In the face of the liberal peril, what should evangelicals do? A first step is to “encourage those who are engaging in the intellectual and spiritual struggle” (146–47). The intellectual battle must consist of both articulating and defending Christianity. Against those who focus solely on the propagation aspect, Machen suspects an anti-intellectualism underlying this approach, which he decries. While granting that the proclamation of the gospel might have sufficed historically, given the juncture in which the church currently finds itself, Machen opines that “the slightest avoidance of the defense of the gospel is just sheer unfaithfulness to the Lord” (147).
Part 1: Historical Context and Summary of Machen’s Argument
To give a brief sketch of the historical context in which Machen addressed the church, I focus on two leading proponents of the type of liberalism against which Machen battled—namely, Adolph von Harnack and Albrecht Ritschl.
Adolph von Harnack’s Husk and Kernel
In his What is Christianity?, Adolph von Harnack decried Christianity as an institutionalized religion of dogma, an institutionalization and dogmatization that had corrupted the early church as evidenced by its councils and creedal formulations. In its place, he advocated a religion of the heart: the way of life that Jesus himself had taught. His method in arriving at this liberal articulation of Christianity was that of distinguishing between the “kernel” and the “husk”: the kernel being the permanent, pure essence of Christianity, and the husk being its temporal/ historical, (often) corrupted expression. As von Harnack presented the kernel, “In the combination of these ideas—God the Father, Providence, the position of men as God’s children, the infinite value of the human soul—the whole gospel is expressed” (Lecture 4).
Amalgamating these ideas, von Harnack’s liberalism consisted of three tenets. First, “the kingdom of God and its coming” (Lecture 3). Specifically, “The kingdom of God comes by coming to the individual, by entering into his soul and laying hold of it. True, the kingdom of God is the rule of God; but it is the rule of the holy God in the hearts of individuals. God Himself is the kingdom. It is . . . a question of . . . God and the soul, the soul and its God” (Lecture 3). The flavor of a de-institutionalized and non-dogmatic, subjective Christianity is well pronounced.
Second, “God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul” (Lecture 4). This tenet set the stage for von Harnack’s affirmations of (1) the Fatherhood of God, a principle he affirms is true of all human beings everywhere, not just of Christians in their churches; and, flowing from it, (2) the brotherhood of all humanity, again a principle that he would not restrict to followers of Jesus Christ. Because God the Father unites to himself all human beings as his children, the infinite value of their “ennobled” soul is underscored (Lecture 4).
Third, “the higher righteousness and the commandment of love” (Lecture 4). According to von Harnack, Jesus’s constant denunciation and overturning of the Jewish religion of his day established Christianity as an ethical religion freed of “self-seeking and ritual elements” that could be reduced ultimately “to one root and to one motive—love” (Lecture 4). Such love “must completely fill the soul; it is what remains when the soul dies to itself. In this sense of love is the new life already begun. But it is always the love which serves, and only in this function does it exist and live” (Lecture 4). Accordingly, this third tenet
combines religion and morality. It is a point which must be felt; it is not easy to define. In view of the Beatitudes, it may, perhaps, best be described as humility. Jesus made love and humility one. . . . In Jesus’ view, this humility, which is the love of God of which we are capable . . . is an abiding disposition towards the good, and that out of which everything that is good springs and grows. (Lecture 4)
Christianity as a moralistic religion of humble love is emphasized.
In his summary, von Harnack offers “the three spheres which we have distinguished—the kingdom of God, God as the Father and the infinite value of the human soul, and the higher righteousness showing itself in love—coalesce; for ultimately the kingdom is nothing but the treasure which the soul possesses in the eternal and merciful God” (Lecture 5).
Albrecht Ritschl’s Lived Faith
Similar to von Harnack, in The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, Albrecht Ritschl bemoaned the traditional exposition and understanding of “the Christian faith [as] some imperfect form of theology, that is, some system of ideas of God and humanity” that is far removed from religious self-consciousness—particularly that of the original/apostolic Christian community (3)—and worship of God (210–11). For Ritschl, Christianity is not a doctrinal system, but a lived faith in community.
Like von Harnack’s focus on the kingdom of God as love, Ritschl emphasized “the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God, which [is] the correlate of the conception of God as love, denotes the association of mankind—an association both extensively and intensively the most comprehensive possible—through the reciprocal moral action of its members” (284). Emphasizing “the community,” Ritschl distinguished between the church and the kingdom:
The self-same subject, namely, the community drawn together by Christ, constitutes the Church in so far as its members unite in the same religious worship, and, further, create for this purpose a legal constitution; while, on the other hand, it constitutes the Kingdom of God in so far as the members of the community give themselves to the interchange of action prompted by love. (290)
By the community’s loving action comes about the revelation of the truth that God is love: “The creation of this fellowship of love among men, accordingly, is not only the end [purpose] of the world, but at the same time the completed revelation of God Himself, beyond which none other and none higher can be conceived” (291). The church, the kingdom of God, and love are interwoven as the summum bonum of existence, and this supreme good is known by the people of the community not rationally or dogmatically, but only as they relate to it.
Faith in God’s providence is an essential feature of Ritschl’s agenda:
For that unified view of the world, the ruling idea of which is that of the supramundane [spiritual, heavenly] God, Who as our Father in Christ loves us and unites us in His Kingdom for the realization of that destiny in which we see the final end [purpose] of the world, as well as the corresponding estimate of self, constitutes the realm within which come to be formed all such ideas as that all things and events in the world serve our good, because as children of God we are objects of His special care and help. (617–18)
To members of the community, God promises to his providential care, which they know not theoretically but by personal experience (618).
In summary, both von Harnack and Ritschl proposed a liberal form of Christianity that (1) distanced itself from doctrine and institutionalism and re-envisioned it as living the way of Jesus; (2) conceptualized God as Father of all human beings (in the same way he is Father of Christians); (3) focused on the kingdom of God as his rule in human hearts and as related to the idea of God as love; (4) prioritized human experience over objective norms like Scripture and theology; (5) emphasized the common community or brotherhood of all human beings, whose souls are of infinite value; (6) appealed to the providence of God and his particular care for all human beings for their good; and (7) highlighted moralistic religion and the ethic of love.
This brief sketch of two leading theologians provides some of the context into which Machen stepped and directed his Christianity and Liberalism.
Machen’s Response to von Harnack and Ritschl
Specifically, in his seventh and final chapter, Machen treats the church. While affirming that both Christianity and liberalism are “interested in social institutions” (133), Machen underscores the significant difference between the two religions’ notion of sociality. Reflecting the sentiments of P. T. Forsyth—“the same act which sets us in Christ sets us also in the society of Christ. . . . It puts us into a relation with all saints which we may neglect to our bane but which we cannot destroy”—Machen insists, “When, according to Christian belief, lost souls are saved, the saved ones become united in . . . the brotherhood of the Christian Church” (133). For Machen, this is a far cry from “the liberal doctrine of the ‘brotherhood of man’ . . . that all men everywhere . . . are brothers” (133).
Nuancing his statement, Machen acknowledges that such a doctrine contains some truth: in the sense of creation, all human beings are creatures of the one Creator and are of the same nature. Accordingly, Christianity “can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man” (133). But Machen points to a different “Christian” notion of brotherhood: in the sense of salvation, only those who are rescued from sin by Jesus Christ constitute “the brotherhood of the redeemed” (134).