Request an Exam Copy

Don't Stop Believing 2 of 5: A Third Way
by Michael E. Wittmer

Categories Theology

Dick Morris popularized the concept of “triangulation,” by which he advised the Clinton administration to co-opt the strengths of both Republicans and Democrats and forge a third way which transcended both. A similar movement is afoot theologically among younger, postmodern Christians. They hope to avoid the liberal-conservative controversies of the modern period by creating a new way which transcends both right and left.

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren recalled being introduced to a youth workers' convention, where, upon asking how many people considered themselves to be liberal or conservative, the speaker [Mark Ostreicher] asked “And how many of you wish there could be a third alternative, something beyond the confining boxes of liberal and conservative?” McLaren wrote that “the room erupted with applause and cheers. Then Mark very kindly said that I was a pilgrim in search of that third alternative.”1

While I applaud this goal, I fear that McLaren and many in the Emergent community are constructing a third way which lists perilously close to the liberal side. I am not saying that this group, which I call “postmodern innovators,” is entirely liberal in the classical sense. Like other postmoderns, most do not deny the miraculous or the supernatural. So most have not crossed the line into full blown theological liberalism, but they seem to edge closer by the year.

One person who possessed first-hand knowledge of modern liberalism was J. Gresham Machen. In his 1923 classic, Christianity and Liberalism, Machen said that his liberal interlocutors believed the following: Machen

1. Living like Jesus is more important than believing in him. Machen wrote that the liberals in his day insisted that “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine,” and that conservatives should focus on “the weightier matters of the law” (Christian ethics) rather than use the “trifling matters” of doctrine to divide the church.3

Machen responded that doctrines such as Christ’s “vicarious atonement for sin” are not “trifling” and that Christ is not merely “an example for faith” but is “primarily the object of faith.” He explained: “The religion of Paul did not consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God; it consisted rather in having faith in Jesus. …The plain fact is that imitation of Jesus, important though it was for Paul, was swallowed up by something far more important still. Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.”4

2. People are basically good and free from original sin. Machen observed that the defining belief of modernity was its “supreme confidence in human goodness.” He wrote that “according to modern liberalism, 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.” This absence of sin led Machen to wryly observe that the liberal church “is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task—she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance.” Machen countered that the gospel must begin with sin, for “Without the consciousness of sin, the whole gospel will seem to be an idle tale.”5

3. Penal substitution is unnecessary because a loving God would forgive without demanding a sacrifice. Machen wrote that “Modern liberal teachers…speak with horror of the doctrine of an ‘alienated’ or an ‘angry’ God,” for this implies that God is “waiting coldly until a price be paid before He grants salvation.” Liberals deny that “one person” may “suffer for the sins of another,” and “persist in speaking of the sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by some other than God.” They insist that a loving God would forgive without penalty.6

4. Christians and non-Christians may unite around their common journey with God. Machen agreed that “The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man. But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man, and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term ‘brother.’ The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.”7

5. Salvation includes many who do not believe in Jesus. Machen said that liberals in his day wanted “a salvation which will save all men everywhere, whether they have heard of Jesus or not, and whatever may be the type of life to which they have been reared.” He replied that such openness would remove the offense of the gospel and change its historic meaning. He wrote: “What struck the early observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation was offered by means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means were resolutely rejected. The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion to Christ. …Salvation, in other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.”8

6. This life matters at the exclusion of the afterlife. Machen said that liberals in his day believed that concern for the next life is “a form of selfishness.” Consequently, “the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the centre of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.”9

Machen agreed that our Christian faith must change the way we live here and now, but he insisted that “there can be no applied Christianity unless there be ‘a Christianity to apply.’ That is where the Christian man differs from the modern liberal. The liberal believes that applied Christianity is all there is of Christianity, Christianity being merely a way of life; the Christian man believes that applied Christianity is the result of an initial act of God.”10

DSB Since these beliefs are widely held or at least tolerated by the leaders of Emergent Village (I document this in Don’t Stop Believing), I suspect that Machen would conclude that their “third way” sounds too much like the old way to be a genuinely new way. If we want authentic triangulation, it seems that we must emphasize the best of both worlds: social ethics like the liberals and the specific, historic doctrines of the faith with the conservatives. In Don’t Stop Believing, I show how this genuine third way makes sense of the contested issues of our day and strengthens the church for its mission in the world.

[1] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 131.  Cf. p. 140 and McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, ix-x; Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2000), 325-31; Franke, The Character of Theology, 38-40 and “Generous Orthodoxy and a Changing World,” in A Generous Orthodoxy, 10-11; and Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism, 1.

[2] I say “most” postmodern innovators because, in addition to private conversations with other postmodern innovators which I will not divulge, Spencer Burke is a self-professed panentheist, which would logically diminish the deity of Jesus and his power to work miracles.  See Caputo, Revelation, 22 and What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 104-12; Burke, A Heretic’s Guide, 195.

[3] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923; reprinted Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1994), 19, 160.

[4] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 160, 81 (first emphasis is mine, second is Machen’s).

[5] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 64, 66, 68 (emphasis mine).

[6] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 125, 129-32.

[7] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 157-58.

[8] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 122-23.

[9] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 147-48, 149.

[10] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 155.

Wittmerm Michael Wittmer is professor of systematic and historical theology Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and author of Heaven Is a Place on Earth.

The Definite Article and 1 Timothy 4:13 (Monday with Mounce 15)
by Bill Mounce
The Definite Article and 1 Timothy 4:13 (Monday with Mounce 15)
by Bill Mounce
The word that we call the "definite article" in Greek is a slippery fellow. Many of its uses in English overla...
Your form could not be submitted. Please check errors and resubmit.

Thank you!
Sign up complete.

Subscribe to the Blog Get expert commentary on biblical languages, fresh explorations in theology, hand-picked book excerpts, author videos, and info on limited-time sales.
By submitting your email address, you understand that you will receive email communications from HarperCollins Christian Publishing (501 Nelson Place, Nashville, TN 37214 USA) providing information about products and services of HCCP and its affiliates. You may unsubscribe from these email communications at any time. If you have any questions, please review our Privacy Policy or email us at This form is protected by reCAPTCHA.