J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009, 152 pp., paperback, £9.47
“Christianity & Liberalism” is a polemic writing on the emergence of liberalism as an ideology in the modern world, among Christians, and churches. It is often referred to as “the classic defence of Christian orthodoxy”. In his book Gresham Machen provides a defence for traditional Christianity against the liberal attacks on several fundamental beliefs. Written at a time when liberalism already gained territory in most areas of life, “Christianity & Liberalism” remains relevant today when liberalism has become the new norm in many churches around the world.
In the introduction to his book, Machen provides the context in which liberalism emerged in America. Rooted in naturalism and in the denial of the creative power of God, liberalism is described as a destructive type of religion as it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. Liberalism can be tackled on two lines of criticism: (1) on the ground that it is un-Christian, and (2) on the ground that it is unscientific. Machen’s book is aimed at dealing with the former line of criticism. The modern world of liberalism, argues Machen, shows improvements in science and in conditions of life, but proves loss in the spiritual realm. Moreover, as well as in the world of art and literature, the political context in America shows a decline as materialism infiltrates society and even children’s education.
In chapter two of his book Machen discusses the core difference between Christianity and liberalism—the doctrine. Machen remarks the various ways in which liberal pastors would rather avoid doctrine for the sake of church unity—an issue which is ever more predominant today. The doctrines taught by apostle Paul in his epistles are again unfavourable to the modern liberal pastor. Instead, a more accessible option would be the moral teaching of Jesus, that being stripped of the value of the atonement. Although essential, doctrine is not in opposition to exhortation; holy living is a result of a transformed life, affirms Machen. However, doctrine is not equally important. Machen adds that different views on eschatology, sacraments, church polity and even the separation from Rome are less harmful than liberalism itself. What Machen stressed here and all throughout the book is that “naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all” (43). This is a truth that is ever more blurred today when self-professing Christians hold proudly to the label of “liberal Christian”.
In the next chapter Machen addresses the subject of God and man. He identifies the shift in understanding the differences between the Creator and the creature. With the rise of liberalism, the distinction between the two is constantly reduced in favour of man. Machen holds that the core of this problem is the elimination of the concept of sin. Consequently, when sin is left out of the equation, the gulf that separates man from the Creator becomes non-existent. As Machen eloquently puts it, “the consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching” but today that is replaced by the “supreme confidence in human goodness” (55).
Chapter four is dedicated to defending the doctrine of plenary inspiration of Scripture. This is a key subject with a high relevance today as more and more passages of Scripture pose a challenge for liberal churches. What becomes increasingly evident today was already clear for Machen almost a century ago—that is that liberalism is founded upon “the shifting emotions of sinful men” (67). Sitting in contrast to liberalism, Christianity is founded upon the unchangeable Biblical truth. A couple of points are worth mentioning here. First, Machen attempts to distinguish liberals from those Christians who believe the Bible to be essentially right in its “account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors” (64). The second point which is another issue increasingly present today is the tendency of the modern liberals to substitute the authority of the Bible for the authority of Christ, as if the two were incompatible. Perhaps a more familiar example found today is the alleged distinction between the Old Testament God together with most of the apostle Paul’s teaching of the New Testament from the teaching of Jesus recorded in the four gospel books.
That ties in with the next chapter as Machen continues by tackling the issue of the liberals’ misconception of Jesus. He sums it up by saying that modern liberalism regards Jesus as an example while Christianity, as a Saviour; liberalism regards Jesus as an example for faith while Christianity, the object of faith. One of the most common liberal approaches to Jesus and the Bible is to deny the concept of supernatural and the miracles. In his defence of the Christian belief, Machen returns to the core issue that divides God from man—the sin. He writes that the conviction of the reality of sin causes acceptance of the supernatural. Without it there is no appreciation of the uniqueness of Jesus. Moreover, a fundamental remark is made here to say that a generalisation that all men are sinners is insufficient. True conviction depends upon the revelation of God’s law.
In chapter six Machen discusses the issue of salvation. It is unsurprising that the liberal understanding of salvation will differ from that of Christianity as with all the previous subjects. Machen identifies a few ways in which liberal pastors strip the atonement of Christ of its full value. Among others Machen lists: placing the emphasis on Jesus’ self-sacrifice, His hate of sin, and God’s love for His people. While all of these are truths found in the Scripture, the atonement is not taught as being substitutionary—a major issue which denies the moral order, adds Machen. The author also writes here about some of the liberals’ objections to Christian orthodoxy such as: salvation being dependent on one isolated historical event, and the offensive exclusivity of Jesus being the only way to salvation. One other aspect discussed by Machen in this chapter that is worth mentioning is the liberal preaching that seeks joyful religion. As most of the issues discussed this is especially evident in so many evangelical churches today. In practice Machen describes this as the attempt by the modern preacher to eliminate every unpleasant doctrine which leaves the congregation uninterested. Some may refer to this as the preaching of “cheap grace”. Of course, Machen would not leave this subject without providing a defence of the true faith and the necessity for a supernatural rebirth—another notion disputed by the liberals.
In his final chapter Machen’s analysis culminates with a discussion about the church. By way of concluding his treatise he brings together the effects of the modern liberals as one destructive manifestation in the church and tries to provide solutions for the body of Christ against their influence. A couple of important remarks are worth mentioning here. First, Machen identifies the cause of liberalism in the church as the result of having openly liberals (non-Christians) admitted as members and even as pastors or teachers in the church. This results in a division between liberals who desire a church with no authoritative Bible or doctrinal requirements, and conservatives who desire the very opposite. The effect of a mixed church as such is the Christianity being attacked from within on views about God and man, the seat of authority in the church and even the way of salvation.
Overall “Christianity & Liberalism” is a book that still speaks today and perhaps even more so than almost a century ago. The evolution of liberalism in society and in churches makes this a valuable resource on the topic. The only criticism would be on the author’s exposition of some pieces of legislation passed in the United States around the time this book was written. Although related to the subject discussed, these remarks may seem a bit difficult to engage the reader almost a hundred years on. Despite these commentaries, the book is highly relevant for every church leader and ordinary Christian alike. It serves as a warning against liberal tendencies in corporate worship and church polity today.