Sometimes people wonder why I choose to highlight the danger of liberal theology when Christians are expected to be polite and tolerant nowadays. The concerns of these people is that polemical debates are counter-productive. Good Christians should be nice and polite and avoid any semblance of being quarrelsome. We should engage in “conversation” rather in debates.
We should be courteous in defending our faith. But is it not the case that critical thought entails serious debates, if not polemics? This is especially true when the stakes of the debates are high, as they pertain not to secondary customs and practices, but to the central truths of Christian salvation.
J. Gresham Machen, the author of the classic book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923) understood the stakes of the debate better than any of his contemporaries. I strongly recommend every church leader read his clarion call to church leaders to be faithful in discharging their duty to hold fast to the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus and guard the good deposit that is entrusted to them (2 Tim. 1:13-14).
Given below are some excerpts from Robert Godfrey, A Call to Thoughtful Vigilance which gives the gist of Machen’s call for vigorous defence of Confessional faith in the face of the subtle deception of liberal theology:
The Mind of Liberalism
In the first place, we should try to understand how the liberals saw themselves and how they communicated their convictions to others. Liberals insisted that they were evangelical Christians. They believed that they did hold to the essentials of the Christian faith…they held to basic Christian doctrines and only rejected some of the theories that fundamentalists used to elaborate those doctrines. For instance, they believed that Jesus was God with them, but not in the virgin birth. The liberals sincerely believed that they alone would save Christianity in the modern world by making it more relevant. As such, they were active missionaries for their cause.
Dr. Machen was right when he stated of the liberals: “By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.” But the liberals denied such charges, and by using ambiguous language, they persuaded many that they were not as bad as their critics claimed.
The controversy between liberals and fundamentalists was not only about truth for Dr. Machen, it was about ethics. The liberals were not straightforward or honorable in making their beliefs clear.
The Conservative Mind
Dr. Machen believed that the majority of church members in his day were basically conservative. They did not want extensive changes in the doctrine or life of their churches. They were somewhat anxious about where the liberals wanted to take the church. However, they tended to be optimistic about the future and were concerned about criticism of liberalism that seemed too negative or strident…
The division of opinion among conservative leaders and the optimism of many conservatives disposed them to shy away from a fight. As early as 1915, Dr. Machen saw the potential danger of this situation: “The mass of the Church here is still conservative — but conservative in an ignorant, non-polemic, sweetness-and-light kind of way which is just meat for the wolves. I do not mean to use harsh phrases in a harsh way, and my language must be understood to be biblical.” As Paul had warned the Ephesian elders about wolves attacking the sheep of the church, so Dr. Machen worried that the sheep of the church in his day were very vulnerable to liberal wolves.
The Confessionalist Mind
[Machen] believed that fundamentalism was too individualistic, too reductionistic, and too unconcerned with history. For Machen, true Christianity was an historic community with a full and coherent theology. True Christianity, as Dr. Machen knew it in the Reformed tradition, came to doctrinal expression in a full confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Dr. Machen believed a confession expressed the mind of the church and showed church members what the church confessed as the great and necessary teachings of the Bible. The confession should serve as an antidote to doctrinal ignorance in the church as the church diligently teaches its confession to its members. The confession should show the church what doctrines it must fight to uphold. It should strengthen the church as the bulwark of the truth.
Today, evangelical churches face doctrinal challenges every bit as serious as those of the 1920s. Some evangelicals reject the inerrancy of the Bible. Some reject the historic doctrine of God for what they call “open theism.” Some reject the biblical doctrine of justification that was recovered by the Reformation for some form of moralism.
Machen was merely following Paul’s example who was unsparing in his warning against teachers of false doctrine that undermines faith and salvation: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31).
Sometimes guarding the flock may require public censure which was the case when Paul publicly chastised Peter for what may seem to us to be a minor transgression (Gal. 2:11–13). Peter’s transgression may seem minor, but it masks a grave distortion of the doctrine of salvation apart from works of the law. The tone of Paul may seem harsh, but he was effective as he was speaking the truth in love. Peter himself later acknowledge that Paul is a profound and effective defender of God’s word. “Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3: 16)
I pray that church leaders will not be found guilty of dereliction of duty in their failure to discern and defend confessional faith against the return of liberal theology in Malaysia
Evangelicalism Today: Crisis and Creeds