Classic 1923 text by J. Gresham Machen comes to life again.
In this diverse world of ours, we live side-by-side with colleagues, friends, neighbours and even family members who hold sometimes radically different political views, lifestyles and opinions about life.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada has never been wholly unified. Progressives and traditionalists have been at odds since our inception over theology, worship and preaching styles, music and even architecture. Some would argue that the PCC crossed the line decades ago in practical terms by turning a blind eye to those who openly practiced and preached what was contrary to our subordinate standards. The 2021 decision to formally break with orthodoxy by redefining marriage marked a formal departure from global evangelicalism.
The PCC is formally divided, with two solitudes. We have a small majority consisting of progressives or liberals. We also have a significant minority of those who adhere to what we call “authentic Biblical thinking” – which reflects what most believers follow today and throughout history. There is also the mushy middle of those who aren’t quite sure about theology (or don’t care) but remain due to their love of their community, their building or family ties.
Does theology matter? Even a casual reading of scripture finds great passion for correct understanding of God and His Kingdom. The Lord had little patience for those who should have known better. “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God” (Matthew 22:29) he told the Sadducees.
Indeed, theology matters greatly. This is why the more conservative seminaries place great emphasis on systematic theology – a correct understanding of doctrine – while others emphasize more of a laissez-faire approach to hermeneutics. And it’s why pastors and theologians of all theological leanings publish treatises in an effort to set things straight in their minds.
Christianity and Liberalism is one such work. Don’t let the title of the book deceive you. In grammatical terms, “and” is a conjunction which links or compares various things. At face value, the reader could understand Christianity could be correlated to liberalism in the same way one might say “much of the Western church today lacks discipline and faith.” Both aspects work together. This is a positive correlation. However, the author uses “and” in the negative sense: they are not the same. Christianity and liberalism are presented as antonyms.
Gresham Machen presents liberal Christianity as essentially un-Christian. It’s hardline. At first, I was taken aback by his lack of grace. It was published exactly 100 years ago in the midst of a bitter controversy between modernists and fundamentalists. It resulted in the founding of Westminster theological Seminary when Princeton turned liberal. In an organized fashion, Gresham contrasts the foundations of classical Christian belief with those of liberalism on six matters.
- Doctrine: “The Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. . . upon doctrine.” (Kindle locations 315-346)
- God and man – and the concept of sin: “The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting point of all preaching but today, it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness.” (937)
- The Bible: “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded on the shifting emotions of sinful man.” (1132)
- Christ: “Liberalism regards Him as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior.” (1365)
- Salvation: “According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church . . . God exists for the sake of man.” (2207)
- The Church: “Modern liberalism is like the legalism of the middle ages, with its dependence upon the merit of man. And another reformation in God’s good time will come.” (2555)
Quotes are mere snippets and do not actually do justice to this work. It must be read, slowly and carefully. And with an open Bible at the ready. Technologically and culturally, Machen lived in a different age. But as I plodded through his words, I had the growing feeling that I was reading something that might well have been written in our current church climate. As such, it’s timeless.
A deeper review of this book by Carl Trueman can be found at http://www.theologian.org.uk/doctrine/liberalism.html