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Though the Reformation battles over justification by faith alone were intense, it has been rightly noted that the fiercest battle with the Roman Catholic Church concerned authority. Underlying the questions concerning the pure gospel of grace lay a fundamental question: “Who says?” This authority question did not hide in the shadows. For generations, Rome had plainly positioned its voice as the final infallible arbiter of truth, deciding how the church should interpret the Bible and tradition and delivering the final word concerning faith and understanding. To Rome, the final and infallible voice belongs to the Magisterium (the authoritative teaching of the bishops and pope), with special distinction for the pope when he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair).
The Reformers voiced their own protest, and with divine reason. The church and her officers must not sit in judgment over Scripture. The church is a creatura verbi, a creation of the Word. So understood, the church and all its officers sit under the Word of God. But Rome had usurped authority that belongs to God’s Word alone, converting and perverting the church’s derivative authority into definitive authority. The Reformers, therefore, uniformly spurned Rome’s claims that tradition and the Bible speak with voices of equal authority, rejected its tiebreaking magisterial voice, and repudiated its claims to infallibility. The Bible alone (sola Scriptura) suitably holds the infallibility moniker and serves alone as supreme judge (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10).
Rome’s assumption of magisterial authority is only one manifestation of mankind’s persistent refusal to bow the knee to God’s Word. In the early twentieth century in the United States, J. Gresham Machen faced a new and formidable Word-defying foe: theological liberalism. While this opponent bore a different face from the one before the Reformers, its voice was loud, its clout strong, and the stakes high. Machen knew what he was up against, and with a Luther-like resolve under the conscious authority of Scripture, he valiantly asked, “Shall we accept the Jesus of the New Testament as our Saviour, or shall we reject Him with the liberal Church?”
Theological liberalism was in the very air of post–World War I modernism. And the mainline church had inhaled. Scandalized by the Scopes “monkey” trial, fundamentalist Christianity had become a cultural laughingstock, a resource-rich target of mockery for the educated and sophisticated. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” while contending for a supreme law of tolerance, not so subtly asserted his perception that the doctrines of the historic Christian faith were inane. Fosdick pleaded for everyone just to get along.
But it was not that simple. How marvelously tolerant were Fosdick and his liberal companions—all of whom embraced the unbending dogma that doctrine doesn’t matter. But Fosdick manifested little warmth for those who clung to faith’s fundamentals. Evidently love has boundaries and demands definition. Machen commendably discerned, “Human affection, apparently so simple, is really just bristling with dogma.”
As Machen famously observed, theological liberalism was no upgraded form of Christianity but an altogether different religion, seated in the naturalist/humanist doctrines of the day. In Christianity and Liberalism, Machen ably exposed the new religion, its new dogma, and its self-appointed authority. It “differs from Christianity in its view of God, of man, of the seat of authority and of the way of salvation.”
Machen defied the liberal church’s title to this “seat of authority,” just as the Reformers had defied Rome’s claim to it. He turned to Holy Scripture because it comes to us not as mere human words but as divine Word. Not produced by man (2 Peter 1:19–21), it is the very outbreathed voice of God (2 Tim. 3:16) and “contains an account of a revelation from God to man, which is found nowhere else.” Machen took comfort that the Bible is absolutely a “true account” because the One “whom the Christian worships is a God of truth.” If God is truth, then His Word—all of it—is truth. This doctrine of plenary inspiration (all of Scripture is the very Word of God) is the sure testimony of Scripture itself and of Jesus Himself. Scripture alone is the final seat of authority.
Armed with the divine Word, Machen spoke with keen insight, sincere compassion, and disarming clarity. He challenged liberalism’s dogmas: its repudiation of the supernatural, its sinful decimation of sin, its arrogant bluster over the ultimate goodness of mankind, its perverse eclipse of historic theology behind a mirage of heartwarming tolerance, and its crafty turning of Jesus into a guru rather than God. Rather than Rome’s magisterial authority, the reigning voice of the day was theological liberalism, “founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”
With their feet planted in the shifting sands of sentiment, the mainline denominations celebrated their newfound freedom: Since the Bible is a man-made book, we can interpret it as we want. We can be free from the biblical definitions of sin and salvation, from the shackles of ancient dogmas. Orthodox doctrine is passé; in this new age, we know better.
J. Gresham Machen was sure that they didn’t. And out of zeal for the glory of God, he stood up to expose the darkness with the light of truth:
Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls. Clothe Him with all the art of modern research, throw upon Him the warm, deceptive calcium-light of modern sentimentality; and despite it all common sense will come to its rights again, and for our brief hour of self-deception—as though we had been with Jesus—will wreak havoc upon us the revenge of hopeless disillusionment.
The liberals believed that they found freedom. Machen demurred: “Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse taskmaster.”
The God-given vitality that comes by resting wholly in Scripture, even when accused of stodgy closed-mindedness, ignited Machen and should warm the heart of every believer:
Let it not be said that dependence upon a book is a dead or artificial thing. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was founded upon the authority of the Bible, yet it set the world aflame. Dependence upon a word of man would be slavish, but dependence upon God’s word is life. Dark and gloomy would be the world, if we were left to our own devices, and had no blessed Word of God. The Bible, to the Christian is not a burdensome law, but the very Magna Charta of Christian liberty.
In that liberty, Machen stood securely, and in that liberty, every Christian delights. For the one who feasts on God’s Word day and night will be the one who withstands the storms and bears fruit (Ps. 1).