“Christianity and Liberalism” by J. Gresham Machen, A Review


Christianity and Liberalism

Publisher Eerdmans 1923

J. Gresham Machen

A Review by Jack Kettler


J. Gresham Machen’s Bio:


J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) was a prominent American theologian, New Testament scholar, and Presbyterian minister who played a crucial role in defending conservative Christianity during the early 20th century. Born on July 28, 1881, in Baltimore, Maryland, Machen demonstrated intellectual prowess from a young age.


Machen graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1901 and later earned his Bachelor of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1905. He continued his studies in Europe, receiving a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Marburg in Germany. Machen's theological education and exposure to European liberalism profoundly influenced his commitment to orthodox Christian doctrine.


In 1906, Machen joined the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary as an instructor in New Testament studies. Throughout his tenure, he staunchly defended the inerrancy of the Bible and the fundamentals of the Christian faith, resisting the encroachment of modernist and liberal theology at Princeton.


1929, Machen took a pivotal step by co-founding Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This institution aimed to provide a robust theological education grounded in biblical orthodoxy. Machen's commitment to sound doctrine and biblical authority also led him to be a key figure in forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1936, following his departure from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.


Machen's most significant work, "Christianity and Liberalism," published in 1923, remains a classic defense of the essential tenets of Christianity against the challenges posed by liberal theology. His writings, lectures, and sermons continue to influence scholars and pastors, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the historic Christian faith.


Tragically, J. Gresham Machen's life was cut short when he passed away on January 1, 1937, at the age of 55. Despite his relatively brief time on earth, his legacy endures through the institutions he helped establish and the theological convictions he defended, marking him as a stalwart defender of biblical Christianity in the face of theological compromise.


A Review:


"Christianity and Liberalism" by J. Gresham Machen is a seminal work that stands as a formidable critique of theological liberalism and a robust defense of traditional, orthodox Christianity. Machen’s book, published in 1923, emerged amid the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, a time when the Christian Church in America was grappling with significant theological shifts.


Machen's central thesis is clear and unyielding: Christianity and theological liberalism are not simply different expressions of the same faith but represent distinct religions with fundamentally incompatible beliefs. With eloquence and conviction, Machen argues that the essence of Christianity is grounded in the historic Christian faith, as revealed in the authoritative Scriptures. He identifies essential doctrines, such as the inspiration of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and the atonement, as non-negotiable tenets that distinguish genuine Christianity from its liberal counterpart.


For example, Machen explains it like this:


“It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.” (p. 28.)


One of the strengths of Machen's argument lies in his ability to dissect the theological underpinnings of liberalism, exposing what he sees as a departure from essential Christian truths. He contends that theological liberalism, in its attempt to adapt to modern intellectual trends, has compromised the very heart of the Christian message. Machen's critique is not merely a polemic against liberalism but a passionate defense of the historic Christian faith that has endured through centuries.


Another example of Machen’s analysis:


“At any rate, an attack upon Calvin or Turrettin or the Westminster divines does not seem to the modern churchgoer to be a very dangerous thing. In point of fact, however, the attack upon doctrine is not nearly so innocent a matter as our simple churchgoer supposes; for the things objected to in the theology of the Church are also at the very heart of the New Testament. Ultimately the attack is not against the seventeenth century, but against the Bible and against Jesus Himself.” (pp. 45-46.)


Machen's writing is characterized by intellectual rigor and a deep commitment to the authority of Scripture. His engagement with the theological landscape of his time reveals a scholar unafraid to confront challenges to the faith while upholding the timeless truths of Christianity. The book serves as a historical artifact from a crucial period in American Christian thought and a timeless resource for those navigating the ongoing tension between orthodoxy and cultural adaptation.


Machen argues that theological liberalism represents a different religion from historic Christianity. He argues that theological liberalism, in its effort to conform to modern intellectual trends, has undermined the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Machen asserts that true Christianity is grounded in the historic Christian faith as expressed in the Bible and that any departure from these foundational beliefs results in a fundamentally different religion.


Machen explains the difference:


“It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism, on the other hand, is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” (p. 79.)


The book remains influential in discussions about the nature of Christianity and the challenges posed by theological liberalism. Machen's work reflects a commitment to orthodox Christian theology and a concern for maintaining the integrity of the Christian faith in the face of various theological trends in his time.


One of Machen's most significant insights is:


“The liberals constantly resort to a double use of language.” (p. 111.)


The double use of language by liberals was a trick they used to hide their real beliefs. The surface meaning words made it seem like they were historically orthodox. However, as Machen discovered, if one was able to break through the language barrier or the surface meaning of words, the liberal was exposed. 


In conclusion, “Christianity and Liberalism” remains a significant and influential work, contributing to ongoing discussions about the nature of authentic Christianity and the challenges posed by theological liberalism. Machen's unwavering defense of core Christian doctrines and his insistence on the distinctiveness of the Christian faith continue to resonate with readers interested in the intersection of theology, culture, and the enduring truths of the Christian tradition. The battle against theological liberalism never stops. Therefore, if the reader does not have a copy, order it today. 2023 marked the 100 year Anniversary of Machen’s book.




J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1923), pp. 28, 45-46, 79, 111.


* This review was assisted by CHATGPT and perfected by Grammarly.


H. L. Mencken (The Sage of Baltimore) on J. Gresham Machen PART ONE


Henry Louis Mencken was an American journalist, essayist, satirist, cultural critic, and scholar of American English. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians, and contemporary movements. Wikipedia


Published in 1931:


Thinking of the theological doctrine called Fundamentalism, one is apt to think at once of the Rev. Aimee Semple McPherson, the Rev. Dr. Billy Sunday and the late Dr. John Roach Straton. It is almost as if, in thinking of physic, one thought of Lydia Pinkham or Dr. Munyon. Such clowns, of course, are high in human interest, and their sincerity need not be impugned, but one must remember always that they do not represent fairly the body of ideas they presume to voice, and that those ideas have much better spokesmen. I point, for example, to the Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D.D. Litt.D., formerly of Princeton and now professor of the New Testament in Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Dr. Machen is surely no mere soap-boxer of God, alarming bucolic sinners for a percentage of the plate. On the contrary, he is a man of great learning and dignity—a former student at European universities, the author of various valuable books, including a Greek grammar, and a member of several societies of savants. Moreover, he is a Democrat and a wet [against Prohibition], and may be presumed to have voted for Al [Smith] in 1928. Nevertheless, this Dr. Machen believes completely in the inspired integrity of Holy Writ, and when it was questioned at Princeton he withdrew indignantly from those hallowed shades, leaving Dr. Paul Elmer More to hold the bag.


I confess frankly, as a life-long fan of theology, that I can find no defect in his defense of his position. Is Christianity actually a revealed religion? If not, then it is nothing; if so, then we must accept the Bible as an inspired statement of its principles. But how can we think of the Bible as inspired and at the same time as fallible? How can we imagine it as part divine and awful truth and part mere literary confectionery? And how, if we manage so to imagine it, are we to distinguish between the truth and the confectionery? Dr. Machen answers these questions very simply and very convincingly. If Christianity is really true, as he believes, then the Bible is true, and if the Bible is true, then it is true from cover to cover. So answering, he takes his stand upon it, and defies the hosts of Beelzebub to shake him. As I have hinted, I think that, given his faith, his position is completely impregnable. There is absolutely no flaw in the arguments with which he supports it. If he is wrong, then the science of logic is a hollow vanity, signifying nothing.


His moral advantage over his Modernist adversaries, like his logical advantage, is immense and obvious. He faces the onslaught of the Higher Criticism without flinching, and he yields nothing of his faith to expediency or decorum. Does his searching of Holy Writ compel him to believe that Jesus was descended from David through Joseph, as Matthew says, and yet begotten by the Holy Ghost, as Matthew also says, then he believes it calmly and goes on. Does he encounter witches in Exodus, and more of them in Deuteronomy, and yet more in Chronicles, then he is unperturbed. Is he confronted, in Revelation, with angels, dragons, serpents and beasts with seven heads and ten horns, then he contemplates them as calmly as an atheist looks at a chimpanzee in a zoo. For he has risen superior to all such trivial details, the bane of less devout and honest men. The greater marvel swallows all the lesser ones. If it be a fact, as he holds, that Yahweh has revealed the truth to His lieges on this earth, then he is quite as willing to accept and cherish that truth when it is odd and surprising as when it is transparent and indubitable. Believing, as he does, in an omnipotent and omniscient God, maker of heaven and earth, he admits freely that God probably knows more than he himself knows, both of the credible and the incredible, though he is a member of both Phi Beta Kappa and the American Philological Association.


It must be plain that the Modernists are in a much weaker position. The instant they admit that only part of the Bible may be rejected, if it be only the most trifling fly-speck of the Pauline Epistles, they admit that any other part may be rejected. Thus the divine authority of the whole disappears, and there is no more evidence that Christianity is a revealed religion than there is that Mohammedanism is. It is idle for such iconoclasts to say that one man—usually the speaker—is better able to judge in such matters than other men, for they have to admit in the same breath that no man’s judgment, however learned he may be, is infallible, and that no man’s judgment, however mean he may be, is negligible. They thus reduce theology to the humble level of a debate over probabilities. Such a debate it has become, in fact, in the hands of the more advanced Modernists. No two of them agree in all details, nor can they conceivably agree so long as one man, by God’s inscrutable will, differs from all other men. The Catholics get rid of the difficulty by setting up an infallible Pope, and consenting formally to accept his verdicts, but the Protestants simply chase their own tails. By depriving revelation of all force and authority, they rob their so-called religion of every dignity. It becomes, in their hands, a mere romantic imposture, unsatisfying to the pious and unconvincing to the judicious.


I have noted that Dr. Machen is a wet. This is somewhat remarkable in a Presbyterian, but certainly it is not illogical in a Fundamentalist. He is a wet, I take it, simply because the Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New are both wet—because the whole Bible, in fact, is wet. He not only refuses to expunge from the text anything that is plainly there; he also refuses to insert anything that is not there. What I marvel at is that such sincere and unyielding Christians as he is do not start legal proceeding against the usurpers who now disgrace the name. By what right does a Methodist bishop, in the face of John 2:1-11, Matthew 11:19 and Timothy 5:23, hold himself out as a follower of Jesus, and even as an oracle on Jesus’ ideas and desire? Surely there is libel here, and if I were the believer that Dr. Machen is I think I’d say that there is also blasphemy. I suggest formally that he and his orthodox friends get together, and petition some competent court to restrain the nearest Methodist congregation from calling itself Christian. I offer myself a witness for the plaintiffs, and promise to come well heeled with evidence. At worst, such a suit would expose the fraudulence of the Methodist claim and redound greatly to the glory and prosperity of the true faith; at best, some judge more intelligent and less scary than the general might actually grant the injunction.




“Dr. Fundamentalis” (1)



The Rev. J. Gresham Machen, D. D., who died out in North Dakota on New Year's Day, got, on the whole, a bad press while he lived, and even his obituaries did much less than justice to him. To newspaper reporters, as to other antinomians, a combat between Christians over a matter of dogma is essentially a comic affair, and in consequence Dr. Machen's heroic struggles to save Calvinism in the Republic were usually depicted in ribald, or, at all events, in somewhat skeptical terms. The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.


What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.


Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen's attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.




My interest in Dr. Machen while he lived, though it was large, was not personal, for I never had the honor of meeting him. Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.


These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.


Upon this contumacy Dr. Machen fell with loud shouts of alarm. He denied absolutely that anyone had a right to revise and sophisticate Holy Writ. Either it was the Word of God or it was not the Word of God, and if it was, then it was equally authoritative in all its details, and had to be accepted or rejected as a whole. Anyone was free to reject it, but no one was free to mutilate it or to read things into it that were not there. Thus the issue with the Modernists was clearly joined, and Dr. Machen argued them quite out of court, and sent them scurrying back to their literary and sociological Kaffeeklatsche. His operations, to be sure, did not prove that Holy Writ was infallible either as history or as theology, but they at least disposed of those who proposed to read it as they might read a newspaper, believing what they chose and rejecting what they chose.




In his own position there was never the least shadow of inconsistency. When the Prohibition imbecility fell upon the country, and a multitude of theological quacks, including not a few eminent Presbyterians, sought to read support for it into the New Testament, he attacked them with great vigor, and routed them easily. He not only proved that there was nothing in the teachings of Jesus to support so monstrous a folly; he proved abundantly that the known teachings of Jesus were unalterably against it. And having set forth that proof, he refused, as a convinced and honest Christian, to have anything to do with the dry jehad.


This rebellion against a craze that now seems so incredible and so far away was not the chief cause of his break with his ecclesiastical superiors, but it was probably responsible for a large part of their extraordinary dudgeon against him. The Presbyterian Church, like the other evangelical churches, was taken for a dizzy ride by Prohibition. Led into the heresy by fanatics of low mental visibility, it presently found itself cheek by jowl with all sorts of criminals, and fast losing the respect of sensible people. Its bigwigs thus became extremely jumpy on the subject, and resented bitterly every exposure of their lamentable folly.


The fantastic William Jennings Bryan, in his day the country's most distinguished Presbyterian layman, was against Dr. Machen on the issue of Prohibition but with him on the issue of Modernism. But Bryan's support, of course, was of little value or consolation to so intelligent a man. Bryan was a Fundamentalist of the Tennessee or barnyard school. His theological ideas were those of a somewhat backward child of 8, and his defense of Holy Writ at Dayton during the Scopes trial was so ignorant and stupid that it must have given Dr. Machen a great deal of pain. Dr. Machen himself was to Bryan as the Matterhorn is to a wart. His Biblical studies had been wide and deep, and he was familiar with the almost interminable literature of the subject. Moreover, he was an adept theologian, and had a wealth of professional knowledge to support his ideas. Bryan could only bawl.




It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.


These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, "education," or osteopathy.


That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again--in Henrik Ibsen's phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed--but he was undoubtedly right.


(1)   Baltimore Evening Sun (January 18, 1937), 2nd Section, p. 15.


Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife, Marea, attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of 17 books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at Amazon.