The Enemy Pursues Him Even There
I recently borrowed a copy of J. Gresham Machen's Christianity & Liberalism and began reading it this past Saturday. At the time of this writing, I'm only part way through the Introduction, but the Introduction is so good I wanted to share a handful of passages, together with some notes of my own.
Machen (writing in the early twentieth century) begins by drawing attention to the rise of modernity and its effect not only on material life but also - indeed, chiefly - on the human mind and spirit. Through modern eyes – and this would appear to be even truer in our day than in Machen's – the past is perceived with skepticism at best and undisguised hostility at worst, such that “dependance of any institution upon the past is now sometimes even regarded as furnishing a presumption, not in favor of it, but against it.”
Naturally, then, no institution faces more skepticism and hostility than Christianity itself, “for no institution has based itself more squarely upon the authority of a bygone age.” We are challenged to consider whether the writings of the Apostles remain normative for us today; that is, whether “first-century religion” can ever stand in company with twentieth (or twenty-first) century science.
This the question which liberalism attempts to answer. Seeing that science may disapprove of certain key tenets of Christianity (especially those relating to the person of Christ and our redemption through His death and resurrection), liberalism tries to haggle its way out. According to Machen, the liberal theologian “seeks to rescue certain of the general principals of religion, of which these particularities” - the doctrines of the person of Christ, His death and resurrection - “are thought to be mere temporary symbols.” The general principals thus saved are then declared to be “the essence of Christianity.” In this way, liberal theologians are not unlike the crew of a ship who, sensing treacherous waters ahead and concluding that all is lost, decide to chuck the heaviest cargo overboard in hopes that they will survive the passage.
It is our contention and Machen's that in doing so, the crew has abandoned the very things which made the venture worthwhile. “It may well be questioned,” he writes, “whether this method of defense will really prove to be efficacious; for after the apologist has abandoned his outer defenses to the enemy and withdrawn into some inner citadel, he will probably discover that the enemy pursues him even there.” Mark this well:
Modern materialism, especially in the realm of psychology, is not content with occupying the lower quarters of the Christian city, but pushes its way into all the higher reaches of life; it is just as much opposed to the philosophical idealism of the liberal preacher as to the Biblical doctrines that the liberal preacher has abandoned in the interests of peace. Mere concessiveness, therefore, will never succeed in avoiding the intellectual conflict. In the intellectual battle of the present day there can be no “peace without victory”; one side or the other must win.
It need hardly be argued that this kind of syncretism has only grown more aggressive since Machen's day. His metaphor is as apt as ever. I see a disturbing trend in my own generation to take Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:18, divorce it from the whole counsel of Scripture, and use it to defang Christianity. Because Niceness™. If the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, we insist on keeping it sheathed at all times (swords are scary, people); even better, we toss it into the nearest shrub and good riddance. The salt has no savor, the light is weak, but check out our Relevance, yo.
Could we be more pathetic? For gosh sakes, we're begging the world for street cred. We forget – willfully – that it has been the privilege of the saints throughout the ages to be counted fools and worse for the sake of Him Who bought us. Further, and by a beautiful paradox, the truths that make us irrelevant are the truths that make us supremely relevant. The world's hatred for the gospel is only exceeded by its need for the gospel.
Not surprisingly, Machen's story doesn't end well for the syncretist:
As a matter of fact, however, it may appear that the figure which has just been used is altogether misleading; it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category. It may appear further that the fears of the modern man as to Christianity were entirely ungrounded, and that in abandoning the embattled walls of the city of God he has fled in needless panic into the open plains of a vague natural religion only to fall easy victim to the enemy who ever lies in ambush there. (p. 6)
Funny how that works.