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Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. Paperback – June 2, 2009
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Top Customer Reviews
Machen's Christianity and Liberalism. Machen's classic was written in the
height of the battle for control over the Presbyterian Church USA (the most
prominent of the "mainline denominations"), and defines with brilliance the
battle lines between liberal (so-called) Christianity and the orthodox
faith. Moreover, it points out exactly what is at stake: the true faith, as
opposed to a perverse shadow of that faith, a shadow based on subjectivism
which elevates man's sovereignty over God's and ends in believing nothing at
It is important to understand that the liberalism Machen castigates is not
political but theological (although many if not most of the liberals of the
latter camp fell also in the former, numerous prominent political liberals
-- such as three-time Democrat Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan
-- fought alongside Machen). This theological liberalism manifests itself in
many ways, but is chiefly characterized by a rejection of Scripture as
infallibly inspired, a denial of the doctrines of the Fall and of Hell, and
a belief in man's evolutionary self-perfection (process theology, with
progress guided by an "enlightened" elite). Machen correctly asserts that
this is not merely a different approach to the Gospel, but is in fact a
different gospel: an exchange of God's sovereignty for man's, God's law-word
for man's, God's eternal, unchanging standards for man's evolving, situation
ethics. For this reason, Machen contends that liberalism and Christianity
are separate things: rival religions, permanently at war.
The one problem with this book (a fault which made good rhetorical sense at
the time, but which is somewhat misleading concerning the true nature of the
struggle) is Machen's choice of categories. Machen deals with theological
conservatives and liberals (legitimate in terms of the Bible's own dichotomy
between saved and lost), but misses the inescapable fact that there was a
third faction at work in the church (a fact which eventually resulted in his
defrocking). That third faction was the great mushy evanjellyfish middle, a
pietistic/mystical majority which was neither willing to accept the liberal
position nor fight for the conservative cause. As Machen had rightly pointed
out two years earlier in his address to incoming students at Princeton (and
again, much later, in the last two years of the struggle), these were the
Christians who said "'Peace, peace', when there was no peace", and elevated
that "peace" over truth. As in all other endeavors, "peace at any price"
resulted in defeat, and in the end, it was that great mushy middle which
delivered the PCUSA to the left (and over the cliff).
Even so, it is important to note when examining this struggle that the
conservatives largely threw the game away. I strongly recommend North's
Crossed Fingers, the only definitive history of this fight and a masterful
analysis of the tactics and mistakes of both sides.
Yet at the end of the day, you must read Machen. This book is vital for
Christians defending their churches and denominations against increasing
liberal encroachment, and indeed more so by the day. It is as groundbreaking
as it is timeless.
The major thesis of the book is that Liberalism (modernist theology) and Christianity are diametrically opposed religions that unfortunately use the same language to describe their opposite views of things. He states, "the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of Christian terminology." Later he states in his thesis, "...we shall be interested in showing that despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism is not only a different religion from Christianity, but belongs to a totally different class of religions."
Machen is interested not in necessarily proving that Liberalism is wrong as he is in explaining that it is not Christian. His burden is not to disprove the tenants of Liberalism (although he speaks some to that end), but to simply describe each clearly and make obvious the huge divergence of thinking in the two groups.
Although Machen is perhaps "the" great Fundamentalists, on must keep in mind this was before Fundamentalist meant: narrow, reactionary, separatist, nationalistic, literalist, ignorant, and the like. Whether or not those descriptions have ever been fair of Fundamentalism, if one presently maintains those stereotypes the honest maintenance of them requires not reading this volume. In 1923 Fundamentalist simply meant one not willing to relinquish the fundamental tenants of Christianity. In fact Machen's overwhelming descriptive word of self identification is "evangelical"- another word quickly loosing its meaning.
In terms of the place of this book now, I consider it utterly contemporary. The fact that it is more than 80 years old and still so incisive simply reveals the depth of understanding Machen had.
I would then wholeheartedly recommend the book for three reasons:
1. It is an important document in understanding the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of American Christianity which is still being fought everywhere.
2. It is among the best and most direct contrast of two very different views of what the Christian faith is.
3. It is a scholarly and thoughtful work written in the proper spirit of Christian disagreement. I was moved by Machen's clear desire to stand directly and forcefully against what he saw to be the greatest danger to the church he loved so much and yet to do so with a great deal of humble restraint. This book should be read as an example of Machen's vision of what the doctrinal "fights" over liberalism should have looked like. His excellence in merging orthodoxy with erudition with crystal clear argumentation creates an example of Christian polemical writing that is not often surpassed.
Finally, due to the permutations in liberalism and its incorporation of postmodern language and categories I think this book is all the more critical for contemporary Christians. It's hard to properly enter a conversation, or fight, that is a century old without knowing something about how it got going.