Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. Paperback – 24 Jan 2009
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About the Author
J. Gresham Machen (18811937) was professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He was also the author of Christian Faith in the Modern World, What Is Faith? and The Origin of Pauls Religion.
Top Customer Reviews
"Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time....Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding...But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from "controversial" matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Machen's Christianity and Liberalism. Machen's classic was written in the
height of the battle for control over the Presbyterian Church USA (the most
prominent of the "mainline denominations"), and defines with brilliance the
battle lines between liberal (so-called) Christianity and the orthodox
faith. Moreover, it points out exactly what is at stake: the true faith, as
opposed to a perverse shadow of that faith, a shadow based on subjectivism
which elevates man's sovereignty over God's and ends in believing nothing at
It is important to understand that the liberalism Machen castigates is not
political but theological (although many if not most of the liberals of the
latter camp fell also in the former, numerous prominent political liberals
-- such as three-time Democrat Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan
-- fought alongside Machen). This theological liberalism manifests itself in
many ways, but is chiefly characterized by a rejection of Scripture as
infallibly inspired, a denial of the doctrines of the Fall and of Hell, and
a belief in man's evolutionary self-perfection (process theology, with
progress guided by an "enlightened" elite). Machen correctly asserts that
this is not merely a different approach to the Gospel, but is in fact a
different gospel: an exchange of God's sovereignty for man's, God's law-word
for man's, God's eternal, unchanging standards for man's evolving, situation
ethics. For this reason, Machen contends that liberalism and Christianity
are separate things: rival religions, permanently at war.
The one problem with this book (a fault which made good rhetorical sense at
the time, but which is somewhat misleading concerning the true nature of the
struggle) is Machen's choice of categories. Machen deals with theological
conservatives and liberals (legitimate in terms of the Bible's own dichotomy
between saved and lost), but misses the inescapable fact that there was a
third faction at work in the church (a fact which eventually resulted in his
defrocking). That third faction was the great mushy evanjellyfish middle, a
pietistic/mystical majority which was neither willing to accept the liberal
position nor fight for the conservative cause. As Machen had rightly pointed
out two years earlier in his address to incoming students at Princeton (and
again, much later, in the last two years of the struggle), these were the
Christians who said "'Peace, peace', when there was no peace", and elevated
that "peace" over truth. As in all other endeavors, "peace at any price"
resulted in defeat, and in the end, it was that great mushy middle which
delivered the PCUSA to the left (and over the cliff).
Even so, it is important to note when examining this struggle that the
conservatives largely threw the game away. I strongly recommend North's
Crossed Fingers, the only definitive history of this fight and a masterful
analysis of the tactics and mistakes of both sides.
Yet at the end of the day, you must read Machen. This book is vital for
Christians defending their churches and denominations against increasing
liberal encroachment, and indeed more so by the day. It is as groundbreaking
as it is timeless.
The major thesis of the book is that Liberalism (modernist theology) and Christianity are diametrically opposed religions that unfortunately use the same language to describe their opposite views of things. He states, "the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of Christian terminology." Later he states in his thesis, "...we shall be interested in showing that despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism is not only a different religion from Christianity, but belongs to a totally different class of religions."
Machen is interested not in necessarily proving that Liberalism is wrong as he is in explaining that it is not Christian. His burden is not to disprove the tenants of Liberalism (although he speaks some to that end), but to simply describe each clearly and make obvious the huge divergence of thinking in the two groups.
Although Machen is perhaps "the" great Fundamentalists, on must keep in mind this was before Fundamentalist meant: narrow, reactionary, separatist, nationalistic, literalist, ignorant, and the like. Whether or not those descriptions have ever been fair of Fundamentalism, if one presently maintains those stereotypes the honest maintenance of them requires not reading this volume. In 1923 Fundamentalist simply meant one not willing to relinquish the fundamental tenants of Christianity. In fact Machen's overwhelming descriptive word of self identification is "evangelical"- another word quickly loosing its meaning.
In terms of the place of this book now, I consider it utterly contemporary. The fact that it is more than 80 years old and still so incisive simply reveals the depth of understanding Machen had.
I would then wholeheartedly recommend the book for three reasons:
1. It is an important document in understanding the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of American Christianity which is still being fought everywhere.
2. It is among the best and most direct contrast of two very different views of what the Christian faith is.
3. It is a scholarly and thoughtful work written in the proper spirit of Christian disagreement. I was moved by Machen's clear desire to stand directly and forcefully against what he saw to be the greatest danger to the church he loved so much and yet to do so with a great deal of humble restraint. This book should be read as an example of Machen's vision of what the doctrinal "fights" over liberalism should have looked like. His excellence in merging orthodoxy with erudition with crystal clear argumentation creates an example of Christian polemical writing that is not often surpassed.
Finally, due to the permutations in liberalism and its incorporation of postmodern language and categories I think this book is all the more critical for contemporary Christians. It's hard to properly enter a conversation, or fight, that is a century old without knowing something about how it got going.
"Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time....Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding...But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from "controversial" matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight."
Machen was an extremely clear writer! and thinker. His insight with regard to the battle of orthodox Christianity in the liberal context of the 20's is of tremendous relevance for modern Christians of all stripes concerned about the loss of substance, meaning, theology, etc, in the contemporary church. After reading Christianity & Liberalism, you'll definately want to order his other classic, What Is Faith (1925).
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.
Related to the aversion of liberalism to doctrine, or an objective summary of truth, is a corresponding mistrust of the Bible, and the rejection of the Bible's authority as God's Word. Liberalism claims to replace the authority of the Bible with the authority of Jesus Himself, but having rejected the teachings of Jesus in the Bible and through the apostles, this authority amounts to nothing more than the authority of personally selected isolated instances of Jesus' words, interpreted to conform to the liberal religion.
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.
The final chapter on the church is where we have the best glimpse of Machen himself. What Machen could not understand was that if liberalism was so clearly another religion, why it insisted on calling itself Christianity. As far as he was concerned, this was just plain dishonesty. 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. This book clearly and powerfully sets forth what was at stake in the battle, which was and remains nothing other than Christianity itself. The book is well worth reading for all Christians who are committed to their faith. It is not a difficult book to read, and the fundamental issues have changed very little in one hundred years.
Machen, then professor at Princeton Seminary, was writing at a time when liberalism was making headway into traditional Protestant churches. This liberalism denied the historical accuracy of the Scriptures and the Divinity of Christ, among other things. Of course, it did that while at the same time saying that it "really" believed these things, but just expressed in a different way. Machen exposes the agenda of liberalism quite brilliantly.
What is funny is that this liberalism isn't much different than that advocated today. For example, Machen said that it tended toward pantheism. "In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name `God' is applied to the mighty world process itself. . . . It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon." [p. 63.] This was years before "process theology" became the vogue.
A particularly interesting part of this work are Machen's political insights. He saw clearly the dangers of democratic conformism and brilliantly applied it to contemporary trends to exalt public education. "The truth is that the materialistic paternalism . . . if allowed to go unchecked, will rapidly make of America one huge `Main Street,' where spiritual adventure will be discouraged and democracy will be regarded as consisting in the reduction of all mankind to the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens." [pp. 14-15.]