Book Club: Christianity & Liberalism – Ch.3 “God and Man”

Machen(Earlier posts: Part 1, Part 2) Prior to the purchase of our home, we had an inspection done. One of the things I was particularly paranoid about was the foundation. I wanted to be sure we had a house that was sound from the ground up. This is true of our belief systems as well. We have a foundation of beliefs we call presuppositions which support the beliefs we build upon them. But many people have never examined their theological foundation and whether or not it might have some serious cracks in it. Machen challenges us to do this in chapter 3 as he focuses on two chief doctrines: the doctrine of God and the doctrine of man. To speak of the gospel is to speak of the relationship between God and man. Since we have a situation where two groups are using the same words differently it requires orthodox Christians and theological liberals to clearly define the vocabulary.

The liberal God: Universal Father

It is immediately objected by theological liberals that when we are dealing with God we are not required to have any specific “conception” of God for “the knowledge of God…is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but merely feel his presence” (54). This is not possible, as Machen argues, for if we are to have affection for this God then we must know something about him, his character and actions. “Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just bristling with dogma” (55). Therefore it is of the utmost importance that we have some definite and reliable knowledge of God for this is the basis of true Christianity.

The liberal response is to say that we need a practical, not theoretical knowledge of God. Thus all we need to know about God we learn from Jesus. Now orthodox Christianity agrees with this to some extent for Jesus is the revelation of God for our salvation. Further, theoretical knowledge must be practical as well. However, we must recognize that a conception of God existed prior to Jesus’ birth and Jesus himself even spoke of how we learn of God from the created order and even the moral law (55). The idea that we must sacrifice the theoretical for the practical is another iteration of jettisoning doctrine in favor of experience.

The primary liberal conception of God put forward is God as the universal father of all mankind. This is touted as getting to the real essence of Christianity. The chief problem here though, Machen writes, is that Jesus nowhere taught of the universal fatherhood of God (59). There is no text to point to for it. We do say that God is the father of creation and we are his children for he made us. But to say this applies to every usage of “father” by Jesus or the New Testament writers is to go too far. It cannot be supported by consistent exegesis. The real problem with this doctrine is not how inclusive it is, but how it falls so very short of the robust, grace-filled language which pertains to God being “Father” to his people. Machen writes, “Ordinarily the lofty term ‘Father’ is used to describe a relationship of a far more intimate kind, the relationship in which God stands in the company of the redeemed” (61).

According to Machen, the effect of this doctrine is to deny the transcendence of God. In this way of thinking, God is “Father” because he identifies himself with the world to such a degree that we can apply the name of God to the world itself. To some degree, we can say that we are a part of God. But this will not do. The Biblical conception of God has a clear distinction between the creator and the creature. To say otherwise is to embrace a form of pantheism which holds that creation and God are one and the same.

Liberal man: Man is fundamentally good so let’s stop talking about sin

Historically Christianity has taught that man was created good, but in the fall became marred by sin and corrupt in his nature. We are born in iniquity and we add to our guilt by sinful thoughts, words, and deeds such that we are, apart from his mercy, under the just condemnation of God. But theological liberalism has jettisoned the very idea of sin along with the belief of the corruption of man. Under liberalism, man is basically good. Man only acts badly because he is a victim of propaganda or some other outside actor.

Machen argues that this is not a Christian understanding of man. Rather it is far more pagan for “paganism…finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties” (65).” If a man could be just left alone from outside influences he would do just fine. Thus the contrast is presented between paganism and Christianity, “Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart” (65).

Machen doesn’t mean that the heart stays broken. Rather as the person comes under conviction of their sin, as they are confronted with the ways they have sinned against God and neighbor, as they apprehend their sinful condition before God they are grieved; their pride is shattered. But in the gospel, their sin is dealt with, their guilt is removed by the grace of God in Christ (66). The liberal prescription is to deny sin exists, to ignore it and to encourage the goodness inside each person. The problem with this is that in denying the problem, we deny the remedy. If we accept the premise that we are basically good apart from God, then what need have we of grace? We are merely good people seeking to be better. There is in this respect no need for repentance nor a cross or even a resurrection. For what need do the righteous have of a cross? Machen concludes,

“Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. The preacher gets up into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and addresses the congregation somewhat as follows: ‘You people are very good,’ he says; ‘you respond to every appeal that looks toward the welfare of the community. Now we have in the Bible–especially in the life of Jesus–something so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people.’  Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He. (68, emphasis mine)”

Personal Reflections

In my conversations with people inside and outside the church, I find all too often a high concept of man and a low concept of God. This is not surprising. Most of our cultural entertainment is written, viewed and heard communicating the goodness and infinite potential of man. When it comes to God, he is often portrayed as a “senile benevolence” (C.S. Lewis) approving of almost every action, and not really minding the others. I think our culture conditions us to think that we are not that bad and thus God and his grace are not that good or even necessary.

We have certainly seen sin as a category be denied in much of the church. Although I have found it interesting that recently those who deny traditional biblical categories like sin will talk a lot about shame for their political opponents. Michael Horton has written that if we are not that bad, then grace is not that good. Thus a doctrine which makes God into some sort of life-coach, disinterested deity or bland force of positivity and man into the good actor doing his best to make himself better may be a religion, but it is not Christianity.

Chichè it may be to say, yet true it remains that the message of Christianity is defined by the grace of the Holy God toward sinful man. The first two vows of membership for our church summarize it well:

  1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
  2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?

The first question speaks to the broken heart of man. The second addresses how that heart is made clean and whole forever: repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus. Thus we can sing of our great hope,

“My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus name.”

Truly, there can be no greater foundation than that.

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