What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
The Teacher was a bit of a pessimist, so we might be prone to suspect he’s engaging in a bit of dour hyperbole. And certainly, with respect to things of the gospel, this is not strictly true. God does a new thing in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. He creates righteousness out of sin, life out of death, and makes saints out of sinners. That said, taken at a this-worldly level, he’s got a good point. Natural patterns progress, currents come and go, winds maintain fairly regular rhythms, and so forth. What’s more, even at the historical level, yes, there are changes, differences made, breaks and developments, because humans are thinking, choosing, acting beings who can diverge from the script—and yet one constant that remains is basic human nature.
I bring all this up simply to make the point that the history of philosophy and theology, while constantly progressing, developing in a bewildering variety of forms and particular details, exhibits a series of repeating patterns. A burst of rationalism and confidence usually sets the prelude to a wave of skeptical criticism. Derrida is not Montaigne is not Pyrrho, but we’d have to be blind to not see some line of continuity and familiar elements even though we can find significant differences between the thinkers. Ideas tend to make a comeback.
This is one of the reasons it’s so instructive to study the conflicts in our church history—the same mistakes tend to crop up on a regular basis, even if they do happen to show development in terms of sophistication or contextual concerns. The battles of our theological forefathers, while not an exact match for our own, can often shed light on the structure of our current debates.
Gresham Machen’s classic piece of polemics Christianity and Liberalism is one such text. Written at the height of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict, Machen set out to clearly set out the choice before the Church. But it wasn’t so much a choice between two variations of Christianity as so many thought, but between two different faiths altogether, with different doctrines of revelation, salvation, God, Christ, and more. In other words, it wasn’t just a dispute about variations in our understanding of the incarnation, but whether there was an incarnation!
One of the key battle-grounds, of course, was Scripture: what is its nature and authority? Is it inspired or infallible? If so, how so? If not, why not? Modernists were critical for what had become the usual reasons: science, historical criticism, the moral character of the OT, and so forth. I revisited the text recently, though, and was surprised (and yet not surprise) to find Machen critiquing one very familiar argument forwarded by the liberals of his day:
The modern liberal rejects not only the doctrine of plenary inspiration, but even such respect for the Bible as would be proper over against any ordinarily trustworthy book. But what is substituted for the Christian view of the Bible? What is the liberal view as to the seat of authority in religion? The impression is sometimes produced that the modern liberal substitutes for the authority of the Bible the authority of Christ. He cannot accept, he says, what he regards as the perverse moral teaching of the Old Testament or the sophistical arguments of Paul. But he regards himself as being the true Christian because, rejecting the rest of the Bible, he depends upon Jesus alone.
So, here we are, some ninety years ago facing the now-familiar “Jesus over the Bible” view of authority and revelation. Of course, Machen was unimpressed with its earlier version, “This impression, however, is utterly false. The modern liberal does not really hold to the authority of Jesus.”
Why does he say this? For two reasons that I can see. First, excerpting Jesus from his narrative setting in both Old and New Testaments limits our ability to actually understand him. Much as T.F. Torrance argues, Jesus only makes sense (his works, his deeds, his aims) only against the backdrop of Israel as well as the witness of the Gospels and the preaching of the apostles through whom we receive our witness about him. What’s more, this runs against the practice of Jesus who both affirmed the Old Testament as the word of God and appointed his apostles to authoritatively teach concerning him and his works in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The second point, though, is that even still, without these considerations, the vaunted allegiance to Jesus’ unique authority begins to erode upon closer inspection:
As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not hold fast even to the authority of Jesus. Certainly he does not accept the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the Gospels. For among the recorded words of Jesus are to be found just those things which are most abhorrent to the modern liberal Church, and in His recorded words Jesus also points forward to the fuller revelation which was afterwards to be given through His apostles. Evidently, therefore, those words of Jesus which are to be regarded as authoritative by modern liberalism must first be selected from the mass of the recorded words by a critical process. The critical process is certainly very difficult, and the suspicion often arises that the critic is retaining as genuine words of the historical Jesus only those words which conform to his own preconceived ideas. But even after the sifting process has been completed, the liberal scholar is still unable to accept as authoritative all the sayings of Jesus; he must finally admit that even the “historical” Jesus as reconstructed by modern historians said some things that are untrue.
So, even after declaring our allegiance to Jesus, we sometimes find that the words of Jesus as we actually have them in the Gospels—his pronouncements on eschatology, marriage, his exclusive authority, etc.—must be cleaned up. So, how did they deal with such a challenge to their claim that they follow Jesus? Machen elaborates:
So much is usually admitted. But, it is maintained, although not everything that Jesus said is true, His central “life-purpose” is still to be regarded as regulative for the Church. But what then was the life-purpose of Jesus? According to the shortest, and if modern criticism be accepted the earliest of the Gospels, the Son of Man “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark x. 45). Here the vicarious death is put as the “life-purpose” of Jesus. Such an utterance must of course be pushed aside by the modern liberal Church. The truth is that the life-purpose of Jesus discovered by modern liberalism is not the life purpose of the real Jesus, but merely represents those elements in the teaching of Jesus − isolated and misinterpreted − which happen to agree with the modern program.
We might paraphrase and say that for the liberals of Machen’s day, the central truth of Jesus’ story, his life, his consciousness is what mattered. Some of the details, certain specific teachings, or doings, if they’re not part of this central story, can be discarded or relativized without much harm done. Of course, the question becomes how you decide what counts:
It is not Jesus, then, who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas. It is not true at all, then, that modern liberalism is based upon the authority of Jesus. It is obliged to reject a vast deal that is absolutely essential in Jesus’ example and teaching − notably His consciousness of being the heavenly Messiah. The real authority, for liberalism, can only be “the Christian consciousness” or “Christian experience.”
Now, of course, this not an exact parallel with the kinds of arguments we find today. Downstream from the Liberal/Fundamentalist debates, our culture has shifted, and the more explicit liberalism with its anti-supernaturalism, its platitudes about universal truth, and so forth don’t set as well. We don’t mind the resurrection—we love it, in fact. As Trevin Wax has recently pointed out, old school liberals had more problems with the Creed than with the 10 Commandments, but we’ve sort of switched that up. All the same, this is one of those important moments to remember that a historical “precedent” need not be exact in all of its details and may have serious, significant differences. (In other words, Hus really was a precursor to Luther, despite their differences.)
If you look at it, though, it’s not hard to look around the theological landscape (internet or otherwise) to recognize many of the same old moves being made. We have a core Jesus consciousness, or “story” being appealed to over and against the actual words and deeds of Jesus and the apostles that he authorized to interpret and tell us that story. Some parts of Jesus’ teaching (the ones that happen to fit really well with left and center-left, progressive ethical or theological sensibilities) are upheld as the core of the message and life of Jesus and then used as a rule, a canon within the canon, to determine what really counts. Machen draws out some more of the problems with that:
But how shall the findings of the Christian consciousness be established? Surely not by a majority vote of the organized Church. Such a method would obviously do away with all liberty of conscience. The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which “helps” the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and when once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The result is an abysmal skepticism.
In a sense, I’m sort of repeating myself. But the fact is that history seems to be repeating itself. With variations, of course, but still, the pattern is there, plain as day, for all to see.
And please hear me, I really don’t want to dismiss the differences. The ability to recite the Apostle’s Creed without crossing your fingers, affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection, his Messiahship, and so forth, are not small, theological potatoes. This is not exactly your grandfather’s liberalism. Thank God for that.
All the same, many of the same root problems with your grandfather’s liberalism are there, nonetheless, simply with different symptoms. They haven’t gone away, nor are they any less corrosive in the long run.
Soli Deo Gloria