Bags of Bran

One of those books that needs a contemporary counterpart
February 8, 2014, 9:33 pm
Filed under: Biography

Here’s a sketchy review I wrote of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. I put it here in hopes that it would get people interested in the book, not necessarily because I thought it was a stellar review. If you get a copy, get the one with Carl Trueman’s foreword: the ISBN is 9780802864994.


J. Gresham Machen’s important book grew out of a work published first as an essay called “Liberalism or Christianity” in Princeton Theological Review.[1] The article was actually a transcript of an address Machen gave at some sort of Presbyterian event in 1921, so at the time of its printing, what survives as Christianity and Liberalism was as virulent a work as one could desire on the matter. It was a timely warning, and conservatives and liberals alike recognized the truth in what Machen was saying: Christianity and liberal Christianity were not only not the same thing, they were not even the same kind of thing. Machen’s book is a model of concision and precision. Though Machen makes his argument in less than two hundred pages, he does so with clear prose and nontechnical language. Christianity and Liberalism is neither an exhaustive treatment nor an onerous read, but a clear warning signal to clergy and laity alike. These qualities make this book not only a warning worth heeding for subsequent generations of Christians but also a model worth following for subsequent generations of authors. Machen addressed a situation in which religious liberalism was dangerously close to becoming assimilated into true Christianity. He points out that liberalism was especially insidious because it “makes use of traditional Christian terminology,” and would therefore pass the sniff-test of all but the theologically astute. The advances in medicine and technology that Machen acknowledges as such come at a high cost: there were no longer artists capable of immortalizing these achievements in a meaningful way, for example. Utilitarian concerns had supplanted aesthetic judgments at the same time as the spiritual world was being boarded up and auctioned off in favor of modernism (8). Machen sees a link between the two, which he laments as “an unparalleled impoverishment of human life” (9). Despite the lamentable decline in the “human-ness” of man under the sway of liberalism, Machen’s true target is the falsity of the liberal project as it pertains to Christianity, resulting in a sub-Christian system (7).

Machen begins with doctrine, where he reiterates that liberalism has commandeered the terminology of Christianity for its own purposes. He notes that, for liberalism to work, doctrine must be undermined with uncertainty, for precise theological definition makes it impossible that all creeds be equally valid (17). Similar to today’s evangelical mantra that “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship,” Machen’s liberal would say that Christianity is not a system of doctrine, but “a life.” Machen proves that Christianity was, in fact, founded historically upon certain teachings (18). Machen goes on to show that Christianity actually demands fidelity to a certain message: doctrine, therefore, is central to Christianity. Liberalism, with its antipathy toward doctrine, demonstrates that it is opposed to Christianity itself. Machen moves from this general position to its specific doctrinal implications in the following chapters.

With respect to the doctrine of God, Machen argues, liberals “pantheize” God: either he is an impersonal force for good in everything, or at best, he is difficult to distinguish from his creation. Christianity, on the other hand, sees “the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator” (54). God is utterly distinct from creation, though he may be infinitely aware of it. The doctrine of man suffers similarly: if the liberal’s God is not transcendent, Machen argues, then man is not under condemnation for sin (55). Since there is really no creature-creator distinction, liberalism is essentially a pagan worldview (56). Christianity, Machen says, starts with antipathy between man and transcendent God because of sin. Christianity is “the religion of the broken heart,” or the religion where one enters by way of becoming conscious of his lost state before a holy and awful God (57).

Machen next turns to the doctrine of Scripture. For liberals, the prevailing notion of the Bible is an extension of their rejection of the orthodox doctrines of God and sin. Because both doctrines arise rather clearly from the Bible, the Bible itself falls short of their “scientific” presuppositions. They try to preserve the ethical teachings of Jesus, but even there they must pull up short, for blended through Jesus’ ethical teachings are accounts of miracles and claims of deity, which are unacceptable (66). Machen argues, positively, that Christianity is a belief rooted in history that is mediated through the Bible. This historical record is normative, unchanging, and authoritative, but it does not stop there: it is also a product of plenary, verbal inspiration, which is the only way in which its normative, unchanging, and authoritative status could be preserved (62-63).

Machen charges liberals with appealing to the age of the biblical accounts as ground for dismissing them, a charge similar to Gotthold Lessing’s famous ditch. But Machen’s solution is not satisfying either, claiming that Christian experience in the present day is “one of the primary evidences for the truth of the gospel record…we can make a trial of it to-day, and making trial of it we find it to be true” (60-61). This experience is supposed to confirm the documentary evidence (61). This argument is not really compelling since there are internal, invisible prerequisites foundational to “making a trial of it,” including, for example, regeneration. That is, unless he is speaking exclusively of believers, in which case, there is no “making trial of it:” there is belief. At least he backs away from full-blown experientialism, which charge he lays at the feet of the liberals (61). Ultimately, Machen says right things about the Bible: to the Christian, it is “the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty” where to the liberal looks at it as a straitjacket to his own liberty (78-79).

Machen’s antithesis with respect to the person of Jesus Christ cuts the debate very cleanly. To the liberal, Jesus was the first Christian, or an (admittedly mythical) example of faith, and the miracle stories were added to add flourish to one’s conception of the robust type of faith that changes the world. To the Christian, Jesus may well be an example of faith, but he is primarily and properly the object of faith, and the miracles are documented to prove just that to the believer. The liberal’s position places Jesus among whole constellations of examples of faith, as many great men have come along to offer helpful advice on good living. The Christian’s position views Jesus as the noonday sun that exposes everything in one’s life, drowning out all others for significance. So the goal is to place one’s faith in Jesus, not merely to emulate one’s own emendation of the faith of Jesus.

Building on his previous arguments, Machen moves to the doctrine of salvation. For the Christian, salvation is a redemptive work that solves the problem of the vast gulf between God and man, through the work of the God-man Jesus Christ, as documented in the Bible. Compellingly, Machen insists upon the substitutionary, vicarious model of the atonement: “we know absolutely nothing about an atonement that is not a vicarious atonement, for that is the only atonement of which the New Testament speaks” (117). It is at this point that liberalism is especially insidious: they love to speak of atonement, but it is a particular earmark of liberalism to reject substitution. Example and moral government theories are fine, but substitution suggests that every man besides Jesus belongs on that cross: this is abhorrent to the liberal (118-19).

The place that Machen gives to the blood of Christ sounds like a nod toward a heretical notion that simply needs to go away. He states that “one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our own salvation and for the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history” (128). Metaphorically, that is a fine thing to say; however, many do not take it metaphorically, and end up confounding Christ’s natures, which ends up slumping either toward docetism or arianism. If Jesus’ blood was not the blood of a man, then was the blood he invariably left upon splinters in Joseph’s wood shop sufficient to save the world? Or the inevitable nosebleed he experienced as a child?

Machen applies needed corrective to the liberalizing tendencies of the romanticized view of salvation prevalent in his day. Given the trajectory of Christianity since that time, it appears that few listened. One could hope for such a voice to thunder against the therapeutic view of salvation prevalent in this day. Given the lessons of history, it is likely that few would listen.

Machen concludes his volume with the final implication in the logical outworking of Christianity versus liberalism: the church. Both sides use the image of brotherhood, but Christianity restricts that brotherhood to those who have believed what God has said in the Bible about man, sin, salvation, and Christ; while the liberal sees mankind as one unending brotherhood, including Jesus, as indicated in the hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” Christians defend the limits of their brotherhood with creeds (164). Liberals do away with Bible, and doctrines, and creeds, stating that the brotherhood of man has no limits. Machen then takes an interesting turn: he insists that if liberals were honest, they would pursue their own churches rather than overthrowing existing ones. He extends an invitation to liberals to be liberals with clear consciences:

There are of course certain obvious disadvantages in such a course—the abandonment of church buildings to which one is attached, the break in family traditions, the injury to sentiment of various kinds. But there is one supreme advantage which far overbalances all such disadvantages. It is the advantage of honesty…the liberal preacher would obtain the full personal respect even of his opponents, and the whole discussion would be placed on higher ground. (165)

Machen’s invitation has largely gone unheeded. Liberalism is the history of eroding institutions parasitically rather than building institutions. Thus, when Machen appeals for separation between liberals and conservatives, the present reader has the advantage of history to see how that all worked out. Liberalism, in many respects, taints all who intermeddle with it.


[1] J. Gresham Machen, “Liberalism or Christianity,” Princeton Theological Review 20 (1922): 93-117.


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