Gresham Machen: Christianity & Liberalism

*This is not a definitive answer on the topic but I hope it is useful food for thought.

Gresham Machen: Christianity & Liberalism

The full question:

Evaluate the chapters 2, 4 & 6 of ‘Christianity & Liberalism’ by Gresham Machen taking into consideration its author, outline and content, life setting and relevance for today. 


Gresham Machen was one of the most influential figures in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. He was a strong fighter for the conservative side, and penned the classic Christianity & Liberalism as a response to the Liberal position. This essay will seek to explore what Machen argues in Christianity & Liberalism, and the impact of the book: both at the time, and since then.


“To Machen there was given a loyalty to the Word of God which would not allow the additions of fundamentalists nor the subtractions of liberal-ism.”[1] Because of this unflinching love for God’s Word Machen was a man who divided opinion: to some he was dearly loved, but to others he was despised. Machen lived in a “modernist era that scorned the Christian faith, that believed in science, not the Bible,”[2] and as such, this formed the way that he engaged with those within and outside the church. His most famous work is Christianity & Liberalism: this essay will seek to explore its historical and religious significance.


John Gresham Machen was born on the 28th July 1881, in Baltimore, Maryland.[3] His mother, Mary, taught Machen the Westminster Shorter Catechism from an early age.[4] Machen had a privileged upbringing, and attended a private college, where he received a classical education.[5] His family was wealthy, having acquired great wealth from railroads and cotton mills.[6] This wealth enabled Machen to be independent in many of his actions later in life, as he did not need to rely on the financial support of others.

Machen was a brilliant student, earning a scholarship for his studies at John Hopkins University. He was originally unsure as to what he would do in life, but eventually decided to study theology at Princeton Seminary, while also studying a Master of Arts at Princeton University.[7]

Machen spent a large portion of his life working as the Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, working there between 1906 and 1929.[8] He eventually left Princeton due to the invasion of modernist theology, starting Westminster Theological Seminary as an alternative, orthodox seminary.[9] Machen started Westminster in 1929, and taught New Testament there until his death.[10] Due to the Northern Presbyterian Churches’ rejection of orthodox theology and the Westminster Confession, Machen helped to start the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.[11]

Machen died on the 1st January 1937, at around 7.30pm.[12] Shortly before his death Machen sent a final telegram to his friend John Murray, which read, “I am so thankful for [the] active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”[13] And so Machen’s life ended as it had been lived: with hope and trust in Christ.

3. Christianity & Liberalism

3.1 Chapter 2 – Doctrine

Machen begins by showing why doctrine is important, as this is the foundation needed before any specific doctrine can be studied in detail.

Machen starts by giving voice to the often-stated liberal viewpoint that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.”[14] In the following pages he then shows how this is not the case by going back to the beginnings of Christianity and examining how the founders of the Christian religion would have answered that statement. He shows how Paul was passionate about the correct doctrine by comparing his two responses to opponents in Philippians and Galatians.[15] He concludes that “Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.”[16]

Doctrine is intrinsically linked with the historical Jesus, and in particular, the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection. The two go hand in hand.[17] This historical fact changed the disciples, making them new men, with a passion for sharing the good news about Jesus Christ. Doctrine changes lives. Machen concludes that “Christianity is based…upon an account of something that happened.”[18] There can be no doubting that Christianity is based in historical fact. And if that is the case, then doctrine surely follows. It is not just that ‘Christ died,’ but ‘Christ died for our sins.’ The meaning of the historical fact has been clearly established right from the beginning.[19]

The Christian faith does not rest in mere feelings, but in historical fact. And that means that there are certain beliefs that are truly Christian beliefs, and certain beliefs that are not. Doctrine matters.

3.2 Chapter 4 – The Bible

Having established that doctrine matters, two specific doctrines will be examined here. Firstly, the issue of the Bible; what is it? Is it God’s Word?

Machen begins by establishing the Christian view on the Bible, that it “contains an account of a revelation from God to man, which is found nowhere else.”[20] This revelation shows how “sinful man can come into communion with the living God.”[21] Here Machen again points back to the historical event of Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection as evidence that the Bible is indeed God’s Word.

But herein lies a potential error in waiting. Because Christian experience is a good thing, people have concluded that it is all that matters, regardless of how their experience fits in with the historical facts of the Bible.[22] As Machen points out, “the trouble is that the experience thus maintained is not Christian experience. Religious experience it may be, but Christian experience it certainly is not.”[23] Experience is only helpful when it couples with the historical evidence of the Bible.

Linked with this is the important idea that the Bible is true; that it is not filled with errors.[24] If the Bible were mistaken, then that would cast doubt on whether it should be listened to at all. But as Machen summarises, the Bible is “a true account; the Bible is an ‘infallible rule of faith and practice.’”[25]

Machen states that many liberals claim to follow the authority of Christ over the authority of the Bible. But this is impossible, because Christ himself saw the Bible as the ultimate authority.[26] Instead, Machen says that liberals actually only follow the authority of certain words of Jesus; those that are first “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 I retaining as genuine words…only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas.”[27] As Machen concludes, “it is not true at all…that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus… The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience.’”[28]

This is in stark contrast to the Christian man, who “finds in the Bible the very Word of God.”[29] It is clear, then, that liberalism is vastly different to Christianity, as “the foundation is different.”[30] The foundation could not be any different; Christianity is founded on the Word of God, whereas liberalism is “founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”[31]

3.3 Chapter 6 – Salvation

The second doctrinal issue is salvation: how are people saved? Considering that Liberalism differs from Christianity in its view of the bible, it is therefore “not surprising that it presents an entirely different account of the way of salvation.”[32] While Christianity finds salvation “in the redeeming work or Christ,”[33] Liberalism “finds salvation…in man.”[34]

Although Liberalism still refers to the death of Christ it has changed the meaning of it to the point where the “traditional language is being strained to become the expression of totally alien ideas.”[35] Machen argues that the way Liberalism refers to it is either as an example to emulate, as a picture of how much God hates sin, or of the love of God.[36] While all of these points might have an element of truth in them, they are not the ultimate meaning of the Cross.

Machen then spends a large amount of the chapter examining the Liberal criticisms of the traditional view of salvation. These criticisms include the fact that it is dependant upon history,[37] too narrow,[38] that it is impossible for one man to take away another man’s sins,[39] and that it presents an unappealing picture of God.[40] Machen spends time addressing each criticism as he goes, countering it and showing how the Christian understanding is the correct understanding. Machen shows how ultimately, Liberalism is built upon works and slavery to the Law. As he puts it, “the grace of God is rejected by modern liberalism. And the result is slavery…the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a grounds of acceptance with God.”[41] Machen sums up the chapter saying that “Human goodness will avail nothing for lost souls; ye must be born again.”[42] On the point of salvation Liberalism and Christianity could not be any further apart.

3.4 Summary

In summing up the thesis of his argument in Christianity & Liberalism, Machen wrote “The truth is that the manifold religious life of the present day…does not spring from one root but from two. One root is Christianity; the other is a naturalistic or agnostic modernism which… is fundamentally hostile to the Christian faith.”[43] According to Machen, Liberalism is too far from the truth of Christianity to be considered the same religion, as the differences on the Bible and salvation clearly demonstrate.

4. Life Setting

4.1 Situation in the church, the world and for the author

In the lead up to Machen writing Christianity & Liberalism there was a great divide beginning to form in the Presbyterian church. This led to what became known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy.

Liberalism had been growing in the American church: a way of reading the bible that sought to explain away anything that seemed unscientific or irrational.[44] Liberalism also had a particular interest in social justice, and in the unity of the church, adopting the motto “doctrine divides, ministry unites.”[45] This difference in theology between the two groups caused a divide, which grew over the spam of a generation or more, and ended up with the Presbyterian church factionalising into two parts: the Old School and the New School.[46]

Despite the growing theological differences between the liberals and the fundamentalists, the church sought to keep unity,[47] at least partly for the sake of political unity.[48] In 1908 the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) was formed.[49] It was heavily associated with the Progressive movement of the day, and particularly with the Social Gospel.[50] In response to World War 1 the FCC established an interdenominational-interreligious group to create unity. Following the end of World War 1 there was a push from liberals for this unity to continue, and so the Interchurch World Movement was established.[51]

This set the foundation for the Church Union debate. In 1919 a delegation was sent by the General Assembly to a national ecumenical movement that wanted church union. In 1920 the General Assembly approved a recommendation for organic union, to form what would be known as the United Churches of Christ in America.[52] Because of the Presbyterian form of government for this to happen it would need to be approved by presbyteries. The push for union was ultimately defeated by a vote of 151-100 in 1921.[53]

The conflict caused by the divide between those with liberal theology and those with conservative theology, and increased because of the tension caused by the push for unity, came to a head on the 21st May 1922, when Harry Fosdick preached a sermon called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”[54] The sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in New York City, and presented liberals as sincere evangelicals trying to reconcile their faith and science, and fundamentalists as intolerant conservatives.[55] In response, C.E. Macartney preached a sermon entitled “Shall Unbelief Win?”[56] From there a decade-long battle was to ensue.[57] Christianity & Liberalism was one of the key pieces in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, as it was seen as “defining the issue of the day more incisively than any other publication.”[58]

Machen was heavily involved in both the union rejection and the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, being strongly against what he saw as “the abandonment of the Westminster Standards and the relegation of historic Christianity to nonessentials.”[59] Although the union was voted down he took little comfort, as it had still received an “alarmingly large show of support.”[60] Machen’s frustration with Liberalism stemmed back to his time studying in Germany, where he was under the liberal Wilhelm Herrmann.[61] Machen developed a deep dislike for the way that liberal Christianity was so quick to dismiss the bible, and as such he was an avid fighter for fundamentalism in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Over the following few years Machen became more and more outspoken against Liberalism, penning three articles and speaking to a number of churches on the themes that would later be developed fully in Christianity & Liberalism.[62]

4.2 Compared to other texts by Machen

While Machen had a number of successful books, none of them came anywhere close to Christianity & Liberalism in impact and weight. Machen followed it up with What is Faith?, which was a sequel to Christianity & Liberalism.[63] These two books are not just a defence against Liberalism: they are a compelling and eloquent explanation of key biblical themes, and as such do more than just defend against liberalism.[64] Machen also wrote a number of other books,[65] though again, none of these came close to having the impact that Christianity & Liberalism had.

4.3 Compared to other texts of the time

Christianity & Liberalism differs from other texts of the time in the way that it boldly and clearly presents a defence of Christian orthodoxy. It was revolutionary for its rational and logical argument, but also for the way in which it strongly asserts the truth: Machen lived in a time that saw everything as a question.[66] Machen, however, did not. And as such, this comes across in Christianity & Liberalism.

4.4 How does it draw on earlier texts

Christianity & Liberalism draws primarily on the bible for its argument and reasoning: all of the points that Machen makes are based on Scriptural arguments. There are, however, some passing references to other authors and their works, including John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress,[67] and Tenney and A Rapid Survey of the History and Literature of New Testament Times.[68] He also refers in passing to early creeds and confessional statements, including the Nicene Creed[69] and the Westminster Confession.[70]

5. Relevance of ‘Christianity & Liberalism’

5.1 Initial impact of the text

Christianity & Liberalism was relatively slow to take off: only 1,000 copies were sold in the first year.[71] But it slowly gained traction, receiving both positive and negative reviews, which helped it to gain a reputation. In 1924 it sold 5,000 copies, and it has continued to sell well since then.

Christianity & Liberalism has been described as “‘the best popular argument’ produced by either fundamentalists or liberals in a decade of religious turmoil.”[72] It became the text on which the fundamentalist case was made, giving them “a place to stand.”[73] Even those outside of the church could grasp the point that Machen was making, with “the New York Herald Tribune [advising] liberals to read Christianity & Liberalism before undertaking any further reconstruction of Christianity.”[74] The liberal side, however, dodged the issues raised by Machen.[75] They accused Machen of slanderous charges, and rather than engage with his content they argued, “according to Machen’s definition of liberalism the church contained no liberals.”[76]

5.2 Continuing impact of the text

Since then, Machen has been accused of treating “the Bible as a textbook of systematic theology”[77] and ignoring the bible’s “historical and cultural trappings.”[78] Harris accuses Machen of using an approach that “has resulted in distorted presentations of Christian belief.”[79] However, dismissing his arguments in this way fails to do justice to the “profundity of his critique of liberalism, one that won praise from secular intellectuals in the 1920s and from historians since then.”[80]

Christianity & Liberalism has become a building block used by many Evangelicals over the years. Strange declared that Christians “need to hear the uncompromising defence of orthodoxy that we find herein in our heterodox age.”[81]

5.3 Impact of the text today

Machen’s assertion that “Modern liberalism in the Church…is…no longer merely an academic matter” seems almost as apt today as it was when he wrote it. As Strange puts it, “all of us, almost a century later, feel the pressure of the viability of the biblical faith.”[82] Liberalism is rife within western culture, and so Christianity & Liberalism is vital reading for church leaders and lay members alike, so that Christians might know how to defend their faith. How is it to be defended? The solution, as Machen puts it, is “a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it when once it is found.”[83] The solution is to dig deeper into God’s Word, where God has revealed Himself and his amazing, saving work in Christ. The Church needs to continue to seek God’s truth if it is to avoid being destroyed by the deception of Liberalism.[84]

6. Conclusion

Machen truly was one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the early 20th Century. Without Christianity & Liberalism, Evangelicals would be missing a masterpiece defence of Christian orthodoxy. And as Machen continually contended, everything revolves around Jesus, and who one considers him to be. “Liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards Him as a supernatural Person.”[85] It is vital that the church continues to cling to this incredible truth so wonderfully stated by Machen.


    1. R K Churchill, ‘Significance of J Gresham Machen Today’, The Westminster Theological Journal 40/1 (September 1977): p167.

    2. Alan D Strange, ‘An Introduction to J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism’, Mid-America Journal of Theology 24/ (2013): p217.

    3. Henry W. Coray, J. Gresham Machen: A Silhouette (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), p15.

    4. Bradley J Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists and Moderates (S.l.: Oxf. U.P. (N.Y.), 1994), p31-32.

    5. Ned Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1978), p39.

    6. Stephen J. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Pub, 2004), p24.

    7. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p28.

    8. ‘Machen, John Gresham, 1881-1937’, Journal of Biblical Literature 57/1 (March 1938): p.iv.

    9. “Machen, John Gresham, 1881-1937,” p.iv.

    10. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, p447-449.

    11. William M. Ramsay, Church History 101: An Introduction for Presbyterians (1st ed ed.; Louisville, Ky: Geneva Press, 2005), p131.

    12. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, p508.

    13. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p23.

    14. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New ed ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009), p17.

    15. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p19-20.

    16. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p20.

    17. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p22-23.

    18. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p44.

    19. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p23.

    20. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p59.

    21. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p60.

    22. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p61.

    23. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p61.

    24. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p62-64.

    25. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p63.

    26. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p65.

    27. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p66.

    28. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p66.

    29. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p67.

    30. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p67.

    31. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p67.

    32. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p99.

    33. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p99.

    34. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p99.

    35. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p100.

    36. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p100-101.

    37. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p102-103.

    38. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p103-106.

    39. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p106-109.

    40. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p109-115.

    41. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p121.

    42. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p131.

    43. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p.ix.

    44. Edwin H. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict (Grand Rapid, Mich: Eerdmans, 1940), preface.

    45. J. Gresham Machen and D. G. Hart, Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2004), p9.

    46. Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, p13-17.

    47. Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, p4.

    48. D. G. Hart, ‘J. Gresham Machen, Inerrancy, and Creedless Christianity’, Themelios 25/3 (June 2000): p23.

    49. Gary North, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church (Tyler, Tex: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996), p336.

    50. North, Crossed Fingers, p336.

    51. Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, p26.

    52. Machen and Hart, Selected Shorter Writings.

    53. Lefferts Loetscher, The Broadening Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954), p101.

    54. Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, p9.

    55. Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, p9.

    56. Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, p11.

    57. D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2007), p192.

    58. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, p335.

    59. Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, p191.

    60. Hart and Muether, Seeking a Better Country, p191.

    61. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p82.

    62. D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p67.

    63. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p79.

    64. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p79.

    65. His other books included: The Origins of Paul’s Religion (1921), The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), The Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936) and The Christian View of Man (1937)

    66. Strange, “An Introduction to J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism,” p218.

    67. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p39.

    68. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p24, 26.

    69. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p39.

    70. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p39.

    71. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p96.

    72. Hart, Defending the Faith, p3.

    73. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p97.

    74. Hart, Defending the Faith, p79.

    75. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen, p96.

    76. Hart, Defending the Faith, p79.

    77. Hart, “J. Gresham Machen, Inerrancy, and Creedless Christianity,” p21.

    78. Hart, “J. Gresham Machen, Inerrancy, and Creedless Christianity,” p21.

    79. H Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p167, 323.

    80. Hart, “J. Gresham Machen, Inerrancy, and Creedless Christianity,” p21.

    81. Strange, “An Introduction to J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism,” p225.

    82. Strange, “An Introduction to J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism,” p217.

    83. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p15.

    84. Strange, “An Introduction to J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism,” p225.

    85. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p82.


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