This is the fourth 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. This post covers Chapter 4, which contrasts the view of Scripture in Christianity and liberalism.
DO YOU CONSIDER THE CROSS CRUCIAL?
The Christian view of the Bible is that it is the revelation of God that shows how unholy, sinful people are brought into relationship with a holy God. The New Testament recounts the historical events and the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; the Old Testament foreshadows and predicts it. This unique, earth-shattering event is what makes Christianity Christian. But, as J. Gresham Machen argues, this unique historical basis of Christianity is rejected by modern naturalistic liberalism.
Liberalism is suspiciously critical of the past. Instead, it tries to create a salvation independent of history, such that it can be captured in present human experience alone.
Christian salvation is not a human religious experience disconnected from the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The truthfulness of Christianity is not confirmed by a person’s experience of this event. As Machen puts it:
Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. . . . All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. (p. 60)
DO YOU BELIEVE THE BIBLE?
The authority of the Bible is questioned by modern liberalism, which views the truthfulness of the Scriptures as unimportant and ridicules the plenary inspiration of Scripture. According to liberalism, the Bible contains as much (or more) error as any other book, and the idea that the Holy Spirit would enable the authors of the Bible to write Scripture is seen as foolishness.
Liberalism caricatures the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration as though it meant that the Holy Spirit dictated to the writers of Scripture and they just robotically scribbled. Machen corrects this caricature: each writer wrote as an individual, gathering information as any writer would and writing in a unique, individual style. The Holy Spirit didn’t turn them into a kind of mechanical Bible printing press, but directed them as they wrote and kept them from error.
Machen draws a distinction between 1) those Christians who believe that the Bible does contain error but is right in its overall message and who have trusted Jesus as their atoning sacrifice for sin, and 2) those within liberalism who have denied outright the central message of the Bible and supernatural act of God in human history.
It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men. (p. 67)
IS JESUS THE AUTHORITY IN YOUR LIFE?
What is important to the modern liberal is not the authority of the Bible, but the authority of Jesus. They claim that Jesus would disagree with antiquated views of the Old Testament and the fiery rhetoric of Paul. Machen points out the problem with this view: in the search for the “historical Jesus,” biblical criticism gets to pick and choose the parts of Jesus’ life and sayings that accord with the critic’s preconceived naturalistic notions.
The authority for a theological liberal does not reside in Jesus and God’s revelation through Scripture, but in individual experience, which Machen describes above as “the shifting emotions of sinful men.” Their authority is themselves or their experience—not Christ or Scripture.
Unlike liberalism, Christianity lives under the authority of the Word of God, an authority that does not enslave us, but frees us to have true knowledge of God and his world.
Next up, we look at the modernist liberal version of Jesus and how it differs from the real Jesus.