This is the third installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. He argues that liberalism is actually a completely separate religion from Christianity, and shows how the two differed on doctrine, God and humanity, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church.
This post covers Chapter 3, which explains how liberalism diverges from Christianity in its view of God and humanity.
Christianity and theological liberalism disagree radically in their understanding of the knowledge of God and of humanity. Christian liberalism asserts a kind of knowledge of God that is rooted in the human feeling of the presence of God, while Christianity asserts that human feeling depends upon the prior knowledge of God.
Jesus Is Personal
Liberal religion sees Jesus as the highest example of a person who exhibited constant God-consciousness and had a truly practical knowledge of the divine. But Jesus claimed to be in an intimate personal relationship with his Father, the living God—not just conscious of a sense of deity within all of us. Jesus believed in a personal God, and there is no true Christianity apart from, as Machen writes, “the belief in the real existence of a personal God.”
Certainly it does make the greatest possible difference what we think about God; the knowledge of God is the very basis of religion. (p. 55)
Liberal religion struggles with the reality of a personal God, but talks a lot about “the universal fatherhood of God.” The Bible does teach that, as Creator, God is in a sense the Father of all. But the main message of the Bible is that God is only in a personal relationship as Father with those whom he has redeemed from sin.
God the Father, Not Jesus the Father
Though liberalism appeals to Jesus as the source of the doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God, this doctrine is not ever found in Jesus’ teachings. In fact one particular passage reveals that Jesus believed God cared for all, but that he was not Father to all (Matt. 5:44–45). The good news that Jesus gave to a world full of sinful enemies of God was that those who trust him could then be called sons of God and relate to God as Abba Father.
The problems with theological liberalism go even further. It removes the Creator-creature distinction and the reality of a transcendent God. In liberalism, there is no major distinction between God and humanity. Instead of a distinction, there is a pantheistic idea of the entire world and humanity as one with God.
Essential Goodness vs. Sinful Nature
In addition, liberalism does not hold to the doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity and has retreated to a pagan understanding of humankind as essentially good. Machen explains, “Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.”
In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. (pp. 65–66)
This Is a Greater Humanism
This is the amazing message of Christianity: we are deeply broken, but God’s grace is deeper still and he has rescued us from our sinful brokenness through faith in the person and work of Jesus. Because of the grace of God, we can own up to our sin, be completely forgiven, be declared righteous, and live in freedom and joy. This is a greater humanism than what paganism offers, as it is “founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.”
Liberalism offers a Jesus that inherently good people should consider imitating, while Christianity proclaims the perfectly righteous Christ, who died in the place of sinful people worthy of condemnation and declares them righteous.
Next up, we’ll see how Machen explained how Christianity and liberalism have completely different approaches to the Bible.