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Last year I finally read Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. It had been on my “need to read” list for…years! When I saw a sale for a “legacy edition” by Westminster Seminary Press that also included a collection of essays by their faculty reflecting on this landmark book, I knew this was my “push” to finally get a copy to read! But I have delayed this review. How does one even review such a seminal and now classic book? Since the book is no longer in copyright, you should easily find it.

Originally published in 1923, the book remains as relevant now as it was then – perhaps even more so. It is a defense of core, orthodox Christian doctrines (categorized as God and man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, the church) specifically written to counter the “liberalism” that was taking hold in the early 20th century. A number of influences (such as 19th century biblical criticism and the social gospel) had created a watered-down, liberal Christianity that was actually…no longer Christianity. The later (not the history) is the focus of Machen’s book.

He writes in a clear, insightful way getting to the heart of the matter. We all need to be reminded of the essential truths of Christianity that are non-negotiable! Machen was Presbyterian and he saw his beloved Princeton Theological Seminary abandoning core tenets of the faith, and he led a group to leave and form Westminster Theological Seminary.

Such continues to happen today, as we can see in the United Methodist Church. Methodism began to go liberal way back in Machen’s time, and while many individuals in the pew have remained conservative, United Methodist hierarchical leadership became more and more liberal. Some think the split currently taking place in the UMC is about sexuality. Not really. That is secondary. This split is about the abandonment of Christianity orthodoxy. I’d say the sexuality issues are a symptom of the orthodoxy issues. For more about this, see this book review: The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism.

The book opens (Chapter 1, “Introduction”): “The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding for himself.” This can make people uncomfortable, and he goes on to say: “Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which…shrinks from ‘controversial’ matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.”

Chapter 2 is entitled “Doctrine,” clarifying why doctrine matters. At the time (and now too in the UMC problems) Christianity can be viewed primarily as a way to live and something to experience. In other words, as long as we love everyone, what everyone believes (doctrine) does not matter. Machen responds to such ideas: “According to Christian conception, a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.” – Read that carefully. Worded another way:

“But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of the evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not on mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.”

More: “Christianity is based, then, upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness. But if so, it is rather important that the Christian worker should tell the truth…If we are to be truly Christian, 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.’ An examination of the teaching of liberalsim in comparison with those of Christianity will show that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.”

That was the end of the doctrine chapter and it then moves into 5 chapters on: God and man, the Bible, Christ, Salvation, the church. Some quotes:

Chapter 3 “God and man:”
“The doctrine of God and the doctrine of man are the two great presuppositions of the gospel.”
“At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.”

Chapter 4 “The Bible:”
“Christian experience is rightly used when it helps to convince us that the events narrated in the New Testament actually did occur; but it can never enable us to be Christians whether the events occurred or not.”

Chapter 5 “Christ:”
“There is a profound difference then, in the attitude assumed by modern liberalism and by Christianity toward Jesus the Lord. Liberalism regards Him as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior. Liberalism makes Him an example for faith; Christianity the object of faith.”

Chapter 6 “Salvation” is the longest and harder for me to pull out a quote or two. There is good defense and explanation of the atonement, as well as God’s attributes, the new birth, etc.
“It is the connection of the present experience of the believer with an actual historic appearance of Jesus in the world which prevents our religion from being mysticism and causes it to be Christianity…Our religion must be abandoned altogether unless at a definite point in history Jesus died as a propitiation for the sins of men.”
“The modern objection to the doctrine of the atonement on the ground that the doctrine is contrary to the love of God, is based upon the most abysmal misunderstanding of the doctrine itself.”

Chapter 7 “The church:”
“Liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.”
“The present situation must not be ignored but faced. Christianity is being attacked from within by a movement which is anti-Christian to the core.”
“Laymen, as well as ministers, should return, in these trying days, with new earnestness to study the Word of God.”

Those final quotes about the church apply to the current situation in the United Methodist Church. Take heed.

Future posts will expand on some of these thoughts.


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