I have in my library an old paperback copy of J. Gresham Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism.” Although he is working through ageless Christian beliefs this book is definitely set in a specific era. Machen wrote this little book (first issued in 1925) to inject a heavy dose of theological common sense into the doctrinal battle of the time. Even so “Christianity and Liberalism” is like a slow burning candle that continues to give light.
‘It was named one of the top 100 books of the millennium by World magazine and one of the top 100 books of the twentieth century by Christianity Today.’
The reason for its staying power is the way Machen approached his topic. He was not a bridge burner nor did he try to throw darts in every direction (like many Fundamentalists of late). He is thoughtful – not painting with a broad brush. He was a Presbyterian, but as you read through you can tell he was not a partisan Presbyterian. His logic is precise, but he is gentle.
Look how Machen begins his book. Here is the first sentence:
“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself.”
Notice how Machen respects his readers. He doesn’t try to shoe horn you into his thesis. He invites. He invites the reader to think alongside of him – to sit and ponder for a while what he is setting forth. This approach – an approach that invites you toward his thoughts so as “the reader” you “may be aided in deciding” yourself – is one that is not only precise, but pleasant.
I am not sure whether the notes and underlining in this copy were done by my grandfather, Rev. H. A. Wheatley, or a previous owner. What is worth noting is that whoever the reader is he doing just what Machen hoped in his very first sentence. See how the reader is joining into the conversation that is the book. The penciled scrawl says: “Sometimes contenders were also destroyers – “ That’s good insight. It appears that this penciled remark is playing off Machen’s statement on that page:
“But He [God] has always saved it [the Church] not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth” (p. 174).
There is a lot of good wisdom in this little book. One more thing I want to share with you is Machen’s wisdom for how to deal with opposition – not opposition from the enemy, but the kind of opposition you get from within your own fortress. Here Machen’s gentleness comes out again.
In his chapter entitled ‘Doctrine’ Machen clearly lays out the boundaries of biblical doctrine. He says,
“Nothing in the world can take the place of truth” (p.48).
Look at the next sentence. This is the example I want to show of Machen’s ability to see that everything is not on the same level of importance though it may indeed be true. He teaches me that not everything is fundamental. If that were the case, then nothing would be. Machen’s wisdom is not executed with a broad swing of his saber. He shows his wisdom by unembarassingly stating that not”all points of doctrine are equally important.”
“We do not mean in insisting upon the doctrinal basis of Christianity that all points of doctrine are equally important.”
There are core truths and then there are supporting truths. Knowing this wise thought is the thought that precedes gentle interaction with persons who are different than we are. I have still a lot to learn.