By Peter Coker
J. Gresham Machen spoke on this nearly 100-years ago, 97-years to be exact. At that time, (1922) he said the problem of liberalism in American Christian theology had already existed for 75-years. That would mean he traced the problem back to 1847, 172-years prior to 2019. Machen notes that liberal-theology was/is an attack on the essential foundations of historic Christianity. In short, the liberal view relied not on — Divine revelation, God’s word, Scriptural doctrine, or creeds — but on the Christian “experience” and on the “exposition” of the Christian experience. Thus, in liberal-religion, Scriptural teachings are not considered as important as an interpretive narrative. It then asserts; Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. Although this statement may have an air of godliness, Machen sought to test the liberal view by revisiting an examination of the historic beginnings of Christianity.
Machen’s examination noted that Christianity as a movement began within a few days after the crucifixion. Christianity was a new movement and the name, “Christian,” originated shortly after the death of Christ. The early years of first-century Christianity were preserved with the Apostles writings which later became the Bible’s New Testament Scriptures. The Scriptures testify to the fundamental character and primary principles of the early Christian movement. The Apostolic writings describe first-century Christianity as much more than a mere way of life, but as a way for all of life to be centered and self-possessed in a comprehensive gospel precept. The Apostolic writings contained not only facts about what Jesus said and did; but also, the meaning of what He said and did. Together, the Scriptures and Apostolic writings; prophesied of His coming, who He was, why He came, His death and resurrection on the third-day, and that Jesus came down from heaven to save mankind.
Jesus himself spoke very specifically about discerning true and false teachings in conjunction with strong warnings to beware of false teachers. Jesus also taught that incorrect doctrine (commandments of men) amounts to vain worship (Matt. 15: 8-9). It is interesting that Jesus correlates doctrine with worship. This indicates that correct doctrine leads to a positive, worthy, victorious worship.
[All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)]
The meaning of the facts of Scripture produces Christian doctrine, the essential foundations and primary principles of the Christian faith. The Scriptures teach that the household of God is “built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph. 2: 19-22)
Machen observed in modern times Christianity’s main rival is liberalism and he chronicles why liberalism is in opposition to Christianity. Machen begins by pointing to liberalism’s conception of God. For liberal-theology, the knowledge of God is the death-nell of religion; believers therefore, should not seek to know God, but instead, feel His presence. However, this peculiar view eliminates the moral underpinnings of religion as feelings are non-moral and can be expressed in moral or immoral behavior. Additionally, human-affection or feelings relies and depends on certain personal observations to inform our knowledge of the object of our affection. With liberalism, human-feelings — instead of God’s revelation and His word — become self-determinative of truth and reality. This reduces Christianity’s transcendent eternal purposes to the human aspirations of the material world.
[Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33; see also, 2 Peter 1:3)
walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; (Colossians 1:10, 3:1-2)
In contrast to the Scriptural knowledge of God and His will, liberalism’s human-experience and feelings concept conveys a materialistic, self-determined will (will-to-fiction), as expressed in Job; “They say to God, ‘Depart from us! We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.” (Job 21:14)
Machen also pointed-out the one main absolute fundamental attribute of God — the transcendence of God – the great gulf between the creature and the Creator. Modern liberalism however has expressed a distinct indifference to the God of Scripture and of the gulf between God and mankind. Thus, with a man-made effort, liberalism reduces the Scriptural, personal, living God to an impersonal world-process. For liberalism, God is not the divine personal loving Father and holy God; but rather is philosophically reduced to being a characterless world-procedure. The transcendence, sovereignty, providence, and predestination of God are thus broken-down to reflecting an impersonal, dispassionate process. If you begin with false presuppositions about God, you end-up with a false-god theology masquerading as the real thing.
As a result of reducing God to a world-process, the conception of man is altered as well. The Scriptures describe man as being a sinner, needing redemption; but with liberalism there is no sin, and man is thought to be naturally good. The natural man, of course, always believes he is not as bad as his neighbor. The natural man is also quite capable transferring guilt to others or to his environment. Liberal theology has changed both the basic conception of God and the biblical conception of man as well. The overall result has been the reduction of God and the elevation of man.
Today, liberal humanism is a philosophy that exalts mankind, whether it is Christian or secular. It is a view of life that finds the highest goal of human existence in the ‘healthy, harmonious, and joyous development of existing human faculties.’ Its self-determined optimism regards the nature of man as basically good. Historically, this was also the same philosophy of ‘paganism’ in Ancient Greece. Ancient Greece appeared glorious on the outside, but its underlying foundations were rotten to the core. Its mask of human-pride concealed a vast array of internal cover-ups and frauds. Jesus exposed the same phenomenon with the Pharisees and Sadducees; they looked spiritual on the outside, but inside they were spiritually dead. Liberalism is synonymous; looks great on the outside, but inside resides death and destruction towards God’s Word and His will.
Original Christianity, on the other hand is a religion of the broken heart, not of human-pride. It begins with the individual realization of brokenness towards God through the consciousness of sin. Of realizing one’s sins before God. Sin is then faced, dealt with, and removed by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice. True Christianity bridges the spiritual gulf between the redeemed believer and the Creator. The individual is then free to express a developing Christian life through divine grace and the empowering of the Holy Spirit; growing in the grace and knowledge of God.
Without an authentic biblical concept of God and the individual consciousness of sin, Jesus’ gospel message loses meaning and necessity. Without dealing faithfully with sin, morality, righteousness, and justice, the gospel message loses its distinctiveness and transforming power. This eventually transpired with theologically liberalized churches; in-due-time they became empty shells of what they once were because they accepted a false concept of God and man. The same abasing quandary arises within communities and cultures that proceed in their footsteps.
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chron. 7:14)
*Article adopted from J. Gresham Machen’s Liberalism or Christianity (1922).