Racial Justice is Not “Liberalism”

Machen 2

We reject theological liberalism–defined by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism as a “different gospel” from the Scriptural gospel. (43, 44)

Above is the first “Denial” listed in the “Report of the ad Interim Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation to the Forty-Sixth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.” Every time I read this line, I think, “yep,” and keep reading. No alarms.

But as time and debate has continued since its publication and adoption, I’m starting to wonder if many within the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition see this inclusion as a contradiction of the rest of the document, especially among the self-described “Machen Warriors.” I fear that Machen’s personal political and sociological views have been illegitimately folded into his definition of “Liberalism” by modern hagiographers.

As biographer D. G. Hart has, I believe, rightly concluded, Machen was a racist, of which we have no reason to believe he ever repented. Further, Machen held to what he himself called the ideas of “Anglo-Saxon liberty” and espoused Southern, conservative, libertarian political positions throughout his writing and speeches. But Machen defined “Liberalism” itself as an entirely different religion than Christianity, not simply the opposite of his own social and political beliefs.

For Machen, “Liberalism” proper is the naturalization of Christianity in response to the “Modernism” of his age (well, and ours), produced by ever encroaching scientism and materialism.

In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called “modernism” or “liberalism.” … [M]anifold as are the forms in which the movement appears, the root of the movement is one; the many varieties of modern liberal religion are rooted in naturalism–that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God (as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature) in connection with the origin of Christianity. (Christianity and Liberalism, Selected Shorter Writings (Kindle Location 4613). Monergism Books.)

The “Liberalism” Machen speaks of—that which is not Christianity—therefore substantively denies the basic doctrines of the orthodox faith, even the importance of “doctrine” itself. There is no Trinity as defined by Nicea in Liberalism, no literal Incarnation, no vicarious atonement for sin, no literal resurrection of our Lord, no divinely inspired and inerrant Scripture, etc. He is even clear that many theological disagreements within Christianity do not constitute Liberalism; differing views on the Sacraments, on Ecclesiology, on Calvinism vs. Arminianism, even the doctrines of Rome, are not determinative tests of Liberalism. Liberalism believes that the religion of Jesus is a non-supernatural system of ethics and social transformation, alone. “Faith” is simply being Jesus-like.

So, how, I ask, can the venerable J. G. Machen’s critique of Liberalism be genuinely applied to theologically conservative Christian brothers and sisters who also advocate for Social Justice, Racial Justice, and Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation as necessary consequences of the historic faith? Is it not disingenuous to apply the critique of Liberalism—that which is not Christianity—to those who hold to the Ecumenical Creeds of the Church and its historic Confessions?

Further, Machen was clear that his critique of, for example, the “Social Gospel” was not a critique of those who sought to consistently apply the necessary consequences of the Gospel to all of society, nor even of those who sought to transform it by means of the Gospel. His critique was of those who made the social improvement wrought by the Gospel the only meaning and purpose of the Gospel itself.

The “otherworldliness” of Christianity involves no withdrawal from the battle of this world; our Lord Himself, with His stupendous mission, lived in the midst of life’s throng and press. Plainly, then, the Christian man may not simplify his problem by withdrawing from the business of the world, but must learn to apply the principles of Jesus even to the complex problems of modern industrial life. At this point Christian teaching is in full accord with the modern liberal Church; the evangelical Christian is not true to his profession if he leaves his Christianity behind him on Monday morning. On the contrary, the whole of life, including business and all of social relations, must be made obedient to the law of love. The Christian man certainly should display no lack of interest in “applied Christianity.”

Only—and here emerges the enormous difference of opinion—the Christian man believes that there can be no applied Christianity unless there be “a Christianity to apply.” That is where the Christian man differs from the modern liberal. The liberal believes that applied Christianity is all there is of Christianity, Christianity being merely a way of life; the Christian man believes that applied Christianity is the result of an initial act of God. (6570-6588)

Machen objected to the idea that one can create as society which reflects the ethics of the Gospel with no actual Gospel, and no Gospel believers. Transformation of society does not come primarily from structural changes, but from the inward change of its members, wrought by God, leading to the increase of justice for the whole.

A solid building cannot be constructed when all the materials are faulty; a blessed society cannot be formed out of men who are still under the curse of sin. Human institutions are really to be molded, not by Christian principles accepted by the unsaved, but by Christian men; the true transformation of society will come by the influence of those who have themselves been redeemed. Thus Christianity differs from liberalism in the way in which the transformation of society is conceived. But according to Christian belief, as well as according to liberalism, there is really to be a transformation of society; it is not true that the Christian evangelist is interested in the salvation of individuals without being interested in the salvation of the race. (6640)

But again, for Machen, this does not mean one ignores social change until all are redeemed.

[The Christian] finds no solid hope in the improvement of earthly conditions, or the molding of human institutions under the influence of the Golden Rule. These things indeed are to be welcomed. They may so palliate the symptoms of sin that there may be time to apply the true remedy; they may serve to produce conditions upon the earth favorable to the propagation of the gospel message; they are even valuable for their own sake. (6634)

The critique is not that actions toward social welfare are to be discouraged or devalued, but simply that they are not the permanent solution to mankind’s ills.

The modern liberal believes that human nature as at present constituted can be molded by the principles of Jesus; the Christian man believes that evil can only be held in check and not destroyed by human institutions, and that there must be a transformation of the human materials before any new building can be produced. (6596)

To conclude: from my study of the many faithful Christian men and women engaged in the work of Social Justice and Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation, I see no evidence that they would in any way disagree with Machen’s description of Christian love:

Christian love does not, indeed, neglect men’s physical welfare; it does not give a man a sermon when he needs bread. It relieves distress; it delights in affording even the simplest pleasure to a child. But it always does these things with the consciousness of the one inestimable gift that it has in reserve. (“Faith and Works,” 1271)

Nor would they disagree with Machen’s actual definition of “Liberalism” nor his condemnation of the same. But they (and we) are wholly justified in vigorously opposing his socially, politically, and even racially motivated personal beliefs without succumbing to the flaccid charge of Liberalism—which is not Christianity at all.


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