This past week, I had the opportunity to enjoy American theologian J. Gresham Machen’s celebrated 1923 work Christianity & Liberalism, a timeless response to then infant so-called “liberal Christianity.” In the decades since Machen wrote this book, liberalism has transitioned from being an innovative theological school to being the very air Christians breathe outside and often even inside the church, rendering Machen’s analysis uniquely enlightening for today’s church. In fact, this book is highly relevant today not only to orthodox Christians but also to all thoughtful experiencers of 21st century pluralism because of its shrewd differentiation between the objective basis of conservative Christianity and the subjective basis of liberalism.
In the book’s opening chapter, Machen presents the thesis he defends in subsequent pages: despite theological liberalism’s appropriation of Christian terminology, historic, biblical Christianity and modern liberal Christianity are in fact two separate and antithetical religions. In an attempt to safeguard Christianity against the then rapidly blossoming naturalistic disciplines of science, psychology, and historical criticism, Machen explains, liberal theologians attempted to extricate Christianity from these fields by reducing Christianity to a lifestyle. Yet in so doing, he contends, they created an entirely different religion that is both unscientific and unChristian in any historical sense.
In the next chapter, Machen defends this assertion by examining liberalism’s rejection of doctrine and embrace of “Christian experience” as the whole of the religion. He explains that the historical record of Paul’s epistles, the infant Christian church, and even the words of Jesus leave no justification for such a move in the name of Christianity; while it is possible that the message of Christianity is wrong, separating Christianity from its message is utterly historically unprecedented. Thus liberal theologians have created a completely new religion that Machen insists ought to be divorced from the historically established doctrinal faith of Christianity.
In his third chapter, Machen explores the vast differences between Christianity and liberalism even in their fundamental presuppositions about God and man. While Christianity’s view of God is grounded in the facts found in historical documents, liberalism bases man’s relationship to God on subjective human feelings. Moreover, he demonstrates that liberals’ suggestion that God is revealed only through Jesus is logically and biblically indefensible. Similarly, he maintains that the liberal rejection of the doctrine of sin and human nature utterly ignores not only biblical but also experiential reality, as his original readers, freshly weary from one atrocious world war and unwittingly on the brink of an even worse one, would be far less hasty to deny than many modern Western citizens.
Not surprisingly, then, Machen continues, having rejected the presuppositions of the Christian message, liberal theology rejects the message itself, taking a disdainful attitude towards Scripture. He details how liberal attempts to legitimize only certain words of Jesus constitute a grossly unscientific revision of history and insists that though the Christian message is certainly confirmed to an extent by Christian experience, Christianity that espouses only “Christian experience” while rejecting the message of Scripture is not Christianity at all. In Machen’s words,
…liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men. (p. 67)
In the next chapter of the book, Machen explicates the divide between liberals and Christians on the person and work of Christ: fundamentally, Christians view Jesus as the object of godly faith while liberals view him as the example of true faith, the first Christian rather than the author of Christianity. With only a few Scripture references, however, Machen demonstrates that Jesus as presented in Scripture cannot simply be an example of faith because of the audacious claims he persistently makes about Himself in the gospels; in light of these, He was obviously either an entirely different kind of human or else a perfect example of nothing more than lunacy. By rejecting Jesus’ deity, liberal theologians leave the historical Jesus obscure and unknowable, leading them to rely once more on their own subjective opinions and preferences rather than historical reality.
Next, Machen describes some of the numerous ways in which liberalism minimizes the salvific work of Christ–while Christianity considers salvation to be the result of a work of God, on the rare occasions that it acknowledges a need for salvation, liberalism attributes it to humanity. Frequently, theological liberals interpret Jesus’ death as an example of Christian self-sacrifice, but once again, Machen shows, this conflicts with the historic teachings of all who have called themselves Christians. More soberingly still, he notes, by humanizing Christ’s work, liberals also trivialize it. As previously, he demonstrates that the liberal notion of an unconditionally forgiving God is both biblically unsound and indefensible in light of the repercussions of humans’ sins against one another (let alone against God). Throughout, Machen affirms that Christianity is far more than the bare facts of the life of a Jewish carpenter who lived two thousand years ago; undeniably, the joy and intimacy of a relationship with the Creator that liberal Christians so crave is a fundamental component of biblical Christianity–but this joy is always and only found upon comprehending the awesomely humbling truth of the facts of the Gospel.
In his final chapter, Machen concludes with reflections on how conservative Christians ought to respond to the presence of liberalism in the church. Once more, he shows that true Christianity and liberal Christianity conflict starkly even on the purpose of the Church they claim to share because liberals believe the church as a human institution can and will transform society. Gospel-centered Christians, however, recognize that only the saving work of Christ can change the world, and this revolution progresses one redeemed soul at a time. With his final words, Machen encourages struggling conservative Christians to rest in this fact, knowing that God has always sustained His Bride in the past and that He promises to continue to do so in the future.
From the first page of Christianity and Liberalism to the last, Machen’s point could not be clearer: unlike the Christianity of the Bible, liberalism is based on a denial of reality (and while Machen specifically addresses theological liberalism, to an extent the same can certainly be said of political and social liberalism as well). On the outset, this fact may seem encouraging for conservatives–as Machen points out, philosophies founded on fantasy must inevitably fail. Unfortunately, though, these dangerous ideas do have dangerous consequences for the lives of the Image-bearing but fallen individuals who espouse them, individuals who “[love] the darkness rather than the light” (John 1:19 ESV), individuals no true Christian can be content to resign to their own folly. The Christian’s task here certainly is not easy–the world, flesh, and devil conspire against him–but mercifully, with us in our battle against attractive lies we have the ultimate Beauty, the one who is literally “the truth” (John 14:6), the crucified and resurrected Son of God of biblical doctrine who alone can deliver the freedom liberalism only nominally claims to provide.