Machen on the Necessity of Christian Doctrine: An Explanation of Christianity and Liberalism Chapter 2 (Part 1)

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In a day of burgeoning technological advance, charmed by Charles Darwin and the new understanding of origins apart from God, and with modern civilization bursting with self-confidence, old biblical truths of supernatural religion and divine rule over all things began to seem outdated and irrelevant. This was the atmosphere of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the hey-day of theological liberalism. If God was no longer needed to explain the origin of the world, neither was he needed to explain the origin of a holy book—or of Jesus. And within such a context, notions of sin and accountability fade, belief in the miraculous seems embarrassing, and elaborate teachings of incarnation and atonement are deemed unneeded. But such is the thought-world of theological liberalism in any age.

But giants of faith rose to the challenge, fueled by a robust trust in the truthfulness of Scripture and equipped with all the learning contemporary education had to offer. Old Princeton Seminary was long recognized as a bastion of the Reformed faith marked by a deep piety and the most informed scholarship of the day. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield was—in his own day and since—recognized as the most widely and deeply learned of all the Princetonians, and J. Gresham Machen, his famous student, carried the banner after him.

Machen’s vigorous campaign against this new “liberalism” and for Christianity, as historically defined, was sustained via teaching, speaking engagements, and extensive publications. Liberal theology had made its way from the university to the pulpit, and God’s people were being infected with its poison. Machen recognized that it was not a debate reserved for the ivory tower. It was much more than an academic issue, and because he understood the threat he took his fight to the streets, as it were, exposing for everyone the danger this new liberalism posed. Publications such as his Christianity and Liberalism (1923), The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), and Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936), are not just statements of what Christians believe but a reasoned defense of Christian doctrine in light of contemporary assaults.

Machen’s landmark Christianity and Liberalism is a thoughtful exposé of modernist theology, demonstrating that whatever else it may be, it is not Christian—not by any reasonable definition of the term. Machen wrote his famous book as the forces of liberal theology were overrunning his own Presbyterian denomination and even his beloved Princeton Theological Seminary. The book began as a 1921 lecture presented to a presbytery; it then grew to a 1922 twenty-five page article in The Princeton Theological Review and finally to the 1923 monograph.

Machen’s Argument

Machen’s contention that liberalism and Christianity are two very different religions was not new with him. His teacher, B. B. Warfield, had argued the same. Like Warfield, Machen insisted that the new liberalism was grounded in naturalism and a refusal of external authority (i.e., divine revelation). Liberalism, he charged (again, like his famous teacher), is not a serious attempt to be Christian in any way; it is but an attempt to preserve that honorable name in a Christianized world while denying what is essential to it.

In chapter two of Christianity and Liberalism, Machen takes up the broad theme of Christian doctrine. Intolerant of Christianity’s historic teachings, liberalism sought to shift focus to Christian life and values, or to just Jesus himself as our model and guide. Liberalism claimed that doctrine does not matter. Creeds may differ, and insofar as they express the common Christian experience, they are good. But they change, and Christians need not concern themselves with such things. For liberalism, it is the Christian way of life that matters, and Jesus as our example.

Machen exposes liberalism’s disdain for doctrine (doctrinal “indifferentism”) along lines strikingly reminiscent of Warfield’s “The Right of Systematic Theology.” The root of liberalism’s dislike of doctrine is, simply, unbelief—outright skepticism and a rejection of the leading articles of Christianity’s historic faith. Liberalism intensely rejects leading biblical doctrines, and professing an indifference to doctrine was their subtle way to avoid them. Insightfully, Machen finds it ironic that liberalism will deny the need for doctrine while itself making dogmatic doctrinal pronouncements of its own. And he reminds us that no creed was designed as a mere expression of Christian experience but of those truths upon which Christian experience is based. All this is significant for Machen’s argument. But his primary argument, in brief, is that to deny doctrine is to deny Christianity itself and uproot it altogether, for although Christianity is much more than doctrine, it is not less than doctrine.

Christianity is a historical religion with a historical founding whose claims can be investigated in the historical records. Any examination of these records will demonstrate that Christianity was founded on certain dogmas and truth claims. From its inception Christianity insisted on revealed truth over against falsehood and right teaching over against error. The original Christians were commissioned with a message that they insisted was true. This message was not, “Jesus lived a wonderful life, and you should live like him too!” No, their message was of Jesus’s death for sin and bodily resurrection for the justification of his people. Indeed, it was a message exclusive of all others, and they insisted that eternal destinies turned on the reception or rejection of this message. “The world was to be redeemed through the proclamation of an event. And with the event went the meaning of the event; and the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine.”[1]

1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 25.

Certainly no one can say the apostle Paul was indifferent to doctrine—his life was given to its proclamation and exposition. He contended for doctrine and understood the truth of what he taught as exclusive of all contrary claims. He was intolerant of all contrary teachings. “It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism [and, we might say, postmodern notions of pluralism] had never fallen upon his soul.”[2] His extended conflicts with the Judaizers stands as a leading example. The “gospel” taught by the Judaizers was no gospel at all, and those who teach such in any age stand to be condemned (cf. Gal. 1:8–9). Paul’s opposition to the false teachers in Galatia is particularly instructive in that his opponents in fact agreed with Paul on most every point of doctrine. They believed in Jesus and acknowledged this atoning death. They differed with him only in demanding law-keeping for justification. Yet this one point of difference, Paul argued, showed them to be outside the bounds of the Christian gospel.

2. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 20.

Paul, on the other hand, was remarkably tolerant of personal enemies, as in Philippians 1. So long as these opponents proclaimed the same message, he remained content (Phil. 1:18). But wherever this message was contradicted he was eager to refute and correct. The teaching he had received from the Lord and by his Spirit was the touchstone of truth.

Nor is it possible to consider Jesus as indifferent to doctrine. His teachings about his own person constitute the reason for his crucifixion. He considered himself to be the inaugurator of God’s kingdom on earth, the promised Messiah, the world’s judge and only savior. And it is these teachings, in turn, that for his apostles stand as normative truth (cf. 1 John 2:22), the denial of which likewise brings condemnation. Liberal teachers hold up Jesus as a model of life and of trust, and so he is. But the New Testament writers go much further and insist that he must be the object of faith. The difference is telling and all important. The notion of Jesus as the object of trust entails a certain understanding of his person and work; that is to say, trust in Christ is grounded in Christian doctrine. Jesus is not simply one to be emulated—he is to be worshiped and trusted as the divine redeemer.

Of course it cannot—and must not—be denied that Christianity is indeed marked by a distinctive life and way of living. Christ’s apostles at length exhort Christians to a certain behavior. But the Christian way of life in the New Testament is never viewed in isolation or as itself sufficient. Christian life is grounded in a certain message that is believed, and it is the truth of that message embraced that transforms and gives rise to this distinctive Christian way of life. That some, particularly in our Christianized culture, may live decent lives apart from embracing this message does not remove the need of atonement, renewal, trust in Christ as savior, and repentance—all of which the Christian message proclaims and demands. Christian life is grounded in and shaped by divinely revealed truth taking root in the believing soul.

Conclusion: Christian Doctrine is Grounded in History

Christianity is a historical religion. It has a historical founding, and from the beginning it was grounded on certain truth claims. Neither Jesus nor his apostles endorsed religion without doctrine. Even a casual reading of the New Testament reveals a sustained emphasis on what is believed as foundational to all Christian experience. To deny these foundational claims is to reject Christianity altogether, and to relegate those claims to matters of indifference is to evacuate it of its very essence and meaning. We will consider the implications of this denial in a second article, but it suffices to say that in its denial of historic Christian teaching, and even in its indifference to them, liberalism shows itself to be a religion entirely different from Christianity. Its claim to the name of “Christianity” only veils its opposition to it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Fred G. Zaspel

    Fred G. Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also executive editor of Books At a Glance and an adjunct professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles, including The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, and the forthcoming How to Read and Understand the Psalms, co-authored with Bruce Waltke.

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors of Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also executive editor of Books At a Glance and an adjunct professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books and articles, including The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary, and the forthcoming How to Read and Understand the Psalms, co-authored with Bruce Waltke.