Christianity & Liberalism
by J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937)
Originally published in 1923 (NY: Macmillan), this book is now in the public domain (original pagination and footnotes have been kept intact for purposes of reference). The electronic edition of this book was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink. It may be copied and distributed without restriction. In a few cases the spelling has been modernized.
Return to Table of Contents & Introduction
Proceed to Chapter 4: "The Bible"
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 54
Chapter 3: "God & Man"
It has been observed in the last chapter that Christianity is based on an account of something that happened in the first century of our era. But before that account can be received, certain presuppositions must be accepted. The Christian gospel consists in an account of how God saved man, and before that gospel can be understood something must be known (1) about God and (2) about man. The doctrine of God and the doctrine of man are the two great presuppositions of the gospel. With regard to these presuppositions, as with regard to the gospel itself, modern liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity.
It is opposed to Christianity, in the first place, in its conception of God. But at this point we are met with a particularly insistent form of that objection to doctrinal matters which has already been considered. It is unnecessary, we are told, to have a "conception" of God; theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence.
With regard to this
objection, it ought to be observed that if religion consists merely
in feeling the presence of God, it is devoid of any moral quality
whatever. Pure feeling, if there be such a thing, is non-moral.
What makes affection for a human friend, for example, such an
ennobling thing is the knowledge which we possess of the
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 55
character of our friend. Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just bristling with dogma. It depends upon a host of observations treasured up in the mind with regard to the character of our friends. But if human affection is thus really dependent upon knowledge, why should it be otherwise with that supreme personal relationship which is at the basis of religion ? Why should we be indignant about slanders directed against a human friend, while at the same time we are patient about the basest slanders directed against our God? Certainly it does make the greatest possible difference what we think about God; the knowledge of God is the very basis of religion.
How, then, shall God be known; how shall we become so acquainted with Him that personal fellowship may become possible? Some liberal preachers would say that we become acquainted with God only through Jesus. That assertion has an appearance of loyalty to our Lord, but in reality it is highly derogatory to Him. For Jesus Himself plainly recognized the validity of other ways of knowing God, and to reject those other ways is to reject the things that lay at the very center of Jesus' life. Jesus plainly found God's hand in nature; the lilies of the field revealed to Him the weaving of God. He found God also in the moral law; the law written in the hearts of men was God's law, which revealed His righteousness. Finally Jesus plainly found God revealed in the Scriptures. How profound was our Lord's use of the words of prophets and psalmists! To say that such revelation of God was invalid, or is useless to us today, is to do despite to things that lay closest to Jesus' mind and heart.
But, as a matter of
fact, when men say that we know God only as He is revealed in
Jesus, they are denying all real knowledge of God whatever. For
unless there be
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 56
some idea of God independent of Jesus, the ascription of deity to Jesus has no meaning. To say, "Jesus is God," is meaningless unless the word "God" has an antecedent meaning attached to it. And the attaching of a meaning to the word "God" is accomplished by the means which have just been mentioned. We are not forgetting the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." But these words do not mean that if a man had never known what the word "God" means, he could come to attach an idea to that word merely by his knowledge of Jesus' character. On the contrary, the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had already a very definite conception of God; a knowledge of the one supreme Person was presupposed in all that Jesus said. But the disciples desired not only a knowledge of God hut also intimate, personal contact. And that came through their intercourse with Jesus. Jesus revealed, in a wonderfully intimate way, the character of God, but such revelation obtained its true significance only on the basis both of the Old Testament heritage and of Jesus' own teaching. Rational theism, the knowledge of one Supreme Person, Maker and active Ruler of the world, is at the very root of Christianity.
But, the modern preacher
will say, it is incongruous to attribute to Jesus an acceptance
of "rational theism"; Jesus had a practical, not a theoretical,
knowledge of God. There is a sense in which these words are true.
Certainly no part of Jesus' knowledge of God was merely theoretical;
everything that Jesus knew about God touched His heart and determined
His actions. In that sense, Jesus' knowledge of God was "practical."
But unfortunately that is not the sense in which the assertion
of modern liberalism is meant. What is frequently meant by a "practical"
knowledge of God in modern parlance is
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 57
not a theoretical knowledge of God that is also practical, but a practical knowledge which is not theoreticalin other words, a knowledge which gives no information about objective reality, a knowledge which is no knowledge at all. And nothing could possibly be more unlike the religion of Jesus than that. The relation of Jesus to His heavenly Father was not a relation to a vague and impersonal goodness, it was not a relation which merely clothed itself in symbolic, personal form. On the contrary, it was a relation to a real Person, whose existence was just as definite and just as much a subject of theoretic knowledge as the existence of the lilies of the field that God had clothed. The very basis of the religion of Jesus was a triumphant belief in the real existence of a personal God.
And without that belief
no type of religion can rightly appeal to Jesus today. Jesus was
a theist, and rational theism is at the basis of Christianity.
Jesus did not, indeed, support His theism by argument; He did
not provide in advance answers to the Kantian attack upon the
theistic proofs. But that means not that He was indifferent to
the belief which is the logical result of those proofs, but that
the belief stood so firm, both to Him and to His hearers, that
in His teaching it is always presupposed. So today it is not necessary
for all Christians to analyze the logical basis of their belief
in God; the human mind has a wonderful faculty for the condensation
of perfectly valid arguments, and what seems like an instinctive
belief may turn out to be the result of many logical steps. Or,
rather' it may be that the belief in a personal God is the result
of a primitive revelation, and that the theistic proofs are only
the logical confirmation of what was originally arrived at by
a different means. At any rate, the logical confirmation of the
belief in God is a vital concern
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 58
to the Christian; at this point as at many others religion and philosophy are connected in the most intimate possible way. True religion can make no peace with a false philosophy, any more than with a science that is falsely so-called; a thing cannot possibly be true in religion and false in philosophy or in science. All methods of arriving at truth, if they be valid methods, will arrive at a harmonious result. Certainly the atheistic or agnostic Christianity which sometimes goes under the name of a "practical" religion is no Christianity at all. At the very root of Christianity is the belief in the real existence of a personal God.
Strangely enough, at the very time when modern liberalism is decrying the theistic proofs, and taking refuge in a "practical" knowledge which shall somehow be independent of scientifically or philosophically ascertained facts, the liberal preacher loves to use one designation of God which is nothing if not theistic; he loves to speak of God as "Father." The term certainly has the merit of ascribing personality to God. By some of those who use it, indeed, it is not seriously meant; by some it is employed because it is useful, not because it is true. But not all liberals are able to make the subtle distinction between theoretic judgments and judgments of value; some liberals, though perhaps a decreasing number, are true believers in a personal God. And such men are able to think of God truly as a Father.
The term presents a
very lofty conception of God. It is not indeed exclusively Christian;
the term "Father" has been applied to God outside of
Christianity. It appears, for example, in the widespread belief
in an "All- Father," which prevails among many races
even in company with polytheism; it appears here and there in
the Old Testament, and in pre-Christian Jewish writings subsequent
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 59
the Old Testament period. Such occurrences of the term are by no means devoid of significance. The Old Testament usage, in particular, is a worthy precursor of our Lord's teaching; for although in the Old Testament the word "Father" ordinarily designates God in relation not to the individual, but to the nation or to the king, yet the individual Israelite, because of his part in the chosen people, felt himself to be in a peculiarly intimate relation to the covenant God. But despite this anticipation of the teaching of our Lord, Jesus brought such an incomparable enrichment of the usage of the term, that it is a correct instinct which regards the thought of God as Father as something characteristically Christian.
Modern men have been so much impressed with this element in Jesus' teaching that they have sometimes been inclined to regard it as the very sum and substance of our religion. We are not interested, they say, in many things for which men formerly gave their lives; we are not interested in the theology of the creeds; we are not interested in the doctrines of sin and salvation; we are not interested in atonement through the blood of Christ: enough for us is the simple truth of the fatherhood of God and its corollary, the brotherhood of man. We may not be very orthodox in the theological sense, they continue, but of course you will recognize us as Christians because we accept Jesus' teaching as to the Father God.
It is very strange how
intelligent persons can speak in this way. It is very strange
how those who accept only the universal fatherhood of God as the
sum and substance of religion can regard themselves as Christians
or can appeal to Jesus of Nazareth. For the plain fact is that
this modern doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God formed
no part whatever of Jesus' teaching. Where is it that Jesus may
be supposed to have taught the universal
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 60
fatherhood of God? Certainly it is not in the parable of the Prodigal Son. For in the first place, the publicans and sinners whose acceptance by Jesus formed the occasion both of the Pharisees' objection and of Jesus' answer to them by means of the parable, were not any men anywhere, but were members of the chosen people and as such might be designated as sons of God. In the second place, a parable is certainly not to be pressed in its details. So here because the joy of the father in the parable is like the joy of God when a sinner receives salvation at Jesus' hand, it does not follow that the relation which God sustains to still unrepentant sinners is that of a Father to his children. Where else, then, can the universal fatherhood of God be found ? Surely not in the Sermon on the Mount; for throughout the Sermon on the Mount those who can call God Father are distinguished in the most emphatic way from the great world of the Gentiles outside. One passage in the discourse has indeed been urged in support of the modern doctrine: "But I say unto you, love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He maketh His sun to rise on evil and good and sendeth rain on just and unjust" (Matt. v. 44, 45). But the passage certainly will not bear the weight which is hung upon it. God is indeed represented here as caring for all men whether evil or good, but He is certainly not called the Father of all. Indeed it might almost be said that the point of the passage depends on the fact that He is not the Father of all. He cares even for those who are not His children but His enemies; so His children, Jesus' disciples, ought to imitate Him by loving even those who are not their brethren but their persecutors. The modern doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God is not to be found in the teaching of Jesus.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 61
And it is not to be found in the New Testament. The whole New Testament and Jesus Himself do indeed represent God as standing in a relation to all men, whether Christians or not, which is analogous to that in which a father stands to his children. He is the Author of the being of all, and as such might well be called the Father of all. He cares for all, and for that reason also might be called the Father of all. Here and there the figure of fatherhood seems to be used to designate this broader relationship which God sustains to all men or even to all created beings. So in an isolated passage in Hebrews, God is spoken of as the "Father of spirits" (Heb. xii. 9). Here perhaps it is the relation of God, as creator, to the personal beings whom He has created which is in view. One of the clearest instances of the broader use of the figure of fatherhood is found in the speech of Paul at Athens, Acts xvii. 28: "For we are also His offspring." Here it is plainly the relation in which God stands to all men, whether Christians or not, which is in mind. But the words form part of an hexameter line and are taken from a pagan poet; they are not represented as part of the gospel, but merely as belonging to the common meeting-ground which Paul discovered in speaking to his pagan hearers. This passage is only typical of what appears, with respect to a universal fatherhood of God, in the New Testament as a whole. Something analogous to a universal fatherhood of God is taught in the New Testament. Here and there the terminology of fatherhood and sonship is even used to describe this general relationship. But such instances are extremely rare. Ordinarily the lofty term "Father" is used to describe a relationship of a far more intimate kind, the relationship in which God stands to the company of the redeemed.
The modern doctrine
of the universal fatherhood of
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 62
God, then, which is being celebrated as "the essence of Christianity," really belongs at best only to that vague natural religion which forms the presupposition which the Christian preacher can use when the gospel is to be proclaimed; and when it is regarded as a reassuring, all-sufficient thing, it comes into direct opposition to the New Testament. The gospel itself refers to something entirely different; the really distinctive New Testament teaching about the fatherhood of God concerns only those who have been brought into the household of faith.
There is nothing narrow about such teaching; for the door of the household of faith is open wide to all. That door is the "new and living way" which Jesus opened by His blood. And if we really love our fellow men, we shall not go about the world, with the liberal preacher, trying to make men satisfied with the coldness of a vague natural religion. But by the preaching of the gospel we shall invite them into the warmth and joy of the house of God. Christianity offers men all that is offered by the modern liberal teaching about the universal fatherhood of God; but it is Christianity only because it offers also infinitely more.
But the liberal conception
of God differs even more fundamentally from the Christian view
than in the different circle of ideas connected with the terminology
of fatherhood. The truth is that liberalism has lost sight of
the very center and core of the Christian teaching. In the Christian
view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements.
But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible;
one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible
all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God.
From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the
awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 63
true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.
In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name "God" is applied to the mighty world process itself. We find ourselves in the midst of a mighty process, which manifests itself in the indefinitely small and in the indefinitely greatin the infinitesimal life which is revealed through the microscope and in the vast movements of the heavenly spheres. To this world-process, of which we ourselves form a part, we apply the dread name of "God." God, therefore, it is said in effect, is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His. Thus the Gospel story of the Incarnation, according to modern liberalism, is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the general truth that man at his best is one with God.
It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon. It has always been with us, to blight the religious life of man. And modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man. Even the sin of man on this view ought logically to be regarded as part of the life of God. Very different is the living and holy God of the Bible and of Christian faith.
from liberalism, then, in the first place, in its conception of
God. But it also differs in its conception of man.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 64
Modern liberalism has lost all sense of the gulf that separates the creature from the Creator; its doctrine of man follows naturally from its doctrine of God. But it is not only the creature limitations of mankind which are denied. Even more important is another difference. According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.1
The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but today it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world's evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world's good; no help is needed from outside the world.
What has produced this satisfaction with human goodness? What has become of the consciousness of sin? The consciousness of sin has certainly been lost. But what has removed it from the hearts of men?
In the first place, the war has perhaps had something to do with the change. In time of war, our attention is called so exclusively to the sins of other people that we are sometimes inclined to forget our own sins. Attention to the sins of other people is, indeed, sometimes necessary. It is quite right to be indignant against any oppression of the weak which is being carried on by the strong. But such a habit of mind, if made permanent, if carried over into the days of peace, has its dangers. It joins forces
1. For what follows,
see "The Church In the War," in The Presbyterian for
May 29,1919, pp. 10f.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 65
with the collectivism of the modern state to obscure the individual, personal character of guilt. If John Smith beats his wife nowadays, no one is so old-fashioned as to blame John Smith for it. On the contrary, it is said, John Smith is evidently the victim of some more of that Bolshevistic propaganda; Congress ought to be called in extra session in order to take up the case of John Smith in an alien and sedition law.
But the loss of the consciousness of sin is far deeper than the war; it has its roots in a mighty spiritual process which has been active during the past seventy-five years. Like other great movements, that process has come silentlyso silently that its results have been achieved before the plain man was even aware of what was taking place. Nevertheless, despite all superficial continuity, a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.
In speaking of "paganism," we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature' whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.
In saying that Christianity
is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity
ends with the
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 66
broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of "Woe is me." Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanisma humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.
But although Christianity
does not end with the broken heart, it does begin with the broken
heart; it begins with the consciousness of sin. Without the consciousness
of sin, the whole of the gospel will seem to be an idle tale.
But how can the consciousness of sin be revived? Something no
doubt can be accomplished by the proclamation of the law of God,
for the law reveals transgressions. The whole of the law, moreover,
should be proclaimed. It will hardly be wise to adopt the suggestion
(recently offered among many suggestions as to the ways in which
we shall have to modify our message in order to retain the allegiance
of the returning soldiers) that we must stop treating the little
sins as though they were big sins. That suggestion means apparently
that we must not worry too much about the little sins, but must
let them remain unmolested.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 67
With regard to such an expedient, it may perhaps be suggested that in the moral battle we are fighting against a very resourceful enemy, who does not reveal the position of his guns by desultory artillery action when he plans a great attack. In the moral battle, as in the Great European War, the quiet sectors are usually the most dangerous. It is through the "little sins" that Satan gains an entrance into our lives. Probably, therefore, it will be prudent to watch all sectors of the front and lose no time about introducing the unity of command.
But if the consciousness of sin is to be produced, the law of God must be proclaimed in the lives of Christian people as well as in word. It is quite useless for the preacher to breathe out fire and brimstone from the pulpit, if at the same time the occupants of the pews go on taking sin very lightly and being content with the more' standards of the world. The rank and file of the Church must do their part in so proclaiming the law of God by their lives that the secrets of men's hearts shall be revealed.
All these things, however, are in themselves quite insufficient to produce the consciousness of sin. The more one observes the condition of the Church, the more one feels obliged to confess that the conviction of sin is a great mystery' which can be produced only by the Spirit of God. Proclamation of the law, in word and in deed, can prepare for the experience, but the experience itself comes from God. When a man has that experience, when a man comes under the conviction of sin, his whole attitude toward life is transformed; he wonders at his former blindness, and the message of the gospel, which formerly seemed to be an idle tale, becomes now instinct with light. But it is God alone who can produce the change.
Only, let us not try
to do without the Spirit of God.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 68
The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible taskshe is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. The preacher gets up into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and addresses the congregation somewhat as follows: "You people are very good," he says; "you respond to every appeal that looks toward the welfare of the community. Now we have in the Bibleespecially in the life of Jesussomething so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people." Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.
Modern liberalism, it has been observed so far, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian messagethe living God, and the fact of sin. The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.
The Christian message has come to us through the Bible. What shall we think about this Book in which the message is contained?
According to the Christian
view, the Bible contains an account of a revelation from God to
man, which is found nowhere else. It is true, the Bible also contains
a confirmation and a wonderful enrichment of the revelations which
are given also by the things that God has made and by the conscience
of man. "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament
showeth his handywork"these words are a confirmation
of the revelation of God in nature; "all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God"these words are a confirmation
of what is attested by the conscience. But in addition to such
reaffirmations of what might conceivably be learned elsewhereas
a matter of fact, because of men's blindness, even so much is
learned elsewhere only in comparatively obscure fashionthe
Bible also contains an account of a revelation which is absolutely
new. That new revelation concerns the way
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 70
by which sinful man can come into communion with the living God.
The way was opened, according to the Bible, by an act of God, when, almost nineteen hundred years ago, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the eternal Son was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men. To that one great event the whole Old Testament looks forward, and in that one event the whole of the New Testament finds its center and core. Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. Hence appears the uniqueness of the Bible. All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin. There can be no salvation by the discovery of eternal truth, for eternal truth brings naught but despair, because of sin. But a new face has been put upon life by the blessed thing that God did when He offered up His only begotten Son.
An objection is sometimes offered against this view of the contents of the Bible.1 Must we, it is said, depend upon what happened so long ago? Does salvation wait upon the examination of musty records? Is the trained student of Palestinian history the modern priest without whose gracious intervention no one can see God? Can we not find, instead, a salvation that is independent of history, a salvation that depends only on what is with us here and now?
The objection is not devoid of weight. But it ignores one of the primary evidences for the truth of the gospel record. That evidence is found in Christian experience.
1. For what follows
compare History and Faith, 1915, pp. 13-15.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 71
Salvation does depend upon what happened long ago, but the event of long ago has effects that continue until today. We are told in the New Testament that Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of those who should believe on Him. That is a record of a past event. But we can make trial of it today, and making trial of it we find it to be true. We are told in the New Testament that on a certain morning long ago Jesus rose from the dead. That again is a record of a past event. But again we can make trial of it, and making trial of it we discover that Jesus is truly a living Savior today.
But at this point a fatal error lies in wait. It is one of the root errors of modern liberalism. Christian experience, we have just said, is useful as confirming the gospel message. But because it is necessary, many men have jumped to the conclusion that it is all that is necessary. Having a present experience of Christ in the heart, may we not, it is said, hold that experience no matter what history may tell us as to the events of the first Easter morning? May we not make ourselves altogether independent of the results of Biblical criticism? No matter what sort of man history may tell us Jesus of Nazareth actually was, no matter what history may say about the real meaning of His death or about the story of His alleged resurrection, may we not continue to experience the presence of Christ in our souls?
The trouble is that
the experience thus maintained is not Christian experience. Religious
experience it may be, but Christian experience it certainly is
not. For Christian experience depends absolutely upon an event.
The Christian says to himself: "I have meditated upon the
problem of becoming right with God, I have tried to produce a
righteousness that will stand in His sight; but when I heard the
gospel message I learned that what I had
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 72
weakly striven to accomplish had been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ when He died for me on the Cross and completed His redeeming work by the glorious resurrection. If the thing has not yet been done, if I merely have an idea of its accomplishment, then I am of all men most miserable, for I am still in my sins. My Christian life, then, depends altogether upon the truth of the New Testament record."
Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence. But it can never possibly provide a substitute for the documentary evidence. We know that the gospel story is true partly because of the early date of the documents in which it appears, the evidence as to their authorship, the internal evidence of their truth, the impossibility of explaining them as being based upon deception or upon myth. This evidence is gloriously confirmed by present experience, which adds to the documentary evidence that wonderful directness and immediacy of conviction which delivers us from fear. Christian experience is rightly used when it helps to convince us that the events narrated in the New Testament actually did occur; but it can never enable us to be Christians whether the events occurred or not. It is a fair flower, and should be prized as a gift of God. But cut it from its root in the blessed Book, and it soon withers away and dies.
Thus the revelation of which an account is contained in the Bible embraces not only a reaffirmation of eternal truthsitself necessary because the truths have been obscured by the blinding effect of sinbut also a revelation which sets forth the meaning of an act of God.
The contents of the
Bible, then, are unique. But another fact about the Bible is also
important. The Bible might contain an account of a true revelation
from God, and yet the account be full of error. Before the full
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 73
authority of the Bible can be established, therefore, it is necessary to add to the Christian doctrine of revelation the Christian doctrine of inspiration. The latter doctrine means that the Bible not only is an account of important things, but that the account itself is true, the writers having been so preserved from error, despite a full maintenance of their habits of thought and expression, that the resulting Book is the "infallible rule of faith and practice."
This doctrine of "plenary inspiration" has been made the subject of persistent misrepresentation. Its opponents speak of it as though it involved a mechanical] theory of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, it is said, is represented in this doctrine as dictating the Bible to writers who were really little more than stenographers. But of course all such caricatures are without basis in fact, and it is rather surprising that intelligent men should be so blinded by prejudice about this matter as not even to examine for themselves the perfectly accessible treatises in which the doctrine of plenary inspiration is set forth. It is usually considered good practice to examine a thing for one's self before echoing the vulgar ridicule of it. But in connection with the Bible, such scholarly restraints are somehow regarded as out of place. It is so much easier to content one's self with a few opprobrious adjectives such as "mechanical," or the like. Why engage in serious criticism when the people prefer ridicule? Why attack a real opponent when it is easier to knock down a man of straw?1
1. It is not denied
that there are some persons in the modern Church who do neglect
the context of Bible quotations and who do ignore the human characteristics
of the Biblical writers. But in an entirely Unwarrantable manner
this defective way of using the Bible is attributed, by insinuation
at least, to the great body of those who Ye held to the inspiration
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 74
As a matter of fact, the doctrine of plenary inspiration does not deny the individuality of the Biblical writers; it does not ignore their use of ordinary means for acquiring information; it does not involve any lack of interest in the historical situations which gave rise to the Biblical books. What it does deny is the presence of error in the Bible. It supposes that the Holy Spirit so informed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into the error" that mar all other books. The Bible might contain an account of a genuine revelation of God, and yet not contain a true account. But according to the doctrine of inspiration, the account is as a matter of fact a true account; the Bible is an "infallible rule of faith and practice."
Certainly that is a
stupendous claim, and it is no wonder that it has been attacked.
But the trouble is that the attack is not always fair. If the
liberal preacher objected to the doctrine of plenary inspiration
on the ground that as a matter of fact there are errors in the
Bible, he might be right and he might be wrong, but at any rate
the discussion would be conducted on the proper ground. But too
often the preacher desires to avoid the delicate question of errors
in the Biblea question which might give offence to the rank
and fileand prefers to speak merely against "mechanical"
theories of inspiration, the theory of "dictation,"
the "superstitious use of the Bible as a talisman,"
or the like. It all sounds to the plain man as though it were
very harmless. Does not the liberal preacher say that the Bible
is "divine"indeed that it is the more divine because
it is the more human ? What could be more edifying than that?
But of course such appearances are deceptive. A Bible that is
full of error is certainly divine in the modern pantheizing sense
of "divine," according to which God is just another
name for the course of the world
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 75
with all its imperfections and all its sin. But the God whom the Christian worships is a God of truth.
It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christthere are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls.
It is another question,
however, whether the mediating view of the Bible which is thus
maintained is logically tenable, the trouble being that our Lord
Himself seems to have held the high view of the Bible which is
here being rejected. Certainly it is another questionand
a question which the present writer would answer with an emphatic
negativewhether the panic about the Bible, which gives rise
to such concessions, is at all justified by the facts. If the
Christian make full use of his Christian privileges, he finds
the seat of authority in the whole
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 76
Bible, which he regards as no mere word of man but as the very Word of God.
Very different is the view of modern liberalism. The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion?1
The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.
This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus. Even if he did so, indeed, he would still be impoverishing greatly his knowledge of God and of the way of salvation. The words of Jesus, spoken during His earthly ministry, could hardly contain all that we need to know about God and about the way of salvation; for the meaning of Jesus' redeeming work could hardly be fully set forth before that work was done. It could be set forth indeed by way of prophecy, and as a matter of fact it was so set forth by Jesus even in the days of His flesh. But the full explanation could naturally be given only after the work was done. And such was actually the divine method. It is doing despite, not only to the Spirit of God, but also to Jesus Himself, to regard the teaching of the Holy Spirit,
1. For what follows,
compare "For Christ or Against Him," in The Presbyterian,
for January 20, 1921, p. 9.
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 77
given through the apostles, as at all inferior in authority to the teaching of Jesus.
As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the "historical" Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.
So much is usually admitted.
But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said
is true, His central "life-purpose" is still to be regarded
as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose
of Jesus ? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism
be accepted, the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man came
not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life
a ransom for many" (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death
is put as the "life-purpose" of Jesus. Such an utterance
must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The
truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism
is not the life
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 78
purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesusisolated and misinterpretedwhich happen to agree with the modern program. It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus' recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.
It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus' example and teachingnotably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be "the Christian consciousness" or "Christian experience." But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which "helps" the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.
The Christian man, on
the other hand, finds in the Bible the very Word of God. Let it
not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or an artificial
thing. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon
the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence
upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God's
word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left
to our own devices and had no blessed Word of God. The Bible,
to the Christian
CHRISTIANITY & LIBERALISM, page 79
is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.
It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.
PROCEED to Chapter Five: Christ
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