Christiainity and Liberalism
One of the most important books I have ever read is Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. Here is the thesis of the book. Liberalism (not classical liberalism) erodes orthodox Christianity by dismembering the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Like rain eroding a gravel road, liberalism rains down on Christianity, causing essential doctrines to be washed away.
What Is Liberalism?
The word liberal is thrown around like a dog toy. It is used all the time. If a dog sees the toy he is likely to play with it. But the problem is that liberal is rarely defined. In one sense, many Americans are classically liberal. Behind the word liberal is liberty. The concept of liberty is foundational to the US Constitution. In another sense, the term describes people “on the political left.” The terms progressive and liberal are used interchangeably. Both uses of liberal and liberalism are common in our modern parlance. But Machen has another angle. Machen understands Christian liberalism as a worldview. Christian liberalism is a worldview not anchored in historic and orthodox Christianity. Christian liberalism has thrown off the clothes of Christianity and is parading around in a mardi gras outfit. The outfit looks neat for a moment, but underneath the outfit is a false gospel. And what is underneath a Christian liberal worldview? Naturalism. Naturalism suggests that natural and materialistic causes can only explain Christianity, and it pushes out anything that smacks of the supernatural. Machen rightly concludes,
Christianity differs from liberalism, then, in the first place, in its conception of God.– J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. p. 55–56.
Answer the question, who is God? Your response will reveal what anchors your conception of God. For example, Machen points out how naturalism affects the person of Christ. He says,
The assertion is often made, indeed, that Jesus kept His own Person out of His gospel, and came forward merely as the supreme prophet of God.– J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. p. 28–29.
Machen says that liberal Christianity cannot stomach Jesus being truly man and truly God. It cannot be true if you cannot explain it with the scientific method. We can extend the logic of Christian liberalism to the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and every miracle in the New Testament. Liberal Christianity wants to go Thomas Jefferson on their bibles. Cut out the miracles and keep the teachings of Christ.
The Importance of History
Another leg of Christian liberalism is anti-history. Machen does not use the term anti-history, but it is how I understand Machen’s point. Here is the question at hand: does the Bible provide an accurate account of history? Does the Bible provide for us an accurate assessment as it narrates the work of God and the life of Christ? Machen says,
My Christian life, then, depends altogether upon the truth of the New Testament record.– J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. p. 61.
Machen knows the locus of truth. Truth does not lie in his experience. He cannot make sense of the world through his feelings. His experiences, emotions, and the world only make sense when he reads Holy Scripture. The Bible is the objective standard of truth that is grounded in actual historical events that took place in time and space.
Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence.– J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. p. 61.
Christian liberalism attempts to release the shackles of history by undermining the authority and accuracy of Holy Scripture. Instead, Christian liberalism wants to locate meaning and truth with the self. Now, it does not take more than a second to realize that when you remove the objective for the subjective, then the bus is heading in any direction. If the documentary evidence of the Old and New Testaments is not sufficient, then another version of Christianity, a false version of Christianity, will take root.
Is Liberal Christianity a False Religion?
In the Book of Galatians, the apostle Paul was concerned that another gospel was being preached. We read,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.– Galatians 1:6–7
So, there were people who claim to know Christ and who claim to know the gospel, but in reality, another is being preached and believed. If the apostle Paul were alive today, he would make similar comments about liberal Christianity. Machen tracks with the logic of Paul.
The greatest menace to the Christian Church to-day comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core.– J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism. p. 135.
Machen and Paul knew that the greatest danger to orthodox and historical Christianity is not what is obviously nonChristian, but a pastor who comes along and slightly twists the truth of Scripture. So when pastor Ana down the streets preaches your best life now and takes a Scripture out of context to make her point, it’s best to find a new church. If pastor Greg from the universal unitarian “church” tells you that salvation is not based upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you might want to consider moving on. I know Paul had strong words for religious hacks that preach another gospel.
As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.– Galatians 1:9
Let these words sink in. LET. THEM. BE. ACCURSED. If you wonder if the English translation is stronger than the Greek, well, the word accursed is anathema (ἀνάθεμα). So I think we can safely say that Paul had an opinion about false teachers.
Not a Book Review
You will be forgiven if you think this blog is a book review. I said at the outset that Christianity and Liberalism is one of the most important books I have ever read. But I hope you see this is more than a book review.
So consider this nugget of truth. Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, but it is still relevant in the 21st century. Unfortunately, Christian liberalism is still parading around in a mardi gras outfit. It might look cool but underneath the outfit is zero substance and a whole lot of heresy. Someone might object and say it’s harsh to call some churches and pastors heretics. But the question that needs to be settled is what is the standard of truth? Is the standard of truth you? Is it me? Or is it God’s Word? Are my present circumstances a better barometer of truth or do I trust what has stood the test of time? I do not know about you, but I am with the apostle Paul, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Shawn Powers is the lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at shawn_DSM.