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Christianity and Liberalism

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I remember sitting in a lecture on Christianity and world religions while a religious studies student at university, and the class being asked by the tutor to raise their hands in support of either exclusivism, inclusivism or universalism. Out of a class of around 50, only three others joined me in raising their hands for exclusivism (i.e. salvation only through Christ). The shocking thing was that the majority of people in the class were ministry candidates! As the weeks passed I discovered that several of these individuals did not believe in things like the virgin birth, the full deity and humanity of Christ, the necessity of the atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the final judgement, to name but a few.

I wish at the time I had read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Gresham Machen wrote at a time when the West was still outwardly Christian, but what was taught and believed in the churches was increasingly estranged from historic Christianity. He makes a profound point: “the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life.” That is, historic Christian faith and liberalism are not two branches of the same religion, they are different religions. And we cannot honestly claim the name Christian, if we refuse to hold Christian beliefs.

Here’s the same point in Gresham Machen’s words:

But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false, and to detect its falsity one does not even need to be a Christian. For to say that "Christianity is a life" is to make an assertion in the sphere of history. The assertion does not lie in the sphere of ideals; it is far different from saying that Christianity ought to be a life, or that the ideal religion is a life. The assertion that Christianity is a life is subject to historical investigation exactly as is the assertion that the Roman Empire under Nero was a free democracy. Possibly the Roman Empire under Nero would have been better if it had been a free democracy, but the historical question is simply whether as a matter of fact it was a free democracy or no. Christianity is an historical phenomenon, like the Roman Empire, or the Kingdom of Prussia, or the United States of America. And as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.

Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity. Recognition of that fact does not involve any acceptance of Christian belief; it is merely a matter of common sense and common honesty. At the foundation of the life of every corporation is the incorporation paper, in which the objects of the corporation are set forth. Other objects may be vastly more desirable than those objects, but if the directors use the name and the resources of the corporation to pursue the other objects they are acting ultra vires ["beyond the powers"] of the corporation. So it is with Christianity. It is perfectly conceivable that the originators of the Christian movement had no right to legislate for subsequent generations; but at any rate they did have an inalienable right to legislate for all generations that should choose to bear the name of "Christian." It is conceivable that Christianity may now have to be abandoned, and another religion substituted for it; but at any rate the question what Christianity is can be determined only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity.

The beginnings of Christianity constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon. … The name originated after the death of Jesus, and the thing itself was also something new. … At that time is to be placed the beginning of the remarkable movement which spread out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world–the movement which is called Christianity.

About the early stages of this movement definite historical information has been preserved in the Epistles of Paul, which are regarded by all serious historians as genuine products of the first Christian generation. The writer of the Epistles had been in direct communication with those intimate friends of Jesus who had begun the Christian movement in Jerusalem, and in the Epistles he makes it abundantly plain what the fundamental character of the movement was.

So says Gresham Machen, Christianity is something, it is a message, a set of beliefs or doctrines based on the claim that at a certain point in history, God became a man and lived and died and rose again, and these acts mean something specific. We are free to deny these beliefs, but what we come up with in their place will not be Christian

So how would this have helped me as a student surrounded by people who called themselves Christian but did not believe in Christianity? It may have given me confidence to challenge them, but ultimately, I think, it would have given me confidence to love them – confidence that in believing historic Christian faith based on the New Testament, I was being authentically Christian, and more able then to rely on God’s love for me, and so to love them as sheep still yet to come home to the Shepherd.

You can read the whole of Christianity and Liberalism here online. 

Or listen to Mike Reeves and Carl Trueman discuss the importance of doctrine


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