Gresham Machen, defending the faith, and lessons for today

Nov 27, 2016 by

[Dr Rohintan Mody finds close parallels between fierce debates on the nature of the Christian faith in the early 20th century, and contemporary doctrinal controversies in the Anglican Church.]

I have just finished reading an excellent book on the great American Christian scholar, Gresham Machen, by D. G. Hart, called Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America.

Machen was a conservative evangelical New Testament scholar in the early part of the 20th century in the US. Machen was highly involved in the battles in the American Presbyterian church against theological liberalism and modernism. The American Presbyterian Church held to the Westminster Standards of the 17th century as their doctrinal position. The Westminster standards are biblical, conservative, and Reformed (like the Church of England’s 39 articles and Book of Common Prayer.) However American modernists within the church were re-interpreting the Westminster Standards according to early 20th century Western culture.

Yet the book is not merely of interest for those who like 20th century church history. There are many lessons for today, especially for those of who are concerned for biblical truth within the Church of England, which I want to draw out.

First, and very importantly, Machen argued that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions. In his famous book called Christianity and Liberalism, Machen compared what traditional, historical Christianity and “church” liberalism thought about key doctrines such as Christ and salvation. Machen, at least in this book, did not aim to defend Christianity or critique liberalism; he merely wanted to compare and contrast them. Machen concluded that traditional Christianity sees doctrines as bound up with history and absolute truth, and while liberals use the same language as Christians do about God, Christ, Scripture, church etc. they mean very different things. So, liberals talk about loving Jesus but what they mean is that Jesus is a great example and teacher, not that He is God become flesh in order to save sinners from sin. Therefore, Christianity and liberalism are different religions.

Today, we could say that both traditional Christians and liberals refer to the Scriptures but in very different ways. For traditional Christianity, the Bible is decisive; what the Bible says is what God says, the church must be obedient to the Bible. For liberalism, the Bible is an important book about the experiences of God by ancient Jews and Christians. Today, to find the voice of God, the Bible must be in dialogue with modern science and culture, and our own spiritual experiences. The two views of traditional Christianity and liberalism about Scripture are quietly diametrically opposed to one another.

Secondly, Machen found that his church, the American Presbyterian Church, had an increasingly centralized bureaucracy that made it very hard for conservatives to focus on doctrine and insist that church discipline is exercised against heresy. The denomination focused on pragmatics of mission and growth rather than discuss the nature of the doctrine of mission.

We find the same thing in the Church of England today. The church bureaucracy has increased. Resources pour out of London and diocesan HQ. There is now a Diocesan adviser for everything (except doctrine.) In these post-truth times, it is almost impossible to have serious theological discussions at Deanery or Synod level. All is geared to pragmatism and what works, not truth.

Thirdly, Machen found himself attacked of being “uncharitable,” “narrow,” and “divisive” for his insistence on doctrine rather than experience, and that Christianity and liberalism were different things. Machen pointed out that no one had bothered to engage with his arguments but was merely written off with emotional reactions.

Today, Machen’s experience is all too familiar with theological conservatives. The liberal reactions to conservative arguments is to place themselves in a “victim” position – the conservatives are “homophobic,” “bigoted,” etc. In this atmosphere, it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion.

Fourthly, Machen found that the moderate evangelicals of his day refused to join conservatives in fighting liberalism. Moderate evangelicals believed that liberalism was in error, but that liberals were brothers and sisters in Christ, and therefore it would be wrong to divide the church.

Here is a critical issue for us: can there be evangelical unity in the current disputes about human sexuality in any fight with liberalism? If “open” evangelicals see liberalism as a legitimate position, a way of being Christian, or “churchmanship” within the church (though one they disagree with), then “open” evangelicals will always be critical of conservative evangelicals as being “schismatic.” Only, if “open evangelicals” can be persuaded to see that liberalism is “another Gospel” will they join conservatives in fighting liberalism.

Lastly, Machen found that the only godly option left was to leave and start a new denomination – the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It was personally costly for Machen, but he believed that the Gospel was at stake.

For us, if the Church of England becomes unreformable, indeed goes in an increasingly liberal direction, and is resistant to godly change, then the only option might be to put the Gospel first, and doctrinal Anglicanism above denominational unity.

It seems that church history repeats itself. I hope that we can lean the right lessons from Gresham Machen, who was Valiant-for-the-Truth.


Rev. Dr. Rohintan Mody, Winchester Diocese.


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