alien righteousness

Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Book talk

Peter Chen in sunny Alhambra, California who is a contributer to this blog writes a review on J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923)

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen was published in 1923. It is a modern classic among other great Christian literature. This book is timeless in message and value, though this book was forged in the heat of battle. Machen wrote against the “Liberals” who rejected the essential aspects of Christianity, and yet continue to preach and teach in Christian churches and seminaries. Though more than 85 years have past, the ink is still wet with relevance as the battle remains to the present. The issue over inerrancy, females and homosexuals as ministers, Christians and false religions together and emergent sects are only symptoms to the disease that is affecting our modern churches. Liberalism has influenced popular Christian opinion, and confused Christians don’t know what they believe. I am convinced that every Christians needs to learn and relearn the essential Christian teachings clearly set forth in this book against the back drop of error.

John Gresham Machen (July 28, 1881 – January 1, 1937), came from a wealthy and devout Christian family, where he learned the faith from childhood by the means of catechism. At 17 years old, in 1898, Machen entered Johns Hopkins University for his undergraduate, and in 1902, 4 years later, he doubled majored in theology at Princeton Seminary and philosophy at Princeton University. Encountering Liberalism in his studies, he was given permission from his parents to study in Germany, in 1905, where these new ideas were emerging. Machen was challenged and made stronger for the battles ahead.

Soon enough, these teachings crossed the ocean, and had taken root in Christian seminaries and churches. Between the years of 1915 and 1929, Machen was the Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. The modern teaching became the majority opinion of the leadership within the Seminary, and reluctantly Machen and a few other professors had to leave the seminary. They established Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 to continue the teachings of the Christian faith of the Presbyterian confession.

In the midst of this battle, Machen composed this book, clearly contrasting Christianity against the errors of Liberalism. Liberalism was the child of naturalistic evolution, and pietistic existentialism. The title was well chosen to indicate Machen’s fundamental claim is that “liberalism is not Christianity.” (pg. 160)

The basic areas of dispute are dealt with one chapter at a time. Let me summarize some of the points:

Doctrine — Liberalism rejected doctrinal teaching for subjective personal felt needs and “practical” teachings. Machen states, “The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine.” (pg. 29) Doctrine is the essence of Christianity.

God and Man — Liberals made god in their own image, by subjecting god to the opinions of man. Machen argues that God, in his essence, is transcendent and must always be separated from man. (pg. 62) Unaided humanity is not able to apprehend God.

The Bible — Liberalism claimed that Bible was only the words of man influenced by god. Machen affirmed the Bible as words of man, but also the word of God. God preserved the writings of fallible man, resulting in the infallible word of God. The Bible is alone the infallible and inerrant word of God as Jesus believed it to be.

Christ — Jesus is not merely our high moral example (WWJD), but our savior and Lord. Jesus is a divine “supernatural Person,” (pg. 112) God in the flesh, and the object of Christian faith.

Salvation — “Liberalism finds salvation… in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.” (pg. 117) The gospel is news of an event that really took place in real human history. Sin against God is a cosmic crime against the Creator. Man must make the payment, but only God is able to save; thus Jesus being the God-Man came to save sinners. Jesus died as a vicarious atonement for sins: Jesus took on himself the sinners’ guilt and satisfied the wrath of God due to sin, and gives the believing sinner peace with God.

The Church — The Christian church is composed of “twice-born sinners” (pg. 158) born-again by the Holy Spirit. The true church is the brotherhood of the invisible church that affirms all the fundamental doctrines of the Bible. These liberal teachers gave oaths to uphold the creed of the confessing church, and they have violated their oaths. The Christian churches and seminaries were paid for by offerings and gifts from people who held to the confessing creed, and so they do not belong to the liberals who are in contradiction to the creed. It would be more respectful if these liberal teachers were to withdraw from the denomination.

Machen’s concern was for the Christian church itself, because if the church leaderships adopted the modern teachings of Liberalism, then those churches would depart from Christianity. The mission board would propagate a distorted message, until it stops being distinct from the world.

Doctrine is not light or impersonal matters of beliefs, but definitional of Christianity itself. Machen called for decisions to be made by those who still held to the Christian doctrines. If the leadership is to depart from these Christian doctrines for Liberalism; for the sake of the faith, the Christian must reluctantly depart.

Free online edition:

*Edited and posted again.

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