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Christianity and Liberalism – A Centennial Review

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. It is one of the bestselling religious books ever published in America. Even now it sells more copies annually, is read more widely, and is cited more often than any book if not all the books by all the professors of any seminary if not all the seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).[1]  There is no question about its significance. It set the terms but also the tone of many debates between American liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, and evangelicals throughout the last century. It would be difficult to overestimate its influence on Christianity in America throughout the twentieth century and even today.

But what has been its impact? How did it shape the thinking of its readers? How effective was it in changing people’s minds? To answer these questions requires, among many other things, a basic understanding of the nature of the liberalism that Machen sought to overcome. What sort was it? What was its content? What were its intellectual and spiritual origins? How did it emerge?

What Sort of Liberalism?

What Machen had in mind was not political liberalism that irrupted in France and America in the late eighteenth century. It was theological liberalism, namely, Protestant liberalism, which, in his estimation, arose a few decades later because of a broad cultural movement in Western civilization. He states in his Introduction, “modern naturalistic liberalism has not come by chance, but has been occasioned by important changes which have recently taken place in the conditions of life. The past one hundred years have witnessed the beginning of a new era in human history, which may conceivably be regretted, but certainly cannot be ignored.” Such changes are obvious even to “the plain man at a hundred points. Modern inventions and the industrialism that has been built upon them have given us in many respects a new world to live in.”[2]  

So, it was the Industrial Revolution, the cotton gin, steam engine, trains, electricity, etc., that changed our political, economic, and social life so profoundly. “But,” Machen adds, “such changes in the material conditions of life do not stand alone; they have been produced by mighty changes in the human mind, as in their turn they themselves give rise to further spiritual changes.” Without elaborating these changes, Machen asserts what few denied: “The industrial world of today has been produced not by blind forces of nature but by the conscious activity of the human spirit; it has been produced by the achievements of science.

The outstanding feature of recent history is an enormous widening of human knowledge, which has gone hand in hand with such perfecting of the instrument of investigation that scarcely any limits can be assigned to future progress in the material realm.”[3]

Machen posits here what is called “the secularist thesis,” the story or idea of modernity as the era in which science has triumphantly advanced as religion has been forced to retreat. Such a retreat, he implies, was not necessary. But Protestant liberalism, he claims, is defined by this retreat.

It is worth asking whether Machen saw Protestant liberalism as responding to challenges beyond those posed by industrialization and science, i.e., whether he saw its origins as older or more deeply rooted?[4] At any rate, he did not think what had happened in the last hundred years was all bad. Rather, he said, “the application of modern scientific methods” has produced manifold benefits.[5] No troglodyte, Machen extolled the virtues of modern scientific inquiry.[6] Still, he recognized that it posed “a serious problem to the modern Church” because many of its claims, not least about the Bible, are now “the subject of scientific investigation” in ways they have never been.[7]

The Attempt to Rescue Christianity

“Religion, it is said, is so entirely separate from science, that the two, rightly defined, cannot possibly come into conflict.” Such a view was held by most theologians throughout the nineteenth century, both conservatives and liberals, from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Charles Hodge. Yet such a view is no longer tenable, Machen claims, because “rightly or wrongly, religion during the centuries has as a matter of fact connected itself with a host of convictions, especially in the sphere of history, which may form the subject of scientific investigation.” And modern scientific investigators routinely call them into question and often draw radical conclusions.[8]

Some scholars claim, for example, that Jesus never existed. Machen states, “If any simple Christian of one hundred years ago, or even of today, were asked what would become of his religion if history should prove indubitably that no man called Jesus ever lived and died in the first century of our era, he would undoubtedly answer that his religion would fall away.” Yet this dilemma, Machen suggests, is today posed to the average Christian. The average, “simple Christian” does not necessarily see religion and science as two separate realms but sees them, increasingly, in conflict and feels compelled to choose between them. “In other words,” Machen says, “our simple Christian, whether rightly or wrongly, whether wisely or unwisely, has as a matter of fact connected his religion, in a way that to him seems indissoluble, with convictions about which science also has a right to speak.” “From every point of view, therefore, the problem in question is the most serious concern of the Church. What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age?”[9] Machen contends:

It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion –– against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ, and of  redemption  through his death and resurrection –– the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting ‘the essence of Christianity.’[10]

Before going further, it is worth asking: Is this an accurate description of what Protestant liberals thought? Certainly, many refused to affirm some, if not many, miracles of the Bible, and some refused to affirm any as historical, and, thus, to this extent, refused to affirm “the particularities of the Christian religion.” But I know only one person at the time who denied the existence of Jesus, the German gadfly philosopher, Arthur Drews, and his claim was deemed absurd even by most radical liberals.[11]

Moreover, few Protestant liberals claimed that the life and work of Jesus Christ were mere “temporary symbols.” Even Ernst Troeltsch and many of his fellow historicists affirmed The Absoluteness of Christianity (1901). Most liberals did so even more absolutely. Nevertheless, it is true that owing to scientific objections many liberals tried to “rescue certain of the general principles of religion” at the price of abandoning many of “the particularities of the Christian religion.” Such it was for many Ritschlians who affirmed “the fatherhood of God” and “the brotherhood of man” as “constituting ‘the essence of Christianity,’” as did Adolf von Harnack in his famous lectures by this title at the University of Berlin in 1899–1900.[12]

Machen’s point, in any case, was that however well-intended, Protestant liberalism fails as a rescue operation. It fails to save Christianity because its accommodation strategy is doomed from the start: “For after the apologist has abandoned his outer defences to the enemy and with-drawn into some inner citadel, he will probably discover that the enemy pursues him even there.” The “enemy” is the modern materialist who reduces all theological claims to “the realm of psychology,” whether “Biblical doctrines” or those based on “the philosophical idealism of the liberal preacher.” Thus, Machen advocates, “Defend the outposts if you wish to defend the citadel.”[13] In other words, defend the miracles to save the fortress of faith. Defend the historical and supernatural character of “the particularities of the Christian religion” to save Christianity, which is what Protestant liberalism, in Machen’s estimation, fails to do.

It attempts to resolve the conflict between the Christian religion and modern science by granting validity to the latter’s claims at the expense of the formers. Instead of holding its ground, it concedes it. Abandoning the truth claims of various “particularities of the Christian religion,” it treats them as “mere temporary symbols,” signifying “general principles of religion.” Liberalism, thus, undermines the very thing it seeks to establish. It destroys the very thing it “seeks to rescue.” It denies the very thing it claims to affirm. And the result of such “concessiveness” is that the liberal theologian is eventually forced to retreat to something “which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category,” namely, “a vague natural religion.”[14]

A Lack of Logic?

One can dispute whether Machen paints with too-broad-a-brush here. But there is truth in what he says. There were Protestant liberals who treated various “particularities of the Christian religion” as “mere temporary symbols,” signifying “general principles of religion.” And underneath these general principles of religion, there often was “a vague natural religion.” The problem was that few Protestant liberals ever affirmed a vague natural religion.

On the contrary, many liberals not only critiqued natural religion but vigorously critiqued the day’s leading materialist and naturalist philosophies. Almost the entire Philosophy Department at Princeton University, for example, was dedicated to critiquing the day’s leading materialist and naturalist philosophies, and by then few, if any, were considered conservatives. Moreover, many of Protestant liberalism’s most prominent spokesmen still talked a lot about Jesus. And they often did so reverently, lovingly, and passionately, and in ways that struck many people as powerful and persuasive––including many bright, educated, and influential people.

This was, of course, disturbing to Machen not merely because he believed they betrayed the truth of the Gospel, but because he knew how alluring such preaching could be. He knew the power behind it when he encountered Wilhelm Herrmann in the fall of 1905 in Marburg, Germany. Herrmann was like no one he had ever seen. “Such an overpowering personality,” he said, “I think I almost never before encountered––overpowering in the sincerity of religious devotion.” He is “so completely centered in Christ,” “so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known in myself during the past few years.” Even at the end of Herrmann’s course, Machen wrote: “He is a Christian not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is (practically, if anything, even more truly than theoretical-ly), unbounded. It is inspiring to see a man so completely in Christ, even though some people might wonder how he reaches this result and still holds the views that he does about the accounts of Christ in the New Testament.”

Machen described his encounter with Herrmann as “an epoch in my life,” and it is one I am not sure he ever quite got over. It took him nearly a decade to work through some of the implications. At the time, he commended to his family Herrmann’s Communion of the Christian with God as “one of the greatest religious books I ever read.” His mother, however, was not impressed with what she had heard and was afraid her son was in danger of being corrupted by Herrmann and his like, and so she––bright, sophisticated, “steel Magnolia” that she was––indirectly, gently, but firmly opposed his plan of staying in Germany and earning his doctorate. Minnie Machen’s opposition to her son’s plan caused a bitter disagreement between them and even a momentary break in their relationship.

Given their disagreement, it is ironic how the tables were turned a dozen years later when Minnie heard Henry Sloane Coffin preach. She may not have known that he, too, had been a student of Herrmann. But she knew that her son did not like his preaching and considered him a dangerous “liberal.” Yet after hearing a sermon by Coffin, she wrote to her son on Aug. 29, 1917:

If I had not known what you told me of his “liberal” views, I would never have guessed it from his sermon. True, the Atonement was not in the sermon except by implication but the duty of allegiance to Christ as a divine Person was very forcibly put. Really there was more of Christ in the sermon than I have heard this summer from anybody.[15]

Machen responded a week later: “As for Coffin, what you say about him makes me feel that he can deceive almost the very elect by his use of Christian testimony.” Having read “his book,”[16] Machen said,

[I] cannot believe that his speaking of allegiance to Christ as a “divine Person” means what we might wish it to mean. It all depends upon what your definition of “divine” turns out to be. Put that definition low enough and even a thoroughgoing naturalism like Coffin’s can speak of Jesus as “divine.” The original Unitarians held a higher view, for they at least believed in God. The first article of the creed has gone with all the rest in modern liberalism––there men do not believe in “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” That is rejected as being theoretical and metaphysical. A dismal pantheism is usually professed––which does away with the free personality of God & obliterates the distinction between God & man.

Thus, if Coffin retained “a certain Christian attitude toward Jesus,” Machen said, it was owing to “a fortunate lack of logic.” “You can’t fool me about Coffin––I have heard him preach a number of times and have read his book, and so I know about where he stands.” Still, he acknowledged his appeal. “I heard one sermon from him in New York that gave me great sympathy for his attitude in these days when people simply can’t accept the New Testament as it stands. … The religious fervor of Coffin and his undoubted talents make him a formidable opponent of the gospel in New York. It is another question whether he is right.”[17]

An Idea of God Independent of Jesus?

Wary of Coffin-like liberals who spoke about the divinity of Christ or “Christ-like God,” Machen was determined to warn against them. He had reason to be circumspect. The idealism of the Ritschlian school––the wholesale discounting of theological claims to moral or ethical claims and their reluctance, if not refusal, to make metaphysical claims––exercised a significant influence on many American Protestant liberals. Therefore, when they spoke about the divinity of Christ, Machen was right to ask if such affirmations were based on “the philosophical idealism of the liberal preacher.” But his own effort to ground orthodox Christology and all truth claims about God, metaphysically or philosophically, is another matter. At a key point in Christianity and Liberalism, he asks:

How, then, shall God be known: how shall we become acquainted with Him that personal fellowship may become possible? Some liberal preachers would say that we become acquainted with God only through Jesus. That assertion has an appearance of loyalty to our Lord, but in reality it is highly derogatory to Him. For Jesus Himself plainly recognized the validity of other ways of knowing God, and to reject those other ways is to reject the things that lay at the very center of Jesus’ life.[18]

Machen continues: “As a matter of fact, when men say that we know God only as He is revealed in Jesus, they are denying all real knowledge of God whatever. For “unless there be some idea of God independent of Jesus, the ascription of deity to Jesus has no meaning. To say, ‘Jesus is God,’ is meaningless unless the word ‘God’ has an antecedent meaning attached to it.” That antecedent meaning, Machen goes on to elaborate, is provided by “rational theism.” “Rational theism, the knowledge of one Supreme Person, Maker and active Ruler of the world, is at the very root of Christianity.” Jesus’ knowledge of God was not merely “practical,” as modern liberals claim. It was also “theoretical.” It was knowledge based on “a relation to a real Person, whose existence was just as definite and just as much a subject of theoretic knowledge as the existence of the lilies of the field that God had clothed.” That Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field” and him who made them, shows that “Jesus was a theist,” indeed, a rational theist, and that “rational theism is at the basis of Christianity.”[19]

Machen’s defense of rational theism as “the very root of Christianity” led him to assert the epistemological primacy of metaphysics, philosophy, and natural religion. His arguments cannot be elaborated here.[20] But he knew subsequently that some of his statements on this topic needed qualification, not least his statement: “Unless there be some idea of God independent of Jesus, the ascription of deity to Jesus has no meaning.” Two years later, still warning against “popular preachers of the day who use the phrase, the ‘Christlike God,’” and “who tell us that God is known only through Jesus,” Machen said:

If they meant that God is known only through the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Logos, I might perhaps agree; and for my agreement I might perhaps find warrant in the eleventh chapter of Matthew. But of course as a matter of fact that is not at all what they mean. What they mean is that all metaphysics having been abandoned or relegated to the realm of unessential speculation––all such questions having been abandoned, the soul of man may be transformed by the mere contemplation and emulation of the moral life of Jesus.[21]

Machen was willing to concede that at least some who said “God is known only through Jesus” might not necessarily be wrong. “If they meant that God is known only through the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Logos,” they might be right. His reference to Matthew 11 as a possible warrant is general, but verse twenty-seven makes it specific: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Such a verse––like so many others in the New Testament, e.g., “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6)––would seem to throw a monkey wrench into the idea that “rational theism … is at the very root of Christianity,” that one must have “some idea of God independent of Jesus” based on metaphysics, natural philosophy, or at some tenets of natural religion, before one has “real knowledge of God.” In any case, Machen did not believe that most liberals who spoke of the “Christlike God” or who said “that God is known only through Jesus” had the Second Person of the Trinity in mind. What they had in mind, he believed, was “a religion of humanity symbolized by the name of Jesus.”[22] And, indeed, this was true of some who considered themselves liberals.

Machen grants that not all liberals embrace an abstract, impersonal deity. “The liberal preacher,” he says, “loves to speak of God as ‘Father.’ The term certainly has the merit of ascribing personality to God.” But the ascription is usually based on some vague concept of the “universal fatherhood of God” not taught in the New Testament. Liberals often employ the term father “because it is useful, not because it is true.” Still, he grants, “some liberals, though perhaps a decreasing number, are true believers in a personal God. And such men are able to think of God truly as a Father.” Nevertheless, Machen insists, “Jesus brought such an incomparable enrichment of the usage of the term, that it is a correct instinct which regards the thought of God as Father as something characteristically Christian.”[23]

Machen’s concerns about the affirmations of some who spoke of the “Christlike God” were legitimate.[24] Some not only reduced all theological claims to moral claims. They rejected even the possibility of metaphysical claims.[25]Equally disturbing to Machen was their flight from history, their attempt to escape history, and to ignore or remain agnostic about the results of historical critical research, especially with the respect to the life of Jesus. Here again, however, not all liberals sought to escape history or ignore the results of historical criticism. Many were as interested in them as Machen was, if not more so, even if such results did not and could not yield the kind of knowledge Machen thought or hoped it could. And herein lies an important question about the approach taken in Christianity and Liberalism. Machen claims:

The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But he does not stand in a religious relation to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus.[26]

This is a clear, clean, and concise description of the difference between liberals and orthodox believers. But, again, is it true? No doubt it was true of some liberals. But it was not true of many and, I suspect, most of them at the time. It was certainly not true of Herrmann, as Machen himself acknowledged (To recall, Machen said: “He is a Christian not because he follows Christ as a moral teacher; but because his trust in Christ is … unbounded”). So, why did Machen claim that for liberals Jesus was merely “an example for faith, not the object of faith”? Why did he throw them all in the same pot?

The problem with such a sweeping judgment is not only that it mischaracterizes or impugns the faith of others or misses its mark so widely that those for whom Machen was aiming likely thought he was shooting at others and not them, or, more likely, that he was simply firing wildly or taking potshots. The deeper, wider, more serious problem is that it underestimates the power of the figure of Christ, which––whether as an ideal, symbol, or myth––persists to this day as an object of faith for millions throughout the world, regardless of its connection to the historical Jesus. Granted, it may not be an orthodox faith or even Christian faith. But is it true that the figure of Christ persists as an object of faith or trust among so many owing merely to a “lack of logic” on their part?[27]

Deeper Theological Analysis

Such questions do not betray a lack of appreciation for Machen. He was right in his description of so many features of Protestant liberalism: Its tendency to focus on practice at the expense of theory, life at the expense of doctrine, social transformation at the expense of spiritual transformation, soup and soap at the expense of salvation ––as if the former made any sense apart from the latter. Machen was right about the moralistic, finger-wagging, and, even then, virtue-signaling of so many liberals. He was right to warn against theological subjectivism, even if at times he risked a false objectivism. He was right to insist on the question of truth over and against ‘my personal truth’ games, even if at times he risked reducing the question of truth to questions of fact. He was right to warn against the “soul-killing collectivism” of the modern state and its threat to civil liberties, especially in the realm of education. Machen was right about so much. And, unlike many of his critics, I have no basic quarrel with his dystopic vision of Western culture in Christianity and Liberalism. Compared to T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland written a year earlier, it betrays an unbridled optimism.

Still, many questions remain about Machen’s project. He put a lot of stock in common sense, “Anglo-Saxon liberty,” and “Anglo-Saxon individualism.”[28] He put a lot of stock in the concepts of “supernaturalism” and “supernatural Christianity.” And despite his demurrals, he put a lot of stock in the concept of religion and in what the “modern science of history” could do. He also put a lot of stock in “the simple Christian,” the “plain” or “average man” and his natural ability to recognize the truth about himself and about God. Protestant liberalism, Machen thought, was more a top-down than ground-up movement that trickled down from intellectuals. Yet in contrast to Germany, Gary Dorrien makes a strong case in The Making of American Liberal Theology that it was in America a more grassroots “preachers’ movement.”[29]

Again, none of these questions should eclipse Machen’s contribution. He was right to question many in his day who spoke with marbles in their mouths about the deity of Christ. He was right to challenge those who rejected the authority of Scripture and assumed they could simply ignore, sidestep, or ‘get beyond’ such doctrines as the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Machen was prescient––dare I say, prophetic––in predicting the trajectory of thought of many Protestant liberals, and he prepared the way for future critiques. In 1937, H. Richard Niebuhr offered his critique, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”[30] When Niebuhr said it, it was considered prophetic. When Machen said as much fifteen years earlier, it was considered provocative. Though many Protestant liberals did not recognize themselves in his criticisms, I suspect one reason Machen was considered so provocative is because so many of his criticisms struck so close to the bone.

Machen was perceptive in describing many features of Protestant liberalism. He was right about its “pantheizing” tendency––that it “tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and sharp personal distinction between God and man.” But how did he know of this sharp personal distinction between God and man? Was it on the basis of philosophy, metaphysics, or some general or ‘natural revelation’ apart from and besides the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? If so, then on what basis or authority did he assert “the validity of other ways of knowing God”? Reason? Experience?[31] 

I agree about liberal theology’s “concessiveness” and its tendency to abandon the “particularities of the Christian religion” for “general principles of religion.” But why was Machen not more particular about the “particularities of the Christian religion,” particularly its starting point? Did he see no other way to true knowledge of God than to begin with “some idea of God independent of Jesus”? Did he simply see no other alternative?

I could not agree more with Machen about the dangers of reducing the Christian faith to “a vague natural religion.” But did he see no danger in trying to overcome natural religion with natural religion, even if of a less vague sort? Does the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ according to Scripture merely supplement or “enrich” our “thought of God as Father,” as Machen claims, or does it not more so rather oppose and correct our prior thoughts of God as Father? Does the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ merely complete or confirm what we knew––or thought we knew––about God through “rational theism,” or does it undermine, overturn, and uproot such speculations?[32]

Machen calls “rational theism … the very root of Christianity.” But is this what the Scriptures teach? Is it what Athanasius, the Nicene fathers, and ecumenical creeds teach? Is it what Luther, Calvin, and our confessions teach? Since when did rational theism become requisite for confessing faith in the God of the Bible? Since when did affirming a ‘god in general’ become necessary before affirming God in his particularity? As if rational theism would be easier for the church to overcome than classical theism, Deism, or Unitarianism. As if one must go to some pagan half-way house or philosophical storehouse of ideas to get the raw materials before going on to the Christian refinery of faith. As if idolatry were a necessary preliminary stage or preparatory school one must pass through before affirming faith in the one Triune God.

It may not be intuitively obvious to the casual observer, but these questions go to the root of Protestant liberalism. Therefore, any assessment of Christianity and Liberalism and its impact requires a deeper theological analysis of these questions. It also requires a broader understanding of Machen’s life and times which is what I have tried to provide in a new biography, Machen’s Hope: The Transformation of a Modernist in the New Princeton.[33]

So, Why Bother?

No one in America challenged Protestant liberalism more vigorously in his day than J. Gresham Machen. No one better understood or articulated many of its most basic beliefs. No one saw more clearly its power, influence, and attraction. No one did more to sound the alarm against its temptations. However, Protestant liberalism was and is a more complex, varied, powerful, and deeply rooted phenomenon than Machen realized or, for that matter, perhaps any other American in his day realized.

Today, Protestant liberalism no longer seems relevant to many Presbyterians I know, and I think I understand why. All my life I have heard evangelicals and conservatives within and without the Presbyterian Church say that “Protestant liberalism is dead.” “It’s over.” “Its ideas are bankrupt.” “So, why bother thinking about it?” And, of course, as incontrovertible evidence of its bankruptcy and death, I have heard it said, “Look at their churches.” “They’re empty!” “They’re not in hospice, they’re on ice.” “They’re in statistical free-fall.” I have heard such claims my entire life. And for most of my life, I more or less agreed that Protestant liberalism was dead. But then it finally dawned on me. Growing churches was never a top priority for most Protestant liberals I knew. Their priority was transforming the culture. And here they have been quite successful––more successful in some ways than I believe has been good for the church or the world.

Yes, mainline denominations are dying. But Protestant liberalism is not dead. Its ideas have wide currency in our culture and are embraced today by the children of many evangelicals and conservatives I know. Thus, while some may think that Protestant liberalism is done or that we are done with it, Protestant liberalism is not done with us. It remains a powerful force. Machen warned that we ignore it at our peril. And perhaps one reason it remains so influential is because we underestimated its power and failed to take it seriously enough––or worse, failed to take the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church seriously enough. Protestant liberalism should not be feared or be our focus. But understanding it offers an opportunity to be tested and to grow, to learn our weaknesses and to understand better the truth of Jesus Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

This essay is a slightly revised version of a lecture delivered at the Presbyterian Scholars’ Conference on Oct. 17, 2023, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923). Still a bestseller according to representatives of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, which holds the original copyright, Christianity and Liberalism is now in the public domain and has many publishers, has been translated into Spanish, and is available as an audiobook.

[2] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 2–3.

[3] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 2–3.

[4] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 17. More so than in Machen’s day, the roots of Protestant liberalism are believed today to be older and to go deeper. And in America, Gary Dorrien claims that Protestant liberalism “is nearly as old its storied German counterpart” The Making of American Liberal Theology I (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), xiv. 

[5] “Though the most palpable achievements are in the sphere of physics and chemistry, the sphere of human life cannot be isolated from the rest, and with the other sciences there has appeared, for example, a modern science of history, which, with psychology and sociology and the like, claims, even if it does not deserve, full equality with its sister sciences. No department of knowledge can maintain its isolation from the modern lust of scientific conquest” Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 3.

[6] Machen acknowledges: “In such an age, it is obvious that every inheritance from the past must be subject to searching criticism; and as a matter of fact some convictions of the human race have crumbled to pieces in the test.” However, this has led to an overreaction such that “dependence of any institution upon the past is now sometimes even regarded as furnishing a presumption, not in favor of it, but against it,” that is, traditional claims are now sometimes disbelieved simply because they are traditional.  Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 4.

[7] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 4.

[8] Whereas Friedrich Schleiermacher affirmed an “eternal covenant between the living Christian faith, and completely free, independent, scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith” (On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr. Lücke, trans. James Duke and Francis Fiorenza (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981, 64), Charles Hodge asserted: “Religion and science are twin daughters of heaven. There is, or there should be, no conflict between them” (“Address of Welcome on Behalf of the Board of Trustees.” In Inauguration of James McCosh, D.D. LL.D., as President of the College of New Jersey, Princeton, NJ, New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1868, 10–11).

[9] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 5–6.

[10] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 6.

[11] Arthur Drews, Die Christusmythe (Jena: Eugene Diederichs, 1909). It is noteworthy that Drews’s last book was Deutsche Religion; Grundzüge eines Gottesglaubens im Geiste des deutschen Idealismus, München, 1935.

[12] Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, trans. David Reid (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006); Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity?, trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901).

[13] The was the advice Machen’s mentor, Francis Patton, once gave in a different context, “Let me not be misunderstood. I believe there is a common work of evangelization in which the denominations can cooperate. … But the way to conserve that which is common to all, is for each to be jealous of the doctrine that is peculiar to itself. Defend the outposts if you wish to defend the citadel.” Francis Patton, “The Revision of the Confession of Faith,” “The Revision of the Confession of Faith.” Independent, Dec. 5, 1889, 14–16.

[14] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 6–7.

[15] Letter from Mary Gresham Machen to J. Gresham Machen, Aug. 29, 1917. J. Gresham Machen Collection, Montgomery Library, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.

[16] Henry Sloane Coffin, Some Christian Convictions: A Practical Restatement in Terms of Present-day Thinking (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1915).

[17] Letter from J. Gresham Machen to Mary Gresham Machen, Sept. 6, 1917, J. Gresham Machen Collection. He added: “My sympathy, however, is diminished when I think of Coffin’s ridicule of the men in New York Presbytery who are faithful to the confession that they have promised to support. That kind of thing is too much for me.”

[18] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 55–56.

[19] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 55–56.

[20] J. Gresham Machen, “Christian Scholarship and the Building Up of the Church” (1932) in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. D.G. Hart (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 156–157.

[21] J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 38–39.

[22] Machen, What is Faith?, 38–39.

[23] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 58–59. Italics mine.

[24] Since the Council of Nicea, the church has confessed that there are false ways of understanding God as “Christlike” (e.g., Arius and his homoiousios). Nevertheless, as Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it, “God is Christlike and in him there is nothing unChrist-likeness at all.” Cited in John V. Taylor, The Christlike God (London: SCM Press, 1992), 100.

[25] Immanuel Kant is often charged with undermining metaphysics, but he did not reject de jure the possibility of metaphysical claims. He wrote a Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic in 1783. It is noteworthy that Machen refers to “the Kantian attack upon the theistic proofs” Christianity and Liberalism, 57. 

[26] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 85.

[27] For the logic of how “the image of a god dead on a cross” transformed and continues to exercise a powerful influence on the world, see Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[28] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 11–15.

[29] Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology I, 248, 279, and 302. “Liberal theology arose in Germany as a creative intellectual response to these questions, but well before it acquired movement status there, similar religious stirrings began to appear in England, France, and the United States.  The gods of the liberal tradition are German academics, but throughout the nineteenth century American Protestantism produced its own vital tradition of liberal religious thinking and piety” (xiv).

[30] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Chica-go and New York: Willett, Clark and Company, 1937), 193.

[31] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 63.

[32] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 59.

[33] Richard E. Burnett, Machen’s Hope: The Transformation of a Modernist in the New Princeton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2024).

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett
The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters.


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