Book Club: Christianity & Liberalism – Concluding Thoughts

Machen(Earlier posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6a, part 6b, part 7)

Mark Twain said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” To some degree that was how I felt about this book. It is a work referenced often in seminary and pastoral writings, but one that has sat on my shelf for years. I can’t say that I discovered anything particularly new, but that is part of the point of the book.

Machen wrote this 95 years ago and the issues which he is concerned with remain relevant for the church today. Machen’s primary concern in this book was to show that liberal Christianity is not merely an adaptation of Christianity, but is a different religion entirely. And this is not because there are just some minor disagreements on tertiary doctrinal issues or the best way to form a committee. There have been changes to core doctrines which must be acknowledged.

What we believe matters

At what point does a person depart from the Christian faith? Too often it is just defined by individuals along doctrines and preferences they hold dear. One primary question for us is “How crucial is the doctrine?” Al Mohler has spoken about how there are primary, secondary and tertiary levels of doctrine. Christians can disagree on the second and third levels and still maintain fellowship as believers. These issues of doctrine would include things like baptism, church government, dispensational vs covenant theology, etc. Disagreement on these issues may prevent us from gathering together in church on Sunday, but we would remain brothers and sisters in Christ. The first level doctrines would be doctrines like the Trinity, atonement, the deity and humanity of Christ, etc. These doctrines deal primarily with God and the Gospel.  If these doctrines are compromised then there can be no Christian fellowship these doctrines make up the very definition of what a Christian is.

If I told you that I played football you might rightly ask me what team I play for. If I said, “I’m actually not on any team” you might ask if I practice or did I mean recreationally in a local league. If then I said “no” you might ask if I watch football on TV and perhaps am just a passionate fan, but I answer in the negative, you would be very confused as to why I would identify myself as a football player. But this is what we do with Christianity. It is one of the few things socially we have relegated to the mind of the individual such that as long as someone sincerely claims to be a Christian we are not allowed to demand any corroborative evidence to validate their claim. If I say I am a Christian, but I reject the deity of Christ, the necessity of the atonement, the miracle of the resurrection then how can I say that I am truly a Christian?

I appreciated how Machen differentiated between essential and important doctrines when he said that even those who rejected the inspiration of the scriptures were still believers because they still profess the true gospel. But there does come a time when we have to own up to what we believe and if we are out of line with the historic gospel of the scriptures then we need to admit it. Continuing to maintain that we are Christians while rejecting the core doctrines of the Christian faith is intellectually dishonest. I understand the argument though. People believe they are advancing the Christian faith, bringing it in line with modern science and modern values. They are saving the church. But we have seen that those churches and denominations which have “updated” their beliefs actually have and continue to decline. It turns out that those who hold to updated theology actually don’t see much reason for going to church.

We need a new reformation

This is Presbyterian for “we need a revival of religion.” The answer isn’t to purge the church of unbelievers or blast the liberals or progressives or whatever terminology is in vogue at the moment. What is not needed is a heating of rhetoric, but rhetoric used in the way it should be: as a means for persuasively communicating truth. And that truth we need to recover and profess is the gospel.

When it comes to information we are very much like survivors on a lifeboat in the ocean. We are surrounded by water, but we cannot trust it. We thirst for truth surrounded by a sea of misinformation. If there is to be a recovery it must begin in the church and it must begin with the recovery of the gospel and a love for doctrine. But that doctrine must not be simply dry theological lectures. Our theology must fuel our worship. This important so we can give worship that is acceptable to God. It is also important because our theology must grab hold of our affections. It must transform our desires so that we actually want what God wants. That is when change comes. Obviously, this can only be done by the Holy Spirit as he works through the means of grace. And that is my prayer.

Well, that’s it for this book. I’m not sure what I am working on next. I will probably do some book reviews. I have appreciated the feedback and requests for other topics and books. If you have suggestions, criticisms or anything in between, feel free to contact me.