This is an excerpt from J. Gresham Machen, in his excellent concise work Christianity and Liberalism, chapter 2, first published in 1923. It is amazing how words from the past apply in the same manner to today’s evangelical movement. If the practice of our faith consists merely in our feelings, emotions and experience without knowing any spiritual knowledge or substance of our faith, it becomes non-moral, as Machen argues.
DISCLAIMER: this is not speaking of modern political liberalism, but rather modernist theological liberalism. However, it aptly applies to our day’s evangelical movement.
[Liberalism] 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 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.
What goes around comes around. It’s amazing many of the same things he’s arguing against are being taught and done in our circles now on a grand scale. May we all pray for a recovery of Gospel truth. Evangelicalism is quickly following the already trodden-down path liberalism has already taken in history. And it reduced Europe to a whopping 2% of confessing Christians. The more you try to make Christianity relevant to a hostile, God-hating culture, the more Christianity is gutted of its power and has nothing to speak into the culture, and most importantly, no Gospel.
I’ve posted this quote before, but John Piper puts this all so very nicely in this sermon and speaks into our day, looking to this not-so-distant past as an example to learn from:
There is a sad irony in the seeming success of many Christian churches and schools. The irony is that the more you adjust obscure Biblical doctrines to make Christian reality more attractive to unbelievers, the less Christian reality there is when they arrive. Which means that what looks like success in the short run, may, in the long run, prove to be failure. If you alter or obscure the Biblical portrait of God in order to attract converts, you don’t get converts to God, you get converts to an illusion. This is not evangelism, but deception.
One of the results of this kind of “success” is that sooner or later the world wakes up to the fact that these so-called Christian churches look so much like them and the way they think that there is no reason to go there. If you adjust your doctrine to fit the world in order to attract the world, sooner or later the world realizes that they already have what the church offers. That was the story of much of mainline Protestantism in Europe and America in the 20th century. Adjust your doctrine – or just minimize doctrine – to attract the world, and in the very process of attracting them, lose the radical truth that alone can set them free.
Many observers today are making note that what the liberal mainline churches did 60 years ago, evangelical churches are doing today. For example, Steve Bruce writes in his book, God Is Dead: Secularization in the West,
“The mainstream Christian Churches are declining in popularity, and the conservative Protestant churches are losing their doctrinal and behavioral distinctiveness.” (Quoted in Philip Jenkins, “The Real Story of Secularization,” in Books and Culture, 8/6 [Nov.-Dec., 2002]: 11)
There are thousands of pastors and churches today that do not think that clear, Biblical, doctrinal views are vital in the life of the church or the believer. They believe it is possible to grow a healthy church while leaving the people with few and fuzzy thoughts about what God is like. But ignorance about God is never a mere vacuum. The cavity created by ignorance fills up with something else.
Edward Norman, in his book, Secularization: New Century Theology, goes right to the heart of the problem when he describes what that something else is:
“Christianity is not being rejected in modern society – what is causing the decline of public support for The Church is the insistence of church leaders themselves in representing secular enthusiasm for humanity as core Christianity.” (Ibid, p. 10)
At first the world is drawn to a religious form of “enthusiasm for humanity,” but then it wears thin and they realize that they can find it more excitingly on TV.