Written in 1923, Machen addresses a system encroaching upon the church that would bring about the sure eclipse of the very Gospel itself within the 20th century. It is important to note from the outset that this liberalism is not at all the same as modern political liberalism, but is rather theological liberalism. In his day, J. Gresham Machen, at great cost to himself, fought against the theological and doctrinal accommodation of the scientific culture within the church, who were denying miracles and the supernatural based upon empirical scientific evidence. Despite many of his “brethren” in the day, he held out that we must adhere to the divine, supernatural nature of all that Christianity entails or else forfeit the Gospel itself: the divine inerrancy of the Scriptures, the nature and qualities of both God and man, that salvation is a supernatural work of God, that real people with real sins were atoned for by the blood of Christ, the human and divine natures of Christ, amongst many things that set Historic Christianity apart from all other religions devised by man out in the world.
The thinking of the forerunners of theological liberalism went like this, “In order to reach the scientifically enlightened culture we live in, it is not important to hold to a literal virgin birth, a literal resurrection, atonement through the cross, or any miracles really at all, mainly because these events cannot be empirically proven through scientific analysis and methods; we believe these things personally, but it is not important to hold to these things in light of science.” Because the church was increasingly falling prey to this and in danger of apostatizing from the Gospel itself as a result, Machen wrote this book in response and fought vigorously for the truth of the Scriptures, Orthodoxy, and Historic Christianity. While it is definitely possible the intentions of the original liberals were good in trying to reach a culture with Christ that had scientific empirical evidence as a presupposition when coming to the spiritual/supernatural statements of Christianity, the followers in its wake have basically denied Christianity of any supernatural and divine quality (which is how lives are effectually changed, i.e. God creates in people something that was not there through the cross of Christ). Theological liberalism essentially renders Christianity just another choice of moralistic religions, that we are all “basically good,” and can morally reform ourselves outside of God, amongst a host of other religions saying the same thing in principle.
I believe it is deeply and vastly important for modern believers in the Gospel to read this book, because there is a movement underway in our culture that is doing the same things as liberals of the early 20th century. The liberalism of the 20th century addressed the Modern era, and now the Emerging church (or new liberalism) addresses the postmodern era. With modernism there was scientific certainty; with postmodernism, there is total uncertainty and skepticism, and this has translated into the realm of spirituality (i.e. “we can’t really know anything for sure concerning who God is, what He’s like,” etc). While times have changed (philosophical/cultural thinking) and even science itself (there is increasing ambiguity concerning the very nature of particles and waves in the scientific community, i.e. what scientists thought they knew for sure in the 20th century concerning matter, anti-matter, and laws of physics, they are not so sure about now, based greatly upon quantum mechanics – so miracles and the supernatural are no longer deemed as impossible scientific propositions), the premise is the same in both ages: adopt the culture with its thinking, belief structure, and presuppositions in order to win the culture for Christ. Make Christianity attractive by bringing in the thinking of the world around us.
Sounds good right? I mean, at least on a surface level, the intention may be good, which is win people for Christ! But is it effective in the long run? As John Piper properly notes in an introduction to a sermon he preached, “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 [the Gospel itself] that alone can set them free.”
In order to accommodate a postmodern culture in which we live, the Emerging Church has brought down doctrinal walls in order to win the culture. However, as history shows, this does not work. This movement will ultimately wind up blocking people from seeing, believing in, and enjoying the true Christ of the Scriptures (as opposed to the Jesus made in their own image and likeness), for which they will be held accountable before His White Throne judgment (may God have mercy on us all on that day). Emergents have themselves adopted postmodern thought within a “new” system of Christianity, that you cannot really know anything for sure, so there is no need to be dogmatic on doctrine. And in addition to this, they have in many cases totally redefined the Christian message altogether, where it is no longer distinguishable from that of other religions with their pseudo-pietistic, works-based approach to God. As with the liberalism in the 20th century that Machen addressed in this book, the Emerging Church will surely bring about the very eclipse of Christ and the Gospel (the good news of redemption!) itself in the 21st century. The Emerging Church is just version 2.0 of the theological liberalism of the 20th century. May we learn from history and glorify Jesus by adhering to His infallible Word, even if people hate us!
“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:23-34
If you want to read this book right now, go here (PDF):
Audio biography of J. Gresham Machen by John Piper (MP3):
John Piper’s sermon on Romans 9:1-5:
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith – Review by Dale Van Dyke: