A clarion call for the ages
2023 BOOKS OF THE YEAR | In 1923, J. Gresham Machen exposed the deep chasm between true Christianity and the sham religion taking root in American churches. A century later, Christianity and Liberalism remains an essential book for believers.
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On March 17, 2015, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gave its official approval to same-sex marriage. The Episcopal Church gave its approval that summer. As conservative congregations today leave the United Methodist Church, that denomination is now also falling in line.
One hundred years ago, most Americans would have been astonished that the country’s powerful Protestant denominations would one day enthusiastically embrace such sin. But J. Gresham Machen likely would not have been surprised. In fact, Machen, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 20th century, was among those who saw this—or something very like it—coming.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Christianity and Liberalism, Machen’s ringing defense of the historicity and doctrines of Christianity. Westminster Seminary Press has published a 100th anniversary edition of the book, with a foreword by Kevin DeYoung. Ligonier Ministries also published an anniversary edition. And because of the book’s historic importance and continuing significance today, it is WORLD’s 2023 Book of the Year.
If you want to explore the background of the moral collapse in churches today over same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ issues, this book is a good place to start. That collapse follows logically from the more important and foundational fight of 100 years ago.
The argument Machen makes powerfully in Christianity and Liberalism is that liberals in the 1920s had abandoned the Christian religion—that though liberal Protestantism tried to go by the name Christian, it was actually an entirely separate religion. He makes this case methodically throughout the book, contrasting the two religions with regard to doctrine, God and man, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the Church. Each topic gets a chapter, and in each, Machen demonstrates that “at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.”
Liberal theologians and preachers, Machen observes, teach a religion of the universal brotherhood of man and the universal fatherhood of God that is completely divorced from what the Bible says about a holy God and sinful men. They claim to admire Jesus’ character and His ethical principles (or at least the ones they agree with), but reject His messianic claims, His miracles, and people’s need for atonement for sins.
For Christians, Jesus is the object of faith, not merely an example to follow. For liberals, Jesus is “a mild-mannered exponent of an undiscriminating love.” To the liberal, the cross is merely an example of self-sacrifice, or of God’s love. To the Christian, it is those things but so much more—Jesus dying in our place, suffering the penalty our sins deserve. And while liberalism was based on aspirations, Christianity, Machen writes, was based on both history and doctrine: “‘Christ died’—that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’—that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.”
On topic after topic, Machen demonstrates liberalism’s misunderstanding of the enormity of sin: “If sin is so trifling a matter as the liberal Church supposes,” Machen writes, “then indeed the curse of God’s law can be taken very lightly, and God can easily let by-gones be by-gones.” But if God is holy and sin is as the Bible describes it, the state of the sinner is desperate.
Machen also shows how liberalism, while rejecting essential elements of Christianity, continued to use the language of the religion—but with different definitions. He compares liberals in the Church at the time to a hypothetical group of Republicans who pretend to be Democrats in order to infiltrate a Democratic club and turn its resources against the Democratic Party.
“That plan might be ingenious,” he writes. “But would it be honest?”
As D.G. Hart puts it in his Machen biography, Defending the Faith, Machen set out to show that “Christianity was a religion of grace and redemption, and that liberalism, while using traditional Christian phrases, was a religion of morality and human goodness.” The two religions’ messages were in absolute opposition to each other.
The book angered liberal Protestants in 1923, who didn’t like being called un-Christian. But it’s interesting that many outside the visible church found Machen persuasive. Famed journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that Christianity and Liberalism was a “cool stringent defense of orthodox Protestantism” and “the best popular argument produced by either side in the current controversy.”
H.L. Mencken called Machen’s arguments “completely impregnable” and wrote, “If he is wrong, then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing.”
But within the Church, liberalism was gaining momentum. Six years after the publication of Christianity and Liberalism, liberals won a showdown at the (northern) Presbyterian Church’s 1929 General Assembly and reorganized Princeton Seminary—at the time still a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy. Machen and other professors then left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
A few years after that, in 1936, the denomination suspended Machen from the ministry over his support for an independent missions board that operated outside the denomination’s missions agency.
Liberalism was consolidating its control over the Presbyterian Church and over America’s other mainline churches. Machen’s response was to begin new institutions—Westminster Seminary, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church—in hopes that God might use them to maintain a faithful remnant and eventually bring a new Reformation.
Machen remained a man of sound doctrine to the end of his life. In Christianity and Liberalism, he argues that Biblical doctrine—far from being cold or dead—is of tremendous comfort to those who have some awareness of the wickedness of their sin, and this was evident for Machen on his deathbed.
On Jan. 1, 1937, the day he died of pneumonia, Machen sent the following telegram to colleague John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ: no hope without it.”
Christianity and Liberalism is full of such hope and clarity, and it’s just as important a book in 2023 as it was in 1923.
In this issue, you can find further coverage of WORLD’s Books of the Year. Our staff picked 17 books to highlight among this year’s offerings on history, religion, science, parenting, contemporary social and political issues, and biographies. These books all offer important insights into this world in which we are sojourners called to love our neighbors.
Next in this 2023 Books of the Year special issue: “A relatable disciple.”
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