In 1923, J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism was published. 100 years later, its relevance and insight has not diminished over time. In fact, you could argue that the book is more relevant than ever in 2023.
In the book, Machen makes the case that Christianity and theological liberalism are incompatible because they reach opposite conclusions on central aspects of the faith such as God, humanity, and salvation.
What we would today refer to as “progressive Christianity” is what Machen refers to as liberalism – liberalism of the theological rather than the political kind (though the two often go together).
In Christianity and Liberalism J. Gresham Machen makes the case that theological liberalism is not truly a form of Christianity at all, but is instead “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.”
Machen’s analysis of this ‘distinct category’ of religion remains helpful to the modern reader seeking to understand and articulate the very real differences between Christianity and those who consider themselves to be theologically liberal.
With the continued rise and influence of progressive Christianity, the tension between orthodox and liberal theological beliefs remains a hotly debated issue.
As you will see in the brief overview of Christianity and Liberalism below, today’s Christian has much to gain from reading this 100-year-old call to action to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
The Doctrines of Theological Liberalism
Machen makes his case that liberalism is altogether a different religion by providing an examination of its doctrines (though the very concept of ‘doctrine’ is often itself rejected).
Machen defines doctrine as “the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts.” By examining these doctrines, Machen traces spiritual decline in the larger culture to the rejection of biblical truth.
In departing from orthodoxy, liberalism diverges towards opposite conclusions from Christianity in its views of God, man, and the Bible. It is with these doctrines that Machen begins to demonstrate the specifics of how liberalism is not in fact Christian at all.
The Nature of God
In regards to God, liberalism tends to “break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man.” Moreover, progressive Christians and other theological liberals dissuade others from attempting to ‘put God in a box’ by trying to define His characteristics: “It is unnecessary, we are told, to have a “conception” of God; theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence.”
By rejecting the idea that God has revealed immutable characteristics about Himself, those who hold to theologically liberal views feel the freedom to remake God in their own image.
The State of Man
This breakdown is seen also in the liberal view of man, which rejects the notion that we are sinners in desperate need of a Savior. As Machen states, “At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of consciousness of sin.”
Liberalism views man as inherently good and that mankind is able to counteract and overcome this evil on its own. This “loss of consciousness of sin” has led us to the largely pagan society that we have today.
The most ready example of this occurring in progressive Christian circles is a celebration of homosexuality, transgenderism, and a host of other “lifestyle choices” that Scripture clearly calls sin.
In a world where evil is called good, Christians must preach the law of God and rely on the Spirit to convict people of the truth about their sin and separation from God.
The Authority of Scripture
In regards to Scripture, Machen notes that the true Christian is utterly dependent on the Bible’s divine revelation and authority. It is through the Bible that we gain an understanding of our condition and of salvation.
Meanwhile, “progressive Christianity” rejects the authority of Scripture in favor of the subjective experience of the individual Christian and the sentiment of the larger culture. Personal experience is held up as the ultimate arbiter of what is true and good.
Says Machen, “It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”
From here, Machen endeavors to further demonstrate that liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all. By looking at the distinct doctrines of Christ, salvation, and the church, Machen is able to show that the disparity between the two groups is so great that it is not appropriate to label liberal theology Christianity. It is, in fact, an entirely different religion.
In regards to the person of Christ, Machen rejects and refutes the liberal assertion that the apostle Paul was the originator of having faith in Jesus as God. Where liberals would see Jesus as a model for the faith that we are to demonstrate, Christians see Jesus as the object of our faith.
Paul knew and taught this as a core truth of Christianity. Modern attempts at revising history to prove otherwise are ultimately fruitless. Concludes Machen, “The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus.“
Furthermore, it is not accurate to say that Jesus is merely an example for us to follow. Similar to C.S. Lewis’ words in his trilemma argument (“…A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher…”) Machen points out that “…if Jesus be merely an example, He is not a worthy example; for He claimed to be far more.”
This insight is very helpful when thinking of how to engage those who reject Christ’s deity and yet still somehow consider themselves to be admirers or Jesus. If the biblical account of Jesus is accurate, there is little room for taking Jesus to be simply an example for us to follow.
Explaining again that Christianity is, at its heart, based on an historical event, Machen states that salvation is based not on what Jesus taught or even who He was, but on what He accomplished in history.
Atonement for sin was accomplished on the cross, and this is the crux of the Christian doctrine of salvation through Christ. Meanwhile, liberals often take Jesus’ death as merely being an example of self-sacrifice which we are to emulate. When liberals wish to sidestep the historicity of the cross, “the evasion involves a total abandonment of the Christian faith.”
Salvation is not to be achieved by following the example of Christ and loving others, but through repentance and faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Obedience to His teaching and conforming to His example is the fruit of salvation, not the root of it.
Lastly, Machen discusses the topic of the church. Christianity sees the church as a universal institution made up of all true believers. Liberal theology, on the other hand, believes that “all men everywhere, no matter what their race or creed, are brothers.”
At first this may seem an admirable position to take, but it stems from a rejection of the Christian doctrine of sin and the need of a Savior. With liberalism, man is capable of saving himself, and so there is no gulf which separates man from God and thus no distinction between those who are united to Him and those who are not.
Rather than being a loving notion of equality and unity, the progressive position is a glossing over of the most important truth of the human condition: we are sinners in need of a Savior. This is the commonality that unites all of humankind.
A rejection of this truth directly impacts the health of local churches as “modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin.”
If that was true in 1923, how much more can that be said of many churches in 2023! It seems many who claim the name of pastor are eager to lower the bar as much as possible in order to fill seats and — under the guise of love — ignore what Scripture says about sin and its consequences.
Machen did not write this book merely to point to the issues in the broader culture and wag his finger. His purpose in rightly diagnosing the symptoms of a culture that has veered from biblical truth was to prescribe a solution that would draw us back to the God of the Bible.
He asks the question “What is the duty of Christian men at such at time? What is the duty, in particular, of Christian officers in the Church?”
Machen provides a thorough treatment of the proper response to the spiritual decline in our culture:
- Encourage those who are engaged in the spiritual and intellectual struggle by spreading and defending the faith
- Christians must be vigilant in choosing qualified ministers to shepherd their churches
- Those ministers must be loyal to Christ and be passionate about salvation in Him
- There must be a renewal of Christian education to drive out ignorance of sound doctrine
Machen dives deep into each of these areas and makes plain that the proper response to our current cultural decline is not one of despair but of discipleship.
It is evident that those who reject Christian doctrine and Christ’s teaching are ultimately left with having to reject the authority of Scripture, the ministry of the apostles, and even Christ’s teaching in order to maintain their liberal interpretation of Christianity.
Christianity and Liberalism reveals that so-called progressive Christianity is indeed a different religion. Machen identifies and refutes modern perversions of the faith in a way that remains relevant – and is perhaps more so – 100 years later.
This short book contains strong arguments in support of biblical truth and doctrine. His observations are incredibly relevant even now, and his passionate plea to hold fast to doctrinal truth is a helpful reminder for all believers to stand firm on the foundation of God’s Word.
If you would like to better understand the cultural challenges with liberal theology and progressive Christianity that we face today, I highly recommend that you pick up this timeless book from 1923.
This classic defense of orthodox Christianity, written to counter the liberalism that arose in the early 1900s, establishes the importance of scriptural doctrine and contrasts the teachings of liberalism and orthodoxy on God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church.