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 second 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 importance—and 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.
“But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false, and to detect its falsity one does not even need to be a Christian. For to say that ‘Christianity is a life’ is to make an assertion in the sphere of history. … Christianity is an historical phenomenon, … [a]nd as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.
“Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity[,] … [which] constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon. The Christian movement originated a few days after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. … The name originated after the death of Jesus, and the thing itself was also something new. Evidently there was an important new beginning among the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. At that time is to be placed the beginning of the remarkable movement which spread out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world—the movement which is called Christianity.
“About the early stages of this movement definite historical information has been preserved in the Epistles of Paul, which are regarded by all serious historians as genuine products of the first Christian generation. The writer of the Epistles had been in direct communication with those intimate friends of Jesus who had begun the Christian movement in Jerusalem, and in the Epistles he makes it abundantly plain what the fundamental character of the movement was.
But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.”
(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 19-21.)