The Theologically Liberal Empire Strikes Back

In 1923 J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) published his incisive and devastating critique of theological liberalism, Christianity and Liberalism. At the outset let me emphasize that we are discussing theological liberalism. There are other uses of the word liberalism, e.g., “classical liberalism” refers to the way democratic republics such as the United States are organized. In it peoples of differing, even competing creeds are welcomed and live together on the basis of shared constitutional principles. Theological liberalism is something else. Machen argued that theological liberalism is essentially alien to Christianity. It is not Christianity. It is a competitor to Christianity. There are several marks of theological liberalism but let us highlight three:


The most outstanding mark of theological liberalism is that it has rejected supernaturalism in favor of an alternative foundation for Christianity. The explanation of how we came to be faced with this choice requires more space than and time than we have here so it must do to say that from the middle of the seventeenth century and increasingly through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries scholars and elites across Europe and eventually in the USA were challenged by a theological, philosophical, and religious movement which scholars describe as the Enlightenment. The essence of the Enlightenment movements was a rejection of divine authority in favor of human authority. It was a revolution. For most of two millennia Christians and before that Jews had started with a shared question: What has God said? Over most of 4,000 years people had answered the question differently, of course, but question was foundational. In the Enlightenment(s) the question changed. It became, “has God said?” The locus of authority shifted from God to the human self, consciousness, and experience.

This rebellion against God, Christ, and the truth took three forms: Rationalism, Empiricism, and Romanticism. Rationalism, as we think about it during the Enlightenment said that the human intellect is the highest authority. Anything that cannot be comprehensively understood cannot be a necessary truth. The rationalists said that humans are the measure of truth. The empiricists agreed that humans are the measure of all truth but they looked to sense experience (hearing, taste, touch, smell, sight) as the way to measure truth. If a thing cannot be observed or otherwise sensed then they were not interested in it. In reaction to the Rationalists and the Empiricists, in the late Modern period, another movement developed in reaction: Romanticism. The Romantics said that the only thing that really matters is not what we experience nor what we can determine rationally but what we know with our hearts or our affections. That the highest measure is not an experiment or a syllogism but an affective experience. If this seems familiar it is because our time, Late or Liquid Modernity (according to Zygmunt Baumann) is marked by Romanticism and the turn to the affective.

Under the influence of the Enlightenment then scholars concluded that we can no longer be expected to believe an ancient book claiming to be a record of supernatural acts of redemption (e.g., the flood, the Exodus, and the resurrection of Jesus) is no longer credible and can no longer be received by enlightened, Modern people in the way it was originally received. The Empiricists complained that they had never seen such a flood, an Exodus, or a resurrection. The Rationalists complained that the paradoxical truth claims of the Christian faith were too much to expect of sophisticated people. What does it mean to say that God is one in three persons, that Christ is one person with two natures or that he died as the substitute to turn away the wrath of God? They were no longer prepared to believe in such a God. They fashioned a remote, impersonal deity. The Romantics professed to be much affected by the Christian story but as Modern, Enlightened people they could no longer credit the Scriptures and Creed. These, they said, are symbolic of the universal human religious experience and quest for transcendent truth but not actual revealed, historical truths.


When we hear the word liberalism today we might think of a libertine sexual ethic, i.e., the relative absence of internal and external restraints on behavior. In the Late Modern period this has been the dominant ethos of social liberals. We see this in the sexual libertinism of our age, e.g., the redefinition of marriage as a union of two consenting parties who love each other. This is the basis for homosexual marriage. It is difficult to see how it will not become the basis for polygamy and pederasty. Libertinism is the basis for no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, sexual abuse (if self-expression and satisfaction is the highest good, then what significance does the suffering of another really have?), and rampant drug abuse, human trafficking and the list goes on ad nauseam.

The theological liberals, however, were not libertines. In fact they were more like the Methodist teetotalers of the nineteenth century or the “social justice” advocates of our age who have rejected the good news of salvation for sinners by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. They reject the gospel in favor or law because they fear that the message of good news, which they no longer believe anyway, will not lead to the social righteousness that they want to see. The new social-justice (which is a synonym for righteousness) movement of our time is the child of the old moralistic theological liberals. They promise a utopia if only we will obey their laws. It is a legal-eschatological religion. The theological liberals are the Pharisees of our day, who, during Jesus’ life on earth, believed that were we all to obey the 613 Mosaic laws (as they counted them) the Messiah would have to come and with him the new righteous world.

Setting Jesus Against Paul

The ancient heretic Marcion, who troubled the church in the 2nd century, hated Paul. Like the Gnostics, he hated the God of the Old Testament and rejected him as a demiurge, a minor deity, and a ruthless lawgiver. The Gnostics and the Marcionites set the Old and New Testaments against each other. According to Marcion, the God of the New Testament is all love and grace. The theological liberals have Marcionite tendencies. They do not care much for the Old Testament and they do not like the Apostle Paul.

(HT: Kris)

This brings us back to Machen, who wrote another important book against the theological liberals: The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: MacMillan, 1921). In chapter 4 he addressed the question of the relations between Paul and Jesus. “The church has always accepted the apostle Paul, not at all as a religious philosopher, but simply and solely as a witness to Jesus. If he was not a true disciple of Jesus, then the authority which has always possessed and the influence which he as wielded have been based on a misconception” (p. 117). He criticized the “gnosticizing separation between Jesus the historic person, and Christ the divine Lord” (p. 118). He critiqued and rejected the “Kenotic” theory (that Christ emptied himself of his deity). He refuted Baur’s reconstruction of the second-century church and answered the objections raised by those who sought to set Jesus against Paul most of which were grounded in an untenable interpretation of the New Testament. It turns out that biblical exegesis matters.

The crux of the issue is that if Paul is allowed to stand then theological liberalism must fall. In order to sustain the liberal project, they must get rid of Paul in order to remake Jesus in their own image. Machen concluded,

Thus Paul was a true follower of Jesus if Jesus was a divine Redeemer, come from heaven to die for the sins of men; he was not a true follower of Jesus if Jesus was a mere revealer of the fatherhood of God. Paulinism was not based upon a Galilean prophet. It as based either upon the Son of God who came to earth for men’s salvation and still holds communion with those who trust Him, or else it was based upon a colossal error. But if the latter alternative be adopted, the error was not only colossal but also uncountable. It is made more unaccountable by all that has been said above, all the the liberal theologians have helped to establish, about the nearness of Paul to Jesus. If Paul really stood so near to Jesus, if he really came under Jesus’ influence, if he really was intimate with Jesus’ friends, how could he have misinterpreted so completely the significance of Jesus’ person; how could he have substituted for the teacher of righteousness who had really lived in Palestine the heavenly Redeemer of the Epistles? No satisfactory answer has yet been given. In the relation between Jesus and Paul the historian discovered a problem which forces him on toward a Copernican revolution in all his thinking, which leads him to ground his own salvation and the hope of this world no longer in millions acts of sinful men or in the gradual progress of civilization, but simply and solely in one redemptive act of the Lord of Glory (p. 169).

With Paul out of the way, the theological liberals think they may do as they will with Jesus. They may transform him from a Savior to a mere prophet of social righteousness. If Machen was right, and he was, then the theological liberals have another Christ, another spirit, and another gospel in which there is no hope, no salvation, no grace and no forgiveness. Paul said that Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am chief (1 Tim 1:15). The theological liberals will turn to the Christ of Scripture, to the Christ of history, when they see themselves not as the righteous but as sinners in need of a Savior.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Thanks to Le Ann Trees for her editorial help with this essay.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. Paul had his detractors in his own day. Where are they now?

    The worthy gentleman opining in the video could not even be numbered among the sons of Sceva, could he? One prays by the grace of God he escapes a similar treatment.

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