The Christian Faith in the Modern World

Topic: Revelation Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 8


Having considered with you the question what kind of book the Bible is, I think it is now high time that we should open up that book together and find out what is in it. We have shown that the Bible is worth reading, because it is the Word of God. Well, if it is worth reading, let us now begin to read it and see whether we can discover what it contains. What does the Bible teach?

I had in my mind a very good answer to that question when I was so very young as to have very little else in my mind. It is the answer to the third question in the Shorter Catechism, and it seems to me to be a very good thing. There are one hundred and six other good things in that Catechism. Those are the answers to the others of the one hundred and seven questions. I should certainly not go quite so far as to say what some Presbyterian is accused of having said—that the Shorter Catechism is more important than the Bible because the Shorter Catechism is "the Bible boiled down"—but all the same I am a convinced Presbyterian too, and I do maintain that the Shorter Catechism, with its marvelous comprehensiveness and its faithfulness to Scripture, with its solemnity and its tenderness, is the truest and noblest summary of what the Bible teaches that I have ever seen.

The third question in the Shorter Catechism is the question in which I am interested just now: "What do the Scriptures principally teach?" The answer is: "The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man."

The thing that I want you to notice about this answer is that it makes the Scriptures principally teach, first, what man is to believe and, second, what man is to do. It puts truth before conduct, doctrine before life. It makes truth the foundation of conduct and doctrine the foundation of life.

Today the order is commonly reversed. Life comes first, we are told, and doctrine comes afterwards. Religion is first an experience and only secondarily a doctrine. Doctrine is merely an expression of religious experience, and although the experience remains essentially the same its doctrinal expression must change as the generations pass. So, it is said, we value the great creeds of the Church not at all because we regard as true, in the plain man’s sense of the word "true," the things that they contain, but because they expressed in the language of a by gone day an experience which we can still share. So it is also, we are told, with the Bible. It is a great mistake, we are told, to take what the Bible says about Jesus as being true in the ordinary sense of the word "true"; but it is a still greater mistake to miss the experience which underlies what the Bible says. Thus when the Bible says that Jesus was born of a virgin, we do not, of course, it is said, believe that any physical miracle took place in connection with the birth of Jesus nineteen hundred years ago. But we do think that the men of that day were giving expression to something very precious when they said that, and we ought not to miss that very precious thing. Thus also, it is said, when people of long ago said that Jesus was God, they were of course meaning by that expression something that we do not at all accept. They meant that a heavenly person who had existed from all eternity came into this world by a voluntary act when Jesus of Nazareth was born. We do not at all believe that, say the persons whose views we are now summarizing; on the contrary, we believe that the person Jesus never existed before he was born in that Jewish family. Well, then, shall we just reject what those persons said when they declared Jesus to be God? Not at all, it is said. They were giving true expression, it is said, in the language of their day, to something that is just as precious to us as it was to them. They could not possibly give expression to it in any other language. If they had tried to give expression to it in our language, that would for them have been utterly false and futile. Do we then still believe in the deity of Christ? Oh, yes—as the expression of a great experience. That experience is the really essential thing, but the intellectual expression of it must necessarily change from age to age.

Such is the attitude that is dominant in the religious world of our day—religion as an experience and doctrine as just the necessarily changing expression of the experience; life first and creed as just the changing expression of it. Those are the shibboleths that designate the prevailing attitude.

What shall we think of that attitude? Well, in the first place, I think we ought to face clearly the fact that it is an attitude of the most complete unbelief that could possibly be imagined. It denies not this truth or that but truth itself. It denies that there is any possibility of attaining to a truth which will always be true. There is truth, it holds for this generation and truth for that generation, but no truth for all generations; there is truth for this race and truth for that race, but no truth for all races.

I remember some years ago that I read a paper at a conference of theological professors on the subject of "revelation." I read a paper and then another professor read a paper, and then still other professors made remarks about the papers. One of those latter professors said that although he disagreed with me completely, and agreed much more with my opponent, yet he was bound to say he thought that so far as the definition of terms was concerned I was a good deal nearer than my opponent to the historic meaning of the term "revelation." I thought that was very encouraging. But then he went on to say that even I did not mean the same thing by that term as people used to mean by it. Then he developed, with more or less clearness, the view that in general words are bound to change their meaning so that we never mean by the words that we use what past generations meant by them.

At any rate, whether that was what that particular professor said or not, I think it does represent what a good many people are saying. A good many people seem to think that every generation lives in a sort of intellectual water tight compartment, without much chance of converse with other generations. Every generation has its own thought forms and cannot by any chance use the thought forms of any other generation. Do you know what I think of this notion? I think it comes very near being nonsense. If it were true, then books produced in past generations ought to be pure gibberish to us.

Take any book of Aristotle, for example. Aristotle lived some three and a half centuries before Christ. That book of Aristotle is composed of thousands of words. When Aristotle wrote the book it made sense, because the writer knew the meaning of every one of those thousands of words. Knowing the meaning of those words, he could fit them together so that the resulting book would make sense. But then, according to the theory with which we are now dealing, the meaning of every one of those words began to wobble, and has been wobbling for twenty-two centuries. Of course the words would not all wobble to just exactly the same extent and in exactly the same direction. That would be a chance too remote to be considered. The probabilities against it would be ten billion or more to one. Very well, then. What will inevitably be the result? The result, after twenty-two centuries of wobbling, will be that all those thousands of words will be completely out of alignment and the resulting book will be a meaningless jumble.

Yes, that will be the inevitable result if that professorial theory as to the inevitable shift in the meanings of words is correct. But the trouble is that that inevitable result is not the actual result. As a matter of fact, that book of Aristotle is just as perfectly clear and logical today as it ever was. What does that show? It shows that the theory that we have been dealing with is untrue. It shows that as a matter of fact words do not change their meaning in that kaleidoscopic way. It shows that there is an intellectual gold standard which enables us to carry on commerce perfectly well with the men of past generations.

What is true of different ages in the history of mankind is also true of different races coexisting today. People say that Western creeds ought not to be forced upon the Oriental mind. The Oriental mind, they say, ought to be allowed to go its own way and give its own expressions to the Christian faith. Well, I have examined one or two of those supposed expressions of the Oriental mind, and I am bound to say that they look to me uncommonly like the expressions of the mind of the South Side of Chicago. But how about it? Ought we to give our Western creeds to the Oriental mind? I shall just pass over the question whether those so-called Western creeds are really Western. Let us call them "Western creeds" in quotation marks and for the sake of the argument. Ought those Western creeds to be given to the Oriental mind? What is our answer?

The answer is: "Certainly." Of course those Western creeds ought to be given to the Oriental mind. But that ought to be done only on one condition—that those Western creeds are true. If they are not true, they ought not to be given to the Oriental mind or to any other kind of mind; but if they are true, they are just as true in China as they are in the United States.

The truth is that although I am thought by some of my friends to be very gullible, believing as I do that the Bible is true and that miracles really happened, there are some things about which I am a confirmed skeptic. Frankly, I do not believe in the separate existence of an Oriental mind or an Occidental mind or an ancient mind or a medieval mind or a modern mind. I do believe indeed that different races of mankind have different aptitudes or talents. It is perhaps true that French writers have the special gift of clearness, while Germans are characterized by a power of metaphysical speculation and by a certain solidity and thoroughness of learning. It must be admitted, indeed, that some German writers are admirably clear and some French writers, on the other hand, are awfully muddled. But still I suppose it is true to a very considerable extent that clearness is especially a French virtue of style. I have a great respect also for the intellectual gifts of Oriental peoples. I have no doubt but that those peoples are contributing something very valuable, and are going to contribute something still more valuable, to the intellectual life of the world.

But the really important thing is that under all fluctuations between this age and that age, between this nation and that nation, there is a gold standard of truth. We may misunderstand ancient writers, but our very recognition of the possibility of misunderstanding them shows that there is also a possibility of understanding them. I may have difficulty in understanding the mental processes of the Chinese and the Japanese, as they have difficulty in understanding mine; but the very fact that we can both detect that difficulty affords hope that the difficulty may be overcome, since the fact that we can detect that difficulty shows that there is a common intellectual ground upon which we can stand.

I think, therefore, that we can safely resist the bottomless skepticism which holds that all that remains constant from generation to generation is an experience that must clothe itself in ever changing intellectual forms. I think that we may safely resist the skepticism which holds that the convictions of one generation can never by any chance be the convictions of another.

But are convictions important? Many people say that they are not. It does not make much difference, they say, what a man believes; life is the thing that counts. But merely saying a thing often does not make the thing true. As a matter of fact it does make a tremendous difference what a man believes.

A modern French novelist wrote in 1889 a very interesting book to show that that is the case. I have just been rereading it, and I find it almost as impressive as I found it when I read it the first time. The novelist who wrote it is hardly to be put in the first rank of French writers. But this one book of his is certainly worth reading. Some years ago I was talking about it to a French lecturer and critic who was inclined to be very severe upon this writer. But then I said that I had read one book of this writer and that it seemed to my poor judgment to be a masterpiece. "Yes," said the critic with whom I was talking; "that particular book of this writer is indeed a masterpiece." The book that I am referring to is the novel by Paul Bourget entitled Le Disciple, "The Disciple." It describes, with a delicacy of touch in which French writers excel, the simple and austere life of a noted philosopher and psychologist. He was engrossed altogether in the things of the mind. His lodging was up four flights of stairs. His daily existence was an invariable routine. Coffee at six o’clock, lunch or breakfast at ten, walk until noon, work again until four, visits of scholars and students three times a week from four to six, dinner at six, short walk, work, bed promptly at ten. An inoffensive, scholarly man if there ever was one, a man who, in the words of his caretaker, "wouldn’t hurt a fly."

But one day this peaceful routine was strangely broken into. The philosopher was summoned to a criminal inquest. A former pupil of his was accused of murder. He had been a brilliant young man, who had climbed those four flights of stairs full of enthusiasm for what he regarded as liberating doctrines. He had drunk in those doctrines only too well. In the prison he wrote an account of his life for the eye of his revered master. In it the abstract becomes concrete. The terrible story is told of the way in which those supposedly liberating doctrines work out in actual practice.

It is rather a tremendous little book—that study of "The Disciple" by Paul Bourget.

But the same tragedy as that which is so powerfully depicted in that little book is appearing on a gigantic scale in the whole history of our times. Fifty or even twenty-five years ago, certain views about God and about the Bible might have seemed to a superficial observer to be perfectly respectable and perfectly innocent—as harmless and as remote from anything like tragedy as Bourget’s philosopher up his four flights of stairs. It was such a sweet, pleasant thing—that older Modernism, or "Liberalism," as it was euphemistically called. But today it is having its perfect work. It is destroying civil and religious liberty; it is defiling the sweetness and gentleness of the Christian home; it is causing contracts public and private to be explained away, until the man or the nation that swears to his own hurt and changes not is regarded as a curious relic of the past. Do you look with complacency upon this world where purity and honesty and liberty are regarded as out of date? Do you think it is going to be a pleasant world to live in? If you do, you are blind. You have to be pretty blind not to see that mankind is today standing over an abyss.

Do not be deceived, my friends. This notion that it does not make much difference what a man believes, this notion that doctrine is unimportant and that life comes first, is one of the most devilish errors that are to be found in the whole of Satan’s arsenal. How many human lives it has wrecked, how many mothers’ hearts it has broken! That French novelist is entirely right. Out of the Pandora box of highly respectable philosophy come murders, adulteries, lies and every evil thing.

Well, I have been talking about various things. It might look as though I had forgotten all about the thing I started out to talk about. It might look as though I had forgotten all about the Bible. But indeed that is not the case. I have been talking about these other things, I have been talking about the snarl into which men have come, only in order that at the last I may lead you to the place where that snarl may be straightened out. What does the Bible say about the question that we have been discussing this afternoon? What does the Bible say about the question whether doctrine is merely the changing expression of life or whether—the other way around—life is founded upon doctrine?

You do not have to read very far in the Bible in order to get the answer. The answer is given to you in the first verse. Does the Bible begin with exhortation; does it begin with a program of life? No, it begins with a doctrine. In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth [GEN 1:1]. That is the foundation doctrine upon which everything else that the Bible says is based.

The Bible does present a way of life; it tells men the way in which they ought to live. But always when it does so it grounds that way of life in truth.

Run through the Bible in your minds, my friends, and see whether I am not right.

In the Old Testament a wonderful program of life is presented. It is called the Ten Commandments. But do the Ten Commandments begin with commandments? Not at all. They begin with doctrine. I am the Lord your God, Who have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage [EXO 20:2]. That is the preface to the Ten Commandments. It is not a commandment. It is not a program. It is a doctrine. Only because that doctrine is true—only because the one speaking in the commandments is the Lord God—have the commandments any authority.

The Old Testament contains another wonderful presentation of the way in which men should live. Like the Ten Commandments it was quoted by Jesus. It reads: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might [DEU 6:5]. That is a wonderful commandment indeed—that commandment of love. But does it begin with a commandment? Not at all. It begins with a doctrine. It is grounded upon a doctrine. Hear, O Israel, says the passage in Deuteronomy: The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might [DEU 6:4, 5]. Only because that doctrine is true has the commandment any meaning. Only because there is one God only and only because that one God is Jehovah are God’s people commanded to love that one God with all their heart and soul and might.

Turn then to the New Testament. The New Testament tells us how Jesus came. Did He come in the modern fashion telling people that it made no difference what they believed and that the thing for them to do was just to live the life first and then afterwards give doctrinal expression to the life?

Well, He did come presenting to them a life that they should live. "Repent," He said, when He came forward in His public ministry in Galilee. But is that all that He said? Did He just say: "Repent, repent, repent, repent, repent"? Not at all. He said: Repent: for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand [MAT 3:2]. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand is not a command or a program. It is a doctrine; and upon that doctrine the command of Jesus to repent is based.

Jesus sat one day by the well, and talked to a sinful woman. In the course of the conversation He laid His finger upon the sore spot in that woman’s life. You have had five husbands, He said; and he whom you now have is not your husband [JOH 4:18]. Then, apparently to evade the disconcerting question of the sin in her own life, the woman asked Jesus a theological question about the right place in which to worship God—whether on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem. What did Jesus do with that woman’s theological question? Did He brush it aside after the manner of certain modern religious workers? Did He say: "You are evading the real question; we will take up your theological question afterwards, but now let us come back to the question of the sin in your own life." No, He did nothing of the kind. He answered that woman’s theological question with the utmost fullness as though the woman’s soul depended on her getting the right answer. Not Gerizim, He said, but Jerusalem is the place in which to worship God, but the time is coming when the worship of God will be bound to no set places. And then, in response to that sinful, unconverted woman’s question Jesus engaged in some of the profoundest theological teaching in the whole of the Bible. Apparently Jesus regarded a right doctrine of God not as something that comes along after salvation but as something necessary to salvation.

At the beginning of the Book of Acts Jesus is said to have told His disciples to be witnesses unto Him. On the day of Pentecost, a few days later, Peter arose to obey that command. He preached that great sermon which is found in the second chapter of Acts. What did he say in that sermon? He had not had some advantages which men have today. He had not had the inestimable advantage of modern "religious education." If he had had, no doubt he would have told the people that it did not make any difference what doctrine they held about Jesus or about anything else, and that life was the only thing that mattered. But poor Peter! He had not had the advantage of modern religious education. He had to content himself with another advantage—he had just been filled with the Holy Spirit. The result is that his sermon is doctrinal through and through. He just gave them the facts about Jesus. Not a bit of exhortation, nothing about a program. Just facts, facts, facts, doctrine, doctrine, doctrine. What was the result? They were pricked in their hearts [ACT 2:37]. Then Peter told them what to do. Three thousand were saved.

So it is everywhere in the Bible, my friends. First doctrine, then life. The Bible from Genesis to Revelation gives not a bit of comfort to the skeptical notion that doctrine is the mere changing and symbolic expression of Christian experience. The Bible founds living everywhere squarely upon truth. God grant that you may all receive that truth for the saving of your souls, and that having been saved you may live true Christian lives upon this Earth and then live in God’s presence for evermore!

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This Page Last Updated: 12/07/98 A. Allison Lewis