In the March issue of the Beacon Lights Seminarian Doug Kuiper (hereafter I will refer to him as the reviewer) reviewed J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism. In the last five paragraphs of the review he made some claims about what liberalism is and he ends the review with a criticism of Machen for not including certain things in his definition of a liberal, which the reviewer thinks should be included. I will discuss some problems with the reviewer’s definition of liberalism, and show that Machen cannot be faulted for not combining the reviewer’s definition of a liberal in his own view.
The book review begins by showing that Machen in this book is attempting to show that Liberalism, even though it uses a similar vocabulary to Orthodox Christianity, is in fact a separate religion. The Liberalism which Machen is distinguishing from Christianity is the belief system of Higher Critics who denied and redefined all the major Christian doctrines: the doctrines of God, man, atonement, Bible, sin, and Christ.
Machen is using the word ‘Christianity’ in the title of the book to denote Orthodox Christianity. The doctrines of Orthodox Christianity are those agreed to by the churches of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the churches of the patristic period. Machen is showing in this book that the Liberals are using the same words that Orthodox Christianity uses, but redefining them.
The reviewer correctly explains what the book’s main points are. He shows how the Liberalism with which Machen is taking issue redefines Christian terms. Machen takes it for granted that the liberalism and the way the word ‘liberal’ is being used denotes the Higher Critics and their radically different religion. In the fifth to the last paragraph of the book review we see a turn in the way which a liberal is being defined in the article. Up until this point a liberal has been a liberal in Machen’s sense. But now the definition of a liberal is considered faulty.
Liberalism is rampant in the church world today. But who are the liberals? In the Reformed tradition, he is a liberal who does not believe the teaching of the Synod of Dordt: TULIP. In the Presbyterian tradition, he is a liberal who does not subscribe to the teaching of the Westminster Assembly. Any person who denies that God loves some men and hates others; any person who says that Christ died for all men; any person who ascribes any work of man to salvation; any person who does not view every part of the Bible as inspired by God and authoritative; he is a liberal, (page 17, Beacon Lights. March 1993)
A liberal is defined by the reviewer to be someone who neither agrees with the teachings of the Canons of Dordt nor believes in infallibility (in the contemporary theological sense). The reviewer is implying that people who disagree with the Canons or support the above quoted faulty doctrines should fit under Machen’s use of the term ‘liberal’. Machen has defined some liberals, but has not gone far enough, so the reviewer prescribes more belief systems which should be classified with Machen’s liberals. But this is a misunderstanding of how the word ‘liberal’ is being used and defined by Machen. The Liberals against whom Machen is writing are not Christians in any orthodox sense. The persons the reviewer is calling liberals are orthodox Christians.
There is nothing wrong with Machen stipulating and using ‘liberal’ in the sense in which he does. The meaning of a word is defined by its use. The word ‘liberal’ is used in many different ways by different people in politics, religion, and other fields – meaning different things in different contexts.
The reviewer makes this claim in the third to the last paragraph of his article:
‘The major weakness of Machen’s book is that he is too lenient to certain people who fit into the category of liberalism. On page 51, he excludes Arminians from the camp of the liberals. On page 52, he excludes Roman Catholics from the camp of liberals. Yet the Arminians have a different view of God and man than do Reformed Christians; that was the very reason for the Synod and Canons of Dordt! And the Church of Rome has an entirely different view of the church and of salvation than do the Reformed; that was the very reason for the Reformation of 1517! Machen fails here.”
It is true that Roman Catholics and Arminians have a different view of God and man than the Calvinists. But so does any belief system which is at variance with the Reformed Creeds in any way. Any belief in any wrong doctrine whatsoever gives a wrong view of the nature of God. Christian doctrines came from God; therefore, they express what His nature is. Therefore, anybody disagreeing with any true doctrine does have a wrong view of the nature of God. Hence it follows that if one has a small wrong doctrine, that one has a small misconception of the nature of God. When one has a large wrong doctrine (a supposedly ‘necessary’ belief) then one has a big misconception of the nature of God. It seems that we do not have Biblical principles which will point out to us which of the ‘necessary’ or ‘contingent’ beliefs is a big enough misconception of God that we must include them in our definition of a liberal, as the reviewer would like to do.
The reviewer confuses what Machen’s definition of Liberalism is with his own, running them together. He misunderstands Machen’s project in the above quoted paragraph. Machen’s project is to distinguish Orthodox Christianity (which involves all Protestant and Catholic churches) from the modernism or higher critical liberalism of his day. He is distinguishing the orthodox Christian doctrines of God, Christ, man, salvation, the atonement, and the Bible, from the doctrines of the Modernists of his day. By Orthodox Christianity one is usually referring to the churches of the patristic period, the Roman Catholic church, and the Protestant churches. This is the way that Machen is using the term ‘Christianity’, he is defending Orthodox Christianity against the non-supernatural religion of the higher critics. This book is not a defense of Machen’s brand of Christianity (Orthodox Presbyterian) and its world view against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism – one will have to look elsewhere in his writings if one is interested in this project. Therefore, yes, Machen does exclude “Roman Catholics from the camp of liberals” as well as Arminians, because under his definition of a liberal – they do not fit. One needs only read the Liberal definition of who God is, who Christ was, what the Bible is, what is meant by salvation, as Machen presents and argues against them in this book to realize that Arminians and Roman Catholics are not liberals in this sense at all.
Mr. Brummel’s objection to my review of J.G. Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism as it appeared in the March, 1993 issue of this periodical is that I misrepresent Machen’s definition and use of the term “liberal,” and therefore also misrepresent the purpose of Machen’s book. Mr. Brummel writes:
“Machen’s project is to distinguish Orthodox Christianity (which involves all Protestant and Catholic Churches) from the modernism or higher critical liberalism of his day. . . . This book is not a defense of Machen’s brand of Christianity (Orthodox Presbyterian) and its world view against Roman Catholicism and Arminianism.”
I agree with Mr. Brummel’s characterization of Machen’s project; nor did I mean to suggest otherwise in my review. I further acknowledge that I do offer my own definition of “liberal” which is broader than Machen’s, and thus my definition of “Christian” is narrower than Machen’s. I would say that this is my evaluation and critique of Machen’s work, rather than a misunderstanding of it. If this was not clear in the review, I thank Mr. Brummel for pointing it out.
The fact is that those whom Machen calls liberals were within the Presbyterian Church of the United States. As officebearers in that denomination, they had signed the Westminster Confession of Faith. Then they propagated views which denied its teachings. Furthermore, they adopted a higher critical approach to the New Testament. Machen rightly calls them liberals. Admittedly what distinguishes these liberals from the Arminians and Roman Catholics is that the latter two groups do not question the New Testament’s authority; they simply interpret it in a way different from that of the Reformed and Presbyterians.
I of course am in no position to determine whether an individual is or is not a true Christian (by which term “Christian” I now mean anyone who is “a member of Christ by faith, and thus . . . partaker of his anointing”, Heid. Cat., Answer 32). I understand that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and that He saves many who are not members of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and who do not subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards.
But I maintain that the system of teaching of the Arminians and Roman Catholics is not Christian (now meaning not Biblical as judged by creedal standards). In my opinion, Machen pays too little attention to this fact, especially regarding the Arminian body of doctrine. (He does make statements which show that he seriously differs with Roman Catholicism’s teachings.) Regarding the Arminians our own forefathers have said that they “bring again out of hell the Pelagian error” and that they “seek to instill in the people the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors” (Canons, 2nd Head, Rejection of Errors, Arts. 3 and 6). One who subscribes to Arminian doctrine or Roman Catholic doctrine is not a Christian as regards his body of belief, although he may be an elect child of God, by the grace of God and in spite of his belief.
This the child of God MUST believe: that by Jesus’ death on the cross his sins are washed away. Liberalism denies this; it “regards the Cross of Christ as a trifle” (Machen, p. 161.). In essence Arminianism and Catholicism do exactly the same thing. Clearly the Romish teachings of meritorious works belittle the doctrine of the cross, the central doctrine of Christianity. Arminianism’s body of teaching does so as well, although how it does so may be less clear and thus need more detailed support for which I do not have time here. But if Arminianism is essentially Pelagianism, it makes the doctrine of the cross trivial. In this respect, the system of teaching of Catholicism and Arminianism is not essentially different from the system of teaching of Liberalism; and I contend that Machen does not do justice to this fact.
But let me not be understood to think that no person will go to heaven who does not subscribe fully to the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.