J. Gresham Machen is most well known for his opposition to liberal Protestantism and his trenchant defense of orthodox Christianity. He served as a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary for 23 years during the time of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. In 1929, Machen left because of encroaching liberalism to form Westminster Theological Seminary. In his classic, Christianity and Liberalism (1923), he argued that liberalism was an altogether different religion than Christianity.
Machen’s critique of liberalism was prophetic and continues to be of abiding value 90 years after it was first published. For those observing the current move of some within evangelicalism who are taking incipient steps toward normalizing homosexuality in the church, reading Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism brings the realization that the arguments being presented as progressive and cutting edge are actually hauntingly recycled from the failed modernist project. Liberalism in every age accepts a utilitarian view of the truth that accommodates Christianity to the prevailing spirit of the age. Machen wrote, “At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin” (54). He continues, “The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in the absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance” (68).
Theological liberalism does not set out to destroy Christianity, but rather its claim is to save Christianity by making its message more palatable to modern culture while preserving its real purpose. Make no mistake; with the legal redefinition of marriage upon us, every church in America will be forced to clarify where it stands. Many will capitulate and find that, in an attempt to save Christianity, they lost it. But, perhaps Machen can remind us of what is at stake. The discussion is not between different brands of Christianity—it is a choice of Christianity or liberalism. Below I summarize several lines of argument for normalizing homosexuality in the church being floated from self-identified evangelicals and note how Machen’s critique of liberalism deals with the logic of the contemporary argument.
The “Jesus and Me” Argument
People have same-sex feelings and attractions, and they say they are fulfilled in monogamous same-sex relationships and marriages. Who are we to judge them? They are faithful to the church and love Jesus. Many of them are better Christians than a lot of heterosexual Christians we know. We just need to love people in same-sex relationships and disciple them like we do with everyone else. After all, we are all sinners.
Machen on Liberalism:
Liberalism argues Christian experience is all that is necessary to validate faith (71).
- “It is one of the root errors of modern liberalism. Christian experience, we have just said, is useful as confirming the gospel message. But because it is necessary, many men have jumped to the conclusion that it is all that is necessary” (71).
- “My Christian life, then, depends altogether upon the truth of the New Testament record. Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence. But it can never possibly provide a substitute for the documentary evidence” (72).
- “The only authority, then, can be the individual experience; truth can only be that which helps the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism” (78).
The biblical witness authoritatively judges the validity of our Christian experience and never the other way around. This is true of our sexual feelings and experiences and every other matter as well. Machen asserts, “Christianity is founded on the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men” (79).
The “I Ask Questions But Don’t Answer Them” Argument
Don’t you think we evangelicals have unnecessarily singled out homosexuality? After all, we all have sins that we struggle with; shouldn’t we love and serve those with whom we disagree and not isolate and marginalize them? We do not refuse church membership or discipline gluttons in our churches, so why would we treat homosexuals or same-sex couples differently? Too often, we have given simplistic answers to complex questions.
Machen on Liberalism:
Liberalism questions the Bible and apostolic Christianity as outdated while refusing to talk about specifics or take clear, direct positions (74).
- “If the liberal preacher objected to the doctrine of plenary inspiration on the ground that as a matter of fact there are errors in the Bible, he might be right and he might be wrong, but at any rate the discussion would be conducted on proper ground. But too often the preachers desire to avoid the delicate question of errors in the Bible—a question which might give offense to the rank and file—and prefers to speak merely against ‘mechanical’ theories of inspiration, the theory of ‘dictation,’ the ‘will likely fail superstitious use of the Bible as a talisman,’ or the like” (74).
- “But of course such appearances are deceptive. A Bible that is full of error is certainly divine in the modern pantheizing sense of ‘divine,’ according to which God is just another name for the course of the course of the world with all its imperfections and all its sin. But the God whom the Christian worships is a God of truth” (75).
Self-identified evangelicals seeking the normalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in the church are often unwilling to answer direct questions so the discussion can be, as Machen says, conducted on proper ground. Most often, they position themselves as asking in-house clarifying questions about evangelical attitudes on the issues. They often suggest the issues are too complex for short answers and when questioned adopt the posture of a victim either by saying they are not formal theologians or that they will not allow legalists or theological bullies to interrogate them. The normalizers want to have a public voice questioning the view of apostolic Christianity without the public accountability of full disclosure of their own views.
The red-letter argument—Jesus ate with Sinners
It is legalistic Phariseeism to single out and inordinately focus on certain ethical standards. The real purpose of Christianity is the forgiveness and grace found in the Gospel, which we all need. That is our mission. That is our message. Jesus never singled out homosexuality or any other behavior as a special class of sinfulness. He served, loved, and discipled all kinds of sinners. Same-sex marriages may or may not be God’s best, but we are all broken, and need to simply focus on what Jesus and what he would do.
Machen on Liberalism:
Liberalism pits the authority of Christ against the authority of the Bible (76).
- “The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible is the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teachings of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being a true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone. The impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus” (76).
- “The words of Jesus, spoken during his earthly ministry, could hardly contain all that we need to know about God and about the way of salvation; for the meaning of Jesus redeeming work could hardly be fully set forth before that work was done. It could be set forth indeed by way of prophecy, and as a matter of fact it was so set forth by Jesus even in the days of his flesh. But the full explanation could naturally be given only after the work was done. And such was actually the divine method. It is doing despite, not only to the Spirit of God, but also to Jesus himself, to regard the teaching of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles, as at all inferior in authority to the teachings of Jesus” (76-77).
- “The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life-purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus—isolated and misinterpreted—which happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are the teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas” (77-78).
The attempt to pit the teaching and ethics of Jesus against the rest of Scripture is a repudiation of what Jesus taught and the Bible’s self-attestation (Matt 5:17-20, 26:54, Luke 24:24-49, John 10:35, 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:21). The words of the prophets pointed beyond themselves to the coming Messiah and the words of Jesus recorded in the Scripture (by apostles) pointed forward to the further revelation of Christ to come in the apostolic witness. Jesus taught the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture: “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Scripture has a single divine Author and the various parts of Scripture are consistent with one another. Liberalism sets Scripture against Scripture but Christianity does not.
Machen was right, “The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts” (47). Evangelicals must understand as we move forward that the new liberalism will often be packaged in evangelical garb, but it will still be asking the age-old question, “Did God really say?” (Gen 3:1).