Note: My friend Daniel posted some quotations from Machen’s book, Christianity and Liberalism. It is Machen’s words in the second chapter of this remarkable book that inspired this post. The entire book is available online.
In his famous treatise against the false religion of the Liberals, Christianity and Liberalism, Gresham Machen made extensive comments concerning the importance of doctrine in the second chapter. His thoughts concerning the significance of doctrine were weaved into this remarkably clear, concise, scholarly, and yet spiritually rich polemic against one of the greatest heresy of his time.
Some of us had, probably in one way or another, met some zealous young Christians who would be keen to discuss or even have a debate on some nifty, theological points. A few of us from a fundamentalist background might also be familiar with the constant reiterations concerning the importance of doctrine for the Christian life. As familiarity sometimes really does breed contempt, the Christian pilgrim would sometimes be tempted to harbor a certain disdain or even disgust for any such reminders with regard to doctrine. In fact, for some of us, the insistence upon the importance of doctrine is likened to a kind of narrow-minded “Pharisaism.” Worse, some would even associate such an insistence with spiritual immaturity and “carnal” dogmatism.
But why would any Christian create such a false dichotomy between doctrinal precision and spiritual maturity? Regrettably, many church leaders I met have often associated Christian “maturity” with doctrinal broadmindedness and vagueness. Any attempt to spell out the doctrines as taught in the Word of God would be seen as subversive behavior, disrespect for the leadership, or schism. There are, of course, people who are guilty of all or some of the above i.e. subversion, disrespect for church leadership, and/or schism. But to stifle any discussion of doctrine within the church by using the guilt by association fallacy is unbiblical at best. Sadly, isn’t it relatively common to hear the parroting of this comment, “Doctrine is unimportant. Christianity is all about Christian living and service. Let’s not talk about doctrine. Let’s live out our Christianity with Christian service?”
In the second chapter of Christianity and Liberalism, which is entitled “Doctrine,” Machen pointedly states,
“At the outset, we are met with an objection [from the Liberals]. “Teachings,” it is said, “are unimportant ...” But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false, and to detect its falsity one does not even need to be a Christian.” (Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (NY: Macmillan, 1923), 18-19)It becomes apparent that the mantra, “doctrine is unimportant,” is not uncommon after all. The liberals used to say it. The postmodernists are currently saying it. But worst of all, evangelical Christians are also mimicking the mantra of the liberals. Is doctrine really unimportant? Ironically, those who pontificate about the unimportance of doctrine are usually the ones who are regarded as being spiritual and godly within the church. The defenders of the faith are perceived as the enemies of the Church, while those who demonstrate a blithe disregard for Christ’s teachings are now welcomed just as Liberals were welcomed into evangelical seminaries all over the world earlier in the last century.
But Machen argues,
“Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity. ... But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.” (Christianity and Liberalism, 20-21)How can it ever be that the Christian life and service should be divorced from solid foundations in biblical doctrines? If the Christian walk and mien is all about appearing nice, compassionate and cheerful, or simply about being broadminded and accommodating, then why shouldn’t we be all initiated into the teachings of Buddhism or Hinduism (or a myriad of other -isms)? Most religions teach their members to be “good,” or to be nice, compassionate, cheerful, broadminded and accommodating. Most religion likewise indoctrinate their believers to follow the moral law, to donate to the poor, to help the helpless, and to be a “cheerful giver.”
So what is the fundamental difference between the religion of Christ, and the religions of the world? We have seen that the outward expression or practice of our religion may in many ways be similar; in reality, there are times when such expressions of piety and charity would be similar to those of another religion. It is therefore the content (propositional truths), or rather, the doctrine of Christ which sets Christianity apart from the other religions of the world. Some might say, “We do not know what doctrine you are talking about, but we know Christ.” My question to them is this, “Which Christ are you talking about?” For in order for us to know the Christ of the Bible, we have to know the teachings concerning Christ which is laid out in the Word of God. Similarly, if we are to practice the Christian religion as taught by Christ and the Apostles, we have to know the doctrines concerning the Christian religion as it is written in the Word of God.
The Word of God exhorts the church elders to hold “fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers (Titus 1:9).” How can the elder “hold fast” the teachings he had been taught, if he was never taught in the first place? How would he convince the “gainsayers,” if he would adopt the attitude of theological “broadmindedness” and postmodern relativity? Such “sayings” by the gainsayer would only be another “breath of fresh air” amidst the theological hodgepodge found within the postmodernist’s viewpoint. But what about tolerance with regard to certain doctrinal differences?
Concerning Paul’s attitude towards doctrine and his tolerance of dissenters, Machen writes,
“Certainly with regard to Paul himself there should be no debate; Paul certainly was not indifferent to doctrine; on the contrary, doctrine was the very basis of his life. His devotion to doctrine did not, it is true, make him incapable of a magnificent tolerance. One notable example of such tolerance is to be found during his imprisonment at Rome, as attested by the Epistle to the Philippians. Apparently certain Christian teachers at Rome had been jealous of Paul's greatness. As long as he had been at liberty they had been obliged to take a secondary place; but now that he was in prison, they seized the supremacy. They sought to raise up affliction for Paul in his bonds; they preached Christ even of envy and strife. In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. "Whether in presence, or in truth," he said, "Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice" (Phil. i. 18). The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.Machen continues to elucidate,
But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. "But though we," he said, "or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle's attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul's attitude. No doubt the motives of the Judaizers in Galatia were far from pure, and in an incidental way Paul does point out their impurity. But that was not the ground of his opposition. The Judaizers no doubt were morally far from perfect, but Paul's opposition to them would have been exactly the same if they had all been angels from heaven. His opposition was based altogether upon the falsity of their teaching; they were substituting for the one true gospel a false gospel which was no gospel at all. It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.” (Christianity and Liberalism, 21-23)
“But what was the difference between the teaching of Paul and the teaching of the Judaizers ? What was it that gave rise to the stupendous polemic of the Epistle to the Galatians? To the modern Church the difference would have seemed to be a mere theological subtlety. About many things the Judaizers were in perfect agreement with Paul. ... The difference concerned only the logical--not even, perhaps, the temporal--order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God's law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified. The difference would seem to modern "practical" Christians to be a highly subtle and intangible matter, hardly worthy of consideration at all in view of the large measure of agreement in the practical realm. What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances! Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity.Let it therefore be known that differences often referred to as “theological subtleties” may seem innocuous enough to the “theological agnostics,” but one such difference might have destroyed Christianity at its inception - the teachings of the Judaizers. The practicers of the religions of Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism may have similar expressions of charity and piety, but it must be remembered that the propositional truths as expounded by these three religions are fundamentally different and contradictory in many areas. It is these differences in doctrine, or rather, the specific teachings of Christ and His Apostles found in the Bible which set Christianity apart from the other religions of the world.
As a matter of fact, however, Paul did nothing of the kind; and only because he (and others) did nothing of the kind does the Christian Church exist today. Paul saw very clearly that the differences between the Judaizers and himself was the differences between two entirely distinct types of religion; it was the differences between a religion of merit and a religion of grace.” (Christianity and Liberalism, 23-24)
And to him who insists that “doctrine is unimportant,” let him explain why we shouldn’t be followers of the doctrine of Buddha or Brahma if indeed “doctrine is unimportant.”