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Yesterday, John Gresham Machen refuted the Modernist (‘liberal’) idea of Jesus as the first Christian.  Today, the excerpts from his 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism explore this in greater detail in light of the earliest days of the Church.  For previous entries in this series, please click on the Machen link.

We learn a lot of mumbo-jumbo at church these days.  And many of us who are middle-aged started learning this when we were children, either at Sunday School or a mainstream Christian school.  Jesus was not just like us.  We can — and must — try to imitate Him, but we must also realise that — contrary to what our clergy and teachers say — He was unlike us.  He came to Earth to redeem us, not to be our best mate and buddy.  And it is because of the ‘just like us’, ‘Teacher’ references that we see the watery belief and unbelief around us today.

Note the number of people who say they believe in God but not in Jesus.  We can attribute this to Modernism and postmodernism.  Everything becomes fluid and subjective.  In the end, many Christians — as I did personally — find that today’s Church poses more questions than answers.  Contrast today’s views with those of the theologians of the 17th century, go back to Calvin and Luther and keep tracing back to the early Doctors of the Church and you find a dramatic contrast between their writings and what we receive in pews and classrooms today.  Machen corrects today’s errors for us, restoring the truth.

Subheads and emphases below are mine for easier navigation.  Excerpts are taken from Reformed Audio’s PDF.  Pages 86 – 94, excerpted here, correspond to the PDF pages.

Jesus’s relationship to Christianity

the early Christians regarded Jesus not merely as an example for faith but primarily as the object of faith. Christianity from the beginning was a means of getting rid of sin by trust in Jesus of Nazareth. But if Jesus was thus the object of Christian faith, He Himself was no more a Christian than God is a religious being. God is the object of all religion, He is absolutely necessary to all religion; but He Himself is the only being in the universe who can never in His own nature be religious. So it is with Jesus as related to Christian faith. Christian faith is trust reposed in Him for the removal of sin; He could not repose trust (in the sense with which we are here concerned) in Himself; therefore He was certainly not a Christian. If we are looking for a complete illustration of the Christian life we cannot find it in the religious experience of Jesus. This conclusion needs to be guarded against two objections.

In the first place, it will be said, are we not failing to do justice to the true humanity of Jesus, which is affirmed by the creeds of the Church as well as by the modern theologians? When we say that Jesus could not illustrate Christian faith any more than God can be religious, are we not denying to Jesus that religious experience which is a necessary element in true humanity? Must not Jesus, if He be true man, have been more than the object of religious faith; must He not have had a religion of His own? The answer is not far to seek. Certainly Jesus had a religion of His own; His prayer was real prayer, His faith was real religious faith. His relation to His heavenly Father was not merely that of a child to a father; it was that of a man to his God. Certainly Jesus had a religion; without it His humanity would indeed have been but incomplete. Without doubt Jesus had a religion; the fact is of the utmost importance. But it is equally important to observe that that religion which Jesus had was not Christianity. Christianity is a way of getting rid of sin, and Jesus was without sin. His religion was a religion of Paradise, not a religion of sinful humanity. It was a religion to which we may perhaps in some sort attain in heaven, when the process of our purification is complete (though even then the memory of redemption will never leave us); but certainly it is not a religion with which we can begin. The religion of Jesus was a religion of untroubled sonship; Christianity is a religion of the attainment of sonship by the redeeming work of Christ.

But if that be true, it may be objected, in the second place, that Jesus is being removed far from us, that on our view He is no longer our Brother and our Example. The objection is welcome, since it helps us to avoid misunderstandings and exaggerations.

Certainly if our zeal for the greatness and uniqueness of Jesus led us so to separate Him from us that He could no longer be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, the result would be disastrous; Jesus’ coming would lose much of its significance. But it ought to be observed that likeness is not always necessary to nearness

The experience of a father in his personal relation to his son is quite different from that of the son in his relation to his father; but just that very difference binds father and son all the more closely together … It may be somewhat the same in the case of our relationship to Jesus. If He were exactly the same as ourselves, if He were merely our Brother, we should not be nearly so close to Him as we are when He stands to us in the relationship of a Savior.

Nevertheless Jesus as a matter of fact is a Brother to us as well as a Savior − an elder Brother whose steps we may follow. The imitation of Jesus has a fundamental place in Christian life; it is perfectly correct to represent Him as our supreme and only perfect example.

Jesus’s humanity

No matter what view may be taken of His origin and His higher nature, Jesus certainly led a true human life, and in it He came into those varied human relationships which provide opportunity for moral achievement. His life of perfect purity was led in no cold aloofness from the throng and press; His unselfish love was exercised not merely in mighty deeds, but in acts of kindness which the humblest of us has the power, if only we had the will, to imitate. More effective, too, than all detail is the indefinable impression of the whole; Jesus is felt to be far greater than any of His individual words or deeds. His calmness, unselfishness and strength have been the wonder of the ages; the world can never lose the inspiration of that radiant example.

Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God; imitation of Him may extend and must extend to the sphere of religion as well as to that of ethics. Indeed religion and ethics in Him were never separated; no single element in His life can be understood without reference to His heavenly Father. Jesus was the most religious man who ever lived; He did nothing and said nothing and thought nothing without the thought of God. If His example means anything at all it means that a human life without the conscious presence of God − even though it be a life of humanitarian service outwardly like the ministry of Jesus − is a monstrous perversion. If we would follow truly in Jesus’ steps, we must obey the first commandment as well as the second that is like unto it; we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. The difference between Jesus and ourselves serves only to enforce, certainly not to invalidate, the lessonif the wise and holy One could say “Thy will be done,” surely submission is yet more in place for us whose wisdom is as the foolishness of children.

Jesus’s example

But the Jesus who can serve as an example is not the Jesus of modern liberal reconstruction, but only the Jesus of the New Testament … If the Jesus of naturalistic reconstruction were really taken as an example, disaster would soon follow. As a matter of fact, however, the modern liberal does not really take as his example the Jesus of the liberal historians; what he really does in practice is to manufacture as his example a simple exponent of a non-doctrinal religion whom the abler historians even of his own school know never to have existed except in the imagination of modern men.

Very different is the imitation of the real Jesus − the Jesus of the New Testament who actually lived in the first century of our era. That Jesus advanced lofty claims; but His claims, instead of being the extravagant dreams of an enthusiast, were sober truth. On His lips, therefore, language which in the reduced Jesus of modern reconstruction would be frenzied or absurd becomes fraught with blessing for mankind. Jesus demanded that those who followed Him should be willing to break even the holiest ties − He said, “If a man cometh to me and hateth not his father and mother . . . he cannot be my disciple,” and “Let the dead bury their dead.” Coming from the mere prophet constructed by modern liberalism, those words would be monstrous; coming from the real Jesus, they are sublime. How great was the mission of mercy which justified such words! And how wonderful the condescension of the eternal Son! How matchless an example for the children of men! Well might Paul appeal to the example of the incarnate Savior; well might he say, “Let the same mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” The imitation of the real Jesus will never lead a man astray.

But the example of Jesus is a perfect example only if He was justified in what He offered to men. And He offered, not primarily guidance, but salvation; He presented Himself as the object of men’s faith. That offer is rejected by modern liberalism, but it is accepted by Christian men ...

Modernist attitudes towards Christ

Liberalism regards Him as an Example and Guide; Christianity, as a Savior: liberalism makes Him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith.

This difference in the attitude toward Jesus depends upon a profound differences as to the question who Jesus was. If Jesus was only what the liberal historians suppose that He was, then trust in Him would be out of place; our attitude toward Him could be that of pupils to a Master and nothing more. But if He was what the New Testament represents Him as being, then we can safely commit to Him the eternal destinies of our souls. What then is the difference between liberalism and Christianity with regard to the person of our Lord?

The answer might be difficult to set forth in detail. But the essential thing can be put almost in a word − liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards Him as a supernatural Person.

Jesus’s divinity

The conception of Jesus as a supernatural Person runs all through the New Testament. In the Epistles of Paul, of course, it is quite clear. Without the slightest doubt Paul separated Jesus from ordinary humanity and placed Him on the side of God … Paul does indeed call Jesus Christ a man. But the way in which he speaks of Jesus as a man only deepens the impression which has already been received … At any rate, the really outstanding fact is that in the Epistles of Paul, Jesus is everywhere separated from ordinary humanity; the deity of Christ is everywhere presupposed … the term “Lord,” which is Paul’s regular designation of Jesus, is really just as much a designation of deity as is the term “God.” It was a designation of deity even in the pagan religions with which Paul’s converts were familiar; and (what is far more important) in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was current in Paul’s day and was used by the Apostle himself, the term was used to translate the “Jahwe” of the Hebrew text. And Paul does not hesitate to apply to Jesus stupendous passages in the Greek Old Testament where the term Lord thus designates the God of Israel. But what is perhaps most significant of all for the establishment of the Pauline teaching about the Person of Christ is that Paul everywhere stands in a religious attitude toward Jesus. He who is thus the object of religious faith is surely no mere man, but a supernatural Person, and indeed a Person who was God

But there is something far more surprising still. The truly surprising thing is that the view which Paul had of Jesus was also the view which was held by Jesus’ intimate friends … Even the Judaizers, the bitter opponents of Paul, seem to have had no objection to Paul’s conception of Jesus as a supernatural Person. The really impressive thing about Paul’s view of Christ is that it is not defended. Indeed it is hardly presented in the Epistles in any systematic way. Yet it is everywhere presupposed. The inference is perfectly plain − Paul’s conception of the Person of Christ was a matter of course in the primitive Church

Exactly the same account of Jesus as that which is presupposed by the Pauline Epistles appears in the detailed narrative of the Gospels. The Gospels agree with Paul in presenting Jesus as a supernatural Person, and the agreement appears not in one or two of the Gospels, but in all four … all four Gospels clearly present a Person lifted far above the level of ordinary humanity; and the Gospel of Mark, the shortest and according to modern criticism the earliest of the Gospels, renders particularly prominent Jesus’ superhuman works of power. In all four Gospels Jesus appears possessed of a sovereign power over the forces of nature; in all four Gospels, as in the whole New Testament, He appears clearly as a supernatural Person.

Tomorrow: More on Jesus as a ‘supernatural Person’

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