J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (Moscow ID; Canon Press, 2020), 163 pages.
One of the most controversial corners of the evangelical world right now is the place where Christians go to deconstruct their faith. Several former evangelical Christians, some of them well known some of them not, have gone public with their reservations and embarrassments with their faith, and many of them have openly proclaimed that they simply cannot believe anymore.
In every deconstruction story that I am aware of, the process takes an individual from a theologically conservative position to a theologically progressive position (theological liberalism), and then, in many cases, finally to disbelief. The pressures these individuals feel to bring their so-called outdated beliefs into line with the dominant cultural around them is prevalent in the narratives. More often than not reasons are cited that include the apparent conflict between science and faith, or the felt need to update religious beliefs on human sexuality.
And while several erstwhile orthodox Christians have traveled this path in the turmoil of the last decade of American culture, it is a story that goes back over a century.
In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism to address the theological liberalism of his day. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of theological liberalism was making its way through the Western church. It was reacting to the rise of major modern ideologies such as Darwinism and Socialism/Communism and was finding ways to bring Christian theology up to date. The drive was to make Christianity respectable and believable in a world where Darwin and Socialism were on the rise.
While many of the specifics are different from 1920 to 2020, the temptation is the same. The felt need to massage, or simply change, Christian orthodoxy in the light of contemporary culture continues to overwhelm the belief of many. Machen’s work is just as necessary for us as it was for our forebearers a century ago.
Machen’s very readable book is broken into seven chapters, including his Introduction. His stated goal on the first page is to not necessarily settle the theological debate, but to bring clarity to the issue. His argument is that theological liberalism is a different religion than Christianity, and not simply a branch or brand of orthodox belief. To that end, Machen breaks his book into these core theological themes: Doctrine, God and Man, The Bible, Christ, Salvation, and The Church. A clearer set of topics one could not find.
Concerning the necessity of Christian doctrine from the Gospels to the Apostle Paul, to the early church and now, he writes, “If we are to be truly Christians, then, it does make a vast difference what our teachings are, and it is by no means aside from the point to set forth the teachings of Christianity in contrast with the teachings of the chief modern rival of Christianity. The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism’.” (pg 47)
For me, there are two primary strengths to Christianity and Liberalism. First, is Machen’s clear and powerfully reasoned distinction between orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism. Machen was a respected theologian at Princeton, who eventually founded Westminster Seminary, and who was not afraid to lay out the differences between the two religions. Part of the book’s staying power is in the strength of his analysis.
The second is the path this work lays out for us today. With the recent rise, at least the public notability, of deconstruction stories and progressive Christianity, Machen reminds us that orthodox Christians can continue to make the case for the faith once delivered to the saints and the faith in which we now live (Jude 1:3). There are always those who make their way through the Christian church, and for one reason or another, decided to change the core teachings of the faith and continue to label it, “Christian.” It is OK, and it is right, for the rest of us to be clear about the differences and stick with the faith.
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