J. Gresham Machen: “Liberalism Has Abandoned Christianity”


Today, we begin a seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). Machen was an American Presbyterian minister and professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary in the early 20th century. He founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and was a professor of the New Testament there until his death at age 55. In Christianity and Liberalism, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasted the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. He argued that liberalism was actually a completely separate religion from Christianity, and showed how the two differed on doctrine, God and humanity, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church. Each post in this blog series will summarize a chapter from this classic.

In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.

–J. Gresham Machen (p. 1)

Machen begins Christianity and Liberalism by arguing for clear theological definitions in a religious climate that prized ambiguity. The Christian faith was under attack by what he calls “modern naturalistic liberalism,” a movement that called itself Christian, and used many of the same theological terms as historic Christianity, but meant something entirely different. The modern liberal religion of his day was naturalistic, he argues, and denied “any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity.”

The combination of modernism and liberalism in religion arose in response to scientific achievement and the scientific method, which led to a great expansion of human knowledge. The problem was not science, but an attitude of disdain for the past and an insatiable appetite for innovation because of the new technological and intellectual advancements. Liberalism questioned whether an ancient religion like Christianity could withstand the criticism of modern science. In fact, he writes, the question that modern liberalism attempts to answer is: “May Christianity be maintained in a scientific age?”

Modern liberalism replaces orthodox Christian beliefs, especially regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ, with general moral and religious principles. Because of this compromise, Machen demonstrates that Christian liberalism is in fact not Christianity at all. He criticizes it on two fronts: “(1) on the ground that it is un-Christian and (2) on the ground that it is unscientific.”

In attempting to rescue Christianity from modern science, liberalism has actually abandoned Christianity. Machen writes, “In trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to in the name of science . . . the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend.”

New Testament Christianity is not the religion that is in conflict with science. Rather it is the purported Christian liberalism that conflicts with science. The essence of Christianity is not a collection of “Christian” principles, but a proclamation of the historical events of Jesus of Nazareth’s death and resurrection.

Vastly more important than all questions with regard to methods of preaching is the root question as to what it is that shall be preached. (p. 7)

The modern world has improved life greatly, but it is not without its weakness: “Material betterment has gone hand in hand with spiritual decline.” According to Machen, modernism has brought about a decline in art, the rise of utilitarianism, and the restriction of individual freedom. These negative aspects of modernism lead to the impoverishment of the human soul, as the human personality can only flourish by individual choice.

Machen believes that the secret to avoiding the shriveling of the human soul is found in Christianity—specifically the grace of God. A return to the clear “message of divine grace” is the remedy to modern liberalism.

Next up, Machen writes about the fundamental difference between theological liberalism and Christianity in their approaches to doctrine in the second part of the series.

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.