Book Club: Christianity & Liberalism – Ch. 1 & Introduction

MachenAs a Presbyterian minister, I often witness bewildered looks from folks when they start asking about different denominations. We are PCA, but not the PCUSA. The church downtown is EPC and that other church used to be PCUSA, but now they are EOC. Well, in that Presbyterian alphabet soup is the OPC, the Orthodox Presbyterian Chruch. The denomination was founded largely through the efforts of Dr. J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) in response to the theological liberalism and controversy in the mainline denomination. He was also instrumental in founding Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. Thus I find I am indebted to Machen not only for maintaining his biblical convictions and theology but also for his labors which would result in the bookstore I love to frequent online. The OPC website describes Machen as “arguably the most important conservative Protestant thinker of the first half of the twentieth century and the guiding light for the first generation of Orthodox Presbyterians.” I would say he is at least up there in the top ten. In fact, it is true that a study of Presbyterian history will give someone the broad scope of the history of Christian theology in America.

Machen’s purpose and the problem the church faces

Well, let’s dive in. Prior to the founding of the OPC, Eerdmans published a book by Machen in 1923 entitled Christianity & Liberalism. Machen begins by stating the purpose of his book which is simply “to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself (1).” The reason for this is Machen’s observation that people don’t seem to use clear definitions anymore. Many are content to use traditional Christian words and phrases but fill them with new meaning. It is this willingness to redefine doctrines and terms which Machen feels makes theological liberalism so dangerous to the Christian faith.

He roots this in the inherent skepticism of modern scientific approaches as they are applied to other fields of study like religion. He does not argue that science and religion are two separate spheres. Quite the opposite. Religion has many scientific aspects to it. The problem is the assumption of a materialist perspective (the belief that only matter exists) which would by definition exclude anything supernatural.

The church’s rash response

The church’s response is not acceptable. Many church leaders have adopted a posture of making one concession after another and have retreated so far doctrinally they haven’t realized they abandoned the core content of the Christian faith. In fact, they have embraced an entirely different religion. Machen writes,

“What the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category (7).”

He continues warning,

“It may appear further that the fears of the modern man as to Christianity were entirely ungrounded, and that in abandoning the embattled walls of the city of God he has fled in needless panic into the open plains of a vague natural religion only to fall an easy victim to the enemy who ever lies in ambush there (7).”

The problem is not one of malicious intent. The problem is that in seeking to “rescue” Christianity from the modern era of materialist skepticism, we have lost the thing we sought to protect. To remove anything which a materialist may object to would be to remove the supernatural and thus gut the very gospel we hold dear. In the end, we are left with vague principles which amount to little more significance than a fortune cookie.

Machen then states the 2 grounds of criticism of liberalism: 1) the ground that it is un-Christian and 2) the ground that it is unscientific (7). His book elaborates upon the first ground contending that “the liberal attempt reconciling Christianity with modern science had really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity (7).” Machen spends the remainder of the chapter arguing that this well-intentioned retreat has had detrimental effects upon both the church and society.

Theological liberalism & utilitarianism

Machen notes there are those who will dismiss any talk of this issue either because they believe the orthodox Christian faith or because they have already discarded it. At any rate, Machen is alarmed at the combination of liberal theology and a utilitarian ethic resulting in a society which values the good of the whole over the individual rights of man. The reason for this is that there is more to man than just the common good of society. For what is happiness? What is good? How do we determine and define these concepts? Scripture teaches us that man is more than his stomach. A community is more than the values of the collective. Machen’s writes “in the midst of material achievements of modern life, one may well ask the question whether in gaining the whole world we have not lost our own soul (15).”

So what is the answer? It is a recovery of the gospel, the message of grace. It is nothing short of a “new Reformation” which will bring “light and freedom to mankind (16).”

Personal reflections

In our own time, we are not wrestling with the exact same issues as Machen. He was fighting the principles of modernity as they were wrongly applied to the faith. The fruit of modernity was post-modernism. Truth, morality, and knowledge were relativized and we saw the rise of the individual as the sole arbiter of truth. Now we are in another period we can’t even define. It seems to be an amalgam of modernism and post-modernism which prizes the utilitarianism of modernism with a vague spirituality of post-modernism which above all values the self and personal experience. It is a strange time to be alive.

With Machen, we do note the general indifference, even disdain, toward doctrine in the church. Doctrine is still viewed by many as arid, dry and irrelevant. Additionally, we don’t take time to define words or concepts when we disagree with someone. Perhaps this is because we aren’t actually interested in listening to them or getting to the heart of the matter.  It seems difficult to even to have a healthy exchange of ideas without being accused of being attacking or mean.

Like Machen, I believe what is needed is a recovery of the gospel. That’s a very preacher thing to say, I know. But it is not adopting the right political philosophy which will solve the problems in our souls. It is not changing church policies that will bring congregational renewal. Further, the theological liberalism Machen fought against is still alive today in mainline denominations and the many individuals who say they are spiritual, even Christian, yet claim no actual religious affiliation. In order to speak with conviction, clarity, and compassion we need to understand what is at stake and define accurately the various positions on the issue. We need to be clear in our own minds what the answer is, why it is true, and why our hope is sure.

This chapter was a bit all over the place as Machen was surveying the problem his book is addressing. Next time we will look at chapter 2 on doctrine, how everyone has it and why it matters.

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