“Transformed by a Piece of News” – J. Gresham Machen on the Gospel as History

J. Gresham Machen was tired of hearing preachers say that right doctrine wasn’t so important, as long as peoples’ lives were being changed. By setting up this false dichotomy, they were losing touch with the very thing that changes lives, the thing that sets Christianity apart.

“From the beginning Christianity certainly was a life.” Machen agreed. “But how was the life produced?”

Not by exhortation, he answered. That’s not what made Christianity unique, or strange. The world was already full of exhortations to live better lives.

“That method had often been tried in the ancient world,” Machen wrote, “in the Hellenistic age there were many wandering preachers who told men how they ought to live.”

Christianity did not follow this method. Yes, Jesus and the apostles told people how to live. But their secret was not a persuasion technique.

“The strange thing about Christianity was that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event. It is no wonder that such a method seemed strange. Could anything be more impractical than to attempt to influence conduct by rehearsing events concerning the death of a religious teacher? That is what Paul called “the foolishness of the message.” It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal preachers today. But the strange thing is that it works. The effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.”

The “liberal preachers” Machen referred to lent their name to the title of his book, Christianity and Liberalism.

It was not the name Machen would have chosen. He would have preferred the term naturalism. That best described the liberals, because they wanted to remove the miraculous elements from the faith and just keep the timeless principles.

But a non-miraculous Christianity shouldn’t be called Christianity at all, argued Machen. It was a deceptive attemp to keep the language and terminology of Christianity, while emptying those terms of their historical meaning.

That historical meaning is preserved for us by means of doctrine.

Because it is rooted in history, Christianity is fact-based. These facts have been discussed for centuries. The result is that we can gain a clearer understanding of the truth, but only if we appreciate the work of those who went before us.

“When it is once admitted that a body of facts lies at the basis of the Christian religion, the efforts which past generations have made toward the classification of the facts will have to be treated with respect. In no branch of science would there be any real advance if every generation started fresh with no dependence upon what past generations have achieved. Yet in theology, vituperation of the past seems to be thought essential to progress.”

Vituperation means a sustained and bitter railing and condemnation. (I had to look it up.)

The liberals railed against the past, but they were clever about it. They gave the impression that it was only the most techinical, contentious debates that they were attacking, not Christian doctrine as a whole.

When presented this way, their agenda was a lot easier to accept. Most Christians are more than happy to take a soft position on nonessential points. It was like asking people to sacrifice something they had no interest in anyway.

Machen’s warning is that we need to be careful what people mean when they say “doctrine.”

The liberal preachers meant “Christianity as it has always been identified.”

The average church-goer understood it to mean boring theological technicalities.

“Undoubtedly the word is so taken by many occupants of the pews when the listen to the modern exaltation of “life” at the expense of “doctrine.” The pious hearer labors under the impression that he is merely being asked to return to the simplicity of the New Testament, instead of attending to the subtleties of the theologians. Since it has never occurred to him to attend to the subtleties of the theologians, he has that comfortable feeling which always comes to the churchgoer when someone else’s sins are being attacked. It is no wonder that the modern invectives against doctrine constitute a popular type of preaching.”