One of my favorite books is Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This is one of the twentieth-century’s great theological classics. It’s brief, to the point, and really packs a powerful punch. For books its size, it punches way above its weight-class. I suspect that many other Christians have a similar estimation of Machen’s pint-sized but nonetheless potent contemporary classic. I wonder, however, how many people read this book and immediately transpose the book into the present. On the one hand, I think this is a perfectly natural occurrence. When people read they are looking for the fresh breeze of times gone by to blow through their minds and equip them with forgotten truths so they can engage the challenges of the present. On the other hand, I wonder how often we lose the original context and thus part of the book’s potency fades into the background. I remember several years ago a Reformed theologian appeared on a popular political commentary show and made reference to Machen’s book. Sales of Machen’s book naturally spiked on Amazon within hours. I think, however, that many were disappointed with the book because Machen had theological rather than political liberalism in the cross hairs. This is an example of seeking immediate application of a book apart from understanding its original context.
Another instance of the misunderstanding of books comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible. This is a brief devotional book about the Psalter and is very edifying. Despite some problematic elements in Bonhoeffer’s neo-orthodoxy, the book is an excellent Christ-centered exploration of the psalms, and I suspect that many others have a similar evaluation. But what about the book’s original context? Bonhoeffer originally wrote it during the time when Hitler’s Nazi government was clamping down on the Jewish people dwelling in pre-war Germany. In addition to the anti-Semitic laws, practices, and outright racism, theologians were instructed that they were not supposed to make reference to the Jewish aspects of Christianity. In the simplest of terms, professors were supposed to use the New Testament and ignore the Jewish Old Testament. So when Bonhoeffer ignored this directive and published his book on the Psalter and made the connections between Christ and the Jewish Old Testament, his point was not merely theological but also quite heroic! As theologically instructive as the book is, the context provides us with another point of inspiration, namely, that in all things we serve Christ rather than man. Even if the authorities tell us to clip the wings of scriptural truth, we never do so but let truth fly unfettered even if it means suffering for it.
So what about Machen’s original context? While there are some books that you can consult, I think one of the best reading partners for Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is Richard M. Gamble’s The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation. I think it is difficult for us to comprehend just how confused the gospel and politics became at the turn of the twentieth century. Progressive clergy set aside the pure gold of the gospel and mixed it with the fool’s gold of political policies and the social gospel. Many ministers and theologians not only believed that the church’s role was to fix the many social ailments but even used the gospel to legitimize the US entry into World War I. They argued that the war and the cause of Christ were one in the same. If you want to know how much Machen was swimming against the cultural tide, then first read Gamble’s excellent study and then pick up Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. Not only will you have a greater appreciation for Machen’s heroic defense of the gospel, but you’ll also see how important it is to maintain the church’s unique Christ-given mission of heralding the gospel through the means of grace—word, sacrament, and prayer. You’ll see how easy it is to confuse the man-made political aims of this world with the heaven-sent gospel of Christ. So pick up Gamble and Machen and enjoy the illumination from these two excellent reading partners!