The Book That Packed A Punch: 100 Years of Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism”

Marking time is an odd aspect of human existence. Anniversaries divisible by five, ten, or twenty-five have more significance than those using lesser divisors. A centennial or bi-centennial raises the stakes even higher. The hundredth anniversary this year of Christianity and Liberalism, penned by the then Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), has prompted some Protestants to take another look at the book that Yale historian, Sydney Ahlstrom, called the “chief theological ornament” of Protestant fundamentalism.[1]

The anniversary has not produced a groundswell. Reformed and Presbyterian outlets have not planned conferences or published articles. Evangelical publications so far have not noticed the anniversary or commented on Machen’s significance. At The Gospel Coalition website, Tim Keller did recently appropriate Christianity and Liberalism for an assessment of mainline Protestantism’s decline. But he did not seem to be aware of the anniversary. Many observers of American Protestantism will still cite Machen’s book since it remains in print; seminary professors (at least) still assign it; the writing and argument remains accessible to ordinary Christians. But interacting with Machen’s diagnosis of liberal Protestantism is different from regarding the anniversary of the book’s original publication as worthy of recognition.

One reason the anniversary of Christianity and Liberalism has been low key among evangelicals may be Machen’s mixed reputation. The problem, to put it simply, is that evangelicals excel at caring and empathy. Machen certainly cared about the effects of liberalism on the Presbyterian Church, but this provoked him to argument and critique, not expressions of sympathy and love. To care as Machen did, in a manner that generates disagreement, violates evangelical piety.

Prominent evangelical historians set the betting line on Machen’s reputation fairly early in the post-1976 study of born-again Protestantism. Mark A. Noll and George M. Marsden were prominent figures in the creation of a field (and network) of evangelical historiography, and their remarks undoubtedly influenced the way readers and scholars understood Machen. Noll and Marsden’s judgments were especially important since they, more than other evangelical historians, were conversant with Princeton Seminary, Westminster Seminary, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: Marsden’s first book was on New School Presbyterianism and included Princeton Seminary’s Old School critique of an Americanized Protestantism; Noll had also written on the founding of Princeton Seminary and edited an anthology of its leading theologian’s writings. For Marsden, who grew up in the OPC, Machen’s “cantankerousness” undermined the effectiveness of his critique of theological liberalism. In fact, Marsden added, Machen’s personality was appealing to only his closest friends, even while his version of Presbyterianism was one that “many people today find appalling.”[2]3 Noll made similar points when writing at the fiftieth anniversary of Machen’s death. Machen was a contentious figure who “undermined the effectiveness of those Reformed and evangelical individuals” who strove to remain faithful in the Presbyterian Church, USA.[3]4

In the world of Reformed seminaries, John M. Frame reinforced Noll and Marsden’s depiction of Machen not so much by rendering the OPC stalwart as belligerent. Frame used Machen as a meme. His essay, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” identified the various fronts (as of 2003) where doctrinal sticklers were insisting on conformity. In turn, Frame linked these conservatives to Machen. The Princeton professor’s example was one of constantly seeking battle, even when liberalism was no longer the enemy. “Without liberals to fight,” these Machenites “turned on one another.”[4]5

The perception of Machen as combative relies on his place in the controversies of the last ten years of his life. First at Princeton Seminary, where he led opposition to an administrative reorganization of the school’s executive and board, and then in the PCUSA after a controversial report revealed that modernism was rampant in both foreign missions agencies and denominational offices responsible for assessment. In both cases, Machen, the son and brother of prominent Baltimore attorneys, mixed objections to theological liberalism with Presbyterian legal procedure to mount visible and plausible opposition to efforts by progressive Protestants to transform the mainline denominations. Unlike today’s celebrity pastors who might object to the direction of their denominations before leaving to found their own “Celebrity Pastor Ministry,” Machen remained a Presbyterian, and that made him tenacious about church government. When fellow officers either ignored or abused the levers of Presbyterian polity, Machen was willing–as the kids say–to lawyer up. Such strictness about church polity falls flat in most sectors of evangelical Protestantism where having Jesus in your heart (or liking Billy Graham) qualifies for communion.

Before those controversies, however, Machen distinguished himself by writing Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. On the surface, it avoided the controversies usually associated with Machen. The book reads like a straightforward presentation of basic Christian doctrine. Chapters cover the loci of a systematic theology–God, man, Bible, Christ, salvation, the Church. Machen also included one chapter on doctrine to set up the others. He understood that in both evangelical and liberal Protestant circles, personal experience or religious feelings mattered more than doctrinal truths for understanding Christianity. Otherwise, Machen’s order of subjects was ordinary. What may have surprised some readers was his decision to devote close to twenty pages out of a 180-page book to the doctrine of the vicarious atonement. But this was not unusual for a New Testament scholar who had already written a book on the apostle Paul in which he explained the singularity of the apostle’s teaching about Christ’s death and resurrection.[5] Indeed, a dominant theme in much of Machen’s writing was the human predicament of sin, God’s righteous demands, and the impossibility of remedying this gulf without a supernatural intervention like Christ’s death on the cross.

Not to be missed in Machen’s most famous book is what is missing. Although readers and reviewers tied Machen to the fundamentalist side of the 1920s controversy, he did not dabble in the doctrines that animated anti-modernists. For typical fundamentalists, opposition to evolution, affirmation of premillennialism, and defense of biblical inerrancy were theological benchmarks. Christianity and Liberalism is silent about evolution (and creation). Machen refers to the “recrudescence of premillennialism” (synonymous with “Chiliasm”) as reason for “serious concern.”[6] Meanwhile, he does defend inerrancy but does so in a manner so brief (three pages) that it looked like a box he needed to check (compared to lengthy defenses of biblical infallibility for which Princeton Seminary professors were famous).

If the book lacked the swagger of fundamentalist shibboleths, it was still controversial in its assertion of basic Protestant doctrine. Machen developed his argument from an article he had written 1922 for the Princeton Theological Review, “Liberalism or Christianity?” That piece also had a history. It stemmed from a lecture Machen gave in 1921 to the Ruling Elders’ Association of Chester Presbytery (adjacent to Philadelphia in the southwest). The timing and place were significant. In 1920 the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly had gathered in Philadelphia. One of the controversial pieces of business was to vote on a plan to unite all the acceptable Protestant denominations of the United States into a Protestant Church of America (similar to what transpired in 1925 with the merger of Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists in the formation of the United Church of Canada). This plan was the culmination of fifty years of ecumenical cooperation among American Protestants. The good will behind this effort was not merely spiritual. It also tapped the ideas of the Social Gospel. Protestants had started to cooperate during the 1870s when large numbers of immigrants to the United States seemed to threaten the Christian character of American society. Protestants could not remain sequestered in their own denominational commitments if they were to maintain their influence within the nation. The watered-down version of Protestantism that enabled the several denominations to form an umbrella church provoked conservative objections. At the 1920 General Assembly, where Machen was a commissioner, he not only heard reports and voted against the plan, but also collaborated with other officers, many from Philadelphia and Chester presbyteries, to oppose the plan for union. They succeeded. At the 1920 General Assembly, the Plan for Organic Union failed.

But Machen believed that the rationale for union was much more widespread than one specific proposal. The links between ecumenism and the Social Gospel were part of a move among liberal Protestants to make Christianity relevant. The older verities of Reformation theology and the Westminster Confession seemed impractical in the eyes of progressive if the churches were to address real needs in the world. Machen worried especially that social questions had supplanted theological ones: “Christianity will combat Bolshevism,” he wrote, “but if it is accepted in order to combat Bolshevism, it is not Christianity.”[7] To be sure, as Machen argued, liberal Protestantism was also a response to scientific developments which made the supernatural character of Christianity look implausible. Both science and politics posed challenges to an understanding of Christianity that stressed doctrine, worship, and personal salvation. In response, Machen argued that as laudable as liberal Protestants were in their humanitarian and political concerns they were preaching a different gospel from that of Scripture and Protestant tradition. This is why he made the controversial claim that liberal Protestantism was an altogether different religion from Christianity. Only seven pages into the book he wrote: “Despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.”[8]9

Even with that provocation, Christianity and Liberalism did not attract attention until the end of 1923, over six months after its publication. Machen was pulpit supply at First Presbyterian Church in Princeton starting in June of 1923, the congregation where the Presbyterian faculty at both Princeton Seminary and the university worshiped. It included Henry Van Dyke, professor of literature who also served as ambassador to the Netherlands for President Woodrow Wilson. In December, Machen preached a sermon that was substantially a reply to Harry Emerson Fosdick, who the previous year preached “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” a sermon that ignited the fundamentalist controversy. Van Dyke disagreed with Machen’s argument–that churches needed to maintain their doctrinal standards even while standing on the side of liberty in civil matters. He also gave up his pew at the church and held a press conference to explain his reasons. News coverage of Van Dyke led reporters to Machen, both for responses and to examine Christianity and Liberalism. If not for the publicity surrounding Van Dyke, Machen’s book may have languished in the book shops.

The history behind Christianity and Liberalism suggests that Machen was a controversial figure even when he was the most didactic. For those evangelicals who later tried to hold on to the Machen of Christianity and Liberalism while distancing themselves from the controversies that dominated his final years, that distinction is hard to maintain. A restructuring of Princeton Seminary, the launch of Westminster Seminary (1929), the missions controversy of the 1930s, and the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936) were by no means inevitable. At the same time, the logic of Christianity and Liberalism, combined with an implicit rejection of the social Christianity that had dominated mainline Protestantism for five decades, made the book almost shocking.

If Protestants today fail to commemorate Machen because he was argumentative in insisting that words, promises, and ordination matter, they unwittingly pay tribute to Christianity and Liberalism. They unintentionally honor the book’s bracing perspective even as their disregard ignores the weakness of evangelical winsomeness. Acceptance and moderation did not save the mainline churches from the errors of liberalism. Neither did Machen. But as Pearl Buck observed in her obituary for The New Republic:

There was power in [Machen] which was positive in its very negations. He was worth a hundred of his fellows who, as princes of the church, occupy easy places and play their church politics and trim their sails to every wind, who in their smug observance of the convictions of life and religion offend all honest and searching spirits.

D.G. Hart is Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Ben Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford University Press, 2021).

  1. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 912.

  2. George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 200-201.

  3. Mark Noll, “Commemorating a Warrior,” Reformed Journal 37 (Jan. 1987), 6.

  4. John Frame, “Machen’s Warrior Children,” in Alistair E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology: A Vital Engagement, ed., Sung Wook Chung, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 143.

  5. J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: MacMillan, 1921).

  6. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: MacMillan, 1923), 49.

  7. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 152.

  8. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 7.

*Image Credit: Unsplash


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