March 25, 2013

The New Liberalism

I recently finished reading J. Gresham Machen's landmark book Christianity and Liberalism. It was written in 1923 during the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. For those who don't know, the controversy was essentially a battle between Christian conservatives and their theologically liberal counterparts. Machen wrote in response to the theological liberalism (or modernism) that had crept into many institutions which had once been solidly orthodox. Bible-believing Christians were being crowded out of the very churches and schools they had founded, institutions which were started in order to propagate the historic Christian faith. Machen argued that this new theological modernism wasn't merely a new species of Christianity, or even a refurbishing of the old faith. It was, rather, a new religion entirely. The liberals weren't Christians at all, but they had taken the Church by surprise because they sounded oh so very Christian. The liberals, Machen said, were using the "reassuring employment of traditional phrases . . . [in order] to maintain an appearance of conformity to the past." [1] As my pastor is fond of pointing out, just because we have the same vocabulary, doesn't mean we're using the same dictionary.

The scary thing about Christianity and Liberalism is how relevant it is. A few examples:

The old liberals blossomed in a theological climate that prized ecumenical unity over theological truth. Machen says:
Few desires on the part of religious teachers have been more harmfully exaggerated than the desire to “avoid giving offence.” Only too often that desire has come perilously near dishonesty; the religious teacher, in his heart of hearts, is well aware of the radicalism of his views, but is unwilling to relinquish his place in the hallowed atmosphere of the Church by speaking his whole mind. Against all such policy of concealment or palliation, our sympathies are altogether with those men, whether radicals or conservatives, who have a passion for light. [2]
The toleration of error for the sake of unity or peace has become something of a hallmark of the new Evangelicalism. Any movement that prizes this sort of (false) unity over the truth of God's Word soon becomes a breeding ground for all manner of heresy. In an age where prominent Evangelical leaders lend their approval to heretics like Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes, what we need are more men, like Machen, who love the truth enough to publicly denounce false teachers and warn others against them.

The theological liberals of Machen's day had an aversion to doctrinal precision. They had no use for creeds or confessions. 
“Teachings,” it is said, “are unimportant; the exposition of the teachings of liberalism and the teachings of Christianity, therefore, can arouse no interest at the present day; creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience, and provided only they express that experience they are all equally good. The teachings of liberalism, therefore, might be as far removed as possible from the teachings of historic Christianity, and yet the two might be at bottom the same.” Such is the way in which expression is often given to the modern hostility to “doctrine.” But is it really doctrine as such that is objected to, and not rather one particular doctrine in the interests of another? . . . In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another. And the desired immunity from theological controversy has not yet been attained.[3]
The cry of the old liberals was "No creed but Christ!" Is the oft-heard "We have no creed but the Bible" really any better? It amounts to the same thing. The teaching that "teachings are unimportant" is so non-sensical that I really feel no need to comment on it. I merely wish to point out that this slogan, so common in contemporary Evangelical circles (and more importantly, the attitude behind it), is actually holdover from the old liberalism.

And here's the big one:
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.[4]
The liberals reduced Christianity to something subjective. A preference. A feeling not subject to correction. The new Evangelicals do the same thing with the phrase "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion." Phrases like this one have the effect of removing Christianity from the realm of history so that it becomes a subjective preference above question or correction. It is, then, no longer considered true, but is instead true for me (and maybe not for you). This is in sharp contrast to the historic faith, which has always maintained that Christianity is based on historical facts which are universally true. That is, these truth claims make demands on all men in all places at all times. Christ is Lord of all (objective truth) whether or not we as individuals recognize him as such (subjectively). Contrary to both the old liberals and the new Evangelicals, Christianity is not merely a relationship. It is a system of truth that, like the God of the Bible, stands over and above all of us and demands our compliance. It is not a relationship that we can take or leave depending on whether or not it works for us, it is a body of historical truth that, if it is true at all, is true for all.

Contemporary Evangelicals often view themselves as the heirs of last century's fundamentalists. But if one merely replaces some of the terminology, one finds a frightening level of correspondence between the old liberals and the new evangelicals. It seems there are now two versions of Evangelicalism. One is set firmly in the tradition of historic Protestant orthodoxy. The other, however, has much more in common with the modernists that our predecessors fought against. Both groups talk about the gospel, about Christ, about sin and salvation, but one group has clearly been reading the liberal's dictionary.   

1. J. Gresham Machen. Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans, 2009), p. 15.
2. Ibid., pp. 15-16.
3. Ibid., p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 17.

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