Review of Christianity and Liberalism

J. Gresham Machen. Christianity and Liberalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008 reprint. 180pp.

Every generation produces a small number of gifted scholars—the privileged few who gain both scholarly approbation and widespread popular acclaim, and who alter the theological landscape permanently. J. Gresham Machen was one such scholar. In the early 1900s, Machen gained widespread acclaim both in the scholarly guild, due to his work The Origin of Paul’s Religion, as well as the popular sphere, due in no small part to the success of Christianity and Liberalism. His influence stretched well beyond the bounds of American Presbyterianism, attracting Baptist fundamentalists and confessional Lutherans alike. No doubt Machen’s lucid and lively writing style contributed to his popularity, but the content of his published works should not be easily dismissed.

Originally published in 1923, Christianity and Liberalism was Machen’s broadside against the influence of Modernism in the old PCUSA. Machen’s burden was to prove to the disinterested layman that Christianity and liberalism are more than just competing ideologies, but are instead two wholly antagonistic theological systems which are diametrically opposed to one another (15-16).

Much of the response to Christianity and Liberalism is unsurprising. Machen’s little book—except for certain regrettably un-Lutheran pages—had “gladdened the hearts” of two separate reviewers for the Lutheran Theological Monthly; Bibliotheca Sacra, without such reservations, was “embracing every occasion” to recommend it. One of the modernists would introduce Machen to the readers of the Methodist Review as “one of the ablest of the diminishing number of reactionary theologians.” The Crozer Quarterly criticized the Princeton professor for picking a fight and attempting to resurrect discredited biblical theories. Gerald B. Smith, reviewing Machen’s work for the Journal of Religion, expressed his resentment about Machen’s “absurd” belief that liberals were “dishonest men, craftily scheming to gain a position in the church” and chided the author for providing only a caricature of liberal beliefs to set in opposition to his own views. What was it about Machen’s book that produced such strong responses from those on both sides of the issue?

Simply put, it was Machen’s assertion that modern liberalism “…is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong to a distinct category” (6-7). Machen laid bare the opposing conceptions of the major tenets of Christianity and liberalism in seven chapters, one of which covers the historical context in which the book was written, while the other six cover the primary areas of dispute between Christianity and its modernist challengers.

Chapter one sets the context in which Machen wrote his book; an era Machen characterized as totally dominated by “modern naturalistic liberalism” (2), and holds that this liberalism is to “be criticized on (1) on the ground that it is un-Christian, and (2) on the ground that it is unscientific,” (7). The work at hand concerned “chiefly the former line of criticism,” that is, that modernism is un-Christian. Machen notes in passing that some of those who would read his book would have already settled the question in favor of historic Christianity (9), but he makes clear that the book was written for those who made up the not-yet-decided middle, who were desirous to examine the question at issue between Christianity and modernism (1). As he sets the stage for the examination of dogma in the second chapter, Machen notes that liberalism treats historic doctrines, as well as confessional conflict, as the leftovers of a superseded supernaturalism (13-16).
Liberalism, Machen wrote, is a religion of “human morality and goodness,” whereas Christianity proclaims God’s redemption of sinful mankind through Christ. “Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity,” according to Machen; “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God” (47). Machen carefully describes the representative ideas of liberalism, showing how they differed fundamentally from traditional Christianity in basic conceptions of God, man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church.

Liberalism neglects “the awful transcendence of God” (62) and ignores the sinfulness of man, Machen claims. It rejects the authority of the Bible, substituting in its place “the shifting emotions of sinful men” (79). Whereas liberalism regards Jesus Christ “as an Example and Guide,” Christianity accepts him as a Savior: “liberalism makes Him an example for faith: Christianity, the object of faith” (96). The theological modernist, according to Machen, tries to have faith in God like the faith that he supposes Jesus had in God, but he does not have faith in Jesus. Christianity teaches that Jesus was no mere prophet or inspired teacher but a supernatural person, a heavenly redeemer who came to earth for the salvation of sinners. “The Jesus of the New Testament has at least one advantage over the Jesus of modern reconstruction,” writes Machen, “He is real” (116).

Liberalism finds salvation in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God. The so-called “salvation” of the liberals is actually a form of legalism, obeying the commands of God rather than trusting in the death of Christ who is God. Modern liberal teachers, insists Machen, “persist in speaking of the sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by someone other than God…. [But] the fundamental thing [in the Christian doctrine of the cross] is that God Himself and not another, makes the sacrifice for sin—God Himself in the person of the Son who assumed our nature and died for us, God Himself in the person of the Father who spared not His own Son but offered him up for us all” (132).

The church, Machen charges, “has been unfaithful to her Lord by admitting great companies of non-Christian persons, not only into her membership, but into her teaching agencies” so that “the greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from enemies outside, but from enemies within.” Machen maintains that the Presbyterian Church was composed of people who agreed upon a “certain message about Christ” and who united “in the propagation of the message.” The church’s constitution bound its ministers to teach and defend the Westminster Confession of Faith. After solemnly subscribing to the Bible as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice” and the Westminster Confession as containing “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” it was dishonest, according to Machen, for a Presbyterian minister to view the Bible as a collection of inspirational writings and the Confession as outdated theories. It was time, Machen argues, for the Presbyterian Church to reaffirm “the absolute exclusiveness of the Christian religion” and for those ministers who did not hold to this conviction to withdraw from its jurisdiction (159-160).

Perhaps the most scathing response to Christianity and Liberalism came not from a Presbyterian modernist, but from a self-professed Baptist “moderate,” W.O. Carver. Not unlike the review by Gerald B. Smith, Carver opens by accusing Machen of “not at all times fairly [apprehending] the opposition against which he is contending” and of having erected a “man of straw” in his characterization of theological modernism. Not content with accusing Machen of misrepresenting his opponents and erecting straw men, Carver goes on to argue ad hominem, calling Machen a pessimist, and accusing Machen of appealing to “emotion, sentiment, and prejudice” rather than the intellect.
Carver does, however, have some more potent criticism of Machen’s book. “It would have been helpful to distinguish,” writes Carver, “between rationalistic, anti-supernaturalism, and the effort to compass the world of modern science in one’s range of vision and experience. This distinction is at best very hazy in this book.” Carver also questions Dr. Machen’s pneumatology:

In the volume before us one finds himself repeatedly inquiring where is the author’s faith in the Holy Spirit and where his recognition of the Spirit’s functions and work. Much emphasis is laid on the Spirit in the revelation and inspiration of the word in the original giving of the Bible. Some stress is given to the work of Spirit in the Regeneration and Sanctification of the believer, interpreted in characteristically traditional fashion and with the emphasis on the doctrine rather than on the experience. Beyond that, so far as this book goes he might reply if one asked him of the Holy Spirit, ‘I had not so much as heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’

Where Carver’s first criticism is concerned, his own accusation is somewhat hazy itself. What exactly is “the effort to compass the world of modern science in one’s range of vision and experience”? Without some further detail, one is left entirely clueless as to what Carver is referring to. Carver’s second criticism, however, is really composed of two parts. There is charge that Machen has a deficient faith in “the Spirit’s functions and work” and there is his charge that Machen overemphasizes the doctrinal at the expense of the experiential. Where the first of these accusations is concerned, this seems to again be something of a veiled ad hominem attack on Dr. Machen. The second accusation, however, misses the point entirely because it was doctrine, and not experience that was under attack.

It is no easy task to give a critical review of the work of a Princeton professor and founder of Westminster Theological Seminary. By the time he began his studies at Princeton Seminary, Machen had already studied under the most renowned classical professor of his era, Dr. Basil L. Gildersleeve at Johns Hopkins University, and managed to complete a Master of Arts degree at Princeton University while studying simultaneously at Princeton Seminary. After graduating from Princeton Seminary in 1905, he went on to Marburg, where he studied under Adolph Jülicher, Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Herrmann, and Walter Bauer. He would return to Princeton Seminary to teach in 1906, and became one of the most well-regarded professors at that venerable institution. Furthermore, Christianity and Liberalism has remained a classic work of open and honest scholarship even to our own day. Substantive criticisms of the work are hard to make.

Nonetheless, there two glaring flaws in Machen’s book. The first is Machen’s taxonomy of the conflict. One of the great failures, noticeable only in hindsight, is Machen’s bipartite division of the contest being waged in the Presbyterian Church as being between Christians (in the historic sense of the word) and liberals. In reality, there was in fact a third party in the conflict—the muddled, broadly evangelical middle. It was this third group that was the deciding factor in the outcome of the Modernist controversy; it was this third group that was willing to place the blame for the conflict squarely in the laps of the confessional/traditionalist party at Princeton Seminary.

The second flaw in the work, also only noticeable in hindsight, is Machen’s rhetoric—namely, it’s far too restrained. Machen desired to conduct his critique of modernism/liberalism on the dispassionate, scholarly plane. He refused to name names, not wanting the dispute to be over “personalities.” The liberals in the church had no such compunctions. They were more than happy to besmirch Machen’s character both in print and on the floor of General Assembly. In fact, by 1923, the liberals had effectively won the “rhetorical war,” by making it clear that the problem wasn’t liberal theology at all. The real problem was the conservative faction at Princeton Seminary who were terribly intolerant. Until the liberal triumph in the reorganization of Princeton Seminary, the cry of the liberal faction within the PCUSA had been for peace and pluralism. From 1891 to 1926, the liberals had claimed repeatedly that all they desired was equal time for their views. From the reorganization of Princeton Seminary onward, the liberals revealed that their commitment to pluralism was tactical, not principled. They didn’t believe in equal time for orthodoxy in the councils of the Church once they were in power.

Despite the flaws noted above, Machen’s work is nothing less than brilliant, and it more than amply proves Machen’s central thesis: Christianity and liberalism are two separate religions—two religions that have as much in common with one another as Christianity and Hinduism.

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