Review: Christianity and Liberalism

Christianity and LiberalismChristianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I apologize to the internet for not giving this classic five stars, but it simply didn’t quite reach the level of incisiveness and helpfulness for me in my situation that Packer’s analysis in “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God reached. It was, nonetheless, excellent. It was sad to see that we are facing some of the very same issues today, and in exactly the same way, that he faced in the early 20th century. This could have been written yesterday:

Religion, it is said, is so entirely separate from science, that the two, rightly defined, cannot possibly come into conflict. This attempt at separation, as it is hoped the following pages may show, is open to objections of the most serious kind. But what must now be observed is that even if the separation is justifiable it cannot be effected without effort; the removal of the problem of religion and science itself constitutes a problem. For, rightly or wrongly, religion during the centuries has as a matter of fact connected itself with a host of convictions, especially in the sphere of history, which may form the subject of scientific investigation; just as scientific investigators, on the other hand, have sometimes attached themselves, again rightly or wrongly, to conclusions which impinge upon the innermost domain of philosophy and of religion.

And this:

In trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science, in trying to bribe off the enemy by those concessions which the enemy most desires, the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend. Here as in many other departments of life it appears that the things that are sometimes thought to be hardest to defend are also the things that are most worth defending.

I repeatedly had the feeling that I had heard these arguments all my life—from people who must have gotten them from Machen. This, for example, is what I’ve always been taught by my teachers and my current feeling exactly:

Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity-liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.

The objections to inerrancy which have been presented to me in the last two months as fresh insights were familiar to Machen:

The doctrine of plenary inspiration does not deny the individuality of the Biblical writers; it does not ignore their use of ordinary means for acquiring information; it does not involve any lack of interest in the historical situations which gave rise to the Biblical books. What it does deny is the presence of error in the Bible. It supposes that the Holy Spirit so informed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into the errors that mar all other books. The Bible might contain an account of a genuine revelation of God, and yet not contain a true account. But according to the doctrine of inspiration, the account is as a matter of fact a true account; the Bible is an “infallible rule of faith and practice.”

If Machen is to be thought a brash fundamentalist for his carefully arranged, beautifully written take-downs of theological liberalism, just listen to his heart:

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Were we not safer with a God of our own devising-love and only love, a Father and nothing else, one before whom we could stand in our own merit without fear? He who will may be satisfied with such a God. But we, God help us-sinful as we are, we would see Jehovah. Despairing, hoping, trembling, half-doubting and half-believing, trusting all to Jesus, we venture into the presence of the very God. And in His presence we live.

Machen was trying to preserve not just doctrine but piety.

And Machen was willing to let God judge individuals; he did not assume that all his opponents were wrong on every point but was willing to give grace where he could and let God preserve their souls. But he also saw an internal dynamic within liberalism that made its tenets into a slippery slope which I still see:

The plain fact is that liberalism, whether it be true or false, is no mere “heresy”-no mere divergence at isolated points from Christian teaching. On the contrary it proceeds from a totally different root, and it constitutes, in essentials, a unitary system of its own. That does not mean that all liberals hold all parts of the system, or that Christians who have been affected by liberal teaching at one point have been affected at all points. There is sometimes a salutary lack of logic which prevents the whole of a man’s faith being destroyed when he has given up a part. But the true way in which to examine a spiritual movement is in its logical relations; logic is the great dynamic, and the logical implications of any way of thinking are sooner or later certain to be worked out. And taken as a whole, even as it actually exists to-day, naturalistic liberalism is a fairly unitary phenomenon; it is tending more and more to eliminate from itself illogical remnants of Christian belief. It differs from Christianity in its view of God, of man, of the seat of authority and of the way of salvation. And it differs from Christianity not only in theology but in the whole of life.

A classic for good reason. A real pleasure. And a real sadness.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

4 thoughts on “Review: Christianity and Liberalism”

  1. I appreciate your passion and focus. I had commented on your “Freedom from Inerrancy” post, and I was glad for the dialogue. I opted to delay (or back out altogether from) replying to see if others had anything to say. Didn’t want to hijack. But when you mentioned “objections to inerrancy which have been presented to me in the last two months” here, I perked up. You quote Machen (whose Gk. grammar I have since my dad used it, but which I haven’t used) as saying,

    The doctrine of plenary inspiration does not deny the individuality of the Biblical writers; it does not ignore their use of ordinary means for acquiring information; it does not involve any lack of interest in the historical situations which gave rise to the Biblical books.

    I’m pretty much with (you and) Machen so far. I would agree with the overall import of that statement, but the problem I see is that it flattens scripture, considering it one *thing* whereas the reality is that it is many books brought into a collection. (That much seems clear; I personally take by faith that God has been active in the collecting.) As you purposed to do a couple paragraphs later, it is entirely advisable to “focus on an individual scriptural text”; in well doing so, we will increase our chances of “hearing” God rather than mashing a bunch of texts into one and hoping they speak to the same thing in the same context.

    What it does deny is the presence of error in the Bible. It supposes that the Holy Spirit so informed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into the errors that mar all other books.”

    Here is where we appear to differ (for now). I wonder whether Machen himself would have modified or clarified that view, now many decades later. I find the claim of lack of error in the Bible untenable in this day and age (not so with the honest conviction that adds “in the original manuscripts,” and this “original manuscripts” appendix is itself the key to whether it’s untenable or not. I don’t personally hold that the original manuscripts were free of “error,” in part because I think that forces a modern conception onto ancient documents, and because of Babel, etc. (as before), but I can respect the faith-conviction that believes the words as such are God-breathed. I surely hope that my study of Greek and my persistent engagement in exegetical study would head off any thought that I don’t care about the words of the Bible. I absolutely do. I want to understand them better, or I wouldn’t do what I do. But that doesn’t mean that accepting the concept (as I understand it) of verbal inspiration is required. Scripture doesn’t appear to claim that, and the way our respected biblical authors sometimes treat other scripture seems to undercut the “inerrancy” that I understand much of fundamentalism to require.

    In the earlier dialogue on the Inerrancy post, in the context of Babel’s influence on human communication, you had challenged me good-naturedly to give an example of a wordless idea. Of course I can’t. Not in this format, and not with words, anyway. 🙂 But in our recent small group gathering, I can assert with all certainty that there were ideas communicated without words. You also appeared to morph my idea that “getting the basic idea” meant “get the general gist,” and you probably didn’t know that I meant something much more than “gist” by “basic.” I’m not that lackadaisical. Try this: the fundamental essence, the intentional root of things is more important to God than anyone’s understanding of verbal nuances.

    Grateful for the opportunity to share here and just as grateful that you offered, “Let’s keep talking as possible.”

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