Machen’s Rejection of Libertarian Individualism

Two principles we teach our children in every culture and every age. They are the foundation of society; share your toys, and don’t take the toys of others. These two principles are the principles of sacrificial charity; and the inviolability of private property.

A society lacking these principles in balance lacks health.

Two more principles are at work in society. The ancients saw these as the principles of the One and the Many. Today, we call it the collective and the individual. 

A healthy society balances both. As society rides the pendulum swing, careful students of Scripture must give their due diligence.

The Individual

The individual has value and existence before birth, being created in the womb and known by God. Personality exists before society leaves its stamp. Ask a mother who has had more than one child (if you can find any!). Most, if not all, will inform you that personality traits were noticeable. One kid is more active, another less so. One more awake at night, the other in the day. God placed each star where it is, and cares so much for a nonpersonal star, that he knows them by name. The individual matters and is not a pure product of society.

The individual is also able to trump the collective. Luther reminded us when at Diet of Worms, he was asked, “do you alone have all wisdom?” Yet, he was bound by the Word of God and “evident reason.”

The Collective

Theology also confirms the place of the collective. Far from being evil, Paul sees no place for gifts used for self, but all the blessings God gives are for the benefit of the “body of Christ.” Furthermore, we see the collective in Adam’s Federal Headship. The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck discusses this, showing that we see the One (the collective) is prior to the Many (individuals) in Adam’s fall. Yet, both exist, not in an “either/or” dichotomy, but a “both/and.”

J. Gresham Machen agreed with this “both/and” view of the individual and the collective:

It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God. In that sense, it is true that Christianity is individualistic and not social.

But though Christianity is individualistic, it is not only individualistic. It provides fully for the social needs of man.

In the first place, even the communion of the individual man with God is not really individualistic, but social. A man is not isolated when he is in communion with God; he can be regarded as isolated only by one who has forgotten the real existence of the supreme Person. Here again, as at many other places, the line of cleavage between liberalism and Christianity really reduces to a profound difference in the conception of God. Christianity is earnestly theistic; liberalism is at best but half-heartedly so. If a man once comes to believe in a personal God, then the worship of Him will not be regarded as selfish isolation, but as the chief end of man. That does not mean that on the Christian view the worship of God is ever to be carried on to the neglect of service rendered to one’s fellow-men − ”he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, is not able to love God whom he hath not seen” − but it does mean that the worship of God has a value of its own. Very different is the prevailing doctrine of modern liberalism. According to Christian belief, man exists for the sake of God; according to the liberal Church, in practice if not in theory, God exists for the sake of man. But the social element in Christianity is found not only in communion between man and God, but also in communion between man and man. Such communion appears even in institutions which are not specifically Christian.[1]

Citations & References 1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1923), 153.

Daniel Mason

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Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.

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