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christianity-and-liberalismIt’s been almost a century since J. Gresham Machen’s landmark work, Christianity and Liberalismwas released. What prompted Machen’s book was the descent of many mainline churches into liberal theology and teaching. Higher critical approaches to the Bible were a factor in this development, as well as scientific discoveries that made the Christian’s affirmation of miraculous, supernatural interventions seem embarrassing.

Keeping Morality, Ditching the Miracles

The trajectory of liberalism one hundred years ago went something like this:

  • We are living in a scientific age of discovery.
  • The miracles we read about in the Bible were written from another cultural vantage point.
  • It is important to maintain the ethical and moral teaching of Christianity.
  • Belief in the literal occurrence of biblical miracles is not needed to maintain the moral center of Christianity.
  • If belief in miracles is embarrassing to modern people, we should deemphasize them in order to extend Christianity into the next generation.

Machen’s point countered this line of thinking: You can’t have the moral teaching Christianity apart from its miracles.

The Issue Today

100 years later, we find ourselves in a situation where the trajectory of liberalism is almost totally reversed. Today, the issue is whether you can hold on to the center of Christianity apart from its morality.

Christian apologists today don’t usually have to convince people today that miracles can happen before they get to the specific claims about Jesus of Nazareth. You might run into hardened naturalists every now and then, but it seems like most people have an undefined belief that miracles can and do happen. The question today is whether or not these miracles are from a Deistic God who intervenes only now and then in human history, or whether they are part of a pantheistic worldview where the universe is alive, pulsating with supernatural energy, etc.

Machen wrote about Christians who wanted to cast aside the embarrassing parts of Christianity (such as belief in miracles) and keep “the essence” – Christianity’s moral precepts. What’s changed today is this: it’s not the miracles that are embarrassing but the moral precepts! It’s our view of sexuality, of objective truth claims, and of Christ’s uniqueness.

Keeping the Miracles, Ditching Morality

The trajectory of liberalism today goes something like this:

  • We are living in a tolerant age of enlightenment.
  • The morals we read about in the Bible were written from another cultural vantage point.
  • It is important to maintain the miraculous and supernatural events of Christianity.
  • Interpreting the commands of biblical morality literally is not needed in order to maintain to center of Christianity.
  • If belief in biblical morality is embarrassing to modern people, we should deemphasize it in order to extend Christianity into the next generation.

There are plenty of Christians who think we can shed a traditional, biblical understanding of morality as mere “cultural oddities” and still maintain the core of Christianity. I say they’re wrong. And I think 100 years from now, people will say we were right.


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8 thoughts on “Morality vs. Miracles: Looking at Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism” Today”

  1. Very good Trevin. You are of course absolutely correct. I think I would say though that MACHEN’S point stands. Because while he was specifying the supernatural as the offending component in 1923 while observing his beloved Princeton drift evermore left, we still today have an attempt to redefine the gospel so as to conform it to the norms of culture consensus.

    This time with sexual morality. (guess what is one of the major ways I’m believe this is being done) Both are crystal clear and both require some extraordinarily creative exegesis and exposition to escape. In other words, same basic attack in a different package. Similar arrow, different color. Actually this may be the point of your article now that I think about it a bit more :) (my first paragraph practically repeats what you said)

  2. george canady says:

    What was Machen’s view of “tradition, biblical understanding of morality” pertaining to the segregated Church of his day. Was it perhaps “from another cultural vantage point”.

    1. SLT says:

      Machen was part of the Northern Presbyterian Church which was far better intergrated than the Southern Presbyterian Church at the time. The link below is to an article on potential views of Machen. The author argues against those views.

      http://jgmachen.org/2011/05/23/machen-and-van-til-as-segregationists/

  3. It was not just about affirming the miracles for Machen. One of the central issues was the transcendence of God. This transcendence allowed him to act in the world in miraculous ways and to speak an authoritative word to the world. Liberalism has a “pantheizing” tendency, as Machen taught. This subverts both the miraculous and enduring morality. I have written about this here:http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2013/12/liberal-theology-and-its-pantheizing.html

  4. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    George Canaday: “What was Machen’s view of “tradition, biblical understanding of morality” pertaining to the segregated Church of his day.”

    “There is not one law of God for the Christian and another law of God for the non-Christian.” (A 1933 Lecture by Machen)

  5. Tim Martin says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that the moral core of Christianity is the “embarrassing element” that today’s social liberals seem to focus on, though they only see success through gross generalizations and cherry-picking scriptural support.

    The part of this discussion that weighs on me personally (though I appear to be about 100 years out of date) is the summary statement that Trevin lists, “Belief in the literal occurrence of biblical miracles is not needed to maintain the moral center of Christianity,” and the idea that such a statement is associated with Biblical liberalism. I am an evangelical Christian with (I believe) a strong talent for critical thought and analytical process. I do not doubt certain “core” miracles, such as the resurrection of Christ, but I am fond of saying that I am content to wait until I get to Heaven to answer questions about things like the Great Flood or the parting of the Red Sea. I have difficulty understanding why miracles on a global scale would not be reflected in the natural record. I have always believe it was important just to believe that, whatever happened, it was God’s sovereign will and that when and if He wishes for me to understand these things (be it in this life or the next), I will.

    The question, I suppose is, how we handle these as brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that so long as we seek to lift one another up in patience and love, then we are serving each other as Christ has called us to serve.

  6. Jeff Rickel says:

    This is such a wierd discussion. God is Holy and makes us Holy. He is also wholly supernatural and interacts in our lives. What is this either or stuff? Our salvation rests on a relationship and two way interaction with the creator of the universe. When we seek to make it less than that it becomes merely another religion, and we must never descend to this level. How can any scientist claim there are no unknown or unseen forces in the universe? The voyage into the unknown and unexplained is what science is all about.

    John 17:3
    Now this is eternal life: that they know you,the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent

    Psalm 50:14-15
    “Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”

    Psalm 27:1-6
    The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
    One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.

    Psalm 103:1-5
    Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits— who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
    who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

    1 Peter 1:3-5, 13-15
    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
    Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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