J. Gresham Machen’s main burden in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, is to make a clear distinction between true Christianity and what had, by that time, been termed as liberalism. It was primarily within the context of the unparalleled advances in industry, technology, and science of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that liberalism began to take form. Contrary to what some may believe today, liberalism did not begin as a bold-faced attempt to undermine Biblical Christianity; rather, it grew out of a growing need to address serious questions confronting Christianity at a time of such cultural upheaval and change: “What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age” (6)?
Unfortunately liberalism, in its attempt to ‘rescue’ the truths of Christianity in an age where the historical and scientific accounts in Scripture where being heavily questioned and disregarded, actually began to abandon those tenets of the faith that appeared to be in contradiction with modern science. Thus, liberal teachers sought to “rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting the ‘essence of Christianity'”(6). For example, if a bodily resurrection seemed incongruous with a modern understanding of science, then liberalism attempted to demonstrate that such teaching in Scripture, though perhaps not historically true, was symbolic of Christ’s permanent influence or a “mere spiritual existence of Jesus beyond the grave” (108). As a result, Christianity could maintain its credence within the modern age, while at the same time preserving its religious form.
Consequently, liberalism inserted new content into Christian language and in their endeavor to make Christianity more believable, actually turned away from the historic Christian faith. As such, liberalism, in Machen’s mind, cannot be considered merely another denomination of Christianity, or even a weakened system of Christianity, but rather a whole other religion, altogether separate from Christianity.
The need for a lucid demarcation between Biblical Christianity and liberalism is especially important because, as we have already observed, and as Machen substantiates throughout the rest of the book, liberalism makes use of traditional Christian language, yet the content of that language is vastly different than that of historic Christianity. Throughout the main body of the text, Machen deals with seven areas where liberalism has departed from historic Christianity: doctrine and its attendant importance in the life of God’s people, God, man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the Church. In each section, he examines the subject matter by first accurately presenting the liberal position, and then by contrasting this teaching over against the historic Biblical position.
In the last few pages of the book, Machen offers four suggestions to Christian men in general and Christian officers of the Church in particular as to their duty in such a time. They must: 1) approach this situation proactively and encourage other Christians to do the same; they should never approach such a situation with intellectual indifference, but powerfully, accurately and truthfully, with faithfulness to Christ and His Word; 2) establish and clearly delineate the qualifications for teachers within the church so that Christians will not be harmed by liberal preaching which utilizes traditional language yet betrays the traditional meaning of that language; 3) display their loyalty to the Church in the capacity of an individual member by showing the utmost concern with who is installed as pastor over the congregation; and 4) give primary place to the renewal of Christian education within the Church (173-176).
On the whole, Machen’s work is commendable and worthy of emulation in several respects. The first area of strength in this treatise that perhaps could go unnoticed in light of more explicit strengths, is Machen’s courage to deal with this particular issue. It is rarely ever easy to approach controversy and deal with important theological issues head on. It will often bring severe reaction from opponents, anger from those who misunderstand your arguments or your intentions, and a whole host of other relational problems. But Machen takes on this issue of liberalism’s abandonment of Biblical Christianity with clarity and a forthright handling of the issues. There is no question what he thinks—he is honest and straightforward about his deep concerns for the liberal position and, out of love for Christ’s church (the kind of love that does not rejoice in unrighteousness – I Corinthians 13:6), seeks to establish an easily discernible portrayal of the massive divide between true Christianity and liberalism. He does not want confusion to settle in at any level.
A second strength of this book, and a strength that needs to be considered directly after the reflection of Machen’s courage, is Machen’s fair handling of the liberal position. Machen, it is obvious, does not love controversy for the sake of controversy; he loves truth, and therefore is compelled to establish the truth where it has been undermined. It would be contradictory for Machen to misrepresent the liberal position if he believes it is the liberal position that is misrepresenting the Biblical position. Machen does not blanket the liberal position with a simplistic “That is wrong, this is right” approach. Rather, he seeks to go deep into the liberal position, and while affirming the truths of their position, the brilliance of their argument (in some cases) and the nobility of their intentions, he demonstrates from history, logic, and Scripture why their particular position is wrong. Machen does not make ad hominem attacks on those of the liberal persuasion—he deals with arguments primarily, not people.
Machen will even welcome objections insofar as they help better establish the truth. This, I think, is a mark of tremendous spiritual maturity and keen discernment. He is not afraid of opposing arguments; he is confident that the truth will stand. For example, in the discussion of the nature of Christ’s humanity, Machen argues that one cannot model his religious life exactly according to Jesus’ religious life, since Jesus, unlike us, did not have to deal with the issue of sin in His relationship with God. The objection to this is that Christ can no longer be considered our “Brother” and “Example.” Machen replies, not by blasting such a notion, but rather by saying, “The objection is welcome, since it helps us to avoid misunderstandings and exaggerations. Certainly if our zeal for the greatness and uniqueness of Jesus led us so to separate Him from us that He could no longer be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, the result would be disastrous; Jesus’ coming would lose much of its significance” (92). Here Machen exemplifies Paul’s instruction to “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21).
However, I think it is necessary, and specifically at this point, to highlight a particular weakness in Machen’s work; namely, his lack of providing exact quotes and citations. Granted, Machen’s work is not a doctoral dissertation—it is intended to be read and digested by the general Christian public and particularly Church leaders, not a small circle of academicians who (rightly so) insist on very strict referencing of resources. But Machen’s work, because it is polemic in nature and deals with opposing arguments, loses some strength because it does not demonstrate, thoroughly enough, from where these arguments originate. There are citations in the book; do not misunderstand me. But they are often times not specific enough, and I think it is here that Machen’s book could be improved. Toward the end of the book, Machen indicates that he has been listening to the sermons and reading the books of “recent liberal preachers.” His conclusion about these men are that they are “untroubled by the problem of sin, so devoid of all sympathy for a guilty humanity [and] prone to abuse and ridicule the things dearest to the heart of every Christian man” (173). These are serious indictments. How much more powerful his argument, perhaps, if we could have seen citations and exact quotes from the liberal point of view that led to these stinging conclusions.
It is easy to read a polemic work and immediately dismiss it because the reader is afraid that the opposing view is not well represented. Machen, though I do think he was fair in his overall approach to the liberal position—he is careful to recognize and acknowledge truth and solid argument when he finds it—I think he could have better guarded himself from other readers forming a prejudice against his book by more precisely citing his sources and by providing a larger number of exact quotations.
Yet, we must not fault him too much here. Despite this weakness, Machen’s book remains a helpful tool in understanding not only the reality of liberalism and its inherent dangers, but also in training our minds to clearly see the subtle yet significant distinctions between true Christianity and its imposters. How easily it is to be led away by that which appears to be true. When warning the Colossians about some false teaching encroaching on their church, Paul does not warn the Colossian brethren to keep an eye out for obvious and flagrant deceivers. No, the enemy is much more crafty than that. He comes with plausible arguments (Colossians 2:4) and as an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14). He might even use the same language we are used to hearing. But the discerning mind will see past appearances and make the righteous judgment (John 7:24), thus keeping his soul and the souls of those around him safe from harm. If this be the fruit of Machen’s work, then we should pause to praise God for His mercy to us and thank Him for providing such a gift to His Church.
Machen’s work also provokes more questions in my mind, not because of a lack of material in his book, but because I desire to better understand how we can apply the truths outlined in Christainity and Liberalism to today’s circumstances. Is this kind of linguistic slight-of-hand occurring today? Where and in what form? Are there movements today that are, out of good intention, endeavoring to contextualize the gospel, yet are abandoning the faith that they are seeking to proclaim. How can we expose this? And when we do find fault, are we laboring to present the opposing views honestly and accurately so that Christ will not be discredited by our devious proliferation of the truth? May God grant us minds that clearly discern such things and hearts that feel appropriate compassion, not only for our people, but also for those who promote such error.