Bishop Timothy Whitaker

March 20, 2019

Methodist Bishop Tim Whitaker on Christianity & Liberalism

Bishop Timothy Whitaker

Bishop Timothy Whitaker (Photo credit: Kathy Gilbert / UMNS)

Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.

UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction. This post was originally shared by Bishop Whitaker in an email. It is reprinted with his permission.

Half a century ago it seemed to many that the Protestant theological movement usually designated as “modernism” or “liberalism” was finally being overcome and that the only liberals remaining were relics of nineteenth or early twentieth century thought. Of course, many lay persons who had been nurtured on modernism by their pastors and Sunday School curricula had not been exposed to serious critiques of liberalism by younger or more theologically enlightened pastors. Nevertheless, it seemed that the tide had turned. Despite their differences, continental European theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner were giant slayers of liberalism, and it seemed that no one with a sound knowledge of biblical theology and Christian doctrine would take seriously the nostrums of liberalism. Nor did this mean the triumph of fundamentalism, a reaction to liberalism which had begun in the United States of America. The errors of both liberalism and fundamentalism were exposed, and serious Christians were engaged in a recovery of the apostolic and catholic faith albeit according to their own heritage—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, etc.

Today it seems that many so-called mainline Protestants somehow missed the overcoming of liberalism. They consider themselves to be “progressives,” and while their terminology, themes, and concerns are not exactly the same as those of liberals a hundred years ago, progressives are direct descendants of liberals. Their self-chosen moniker of “progressive” indicates a belief in an ideology of “progress” (a predestined future of human aims by human means), which is descended from liberalism. Because of the chastening of liberal thought by the Neo-Reformation theologians like Barth, perhaps many progressives are anxious to profess their allegiance to the authority of scripture and doctrines of the church, but their profession of orthodoxy is belied by key interpretations which convert the meaning of scripture and doctrine which have been characteristic of Christianity from the beginning.

Because of a potential similarity between liberalism and progressivism, it is worthwhile to revisit some of the critiques of liberalism. One of the most famous was Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) published by Macmillan Company in 1923 when Gresham was a New Testament scholar at Princeton University. While Machen was a sophisticated scholar who published many books and articles for peer review, this book was written for the general reader. It was intended to be a manifesto against the dangers of liberalism in order to persuade clergy and laity to defend historic Christianity.

While this book is still well-known in Reformed evangelical circles, it has been largely overlooked by Protestants in mainline Protestant churches. Because Machen was a ecclesiastical activist who was an ally of fundamentalists in the battle against liberals, many Protestants assume that Machen himself was a fundamentalist. He was a conservative Reformed scholar who adhered to the theological school of thought known as the “Princeton theology,” but he was no fundamentalist. The “Princeton theology” is represented by the systematic theology of Charles Hodge and his son and the views of Benjamin Warfield who adhered to the teaching of John Calvin and who advocated for a doctrine of the ‘plenary inspiration” of the scriptures. Machen was critical of most of the features of fundamentalism, such as its millennialism and its advocacy of a few selected ideas they regarded as “fundamentals” rather than a robust adherence to the full Christian creed. While Machen adhered to a particular Reformed version of the faith, in this book he primarily defends the apostolic and catholic faith—or what C.S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity”—against liberalism. It is instructive that he book is titled Christianity & Liberalism, not “Fundamentalism & Liberalism.”

Perhaps one reason that this book has caused offense to mainline Protestants, who think of themselves as broad-minded, is because Machen contends that Christianity and liberalism are two different faiths. Some of the theologians who were roughly contemporary with Machen also strongly attacked the errors of theological liberalism, but they did not say bluntly that liberalism is contrary to Christianity. In 1907, the Scottish Reformed theologian P. T. Forsyth, in Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, viewed liberal theology, “the theology that begins with some rational canon of life or nature to which Christianity has to be cut down or enlarged,” as a kind of theology which “works against the preaching of the Gospel.” In 1936, Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, I.1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, e.g. pp. 30-36, declares that “modernism” (or what he came to denote as “Neo-Protestantism”) is a “heresy” which is based on a false foundation but which still has the “form” of Christianity. Machen drew a harder line against liberalism as being in a different category altogether from Christianity. In the first sentence of his book Machen acknowledges that he takes the approach of making a sharp distinction between Christianity and liberalism so that the reader may be aided in deciding for himself between the claims of historic Christianity and liberalism. In all great contests of thought, there is always room for contestants to draw the lines as sharply as possible. After all, the most famous American liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, had already taken the same approach in his polemical speech, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

Doctrine

Machen first contrasts the approach of Christianity and liberalism regarding doctrine.

Liberalism approaches doctrine as unimportant. Liberals think that “creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience” and that creeds “are all equally good” if the creeds “express that experience.” Liberalism does have its own doctrines, such as the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and therefore the liberal objection to doctrine is really not a rejection of all doctrine but only an objection to the doctrines of historic Christianity.

The Christian conception of a creed is quite different from that of liberalism. The Christian conception is that “a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.” An examination of the origins of the Christian movement shows that it was based “not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts”–that is, “it was based upon doctrine.”

The “facts” to which Machen refers are the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The “account” of those facts is the church’s teaching that Jesus is the Messiah who died and was raised for our redemption from sin so that we might be reconciled to God. The most important witness to the views of the original Christian movement is the apostle Paul because his recognized epistles are considered the earliest writings in the New Testament. “Paul was no advocate of an undogmatic religion; he was interested above everything else in the objective and universal truth of his message.” Paul “was not interested merely in the ethical principle of Jesus” or in “general principles of religion or of ethics.” Rather, Paul’s primary interest was in the center of Christian doctrine–salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is evident that all of the early Christians agreed with Paul’s message, as 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 make clear. Even the Judaizers, who fought against Paul’s teaching that Gentiles did not have to adhere to the whole of the Mosaic law, agreed with the message of salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The view of the primitive church was as follows:  “The world was to be redeemed through the proclamation of an event. And with the event went the meaning of the event; and the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine.”

Liberals may concede that the primitive church did have this view, but they contend that we should get back to the “simple, non-doctrinal religion” of Jesus himself. They propose that Christianity consists of following the teaching of Jesus rather than making some assent to a creed. They would have us believe that the originators of the Christian movement misunderstood Jesus. However, a close attention to the record in the Gospels discloses that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God was that the coming of the kingdom depended upon an event, his redemptive death, as Jesus made clear to his disciples at the last supper. Moreover, during his ministry on earth it is quite clear that Jesus manifested a “Messianic consciousness” throughout his ministry. Consider the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus “claimed the right to legislate for the Kingdom of God.” This was no mere “prophetic consciousness in Jesus” because no prophet had ever spoken like this. The prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord,” but Jesus said, “I say.” That is why, when the disciples’ despair at Jesus’ death on the cross gave place to great joy following his resurrection, they did not say, “Despite Jesus’ death, the Kingdom that He foretold will truly come,” but they said, “Despite His death, He is the Messiah.”

Churchgoers should be aware that when liberal preachers exalt “life” over “doctrine” and exhort them to return to the simplicity of the New Testament they are not just attacking the “great creeds,” but “the New Testament and our Lord Himself.” Machen adds, “In rejecting doctrine, the liberal preacher is rejecting the simple words of Paul, ‘Who loved me and gave Himself for me’, just as much as the homoousion of the Nicene Creed. For the word ‘doctrine’ is really used not in its narrowest, but in its broadest sense. The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity–liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

Machen does not at all diminish the importance of Christianity as a way of life. He says, “From the beginning, Christianity was certainly a way of life; the salvation that it offered was a salvation from sin, and salvation from sin appeared not merely in a blessed hope but also in an immediate moral change.” The real issue is, How is such a life produced? Before Christianity, there had been many wandering preachers who told people how to live. “The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event.” This approach “seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal preachers today.” “But the strange thing is that it works,” for “the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.” This is why, from the beginning, Christianity was “a campaign of witnessing”–not about “merely what Jesus was doing within the recesses of the individual life,” but “to what Jesus had done once for all in His death and resurrection.”

One reason why today’s progressivism can be considered the direct descendant of yesterday’s liberalism is the presupposition of many progressives that doctrines and creeds are culturally conditioned expressions of a general religious “experience.” In The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck names this understanding of doctrine “experiential expressivism.” Lindbeck proposes a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of doctrine. In other words, a religion is like a culture with its own language and rituals. He contends that its language “shapes domains of human existence and action that are preexperiential.” This means that religious experiences “in the sense of feelings, sentiments, or emotions then result from the new conceptual patterns instead of being their source.” Lindbeck’s formal theory of doctrine and religion provides theoretical support to Machen’s argument that the new movement of Christianity was engendered by the proclamation and teaching of a unique message or doctrine which produced transformed lives and that this message or doctrine was not merely one expression of some presumed unitary experience common to all human beings. If this is so, then the liberal and progressive appeals to “experience” as a source of revelation or truth are misleading and deceptive.

God and Man

The presuppositions of Christian doctrine are knowledge about God and knowledge about man. With regard to these presuppositions, liberalism is opposed to Christianity.

The liberal attitude is that it is unnecessary to have some “conception” of God. “Theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence.”

Machen first observes that “feeling the presence of God…is devoid of any moral quality whatever.” Such an attitude toward God is deficient since it would amount to saying that it makes no difference what we think about God. Even in relations with other human beings, we become indignant about slanders made against our friends whose character we have come to know. Likewise, we cannot abide slanders against God since we also possess some knowledge of God’s character.

Liberal preachers often say that God is known only through Jesus and that Jesus’ knowledge of God was “practical,” not “theoretical.” This means that the knowledge of God we receive through Jesus is “a knowledge which gives no information about objective reality, a knowledge which is no knowledge at all.” Machen contends that it is an error to think that God is known only thorough Jesus since Jesus himself recognized the validity of knowledge of God through nature, the moral law written in the hearts of men, and God’s revelation in scripture. What Jesus gave to his disciples was not only knowledge about God, but “intimate, personal contact” with God. Machen also explains that it is false to say that the knowledge of God that Jesus taught gave no information about objective reality because Jesus was in communion with God. “The relation of Jesus to his heavenly Father was not a relation to a vague and impersonal goodness, it was not a relation which merely clothed itself in symbolic, personal form. On the contrary, it was a relation to a real Person, whose existence was just as definite and just as much a subject of objective knowledge as the existence of the lilies of the field that God had clothed.”

Machen was addressing the error of the liberals who had been cowed by Immanuel Kant’s philosophical argument that human beings are not capable of having knowledge of metaphysical ideas through theoretical reasoning or “pure reason,” including the idea of God. The only knowledge of God we can have, said Kant, is based on “practical reason.” Simply put, Kant thought that all of the classical theistic proofs of God’s existence were worthless, and that the only possible way of believing in God’s existence was on the basis of the practical reasoning that the existence of a moral law within us points to the existence of a creator who is a law-giver. This is why the liberals retreated from claiming that we can have any objective knowledge of God or that Jesus offers us any real knowledge of God, but taught instead that Jesus gives us only a practical knowledge of God which consists of moral precepts and religious feelings. Machen argues that “Jesus did not provide in advance answers to the Kantian attack on the theistic proofs” because Jesus absolutely presupposed the theistic belief in a personal God. Moreover, it is not necessary for Christians today to “analyze the logical basis of their belief in God.” “Instinctive belief” in God may be “the result of many logical steps” taken by the mind in ways hidden to us, or it may be “the result of a primitive revelation,” and therefore “the theistic proofs are only the logical confirmation of what was originally arrived at by a different means.” At any rate, Machen was not intimidated by Kant’s theories about human knowledge as were the liberals because he had confidence in the great tradition of human belief in God and in Jesus’ genuine objective knowledge of God obtained through his relationship with the person of God the Father.

While liberals attack doctrine, in fact they espouse a doctrine, the doctrine of “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” which they assume represents the teaching of Jesus. They do not realize that this doctrine is neither the teaching of Jesus nor the teaching of the New Testament. It is true that we can find in the New Testament occasional affirmations of the idea that the fatherhood of God is a way of saying that God is the creator of all mankind and that God cares about all persons whom God has made. However, the particular teaching of Jesus and the New Testament is that those who believe in the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ become the children of God through the action of the Holy Spirit and thus know God as their Father and fellow believers as their brothers and sisters. “The modern doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God, then, which is being celebrated as ‘the essence of Christianity’, really belongs at best only to that vague natural religion which forms the presupposition which the Christian preacher can use when the gospel is to be proclaimed; and when it is regarded as a reassuring, all-sufficient thing, it comes into direct opposition to the New Testament. The gospel itself refers to something entirely different; the really distinctive New Testament teaching about the fatherhood concerns only those who have been brought into the household of faith.” In this critique, Machen is refuting Adolf von Harnack’s argument in What is Christianity?, although he does not mention the book.

The more fundamental difference between the liberal view and that of Christianity is that liberalism “has lost sight of the very center and core of the Christian teaching.” In this teaching, there are “many elements,” but “one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental,” which is “the awful transcendence of God.” Although the Bible teaches that God is immanent in the world, he is immanent “not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.” As a result of this error, liberalism blurs “the sharp personal distinction between God and man.”

Christianity also differs from liberalism in its view of humankind.  “At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.”

This loss has occurred over several decades:  “About seventy-five years ago [ca. 1850], Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.” Machen does not consider “paganism” to be a term of reproach since there was a glory to pagan ancient Greece. By “paganism,” he means “that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties.” The difference between paganism and Christianity is that paganism is “optimistic with regard to unaided human nature” whereas Christianity is “the religion of the broken heart.” This does not mean Christianity is “a continual beating of the breast,” but a realistic confrontation with sin and a removal of it by the grace of God. The problem with the paganism of ancient Greece and with modern paganism is that “there was always something covered up” by “ignoring the disturbing fact of sin.”

Christianity has to preach the whole of the law of God because the law reveals transgressions and thus awakens the consciousness of sin for which the proclamation of the gospel is the remedy. This “preaching” is done not only from the pulpit but by the lives of dedicated laity. The witness of Christians prepares persons for the experience of a consciousness of their sin, which can come only by the Holy Spirit. When this happens, a person’s “whole attitude toward life is transformed; he wonders at his former blindness, and the message of the gospel, which formerly seemed to be an idle tale, becomes now instinct with light.”

The “fault of the modern Church” is that it is trying to bring people into the church “without requiring them to relinquish their pride,” and it is helping them to “avoid the conviction of sin.” The preacher tells everyone that what we have in the Bible, especially in the life of Jesus, is “something so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people.” The whole approach is faulty because it is based on a false understanding of what human nature is.

The Bible

The bible contains an account of God’s revelation to man found nowhere else. It confirms divine revelation disclosed in nature and in the human conscience, and it offers a new revelation about the way that we may come into communion with God through God’s act in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christian experience can confirm that salvation comes by faith in the atoning death of Christ. However, it is a mistake to think that we may have a “present experience of Christ in the heart” which is all we need or which even makes revelation in history unnecessary. If we do think this way, then we do not have Christian experience but only a “religious experience” since Christian experience is never a substitute for the “documentary evidence” which is the narration of the event of Christ in the bible.

In addition to Christian revelation in the events of history, there is also the Christian doctrine of inspiration of the bible. Like the other adherents of the “Princeton theology,” Machen affirms the rigid concept of “plenary inspiration,” which means that the bible is “an infallible rule of faith and practice” even though it is written by human beings and its books are the products of historical processes. Yet Machen also affirms that there are genuine Christians who believe that the bible is “right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors.”

The conception of biblical inspiration in the Princeton theology is artificial. The way in which it expresses the truth of divine inspiration of the bible is simply too rationalistic, tying up its adherents in knots of arguments which sound less and less plausible. But the instinct of the Princeton theology is sound in that it recognizes that there is a whole divine economy of revelation. The economy of revelation begins with God’s acts in history which are interpreted by the minds of God’s chosen witnesses who are inspired by God’s Spirit. These mighty acts (the Exodus and Jesus Christ) are remembered by the chosen community which is created by God’s mighty acts (Israel and the church). The community is guided by the Spirit to select particular writings which preserve the testimony to divine revelation. The same Spirit continues to work in those who read or hear the writings of the scriptures so that they come to believe the testimony they contain.

The liberal view of authority is quite different and even incoherent. Liberals claim to trust in the authority of Jesus rather than the authority of a book, but they carefully select from the words of Jesus what they believe and sometimes say that the only thing that matters is not Jesus’ words but his “life purpose.” Jesus’ “life purpose” is not his redemptive death, but liberals’ own agenda which the selected words of Jesus are supposed to support. This is why the foundation of liberalism is not the Christian trust in the Word of God, but “the shifting emotions of sinful men.”

Christ

In Christianity, Jesus is the object of faith according to the New Testament. In liberalism, Jesus is an example of faith rather than its object. According to liberalism, Jesus “was the first Christian.” That means that Jesus had a faith in God which other Christians seek to emulate.

There are two problems with the notion that Jesus was the first Christian. First, it is evident in the Gospels that Jesus had a Messianic consciousness. Liberals may admit that Jesus did develop such a consciousness late in his experience, and he developed this almost against his will, but that the really fundamental thing is Jesus’ consciousness of his sonship toward God–a consciousness which may be shared by every disciple. The liberals’ attempts at psychological reconstruction of the life of Jesus are failures. Besides, if the liberals reject the truth of Jesus’ consciousness of being “the heavenly Son of Man who was to be the final Judge of all the earth,” how can they make excuses for his allegedly mistaken Messianic claims and still consider him a worthy model for all to follow? Second, according to the New Testament Jesus is separated from us by the absence in himself of a sense of sin. The liberals evade this whole issue as academic and not worth thinking about, and they say that what matters is that Jesus manifested a holiness which we should revere. However, the record of the Gospels is that Jesus displays no consciousness of his own sin, but he is constantly dealing with the problem of sin in others. The real reason that the early Christians called themselves disciples of Jesus was not because he was their example in getting rid of his own sin, but because Jesus was the means by which they were ridden of their sin. In other words, from the beginning Christians believed that “Christ died for our sin.” For Christians who receive forgiveness of their sins by the redemptive death of Jesus Christ, Jesus is the object of faith rather than a mere example of faith.

It is true that in many ways Jesus is an example for Christians. “But the example of Jesus is a perfect example only if He was justified in what He offered to men. And He offered, not primarily guidance, but salvation. He presented Himself as the object of men’s faith. That offer is rejected by modern liberalism, but it is accepted by Christian men.”

The difference between Christianity and liberalism is ultimately a difference about Jesus’ identity. In Christianity, Jesus is regarded as a supernatural Person, but in liberalism, he is viewed as “the fairest flower of humanity.” The problem with liberalism is that liberals cannot accept that a supernatural Person can be historical. This is why all the attempts at the “quest for the historical Jesus” have all failed; historians try to separate the natural from the supernatural in the New Testament account of Jesus and therefore never succeed in perceiving the real Jesus in whom the supernatural is bound up with the natural. The Jesus of the New Testament and of the great creeds is real. “He is not a manufactured figure suitable as a point of support for ethical maxims, but a genuine Person whom a man can love. Men have loved Him throughout all of the Christian centuries. And the strange thing is that despite all the efforts to remove Him from the pages of history, there are those who love Him still.”

Machen’s argument that the New Testament presents, in a way which is coherent with subsequent historic Christian doctrine, Jesus Christ as a supernatural Person is consistent with the so-called “early high Christology movement” in the study of Christian origins today. Leading proponents such as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham make the case that the early Christians viewed Jesus as the human being who is (to use Bauckham’s categories) “included in the divine identity” of the God of Israel, as clearly evident in texts such as 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Philippians 2:9-11. In light of the resurrection, Jesus was revealed by the God of Israel as being in the glory of God and bearing the very Name of YHWH, which is rendered as Kyrios (“Lord”) in the Greek Old Testament. Without sacrificing monotheism, the apostles modified monotheism by perceiving it, in Hurtado’s categories, as “binitarian” so that there is “one God” and also “one Lord” Jesus Christ–an affirmation of the oneness of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ as he who is included in the divine identity with the God of Israel as Kyrios, which is also characteristic of the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God…. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…. cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6). The ideas of the advocates of “early high Christology” today are not different from those of earlier scholars, such as A.D. Nock, who wrote in his classic historical study of conversion in Greco-Roman culture and early Christianity (Conversion, Oxford University Press, 1933):  “In early Christian literature…all the emphasis is on the superhuman qualities of Jesus, as foreshadowed by prophecy and shown by miracle and Resurrection and teaching, and not on his winning humanity. He is a saviour rather than a pattern, and the Christian way of life is something made possible by Christ the Lord through the community rather than something arising from the imitation of Jesus” (p. 210).

Salvation

Modern liberal preachers avoid as much as possible speaking about the atonement which is the biblical way of salvation. Occasionally they may speak about it, but when they do they mean that the death of Christ did not have an effect on God but only upon men. The cross is seen as merely an example of self-sacrifice. What they do not grasp is how “an exhibition of the love of God is a mere display unless there was some underlying reason for the sacrifice.” In Christianity, Christ is our Savior because “He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross.”

The Christian view of the cross is sometimes criticized because it is dependent upon history. In other words, it relies on what happened long ago rather than on what Christ does now. But without the saving work of Christ in history once and for all any talk of what Christ does now is mere mysticism. After all, “gospel” means good news about something that happened which changes the situation of mankind. What matters is that it really happened, and if it really happened, then it doesn’t matter when it happened. This historical event is relevant to present experience because those who believe this news receive confirmation of the forgiveness of their sins and new life in the depths of their souls.

Another criticism of the Christian view of the cross is that it is too exclusive. The exclusiveness of the cross is sometimes evaded by saying that although the cross is a way to salvation there are other ways as well. But from the beginning, Christians proclaimed that salvation “was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.” Liberalism places Jesus alongside other benefactors of mankind, and therefore it is “inoffensive in the modern world. All men speak well of it. It is entirely inoffensive. But it is also entirely futile. The offense of the Cross is done away, but so is the glory and the power.”

Machen acknowledges that there is a legitimate question about the ultimate salvation of those who have not heard or accepted the gospel, a question which he does not discuss here. Instead, he reminds the reader that the New Testament offers “no clear hope,” and the apostolic church felt a heavy sense of responsibility to proclaim the gospel to all while there is still time.

Many wonder how one person can suffer for the sins of another. The real answer to this question is not comparing the death of Christ to other examples of self-sacrifice, but perceiving “the majesty of Jesus’ Person.” He was “no mere man but the eternal Son of God.” “It is perfectly true that the Christ of modern naturalistic reconstruction never could have suffered for the sins of others; but it is very different in the case of the Lord of Glory.”

“The truth is, the God of modern preaching, though He may perhaps be very good, is rather uninteresting. Nothing is more insipid as indiscriminate good humor. Is that really love that costs so little? If God will necessarily forgive, no matter what we do, why trouble ourselves about Him at all? Such a God may deliver us from the fear of hell. But His heaven, if He has any, is full of sin.”

The Christian’s experience of receiving salvation by trusting in Christ’s death on the cross for mankind engenders joy, but it is “a joy that is akin to fear.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and, trusting in Jesus, sinful as we are, we dare to “venture into the presence of the very God.”

Trusting in the atoning death of Christ means more than being declared righteous. It is also receiving a new and right relationship with God and a new life. “He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin.”

This experience of salvation through faith in Christ who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. This idea is despised today by the liberals who think that “the world’s evil may be overcome by the world’s good” rather than supernaturally by help from outside the world.

There is some truth to the liberal belief in good within the world. The bible affirms that we should foster what is already good in man. The older theologians call this the doctrine of “common grace.” There is “something in the world even apart from Christianity which restrains the worst manifestations of evil,” but it “will not remove the disease of sin.” It may palliate its symptoms, but often the result is that the disease becomes hidden as occurred in 1914. Machen was a non-military volunteer in WWI, and his service to the army sometimes placed him on the front lines. He opposed militarism, and his comment about hidden sin emerging in 1914 represents both prophetic insight and his corporate understanding of sin along with a view of sin affecting humans’ personal lives.

After describing salvation as forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and the new life of being regenerated and growing in sanctification, Machen contrasts this Christian understanding with the liberal opinion that discipleship is merely a matter of obedience to the commands of Christ. It is strange, he says, that the word “liberalism” means freedom, but what it is is actually “wretched slavery” because the great Reformation message of grace has been rejected.

The Church

Machen presumes the Protestant concept of the “invisible church” in his view of who are true members of Christ’s church on earth:  “And the Church invisible, the true company of the redeemed, finds expression in the companies of Christians who constitute the visible Church today.”

The problem with the visible church is the admission of members “who have never really made any adequate confession of faith at all and whose entire attitude toward the gospel is the very reverse of the Christian attitude,” and some of these have even been admitted into the ministry of the church.

Only God can decide which individuals are Christians, but “whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear  that liberalism is not Christianity.” For this reason, Machen advocates for a “separation of the two parties in the Church,” Many resist the call for a separation and ask, Why cannot all dwell together in unity? The church, it is said, has room for both liberals and conservatives, but what is really meant is that conservatives may be allowed to remain so long as they keep “trifling matters in the background.” Among the things designated as “trifling” is “the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.” A common concern for Christian mission is supposed to be viewed as more important than doctrinal differences, but the confession of Christ’s redeeming work is the foundation of the church, not some “devotion to the ideal of Jesus” or “the desire to put His spirit into operation in the world.”

Machen observes that liberal preachers who subvert the meaning of the church’s doctrine still want to take control of the existing churches rather than to establish their own organizations. This is understandable since the abandonment of church buildings, the break in family traditions, and the injury to sentiment of various kinds make it very difficult to leave existing denominations. Machen does not think that it is the conservatives who ought to withdraw their membership from the churches; after all, the conservatives’ commitments are identical with those of the past who endowed the present denominations for the work of the propagation of the gospel. However, the conservatives would have to withdraw because of conscience if the liberal party were to gain complete control of the churches.

Machen says, suppose there are members of the Democratic party who are opposed to the tenets of the Democratic party and who desire to support the Republican party. These people opposed to the tenets of their own party ought to withdraw and form a Republican club. They are perfectly free to do this, and this would be much more honest than claiming to conform to Democratic principles while trying to subvert those principles into something quite different. Machen thinks that the liberals are doing the same thing to the churches. He says, “But the fact that the Church is more than a political club does not mean that in ecclesiastical affairs there is any abrogation of the homely principles of honesty. The Church may possibly be more honest, but certainly it ought not to be less honest, than a political club.”

Were a separation of the liberals from the existing churches to occur the churches would certainly be smaller in size, but “Gideon’s three hundred were more powerful than the thirty-two thousand with which the march against the Midianites began.”

Machen’s conclusion is that “if liberalism is to return into the Christian communion there must be a change of heart fully as much as a change of mind. God grant that such a change of heart may come! But meanwhile the present situation must not be ignored but faced.” Machen advocates that members and clergy must support those who are engaged in the fight for the integrity of the church’s message; that there must be a careful, new examination of candidates for the ministry; that local congregations must choose their pastors for the truth of their preaching not for the brilliance of their speaking ability or personality; and that there must be a renewal of Christian education in the content of Christian doctrine. These are not times for ease, he says, but times for earnest and prayerful work. Whatever the solution to the crisis of the churches, one thing is clear:  “There must be somewhere groups of redeemed men and women who can gather together humbly in the name of Christ, to give thanks to Him for His unspeakable gift and to worship the Father through Him. Such groups alone can satisfy the needs of the soul. At the present time, there is one longing of the human heart which is often forgotten–it is the deep, pathetic longing of the Christian for fellowship with his brethren. One hears much, it is true, about Christian union and harmony and co-operation. But the union that is meant is often a union with the world against the Lord, or at best a forced union of machinery and tyrannical committees. How different is the true unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace!”

As it turned out, Machen himself was removed from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. because he protested the teaching of famous novelist and missionary Pearl Buck that it did not matter at all if Jesus had never lived so long as the “spirit of Jesus” was being taught in the world. Machen did not withdraw as much as he was forced to leave. He was one of the the founders of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and also Westminster Theological Seminary, which was founded to continue the original principles on which Princeton Theological Seminary had been founded.

The history of theological conflict in American shows that it is usually the conservatives who withdraw from the denominations which become dominated by liberals. The irony is that the conservatives’ theology is usually more coherent with the official doctrine of the denominations as well with the purpose of the endowments of church-related schools and institutions. Whether there will ever be an exception to this pattern remains to be seen as a similar contest is occurring today between the progressive heirs of the liberal tradition and those who see themselves as the heirs of the apostolic and catholic faith of historic Christianity.

Observations

Machen argued that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions. While he achieved his aim in accurately describing the differences between orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism, should we agree that they are two different religions?

It all depends on how one conceives of “Christianity.” If Christianity means the historic and orthodox apostolic and catholic faith, then liberalism would be a different religion. However, many presume that Christianity may be defined quite broadly as any expression of faith which is related in some manner to Christian scriptures, traditions, rites, and thought. Machen himself often concedes that liberals’ emphases are not wrong in themselves. For example, clearly the imitation of the example of Jesus is a part of Christian belief and practice as is clear from the message of 1 Peter. Machen rightly argues that the imitation of Jesus is not the central message of the New Testament, which is divine salvation through divine action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So then, it seems more reasonable not to say that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions, but only that liberalism is an unorthodox variant of Christianity which does not put at its center what the apostles, church fathers, ecumenical councils and creeds, and historic Christian churches put at the center.

In some sense liberalism seems to be a Christian variant of Gentile religion. The Gentile religions which existed prior to Christianity and which still exist after Christianity (such as Hinduism) are products of general divine revelation, the revelation of God in nature and in the human spirit created in God’s image. What is missing from Gentile religions is the particular revelation of God in the history of Israel as it reaches a climax in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the beginning of the church founded upon the witness of the apostles to Jesus’ redemptive death, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. Of course, liberalism is Christian in the broad sense that it draws ideas from particular revelation. Nevertheless, the real concerns of liberalism seem to have much in common with Gentile religions. Liberalism does not like doctrine or the idea that God’s revelation in mediated through historical events, persons, and developments. Instead liberals think of their subjective intuitions, feelings, stories, or experiences–which are all culturally shaped–as being direct sources of divine inspiration and truth. This may be why the Jesus of liberalism is not the representative Messiah and Lord who offers himself as a vicarious offering for human redemption from the power of sin and death, but a kind of guru who teaches what he himself perceived in nature and in his own spirit. It is also no surprise that the main teaching of liberalism in Machen’s era was “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man;” this specific teaching represents general revelation of God as the creator of all humankind and thus is akin to the kind of teaching characteristic of Gentile religion.

Another way of getting a handle on liberalism is to perceive that it is opposed to the hard Jewish element in Christianity. This is a different angle on the idea that liberalism is more like a Gentile religion. The Jewish element in Christianity is the grounding of Christianity in the faith of Israel as it was reconstituted by the teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth and then propagated by Jesus’ apostles following his death and resurrection. In liberalism, Jesus is seen as very un-Jewish:  he is seen more as a Gentile religious genius than as a Jewish rabbi who made rulings on the Torah and who was crucified because he threatened the Sanhedrin with an entirely different vision of Israel than what the aristocratic members of the Sanhedrin had. This lack of Jewishness in liberalism helps to explain why liberalism tends to be antinomian:  the law, which is fulfilled rather than abrogated in both Jesus’ career and the apostles’ teaching, is a stumbling block for liberals who want no impediments to the soaring of the human spirit as they see it. Liberalism has tended to be anti-Jewish and also anti-Catholic because both the Jewish and Catholic traditions place a strong emphasis on obedience to the divine law as an essential element in the divine economy of salvation. Liberalism as an emergence of the Gentile religious attitude with a wariness toward Judaism may also help explain why liberalism has a tendency toward theological pluralism and an aversion to the exclusive claims that salvation is of the Jews and in the name of Jesus. One of the most famous expressions of the Gentile spirit was the statement made by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a Roman Senator during the fourth century who opposed the efforts of Bishop Ambrose of Milan and the Christian rulers to close pagan temples and statues. He said, “It is impossible that so great a mystery should be approached by one road only.”

So then, perhaps one way of understanding the kind of Christianity which is represented by liberalism is to think of it as the emergence within Christianity of a school of thought which attempts to interpret the life of Jesus, the Christian life, and the church more according to a sense of general revelation than according to the particular revelation of God to Israel and in the apostolic witness to Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Lord of the World, and God’s own Son.

If one believes that the kind of Christianity which is God’s cause in the world is the Christianity which is faithful to the apostolic witness as it has been received in the catholic tradition of the church, then one would view liberalism as a variant of Christianity which erodes the substance of the apostolic and catholic faith and enervates the mission of the church. Liberals tend to see their version of Christianity as the vanguard of the future, which is an odd conceit in light of how few liberal Christians there are in the context of global Christianity. It is more plausible that the historic, orthodox, apostolic and catholic faith is the future of Christianity as well as its past, and it is the great river of tradition which flows through time moving in the current of the Holy Spirit. Every other variant of Christianity is a rivulet which goes its own way until it eventually disappears.


18 Responses to Methodist Bishop Tim Whitaker on Christianity & Liberalism

  1. Edwin Beale says:

    Reviewing where we’ve come from clarifies why we are where we are.

  2. Loren Golden says:

    “One of the most famous was Christianity & Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) published by Macmillan Company in 1923 when Gresham was a New Testament scholar at Princeton University.”
     
    Machen was a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, not Princeton University.

  3. Mike says:

    This is a good explanation of the difference between “liberal Christianity” and true Christianity. Jesus and the apostles would not recognize as Christian a lot of what does on today in the name of Christ. I look forward to reading the book he referred to, which is available on the Internet at https://www.extremetheology.com/files/MachenLiberalism.pdf.

  4. John says:

    Great article! I was encouraged to read Machen when I was in high school before I went to college. I’m glad that I did.

  5. Andrew Hughes says:

    Fine short breakdown of liberal thought. Thank you Dr. Whitaker. I will also look for Machen’s work.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, thank you. I have already made plans to read Machen’s book, and will also refer this to family and friends.

  6. Richard Jones says:

    Wow the best article, and most articulate summary of the faith I’ve read. Bravo

  7. John Smith says:

    You mean their are Christians who have not read the book? Now I understand the crisis in the UMC.

  8. Mao Vang Her says:

    Thank you so much… a good read! It better my understanding of Liberalism and why they are the way they are.

  9. Jose Guatemala says:

    Why call yourself Christian?

    When Machen was prominent there was, at least, some cultural capital to being called a “Christian”. So I can understand why a liberal would want to hold on to that moniker. But in 2019, being a “Christian” marginalizes you even if you believe in progressivism.

    So if you no longer believe in the objective truth of Christianity, why bother anymore?

  10. Melissa says:

    Thank you, Bishop Whitaker. Upon reading and reflecting on your article, I am filled with gratitude for the true Christian experience and teaching and guidance I received as a child in my small-town Methodist Church in the 1950’s.
    I have ordered Machen’s book, as I’m very interested in reading more on this subject due to the welcome result of the recent General Conference vote.

  11. L. Cary says:

    “There is a profound difference, then, in the attitude assumed by modern liberalism and by Christianity toward Jesus the Lord. Liberalism regards Him as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Saviour: liberalism makes Him an Example for faith; Christian, the object of faith.

    This difference in the attitude toward Jesus depends upon a profound difference as to the question who Jesus was. If Jesus was only what the liberal historians suppose that He was, then trust in Him would be out of place; our attitude toward Him could be that of pupils to a Master and nothing more. But if he was what the New Testament represents Him as being, then we can safely commit to Him the eternal destinies of our souls. What then is the difference between liberalism and Christianity with regard to the person of our Lord?

    The answer might be difficult to set forth in detail. But the essential thing can be put almost in a word – liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards Him as a supernatural Person.”
    (Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen (New Edition, 2008, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 82)

  12. David says:

    Thank you so much for this. I was baptized and raised in the denomination that Machen founded back in 1936, but I didn’t read him until much later. I’ve come to appreciate his analysis in recent decades and consider him very much a prophet.

    The only thing I would dispute is his focus on what we “think” about God, as if God is a concept capable of being grasped as such. Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (“What is God?”) may be the source of this approach. We do not replace feelings with thoughts, as thoughts do not change people’s lives. I definitely agree that feelings are a shaky basis for our faith, but the only remedy is trust in God and, by his empowering Spirit, obedience to his will.

    We sang this song a lot in my childhood church:

    “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
    to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

    I think Machen understood this well, and we too should hold onto it.

  13. Allen Fuller says:

    Machen’s book reads like it was written in the last few decades. It is truly a book for our times as well as his own. I highly recommend it.

    • John Smith says:

      There are no new heresies which is why reading which is why reading the church fathers and the reformers is always so rewarding.

  14. Norm says:

    Liberals always seem to agree that “Jesus was a great teacher”. My question always is then why do they so often reject what he taught, particularly about himself?

  15. John says:

    Based on your overview, I do wish there were more substantive engagement here with Catholic/Orthodox/Anglo-Catholic conceptions of both Scripture and the living tradition of the visible church. I’m of the opinion that these are the best safeguards against the dichotomy of liberalism and fundamentalism, and of course I don’t expect everyone to agree, but it’s not like no one ever asked in those traditions what happens when someone who isn’t committed to Christ enters the church, or how to understand Scripture as canonized and interpreted by a historical community without losing a deep sense of its inspiration.

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