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TEXT: Isaiah 8:20
SUBJECT: Heresies #7: Liberalism
This afternoon, with God's help, we'll get back to our once-a-month study of heresy. The word, heresy, stands for a major mistake of doctrine taught in the Church.
You need to underline the word, major. Not every mistake is heresy-if it were everyone would be a heretic, for no one's knowledge is perfect and even the best teacher is not always right. Heresy is an error that overthrows the faith-a mistake that is not compatible with being a Christian. Arians are heretics because they say Jesus is not God-and no one can believe that and also be saved!
The other word to take note of is Church. Not every major false teaching is heresy. Islam is not a heresy because it is not taught in the Church; people claiming to be Christians do not believe it. The same is true of Atheism and other false doctrines you can think of.
No, heresy is a major false doctrine taught in the Church and often in the name of Jesus Christ, under the authority of His Word, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Heretics in the Church are like the false prophets in Israel. Of them, the Lord said,
"I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied".
Thus far, we've looked at old heresies: Judaism, Arianism, Gnosticism, and Pelagianism tore up the Church from about 40 to 400 A.D (at least two of them are referred to in the Bible, though not by name). Then we skipped forward a bit, to the Medieval Church, where the introduction of Icons and the Mass nearly blotted out the Gospel.
Today, we'll look at a much newer heresy. Though traces of it can be seen very far back in history, it came together and got its name only about 200 years ago. It started in Central Europe, made it's way into England, and finally jumped the pond and was strong in this country by about 1880. By 1920, it had rocked every major Protestant Church in the world-and most of them have not recovered.
The heresy is Liberalism or Modernism.
To understand Liberalism at all, you need to know something about The Enlightenment, of which it was both a product and a reaction.
The Enlightenment was a supposed flowering of knowledge in Europe, beginning in 1687. Its big idea was Reason (which is often capitalized). The thinkers of that time thought that Reason was the measure of all things. If it is not reasonable to them, it is not be true!
Note the phrase, to them. The fact that scholars and geniuses of the past believed in the Bible or the Apostles' Creed carried no weight with the leaders of the Enlightenment. This means 1,500 years of devout learning was thrown away. In favor of what? Of a handful of young skeptics who claimed to know better.
By rejecting all authority (but their own) and ignoring tradition, the Thinkers soon found many things wrong with the authority of Scripture, the Divinity of Christ, the Fall of Man, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Judgment, Heaven and Hell. What Christians always took for God's Word became little more than a collection of primitive religious hopes with a good deal of fairy tale mixed in.
Many Liberals were horrified at the results of scholarship. But, accepting the infallibility of Reason, they had to accept it. Some did it eagerly, others more slowly, but this became the intellectual foundation on which Liberalism was built-and still is!
Reason is Lord!
After a generation or two, many believers in the Enlightenment simply gave up any pretense of Christianity. Some became Deists who believed in God, but thought He had no connection to the world; others went to the opposite extreme and became Pantheists believing God and the world are the same thing.
Though I cannot admire their choice, I do respect their honesty. They were not Christians-and they said so. The best known example here is Charles Darwin. He grew up as an Evangelical Anglican and, as a young man, studied for the ministry. But when he came to the doctrine of evolution, he saw that there was no way he could reconcile it with the Bible's teaching on creation and so, he didn't try to. He gave up the faith of his childhood and put his hope in Science.
Others, however, were not so candid. Some of them were just flat-out liars! They were pastors and theologians who did not want to give up their salaries and so they took an oath to preach and defend what they did not believe!
Some of the Liberals, however, were not liars-not blatant liars, at least. They sincerely believed in Liberalism and saw it as a way of saving the Church from the unbelief all around it.
The best known man of this kind is Friedrich Schleirmacher. He was a German theologian, born in 1768. His father was a Reformed pastor and he studied at a Moravian university. This is a good combination! He learned Calvinism at home and got the disciplines of prayer and devotional reading in school. With his great learning, sincerity, and personality, he might have become a Giant of the Faith.
But he didn't. He became a Giant of Unbelief. He accepted the doctrines of the Enlightenment and looked for a way of integrating them into the Christian Faith.
He found one. He said the scholarship of his day was true, but it did not affect Christianity in the least because Christianity is not about objective truth, but about devotional feelings. He tried to rebuild the Faith on the foundation of feelings. He said religion is.
"A sense of dependence".
In a way, he's right: the truest doctrine will not save a man unless he depends on the love of God and the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ!
But even though we are dependent on God-and ought to feel that way-a sense of dependence is not Christianity!
Christianity produces sacred feelings-of course it does!-but it is not about feelings. It is about Truth! About things that really happened.
The Gospels are not about the faith of the Church; they are about facts! Facts like the Virgin Birth of Christ, His sinless life, His death on the cross, and-most of all-about His resurrection. About 2,000 years ago, in an upscale cemetery near Jerusalem, a Dead Body got loose! This is not, first of all, a devout feeling or a traditional belief: it's a fact! It really happened. Forty years ago, Malcom Muggeridge called it "an artistic truth". But Francis Schaeffer corrected him by naming it, "True Truth".
The Apostles never preached the Gospel artistically. They told the story as plain truth-as things that really happened, as events their hearers could look into themselves if they wanted to.
I do not criticize Schleirmacher's motives. He may have been a good man with a sincere desire to make the Gospel seem real to his generation. But I very much deplore his way of doing it!
The preacher's job, the theologian's work, the layman's assignment is not to accommodate the Gospel to the world, but to preach the Gospel as given! If an Apostle can't monkey with the message, no one else can, either. Paul said,
"That which I received of the Lord, I delivered unto you".
THE LIBERALS' CREED
In 1923, the Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen published a book called Christianity and Liberalism. The book's big idea is to show that Liberalism and Christianity are not just different branches of the same Faith but are, in fact, separate religions!
To his way of thinking, a Liberal Christian is no different than a six-foot dwarf. If you're six-feet tall, you're not a dwarf; if you're a dwarf, you're not six-feet tall. In the same way, if you are a Liberal, you are not a Christian and if you're a Christian you are not a Liberal. Because Liberalism and Christianity differ on every major point. For example:
This is a small sampling of the differences between Christianity and Liberalism. If you want to know more, I highly recommend Machen's book!
THE LIBERALS' TECHNIQUE
A hundred years ago, in America, a man could not be ordained to the ministry if he denied the doctrines of the Bible. And yet, many were ordained and preached their heresy for decades to people who thought they were hearing the Gospel.
How did they do this?
Let's not rule out plain, old, lying! Gary North wrote a book on the Presbyterian Controversy of 80 years ago and gave it the title, Crossed Fingers. For, that's what some of these men did when they affirmed the Westminster Confession of Faith, when in fact, they didn't believe a Word of it!
But, setting that aside, I want to show you their technique. It was not right, but it was extremely clever and highly effective. What the old Liberals mostly did was to downplay doctrine. They didn't come out and deny it-most of the time-but they said it wasn't important or that unity, service, and love are more important than doctrine.
Now, if by doctrine, they mean some minor point on the Millennium, I'm with them. Unity, love, and service are far more important than that. But that's not what they meant by doctrine! They meant doctrines like: the inspiration of the Bible, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by grace.
Unity, love, and service are not more important than these doctrines because-without these doctrines-you don't have Christianity!
Liberalism is mostly dead today, but this part of it-this dislike of doctrine or its watering down) has never been more alive and well. Especially in conservative churches! I do not believe that pastors ought to preach on the Confession of Faith or the Five Points of Calvinism or the Apostles' Creed every week, but there's a problem in a church where an intelligent person could listen carefully to every sermon for a year (or ten) and still have no idea what the church believes about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, Sin, Salvation, Godliness, and so on).
THE CREST AND CRASH
By 1914, Liberalism crested in the United States. All the major denominations were affected by it, most of them went under, and even the Fortresses of Orthodoxy were under siege. In 1929, the last holdover of Scholarly Christianity gave up the ghost: Princeton Seminary.
Many denominations over it, but the Liberals got the majority of the members, of the buildings, and of course, of the money. Conservatives went into exile. Including Dr. Machen.
But then something happened: The Liberal vision of man got mugged! World War I became the deadliest war known to man. The nations of the Enlightenment-Germany, Austria, England, France, were broken to pieces, with millions dead of all sides. Maybe man isn't so good; maybe history is not on our side; maybe the Bible was right about some things. Maybe.
Twenty years after the War to End All Wars was over and The League of Nations outlawed war forever.some guys named Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin had something to say about it. The Second World War was even deadlier than the First-and the Freest and most Liberal nation in the world dropped the Atomic Bomb on Japanese civilians.
When the Bomb hit, Liberal optimism died.
Three powers rose up against Liberalism and cut it to ribbons: Humanism was mostly agnostic in its religion, but it laughed at the naïve promises of Liberalism. Neo Orthodoxy held to some of the same views as Liberalism, but it, too, thundered it's the god of Liberalism who was so easy to predict and control. Finally, Evangelical Christianity dug out from under the rubble and renewed its efforts. Under the hammer blows of reality and the Gospel Liberalism collapsed. And good riddance!
THE REVIVAL AND HOW TO AVOID IT
Liberalism is dead. But it isn't buried. And it never will be, for Liberalism is unbelief. And unbelief is always with us in one form or another-idolatry, skepticism, formalism, and so on.
But there is something you can do about Liberalism and for the Liberals you know. If you want to beware of Liberalism, beware of hearing sermons and reading Christian books that are light on doctrine. Keep an especially close eye-out on books and sermons with the words, How to in them. There's a place for how to, but it is always second place. Doctrine comes first because godliness is founded on truth.
As for Liberals, here's a thing the old Conservatives weren't very good at. They lambasted the Liberals, often without understanding them, and almost always without sympathy, patience, or love.
Francis Schaeffer was a young man when the Presbyterian Church in America broke up. He sided with the Bible-believers, of course, but he later wrote against their spirit. He agreed with their doctrines, but he regretted the bitterness they displayed in defending them.
In talking to Liberals, remember that-by nature you're no better than they are and they're no worse than you! And remember that God's truth has to be defended in God's way. And that's the way of love.
"The servant of the Lord must not quarrel, but be gentle to all, apt to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who oppose themselves, if God would perhaps grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will".
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