Book Review: Christianity and Liberalism

“Christianity and Liberalism” by J. Gresham Machen

Today, when most Americans consider the word “liberalism”, we think of a political philosophy or party. In the late 19th and into the early 20th century, however, there was a movement within the Protestant church known as Liberalism. While this religious movement does have some commonalities with political liberalism (a basic belief in man’s goodness and a strong humanitarian ethic, for instance), in their particulars they are really two very different things. It is religious Liberalism which Machen addresses in this book, which was written in 1923.

The main thrust of the Protestant Liberalism movement was a supposed focus on the work and teaching of Jesus, without holding to any dogmatic theological distinctions. In other words, liberals believed that Jesus was the highest moral example for men to follow, and that we should do what he did: Care for the poor, promote peace, and preach a message of love. Doing these things, says the liberal, promotes the betterment of society, but does not require any belief in the supernatural. The Bible is treated as a moral guidebook, but is not the inerrant Word of God. The Biblical claims of Jesus’ virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection from the dead are regarded with skepticism, but are ultimately seen as unimportant relative to the practical application of Jesus’ teachings.

Machen’s main premise is that Liberalism is completely antithetical to Christianity. He then proceeds to lay out an incredible defense of orthodox Protestantism, comparing it at each point with the Liberalism that had gained so much popularity in the churches of that time.

He begins the discussion with an overview of why doctrine is so important, and why inerrancy is non-negotiable to anyone who claims to be a Christian. After all, if the Bible is not true, we have no basis for believing anything about Jesus. If it is true, then we must believe everything it says about Him. Furthermore, the liberal’s claim to hold only to Jesus’ words and deeds is inconsistent with their denial of the supernatural, because Jesus made several indisputable claims to deity (as well as to the authority of Scripture). Essentially, Machen is making C.S. Lewis’ trilemma argument (“Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”) twenty years before the publication of Mere Christianity.

Machen then contrasts Christianity and Liberalism in the areas of several doctrines critical to Christian belief:

  • Our understanding of who God is
  • Man’s relationship with God and standing before Him
  • The person and work of Christ
  • What salvation is and the means by which man may attain it
  • The role of the Church

Because the liberal teaching in these areas is mutually exclusive with the traditional, orthodox positions held by the Church for nearly 2,000 years (and, more importantly, given to us in God’s Word), Machen proposes that, for the sake of intellectual honesty, liberals ought to stop referring to themselves as “Christians”, and instead join or create a different religious sect that more closely aligns with their beliefs. The Christian Church was founded on certain principles, and it is dishonest to represent the Church when one does not hold to those principles. Here’s a useful analogy from the book to illustrate this point:

At the foundation of the life of every corporation is the incorporation paper, in which the objects of the corporation are set forth. Other objects may be vastly more desirable than those objects, but if the directors use the name and the resources of the corporation to pursue the other objects they are acting ultra vires of the corporation. So it is with Christianity. It is perfectly conceivable that the originators of the Christian movement had no right to legislate for subsequent generations; but at any rate they did have an inalienable right to legislate for all generations that should choose to bear the name of “Christian”.

Even more than eight decades ago, “intolerance” was a common buzzword, and a common objection to this claim of exclusivity. Machen counters this objection:

Involuntary organizations ought to be tolerant, but voluntary organizations, so far as the fundamental purpose of their existence is concerned, must be intolerant or else cease to exist.

An example of an involuntary organization is the State. Most Americans, for instance, are naturalized citizens because we were born here. Our Constitution guarantees certain liberties which require tolerance. I am free to worship as a Christian in large part because others are equally free to worship as they choose. But if I were to claim to be a Muslim (a “voluntary organization”), I would have no right to claim as a Muslim that Jesus Christ is God’s son, and that He died for my sins so that I could be adopted as God’s son and a co-heir with Christ. Muslims would be rightly intolerant of that claim, because it is contrary to their core beliefs. But of course I would never do this, and Machen suggests that Liberals extend the same courtesy to Christians. He provides a good secular example of this as well:

Suppose in a political campaign in America there be formed a Democratic club for the purpose of furthering the cause of the Democratic party. Suppose there are certain other citizens who are opposed to the tenets of the Democratic club and in opposition desire to support the Republican party. What is the honest way for them to accomplish their purpose? Plainly it is simply the formation of a Republican club which shall carry on a propaganda in favor of Republican principles. But suppose, instead of pursuing this simple course of action, the advocates of Republican principles should conceive the notion of making a declaration of conformity to Democratic principles, thus gaining an entrance into the Democratic club and finally turning its resources into an anti-Democratic propaganda. That plan might be ingenious. But is it honest? Yet it is just exactly such a plan which is adopted by advocates of a non-doctrinal religion who by subscription to a creed gain an entrance into the teaching ministry of doctrinal or evangelical churches.

The reasons liberals are unwilling to make such a break from the Christian Church are many, but one of the primary motivations is a desire to gain control of the considerable resources of evangelical churches and use them for the advancement of liberal aims. Machen issues a call for conservative Christians to uphold the Truth of the real Gospel and to stand up against the advancement of Liberalism in the Church. This is done in four ways: (1) Encouraging those evangelists and apologists who are engaged in the intellectual and spiritual struggle; (2) set a higher standard of qualifications of candidates for ministry; (3) preach the Cross of Christ at all times, to all people, in all situations; and (4) bring about a renewal of Christian education, beginning in the home.

This book is possibly even more relevant now than it was in 1923. If it weren’t for the language used, one wouldn’t know this wasn’t written last week. Liberalism is alive and well in the Church today, though it goes by many other names now. Modernism has given way to postmodernism, but the struggle is still the same. Satan has no need to introduce new lies when the old ones are working better than ever. Read it. You won’t regret it.

Buy it here. Or, since it is in the public domain, you can read it online for free. As for me, I always prefer the feel of a real book in my hands…

3 comments on “Book Review: Christianity and Liberalism

  1. […] Reading Classics Together — This is one of my favorite intermittent blog series’. From time-to-time, Tim Challies invites readers to read through a classic book from Christian literature or theology, interactin through a discussion of a chapter a week on his website. I’ve followed the last several, and look forward to the next, which began today. Up for discussion this time is J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which is a favorite of mine. I reviewed it here. […]

  2. […] the church, which is exactly what happened early in the 20th Century with the rise of theological liberalism. As an example, he refers to a recent sermon by Andy Stanley, the influential pastor of […]

  3. […] J. Gresham Machen, who addressed this very question in his book Christianity and Liberalism (my review) way back in […]

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