ETS 2008 – Mark Wittmer "Machen on McLaren: A New Kind of Liberal?"

Date December 1, 2008 Posted by Roger Overton

Mark Wittmer contends that many of the “new” ideas proposed by Brian McLaren were addressed 85 years ago by J. Gresham Machen in his classic work Christianity and Liberalism (1923, Eerdmans). His paper contrasted the teaching of McLaren and Machen in six important areas.

  1. Living like Jesus is more important than believing in him.

McLaren suggests that what people believe is of little importance and likely not relevant to our salvation. What is important is right action as modeled by Jesus. McLaren believes that some people (conservatives) use John 14:6 (“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”) to mean that Jesus stands in the way of those desiring truth and life. According to McLaren, what Jesus really meant to say is that he is the way to live.

The liberals of Machen’s day saw doctrine as divisive and instead emphasized ethics. Machen replied that Christ is not merely an “example of faith” but is “primarily the object of faith.” He argued that the Christian faith is not faith like Jesus but in Jesus. He believed we should look not to “the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus” as the emphasis of our faith.

  1. People are basically good and free from original sin.

McLaren is not clear about his belief on this subject, but he wrote the foreword to Burke’s A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity and endorsed Pagitt’s A Christianity Worth Believing, both of which deny original sin. When asked in a radio interview if he believes salvation is by grace through faith alone, McLaren answered yes, “we simply accept our acceptance by our creator.” Lacking from his response is the idea that we need a redeemer, and he sounds as though he believes salvation is an “opt-out plan” rather than an “opt-in plan.”

Machen wrote, “According to modern liberal, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.” He argued that the teaching the truth about sin is necessary to teaching the gospel. “Without the consciousness of sin, the whole gospel will seem to be an idle tale.”

  1. Objection to Penal Substitution

McLaren denies the penal part of substitution. He said, “Having an innocent person die for guilty people did not seem to solve the ‘injustice’ of forgiveness—it only seemed to add to the injustice.”

The liberals of Machen’s day held the same belief, insisting that a loving God would forgive without penalty. Machen saw that their view resulted from a light view of sin. He also clarified that God did not punish someone else for our sin, but that he takes it on himself and becomes our sacrifice.

  1. Unite Christians and non-Christians and emphasize our common journey with God

McLaren claims that “the thrust of Jesus’ message is about inclusion—shocking, scandalous inclusion.” He continued, “To be truly inclusive, the kingdom must exclude exclusive people.” He suggests that Christianity was not created by Jesus to be exclusive based on belief.

Machen affirmed the brotherhood of man, but also pointed out that our brotherhood as Christians is far more intimate and he reserved the term brother for those who are redeemed.

  1. Inclusivism: extends salvation to include those who have not believed in Christ.


McLaren “suspects” that a person does not need to call themselves a Christian to follow Jesus. He suggests that Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus do not need to leave their religions to enter the kingdom.

Machen replied to the liberals that taught this that the Christian gospel demands exclusive devotion to Christ. “Salvation, in other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.”

  1. Focus on this life rather than the afterlife

McLaren believes that preoccupation with hell tempts us to devalue and trivialize life before death. He’s concerned that we are so focused on avoiding hell that God’s will on earth is forgotten.

Machen saw this view as rooted in the over-emphasis on applied Christian ethics. He saw the importance of doing God’s will today, but also understood that our ethic fits within a larger Christian framework of God’s dealings with humanity.


            McLaren does differ from the liberalism of Machen’s day. He does not deny the miraculous or supernatural. So in contrast to them, he affirms the existence of God, diety of Jesus and historicity of the resurrection. But like them he makes ethics more important than doctrine and reason more important than revelation.

Related posts:

  1. Book Review: A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren
  2. Modern Reformation #6: Conversation Partners- An Interview with Brian McLaren
  3. A Different Kind of Evangelical or Betraying Evangelicalism?
  4. To Hell with McLaren & The Emerging Church
  5. Liberal Feelings vs. Judeo-Christian Values
  6. ETS 2008 – William Henard “Sinners in the Hands of the Emergent Church”

3 Responses to “ETS 2008 – Mark Wittmer "Machen on McLaren: A New Kind of Liberal?"”

  1. Anonymous said:

    This post/paper was a good idea.

  2. Anonymous said:

    On Point #6, McLaren and those who would agree with him really need to do more historical study before making such claims (which are based, I assume, more on their own personal experience with “Heaven-bent” Christians than anything else).
    C. S. Lewis hit the nail square on the head when he pointed out that those who have done the greatest good in this life have been just those people who have been most focused on the next.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Funny how emergents say we should follow the example of Jesus but Jesus had a relentless focus beyond this life (thankfully, for our sakes). This focus is especially predominant in John, which is why I suppose John seems to be the least favorite Gospel of the emerging church movement (so far as I have read at least).

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