A Summary of Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen


Machen rarely calls out particular names in this book. On page 10, he makes reference to Mr. H. G. Wells in writing “Outline of History.” In this book, he maintains theological objectivity by focusing on ideas being promoted in the church at large. It also was not Machen’s aim to be in conflict a particular denomination. Instead, his target is what he refers to as the “Liberal Church” which he regards as another church. It is interesting that in his section on Christian doctrine, Machen even writes positively concerning the Roman Catholic Church: “The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”1

In introducing this work, Machen opens up with an appeal to the necessity of controversy in the sphere of religion. He begins with definitions of both liberalism and naturalism. Liberalism and modernism are also partners. He uses the full term “modern naturalistic liberalism.” ‘Liberal’ refers to the open-mindedness of the position, which as he points out, is only used by the friends of liberals. Liberalism is an attack on the Christian faith while using traditional terminology. It comes accompanied by naturalism which focuses on the processes of nature as opposed to “the entrance of the creative power of God.”2 This modern naturalistic liberalism is characterized by a questioning of historical claims. It is also characterized by the promotion of modern scientific methods which are then regarded as separate from religion. He argues that two lines of criticism can be promoted against this modern naturalistic liberalism: first, that it is un-Christian; second, that it is unscientific.3 He proves these two lines of criticism in various ways throughout the book. It should be stated that one of his primary critiques of his opponents is their disregard for history. After all, science is done in history, and so the two studies should not be divorced from one another. Above all, his goal in this book is not only to show what Christianity is not but also what Christianity is.4

In the following chapter on doctrine, Machen begins by arguing that this debate over liberalism is no longer an intellectual debate but that it has entered the Sunday School class as well. Liberals will argue first that teaching is unimportant in the Church because Christian creeds are always changing anyways. And so liberals say that even though their teachings are different than historical Christianity, they are essentially the same as Christianity. Second, they argue that Christianity is about life, not doctrine. Third, they promote a toleration of other doctrines. Fourth, they first try to appeal to Paul and then to Jesus to prove their points. And last, Machen considers the carelessness to theological difference in liberalism. Machen points out the skepticism of the first comment. The second is internally incoherent because to say that “Christianity is a life” is a doctrinal statement. The third is related to the fifth and Machen distinguishes between recognizing error while still accepting someone as Christian as opposed to tolerating differences as if they don’t matter. Machen proves from the life and doctrine of both Jesus and Paul the incoherence of appealing to them to diminish the importance of doctrine.

Machen then turns to the issue of how liberals and Christians view the topic of “God and Man.” With regards to God, liberalism says that it is unnecessary to have a conception of God. This of course, messes with the divinity of Jesus, because without a conception of God, to say that “Jesus is God” is meaningless. He then mentions that liberalism speaks of the fatherhood of God, but its meaning is hard to discern. Similarly, in reference to man, liberalism struggles with the meaning of sin. Machen responds to their claims by pushing the importance of the doctrine of God and man again, and pushing the claims of Scripture itself. In the fog of liberal definitions, he speaks with clarity and conciseness.

Having disposed of the Christian conception of a sovereign God and the fact of sin, the Bible also is under attack. Here, Machen is not only concerned with defending the historical account of Scripture, but also its necessity for us living today. In particular, he responds to the attack on plenary inspiration by those who want to depict it as a mechanical process. He responds by arguing for the individuality of the Biblical writers. He also realizes that many who deny the doctrine of plenary inspiration are true Christians because they still accept the Bible “as a true message on which Christianity depends.”5 As such, they are not liberals. Modern liberalism rejects not only plenary inspiration, but they also attack Scripture’s authority by bringing up questions about the historical Jesus, etc. Thus, Machen’s challenge is that they base Christianity not on the Bible, but on their own feelings and intellect.

Machen then writes a large chapter on the topic of Christ. He affirms the Christian teaching that Jesus is no mere teacher, but as a Saviour in whom men can trust. But the liberal teacher regards Jesus “as an example for faith, not the object of faith.”6 In their studies of the historic Jesus, they claim that his Messianic consciousness arose late in life. But Machen claims that the liberals find themselves in a quandary when it comes to the lack of consciousness of sin in Jesus and more importantly the fact that he is continually dealing with the problem of sin. This then creates a massive difference between the experience of Jesus and our experience. Machen claims: “Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God.”7 In order to approach Jesus as a Christian we must not simply see Him as an exemplary man, but as supernatural. This does not deny His humanity, but it means He is the Saviour of the world. Of course, the teachings of Paul also lead us to this view of Jesus Christ. This means that we must also defend the miracles of Jesus against the claims of scientific naturalism: “Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Saviour.”8 But liberalism rejects miracles, and thus they reject the divinity of Christ and the sovereignty of God in nature. Machen then poses the question: “Shall we accept the Jesus of the New Testament as our Saviour, or shall we reject Him with the liberal Church?”9 Machen then deals with the problem of honesty among liberal preachers. They might still say “Jesus is God” but they mean something different by the term “God”. Thus that man is lying when he uses this phrase in front of old-fashioned Christians. In the end, we must reject the liberal Jesus as a manufactured figment of the imagination, and not as the Jesus who is the Christ and the Son of the Living God.

Machen summarizes: “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of ‘salvation’) in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.”10 When we have considered all the above – Jesus as Saviour, the problem of sin, the truth of Scripture, the sovereignty of God – the reader can imagine where liberalism and Christianity diverge at this point. Machen challenges liberal doctrine on the atonement, and then defends its necessity. Because of their minimizing of the atonement, they then attack the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But the biggest problem that liberals have with the cross and salvation is that it is dependent on history, and they lack confidence in the authentic history of Scripture. Christianity is “dependent upon history.”11 Without the cross, there is no good news, because then there is no way to deal with sin. Thus, the liberals seek to create an entirely inoffensive gospel that negates sin and the necessity of the cross in dealing with sin. Liberal preachers get sick of an angry God. But the Bible speaks of this fact. As opposed to the soft God of modern liberals, Christianity holds to a God who is alive and sovereign. And so we must see that “at the beginning of every Christian life, there stands, not a process, but a definite act of God.”12 Again, Christianity and liberalism diverge at the topic of faith: Christianity is based on faith, liberalism is based on legalism. While liberalism pits spiritual religion against ceremonialism, Paul pits God’s free grace against human merit.13 Machen then responds to the issue of social gospel and responds with the fact that the Christian gospel first deals with the problem of sin rather than dealing with the problems in society first. He focuses on the fact that Christianity focuses on the act of God in history while liberalism tells men to be good.

In this final section, Machen explains the liberal and Christian conception of Church. Here he contrasts the importance of social institutions in liberalism and the social institution of the Church. The Church is the only place where we experience true brotherhood. While the liberals erase creed, Machen maintains that human society can only be truly built by redeemed men and that central institution is the Church. Here he gets into matters of trying to remove liberalism from the church. Even though they don’t hold to a creed, real Christianity does hold to a creed. He then focuses on challenging pastors and makes a clear distinction to really hold the teachers in the church to account. He then challenges those who seek the ministry in order to promote their liberalism. He urges preachers to speak the Word with power and concludes with a call to unity with integrity.

This is part of a paper that I wrote on Christianity & Liberalism for Church History class at CRTs.

1 Machen, 52.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 7.

4 Ibid., 16.

5 Ibid., 75.

6 Ibid., 84.

7 Ibid., 93.

8 Ibid., 104.

9 Ibid., 109.

10 Ibid., 117.

11 Ibid., 121.

12 Ibid., 140.

13 Ibid., 144.

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