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Machen’s Book

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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November 8, 2023 12:01 am

Machen’s Book

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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November 8, 2023 12:01 am

In the 1920s, Christians were tempted to compromise their faith in ways that seem strikingly familiar to us. Today, Stephen Nichols identifies the threat to the church that led J. Gresham Machen to write Christianity and Liberalism.

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Maitin's thesis in this book is very simply this. Christianity is not liberalism. Liberalism is not a version of Christianity that's sort of acceptable. It's the opposite.

It's outside the camp. It's outside the boundaries of the orthodox Christian faith. Christianity and liberalism is such an important book from the 20th century, a drawing a line in the sand moment, a book that is still just as helpful and valuable today. And it's that book written by J. Gresham Maitin and released 100 years ago in 1923 that we'll be discussing on this Wednesday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

What led Maitin to write Christianity and Liberalism? The history is fascinating as Stephen Nichols takes us back to the 1920s. You can also see the influence the liberal arguments of Maitin's day have had on the society that you and I live in today. That's one reason why we shouldn't ignore this significant book. Here's Dr. Nichols. We're going to turn the corner now and talk about Maitin's book, Christianity and Liberalism.

It's from 1923. It's almost 100 years old, but I think today this book is more relevant, more necessary, I would even say more urgent and critical than it was 100 years ago when Maitin wrote it. The beauty of this book is not only the way Maitin speaks to those challenges that were coming at Christianity, but also the way Maitin just gives us such clarity.

Remember controversy and conflict bring clarity and conviction. This book brings such clarity to those doctrines that are the hub of the wheel of Christianity, and I think puts steel in our spines to have conviction for these doctrines. What I want to do in this episode is set the context for you, give you the historical window that we can look through as we read this book to understand its full impact.

But right up front, I want to give you the thesis of the book. The thesis of the book is a little play on the title because it's not actually Christianity and liberalism, but Maitin's thesis in this book is very simply this. Christianity is not liberalism, or maybe we should flip it around. Liberalism is not Christianity. That's the bottom line that Maitin is after. Now, I still want you to read the book, so I didn't save you from reading the book by telling you that, but you'll see again and again if he's talking about God or the Bible or the Church or Christ or salvation or the doctrine of man, he's helping us to see that this view of liberalism is not a version of Christianity that's sort of acceptable.

It's the opposite. It's outside the camp. It's outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Christian faith. So, where does this book come from? Well, it comes from the 1920s, and in one sense, it was a direct answer to a sermon that was preached in 1922. In fact, the sermon was preached on May 21, 1922. It was preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick there in New York City. Fosdick was a favorite preacher of the Rockefellers. The Rockefellers, of course, had significant resources, and so they made sure that Harry Emerson Fosdick was on the radio. The National Vespers Hour was heard across the country. It was the most popular radio program of its time.

We need to go back into that moment of American culture where folks had their Victrola radios and their Philco radios, and they would tune them in, and they would hear the shows, and on there would be the American Vespers Hour. Rockefeller also made sure that this sermon was reprinted and distributed across the country by the tens of thousands. And in this book, or in this sermon, rather, Fosdick raises the question, shall the fundamentalists win? Now, who are the fundamentalists?

Okay, now we need to start understanding all of the players in this. So, the elephant in the room is modernism, or sometimes we say modernity. Modernism is the elephant in the room in the 1900s.

What is it? Well, you can say this is the belief, the unfettered belief in human progress, predicated upon the idea of human goodness, that man is not fundamentally sinful at their being, or sinful, as Luther would say, to our very core, right, a sinner at the root of our essence of our being. Man is not that, but man is basically good. Now there are structures, and there are social groups, and there are social pressures, and there are environmental factors that contribute to a good man turning bad.

And so, sure there's bad in the world, there's evil in the world, but that is a result of bad structures, of bad organizations. If we can fix those structures and organizations, then we will have heaven on earth. We will have a utopian existence. We will have progress. Now when you stop and think about it, the progress made culturally, scientifically, in terms of transportation, in terms of medicine, in terms of technology, think of the progress made of that generation from 1880 to 1920 versus all of the progress made over human history up until 1880. Probably the progress made over that generation would have dwarfed the progress made over the millennia of human history prior to it. Now fast forward to our moment and think of the progress made. Now I may put progress in quotes, right? Sometimes I think what we count as progress may actually be regress, but let's just call it progress for the sake of argument. Think of the rapidity of progress in our age and of advancement in our age, whether it's in technology or communication or medicine or transportation.

That's what was happening in the 1920s. A sense of the future is so bright, a sense of optimism. But in order to have this, we need to do away with a few things. We need to do away with a holy God and His wrath, and we need to do away with the doctrine of sin.

Now once we do away with a holy God and His wrath and a doctrine of sin, we don't really need Christ. We can have Christ as an example. He can be a great moral teacher. He can be a great uplifter. The Sermon on the Mount is wonderful. It teaches us all not to be selfish, and what an important thing it is not to be selfish. But Jesus, make no mistake about it. If you don't have a holy God, and you don't have the wrath of God, and you don't have a human that is sinful, you don't need Christ, and you certainly don't need His death and resurrection.

It might be nice to have Him as an example, but you don't need Him. So all this is happening in modernism. And in addition to this, we've got a few things happening that just sort of act as accelerants on this. So one thing that's happening, the biblical scholars are telling us that the Bible wasn't the Word of God after all. So we talked about this with German higher criticism, stretching back to the attack on the Old Testament, stretching back to the attack on the Gospels.

These are biblical scholars who are telling us that the Bible was not the Word of God. It is simply one religious community's expression of the divine, and the world is full of religious texts. And so one of the new subjects in the university that comes along in this moment, between the 1880s and the 1920s, is comparative religions. It's no longer just a sense of Christianity as the true religion and everything else as a false religion. Why should Christianity be privileged? There are varieties of religions with varieties of religious texts that are as equally valid expressions of the divine experience as the Christian expression.

So that's happening. It's happening in the field of what we call sociology of religion. It's happening in the field of biblical studies.

What else is happening in the 1880s to the 1920s? Darwin is washing ashore. Now, Darwin made his cruise on the Beagle and wrote his book back in the 1850s, but it takes a while sometimes for those ideas to come to America, and those ideas really don't even come to fruition in American culture until two years after Machen wrote the book, and that was in 1925 at the famous monkey trial or the Scopes trial, where, yes, Scopes was found guilty, but the upshot of that was anyone who believes in the creation account and takes it literally is sort of a backwoods country bumpkin. But if you want to be with it and urban and urbane and with the times, then you're going to understand that the better view, the preferred view of origins is the Darwinian view. So, you've got this happening in biblical scholarship. You've got this happening in the study of religions in the university. You've got this alternative view to Genesis of the origin of mankind, and you have an undeniable progress that is taking place in front of you. All of that is leading modern man to say, we no longer need God. Now, the church doesn't know what to do because up until now, the church has always been respected in American culture, and the church has always had a prominent place. Now, all of a sudden, all these cultural elites are saying, we don't need you anymore.

People like H.G. Wells, we'll write about him in the introduction in his book, Outlines of History. We are at a new page in history, and it doesn't require God. Well, the church is sort of shaking its head. We don't want to lose our place in culture. And then they might even come up with a sincere or good-hearted motive to say, we want to continue to have Christianity speak into our cultural life.

But in order to do that, we might need to make some accommodations and some compromises. Well, that is liberalism. Liberalism is the accommodation of Christianity to modernist sensibilities. Now, to stand against liberalism was fundamentalism. Now, this term fundamentalism does come to mean different things in different generations of the American church. So, we need to understand that we need to stand against the fundamentalism of the church.

We need to stand against the fundamentalism of the church. So, when you talk about fundamentalism of the 1980s and 90s, that's probably a different fundamentalism than of the 1920s. In its purest sort of originating form, a fundamentalist is one who believes in the fundamentals of the faith. In fact, the first time the word fundamentalist was used, it was used in this way. A fundamentalist is not only one who believes in the fundamentals of the faith, but a fundamentalist is one who is willing to do battle royal for those fundamentals. In other words, conviction. Not just belief, but conviction. I'm willing to fight for it, to contend for the faith.

We're back to Jude, right? Oh, Machen had a little bit of a tricky relationship with fundamentalism. He said, if the choice is between liberalism or not, then yes, you can call me a fundamentalist.

But he actually preferred simply to be called a Presbyterian, right? But in its pure form, a fundamentalist is one who held to the fundamentals of the faith. Well, what were those fundamentals?

The inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, the bodily coming again, the second coming of Christ in person, and miracles in the Bible. Now, I mention those five fundamentals because this is what Fosdick does in his sermon. He takes each one of those points, and he says this is what the fundamentalists believe. But is there another way to understand that belief and yet still be a Christian? In fact, there might even be a better way to understand that belief and be an even better Christian. But we cannot let the fundamentalists win.

And if we let the fundamentalists win, these people will have nothing to do with us anymore, and they will no longer listen to us. So, is the Bible the inerrant Word of God? Well, no. It's not exactly inerrant. It's not infallible. In fact, that was a doctrine that was invented last century by the people over at Princeton Seminary. No one in the church held to inerrancy before the Princetonians.

That is patently false, but it didn't keep Fosdick from saying it. And then he comes along to the virgin birth, and this is what he says. A lot of religions, and even some of the Eastern religions, have these ideas of special births of the founder of their faith. There's myth and legends around the birth of the Buddha. And so, Christianity is no different than these religions or these mythical stories of supernatural or sort of fantastic circumstances around birth. And so, when the Christian community was coming together to write its history of Jesus, it too is going to present its founder as having a supernatural birth. But Jesus could have a special birth without being virgin born because, as moderns, we know there's no such thing as a virgin birth. So, Jesus instead has a special birth. And they didn't know any better in that mythological age.

They only expressed it as a virgin birth. Well, what about the substitutionary atonement? Jesus didn't die in our place. Jesus simply died as an example. He showed us in his death that we should not be selfish.

No greater love has a man than this, that he lays down his life for his brother. And then you know what Fosdick would do? He would tell story after story of soldiers in World War I, where the grenade or the explosive device was thrown into the trench. And what would one soldier do, right?

He would put his body over the explosive device, sacrificing his life for the lives of his buddies. And these heroic stories of World War I, that's what Jesus did. That's what Jesus was doing on the cross. It wasn't a substitute for our sin. It was simply an example for us to follow.

See what Fosdick's doing. He's taking each of these beliefs and he's saying, okay, fundamentalists are going to tell you it has to be this way, but it could be this way, and it could be this way, and it could be this way. He is what we call equivocating on cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. Equivocating is what he is doing in the best assessment of him.

In reality, what he is doing is simply denying them. But the upshot of the sermon is, if we let the fundamentalists win, these people will never listen to us again and never have anything to do with us. We must not let the fundamentalists win.

Shall the fundamentalists win? No, is the Fosdick sermon. Well, how does Machen respond? Machen responds with a book-length treatment published the next year, Christianity and Liberalism. And he doesn't just take on Fosdick, although he mentions him quite a bit through the pages of the book.

And I've got to say, I do think Machen has a little fun with some of the quotes of Fosdick, just showing how false and honestly how ridiculous they are. But he uses Fosdick as a jumping-off place to pull in the whole realm of liberalism to give an answer. And he ends up, again, helping us to see that it's not Christianity and liberalism, but that indeed liberalism is not Christianity. That the answer to modernism is not compromise, is not accommodation, but the answer to modernism is to proclaim proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Well, let me read for you just a little bit from the closing pages of his introduction. And then I want to set up for you the chapters that are to come. But towards the end of his introduction, he makes this point, the Christian religion, which is meant, that means, which is meant in this book, the Christian religion, which is meant, is certainly not the religion of the modern liberal church, but a message of divine grace, almost forgotten now as it was in the Middle Ages, but destined to burst forth once more in God's good time, in a new reformation and bright light and freedom to mankind. He goes on to say that this current liberalism, now almost dominant in the church.

Let's think about this. When he goes on to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936, I mentioned the number of how many joined him of ruling and teaching elders. Do you all remember the number? One hundred and twenty.

One hundred and twenty. Compare that to the PCUSA at the time. This is not David and Goliath. This is David's rock and Goliath that we are talking about. This liberalism, almost dominant in the church, over against Christianity. We are animated, therefore.

This is Machen. He's driven by no merely negative or polemic purpose. Again, ultimately, the idea is not just here to say, you're wrong and here's the 52 ways you're wrong.

He'll do that. But it's not the ultimate purpose. On the contrary, by showing what Christianity is not, we hope to be able to show what Christianity is. Liberalism is not Christianity. So, what is Christianity? It's the gospel.

And we do this in order that men may be led to turn from the weak and beggarly elements and have recourse again to the grace of God. Now, he goes on and we'll look through this. He goes on to have a chapter on doctrine.

We'll do that next episode. And then God and man, and that'll be the next. And then the Bible, and that'll be the next. And then Christ, and then salvation and the church. So, we will walk through all of those doctrines.

But did you notice in that quote I gave you, he was drawing a comparison between the liberalism of the 1910s and 20s and what he was doing in the book to the Middle Ages and the Reformers. The idea that the Reformers were ultimately after was the two-fold idea of the authority of Scripture and the true gospel. And what had happened over the centuries over the centuries of the church when it came to the question of authority, that the Bible had been substituted for the authority of the traditions of men, the traditions of the hierarchy of the church. And Roman Catholicism has not stopped. In fact, whether it's the doctrine of Mary or the doctrines related to the pope or the teachings related to the sacraments, they've not only stopped, they've gone further than the church at the Reformation.

But what did the Reformers do? They said, no, there is a place to stand. There is a voice that is true that we should listen to. It's the Word of God. And when we listen to that Word of God, there's a message. And the message is not salvation is not found in yourself. Salvation is not found in white-knuckling it to heaven. It's alien to you.

It's found in Jesus Christ. Now, let's go to modernism. What's modernism saying?

Forget this old book. We've got new traditions. We've got new elites. We've got new experts telling us what is truth and what is a proper view of this world.

And what is the message? The hope is within you. You can make yourself a better person. You can make this a better place. And what does Machen do?

No. The authoritative voice is the Word of God. And the only message that is worth listening to is the message of hope in Jesus Christ.

In Jesus Christ. That was Stephen Nichols, the president of Reformation Bible College and the host of the Five Minutes in Church History podcast, placing J. Gresham Machen's book, Christianity and Liberalism, in its historical setting. As Machen's book celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, Ligonier Ministries published a special anniversary edition of Christianity and liberalism. You can request your copy with a donation of any amount at or by calling us at 800 435 4343. In addition to the book, you'll receive streaming access to the entire series from Dr. Nichols so that he can walk you through each section of the book. You'll also receive digital access to the study guide.

So give your gift today at and be quick as this offer ends tomorrow. Have you ever heard someone say we don't need doctrine? Machen was hearing something very similar from the Liberals of his day. So is doctrine important? Join us tomorrow as Stephen Nichols takes us through Machen's response here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-08 06:55:05 / 2023-11-08 07:04:03 / 9

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