Book Club: Christianity & Liberalism – Ch. 2 “Doctrine”


J.G.MachenBefore we jump into the meat, let’s take a quick look at the sandwich. Machen (right) has established the problem of theological liberalism. He argues that in seeking rescue the faith from modernity theologians and pastors have actually emptied Christianity of its most crucial content (See part 1). He will explore why in the chapters focusing on doctrine itself (ch.2) and specific doctrines such as the doctrines of God and man (ch.3), the Bible (ch.4), Christ (ch.5), salvation (ch.6), and the church (ch.7). Now that we have our travel itinerary (and mixed some metaphors) let’s move on to our next scheduled stop: Doctrine.

Rejecting doctrine for experience

Machen begins the chapter by noting the lack of concern by theological liberals for maintaining a faith which is connected historically to the past. What people are really concerned about is offending others. In the name of avoiding offense, the church and its leaders are abandoning the specific formulation of doctrines in favor of personal experience in relationship with Jesus. The idea is that we don’t want to get bogged down in the particulars of theology. Rather we want to experience Jesus in the real world. Creeds are just an articulation of the church’s experience in the past and our present experience is equally valid. Therefore, they argue we don’t need creeds as much as we need to focus on the present experience and needs of the congregation. Machen argues that this flawed thinking presents us with two false choices.

The false choice of liberalism #1 – You can have Christian Doctrine or Christian Life, but not both.

Christianity, it is said, is about experience, not the old doctrines from hundreds of years ago. “Christianity is a life, not just a doctrine” (19). First, Machen points out that orthodox theologians are not the only ones who have doctrine. Everyone has doctrine. Further, he writes, “There are doctrines of modern liberalism, just as tenaciously and intolerantly upheld as any doctrines that find a place in the historic creeds” (18).

Second, a creed is not a record of communal experience. Rather it is a “setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based” (19). Even to say “Christianity is a life” is to make a declarative statement within the realm of history (19).

Third, the early church was creedal (doctrinal) from the beginning. There were certain propositions regarding Jesus which were at the center of the life of the church. The church also existed in the realm of history and can be studied as it progressed over the years. Thus Machen writes,

“But if any one fact is clear…it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, nor upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based on doctrine” (21).

It is false to say you must choose between Christian Doctrine and Christian life. The truth is you cannot have one without the other. To reject historically orthodox Christianity in favor of the “Christian life” is to really reject one doctrine for a different doctrine. In reality, you need both doctrine and life or, more accurately, a life lived according to Biblical doctrine.

The false choice of Liberalism #2 – You can have Jesus’ message or you can have Jesus, but not both.

The second choice is like the first, just more specific. When one adopts a position of liberalism what usually ends up happening is a separation of Jesus from the words he said or at the very least a very selective reading of his words. Machen summarizes:

“Should not our trust be in a Person rather than in a message; in Jesus, rather than what Jesus did; in Jesus’ character rather than in Jesus’ death?” (39).

Against this Machen argues that we are presented with a false choice contrary to the Bible’s testimony. Paul was very concerned about doctrine. He cites the example of Paul being shockingly tolerant of those who were preaching the gospel in order to stir up trouble for him while he was in prison. He said he was glad because they were preaching the message accurately. Contrast this to Galatians where Paul is livid at those who have preached a false gospel and those who have foolishly accepted it. Doctrine was of chief importance to Paul.

It was also important to the apostles. Their chief message in the book of Acts was not some vague message about a person, but specific truths about Jesus such as him being the messiah and risen from the dead. Machen writes,

“The great weapon with which the disciples of Jesus set out to conquer the world was not a mere comprehension of eternal principles; it was an historical message, an account of something that had recently happened, it was the message, ‘He is risen.'” (29).

The common answer liberalism gives to these objections raised according to the scriptures is to simply deny the authority of Paul and the Apostles. It is to say that they, well-intentioned as they were, perverted the Christianity of Jesus.

This brings us finally to the man himself. It is in Jesus that theological liberalism finds its champion. But that can only happen if we are very selective regarding what we believe Jesus said and believed about himself. Interestingly, Machen goes to the Sermon the Mount (Matthew 5-8), a favorite text of liberalism, to make his case. The problem with the liberal view of Jesus is that he is understood to be primarily a teacher of eternal truths for all mankind. Yet he speaks with an authority that no man can claim. He claims an authority above the prophets of old. For he doesn’t say, “The Lord says…” Jesus says, “I say to you…” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus puts himself as the one seated in authority to judge all mankind, to bless those he knows, and to cast out those he does not (Matt. 7:21-23). If anything, Jesus is more than a religious teacher unless we are prepared to simply ignore all the words Jesus says which don’t fit within the pre-set beliefs we are bringing to the text. Machen warns what will happen if we reduce Jesus down to a good teacher:

“Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls. Clothe Him will all the art of modern research, throw upon Him the warm, deceptive calcium-light of modern sentimentality; and despite it all common sense will come to its rights again, and for our brief hour of self-deception–as though we had been with Jesus–will wreak upon us the revenge of hopeless disillusionment” (41).

Machen argues that the only time the disciples thought Jesus was a good teacher was when he was in the tomb. And that was a time of “gloom and desperation” (42). It wasn’t warm thoughts about Jesus’ humanity and compassion that transformed their hearts, but the reality of the resurrection. The church did not come into form until there was the message of the resurrected Messiah.

“It is vain, then, to speak of reposing trust in the Person without believing the message. For trust involves a personal relation between the one who trusts and him in whom the trust is reposed” (44).

Thus we must deny the false choice between the message of Jesus and the person of Jesus. For we come to know and feel affection for a person based on our experience and knowledge of them.

The chief difference between liberalism and Christianity

Machen brings his argument to a close with this point: Christianity begins with a grand indicative while liberalism exists primarily in the imperative. Indicative is the statement of fact. The imperative is command and exhortation. Christianity begins with the declaration of the great salvation God has wrought in the death and resurrection of his son. The gospel lies not in some abstraction named Jesus, but in the facts concerning his person. Those facts concerning Jesus are found in the scriptural record. To deny those facts is to reject the person and create a new one even if this new being is called by the same name.

Further, the teaching of the Jesus of liberalism as a mere good teacher who inspires us to do good actually brings the audience under a new type of law: the law of the societal good. But it is a law that can never be fulfilled. On the other hand, Christianity is based upon the grand indicative that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (48). It is necessary to know that Jesus not only saved others but that he saved me. It is important for me to know I have a personal relationship (life/experience) with him. But I only know that by what I learn about Jesus in the scriptures such that I can make grand (doctrinal!) statements like, “He saved me from condemnation and gives me eternal life by faith alone.” This is Machen’s main point in this chapter. But as he closes he makes two important caveats.

Caveat #1 – True doctrine, truly believed affects the lives of Christians

When we believe in Jesus it will affect our lives. It will affect how we treat others and operate in the world. Doctrine and life are to work together. Machen states that it is a great sin when our life is not in accord with our doctrine. We call this hypocrisy. Yet this doesn’t excuse those who would do the reverse and use a noble life to promote a false message.

Caveat #2 – Not all doctrines are equally important

There are core doctrines upon which we must agree in order to rightly bear the name “Christian.” We can hold differences on subjects like the sacraments, the end times, Christian ministry, etc. and still be united around the gospel message. We can have genuine Christian fellowship even though we hold different positions on many doctrines as long as we can agree on the central doctrines of the faith which are arguably best summarized in the historic creeds (Apostles’s, Nicea, etc.).

Finally, just because we disagree with those who adhere to theological liberalism doesn’t mean we commit ourselves to be personally hostile toward anyone. There are many ways we can be connected to those who reject the orthodox faith that will allow us to serve side by side in many areas of life.

Personal reflections

It is hard to add much to this long chapter. But I did think about the false choices which are presented to us today. We are often presented with the choice between authenticity and truth. “I’m just doing me” or “Be true to yourself” are some of the most heavily marketed slogans today. The authority of personal experience has been exalted above the place of truth to such a degree that it is offensive to even suggest that our feelings may not correspond with reality.

Also, we can readily observe the unbending, nearly unthinking commitment to a certain dogma is a phenomenon which can be found both inside and outside the church. And this is because Machen is right: everyone has doctrine because everyone believes something about something. And whatever “truth” we ascribe to and however we articulate it, therein our doctrine lies. Therefore it is self-deceptive to say, “I don’t have a creed, I have Jesus.” If you reject the former, you might be rejecting the latter.

I am grateful that Christians don’t have to choose between doctrine and life or between Jesus and his message. The gospel is about the person and the work of Jesus. It is the glorious declaration of what God has done to save us from our sins according to the scriptures. By the Spirit’s power, we are united to Christ by faith, made alive, made new, adopted and given a new hope. Thus the imperatives (commands) in Christianity are founded upon and are given within the context of God’s grace and power. This is of the utmost comfort for me and the balm of my soul in this fractured world.

Phew! This week was a long one! Next week we tackle a much shorter chapter on the important assumptions people have regarding the doctrines of God and man and how that affects our view of both for good and for ill.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: