What can we learn from the ministry of J. Gresham Machen?

3 Min Read

GODFREY: I hope all of our listeners know who J. Gresham Machen was. He was one of the greatest scholars and champions of the faith that the American church has seen. He taught at Princeton Theological Seminary in the first decades of the twentieth century and was one of the leaders in the battle against the rising tide of what was called modernism in those days, which we also know as theological liberalism.

Liberalism was the fruit of scholarly attacks on the Bible that suggested the Bible was not the Word of God but rather the word of man. Liberalism taught that there were valuable things in the Bible and one could learn things about God from the Bible but that the Bible was not entirely reliable or true. So, it had to be subjected to human evaluation and criticism. As modernism, or liberalism, began to develop, it attacked many fundamental Christian teachings. For example, it attacked the notion of miracles, the physical resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Those who reacted against the rising liberalism in the name of protecting the fundamentals of the faith became known as fundamentalists.

Dr. Machen was probably the most articulate and scholarly of the leaders of the fundamentalist reaction, even though he always remained a little uncomfortable with the label of “fundamentalist” because he was concerned that we not reduce Christianity to just a few fundamentals. He wanted a full-orbed, biblical Christianity. As Machen faced these challenges in his own Presbyterian church and with some connected to Princeton Seminary, he wanted to write a book in defense of the point of view that he and others were taking. As a result, he wrote his early classic work, Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923.

Christianity and Liberalism is an important book. It is the fruit of scholarship, but it is not a scholarly book in the sense that only scholars can read it. It was very much written for the church, with chapters looking at basic issues in controversy: a chapter on the Bible, a chapter on Christ, a chapter on the church, and so on. It is a wonderfully readable and effective defense of the fundamentals of the Christian faith in a way that seems entirely contemporary today. The issues Machen discussed have not gone away, and this book still very much speaks to challenges we face. So, I encourage everybody to read this book.

When Machen’s book first came out, it was very controversial in part because of its title, Christianity and Liberalism. That title was Dr. Machen’s clear declaration: “There are two religions competing in our day. One religion is the religion of Christianity, which has been around for two thousand years and has had integrity for two thousand years as to what it teaches and believes. Now, there is a new religion that claims to be Christian, but, in fact, is not.” That is what so enraged Machen’s critics. He was clearly saying, “Liberalism is not Christianity; you have to choose between Christianity and liberalism.” The liberals had been saying: “We are Christians; we just have some different theories. We’re Christians that share a faith with you conservatives; we just talk about things somewhat differently.” In response, Machen said: “That’s not true at all. These are two different religions.”

As I mentioned, Christianity and Liberalism is as valuable, insightful, and helpful today as it was a century ago. In some ways, it’s discouraging that we haven’t been able to move beyond these challenges to Christianity that have been so effectively answered for over two hundred years. We’ve had good answers to the challenges that liberals have posed but have not been able to successfully drive them from the field.

BINGHAM: What do you think is the root cause? Is that going back to your comment earlier, that there is a failure to trust in the authority of Scripture?

GODFREY: Yes, I think that’s very much it. It’s a matter of authority. Is the Bible the revelation of God? Is the Bible God speaking to us? Is the Bible therefore entirely reliable? The liberals were saying: “The Bible is helpful. The Bible is insightful. The Bible is useful. The Bible contains the Word of God.”

Part of what really distressed Dr. Machen is what he saw as the fundamental dishonesty of liberals. They weren’t willing to say, “We just don’t believe parts of the Bible.” They always wanted to express themselves in a way that would not be clear to people in churches. Machen thought that was just dishonest. If you want a new religion, at least have the integrity to confess that you have a new religion.

Liberalism is a turning away from the Bible and reliance on the Bible, but Machen went further—and I think he was right—it’s a turning away from God. It’s creating God in your own image. It’s creating God to say the things you want to hear rather than listening to what God says you ought to hear and need to hear. So, it really is two different religions at work.

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with W. Robert Godfrey and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.