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Challies’ Reading 2018: Machen’s ‘Christianity and Liberalism’

For the 2018 Challies’ Reading Challenge, J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, a book by an author no longer alive, is an excellent read.  E-text including kindle version available free online from sources including Monergism, this is Machen’s classic work from 1923, defending true Christianity and proving that the liberal (so-called) Christian theology, is not Christian at all.  As noted in a Reformed Forum podcast which talked about Machen and his successor Van Til, Machen was a good and clear, straightforward writer. Christianity and Liberalism sets forth several contrasts of key Christian doctrines and the liberal view:  the nature of God and man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, and the Church.  As Machen later said:

In my little book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that–exactly the other way around–it is a life founded on a doctrine.

Machen’s “little book” relates to my previous studies on this era of church history:  a series on “The Church and the World” from Reformed Theological Seminary with great overview of the three early 20th century responses to modernism; Machen was one of three responses (the other two being fundamentalism and Barthian neo-orthodoxy).  This was also a generation after Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy; not surprisingly, similar observations come from Machen as from Spurgeon: the dishonesty of the liberal theologians who would use the same ‘Christian’ terms to disguise themselves as true believers, yet attaching very different meanings to the terms.

A classic with staying power through the years, Machen’s book contains some dated material, especially in the introduction and conclusion—with reference to the pressing current events of the time including anti-Christian legislation directed at the public schools, a situation where some states actually prohibited anything other than a public education.  History has since shown the direction of the Christian church and the secular world; though overall conditions appear far worse, past the modernism of his day to today’s post-modernism, yet people today do have other educational options outside of the public schools, including the surge of evangelical Christian private schools and homeschooling, unknown in his day.

Trends in existence then have continued, though in different variations, to the point of current-day churches which do not embrace liberal theology with its rejection of miracles and a secular, naturalist “historical Jesus”—yet doctrinal understanding among professing Christians is at an appallingly low level.

Another troubling point today is the overall lack of knowledge concerning this period of history: the early 20th century fight against theological liberalism.  Machen stood against the promoters of liberal so-called Christianity, including one of its main advocates, Harry Emerson Fosdisck, pointing out that “The question is not whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.”  Reference this article from Tim Challies, on the details regarding Harry Emerson Fosdick and the conservative response from Machen and his collleagues.

Many today do not even recognize the name of Fosdick, and yet a hymn written by Fosdick (“God of Grace and God of Glory”) has actually made itself into some church hymnals used by Calvinist churches.  People who are ignorant of the issues will defend the singing of that hymn because the words are nice; yet with all the many hymns written by true Christians, why include a hymn from someone who did not worship the same God and was clearly a false teacher?

I especially liked that Machen himself referenced the theology of hymns, making a good point regarding low and high views of Christ’s atonement (along with reference to the Titanic sinking):

The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ. And even the hymns dealing with the Cross which we sing in Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they are based upon a lower or a higher view of Jesus’ Person. At the very bottom of the scale is that familiar hymn:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

That is a perfectly good hymn. It means that our trials may be a discipline to bring us nearer to God. The thought is not opposed to Christianity; it is found in the New Testament. But many persons have the impression, because the word “cross” is found in the hymn, that there is something specifically Christian about it, and that it has something to do with the gospel. This impression is entirely false. In reality, the cross that is spoken of is not the Cross of Christ, but our own cross; the verse simply means that our own crosses or trials may be a means to bring us nearer to God. It is a perfectly good thought, but certainly it is not the gospel. One can only be sorry that the people on the Titanic could not find a better hymn to use in the last solemn hour of their lives. But there is another hymn in the hymn-book:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

That is certainly better. It is here not our own crosses but the Cross of Christ, the actual event that took place on Calvary, that is spoken of, and that event is celebrated as the center of all history. Certainly the Christian man can sing that hymn. But one misses even there the full Christian sense of the meaning of the Cross; the Cross is celebrated, but it is not understood.

It is well, therefore, that there is another hymn in our hymn-book:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

There at length are heard the accents of true Christian feeling–“the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.” When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say 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.

In this work, Machen includes many great quotes that succinctly stating the contrast between liberalism and Christianity, including these:

All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin.

The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. … Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior.

According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man.

the evangelical Christian is not true to his profession if he leaves his Christianity behind him on Monday morning. On the contrary, the whole of life, including business and all of social relations, must be made obedient to the law of love. The Christian man certainly should display no lack of interest in “applied Christianity.” Only–and here emerges the enormous difference of opinion–the Christian man believes that there can be no applied Christianity unless there be “a Christianity to apply.

Machen’s work is available free online in several e-book formats as well as web page text.  It is not long, at about 200 pages, and yet very insightful and packed with great truth, a work useful in its day and through the years since.

  1. January 16, 2018 at 9:22 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Robert
    January 17, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Great review, Lynda.
    This review makes me want to read that book.

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