of the faith? If the answer is yes, are we not at best guilty of minimizing the gospel and at worst guilty of denying it? As Machen writes, what makes Liberalism so dangerous is that it masquerades as Christianity “The greatest menace to the Christian Church to-day comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core.”[9] At the very least Christians need to acknowledge the fact that these men are enemies, not friends and that fraternizing with the enemy is never a wise strategy in times of war.

You may be asking yourself, as you read this review and summary of Christianity and Liberalism – why take the time to read this book when it is nearly a hundred years old? Surely Liberalism no longer exists within the Evangelical circles in which we move. Surely this old enemy now lurks only in the corridors of liberal universities and in denominations that no evangelical would associate with. If only that were the case.

In his introductory essay to Christianity and Liberalism, Carl Trueman argues that this book is even more relevant now than it was in Machen’s own day. He points out that people’s knowledge of the Bible is far more limited, and their devotion to the truth far more tenuous today than it was in 1923. He sees the influence of liberalism on modern Evangelicalism, largely in the often-subtle presence of sentimentalism. What he means by sentimentalism is not the emotional connection that you might feel towards the 70-year-old sewing machine you inherited from your grandmother. Instead, he is speaking about a certain attitude towards truth. It is an attitude that believes that truth (if it exists) is only useful and valuable if it produces a certain kind of emotion and certain behaviors in those who believe it. It doesn’t matter, for instance, if Jesus truly rose from the dead, what matters is what your belief in his resurrection produces in you.

As we noted earlier, this is a hallmark of liberalism – the idea that the Church in its sophistication has grown beyond its dependance on the Bible. That the emotions of people should be authoritative for the way we live and the way we worship God. It often finds its way into churches in very subtle ways. For instance, a few years ago, there were very credible folks at GBC, who felt that the Scripture reading on the Lord’s Day should be scrapped since it was wearisome for people to listen to. That is nothing but liberalism wearing an evangelical coat. When elements of worship that have been prescribed by the Bible and that are ultimately beneficial for God’s people are removed from our worship services to suit human preference, we start going down a very slippery slope.

I would encourage every Christian to read this book at least once. Machen, with great clarity and conviction, presents us with two completely incompatible religions. He shows that liberalism, if left unchallenged will be the death of Evangelical churches and organizations. As we look back over the last century of Christian history, there is no doubt that his words were not those of a paranoid conspiracy theorist – they were prophetic. We have only to look at the direction that the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk has gone in South Africa to see that Liberalism is a cancer that will not go away simply by ignoring it. Machen helps us see the early symptoms of this theological and spiritual cancer and calls on God’s people not to neglect their duty to cut out the cancer before it metastasizes and becomes terminal.

I would encourage you therefore to get a hold of this book from the Book Corner and carefully read through it. Far from being a book only for theologians and pastors, this is a book for all those who understand their responsibility to be soldiers on the frontlines of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged. May the Lord help us not to be ignorant of the devices of the devil and give us courage and conviction to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.”

[1] John Gresham Machen, Christianity And Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009., p.xv

[2] John Gresham Machen, Christianity And Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009). P.xi

[3] Ibid., 1

[4] Ibid., 34

[5] Ibid., 55

[6] Ibid., 67

[7] John Gresham Machen, Christianity And Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009 p.77

[8] Ibid., 99

[9] Ibid., 135