“Christianity and Liberalism” in a Postliberal Age -- By: Darryl G. Hart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 56:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: “Christianity and Liberalism” in a Postliberal Age
Author: Darryl G. Hart

“Christianity and Liberalism” in a Postliberal Age*

Darryl G. Hart

* An address given on October 1, 1993, at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, during a conference celebrating the inauguration of W. Robert Godfrey as president of the seminary, and commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the publication of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.

When we remember J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, we tend to think of it as a supreme vindication of the Christian religion in a contest between the forces of darkness and light. According to Ned Stonehouse, Machen’s defense of historic Christianity made him “Mr. Valiant-for-Truth par excellence.” Ed Rian, another colleague of Machen in the struggles of the 1930s, wrote that Dr. Machen was the “intellectual leader of those who believed in the Christianity of the Bible.” Even those readers of Christianity and Liberalism not particularly partial to its argument conceded that Dr. Machen had correctly and intelligently defended the Bible and its message. For instance, the Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom called Dr. Machen’s book the “chief theological ornament” of the conservative cause.1

Yet, the heroic aura surrounding Christianity and Liberalism gives Machen’s best remembered book a museum-like quality. When we pick it up, recalling only Machen’s courageous efforts in the ecclesiastical and theological struggles of the 1920s, we are prone to view it as an impressive but nonetheless quaint artifact from the far-off past. As a librarian I want to avoid denigrating the collection and preservation of historical artifacts for the sake of nurturing some sense of continuity with and respect for the past. But as important as historical preservation is, it does tend to tame the past by preserving only the works themselves, while neglecting the community and circumstances that brought those works into existence. After all, what hangs in the galleries of many museums and sits on the shelves of most libraries are pieces of cultures and products of communities which are dead or irrelevant and, hence, depend upon public institutions whose task it is to preserve some awareness of works that were once vital components of living cultural traditions.

So, in looking at the historical events that gave rise to Christianity and Liberalism, I want to avoid giving the impression that Dr. Machen’s book was written for a specific time, place, and people—a time, place and people removed from us today. In fact, that we no longer remember the history behind Christianity and Liberalism suggests that we do not i...

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