Why Confessional Faith Must be Vigorously Defended Against Liberal Theology

Sometimes people wonder why I choose to highlight the danger of liberal theology when Christians are expected to be polite and tolerant nowadays. The concerns of these people is that polemical debates are counter-productive. Good Christians should be nice and polite and avoid any semblance of being quarrelsome. We should engage in “conversation” rather in debates.

We should be courteous in defending our faith. But is it not the case that critical thought entails serious debates, if not polemics? This is especially true when the stakes of the debates are high, as they pertain not to secondary customs and practices, but to the central truths of Christian salvation.

J. Gresham Machen, the author of the classic book, Christianity and Liberalism (1923) understood the stakes of the debate better than any of his contemporaries. I strongly recommend every church leader read his clarion call to church leaders to be faithful in discharging their duty to hold fast to the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus and guard the good deposit that is entrusted to them (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

Given below are some excerpts from Robert Godfrey, A Call to Thoughtful Vigilance  which gives the gist of Machen’s call for vigorous defence of Confessional faith in the face of the subtle deception of liberal theology:

The Mind of Liberalism

In the first place, we should try to understand how the liberals saw themselves and how they communicated their convictions to others. Liberals insisted that they were evangelical Christians. They believed that they did hold to the essentials of the Christian faith…they held to basic Christian doctrines and only rejected some of the theories that fundamentalists used to elaborate those doctrines. For instance, they believed that Jesus was God with them, but not in the virgin birth. The liberals sincerely believed that they alone would save Christianity in the modern world by making it more relevant. As such, they were active missionaries for their cause.

Dr. Machen was right when he stated of the liberals: “By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith.” But the liberals denied such charges, and by using ambiguous language, they persuaded many that they were not as bad as their critics claimed.

The controversy between liberals and fundamentalists was not only about truth for Dr. Machen, it was about ethics. The liberals were not straightforward or honorable in making their beliefs clear.

The Conservative Mind

Dr. Machen believed that the majority of church members in his day were basically conservative. They did not want extensive changes in the doctrine or life of their churches. They were somewhat anxious about where the liberals wanted to take the church. However, they tended to be optimistic about the future and were concerned about criticism of liberalism that seemed too negative or strident…

The division of opinion among conservative leaders and the optimism of many conservatives disposed them to shy away from a fight. As early as 1915, Dr. Machen saw the potential danger of this situation: “The mass of the Church here is still conservative — but conservative in an ignorant, non-polemic, sweetness-and-light kind of way which is just meat for the wolves. I do not mean to use harsh phrases in a harsh way, and my language must be understood to be biblical.” As Paul had warned the Ephesian elders about wolves attacking the sheep of the church, so Dr. Machen worried that the sheep of the church in his day were very vulnerable to liberal wolves.

The Confessionalist Mind

[Machen] believed that fundamentalism was too individualistic, too reductionistic, and too unconcerned with history. For Machen, true Christianity was an historic community with a full and coherent theology. True Christianity, as Dr. Machen knew it in the Reformed tradition, came to doctrinal expression in a full confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Dr. Machen believed a confession expressed the mind of the church and showed church members what the church confessed as the great and necessary teachings of the Bible. The confession should serve as an antidote to doctrinal ignorance in the church as the church diligently teaches its confession to its members. The confession should show the church what doctrines it must fight to uphold. It should strengthen the church as the bulwark of the truth.

Today, evangelical churches face doctrinal challenges every bit as serious as those of the 1920s. Some evangelicals reject the inerrancy of the Bible. Some reject the historic doctrine of God for what they call “open theism.” Some reject the biblical doctrine of justification that was recovered by the Reformation for some form of moralism.

Machen was merely following Paul’s example who was unsparing in his warning against teachers of false doctrine that undermines faith and salvation: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31).

Sometimes guarding the flock may require public censure which was the case when Paul publicly chastised Peter for what may seem to us to be a minor transgression (Gal. 2:11–13).  Peter’s transgression may seem minor, but it masks a grave distortion of the doctrine of salvation apart from works of the law. The tone of Paul may seem harsh, but he was effective as he was speaking the truth in love. Peter himself later acknowledge that Paul is a profound and effective defender of God’s word. “Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3: 16)

I pray that church leaders will not be found guilty of dereliction of duty in their failure to discern and defend confessional faith against the return of liberal theology in Malaysia

Related Post:
Evangelicalism Today: Crisis and Creeds

Also recommended:
Tim Keller
1) Gospel Polemics Introduction
2) Three Rules of Polemics
3) Three (more) Rules of Polemics
4) Everybody’s Rule


6 thoughts on “Why Confessional Faith Must be Vigorously Defended Against Liberal Theology”

  1. Thank you, brother, for this call to faithful ministry. Have you addressed in your writing the difference between the usefulness of the early creeds of the church and that of the Reformed confessions?

  2. Hi Phil,
    Haven’t addressed the difference because we have not been asked to choose between the early creeds and the Reformed Confessions. God forbid that we be forced to choose between them. The early creeds (Apostles, Nicea and Chalcedonian) would be the lowest common denominator for Christians. These creeds go far in laying the foundation of saving faith and assuring believers of their salvation. But if we want to go beyond the bare minimum of saving faith and aspire to teach and defend the fullness of the historic faith of Christianity, then we must gain a good grasp of the teaching of the Reformed Confessions like The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Likewise, The Thirty-nine Articles for Anglicans (1563), and the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) for Baptists.

  3. Who are the liberals in Malaysia since you mentioned that liberal theology is making a return? Would you be able to be more specific? I do theological studies part-time and I am just wondering whether there are actually liberals teaching in our seminaries, and if so, I would like to avoid them. Are there seminaries in Malaysia that are liberal? Would it be possible to name them? It would do all of us good if you could be more specific.

  4. Who are the liberals in Malaysia since you mentioned that liberal theology is making a return? Would you be able to be more specific? I do theological studies part-time and I am just wondering whether there are actually liberals teaching in our seminaries, and if so, I would like to avoid them. Are there seminaries in Malaysia that are liberal? Would it be possible to name them? It would do all of us good if you could be more specific. .

  5. Hi Steven,
    Good to know that you are doing part-time theological studies. It would not be proper and perhaps unfair to give a blanket judgment on seminaries as the faculty tends to display a spectrum of theological views. Rather than trying to search out and identify liberal teachers, I think, we should focus our time and energy on building up our theological competence like strengthening your expertise in biblical interpretation (learn Greek and Hebrew & refine your exegetical skills). Deepen your knowledge of historical and systematic theology. Learn to be able to teach the Confession of faith of your denomination and give close readings of the classic theological texts. Go for theology that is holistic (like the Patristics and the Puritans) as modern theology tends to be rationalistic. Read modern theology for sure, but give priority to older holistic texts.

    Key test is whether you can pray and preach your theology to build faith in church and humble yourself not only before God and before so-called ordinary Christians. If you can’t do it, then you are pursuing wrong scholarship.

    If you have been diligent in building your faith based on the historic faith, you will eventually be able identify any liberal teaching you come across and respond appropriately in the right spirit.

  6. Dear Steven,

    If I may add to what Dr Ng has stated theretofore: It is my opinion (as belatedly stated here) that the issue is not so much or not at all to do with avoiding a seminary or seminaries but ‘discernment.’ Having our faith grounded in the Reformation faith (irrespective of tradition or denomination – I myself am a Lutheran) will give us that discerning spirit. Why the Reformation faith – as ‘rediscovered’ by Luther in the 16th century?

    It is ‘safer’ to ground ourselves on a faith or theology or tradition that has a very high view of Scripture. This is because our salvation is based on Scripture. And therefore, this is a fundamental theological (or’ theoretical’) principle (*practically* speaking!) And this is found in none more so than the Reformation faith’s ‘sola scriptura’ (or Scripture alone).

    And in turn sola scriptura is co-related to sola fide (or ‘faith alone’). The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) destroys the (co-)relationship and is gaining popularity – due to its scholarship. It is promoted in one of the leading seminaries in the country. It may not necessarily be liberal as such but nonetheless may cause deleterious impact on our understanding of the nature of salvation = justification. Whilst I may agree and indeed even be appreciative of some of the insights that had been produced by the NPP, nonetheless in common with my brethren of the Reformation faith (i.e. from within the broader confessional Protestant front), any effort to diminish or dilute the critical significance of justification as salvific/ redemptive (and hence equivalent to the gospel) is dangerous to one’s personal faith and salvation.

    Put simply, any theological position or viewpoint concerning justification which seeks to usurp or undermine its relationship to faith *alone* in the word = work/ act/ deed of Jesus Christ alone is no different than liberal theology and to be regarded as heretical (i.e. grave suspicion as being inimical to the well-being of the church).

    The NPP relocates justification from the ‘vertical’ act of God – that is, His atoning work on the Cross – to the ‘horizontal’ act of the church in admitting a new member into the community of faith. It, therefore, the following error …..

    1. Divorces the ‘mystical’ Church from the ‘institutional’ Church – ecclesiological implication
    2. Separates the act of justification into initial (institutional) and final (‘mystical’) – soterioglocal implication
    3. Tears apart the inward grace from the outward ritual as embodied by the proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacraments – sacramental implication

    All of which have Christological and by inclusion and extension, Pneumatological implications and thus reverberating throughout all of one’s theology and practice.

    Not to mention that the NPP has no support within the early, patristic and medieval Church tradition of both West and East.

    I think knowing which theological scholarship to be suspect in terms of undermining one’s faith is very useful (without the need to un-church or ‘excommunicate’ as such). In other words, practically speaking, we can sit under and learn from seminary professors who propagate or promote the NPP but we do not have accept such teachings as biblical or Christian.

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