Saturday à Machen: The Facts Upon Which Experience Is Based (I)

Machen-and-faculty (2)

The great John Gresham Machen succumbed to pneumonia on 1 January 1937 while speaking in Bismark, North Dakota, and so in 2017 we observe the 80th anniversary of his untimely death. To honor his eminent memory, readers will find below the first of four successive installments that will feature, on the last Saturday of each remaining month of 2017, an extended quotation from his book Christianity and Liberalism. These selections will comprise the bulk of his chapter on doctrine, a subject on which he placed the highest importanceand one every bit as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. In many ways, the posts are an expansion and elucidation of the very first Saturday à Machen, which I have come to feel was programmatic for this (now monthly) blog feature.

“What . . .  is the real meaning of the present revolt against the fundamentals of the Christian faith? What, in brief, are the teachings of modern liberalism as over against the teachings of Christianity?

“At the outset, we are met with an objection. ‘Teachings,’ it is said, ‘are unimportant; the exposition of the teachings of liberalism and the teachings of Christianity, therefore, can arouse no interest at the present day; creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience, and provided only they express that experience they are all equally good. The teachings of liberalism, therefore, might be as far removed as possible from the teachings of historic Christianity, and yet the two might be at bottom the same.’

“Such is the way in which expression is often given to the modern hostility to ‘doctrine.’ But is it really doctrine as such that is objected to, and not rather one particular doctrine in the interests of another? Undoubtedly, in many forms of liberalism it is the latter alternative which fits the case. There are doctrines of modern liberalism, just as tenaciously and intolerantly upheld as any doctrines that find a place in the historic creeds. Such for example are the liberal doctrines of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. These doctrines are, as we shall see, contrary to the doctrines of the Christian religion. But doctrines they are all the same, and as such they require intellectual defense. In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another. And the desired immunity from theological controversy has not yet been attained.

“Sometimes, however, the modern objection to doctrine is more seriously meant. And whether the objection be well-founded or not, the real meaning of it should at least be faced.

“That meaning is perfectly plain. The objection involves an out-and-out skepticism. If all creeds are equally true, then since they are contradictory to one another, they are all equally false, or at least equally uncertain. We are indulging, therefore, in a mere juggling with words. To say that all creeds are equally true, and that they are based upon experience, is merely to fall back upon that agnosticism which fifty years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the Church. The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp. Very different is the Christian conception of a creed. According to the Christian conception, a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 18-19.)

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