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.
Machen goes on to discuss the conception of God as Father, showing how some have misused this word to make it speak to some kind of universal fatherhood where God is equally the Father of all people of all faiths. And this rings eerily true today; people still insist upon this. Machen responds, “It is very strange how intelligent persons can speak in this way. It is very strange how those who accept only the universal fatherhood of God as the sum and substance of religion can regard themselves as Christians or can appeal to Jesus of Nazareth. For the plain fact is that this modern doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God formed no part whatever of Jesus’ teaching.”
He ramps up his argument and breaks out the big guns.
The liberal conception of God differs even more fundamentally from the Christian view than in the different circle of ideas connected with the terminology of fatherhood. The truth is that liberalism has lost sight of the very center and core of the Christian teaching. In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements. But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.
And here is where we need to see the gulf between man and God. The great error of liberalism, as it pertains to God and man, is making them far too alike, in making us like God and making God like us. And so “The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but today it is gone.” Indeed it was then and in too many cases is now. “Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.” This was exemplified in a video I linked to a couple of days ago titled “The Internet Is My Religion.” Liberalism lives on today.
Frankly, it’s amazing to me how applicable this book is today. When we read a book about contentment or a book about putting sin to death, I expect it to remain applicable from generation to generation. But I am pleasantly surprised to find that this book, one written to battle theological error in a particular context, is equally applicable today.
This is getting long so I will stop there. Do tell me what parts of the chapter stood out to you.
For next week please read chapter 4, “The Bible.”
The purpose of this program is to read these books together. So if you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.
Note: If you are mentioning Reading Classics Together on Twitter, we’ve got the hashtag #rctmachen set aside for that purpose.