When J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism in 1923, the book was not the sort that would win friends or advance his career. He pulled no punches. Machen’s thesis that liberalism was “unChristian” infuriated many Protestants who still maintained great influence within America’s leading cultural institutions. Machen also wrote that liberalism was “the greatest menace to the Christian Church” and was “a type of faith and practice that [was] anti-Christian to the core.” “Whether or not liberals are Christians,” he added, “it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity.” Just as bold was his assertion to Protestants who were still suspicious of Roman Catholics that although the Church of Rome represented a perversion of the Christian religion, “naturalistic liberalism [was] not Christianity at all.”
The polemical character of Christianity and Liberalism also made it the kind of book that someone with Machen’s education and breeding would not have been expected to write. Because of its blatant critique of liberalism, Christianity and Liberalism identified its author immediately with a movement known for its anti-intellectualism, revivalism and exotic teachings about the Lord’s return. As a scholar, committed churchman and confessional Presbyterian, Machen would not have been readily mistaken for a fundamentalist. So the question is why Machen would write a book that identified him with a popular religious cause which gave him noticeable discomfort.
To answer this question requires attention to the origins of Christianity and Liberalism. Critics of fundamentalism and Machen’s book have argued that he was criticizing the lofty and inaccessible views of liberal theology in Germany which he had learned while a student there from 1905–1906. But in reality Machen had the American church scene much more in view. From his perspective the errors of liberalism stemmed as much from the American context as they did from German higher criticism or liberal theology.
LIBERALISM AND CHURCH UNION
In 1920 Machen was a first-time delegate to the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church. There he heard about plans for the union of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States. (None other than the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, presented these plans to the delegates.) The plan would have allowed for the autonomy of the participating denominations but encouraged greater cooperation on all fronts. Aside from the plan’s implicit assumptions about the nature of Christianity and the task of the church, it embraced the ideals of modern business practices. By coordinating and cooperating everywhere from foreign missions to the work of local churches, Protestants could achieve greater efficiency. What was the sense of having five different congregations in a small town or three different denominations represented in missions work to a particular country when these congregations and missionaries were duplicating each others’ efforts? In effect, the plan – a similar one resulted in the United Church of Canada (1925) – saw little difference between Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Lutherans. All American Protestants were engaged in a similar work and so should consolidate their enterprises.
American Protestant plans for church union were hardly new. Ever since the Civil War, Protestants had ventured into a number of cooperative efforts. Among Northern Presbyterians alone church union and cooperation was a dominant concern from 1870–1920. In 1869 Old School and New School Presbyterians reunited even though some of the Old School theologians at Princeton Seminary insisted that the New School had never repudiated the Arminianism of some of its ministers. In 1873 Northern Presbyterians led the way in founding the American branch of the Evangelical Alliance, an interdenominational organization that promoted a variety of missions, educational and philanthropic endeavors. In 1880 the Presbyterian Alliance came along as an alternative for Presbyterian denominations that resisted cooperation with non-Presbyterians in the Evangelical Alliance. These ecumenical efforts led to the 1906 union of the Northern Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a communion that had been formed in the first half of the nineteenth century and was explicit in its rejection of the Calvinism in the Westminster Standards. Finally, in 1908 the largest Protestant denominations formed the Federal Council of Churches with Presbyterians again playing a leading role in the negotiations. In all of these cases the theology of the respective denominations’ confessions took a back seat to Protestant desires to Christianize the United States. Fears about the growing prominence of Roman Catholicism, Sabbath-breaking, and the consumption of alcohol prompted Protestants to put aside differing understandings of the nature and means of salvation in favor of reforming American society.
The 1920 plan for church union that Machen heard, built on nearly half a century of Protestant ecumenism. It called for even greater consolidation and further weakened the doctrinal identity of the Protestant communions. Aside from arguing for greater efficiency, the plan furthered the churches’ identification with America’s ideals of liberty and democracy. Machen and other faculty members at Princeton wrote articles for Presbyterian periodicals in opposition to the plan. In almost every case the principal objection was what the plan would do to the distinctive theology and practice of the Presbyterian Church.
Even though the plan went down to defeat, it alerted Machen to the serious decline of theological identity among Northern Presbyterians. His efforts to oppose the plan put him in touch with other conservatives in the denomination, especially in the vicinity of Philadelphia. During a speaking engagement for elders in Southeastern Pennsylvania Machen gave an address that turned out to be the substance of Christianity and Liberalism. Consequently, the book is best understood as an extension of his criticisms of church union as well as a thorough going broadside against American Protestantism’s capitulation to its culture.
In this book Machen discusses four senses of liberalism. The first and the one that attracted the most criticism from fundamentalists was the identification of liberalism with naturalism. Theological liberalism, accordingly, was an effort to explain Christianity apart from miracles or supernatural intervention and special revelation. The motive for a naturalistic understanding of Christianity stemmed from liberalism’s commitment to scientific accounts of truth. For Christianity to be plausible to modem educated men and women the church would have to remove those elements that made no sense from a scientific perspective. In this sense, liberalism was an apologetic strategy to reconcile the claims of Christianity with the findings of modem science. While Machen conceded the sincerity of this strategy, he still opposed it forcefully. His reason was that by removing the “particularities of the Christian religion” to which scientific objections may arise, liberal Protestants had actually changed Christianity into an entirely different religion, one without the “doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through his death and resurrection.” For this reason he argued that liberalism represented “a return to an un-Christian and sub-Christian form of the religious life.”
Though the naturalistic assumptions and conclusions of liberalism received the most strenuous objections from fundamentalists, Machen went farther and talked about liberalism in a second sense as a form of moralism. The best example of liberalism’s moralistic outlook was its conception of Christ. Unlike historic Christianity, Machen argued, which regarded Christ as the object of Christian faith, liberals conceived of Christ as the example of Christian faith. What mattered most about Christ, then, was not what he accomplished for believers through his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Rather the liberal Christ was the teacher of ethics par excellence. Machen wrote, “the plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important…. [T]he redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.” The early church, he added, did not look to Jesus simply for practical guidance and moral conviction but instead committed to Him “the eternal destinies” of their souls.
Perhaps even more alarming than the naturalistic and moralistic senses of liberalism was the Social Gospel, the third sense of liberalism that Machen critiqued and the one most directly evident in Protestant plans for church union. Here liberals used Christianity to better American society or saw it as a means to a greater social good. Here liberalism functioned as a form of American civil religion where Protestants assumed that the health of the United States depended upon the moral teaching of Christianity. This assumption was part and parcel of church union efforts that disregarded differences of doctrine and polity in order to cooperate in matters of social reform. But according to Machen, such utilitarianism perverted the gospel and denied the church its ultimate source of power. “The Christian religion cannot be treated in any such way,” he wrote. Christianity “refuses to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end.” Christ Himself said as much in Luke 14 when He explained that unless a believer was prepared to leave his family he could not be one of Christ’s disciples. “Whatever else those stupendous words may mean,” Machen concluded, “they certainly mean that the relationship to Christ takes precedence over all other relationships, even the holiest of relationships like those that exist between husband and wife and parent and child.”
The fourth and last sense of liberalism discussed by Machen concerned the matter of intellectual honesty. Here he called attention to the creedal basis of the various Protestant denominations. All of the communions, from Baptists to Episcopalians, he argued, were founded upon a creed and required some form of subscription for ordination. In the case of the Presbyterian Church the confessional basis of ordination was the Westminster Standards. Whether it was desirable for such creedal Subscription was not at issue. Instead, the problem was that the constitution of Protestant denominations made ordination dependent upon subscription and liberals had no right to church office if they did not hold to the creed of their communion. If a minister desired to combat the creedal formulations of his church he was free to do so as an American but not under the auspices of his church. For this reason Machen argued that liberals should leave the Protestant denominations and found their own organization for the propagation of liberal Christianity’s message. He conceded that such an action had certain disadvantages, such as “the abandonment of church buildings,” “the break in family traditions,” and “the injury to sentiment of various kinds.” But there was one “supreme” advantage to such a decision, namely, “the advantage of honesty.” In fact, the Unitarian Church practiced precisely this kind of intellectual honesty by being a communion “without an authoritative Bible, without doctrinal requirements, and without a creed.”
Machen’s sweeping critique of liberalism, then, concerned far more than the Bible’s teaching about creation or the return of Christ. For him the very heart of the gospel was at stake. And central to the gospel were the creeds and confessions by which the church had articulated and defended the teachings of Scripture. Machen believed that the church’s witness depended on its theological witness, not on social reform or making America a Christian nation. He rightly detected, however, that American Protestantism had lost its theological identity by confusing its mission with that of the American nation. “The liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world,” he wrote. “This world is really the centre of all his thoughts.” Consequently, the weary soul seeking a place “to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forge the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife” had almost no where to turn. But if the church could “gather together humbly in the name of Christ, to give thanks to Him for His unspeakable gift and to worship the Father through Him,” then it would truly “satisfy the needs of the soul.”
This understanding of the gospel and the mission of the church made Machen an undesirable figure in mainstream Protestantism. But it also made his critique of American Protestantism arguably the most profound and thorough of the twentieth century. At a time when evangelicalism is increasingly known for its political views rather than its theological convictions or biblical teaching, Machen’s message is no less valuable today than it was when he delivered it almost 75 years ago.
Dr. Daryl G. Hart is librarian at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He received his doctorate in History from Johns Hopkins University.