Machen, part 1: Doctrine or Life? Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy?

Several weeks ago I mentioned some of the books for my Summer Vacation reading. One of them was Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923). Machen was a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary and later at Westminster Theological Seminary in the early part of the 20th-century. He was a central figure in the controversy surrounding liberal Protestantism and Fundamentalism. In the following passage, he confronts those who minimized the importance of right doctrine over against living a proper life. Many of the Protestant liberals* emphasized the performing of religious deeds over the strict adherence to doctrine or creeds. Machen points out the difference between a moral life that finds its source in the will of man for self-improvement and one that finds its source in the transformation of the gospel message. He argues against the marginalizing of correct doctrine and defends what he calls the “doctrinal basis” that under-girds Christian ethics:

In maintaining the doctrinal basis of Christianity, we are particularly anxious not to be misunderstood. There are certain things that we do not mean. In the first place, we do not mean that if doctrine is sound it makes no difference about life. On the contrary, it makes all the difference in the world. From the beginning, Christianity was certainly a way of life; the salvation that it offered was a salvation from sin, and salvation from sin appeared not merely in a blessed hope but also in an immediate moral change. The early Christians, to the astonishment of their neighbors, lived a strange new kind of life – a life of honesty, of purity and of unselfishness. And from the Christian community all other types of life were excluded in the strictest way. From the beginning Christianity was certainly a life.

But how was the life produced? It might conceivably have been produced by exhortation. That method had often been tried in the ancient world; in the Hellenistic age there were many wandering preachers who told men how they ought to live. But such exhortation proved to be powerless. Although the ideals of the Cynic and Stoic preachers were high, these preachers never succeeded at transforming society. 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 the 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.

It is especially by such transformation of life, today as always, that the Christian message is commended to the attention of men. Certainly, then, it does make an enormous difference whether our lives be right. If our doctrine be true, and our lives be wrong, how terrible is our sin! For then we have brought despite upon the truth itself. On the other hand, however, it is also very sad when men use the social graces which God has given them, and the moral momentum of a godly ancestry, to commend a message which is false. Nothing in the world can take the place of truth.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923) 47–48.

* The term “liberal” is not intended as slanderous or derogatory, nor is it referring to political liberalism. The term is actually a self-descriptor of those who held particular theological positions which had gained prominence in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries.


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