/ Nathan Eshelman

Liberal Christians: A Hundred-Year Oxymoron

One hundred years ago this month, in February of 1923, J. Gresham Machen published Christianity and Liberalism. Dedicated to his mother, J. Gresham would, with the charm of a gentleman and the power of a knight, dismantle the liberal theology that slowly infected the Presbyterian Church (as well as other denominations) of his day. He wrote with ruling elders in mind, having lectured on this topic two years prior at a Ruling Elder meeting of the Chester Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church.

Machen would demonstrate how the liberal views of doctrine; God and man; the Bible; Christ; salvation; and the church were different from that of historic Christianity. Essentially, argued Machen, Liberalism, at the foundation, was not a different type of Christianity; it was a different religion. And this different religion was fighting Christianity, not from without, but from within. Machen said, “Christianity is being attacked from within by a movement which is anti-Christian to the core (146).”

This attack began in the academies and seminaries but had made its way all the way down to the Sunday schools, according to Machen. The stories of the Bible were not merely to teach moral lessons, but to bring one to Christ. “That knowledge is given in the story of the cross—For us Jesus does not merely say, “Arise and walk”… he has done a greater thing—for us He died.” (37) A non-doctrinal religion does not need this risen Christ, but Christianity is based upon this glorious truth.

As Machen unfolded the differences between Liberalism and Christianity, he demonstrated that the problem was not merely ones of interpretation, but one of foundation. Liberalism is founded upon the ever-shifting sentiments of man’s word—what is allegedly good now; where Christianity is founded upon the everlasting Word of God—what is good always. “Dependance upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependance upon God’s word is life,” Machen said (67).

This foundational difference is one of confessional subscription in the Presbyterian Church. He said that, “Conservatives are in a fundamentally different position from the liberals; for the conservatives are in agreement with the plain constitutions of the churches, while the liberal party can maintain itself only by an equivocal subscription to declarations which it does not really believe.” (141) This is true in today’s church as well. Do ministers and elders believe what is confessed? Does doctrine matter? Does theology matter? Does a high view of the Bible and of Christ and the way of salvation matter? It is matter of honesty for Machen. For these are different religions.

At the centennial of this important book, it is altogether of great importance that Christians—especially in confessional churches—pick up Machen’s book and hear of the tactics of those that would destroy the old mother churches of America and beyond.

For they use our language.
They use our Bibles.
They use our liturgies and books of praise.
They use our history.

And yet they walk away from the foundation—the core—and because of it, our churches crumble.

May we know the tactics and the methods—and speak out with those who were brave enough to not embrace, but to confront. For Christianity and Liberalism are two different religions--Machen told us that long ago.

Have we learned?

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in Orlando, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

Read More