Machen, part 2: What Christian Doctrines Can We Abandon?

As noted in an earlier posts (here and here), J. Gresham Machen was confronting the Protestant liberalism of his day. This movement among mainline denominations in the early decades of the 20th century sought to accommodate Christianity so as to align with the progress of science at the time. Its supporters were on a quest to resolve the discrepancy between modern thinking and the historic Christian faith. Unfortunately, that resolution often entailed the abandonment of certain – and perhaps essential – doctrines. Machen was asking how much “Christianity” would remain if so many biblical teachings were abandoned:

“From every point of view, therefore, the problem in question is the most serious concern of the Church. What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age?

It is this problem which modern liberalism attempts to solve. Admitting that scientific objections may arise against the particularities of the Christian religion  against the Christian doctrines of the person of Christ, and of redemption through His death and resurrection – the liberal theologian seeks to rescue certain of the general principles of religion, of which these particularities are thought to be mere temporary symbols, and these general principles he regards as constituting ‘the essence of Christianity.'”

Machen continues,

“…it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923] 6–7).

Today, the teachings of Christianity are regularly confronted with a cultural system that runs in opposition to its doctrines. Just how many doctrines can acceptably be abandoned as outmoded and irrelevant to a modern culture? What is the criteria upon which they could be abandoned? Which doctrines would need to be eliminated for a religion to longer be Christianity but belonging to a “distinct category” altogether? What teachings comprise the “essence of Christianity”?

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