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Today, we continue with excerpts from John Gresham Machen‘s Christianity and Liberalism.  This week’s posts look at Chapter 5 – Christ.

These excerpts are taken from pages 80-86 of the PDF, kindly made available by Reformed Audio.  The first part of the passage below refers back to Chapter 2’s discussion of St Paul as well as to this summary of Christian doctrine.

What follows are reasoned correctives to the present day belief in God and reverence for Jesus as Teacher but not Saviour.  Machen explains how we arrived at this development and why it is wrong.

I fell into the Modernist trap many years ago.  It’s important for parents to explain to their children how the Apostles perceived Jesus and how He is represented in the Gospels.  Many of you are Christians and may respond, ‘But that’s all in the New Testament’.  Yet, how many Christians have read the New Testament in its entirety? They hear what their minister or vicar says in a sermon.  The postmodern affectation is for the ordained to place heavy emphasis on ‘Jesus as Rabbi’ but much less so on ‘Jesus as Saviour’. And this goes on from our childhood — either in a mainstream Protestant (or Catholic) religious education class — through to adulthood at Sunday services. This post along with the subsequent ones this week will address this error of Jesus’s being just like us.

Subheads and emphases below are mine for easier navigation.

Belief in Jesus

The facts are really too plain. The whole of early Christian history is a hopeless riddle unless the Jerusalem Church, as well as Paul, made Jesus the object of religious faith. Primitive Christianity certainly did not consist in the mere imitation of Jesus.

But was this “faith in Jesus” justified by the teaching of Jesus Himself? The question has really been answered in Chapter 2. It was there shown that Jesus most certainly did not keep His Person out of His gospel, but on the contrary presented Himself as the Savior of men

It may be added, moreover, that Jesus did not invite the confidence of men by minimizing the load which He offered to bear. He did not say: “Trust me to give you acceptance with God, because acceptance with God is not difficult; God does not regard sin so seriously after all.” On the contrary Jesus presented the wrath of God in a more awful way than it was afterwards presented by His disciples; it was Jesus − Jesus whom modern liberals represent as a mild-mannered exponent of an indiscriminating love − it was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching about the character of God which in itself can evoke trust. On the contrary the awful presentation can give rise, in the hearts of us sinners, only to despair. Trust arises only when we attend to God’s way of salvation. And that way is found in Jesus. Jesus did not invite the confidence of men by a minimizing presentation of what was necessary in order that sinners might stand faultless before the awful throne of God. On the contrary, he invited confidence by the presentation of His own wondrous Person. Great was the guilt of sin, but Jesus was greater still. God, according to Jesus, was a loving Father; but He was a loving Father, not of the sinful world, but of those whom He Himself had brought into His Kingdom through the Son.

The truth is, the witness of the New Testament, with regard to Jesus as the object of faith, is an absolutely unitary witness. The thing is rooted far too deep in the records of primitive Christianity ever to be removed by any critical process. The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust.

What Jesus means to the Modernist — the ‘liberal’

Christians stand in a religious relation to Jesus; liberals do not stand in a religious relation to Jesus − what difference could be more profound than that? The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But he does not stand in a religious relation to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus.

According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted.

Was Jesus really the first Christian?

But was Jesus really a Christian? Or, to put the same question in another way, are we able or ought we as Christians to enter in every respect into the experience of Jesus and make Him in every respect our example? Certain difficulties arise with regard to this question.

The first difficulty appears in the Messianic consciousness of Jesus. The Person whom we are asked to take as our example thought that He was the heavenly Son of Man who was to be the final Judge of all the earth. Can we imitate Him there? The trouble is not merely that Jesus undertook a special mission which can never be ours. That difficulty might conceivably be overcome; we might still take Jesus as our example by adapting to our station in life the kind of character which He displayed in His. But another difficulty is more serious. The real trouble is that the lofty claim of Jesus, if, as modern liberalism is constrained to believe, the claim was unjustified, places a moral stain upon Jesus’ character. What shall be thought of a human being who lapsed so far from the path of humility and sanity as to believe that the eternal destinies of the world were committed into His hands? The truth is that if Jesus be merely an example, He is not a worthy example; for He claimed to be far more.

Modernists minimise Jesus’s ‘Messianic consciousness’

Against this objection modern liberalism has usually adopted a policy of palliation. The Messianic consciousness, it is said, arose late in the experience of Jesus, and was not really fundamental. What was really fundamental, the liberal historians continue, was the consciousness of sonship toward God − a consciousness which may be shared by every humble disciple. The Messianic consciousness, on this view, arose only as an afterthought. Jesus was conscious, it is said, of standing toward God in a relation of untroubled sonship. But He discovered that this relation was not shared by others. He became aware, therefore, of a mission to bring others into the place of privilege which He Himself already occupied. That mission made Him unique, and to give expression to His uniqueness He adopted, late in His life and almost against His will, the faulty category of Messiahship.

Many are the forms in which some such psychological reconstruction of the life of Jesus has been set forth in recent years. The modern world has devoted its very best literary efforts to this task. But the efforts have resulted in failure. In the first place, there is no real evidence that the reconstructed Jesus is historical. The sources know nothing of a Jesus who adopted the category of Messiahship late in life and against His will. On the contrary the only Jesus that they present is a Jesus who based the whole of His ministry upon His stupendous claim. In the second place, even if the modern reconstruction were historical it would not solve the problem at all. The problem is a moral and psychological problem. How can a human being who lapsed so far from the path of rectitude as to think Himself to be the judge of all the earth − how can such a human being be regarded as the supreme example for mankind? It is absolutely no answer to the objection to say that Jesus accepted the category of Messiahship reluctantly and late in life. No matter when He succumbed to temptation the outstanding fact is that, on this view, He did succumb; and that moral defeat places an indelible stain upon His character. No doubt it is possible to make excuses for Him, and many excuses are as a matter of fact made by the liberal historians. But what has become then of the claim of liberalism to be truly Christian? Can a man for whom excuses have to be made be regarded as standing to his modern critics in a relationship even remotely analogous to that in which the Jesus of the New Testament stands to the Christian Church?

Modernists and Jesus’s sinlessness

But there is another difficulty in the way of regarding Jesus as simply the first Christian. This second difficulty concerns the attitude of Jesus toward sin. If Jesus is separated from us by his Messianic consciousness, He is separated from us even more fundamentally by the absence in Him of a sense of sin.

With respect to the sinlessness of Jesus modern liberal historians find themselves in a quandary. To affirm that He was sinless means to relinquish much of that ease of defending liberal religion which the liberal historians are anxious to preserve, and involves hazardous assumptions with regard to the nature of sin. For if sin is merely imperfection, how can an absolute negation of it be ventured upon within a process of nature which is supposed to be ever changing and ever advancing? The very idea of “sinlessness,” much more the reality of it, requires us to conceive of sin as transgression of a fixed law or a fixed standard, and involves the conception of an absolute goodness. But to that conception of an absolute goodness the modern evolutionary view of the world properly speaking has no right.  At any rate, if such absolute goodness is to be allowed to intrude at a definite point in the present world-process, we are involved in that supernaturalism which, as will be observed later, is the very thing that the modern reconstruction of Christianity is most anxious to avoid. Once affirm that Jesus was sinless and all other men sinful, and you have entered into irreconcilable conflict with the whole modern point of view. On the other hand, if there are scientific objections, from the liberal point of view, against an affirmation of the sinlessness of Jesus, there are also very obvious religious objections against an opposite affirmation of His sinfulness − difficulties for modern liberalism as well as for the theology of the historic Church. If Jesus was sinful like other men, the last remnant of his uniqueness would seem to have disappeared, and all continuity with the previous development of Christianity would seem to be destroyed.

In the face of this quandary the modern liberal historian is inclined to avoid rash assertions. He will not be sure that when Jesus taught His disciples to say, “Forgive us our debts,” He did not pray that prayer with them; on the other hand he will not really face the results that logically follow from his doubt. In his perplexity, he [is] apt to be content with the assertion that whether Jesus was sinless or not He was at any rate immeasurably above the rest of us. Whether Jesus was “sinless” is an academic question, we shall probably be told, that concerns the mysteries of the absolute; what we need to do is to bow in simple reverence before a holiness which compared with our impurity is as a white light in a dark place.

That such avoidance of the difficulty is unsatisfactory hardly requires proof; obviously the liberal theologian is trying to obtain the religious advantages of an affirmation of sinlessness in Jesus at the same time that he obtains the supposed scientific advantages of its denial. But just for the moment we are not concerned with the question at all; we are not concerned to determine whether as a matter of fact Jesus was sinless or no. What we need to observe just now is that whether Jesus was sinful or sinless at any rate in the record of His life which has actually come into our hands He displays no consciousness of sin. Even if the words “Why callest thou me good?” meant that Jesus denied the attribute of goodness to Himself − which they do not − it would still remain true that He never in His recorded words deals in any intelligible way with sin in His own life.  In the account of the temptation we are told how He kept sin from entering, but never how He dealt with it after its entrance had been effected. The religious experience of Jesus, as it is recorded in the Gospels, in other words, gives us no information about the way in which sin shall be removed.

Yet in the Gospels Jesus is represented constantly as dealing with the problem of sin. He always assumes that other men are sinful; yet He never finds sin in Himself. A stupendous difference is found here between Jesus’ experience and ours.

That difference prevents the religious experience of Jesus from serving as the sole basis of the Christian life. For clearly if Christianity is anything it is a way of getting rid of sin. At any rate, if it is not that it is useless; for all men have sinned. And as a matter of fact it was that from the very beginning. Whether the beginning of Christian preaching be put on the day of Pentecost or when Jesus first taught in Galilee, in either case one of its first words was “Repent.” Throughout the whole New Testament the Christianity of the primitive Church is represented clearly as a way of getting rid of sin. But if Christianity is a way of getting rid of sin, then Jesus was not a Christian; for Jesus, so far as we can see, had no sin to get rid of.

Tomorrow: Christ and the early Church

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