Review: Christianity and Liberalism
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.
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.