Christianity and Liberalism – J. Gresham Machen (Intro / Chapter 1 of 7)

J. Gresham Machen playlist

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The message of this famous classic of the Christian faith is more desperately needed in the 21st century than it was in the early 20th century. Since Machen wrote, the philosophical and theological trends that generated the issues he was addressing have become more firmly entrenched in the consciousness not only of the culture at large, but of evangelical Christianity in particular. The major thesis of this books is not that theological liberalism is bad, although Machen leaves little doubt of his opinion of it. Rather, the major thesis is that theologically liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all, and that toward every one of the most fundamental teachings of historic Christianity, theological liberalism takes an antithetical stance.

The position of the liberal church toward doctrine is that Christianity should be an undogmatic religion, unconcerned with theological subtleties. Christianity should be a life, not a system of doctrine. Certainly at this point, liberalism could not possibly be more firmly allied with contemporary mainstream evangelicalism. Anti-doctrinalism goes hand in hand with the two most pervasive philosophical currents of our age, postmodernism with its radical relativism, and existentialism, with its radical subjectivism and distrust of objective systems in general. Machen shows that the religion of both the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ himself was as dogmatic as possible. For example, even in the Sermon on the Mount, a favorite passage among theological liberals, “Jesus represents Himself as seated on the judgment seat of all the earth . . . Could anything be further removed than such a Jesus from the humble teacher of righteousness appealed to by modern liberalism?”

Concerning God and Man, Machen emphasizes the liberal tendency to break down the separateness between God and Man and to take an optimistic view of human goodness. One of the most penetrating insights in the book is that “modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing.” This is in opposition to the orthodox teaching of the absoluteness of the Creator-creature distinction, and also of the absolute moral gulf between God and Man as a result of sin, hopelessly unbridgeable apart from the work of Jesus Christ.

In the person of Jesus Christ, liberalism sees an example for faith, but not an object of faith. This is because the driving principle of liberalism, anti-supernaturalism, cannot admit the historical teaching of who Jesus Christ really was. For liberalism “Jesus differs from the rest of men only in degree, and not in kind: He can be divine only if all men are divine.”

Concerning salvation, liberalism sees the source of salvation in man; Christianity sees it in God. Machen also shows that what distinguished early Christianity from the pagan religions of the time was specifically its exclusiveness. Paganism, like modern liberalism, had no problem with many roads to God and many gods, but it has a very deep problem with the exclusivity of Christianity. Finally, the very concept of salvation in Christianity is concerned with heaven, or the future world and life, while modern liberalism is concerned only with this world. This is in my estimation the area in which the majority of Reformed Christians have in fact followed liberalism, specifically with the contemporary preoccupation with cultural transformation as the means to institute God’s kingdom on this earth. This is precisely the idea that unambiguously characterizes unbelieving thought, from the rebellious nation of Israel, through the Pharisees, and into the Enlightenment and modern liberalism. Until the European Enlightenment, the true church had consistently affirmed that the world is not our home.

What Machen could not understand was that if liberalism was so clearly another religion, why it insisted on calling itself Christianity. It is in this chapter that he says that he has no problem with liberalism establishing itself as a separate religion competing with Christianity. But calling itself Christianity when it was clearly not, spreading its non-Christian teachings to Christians, and with liberal ministers taking ordination vows to historic confessions of faith which could not possibly be sincere, this was the liberalism against which Machen fought for his whole life, a battle which in the mainline Presbyterian church he ultimately lost.

About Rich Moore

I will be sharing videos from my YouTube channel to this blog in the hope that others might be blessed and God glorified. Here is a description of my channel: A large video collection of classic hymns, contemporary Praise and Worship songs, and the works (audio books, devotional readings, and sermons) of men greatly used of God, such as: Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, A.W. Tozer, A.W. Pink, John Owen, Oswald Chambers, Andrew Murray, John MacArthur, E.M. Bounds, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, and many more, covering topics on many aspects of the Christian life. May your time spent here be blessed. "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30)
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