Christianity and Liberalism

by Mike Ratliff

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10 NASB)

I spent the last several days away from email, the Internet, work, et cetera, and simply rested and spent time with family with the intent of taking up right where I left off on our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount when I returned. However, before we get back to that, I would like to share some insights from some time I spent in the solitude of study and quiet I had during my “downtime.” Part of that time was spent in reading J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which was published in 1923. I have not quite finished it yet, but I made good progress. Some of you I know have read it because you recommended the book to me. For those who don’t know, Machen’s thesis in the book was to address the encroachment of Liberal theology in his day, which was taking over the Northern Presbyterian Church in the United States to the point that the Seminary at Princeton was preparing to “liberalize.” His thesis for this magnificent book is that “Liberal Christianity” and Christianity are two different religions.

The battles he was fighting and he addressed in this book could be taken from the battlegrounds we fight daily in our discernment ministries. Only the names and liberal ministries have changed. The “seeker-sensitive” downgrade has said and still does a lot of the same things that the Liberal Christian attack in Machen’s day did. They both fought hard against doctrine being what defines Christianity. Rick Warren’s “Deeds not Creeds” would fit right in there with the slogans that Machen addressed as the false forms of man-centered religiosity that only pretends to be Christian.

In the chapter “Doctrine” Machen states:

As a matter of fact, however, in the modern vituperation of “doctrine,” it is not merely the great theologians or the great creeds that are being attacked, but the New Testament and our Lord Himself. In rejecting doctrine, the liberal preacher is rejecting the simple words of Paul’ “Who loved me and gave Himself for me,” just as much as the homoousion of the Nicene Creed. For the word “doctrine” is really used not in its narrowest, but in it broadest sense. The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first a gracious act of God.

Now let us fast-forward to the 21st Century to our time where those making the most noise with those large “mega-churches” with their man-centered, appeal to the will of man, i.e. tickling itching ears; and no matter what they claim is their doctrinal confession of faith, if they are operating in the imperative (man-centered) rather than in the God-centered indicative, then there is no proclamation of the finished work of Christ all according the plan of God the way he proclaimed for it to be done. No, instead, we have men doing things man’s way to please men.

There has been a lot of “noise” lately from those who don’t like it when light is shown into darkness exposing certain things about certain so-called Christian leaders that they don’t want exposed. The dirty work of doing this is looked down upon by those “big shots” who think that only those with “a lot of juice” should be ones taking care of these problems, not people like those of us who write for CRN or Apprising. When both those sites were deliberately taken down illegally several days ago, some of these same people actually said that they hoped they would not come back up.

I am sure that the Liberal theologians who forced J. Gresham Machen out of the Northern Presbyterian Church were not pleased when he founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church either. “Liberal Christianity” is a different religion from Christianity. Genuine Christianity will never be popular with the masses nor with what our Lord called “the world.” He even warned us to beware if the world loves us. Why? “Liberal Christianity” is no threat to offend anyone and in the politically correct days of our time, that very thing has become the most egregious crime of all. To tell the truth to the point of offending people is exactly what the message of genuine Christianity does. It does offend. It does anger some people, but it is also the message that is the means God uses to bring the Law to bear upon the hearts of those he effectually calls to himself. Yes, it can be costly to be the ones standing firm and telling the truth even when the world hates the message and, therefore, us, but we must always be those bearing the light of the truth, never compromising.

Soli Deo Gloria!

22 thoughts on “Christianity and Liberalism

  1. I agree Mike. God had gifted him. I read what he said about public education elsewhere and how prophetic it was. What he warned about has happened and we are reaping the fruit today.


  2. Excellent piece, Mike — you know I agree. On Saturday I attended a lecture at my church. The speaker was Darryl (D.G.)Hart. I was checking out the books he came over to the table so I asked him which of his books I should buy. He recommended “Defendng the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America.” So I bought the book and just started reading it. 🙂


  3. Nice. He predicted the liberalization of Princeton? Wow. He was absolutely right about that that’s for sure. The PC(USA) just lost a sizable church in Colorado Springs over theological issues. Does Machen site the rise of Tillichian theology in the PC as a cause per chance?


  4. I would be very surprised if you did not agree Marsha. 🙂 Machen has been called lots of names by those who would rather pursue peace or unity at ALL costs. Those who stand firm in these dark times are said to be his spiritual children. I don’t know about that, but I do know his refusal to compromise was very costly and yet his faith never wavered. I am sure that those God is using right now to do this work can attest to the same things that Machen went through during all those years of being seen as one on the outside refusing to compromise. It can be tough. But, these temporal times are short aren’t they…Can’t wait to be with my Lord.


  5. Christopher, Machen was the Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary between 1906 and 1929, and led a conservative revolt against modernist theology at Princeton, which failed and led to his leaving and forming Westminister. What are you referring to with Tillichian theology? Are you referring to Billy Graham’s grandson in Florida taking over Coral Ridge?


  6. Tillich was a theologian from the turn of the century. He was a contemporay of Schliermacher, I believe. (Don’t quote me on that). But he ended up with a panentheistic theolgy centered around an idea of God being “the ground of all being”. It was taken up by many in mainline churches and was confronted by Karl Barth among others in the mid twentieth century. Very liberal and counter to traditional doctrine. I sometimes wonder if Nathaniel FitzRandolph is rolling in his grave over the liberalism of the seminary he helped found. I’m not a direct descendant of his but none of the early Randolphs were what we’d call liberals. Good pilgrim stock.


  7. liberalism is deadly- it’s humanism

    what’s interesting to me is demons know more than liberals do.

    As Eric Barger has said, “The most dangerous cult is Liberalism-claiming to be Christianity
    Postmodernism, Modern Theology, Liberation Theology, Social Theology and Neo-Orthodoxy


  8. As great as many Reformed defenders of faith are, they have their own weaknesses and even Machen is no exception. He believed in theistic evolution and so was his mentor B.B. Warfield. Of course this is not to belittle this great man of God who was used immensely by Him, but this is beside the fact that Machen denies literal 6-days in the Genesis account of creation, and believed in theistic evolution.

    (for a more detailed analysis of the weaknesses of 19th century American Reformed theologians who were active in the still-orthodox Princeton, and in particular Warfield, see this article by Paul Henebury. I believe Henebury has explained well of the pro-theistic evolution bias among many Reformed theologians, and that the rot for liberalism crept in very early in Princeton precisely because they adopted “common sense” as the way of doing theology:

    B. B. Warfield and the “Common-Sense” Conception of Theology


    Non-biblical philosophies have a way of creeping into even the best Christian writing. Given the reality of the Fall this is perhaps unavoidable. Still, Christians should regard it as their duty to their Lord not to be reliant upon any unscriptural underpinnings in their theology. The Apostle Paul, who knew the philosophers (Acts 17), sees it as one of his obligations to remind believers how they ought to think (e.g. Rom. 12:1-2; Col. 2:8). Ones ultimate criterion of thought, the most basic appeals to facticity, affect the outworking of ones worldview. This is to be seen more clearly in some scholars than in others. Those I have in mind in this piece are men who take a view of the Bible which runs counter to what the Bible itself permits, and whose scriptural vision is duly impaired.

    B. B. Warfield’s Common Sense Foundation

    When it comes to pointing to theological giants of the past, even those not disposed to favor evangelicalism will not begrudge the name of Benjamin B. Warfield[1] of Princeton as deserving of honorable mention in the annals of American theology. In both the United States and Great Britain there are few men who command more respect, at least in conservative theological circles. Most would probably place him just behind Jonathan Edwards as America’s greatest Protestant theologian. One must have a good reason if one is to disagree with such a man.

    Notwithstanding, when it comes to the matter of theological method and presuppositions, it is possible to find fault. We might approach the subject from several angles. For example, we might ask the question, “Why did Warfield, in line with so many of his Christian contemporaries like James Orr, or his student J. Gresham Machen, accept theistic evolution as being compatible with the teachings and dictates of the Christian Faith?” Or we could enquire about Warfield’s resistance to the neo-Calvinist proposals of Abraham Kuyper.[2]

    A more basic question still would be to ask about the Princeton man’s approach to First Principles – those foundations upon which he thought every belief must be constructed. To do this I shall reproduce an illuminating section from Warfield’s essay “Apologetics” in which he provides a convenient summary of his views on the relation of Theology to Science. Under the sub-heading of “The Conception of Theology as A Science” he writes:

    In the presence of Christianity in the world making claim to present a revelation of God adapted to the needs and condition of sinners, and documented in the Scriptures, theology cannot proceed a step until it has examined this claim; and if the claim can be substantiated, this substantiation must form a part of the fundamental department of theology in which are laid the foundations for the systematization of the knowledge of God. In that case two new topics are added to the subject-matter with which apologetics must constructively deal, Christianity – and the Bible. It thus lies in the very nature of apologetics as the fundamental department of theology, conceived as the science of God, that it should find its task in establishing the existence of a God who is capable of being known by man and who has made Himself known, not only in nature but in revelations of His grace to lost sinners, documented in the Christian Scriptures. When apologetics has placed these great facts in our hands – God, religion, revelation, Christianity, the Bible – and not till then are we prepared to go on and explicate the knowledge of God thus brought to us, trace the history of its workings in the world, systematize it, and propagate it in the world.[3] (Emphasis added).

    Hodge and his evidentialist counterparts claimed to start with a neutral objective epistemology that could be shared by all persons of common sense. Such a view worked well enough so long as there was a general consensus in the culture on certain metaphysical issues. Through the first half of the nineteenth century substantial elements of metaphysical assumptions of the Christian worldview survived. People generally assumed, for instance, that God, other spiritual beings, and normative moral principles were realities that were proper objects of human inquiry and knowledge. When this consensus disappeared, the proponents of a neutral and objective epistemology [like Hodge and Warfield] had little grounds for rebuttal. The question became, ‘Were such areas [i.e. God and the supernatural] proper areas for scientific inquiry and knowledge?’[15]

    The Princeton men, for all their greatness, had tried to erect the truth of God upon a neutral common sense inductive foundation instead of a revelational one.[16] When the world moved on and embraced evolution theory, psychoanalysis, sociology, the new physics, logical positivism, and language philosophy there was no more patience with evangelical systematic theology, which was relegated to another sphere by a secularism that had all the arms at its disposal to rid itself of common sense naiveté. Ironically Warfield’s faulty epistemological foundation for theology and apologetics, which is still shared by a majority of evangelicals[17], has made it easy for the modern world to shove theology into the sphere of “value” as opposed to “fact.”)


  9. Yep Linda, and you combine that with spiritually dead, spiritually blind, but very religious people demanding to be called Christian then we have the deadly mix you listed. Any preaching that attempts to justify the man in himself according to his religiosity is vain. Genuine Christianity is all in the indicatives, that is, it is about what God has graciously done for those he has elected. Sadly, even within these are people who are confused about their religion, hence, the dire need of proper discipleship.


  10. Joel, I admire Machen because when the crisis happened all of that compromise that had been evolving with Warfield and Hodge, et cetera became meaningless. He found himself on the outside looking in. He was as orthodox as they come yet the Presbyterian Church was going left. He created Westminister Theological Seminary to counter what had happened at Princeton. He helped found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the OPC, to counter what had happened to his old denomination.

    No one is elevating the man above the status of what he was, which is an obedient servant of God who stood his ground when others compromised. The Theistic Evolution stuff came via his seminary training in Germany, but as he aged and became separate from Princeton, he left that stuff behind. When he came back from Germany, he had to make a choice when he was asked to come onto the faculty at Princeton. Was he going to be remain in the Liberalism he had been taught or would he reject it move into the Orthodoxy of Warfield and Hodge? He chose the latter. The question of Theistic evolution was a reaction to the Liberal pressure of those times. What surprises me is how intelligent “theologians” in our day can still fall into that morass. I am convinced that they do so in an attempt to compromise…

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  11. I have been exceedingly perplexed in recent times about the convergence of solid godly pastors with those that have without question stepped outside of Orthodox (Biblical) Christianity.

    This is ultimately the result of the Unity and Purity tension.

    Ponder this Book entitled: Thinking. Loving. Doing. General Editors John Piper and David Mathis, contributions by; Francis Chan, Rick Warren, Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, Thabiti Anyabwile

    Then it becomes even more muddle when you look at the Bible Translations being used. Now, if there was a disclaimer about “The Message” being a man imagined paraphrase, it would be understandable.

    To be fair, we also witness those who go too far in the direction of purity by nit picking every nuance. That does equally as much damage and ruins our witness. Unity in “essentials”.

    What are sheep to think? We are by our very nature not too bright. We trust that our shepherds are tending to the well-being of the flock. Machen stood up to this “type” of compromise.


  12. Yes he did Mary. He would not have been welcome in that bunch I assure you even though a few of those men would want him, he would not want to be there because of the liberalism compromise there, but those wanting the appearance of unity at all costs would think he was just being mean…


  13. “What surprises me is how intelligent “theologians” in our day can still fall into that morass. I am convinced that they do so in an attempt to compromise”

    I agree Mike. Back then the major issue and problem that Christianity had was answering science. Did some in their sincere attempt compromise? I am sure they did, just as many, even names that we probably all attest to, do at times. I have seen Piper compromise, Mac compromise etc. Each of us at times compromise. The task of theological understandings is immense and being fallen men we often step off the path. When grace isn’t given to those that do step off and honest debate not given or taken, then maybe some criticism can be forthcoming. But we all must be sure we aren’t just speaking from our own preconceived ivory towers too.


  14. The only real difference i can see between secular liberalism and christian liberalism is the latter being a bridge to the former, to reconcile the so-called church fully back into the secular world and its values. Secular liberalism is of course is a political humanistic religion that hates real christianity and the best way to control your enemies is to lead them yourself.


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