A century ago this important work appeared:
OK, I am a bit off by a few weeks, or a few months, but we can still commemorate the appearance a century ago of one of the most important theological works of recent times. I refer to the 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism by the American Presbyterian theologian and New Testament professor, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).
The copy of it that I am now holding in my hands is the 1974 paperback edition put out by Eerdmans. Because it is such a classic work, it is still of course being reprinted today. Six months ago a one-hundredth anniversary edition was released by Ligonier Ministries.
I have written a number of pieces on Machen and his famous volume over the years. As far as a general overview of the man and his work, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/28/notable-christians-j-gresham-machen/
And for some write-ups that feature a number of quotes from the book in question, see these articles: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/15/theological-liberalism-progressive-christianity/
But for those wanting a quick overview of the book and its message, let me just offer a few choice quotes from the book’s opening pages:
“In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called ‘modernism’ or ‘liberalism’.”
“[W]hat the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.”
“[D]espite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism is not only a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.”
“[L]iberalism in the modern Church represents a return to an un-Christian and sub-Christian form of the religious life.”
These brief quotes give you a clear feel for the drift of his volume. Liberal theology is not another type of Christianity but something altogether different. Machen had to fight this on many fronts during his career, including having to leave the increasingly liberal Princeton Seminary after 23 years to form Westminster Theological Seminary.
And of course things are no different today and perhaps even worse. Modern forms of this heretical take on Christianity are now called “progressive Christianity” and the like, but it is the same destructive theology that has jettisoned biblical truths for trendy, man-pleasing pablum. That is why a book like this will never go out of date, and will constantly need to be revisited.
Obviously so many great theologians over the past century have noted the utter importance of this man and this book. Let me feature just one: Carl Truman. He is well placed to write on this: for some years he had taught theology at Westminster, before moving on to teach at Grove City College. He has penned various pieces on this, so let me draw your attention to some of them.
In a 2008 article for Themelios titled “The second most important book you will ever read,” he opened with these words:
In the lounge next to my office hang the portraits of a number of the founding faculty of my institution, Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. There is one of John Murray, the dour-looking Scotsman with the glass eye. Legend has it that you could tell which eye was the real one because that was the one which did not smile. There is one of Ned Stonehouse, whose good looks in early faculty photos would seem more appropriate to a Hollywood heartthrob of the 1930s than a learned professor of New Testament. Then above the fireplace, now somewhat moth-eaten and in need of restoration, is the magnificent portrait of the founder of the Seminary, the great J. Gresham Machen, a name synonymous with both exacting orthodox scholarship on the New Testament and, more than that, valiant struggle for the truth in both church and seminary.
He concludes his article this way:
My own copy has barely a page without some paragraph, sentence, or clause underlined. It is refreshing to read a book that is as clearly thought out as it is written. But the bottom line is not Machen’s style or his logical precision or the passion of his rhetoric. It is his basic point: Christianity and liberalism are two different religions. The difference between them is not a quantitative one, of a system of 100% truth over against a system of 75% truth; rather it is a qualitative one of truth to falsehood, of worship to idolatry, of that which brings blessing to that which ultimately brings only a curse.
That is a crucial message for the church today, particularly for those involved in academic study. Certainly Christianity is no excuse for obscurantism. It is important — indeed, it is a Christian imperative — that we understand and treat fairly the views of opponents, whoever they may be. Intentionally to distort the views of an opponent in order to win an argument is a breach of the ninth commandment and not an option for a disciple of Christ. Nor is Christianity an excuse for being rude and curmudgeonly towards those with whom we disagree. But let us be clear: the supernatural Christianity of the authoritative and divinely inspired Scriptures stands in opposition to all other religious systems, even those that use Christian jargon while yet denying the faith’s basic foundations.
Study can be seductive. The realization that professors who spend their days undermining the faith are actually pretty decent people, interesting and delightful company, loving to their wives and children, and often more likeable than their orthodox counterparts, can produce crises of faith among students more often than many would imagine. The attractive power of real learning should never be underestimated. What Machen’s argument makes clear, however, is that truth is not personal. It is truth, and conformity with such is what is important, not whether we like the people advocating it or not. That Christ has died is fact. That he died for my sins is doctrine. That the person telling me this might be less likeable than that really decent and friendly professor who denies the resurrection is irrelevant.
Theological students should reach for Machen’s little book every year to remind themselves that orthodoxy does not equate to obscurantism, but that there is something really at stake here in the struggle between orthodox, supernatural Christianity and everything else. Indeed, I would venture to say that this is the second most important book that theologians could ever read. As to the first: well, if you don’t know what that is, read chapter four in Christianity and Liberalism, and hang your head in shame! https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/the-second-most-important-book-you-will-ever-read/
And in the Foreword to a new 2009 edition of the book put out by Eerdmans he concludes with these words:
Machen’ s commitment to a high doctrine of inspiration was one of the key points that led to the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It is also the challenge to us today. In a world absorbed with matters of taste, a world that needs to hear the prophetic challenge of God’s word, calling us to repentance and to faith, we need to ask ourselves whether this can be done on the basis of a view of Scripture less robust than that offered by Machen. The answer to that question is surely critical to the well-being of the church in the next decade and is perhaps the most pressing question faced today by churches and seminaries. As critical as the issue was for Machen in the 1920s, how much more urgent is it for those of us who live over eighty years later in a world more deeply secular and ignorant of the most basic of biblical truths – even of the whole notion of transcendent truth? A gospel rooted in Scripture and based on the historical action of God in Christ is still the primary need of the world around us. Anything less is not just inadequate; it is in reality not historic, redemptive Christianity in any meaningful sense. As Machen himself set up the contrast:
“It is no wonder, then, that 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.”
The need to contend for the truth is ever with us, as there will always be those who seek to destroy, conceal or trample on the truth. We can all be grateful for someone like Machen and his tireless efforts to affirm and promote biblical Christianity against its many enemies and detractors.
That same sort of work is something that all of us today must also continue to do – fearlessly and unflinchingly.
(My thanks once again to my friend John for tipping me off to some of these resources.)