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J. Gresham Machen introduces his invaluable book Christianity and Liberalism by observing that he lived in “a time of conflict.” Perhaps all humans have lived in times of conflict ever since mankind’s fall into sin. The fundamental conflict is always between Satan and the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), but that conflict takes somewhat different forms in different times. Machen sees the conflict of his time as a conflict between materialism and the spiritual life, which remains very much the reality for us one hundred years later.

In his book, Machen celebrates the modern advances in improving our physical lives that have come from scientific discoveries. The danger he sees is that these very successes have blinded many to the reality that there is more to life than physical well-being. They have focused exclusively on the material and have become materialists. The natural world that surrounds us, that can be seen and touched, is the only world. The supernatural, which is to say God’s acting beyond the natural in this world, is ruled out entirely. But Machen wisely alludes to the words of Jesus (Matt. 16:26): What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

The great purpose of Machen’s book is to insist that only true Christianity can answer the challenge of materialism and to show that true Christianity is entirely different from and opposed to liberal or modernistic pseudo-Christianity. His reflections on the nature of true Christianity in each chapter show the profound and powerful importance of these truths. But before he develops this great theme, he reflects briefly on the broader issues confronting Christians in our times, particularly naturalism and materialism. “Material betterment has gone hand in hand with spiritual decline,” he writes.

As Machen sees it, “modern unbelief” has not just attacked true religion but has also undermined the higher life of individuals more generally. He sees a materialistic worldview as restricting the freedom of individuals to cultivate the great achievements of the human mind and spirit. He points to the modern arts, music, and literature as evidence of modern decline of human accomplishment.

Machen saw clearly that what this sinful world needs is full, robust Christianity that accepts the teaching of the whole Bible.

One example that he offers of the deadening effects of the neglect of the spirit is in the field of modern education. His remarks seem truly prophetic. Remember, he is writing in 1922. He complains that “the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state.” In state education, “the child is placed under the control of psychological experts, themselves without the slightest acquaintance with the higher realms of human life.” Indeed, “bureaucratic regulation” in education as elsewhere is leading to a “drab utilitarianism in which all higher aspirations are to be lost.” Such education values teaching only what is useful in the estimation of materialism.

As an example of this tendency of the state to ruin education, Machen refers to a law passed in 1919 in Nebraska. The law prohibited the teaching of any language except English in any school, public or private, until the student proved an eighth-grade proficiency in English. Machen fulminates: “In other words, no foreign language, apparently not even Latin or Greek, is to be studied until the child is too old to learn it well. It is in this way that modern collectivism deals with a kind of study which is absolutely essential to all genuine mental advance.” Regrettably, not all of us today share Machen’s enthusiasm for Latin and Greek, but we can see all around us the disastrous effects of many bureaucratic regulations for public schools.

He is at his most prophetic when he describes the character of many public schools in his day:

When one considers what the public schools in America in many places already are—their materialism, their discouragement of any sustained intellectual effort, their encouragement of the dangerous pseudo-scientific fads of experimental psychology—one can only be appalled by the thought of a commonwealth in which there is no escape from such a soul-killing system.

Think what he would say of our schools today. He would see the fads of the psychologists who insist that the great aim of education should be to make our children feel good about themselves and that they have horribly failed in that aim.

Machen is by no means opposed to public school completely. He writes:

A public-school system, if it means the providing of free education for those who desire it, is a noteworthy and beneficent achievement of modern times; but once it becomes monopolistic it is the most perfect instrument of tyranny which has yet been devised.

The tyranny destroys the rights of parents to determine the education they want for the children whom God has given them and crushes any genuine diversity of thought in the name of dominant naturalism. He does not want to force the public schools to be exclusively Christian but wants them to have room for Christian thought.

The kind of education that Machen encourages is not narrowly, bigotedly, or arrogantly Christian. He strongly calls for the study of non-Christian thought to broaden, deepen, and humble us:

Socrates was not a Christian, neither was Goethe; yet we share to the full the respect with which their names are regarded. They tower immeasurably above the common run of men; if he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than they, he is certainly greater not by any inherent superiority, but by virtue of an undeserved privilege which ought to make him humbler rather than contemptuous.

The broad spiritual conflict of Machen’s time manifested itself in American Protestantism, which made clear its divisions. What had been called the “Evangelical Empire” of a rather united nineteenth-century Protestantism in the United States split in the twentieth century into modernist and fundamentalist sides. Those sides later came generally to be called mainline and evangelical, respectively. The liberal side continued its strategy of accommodation with unbelief and has steadily declined in size and influence. The evangelical side has continued to stress certain biblical fundamentals but has tended to adopt a strategy of minimalism rather than a full-orbed theology from the Bible. The evangelical side, too, has declined in size and influence in America.

Machen would not be at all surprised. He knew that neither accommodation with unbelief nor a biblical minimalism would effectively advance the cause of Christ. He also knew that the worldly philosophies urged as alternatives to Christianity must ultimately lead to spiritual and cultural decline. He lived to see the rise of Marxism-Leninism, but not all the misery that it would visit on the world. Some material improvement may have been seen over time in some communist countries, but the progress was so slow that we might ask if even the material changes might not have happened more quickly under another system of government. Machen saw clearly that what this sinful world needs is full, robust Christianity that accepts the teaching of the whole Bible. He hoped that his book would “show what Christianity is, in order that men may be led to turn from the weak and beggarly elements and have recourse again to the grace of God.” His book does indeed advance the cause of Christ and can still help us all understand the great teachings of the Bible. It gives us clearly the Christian alternative to the weak and ultimately worthless philosophies of this world (Gal. 4:9).

The Modernist Conflict in the American Church


Keep Reading Christianity and Liberalism

From the February 2023 Issue
Feb 2023 Issue