J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Liberalism” (1923)

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923)

Machen delivers the classic text of bowtie fundamentalism. As the title suggests, he argues that liberalism (aka. modernism) belongs to a completely different category of religion than Christianity. Liberalism doesn’t even deserve the name of heresy; it’s simply a different religion altogether. For Machen, this is what makes liberalism so pernicious: it’s another religion, but it dishonestly uses Christian symbols and language. Though painstakingly dull by modern standards, Machen’s work clearly aims at a broad audience. He seeks to eliminate confusion about liberalism among Christian ministers, thoughtful laypeople, and theologians alike. Though he deals with standard topics in systematic theology, Machen never uses terms like “soteriology” or “ecclesiology.” Instead, he contrasts Christian and liberal understandings of “doctrine,” “God and man,” “the Bible,” “Christ,” “salvation,” and “the church.” The spokesman for bowtie fundamentalism remains deeply concerned about fighting liberalism at the grassroots level.

Machen’s (slight) ecumenism stood out to me. It’s quite easy to imagine fundamentalism as an exclusivist club, forming boundaries to exclude its opponents from Heaven and justify extreme actions (as I criticized Marty and Appleby for doing). But, for all of Machen’s bald assertions that liberalism isn’t Christianity, Machen reminds us that early fundamentalism often transgressed denominational boundaries. Liberals want to erase differences to create a naturalistic religion, Machen contends, but Christianity acknowledges differences of opinion while remaining firm on certain key doctrines. Machen’s Christianity simply wishes to differentiate between essential and non-essential differences. Machen believes that premillennialism is a grave error (yes, he was a postmillennial fundamentalist!). But he insists that the premillennial/postmillennial debate is merely “a difference of opinion which can subsist in the midst of Christian fellowship” (50). For Machen, identifying the sine qua non of Christianity in a few “fundamentals” enabled partnerships between Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and perhaps even—but probably not—Catholics (see 160ff).

History matters to Machen—but he thinks about history very differently than I do. For Machen, Christianity is rooted in an event. “From the beginning,” he writes, “the Christian gospel, as indeed the name ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened” (27). Doctrines about Jesus, says Machen, mean nothing unless “joined in an absolutely indissoluble union” with history (ibid). In other words, supernatural events—like the resurrection, virgin birth, etc.—occur throughout history, and Christian doctrine simply explains the meaning of those events. Machen identifies this position as a key differentiator between Christianity and liberalism: “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative” (47). In Machen’s understanding, then, major supernatural disruptions have happened throughout history—but between such supernatural events, history hangs limp. When it comes to the gospel, Machen sees no major difference between the first century and the twentieth. To me, such claims offer an interesting point of connection with anthropological studies of Christianity like Joel Robbins’s Becoming Sinners, which identifies “rupture” as a major theme of Christian history (we were sinners, now we’re Christians—then is incomparable to now). Machen’s history seems both flat and ruptured.