A Quick Look at J. Gresham Machen

In recent months, I have been overwhelmingly fascinated with one particular 20th century thinker—J. Gresham Machen. In reflecting on the scope of theological trends since the Enlightenment, it’s clear that Machen stands as an important figure called by God to the defense of traditional Christian orthodoxy. The brilliance and insight of this Christian thinker should not be overlooked as he held the line in the 20th century struggle for Christianity; especially against theological liberalism. Although this will not be a thorough treatment of his work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is my intention to provide some introductory comments that will provide readers with a bit of basic knowledge about Machen’s intent for writing militantly against the liberalism of his day.[1] Perhaps we can take much from Machen’s writing and apply it to our time as we compare the theological liberalism of his day with ours.

Christianity and Liberalism was written in 1923 with an intention to argue that theological liberalism, especially the kind that labels itself as “Christian”, is an altogether different religion than biblical Christianity. In fact, Machen himself declares that,

“The chief modern rival to Christianity is ‘liberalism’. An examination of the teachings of liberalism in comparison with those of Christianity will show that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.”[2]

Machen wants to argue that Christian liberalism is not just another “version” of Christianity, but rather is in direct opposition to it; the two are very much mortal enemies with no commonality. As one reads through Machen’s work, they will notice that he examines six particular areas of concern in relation to this issue:

  1. An emphasis on the issue of doctrine in general.
  2. An emphasis on the doctrines of God and man.
  3. An emphasis on the Bible.
  4. An emphasis on views of Christ.
  5. An emphasis on differing views of salvation.
  6. An emphasis on the nature of the church.

 

Also, I would like to note, in general, several crucial differences between liberalism and Christianity that Machen promotes.

  1. Machen argues that theological liberalism is anti-doctrinal and anti-supernatural in its basic impulse. Liberalism tends to shy away from promoting the notion that doctrine is of importance to Christianity. In terms of being anti-supernatural, liberalism is perhaps not totally anti-supernatural per se, but definitely does not advocate biblical supernaturalism.
  2. Liberalism also replaces Jesus as the divine Savior of men with the Jesus who is a great moral teacher. Machen is famous for making the distinction that liberalism wants to have Jesus as the example of faith rather than the object of faith.
  3. Liberalism seems to have a very low view of God and a very high view of man. Liberalism wants to promote a god who is not completely sovereign, who is not just, who is not holy in his wrath, and who is not transcendent. Perhaps the great critique of Karl Barth in regards to liberalism reigns true here, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”
  4. Liberalism’s claims are founded on Christian experience rather than of God’s Word. Theological liberalism wants to deny the authority of Scripture and shift authority to human reasoning and moral experience.
  5. Liberalism views Jesus as an imperfect mere man rather than the perfect God-man. Theological liberals are prepared to argue that Jesus may have made cultural errors, but is still worthy of our respect; especially in the moral realm.
  6. Liberalism views salvation as an act of man (moral reformation) rather than an act of God alone (spiritual transformation). Essentially, Christian liberalism is a form of Pelagianism in regards to ability.
  7. Finally, liberalism views the church as being founded on the brotherhood of man rather than the brotherhood of the redeemed.

The challenge to take from Machen’s assessment of theological liberalism is to compare it with the theological trends of our day to make sure that we are not engaging in any theological liberalism ourselves. As Christians, we must be about the Word of God and seeking to make His name famous, even if that means accepting doctrinal beliefs that the world would label as “outlandish”. We must not seek common ground with error, but must live to promote the truth of God as is found in His Word—just as J. Gresham Machen did.


[1] I am greatly indebted to Reformed Theological Seminary for this information, and in particular to Dr. James Anderson whom I had as a professor. This information is heavily reliant upon the class study guide.

[2] Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009. (Originally published in 1923).

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2 responses to “A Quick Look at J. Gresham Machen”

  1. Parallax Perspective says :

    I love Machen’s central thesis implied in his title “Christianity and Liberalism.” Liberalism is not Christianity. Get your own name! Thanks for bringing up this great book.

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