Is Machen’s “Liberalism” still a threat?
Is liberalism still the great enemy of Christianity in the West?
In 1923, J. Gresham Machen argued that it was. In his definition, liberalism (or modernism) is a “non-redemptive religion,” an attempt to make Christianity palatable to a modern world. In his view, it is an attempt that has “relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity” (2, 6).
Machen argues that the “inquiry [into liberalism] … is immeasurably the most important of all those with which the Church has to deal” (7).
But it’s not 1923 anymore. As I read Machen’s words, I struggle with a nagging question: is this still the cultural milieu in which we live? Nearly one hundred years later, are Machen’s words still an accurate diagnosis of our times? Or has the West moved so far into postmodernism that Machen’s words no longer ring true?
Maybe the best way to answer this question is to look at Machen’s definition of modernism and its defining characteristics. Some of the characteristics of Machen’s liberalism/modernism are:
- It is “the supposed Christianity of the modern liberal Church” (6). Machen is not critiquing modernism as a whole, in a secular sense. He is critiquing the way the church has bought into modernism and attempted to reconcile modern liberal thinking with Christianity by essentially changing Christianity.
- It is based in a naturalism which denies God’s specific (miraculous) intervention in human history (2).
- It is enamored with the scientific method, which is applied to anything from origins to psychology and sociology (3).
- It is immediately suspicious of anything that rests on tradition (indeed, anything which is deemed ‘old’)(3). “Inevitably,” Machen writes, “the question arises whether the opinions of [the Biblical authors] can ever be normative for men of the present day” (4).
Based on these characteristics, it is apparent that the western church is still engaged in a battle with the same liberalism that Machen identified one hundred years ago.
The United Methodist Church, with its ongoing battle over the full inclusion of LGBTQ members, is a stark example. The denomination is going through a long and painful split over whether or not LGBTQ lifestyle can be considered fully compatible with the Christian faith (Riedel).
Although this division in the UMC congregations is in some ways very postmodern, it still fits the categories of description that Machen used to explain the modernism of his day. It is “supposed Christianity” without clear definition of terms. This is the thrust of much of the modern church — away from a clear, literal meaning of Scripture to a reading that fits our sensibilities more easily. It is based in naturalism and the scientific method, accepting scientific claims to the legitimacy of homosexual behavior and doubting that God would have any moral code for humans other than a sentimental understanding of love. Finally, this controversy grows out of an assumed posture of criticism toward traditional ways of understanding the Bible, simply because they are traditional. It doubts the applicability of the Bible to our modern age, because the authors lived 2,000+ years ago and were not aware of the scientific “advances” of our day.
In the introduction to the 2009 edition of Machen’s book, Carl Trueman tackles the same question. Is this book still relevant for us today? He answers with a strong yes. Although our culture may be flavored with postmodernism, many of the underlying assumptions are the same. And the important thing for a church facing modernism is the same as for a church facing postmodernism. That is, Christianity must be defended as a faith based solidly in history and the Bible must be defended as “divinely, verbally inspired” (qtd. in Machen xiv). This is what Machen set out to defend in 1923, and it still applies to us in 2020.
Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. 1923. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
Riedel, Charlie. “With Split Over Gay Marriage Delayed, United Methodists Face a Year in Limbo.” The Associated Press. 5 May 2020, www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/split- over-gay-marriage-delayed-united-methodists-face-year-limbo-n1200236