Christianism and Liberalism

In 1929 John Gresham Machen dropped his professorship at Princeton Theological Seminary to establish Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen fought the Theological Liberalism in the seminary and in his denomination (PCUSA) for many years, until he gave up and decided to form a new seminary and eventually a new denomination as well (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).

Machen’s attitude of abandoning his seminary and his denomination might seem harsh. After all, can’t we all just get along? Theologically he was considered a fundamentalist. His followers are called to this day “Machen’s Warrior Children,” people who are theologically unwilling to compromise.

People have all the right to disagree, but for Machen, some things were not negotiable. That is why he wrote Christianity and Liberalism (1923), a book in which he unapologetically calls Theological Liberalism “another religion,” separated from historical Christianism.

Interestingly, the same Machen who so fiercely opposed theological liberalism was not a conservative regarding politics, because he was suspicious of mixing religion and politics. He found attempts to establish a Christian culture by political means insensitive to minorities. In practical terms, he opposed school prayer and Bible reading in public school. He also opposed Prohibition, something very costly considering that at that time abstinence was common ground among Protestants. In sum, Machen was, politically, a libertarian.

In Road to Serfdom, Hayek observes that Liberal Christians, who don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of the Bible, tend to embrace Social Gospel and tear down the wall of separation between church and state. Machen, on the other hand, was a living proof that a fundamentalist Christian can want nothing but a distance from the government.

Does the Bible teach Sola Scriptura?

This may not be the most anticipated topic for a blog like Notes on Liberty, but in the past I wrote about the Protestant Reformation and its influence in the modern world and received a comment that the Protestant Reformation was based largely on the principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone), but this principle is not in scripture. Well, I think it is worth talking about, even because I hold my view that the Protestant Reformation was a key event (if not the key event) for the development of the little freedom we still have in the modern world. What I am going to write here is quite summarized. Anyone interested in learning more can look up to numerous texts. One suggestion is Sinclair B. Ferguson’s excellent text “How Does the Bible Look at Itself.”

In the first place, yes, sola scriptura is one of the most important principles of the Protestant Reformation. Within a widely used nomenclature, sola scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation. But what does sola scriptura mean?

Before we speak what sola scriptura means, let’s see what it does not mean. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible is the only source of revelation about God. It does not mean that the Bible reveals all things. It does not mean that the Bible is equally clear in all its passages. It does not mean that we have a license to subjectivism or that the Bible has multiple meanings. It does not mean that the testimony of the church is irrelevant to the study of the Bible. I will not go into detail on each of these points, but I hope they are enough to avoid straw men on this subject.

So, what does sola scriptura mean then? It fundamentally means that the Bible has an authority that is its own. The Bible is sufficient, necessary, authoritative, and clear. The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up as follows:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressedly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

An important point I want to highlight is that Sola Scriptura does not invalidate the authority of ecclesiastical tradition. It only subjects it to the authority of the Bible. Again, I quote the same confession of faith:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.

However:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

And:

All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

So, to be clear, Sola Scriptura does not invalidate tradition. It does not mean that any interpretation of the Bible is valid. And it certainly is not an invention of the Protestant Reformation. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible has an authority that is its own, that can not be compared to human authority, because the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible authors were well aware that they were writing something that went beyond their authority as human beings. And also, the human authors of the Bible did not leave this authority to their successors, even because this authority was not theirs so they could do it. That is why we see the Apostle Paul saying something like this:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!

Is there any contribution to this for liberty? I think so. It was from this civilizational source that classical liberalism emerged. We all need principles. We all need a place to start. The principle of the Protestant Reformation (and deriving from it, of classical liberalism) was the Bible.

A moral inquiry

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


Note: I was born and reared mostly in Paris but I spent most summers in Brittany. Brittany summers left a deeper mark in me than the Paris school year.

In the Breton architectural fashion, my grandmother’s granite house shared a wall with the houses of two neighbors. On one side was the good looking old guy and his too virtuous old wife. On the other side of my grandmother’s house was a family of fishermen: old Pop, old Mom, grown daughter and grown son. They all lived in a single room that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The parents shared a carved oak armoire-bed, accessible by climbing on a trunk and equipped with a sliding door to provide privacy. The adult children each had their small iron bed, placed at opposite corners of the room, I am pleased to report. There was no bathroom, of course, only an outhouse in the backyard. It was never scooped, never moved. It was surrounded by the most beautifully, healthy cabbage I have ever seen. The fisherman’s children never married. Perhaps they were too afraid of their parents; or, they liked each other too much. (But this is only hearsay.)

At the end of the dirt road, fifty yards away, lived the town ditch-digger and his large brood. The ditch digger’s boys were always hungry. They stole eggs, from wild birds’nests and from hen houses alike. They also picked wheat and toasted it in the fields, which was tolerated. In September, ripe hazelnuts were available for the picking. I don’t know what they did after September and I will never know because my family never stayed beyond that month. But school was back in session then, and there, they got at least one square a day.

Sometimes, we would climb over the priest’s orchard wall to steal his excellent pears. This happened less often than one might think because it presented moral problems: Everyone knew that the priest would not beat you hard if he caught you so, it was kind of unsporting to pick on him. And there was the issue of having to tell him in confession that you had stolen his pears. We discussed whether one would go to Hell for abstaining from confessing that single particular sin. There was no theological consensus.

New Issue of Econ Journal Watch: Does Economics Need an Infusion of Religious or Quasi-Religious Formulations?

The new issue of Econ Journal Watch is out and EJW has teamed up with the Acton Institute to feature ‘religion and economics’ as the topic for a symposium.

As some of you may know, my fellow Editor-in-Chief Fred Foldvary is an editor for the journal, and Warren is the math reader, so this project holds a special place here at NOL. I just wish they’d be a little less humble about their endeavors elsewhere and share this type of stuff themselves (this humility is a recurring problem in the libertarian quadrant of the blogopshere)!

At any rate, here is the lineup:

The Prologue to the symposium suggests that mainstream economics has unduly flattened economic issues down to certain modes of thought (such as ‘Max U’); it suggests that economics needs enrichment by formulations that have religious or quasi-religious overtones.

Robin Klay helps to set the stage with her exploration“Where Do Economists of Faith Hang Out? Their Journals and Associations, plus Luminaries Among Them.”

Seventeen response essays are contributed by authors representing a broad range of religious traditions and ideological outlooks:

Pavel Chalupníček:
From an Individual to a Person: What Economics Can Learn from Theology About Human Beings

Victor V. Claar:
Joyful Economics

Charles M. A. Clark:
Where There Is No Vision, Economists Will Perish

Ross B. Emmett:
Economics Is Not All of Life

Daniel K. Finn:
Philosophy, Not Theology, Is the Key for Economics: A Catholic Perspective

David George:
Moving from the Empirically Testable to the Merely Plausible: How Religion and Moral Philosophy Can Broaden Economics

Jayati Ghosh:
Notes of an Atheist on Economics and Religion

M. Kabir Hassan and William J. Hippler, III:
Entrepreneurship and Islam: An Overview

Mary Hirschfeld:
On the Relationship Between Finite and Infinite Goods, Or: How to Avoid Flattening

Abbas Mirakhor:
The Starry Heavens Above and the Moral Law Within: On the Flatness of Economics

Andrew P. Morriss:
On the Usefulness of a Flat Economics to the World of Faith

Edd Noell:
What Has Jerusalem to Do with Chicago (or Cambridge)? Why Economics Needs an Infusion of Religious Formulations

Eric B. Rasmusen:
Maximization Is Fine—But Based on What Assumptions?

Rupert Read and Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management

Russell Roberts:
Sympathy for Homo Religiosus

A. M. C. Waterman:
Can ‘Religion’ Enrich ‘Economics’?

Andrew M. Yuengert:
Sin, and the Economics of ‘Sin’

Not too shabby, eh? I’ll admit upfront I haven’t been able to read any of the articles yet, but once I find some work out here in Austin I’ll be able to patch together a schedule that’ll allow for a little leisure. You can always download the entire issue, too (pdf). Econ Journal Watch is an important project that is dedicated to exploring and criticizing the underlying assumptions of the discipline of economics, but it is done in a way that is classy, professional, and informative.

Is Christianity Radical?

This is a rhetorical question, of course, but one that I don’t think is taken seriously enough in the West anymore.  A lot of this has to do with the fact that factions within Christianity have given this religion a very bad name over the centuries, as has the work of left-wing intellectuals to discredit this good religion’s name and accomplishments.

Without going into too many details, I think it would be good to take a step back and view where most of humanity’s scientific, intellectual, and economic progress has taken place over the last five hundred years.

On top of this remarkable feat, I think it would be safe to assume that Christianity also has provided the room for a vast array of religious sects and altogether different religious beliefs to flourish under its domain.  Just think of the influence that Atheism has on today’s Western society.  Although I consider Atheism to be a branch off of Judaism (and as such, a fraternal religion to Christianity), it would not have been able to flourish or exert the influence it has today without the extensive influence of Christianity on the thought of the West’s greatest thinkers over the past 800 years.

And just think of the influence that Protestantism has had on  not only the West but the whole world over the past 500 years as well.

But what is it specifically about Christianity that makes it so radical?  Is it the focus on the individual?  Don’t Daoism and Buddhism also stress individual importance?  The focus on Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings?  Or is it, as I suspect, the fact that Christianity harbors a tone of dissidence about it that is unrivaled among the other large religions of the world?  I think that a strong case can be made for a general mood in Christianity’s doctrines that stress the importance of disobedience.

What do y’all think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!