Book Review: Christianity & Liberalism – By J. Gresham Machen

machen xnty and liberalism.pngletter-c.pngChristianity & Liberalism is what might be rightly called the pinnacle of the Christian defence for orthodoxy. The landscape in which the book falls into is one of increasing religious Liberalism, a movement which overtook Christianity in the years following the Enlightenment up through the early Twentieth Century (and even into the present) in the form of the German Higher Criticism. Liberalism in this context can properly be understood as that thing which tries “to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science.” This plays out as a denial of the historicity of the Biblical accounts (namely, the incarnation/resurrection), of the Trinity, the virgin birth, miracles and anything else which may appear illogical to scientific scrutiny; it is this which Machen argues against.

The text is an expansion of an earlier address delivered by Machen – ‘Liberalism or Christianity’ – which can also be read in essay form at White Horse Inn.

In his defense of Christianity Machen focuses on demonstrating the dichotomy present between traditional and liberal sects, such as their opposing views of the relationship between God and man, of Scripture, of the person Jesus Christ and of salvation. Where Christianity makes God the creator and the author of Salvation through a historical event in the death of Christ, Liberalism creates a works-centered religion in which man is essentially good and must simply follow Christ as his example. As Machen puts it: “Liberalism regards [Christ] as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior; liberalism makes Him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith.”

Machen seeks to show that Christianity and Liberalism are indeed two different religions, with the latter simply feeding off of the former, trying to pass itself off as orthodoxy through use of equivocation in traditional terms. Machen confronts this dishonesty which he sees in liberal Christian leaders, noting how “By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretations of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.” The book concludes in addressing what it is that Christians and churches need to do in order to combat the growing trend throughout the congregations and leadership positions. This is mostly through higher standards of church leadership and discernment amongst church offices, but chiefly through a revival of Christian education both in the home and in the churches (as in essence, ignorance breeds heresy).

The text not only serves to demonstrate the sharp contrast between Liberalism and Christianity and what happens when one places the authority of man over the authority of the Scripture, but is also on its own a wonderful outline of just what orthodox Christianity looks like – afterall, one of the best way to define what you believe is to contrast it with what you don’t believe. Furthermore, the text serves to show the religious climate in the early Twentieth Century when Machen wrote, but is just as applicable today as it was then. The postmodern movement has picked up many of the liberal tendencies in it’s disdain for defined doctrines or truth, it’s trust in faith as faith (regardless of what it’s in), it’s pluralism, and it’s focus on the man for salvation over Christ.

This is quite simply one of the best books on Christianity that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, regardless of category.

Memorable Quotes:

-“But if the Christian faith is based upon truth, then it is not the faith which saves the Christian but the object of that faith. And the object of the faith is Christ. Faith, then, according to the Christian view, means simply receiving a gift. To have faith in Christ means to cease trying to win God’s favor by one’s own character; the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God.”

-“In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.”

-“According to the fundamental principle, language is truthful, not when the meaning attached to the words by the speaker, but when the meaning intended to be produced in the mind of the particular person addressed, is in accordance with the facts.”

-“Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view.”

[Honestly, this is one of those books that’s so full of excellent quotes that I could fill page upon page with just that.]

Specific Criticisms

If there is something to critique about this text I’m not sure I’m skilled enough to be able to say what it is. There is nothing that I could say I disagree with, nor can I even propose to critique his style or some aspect of his presentation – the text is eloquent and yet simple, touching the root of every matter that he comes across.

One possible point of contention is that the address in putting so striking of a dichotomy between Christianity and Liberalism as schools of thought, it may fail to account for that dichotomy not transferring directly over into the churches – that is, while traditional and liberalized Christianity may be opposites, the majority of people in the churches fall into a an oblivious middle group which fail to see the relevance of such things. Granted, while most of the book is directed towards what church leaders need to do to combat the issue Machen does point out that the most important thing which needs to be done is a renewal of Christian education: “The rejection of Christianity is due to various causes. But a very potent cause is simple ignorance. In countless cases, Christianity is rejected simply because men have not the slightest notion of what Christianity is.”

While this does address that one of the main problems is with that oblivious middle group being so oblivious, and says that the remedy is naturally for them to stop being so oblivious, there is little to be practically drawn from this. Sure, churches which are already in agreement with Machen’s thesis would increase their focus on teaching orthodoxy, but this does very little for the rest of the churches. Those opposing Machen’s thesis are naturally going to ignore it, while the oblivious middle group is still just has hopelessly lost as before – afterall, one can’t pull oneself out of oblivion, they’ll just continue on as ignorant as before because they’re unlikely to hear or even recognize Machen’s call to renewal. This is likely why Machen seems to focus on a sort of ‘trickle down’ effect, as it is only through properly educating the leaders that one may properly educate the masses if the masses have no will to educate themselves, or even a notion that they might need to.

Thus I think in the end it is the title and the marketing of the book that I would critique. While it seems to be directed towards scholars it is easy to read and thus would do fine in the general populace – (like with the book Orthodoxy by Chesterton), Christianity & Liberalism simply isn’t something that’s going to attract the attention of the oblivious middle. If you want to use a trickle down effect it’s fine, but if you want to hit gut of the Christian populace it’s just poor showmanship, one needs to get down on their level without compromising the message.

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