Protestant liberalism was a movement that gained strength in the late 19th– and early 20th–century to bring about changes in Christianity so as to better conform to the “modern man.” Jesus’ ethical teaching was emphasized while many traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and even the deity of Christ, were challenged as being incompatible with recent scientific developments.
J. Gresham Machen, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, challenged liberal Protestantism in the 1920’s. What was particularly irksome to Machen was the liberal preacher’s use and abuse of Christian language. They would deny doctrines, like the ones mentioned above, but would continue to use the traditional terms while subtly changing their meaning. Here is an example of Machen’s critique of such abuse of language (part one of two):
“The liberal preacher, it may be said, is often ready to speak of the ‘deity’ of Christ; he is often ready to say that ‘Jesus is God.’ The plain man is much impressed. The preacher, he says, believes in the deity of our Lord; obviously then his unorthodoxy must concern only details; and those who object to his presence in the Church are narrow and uncharitable heresy-hunters.
“But unfortunately language is valuable only as the expression of thought. The English word ‘God’ has no particular virtue in itself; it is not more beautiful than other words. Its importance depends altogether upon the meaning which is attached to it. When, therefore, the liberal preacher says that ‘Jesus is God,’ the significance of the utterance depends altogether upon what is meant by ‘God.’
“And it has already been observed that when the liberal preacher uses the word ‘God,’ he means something entirely different from that which the Christian means by the same word. God, at least according to the logical trend of modern liberalism, is not a person separate from the world, but merely the unity that pervades the world. To say, therefore, that Jesus is God means merely that the life of God, which appears in all men, appears with special clearness or richness in Jesus. Such an assertion is diametrically opposed to the Christian belief in the deity of Christ.
“Equally opposed to Christian belief is another meaning that is sometimes attached to the assertion that Jesus is God. The word ‘God’ is sometimes used to denote simply the supreme object of men’s desires, the highest thing that men know. We have given up the notion, it is said, that there is a Maker and Ruler of the universe; such notions belong to ‘metaphysics,’ and are rejected by the modern man. But the word ‘God,’ though it can no longer denote the Maker of the universe, is convenient as denoting the object of men’s emotions and desires. … In a somewhat similar way, the liberal preacher says that Jesus is God. He does not mean at all to say that Jesus is identical in nature with a Maker and Ruler of the universe, of whom an idea could be obtained apart from Jesus. In such a Being he no longer believes. All that he means is that the man Jesus – a man here in the midst of us, and of the same nature as ours – is the highest thing we know. It is obvious that such a way of thinking is far more widely removed from Christian belief than is Unitarianism, at least the earlier forms of Unitarianism. For the early Unitarianism no doubt at least believed in God. The modern liberals, on the other hand, say that Jesus is God not because they think high of Jesus, but because they think desperately low of God” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923], p. 110–11).
[to be continued tomorrow…]