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Reading Classics Together

June 30, 2011

Reading Classics
Today we come to another of our readings in Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity & Liberalism. By this point Machen has already noted 3 points of difference between liberalism and Christianity: their message, their view of God and man, and their understanding of the Bible. With differences of this magnitude, it is not at all surprising that they differ drastically in the message they teach. But before he can consider the message, Machen needs to consider the Person upon whom the message is based. And that leads us to this chapter which is titled simply “Christ.”

He begins with Paul, showing the way Paul regarded Jesus. He “clearly stood always toward Jesus in a truly religious relationship. Jesus was not for Paul merely an example for faith; He was primarily the object of faith. The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus.” Jesus was not just a great example to be followed. “The plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important still. Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.” 

This is true of his contemporaries as well; many others regarded Jesus as the object of faith. “Evidently in making Jesus the object of religious faith—the thing that was the heart and soul of Paul’s religion—Paul was in no disagreement with those who had been apostles before him.” The facts can only be denied with real ignorance. “The whole of early Christian history is a hopeless riddle unless the Jerusalem Church, as well as Paul, made Jesus the object of religious faith. Primitive Christianity certainly did not consist in the mere imitation of Jesus.”

Was this kind of faith in Jesus justified by what Jesus himself taught? Absolutely; Machen has already made it clear that Jesus presented himself as Savior. Machen also makes the interesting point that Jesus did not invite confidence by minimizing his work. “He did not say: ‘Trust me to give you acceptance with God, because acceptance with God is not difficult; God does not regard sin so seriously after all.’ On the contrary Jesus presented the wrath of God in a more awful way than it was afterwards presented by His disciples.” It was this supposedly mild-mannered Jesus who spoke of the horror of outer darkness and everlasting fire. What Jesus taught about God can rightly bring us to despair rather than hope. Trust and hope come only when following God’s way of salvation through Jesus.

June 23, 2011

Reading Classics
Today we come to another of our readings in Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity & Liberalism. This week’s chapter looked to the Bible as the source of the truths we believe. Machen sought to show how liberalism’s understanding of Scripture is as much in error as their view of God and man (which was the topic of the previous chapter).

He begins with a wonderfully concise affirmation of all kinds of biblical truths.

The way was opened, according to the Bible, by an act of God, when, almost nineteen hundred years ago, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the eternal Son was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men. To that one great event the whole Old Testament looks forward, and in that one event the whole of the New Testament finds its center and core. Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. Hence appears the uniqueness of the Bible. All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. Without that event, the world, in the Christian view, is altogether dark, and humanity is lost under the guilt of sin. There can be no salvation by the discovery of eternal truth, for eternal truth brings naught but despair, because of sin. But a new face has been put upon life by the blessed thing that God did when He offered up His only begotten Son.

There is a great danger in doing what many liberals sought to do—reduce the faith to mere experience, an experience of Christ. This was done, of course, at the expense of biblical authority.

The trouble is that the experience thus maintained is not Christian experience. Religious experience it may be, but Christian experience it certainly is not. For Christian experience depends absolutely upon an event. The Christian says to himself: “I have meditated upon the problem of becoming right with God, I have tried to produce a righteousness that will stand in His sight; but when I heard the gospel message I learned that what I had weakly striven to accomplish had been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ when He died for me on the Cross and completed His redeeming work by the glorious resurrection. If the thing has not yet been done, if I merely have an idea of its accomplishment, then I am of all men most miserable, for I am still in my sins. My Christian life, then, depends altogether upon the truth of the New Testament record.”

Says Machen, “Christian experience is rightly used when it confirms the documentary evidence. But it can never possibly provide a substitute for the documentary evidence.” Experience is important, but it can never be separated from the truths of Scripture or from Scripture itself.

June 16, 2011

Reading Classics
This morning we come to chapter 3 of Gresham Machen’s book Christianity & Liberalism, a chapter titled simply “God & Man.” There was some great discussion based on last week’s reading and I’m hoping we can generate the same today. I found this chapter quite a lot easier to read and digest and trust you found the same. 

In the chapter’s introductory paragraph Machen sets the scene, looking back and then forward:

It has been observed in the last chapter that Christianity is based on an account of something that happened in the first century of our era. But before that account can be received, certain presuppositions must be accepted. The Christian gospel consists in an account of how God saved man, and before that gospel can be understood something must be known (1) about God and (2) about man. The doctrine of God and the doctrine of man are the two great presuppositions of the gospel. With regard to these presuppositions, as with regard to the gospel itself, modern liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity.

Do you think this man was influenced by John Calvin? If we are to understand anything of the gospel—the true gospel—we must first know about God and man and the great relational disruption between them. The trouble is that liberalism has a false conception of God. “It is opposed to Christianity, in the first place, in its conception of God. But at this point we are met with a particularly insistent form of that objection to doctrinal matters which has already been considered. It is unnecessary, we are told, to have a”conception” of God; theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence.”

Some liberals insisted that God could only be known through Jesus. Machen quickly shows that Christ Jesus related to God as a person and that he saw the hand of God in nature, in the hearts of men and in the Scriptures. Jesus believed in the real existence of a personal God.

June 09, 2011

Reading Classics
Today we come to our second reading in Gresham Machen’s classic book Christianity & Liberalism and just for the occasion I’ve got a nice new banner graphic (isn’t it pretty?). Our reading assignment for this week was the second chapter which is titled simply “Doctrine.” 

I know that many of the people who will read this blog post are not participating in the Reading Classics program, so I’d like to give you something to chew on. To that end I am going to post an excerpt from the chapter that I think you will find interesting. But first, let me give a bit of context. Some time ago I reviewed Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity and expressed, as have so many others, that his arguments were answered back in the early twentieth century. What McLaren declares as new is simply Liberalism under a new name.

In this chapter Machen touches upon couple of overused sentiments about Christianity that have existed far longer than we may have thought: that Christianity is life rather than doctrine and that experience is more important than creeds. And with that in mind, read what Machen says about the Liberalism of his day. This could just as easily be said of what many hold to be Christianity today. 

Even if it were an attack not upon the Bible but only upon the great historic presentations of Biblical teaching, it would still be unfortunate. If the Church were led to wipe out of existence all products of the thinking of nineteen Christian centuries and start fresh, the loss, even if the Bible were retained, would be immense. When it is once admitted that a body of facts lies at the basis of the Christian religion, the efforts which past generations have made toward the classification of the facts will have to be treated with respect. In no branch of science would there be any real advance if every generation started fresh with no dependence upon what past generations have achieved. Yet in theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress. And upon what base slanders the vituperation is based! After listening to modern tirades against the great creeds of the Church, one receives rather a shock when one turns to the Westminster Confession, for example, or to that tenderest and most theological of books, the “Pilgrim’s Progress” of John Bunyan, and discovers that in doing so one has turned from shallow modern phrases to a “dead orthodoxy” that is pulsating with life in every word. In such orthodoxy there is life enough to set the whole world aglow with Christian love.

As a matter of fact, however, in the modern vituperation of “doctrine,” it is not merely the great theologians or the great creeds that are being attacked, but the New Testament and our Lord Himself. In rejecting doctrine, the liberal preacher is rejecting the simple words of Paul’ “Who loved me and gave Himself for me,” just as much as the homoousion of the Nicene Creed. For the word “doctrine” is really used not in its narrowest, but in its broadest sense. The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.

June 02, 2011

Today we begin a new round of Reading Classics Together; over the next 7 weeks we will be reading through Gresham Machen’s classic work Christianity & Liberalism. Everyone is welcome to join us as we do so. The assignment today was simply to read the Introduction (only 10 pages); from this point forward we will be reading one chapter per week until the book is complete. Each week I will jot down a few thoughts about the book and will then leave the comments open so you can share what you’ve learned, ask your questions, and offer your reflections.

Introduction

Gresham MachenChristianity & Liberalism, like all books, is set in a specific context. In this case the context is the early decades of the 20th century when liberalism was rising and opposing traditional Protestant Christianity. Here is how Machen later described his purpose in writing this book:

I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—it is a life founded on a doctrine.

Part of the challenge in reading such a book is in filtering the issues that were relevant only or largely in a specific historical context from those that remain relevant today. At one point Machen has a lot to say about education and about how some states are forbidding anything other than a public school education. Today, of course, any state allows a public education or a Christian, private or home education. While this situation may arise again in the future, for now it is not an imminent concern.

It is immediately obvious how this book will be relevant to us today. We live in an era that has been heavily impacted by liberalism and we live at a time when Christians continue to grapple with the relationship of faith to science. The questions and concerns of the early 20th century remain concerns today which means that biblically-based answers from the 20th century will be just as relevant for the 21st century.

Now, let me share a few of the things that stood out to me in this chapter. 

May 26, 2011

Next week several hundred of us will begin reading a classic Christian book together—Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Consider this your one-week reminder. And if you haven’t yet heard about Reading Classics Together, here’s your chance to join in with us.

Christianity and LiberalismHere is what Machen said about the book.

In my little book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—it is a life founded on a doctrine.

This book has long been a classic defense of orthodox Christian faith against Liberalism. Published in 1923 at the height of the Liberal onslaught against orthodox faith, Machen establishes the traditional teaching of the church on Scripture, God, humanity, salvation, and ecclesiology, are not only defensible but preferable to those propounded by Liberals. It is important to keep in mind the Machen is not talking about modern political liberalism, but the religious liberalism many denominations and seminaries were accepting in the early 1900’s. Named one of the top 100 books of the 20th century by Christianity Today and WORLD, this work remains timely, relevant, and important.

It may be particularly relevant today as we see a resurgence of just the kind of denials that Machen battled in his day.

When?

We will begin reading together next Thursday (June 2). Before then please track down a copy of the book and read the Introduction. Then return here on June 2 and we can share some thoughts and reflections on that Introduction. We’ll read one chapter per week for the next 6 weeks. And then we will be done, just like that.

Where?

The book is widely available. You can find it at:

Amazon (print)  |  Amazon (Kindle)  |  Westminster Books  |  CBD Reformed

If you’d prefer to save a few dollars and read it online, you can find it for free at Reformed.org, CCEL, and elsewhere. You can even get the audio book for free.

So get a book, get reading, and check back on June 2.

May 12, 2011

We put it to the vote and though the results were very, very close, Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism took hop honors and will be the next classic we read together. I suppose we’ll have to do Knowing God the next time around.

Christianity and LiberalismHere is what Machen said about his book.

In my little book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—it is a life founded on a doctrine.

This book has long been a classic defense of orthodox Christian faith against Liberalism. Published in 1923 at the height of the Liberal onslaught against orthodox faith, Machen establishes the traditional teaching of the church on Scripture, God, humanity, salvation, and ecclesiology, are not only defensible but preferable to those propounded by Liberals. It is important to keep in mind the Machen is not talking about modern political liberalism, but the religious liberalism many denominations and seminaries were accepting in the early 1900’s. Named one of the top 100 books of the 20th century by Christianity Today and WORLD, this work remains timely, relevant, and important.

It may be particularly relevant today as we see a resurgence of just the kind of denials that Machen battled in his day.

When?

So here’s what I propose. Let’s begin reading the book together on June 2. That will allow 3 weeks for you to track down a copy of the book and to read the Introduction. Then you’ll just need to return here on June 2 and we can share some thoughts and reflections on that Introduction. We’ll then read one chapter per week for the next 6 weeks. And then we will be done, just like that.

Where?

The book is widely available, though I’d expect that it will go quickly at some of the e-commerce stores, so you may not want to dawdle. You can find it at:

Amazon (print)  |  Amazon (Kindle)  |  Westminster Books  |  CBD Reformed

If you’d prefer to save a few dollars and read it online, you can find it for free at Reformed.org, CCEL, and elsewhere. You can even get the audio book for free.

So get a book, get reading, and check back on June 2.

May 11, 2011

A week ago I solicited some help in choosing the next classic book to read in Reading Classics Together. I received hundreds of suggestions, but two seemed to dominate: Knowing God by J.I. Packer and Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen.

Having narrowed it down to 2, I thought I’d put it to the vote. So let me give you on paragraph about each book, and then you can make your selection. The one that receives the most votes will be the one we read together.

  • Machen’s classic defense of orthodox Christianity established the importance of scriptural doctrine and contrasts the teachings of liberalism and orthodoxy on God and man, the Bible, Christ, salvation, and the church. Though originally published nearly seventy years ago, the book maintains its relevance today. It was named one of the top 100 books of the millennium by World magazine and one of the top 100 books of the century by Christianity Today. (Read more at Amazon)
  • J. I. Packer’s Knowing God has become a classic of the Christian faith. Why? While it gives us information about God with clarity and grace, it does much more—it aids us in actually knowing him, in building our relationship with him, and helps draw us closer to him in love and worship. (Read more at Amazon)

One thing to note: Knowing God does not appear to be available in ebook format (while Machen’s book is available). That may be important to some.

May 05, 2011

Several years ago I introduced a program called Reading Classics Together. The impetus for this project was the simple realization that, though many Christians want to read through the classics of the faith, few of us have the motivation to actually make it happen. I know this was long the case for me. This program allows us to read such classic works together, providing both a level of accountability and the added interest of comparing notes as we read in community.

Those who have participated in each of the programs have read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore and The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. That is quite a solid collection of classics! I have benefited immensely from reading these books and know that others have, too.

The format is simple: every week we read a chapter or a section of a classic of the Christian faith and then on Thursday we check in at my blog to discuss it. It’s that easy: one chapter per week.

It has been a few months since we finished The Holiness of God. I have been deliberate in allowing a bit of time to elapse, but I think it’s time to get going again.

I’d like you to help me choose the next classic. I have spent some time looking through the lists of books and just can’t choose one. So if you are interested in reading a classic together (either because you think we would benefit from reading it or because you have been wanting to read it but haven’t had the time or discipline) go ahead and leave a comment with your suggestion. And then stay tuned to the blog to see what we’ll be reading and when we’ll begin.

The book can be old or new; it can be well-known or obscure. It just needs to be good and needs to be able to make an impact on us as we read.

My suggestion is Robert Murray M’Cheyne by Andrew Bonar—Bonar’s biography of his dear friend. But I am very open to other suggestions.

December 23, 2010

And here we are, at the end of another classic. If you’ve been doing this since the beginning, you’ve now read Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross by A.W. Pink, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, Real Christianity by William Wilberforce, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs, Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray, The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore. And, of course, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. I’ve spoken to a few people recently (in real-life even) who have kept up and who have enjoyed the book. So I’m glad to know that some of you continue to read along.

This week’s chapter was titled “Holy Space and Holy Time” and in wrapping up the book Sproul turns to a discussion of setting apart certain spaces and certain times as holy. He writes about traditional church architecture and its function in drawing people to the holy, something he has emphasized in several of his other books. He writes about what goes missing in churches that are designed to be functional rather than beautiful. “What is often lost in these functional church designs is the profound sense of threshold. A threshold is a place of transition. It signals a change from one realm to another.” If you have ever visited Dr. Sproul’s home church of St. Andrew’s you will see how he and the members of that church have sought to recapture traditional design including the concept of threshold.

He writes as well about sacred times and in particular the Sabbath and the Lord’s Supper.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper involves sacred time in three distinct ways. First, it looks to the past, instructing believers to remember and to show forth Christ’s death by this observance. Second, it focuses on the present moment of celebration, in which Christ meets with His people to nurture them and strengthen them in their sanctification. Third, it looks to the future, to the certain hope of their reunion with Christ in heaven, where they will participate in the banquet feast of the Lamb and His bride.

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