History & Faith (Part 1)
by J. Gresham Machen (1915)
The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The center and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events.
That assertion will not pass unchallenged. The modern Church is impatient of history. History, we are told, is a dead thing. Let us forget the Amalekites, and fight the enemies that are at our doors. The true essence of the Bible is to be found in eternal ideas; history is merely the form in which those ideas are expressed. It makes no difference whether the history is real or fictitious; in either case, the ideas are the same. It makes no difference whether Abraham was an historical personage or a myth; in either case his life is an inspiring example of faith. It makes no difference whether Moses was really a mediator between God and Israel; in any case the record of Sinai embodies the idea of a covenant between God and his people. It makes no difference whether Jesus really lived and died and rose again as he is declared to have done in the Gospels; in any case the Gospel picture, be it ideal or be it history, is an encouragement to filial piety. In this way, religion has been made independent, as is thought, of the uncertainties of historical research. The separation of Christianity from history has been a great concern of modern theology. It has been an inspiring attempt. But it has been a failure.
Give up history, and you can retain some things. You can retain a belief in God. But philosophical theism has never been a powerful force in the world. You can retain a lofty ethical ideal. But be perfectly clear about one point—you can never retain a gospel. For “gospel” means “good news,” tidings, information about something that has happened. In other words, it means history. A gospel independent of history is simply a contradiction in terms.
We are shut up in this world as in a beleaguered camp. Dismayed by the stern facts of life, we are urged by the modern preacher to have courage. Let us treat God as our Father; let us continue bravely in the battle of life. But alas, the facts are too plain—those facts which are always with us. The fact of suffering! How do you know that God is all love and kindness? Nature is full of horrors. Human suffering may be unpleasant, but it is real, and God must have something to do with it. The fact of death! No matter how satisfying the joys of earth, it cannot be denied at least that they will soon depart, and of what use are joys that last but for a day? A span of life—and then, for all of us, blank, unfathomed mystery! The fact of guilt! What if the condemnation of conscience should be but the foretaste of judgment? What if contact with the infinite should be contact with a dreadful infinity of holiness? What if the inscrutable cause of all things should turn out to be a righteous God? The fact of sin! The thralldom of habit! This strange subjection to a mysterious power of evil that is leading resistlessly into some unknown abyss! To these facts the modern preacher responds—with exhortation. Make the best of the situation, he says, look on the bright side of life. Very eloquent, my friend! But alas, you cannot change the facts. The modern preacher offers reflection. The Bible offers more. The Bible offers news—not reflection on the old, but tidings of something new; not something that can be deduced or something that can be discovered, but something that has happened; not philosophy, but history; not exhortation, but a gospel.
The Bible contains a record of something that has happened, something that puts a new face upon life. What that something is, is told us in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The authority of the Bible should be tested here at the central point. Is the Bible right about Jesus?
The Bible account of Jesus contains mysteries, but the essence of it can be put almost in a word. Jesus of Nazareth was not a product of the world, but a Savior come from outside the world. His birth was a mystery. His life was a life of perfect purity, of awful righteousness, and of gracious, sovereign power. His death was no mere holy martyrdom, but a sacrifice for the sins of the world. His resurrection was not an aspiration in the hearts of his disciples, but a mighty act of God. He is alive, and present at this hour to help us if we will turn to him. He is more than one of the sons of men; he is in mysterious union with the eternal God.
That is the Bible’s account of Jesus. It is opposed today by another account. That account appears in many forms, but the essence of it is simple. Jesus of Nazareth, it maintains, was the fairest flower of humanity. He lived a life of remarkable purity and unselfishness. So deep was his filial piety, so profound his consciousness of a mission, that he came to regard himself, not merely as a prophet, but as the Messiah. By opposing the hypocrisy of the Jews, or by imprudent obtrusion of his lofty claims, he suffered martyrdom. He died on the cross. After his death, his followers were discouraged. But his cause was not lost; the memory of him was too strong; the disciples simply could not believe that he had perished. Predisposed psychologically in this way, they had visionary experiences; they thought they saw him. These visions were hallucinations. But they were the means by which the personality of Jesus retained its power; they were the foundation of the Christian Church.
There, in a word, is the issue. Jesus a product of the world, or a heavenly being come from without? A teacher and example, or a Savior? The issue is sharp—the Bible against the modern preacher. Here is the real test of Bible authority. If the Bible is right here, at the decisive point, probably it is right elsewhere. If it is wrong here, then its authority is gone. The question must be faced. What shall we think about Jesus of Nazareth?
From the middle of the first century, certain interesting documents have been preserved; they are the epistles of Paul. The genuineness of them—the chief of them at any rate—is not seriously doubted, and they can be dated with approximate accuracy. They form, therefore, a fixed starting-point in controversy. These epistles were written by a remarkable man. Paul cannot be brushed lightly aside. He was certainly, to say the least, one of the most influential men that ever lived. His influence was a mighty building; probably it was not erected on the sand.
In his letters, Paul has revealed the very depths of a tremendous religious experience. That experience was founded, not upon a profound philosophy or daring speculation, but upon a Palestinian Jew who had lived but a few years before. That Jew was Jesus of Nazareth. Paul had a strange view of Jesus; he separated him sharply from man and placed him clearly on the side of God. “Not by man, but by Jesus Christ,” he says at the beginning of Galatians, and he implies the same thing on every page of his letters. Jesus Christ, according to Paul, was man, but he was also more.
That is a very strange fact. Only through familiarity have we ceased to wonder at it. Look at the thing a moment as though for the first time. A Jew lives in Palestine, and is executed like a common criminal. Almost immediately after his death he is raised to divine dignity by one of his contemporaries—not by a negligible enthusiast either, but by one of the most commanding figures in the history of the world. So the thing presents itself to the modern historian. There is a problem here. However the problem may be solved, it can be ignored by no one. The man Jesus deified by Paul—that is a very remarkable fact. The late H. J. Holtzmann, who may be regarded as the typical exponent of modern naturalistic criticism of the New Testament, admitted that for the rapid apotheosis of Jesus as it appears in the epistles of Paul he was able to cite no parallel in the religious history of the race.
The raising of Jesus to superhuman dignity was extraordinarily rapid even if it was due to Paul. But it was most emphatically not due to Paul; it can be traced clearly to the original disciples of Jesus. And that too on the basis of the Pauline Epistles alone. The epistles show that with regard to the person of Christ Paul was in agreement with those who had been apostles before him. Even the Judaizers had no dispute with Paul's conception of Jesus as a heavenly being. About other things there was debate; about this point there is not a trace of a conflict. With regard to the supernatural Christ Paul appears everywhere in perfect harmony with all Palestinian Christians. That is a fact of enormous significance. The heavenly Christ of Paul was also the Christ of those who had walked and talked with Jesus of Nazareth. Think of it! Those men had seen Jesus subject to all the petty limitations of human life. Yet suddenly, almost immediately after his shameful death, they became convinced that he had risen from the tomb and that he was a heavenly being. There is an historical problem here—for modern naturalism, we venture to think, an unsolved problem. A man Jesus regarded as a heavenly being, not by later generations who could be deceived by the nimbus of distance and mystery, but actually by his intimate friends! A strange hallucination indeed! And founded upon that hallucination the whole of the modern world!
So much for Paul. A good deal can be learned from him alone—enough to give us pause. But that is not all that we know about Jesus; it is only a beginning. The Gospels enrich our knowledge; they provide an extended picture.
In their picture of Jesus the Gospels agree with Paul; like Paul, they make of Jesus a supernatural person. Not one of the Gospels, but all of them! The day is past when the divine Christ of John could be confronted with a human Christ of Mark. Historical students of all shades of opinion have now come to see that Mark as well as John (though it is believed in a lesser degree) presents an exalted Christology, Mark as well as John represents Jesus clearly as a supernatural person.
A supernatural person, according to modern historians, never existed. That is the fundamental principle of modern naturalism. The world, it is said, must be explained as an absolutely unbroken development, obeying fixed laws. The supernatural Christ of the Gospels never existed. How then explain the Gospel picture? You might explain it as fiction—the Gospel account of Jesus throughout a myth. That explanation is seriously being proposed today. But it is absurd; it will never convince any body of genuine historians. The matter is at any rate not so simple as that. The Gospels present a supernatural person, but they also present a real person—a very real, a very concrete, a very inimitable person. That is not denied by modern liberalism. Indeed it cannot possibly be denied. If the Jesus who spoke the parables, the Jesus who opposed the Pharisees, the Jesus who ate with publicans and sinners, is not a real person, living under real conditions, at a definite point of time, then there is no way of distinguishing history from sham.
On the one hand, then, the Jesus of the Gospels is a supernatural person; on the other hand, he is a real person. But according to modern naturalism, a supernatural person never existed. He is a supernatural person; he is a real person—and yet a supernatural person is never real. A problem here! What is the solution? Why, obviously, says the modern historian—obviously, there are two elements in the Gospels. In the first place, there is genuine historical tradition. That has preserved the real Jesus. In the second place, there is myth. That has added the supernatural attributes. The duty of the historian is to separate the two—to discover the genuine human traits of the Galilean prophet beneath the gaudy colors which have almost hopelessly defaced his portrait, to disentangle the human Jesus from the tawdry ornamentation which has been hung about him by naive and unintelligent admirers.
Separate the natural and the supernatural in the Gospel account of Jesus—that has been the task of modern liberalism. How shall the work be done? We must admit at least that the myth-making process began very early; it has affected even the very earliest literary sources that we know. But let us not be discouraged. Whenever the mythical elaboration began, it may now be reversed. Let us simply go through the Gospels and separate the wheat from the tares. Let us separate the natural from the supernatural, the human from the divine, the believable from the unbelievable. When we have thus picked out the workable elements, let us combine them into some sort of picture of the historical Jesus. Such is the method. The result is what is called “the Liberal Jesus.” It has been a splendid effort. I know scarcely any more brilliant chapter in the history of the human spirit than this “quest of the historical Jesus.” The modern world has put its very life and soul into this task. It has been a splendid effort. But it has also been — a failure.
To read Part 2 of this essay, click here.
This essay first appeared in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 13, 1915. In May of that year, it served as Machen’s inaugural address at the time of his installation as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.
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FOR FURTHER READING
J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. by D. G. Hart. This volume includes “History & Faith,” along with 45 other important essays by Machen.
“A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus,” by Dorothy Sayers. You can find this essay in her book Unpopular Opinions, and in a more recent collection of Sayers’ writings titled, Letters to a Diminished Church.
Jesus & The Eyewitnesses, by Richard Bauckham. Be sure to get a copy of the Second Edition (released in 2017) which includes three additional concluding chapters. For beginners, I’d recommend starting with Bauckham’s book, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction.
Introductory Lessons on Christian Evidences, by Richard Whately. This book was first published in 1837, and a PDF copy of this important work is available here.
Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration & Canonical Authority of the Holy Scriptures, by Archibald Alexander (a PDF copy of this 1836 book can be found here).
Exodus: Myth or History?, by David Rohl
Is Jesus History?, by John Dickson
Can We Trust the Gospels?, by Peter J. Williams