J. G. Machen on the Bible: Christianity vs. Liberalism

The February 2023 issue of Tabletalk features articles commemorating the 100th anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s classic defense of historic Christianity, Christianity and Liberalism (Macmillan, 1923).

Editor Burk Parsons has some opening thoughts on this great conflict and Machen’s place in it in his article “Liberalism: A Different Religion”:

This year marks one hundred years since the publication of Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937). Machen was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1906 to 1929, when he left to help establish Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he was professor of New Testament until his death. Machen was instrumental in the founding of what later became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He is one of the most important, but lesser-known, Christian figures of the twentieth century, and it would be difficult to overstate the significance of his classic work. In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen took a valiant and unwavering stance by drawing a sharp contrast between true, biblical Christianity (as summarized by the church’s historic creeds and confessions) and liberalism, demonstrating that liberalism is an altogether different religion from Christianity. While some chose not to enter the fray, Machen confidently and charitably fought to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace in the one, true church of Jesus Christ.

David B. Garner has a fine article on how the Bible as God’s authoritative Word was at the center of this battle against modernist Protestantism in the early 20th century. After laying out the nature of the battle, Garner writes this in closing:

“Armed with the divine Word, Machen spoke with keen insight, sincere compassion, and disarming clarity. He challenged liberalism’s dogmas: its repudiation of the supernatural, its sinful decimation of sin, its arrogant bluster over the ultimate goodness of mankind, its perverse eclipse of historic theology behind a mirage of heartwarming tolerance, and its crafty turning of Jesus into a guru rather than God. Rather than Rome’s magisterial authority, the reigning voice of the day was theological liberalism, “founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”

“With their feet planted in the shifting sands of sentiment, the mainline denominations celebrated their newfound freedom: Since the Bible is a man-made book, we can interpret it as we want. We can be free from the biblical definitions of sin and salvation, from the shackles of ancient dogmas. Orthodox doctrine is passé; in this new age, we know better.

“J. Gresham Machen was sure that they didn’t. And out of zeal for the glory of God, he stood up to expose the darkness with the light of truth:

Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls. Clothe Him with all the art of modern research, throw upon Him the warm, deceptive calcium-light of modern sentimentality; and despite it all common sense will come to its rights again, and for our brief hour of self-deception—as though we had been with Jesus—will wreak havoc upon us the revenge of hopeless disillusionment.

“The liberals believed that they found freedom. Machen demurred: “Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse taskmaster.”

“The God-given vitality that comes by resting wholly in Scripture, even when accused of stodgy closed-mindedness, ignited Machen and should warm the heart of every believer:

Let it not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or artificial thing. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God. The Bible, to the Christian is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.

“In that liberty, Machen stood securely, and in that liberty, every Christian delights. For the one who feasts on God’s Word day and night will be the one who withstands the storms and bears fruit (Ps. 1).”

To read more on this controversy in this issue, visit this page.

Published in: on February 26, 2023 at 8:40 PM  Leave a Comment