What Is Faith? How J. Gresham Machen’s Call for Doctrine Informs a Century of Evangelicalism

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For the month of November, the Banner of Truth has graciously allowed our readers a free download of The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church by David Wells. This was a prophetic address to the National Association of Evangelicals that holds great pertinence for Christians today.

In his introduction to the first volume of his celebrated history of the liberal theology that has flourished in the American context since the middle to latter portions of the nineteenth century, Gary Dorrien argues that theological liberalism is both an idea and a tradition that is grounded in an eagerness to steer “a faithful, but critical path” between what he calls “the literalistic dogmatism of Christian orthodoxy [on the one hand] and the antireligious dogmatism of modern rationalism [on the other].”[1] Liberal theology, he contends, is “a mediating Christian movement” that is “reformist in spirit and substance,” and for this reason its proponents are committed not to completely abandoning, but “to reconceptualiz[ing] the meaning of traditional Christian teaching in the light of modern knowledge and modern ethical values.”[2] Fundamentally, Dorrien maintains, the theological liberalism that has prevailed in the American context is a form of religious expression that endeavors to remain faithfully Christian while at the same time opposing religious dogmatism of any kind. For this reason, it “is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially the natural and social sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its favoring of moral concepts of atonement; and its commitment to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to modern people.”[3]

1. Garry Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xxii.

2. Ibid., xxiii.

3. Ibid.

While J. Gresham Machen is well known in more conservative Christian circles for being the distinguished New Testament scholar who left Princeton to found Westminster Seminary in 1929, he is perhaps best known in the larger religious world for his more popular responses to the kind of theological liberalism that Dorrien describes. In 1923, Machen offered his first book-length critique of this kind of liberal theology in his now classic text, Christianity and Liberalism. In that book, Machen makes two important claims that help to account for what readers of Christ Over All no doubt suspect is the growing influence of liberal thought in the contemporary evangelical camp, as evidenced by the recent release of Ligonier’s 2022 The State of Theology Survey. In the first place, Machen argues that “the liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene.”[4] Liberal theology, he maintains, reduces the Christian religion to a form of “paganism” that “finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties,” and for this reason it represents a return to a “sub-Christian form of the religious life” that is, as he puts it in the concluding chapter of his analysis, “anti-Christian to the core.”[5] In the second place, Machen makes a passing reference to an important element of a larger critique that he would go on to develop in a separate work. Liberal theology, he asserts, may be critiqued not only “on the ground that it is un-Christian,” but also “on the ground that it is unscientific.”[6] But what does this mean? In what sense is theological liberalism “unscientific,” and how might its “unscientific” nature be related to Machen’s contention that it is “un-Christian”? Machen’s answers to these questions offer a compelling explanation for what I believe is the increasingly liberal disposition of the contemporary evangelical mind.

4. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990; 1923), 7.

5. Ibid., 65, 8, 173.

6. Ibid., 7.

In the summer of 1925 Machen delivered a series of lectures at Grove City Bible School in which he offered an extended explanation for how the “unscientific” nature of theological liberalism is related to its “un-Christian” character. In these lectures, which were published in that same year under the title What is Faith?, Machen argues that theological liberalism is un-Christian precisely because it is unscientific, and it is unscientific precisely because it finds its genesis in “a great spiritual movement” that disparages the intellect by excluding it “from the sphere of religion.”[7] Philosophy and theology since the days of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Albrecht Ritschl, he contends, have subverted “the intellectual aspect of the religious life” by asserting “a monopolistic possession of the intellect on the part of the physical sciences and of their utilitarian applications,” and this exclusion of the intellect “from the sphere of ultimate reality” has had a “baleful effect” upon the religious life of the modern world for two distinct yet interrelated reasons.[8]

7. J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1925), 23, 18.

8. Ibid., cf. 14, 13, 16, 28, 40.

The first is related to what Machen contends is the modern era’s “relinquishment of theology in the interests of [a] non-doctrinal religion [that] really involves the relinquishment of Christianity in the interests of a skepticism than which a more complete could scarcely be conceived.”[9] Unlike orthodox theologians who are always endeavoring to articulate their theological convictions in a fuller, more comprehensive, and enduringly-true fashion, Machen argues that while committed liberals are willing to concede that theology “is necessary to religion,” they insist that it can never, by the very nature of the case, “be true.”[10] Theology, they maintain, is merely “the symbolic expression of an experience really inexpressible” in “the ‘thought-forms’ of any particular age,” and for this reason it “must necessarily change as the generations pass.”[11]

9. Ibid., 39–40.

10. Ibid., 28, 33.

11. Ibid., 31, 30, 31.

The second reason the “anti-intellectual tendency” of the modern era has had such a “baleful effect” upon the religious life of the modern world gets to “the heart” of Machen’s primary concern in What is Faith?, for it has to do with “the false and disastrous opposition . . . between knowledge and faith” that accounts on the one hand for the “pragmatic skepticism” of the liberal theologian, and explains on the other why “the non-doctrinal religion” of the committed liberal is necessarily “but a shallow and ephemeral thing.”[12] From his vantage point in the early twentieth century, Machen was persuaded that for the liberals of his day, faith “[did] not [itself] depend upon assent to any kind of creed,” but it was related to a kind of “unitary experience” that was presumed to go hand in hand with what he referred to as “the vague naturalism of the contemporary Western world.”[13] Faith for these liberals, he insisted, was related to “a quality of the soul” that was generated not by the appropriation “of those facts” that more orthodox believers contend are at the foundation of authentic Christian experience.[14] Instead, faith was presumed to be generated by an ineffable encounter with a god that “[was] thought of as naught but the universe itself, conceived of not in its individual manifestations, but as a mighty whole,” and for this reason it reduced the Christian religion to a form of “mysticism” that found redemption not in the appropriation of what Christ has done to save sinners “from the curse of God’s law,” but in the exaltation of what the faithful themselves must do to promote human flourishing by putting the ethical entailments of “the faith that . . . [Jesus himself] had in God”[15] into practice.

12. Ibid., 26, 40, 26, 27–28, 50.

13. Ibid., 49, 28, 31.

14. Ibid., 174, 32.

15. Ibid., 70, 49, 143, 98.

It is against the backdrop of the modern era’s essentially pagan “exaltation of experience at the expense of thought” that Machen endeavors in What is Faith? to make a case for “the primacy of the intellect” in faith.[16] This case, which had a significant impact upon the religious discourse of the early twentieth century, is a case that professing evangelicals in our own age need to hear and embrace if the findings of Ligonier’s recent survey are to be believed. In the Bible and particularly “in the New Testament,” Machen argues, the sense of trust that is essential to true faith is never associated with an ineffable encounter with an impersonal force that is presumed to be coextensive with “the totality of existing things,”[17] nor is it ever grounded merely in a movement of the will that is entirely devoid of any cognitive or dogmatic content whatsoever. Rather, true faith always “involves knowledge and issues in knowledge” precisely because it always has to do with believing the biblical testimony to the trustworthiness of what God has done to save his people from the consequences of their sin.[18] The “very centre and core” of biblical revelation, he maintains, is the good and unavoidably dogmatic news that salvation is “the work not of man, but of God and only of God,” and for this reason the “necessary corollary” of the biblical testimony is that salvation is always and everywhere through a dogmatic faith, and a dogmatic faith “alone.”[19] While Machen’s treatment is grounded in the realization that in every age some conception of faith will inevitably be “exalted to the skies,” his burden is to establish that from the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy, the faith that saves is never focused merely upon “a beneficent quality of the [believer’s] soul,” however that might be construed in one generation or the next.[20] Instead, the faith that saves is always founded upon a kind of dogmatism, for it is always “founded upon knowledge” of the one in whom God’s saving work is finally and decisively made manifest, namely Jesus.[21] This, Ligonier’s recent findings suggest, is a biblical truism that needs to be recovered by many evangelicals in our day. If Machen is correct, then the moment that faith comes to be conceived of in any other fashion, “in that moment it is destroyed,”[22] whether those who are professing to be believers realize it or not.

16. Ibid., 35, 26.

17. Ibid., 45, 72.

18. Ibid., 40, cf. 87.

19. Ibid., 173, 171, 174.

20. Ibid., 174.

21. Ibid., 46.

22. Ibid., 174.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Paul Kjoss Helseth

    Paul Kjoss Helseth (Ph.D. Marquette University) is Professor of Christian Thought at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, in Roseville, MN. He is the author of "Right Reason" and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (P&R Publishing, 2010), and has co-edited and contributed to a number of different volumes. At present, he is serving as a contributing editor to a new edition of Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology (Crossway, forthcoming). Paul and his family are members of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Minnetonka, MN, where he serves as a Ruling Elder.

Paul Kjoss Helseth

Paul Kjoss Helseth

Paul Kjoss Helseth (Ph.D. Marquette University) is Professor of Christian Thought at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, in Roseville, MN. He is the author of "Right Reason" and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (P&R Publishing, 2010), and has co-edited and contributed to a number of different volumes. At present, he is serving as a contributing editor to a new edition of Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology (Crossway, forthcoming). Paul and his family are members of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Minnetonka, MN, where he serves as a Ruling Elder.