Reformation Books: Christianity and Liberalism

In 2007 I came back from a year in Madagascar as a changed man. I’d seen living faith in the people I met. I’d had the chance to devote myself to studying the scriptures without the distractions of modern British life. I came to realise that I was falling far short of what I should be, not only as a minister, but as a Christian.

On my return I came across two books that God used to continue this unsettling, yet vital, experience. The first of these was The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter (to be reviewed at a later date), and the second was Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen.

Machen was an American Presbyterian NT scholar who led the fight against modernism in his denomination. He was disciplined by the Presbyterian Church for establishing an independent missions board and founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was also a founder of Westminster Theological Seminary after the reorganisation of Princeton.

Christianity and Liberalism’s main thesis is that the liberal, modernist beliefs that were coming to the fore in the churches were not another strand of Christianity but were the expression of a totally different religion. This sounds like a harsh judgement but in this book Machen defends his thesis with panache.

Although an accomplished academic this book is written with the layman in mind. Machen shows the difference between Christianity and Liberalism in six areas: Doctrine, God and Man, The Bible, Christ, Salvation and The Church.

In each of these areas he details the main areas of disagreement between the two systems. If nothing else, he shows that the disagreements and misunderstandings that happen between evangelical and liberal people occur because of different presuppositions on these areas.

Here is a typical quote. He is facing the argument made that Christianity should not worry over much about doctrine but should be a “way of life”:

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.

This little book, written in the 1920s, still has great relevance for us in the URC today. Is the Christian religion a revealed religion? Are there objective facts that must be preached? Or are we free to create a new system, more amenable to the modern mind?

This book is a must read. It would be a fine use of the URC’s budget to buy every minister Machen’s volume. It was a great help to me, I pray it will be for you too.


About Phil Baiden

Minister; Hall Gate and Intake United Reformed Churches, Doncaster, UK

Posted on June 13, 2012, in Wednesday Books. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Thanks Phil – you have whetted my appetite, and I’ve just bought the Kindle edition!

  2. Richard Landon

    I must read Machen again – I first read it in 1996.

    I don’t think it would be very palatable for the majority of URC ministers, since it shows that the “diversity” which we’re being asked to accept is not just over issues such as human sexuality, but also involves the biblical doctines concerning the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. I seem to remember that Machen asserts that liberalism and evangelicalism are not legitimate variations of Christianity, but rather that liberalism isn’t Christianity at all (e.g. page 53 of my 1992 reprint of the 1923 edition at the end of chapter 2 on Doctrine).

  3. Richard,
    That’s correct. My review mentions that.

  4. Richard Landon

    Oops – so it does.

    So how can those who hold to “a totally different religion” to one another co-exist, let alone adopt the human sexuality commitment?

  5. Every local church is an expression of the Church Catholic and I mean that in the Reformed sense of the word. No church is pure, the wheat grow up together with the chaff (See Calvin on this). Those of us, still committed to the truth of Reformed faith in the URC have much to learn from Machen. After all he wrote ‘Christianity and Liberalism’ whilst a serving minister in what became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and he did not voluntarily leave the Presbyterian Church but was publicly “defrocked” exposing the essential illiberalism behind liberalism!

  6. Richard Landon

    Calvin’s teaching on the church (Institutes book 4 chapters 1 and 2) makes it doubtful to me that he would regard many URC congregations as true churches (see IV.i.9) He allowed for errors which do not harm the chief doctrine of religion so long as the ministry remains whole and uncorrupted (IV.ii.1), but would he find that to be the case amongst us?

    Machen remained in the Northern Presbyterian Church, as James says above, while he endeavoured to maintain a theological seminary and board of mission free from the influence of those who had signed the liberal Auburn Affirmation. He was then suspended from ministry, and did eventually leave with a few others to form what became the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

    Both Calvin and Machen would perhaps respect our remaining in the URC, despite the problems caused by a lot of chaff, and urge us to contend for the faith. But how would they advise us if the denomination were formally to adopt a position contrary to biblical teaching on matters which affect the gospel?

  7. You can read the entire book here: or if you go to: you can download a pdf or even an audio version!

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