Monday, December 10, 2007

Wilson and Liberalism

Last week Pastor Todd Bordow wrote some insightful comments on Green Baggins that I republished here. In that thread someone challenged Pastor Bordow on a comment he made affirming similarities between Douglas Wilson and the liberals described in Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen, but he deferred to Pastor Lane’s strict posting rules. Nevertheless, I appreciated Pastor Bordow’s analysis so much that I contacted him off list for permission to publish his answer here, which he kindly granted. Here it is:

Machen and DW

When I did a careful study of the liberalism of the early twentieth century, I found that the differences between liberalism and true Christianity were often subtle in nature. Not all liberals denied the fundamentals of the faith, at least not outwardly. Many conservatives saw little threat from the liberals because of this. That is why Machen felt the need to write his book Christianity and Liberalism, because liberals too often made use of Christian terminology, but assumed subtle yet deadly differences in the meaning of traditional words and phrases.

As you read Machen’s book, I could not help but see the similarities with the DW/FV movement and those liberals. Now of course, DW does not deny supernaturalism, as many liberals did. The more liberal liberals, if you will, denied some basics, like the deity of Christ and the virgin birth, which DW does not. But I believe there are many similarities between the DW/FV movement and the old liberalism; I will note three.

First, Machen noted that the liberals used traditional words such as salvation and faith, but stripped them of their biblical meanings. This abuse of language is common among FVers. DW states how the salvation Christ came to bring is not only the salvation of souls, but salvation of governments and cultures. How is a culture “saved?” What did Jesus mean then when he said he came to “save” the world? Is the “saving” of the soul the same as the “saving” of a culture? If so, what is the “saving” of the soul? Did Jesus have two definitions of salvation in mind? In FV speak, it is not even clear what “salvation” means.

The same is true with faith. Does saving faith include works? Listen to an FV answer that question and you hear twenty qualifications before the explanation even begins. The traditional understanding of saving faith apart from works is deconstructed to mean, well, who knows what? This misuse of traditional words with different meanings is as common with FV’ers as it was with the old liberals.

Machen understood that many liberals still wanted acceptance in conservative circles. Instead of admitting their differences with traditional Protestant theology, they simply kept the old phrases, while subtly changing their definitions. Machen also knew many conservatives would not discern this and accuse him of making a mountain out of a molehill, yet he knew he needed to write his book for that reason. Machen writes,

Only too often that desire [to avoid giving offense] has come perilously near dishonesty; the religious teacher, in his hearts of hearts, is well aware of the radicalism of his views, but is unwilling to relinquish his place in the hallowed atmosphere of the Church by speaking his whole mind. (pg. 17)

That is why someone should not be overly impressed when men like DW offer a bone to the greater Church with a sermon or statement that affirms traditional theology. One needs to carefully read DW’s material elsewhere as to how those terms are explained and applied to people, and see if this matches the traditionally believed understanding of these concepts.

Secondly, Machen noted that liberals and legalists both equally assaulted justification by faith alone. Machen noted that to the Modern church, the difference between the Galatian Judaizers and Paul seems a mere theological subtlety. Note how Machen speaks of liberals and Judaizers in the same breath. In other words, he does not see legalists on one end of the spectrum and liberals on the other. He sees them all as legalists; as guilty of the Galatian heresy.

The FV emphasis on bowing to Jesus as Lord in defining salvation (read Steve Schlissel), their attempts to place a wedge between a Reformed and Lutheran understanding of faith as an instrument (there is no wedge), and their redefining saving faith to in some way include obedience is actually an old liberal ploy. Machen writes,

Faith, then, according to the Christian view, means simply receiving a gift . . . the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works. . . Very different is the conception of faith which prevails in the liberal church. According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as making Christ Master in one’s life. . . Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. . . In this way the whole achievement of the Reformation has been given up, and there has been a return to the religion of the Middle Ages. (pg. 143)

One may note how DW and the FVers have used Galatians, especially Gal. 5:6, to argue for the inclusion of obedience within the definition of saving faith. Machen noted this devise among the liberals when he wrote, “But modern liberalism has returned to the old interpretation of Galatians which was urged against the Reformers. . .” In other words, today’s FVers use the same arguments from Galatians to contest the Reformers who argued for sola fide from Galatians. Machen continues, “The grace of God is rejected by modern liberalism. And the result is slavery — the slavery of the law. . .” (pg. 144.) Later Machen refutes the liberals’ notion of faith with the words, “faith is the exact opposite of works.”

If one reads DW’s literature carefully, one notices a common theme; it is the theme of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. DW is unabashed in his love for this truth. What DW fails to understand, and it is truth most five-year-old believers understand, is that this is a principle for law, not gospel. DW sees Deuteronomy 28, the blessings for obeying all the law and curses for disobeying all the law, and he sees a principle enforced under the New Covenant. The liberals could not distinguish law and gospel so basic to theology, and neither can DW. His Credenda Agenda even speaks of Christian parents who send their children to public schools as “breaking covenant” with God and being under a curse. Whether he defines the curses eternally or in this life, this is still a denial of the gospel, where Christ takes upon himself the curse of the law for us fully. To DW the curse of the law is still in effect for the Christian. Thus DW’s views are simply a subtle reworking of the old liberalism.

Thirdly, Machen noted that though not all liberals deny the immortality of the soul, they downplay its importance. What is important is the reformation of society. Machen writes,

The Christian life views this world under the aspect of eternity; the fashion of this world is passing away. . . Very different is the program of the modern liberal church. In that program, heaven has little place, and this world is really all in all. The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immorality of the soul . . . practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this life. (pg 148)

Again, anyone familiar with DW’s writings knows how commonly DW mocks those concerned with the soul’s eternal salvation over against the reformation of culture and society, labeling them “Gnostics.” DW is fully aware what a Gnostic really is, but this is a common scare tactic to draw true Christians away from the biblical Great Commission to preach the gospel to every creature. DW tries to squirm out of this accusation by redefining the gospel and salvation in such a way as to include his vision for politics and culture. Thus everything DW teaches about how society should be formed and how you should act is included under “gospel,” a classic liberal ploy. Both liberals and DW find their passion in reforming the cultures of this world, though their specific agendas to attain this goal may differ somewhat.

Ironically, in my opinion, the old liberals, though dangerous to the faith, were at least more useful to society, while DW holds the delusional idea that if the Church would reform its liturgy and be more obedient, then the whole world will become Christianized. DW sees his church leading the way in this “new reformation,” a common delusion among cult leaders. Ironically, DW ends up doing practically nothing for society. At least the old liberals got their hands dirty and served people. Not that the liberals were truly expanding Christ’s redemptive kingdom, but while DW is doing his best to antagonize the unbelievers in Moscow, ID, the old liberals at least tried to serve their fellow man. One does not have to read DW very long to see his true passion is defeating unbelievers and their ideologies for this life, by replacing it with his own, instead of reaching sinners with the love and message of the gospel. How far from Machen’s own heart when Machen wrote:

You cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. . . The function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious appeal of the gospel of Christ.

So while there are some obvious differences between the old liberals and the DW types of our day, such as their belief in supernaturalism, I believe the similarities should not go unnoticed, specifically, the deconstruction of traditional theological language, the assault on justification by faith alone apart from works, promoting a legalistic view of a relationship with God (as opposed to grace centered), and an earthly agenda that mocks heavenly-minded believers and true gospel concern for lost people. Machen’s fight continues.


Todd Bordow
Pastor — Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth (OPC)

Thank you.


Wanda J. said...

Paul Elliott has written a whole book making these very same points - Christianity and Neoliberalism.

David Gadbois said...

Interesting thing, to bring up Steve Schlissel. The FVers should thank their lucky stars that he faded out of sight after the Knox Colloquium book (and after the "God lies" debacle soon thereafter). If he was still a vocal proponent of FV, his poor, long-suffering FV comrades would have to be working (spinning) in triple overtime to varnish the big FV party and make it look respectable.

Wesley Sims said...

I understand that Wilson and Wilkins feel that the proceedings in the PCA are unfair. I think Wilkins is getting better justice than he meted out to others over the years in the courts he controlled in the La Presbytery. It is interesting to consider how Wilkins himself might handle heresy. The audio at this link provides us with some insight on Wilkins' views about this important subject:

Todd said...

Hi Wanda,

I have not read Elliot's book, but I have read him somewhat on-line. While I agree with many of his concerns, I find him incapable of discerning nuance and degree. Not everything is black and white in real life. There are false teachers, there are weak theologians, there are inconsistancies, there is fighting different battles, etc...I find Elliot incapable of discerning these differences and thus assuming the worst, frustratingly so because many of his concerns are valid.



Sean Gerety said...

Elliott's book is insightful and arguably one of the most important books yet written on the controversy. In it he details many of the (dishonest) tactics used by these neoliberals who still operate virtually without any opposition at all in the OPC.

It seems to me that perhaps too many in the OPC just refuse believe that their own denomination remains under threat. However, if anyone thinks by having a report defending the essentials of JBFA and one that is critical of the FV/NPP changes anything they're just kidding themselves. The OPC report was a signal to the FV men in their denomination to keep a low profile. That's it. IMO most also fail to see the link between Dick Gaffin and Norm Shepherd and Gaffin's decades of defending these men and their doctrines as if somehow he was a neutral party in all this.

Great piece though. I plan on providing a link from my own site. Thanks Mark for publishing it.

Mark T. said...


Pastor Bordow sent me this comment to post because he’s locked out (not sure why):


Every denomination remains under threat of the Galatian heresy, even yours. That is why Galatians was written after all. Legalism can show itself in doctrine as well as in pastoral pride and abuse and in treatment of people. No denomination is beyond legalists in their midst, it would be very naïve to believe so.

Todd Bordow

Publius said...

Again, I'll repeat that I think FV is the devil's sputum. That said, I don't think it fair to say that FV downplays the immortality of the soul to promote the the reformation of society.

The central ideas of the Federal Vision theology have to do with the nature of worship, ritual and clergy. There is more to this than just Shepherd's doctrine of justification.

If you read Leithart, for example, he is very clear that he is concerned almost entirely with high church polity and "covenant renewal" renewal worship. He has a symbolic theology that supports an institutional, clerical and ritual religion.

I'll quote TE Wilder's explanation:
" In this religion you become one of God’s people through baptism performed by a priest, and you remain one of God’s people by the participation of weekly sacramental rites offered by a priest. In addition, it is important to have covenant renewal services in which a priest mediates for you, praying on behalf of the congregation to God. You depend on the priests to become saved and you stay saved through their rituals. If they withhold the rituals you are cut off."

The social transformation part of the FV agenda is the side effect they will believe flows from priests performing sacrifices. In fact, not all Shepherd supporters are FV: Gaffin, Schlissel, Sandlin, etc. FV is a comprehensive theology.

Brett M said...

While some of Paul Elliot's concerns are extremely valid (viz. Federal Vision), we should keep in mind that he has drawn his circle of orthodoxy so small that Machen and the other founders of the OPC were neo-liberals according to his definition. Elliot argues that Redemptive Historical hermeneutics (which he anachronistically calls 'post-modern') and a Van Tilian epistemology are both tell-tale signs of neo-liberalism. Yet they are both things that Machen and others fought hard to have at the new seminary in 1929 and were in full existence in the denomination from day one in 1936. To implicate them by association then claim to be their heirs is a little disingenuous.

Anonymous said...

Bret M.,
Why is it disingenous to acknowledge the mistakes a spiritual ancestor makes while at the same time honoring his biblical contribution? I fail to see your logic. Disingenous is a provocative word to use in this context. Or do you believe that you should NOT call yourself a Calvinist because you, unlike him, do not believe that the state should execute heretics? Machen, Warfield, I dare say even Gaffin and Kline have contributed genuine insights. Does that mean that you share Kline's disapproval of a literal reading of the history of Gen 1-3, or Warfield's denial of the Westminster doctrine of the preservation of Scripture--replacing it with autographa instead? How about Gaffin's defence of Shepherd? I have read all of these men, and appreciate their insights where they are in line with Scripture. But I reject many of their innovations.

As to VanTillianism, have you read Van Til? He his horrible, and a prime example of a man who teaches by obscuring. He is a horrible example of antinomy, obfuscation, and contradiction. He reads very much like someone else I have read--Karl Barth.

John said...


The canard about Warfield should not be repeated. The view that the MSS were inspired and inerrant was the view of the Reformers and the view of the Reformed church for centuries before Warfield. To say that Warfield denied the WCF view and invented a new one is a lie told by Briggs and Sandeen and repeated by others.

John Robbins