The Christian Faith in the Modern World

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

Chapter 17


For a fuller treatment of this subject by the same writer, see The Origin of Paul’s Religion, 1921

In our presentation of the testimony of the New Testament to the deity of Christ, we have dealt so far only with the Gospels. But now it becomes necessary to consider also the other New Testament books and particularly the Epistles of Paul.

The reason why the Epistles of Paul are particularly important in this connection is that with regard to them we find a common meeting ground with those who deny the deity of Christ and are opposed to the Christian religion. Practically all serious literary critics today admit that the principal ones of the Pauline Epistles were really written by the man whose name they bear.

In the case of the four Gospels it is not so easy to find a common meeting ground with our opponents. We did not indeed altogether give up the hope of finding it. We tried to point out that there is a certain amount of agreement even with regard to the Gospels between those who are friends and those who are foes of Christianity. It is universally admitted, for example, by serious historians, that the picture of Jesus in the Gospels is a picture of a real, historical person. We tried to point out certain important consequences that follow from that admission. But, after all, the common meeting ground which we can find with our opponents is, so far as the Gospels are concerned, not very extensive.

In particular, there is disagreement with regard to questions of what is known as "literary criticism." There is disagreement, namely, with regard to the authorship and date and historical value of each of the Gospels. If, therefore, we begin by assuming that any one of these Gospels was written by the man whose name has been attached to it in the opinion of the Church, we shall be accused at once of begging the question. The traditional view of the authorship of all four of these books is disputed by our opponents in this great debate.

Now, mind you, I do not think that it is rightly disputed. I am perfectly willing to defend the traditional view of the authorship of the Gospels. I think it is immensely important to defend it. I think it can successfully be defended. But the point is that it needs to be defended. Rightly or wrongly the traditional view of the authorship of the Gospels is disputed by modern skeptics.

About the Epistles of Paul, on the other hand, there is no such dispute. Even the most skeptical critics—except a few extremists who are altogether without influence upon the current of modern thought—admit that the principal ones of the Pauline Epistles were really written by the Apostle Paul and written in the first generation of the Christian Church.

That is a very important admission indeed. I think it is very important that we should use it in our effort to lead the men who make it to accept the claims of Christ. You see, we do not regard the people who differ from us regarding these great concerns of the soul as our enemies. On the contrary, we long to help them. Having known something of the misery of doubt ourselves, we long to help others out of that misery. Hence we do like, if we can, to find a common meeting ground with our opponents in the debate, in order that we may lead them on from the things about which they agree with us to an acceptance of the things about which they disagree.

It is to be welcomed, therefore, that friends and foes of Christianity are agreed in holding that the principal ones of the Pauline Epistles were really written by the Apostle Paul.

The man, Paul, who wrote those Epistles was a contemporary of Jesus. That can be shown from the accepted Epistles themselves, because Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians says that he himself had met a brother of Jesus and it is very clear that this meeting took place only a short time after Jesus’ death. Paul had abundant opportunities to learn the facts about Jesus. He spent fifteen days, as he tells us in Galatians, with Peter, who was in the innermost circle of Jesus’ friends, and at the same time he also saw James, who was Jesus’ brother. Contact with the same men was also established at the later time that is referred to in the second chapter of Galatians, and at that later time John, who, like Peter, belonged to Jesus’ innermost circle of friends, was also present. Barnabas and Silas, who, according to the Book of Acts came from the early Jerusalem Church, were associated with Paul through long periods of time on the missionary journeys; and while it may be objected that our knowledge of their original connection with the Jerusalem Church comes only from the Book of Acts and not from the universally accepted Epistles of Paul, still the historical basis of such concrete personal details in the Book of Acts will be admitted probably by most critics. At any rate it is perfectly clear, in view of all the conditions of Paul’s life, that Paul had abundant contacts with those who had known Jesus when He was on Earth.

The testimony of Paul to Jesus becomes, therefore, a matter of the highest importance to every careful historian who is interested in the beginnings of the Christian Church. It becomes very important for us to ask what sort of person Paul held Jesus to be.

The answer to that question is very surprising to anyone who approaches the subject with ordinary analogies in his mind, because it becomes perfectly clear at once that Paul regarded Jesus in a very extraordinary way. He regarded Him as a supernatural person and he regarded himself as standing to Jesus in the relation in which a man stands to God.

He does, it is true, speak of Jesus as a man. But when he speaks of Him as a man we may well hold that he regarded it as something extraordinary, something unexpected, that He should be a man. The really outstanding thing in the way in which Paul speaks of Jesus is that he separates Jesus very clearly from ordinary humanity and places Him on the side of God.

So at the beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians, for example, he says that he, Paul, is an apostle not from men nor through a man but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead. Not through a man but through Jesus Christ! Man is one thing, Christ another; and Christ, over against man, is placed with God the Father. Could there be any clearer testimony to the deity of Christ?

In one place at least Paul applies to Jesus the Greek word which is translated by the English word "God." I am referring to ROM 9:5, where Christ is spoken of as the one who is over all, God blessed for ever. Attempts have been made to avoid holding that the word "God" in this passage refers to Christ, but it is more than doubtful whether any of those attempts can be regarded as successful. According to the plain construction of the words, the construction which in any other case would be regarded by every reader as a matter of course, Paul here calls Jesus "God."

It is true that ordinarily he does not use that word in speaking of Christ. He does not ordinarily apply to Christ the word which is translated "God" in our English Bibles. But what of it? He does apply to Christ constantly another word which can clearly be shown to be a word designating deity—namely, the word "Lord." That word had, indeed, its uses in ordinary life; it designated a master of slaves and the like. But it had also a widespread religious use, and—what is vastly more important—it is the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which was the form of the Bible that Paul ordinarily employed) to translate the word "Jehovah," the holiest name of the covenant God of Israel; and Paul does not hesitate to apply to Jesus Old Testament passages that speak of Jehovah.

In view of this lofty significance of the word "Lord" Dr. B. B. Warfield is surely justified when he suggests that the title "the Lord" may almost be designated as Paul’s "Trinitarian name" of Jesus Christ [Warfield, The Lord of Glory, 1907, p. 231.]. Paul teaches the doctrine of the Trinity—only, as Dr. Warfield points out, he uses a somewhat different terminology from that to which we have become accustomed. Instead of speaking of "God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit"; He speaks of "God," "the Lord" and "the Spirit"; but he teaches exactly the same doctrine as that which is taught when men use that other terminology. And His doctrine of the Trinity includes, of course, the doctrine of the deity of Christ.

The doctrine of the deity of Christ is all pervasive in the Epistles of Paul. It is by no means an isolated thing. You do not have to search for it to find it. On the contrary, you cannot get away from it. Open the Epistles where you will and you will find the deity of Christ.

Take, for example, the way in which Paul speaks of Christ in the openings of almost all of his Epistles. "Grace to you and peace," he says, "from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" [See the article by B. B. Warfield, "God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," in Princeton Theological Review, xv, 1917, pp. 1-20, reprinted in Biblical Doctrines, 1929, pp. 215-231. Also in THE WORKS OF BENJAMIN B. WARFIELD, II BIBLICAL DOCTRINES, 1981 (1929), pp. 213-231. (10 Vol. set)]. Those words often make little impression on our minds. We trip along very lightly over them. But why is it that they make no impression on our minds; why is it that we trip along so lightly over them? Simply for the reason that we have become accustomed to them. They do not stand out in any way in the Epistles of Paul because they are so completely in accord with all that Paul says elsewhere about Christ. But in themselves they are really most extraordinary words. Imagine it being said about any other man who ever lived—the greatest of reformers or the holiest of saints—"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Martin Luther, or the Apostle Paul himself or John the Beloved Disciple"—and I think you will see at once how blasphemous such a form of words would be. Why is it not blasphemous, then, when Paul says "Grace be with you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ"? For one reason and one reason only, my friends. Because Jesus Christ is God. Being God, and for that reason only, He can be linked in this stupendous fashion with God the Father and can be separated from the whole universe of created things.

The reason why we think nothing of those stupendous words as we come to them at the beginnings of the Epistles is that they are in exact accord with everything that Paul says about Jesus. The reason why they do not stand out like mountain peaks in the Epistles is not that they are not high but that everything else that Paul says about Christ is equally high.

Then I want you to understand something else about the way in which Paul teaches the deity of Christ. It is this—that Paul’s teaching about the deity of Christ is not found merely in this passage or that. It is not found merely in any number of passages where Paul ascribes divine honor and glory to Christ—no matter how numerous you may find those passages to be. No, Paul teaches the deity of Christ by the inmost heart and core of his own religious life.

What was the religion of Paul really like? We ought to be able to get the answer to that question, because Paul had a remarkable gift of self revelation. Someone, I believe, has said that he is the best known man of antiquity. He has bared his heart to us in his Epistles. He appears there not as a cold academic teacher but as a man of flesh and blood, and he has let us know what were the inmost springs of his life.

Evidently those springs of his life were in his religion. There never was a more intensely religious man.

What then was that religion of Paul—that religion of Paul that is so wonderfully presented to us in those revealing documents, the Epistles?

Did that religion of Paul consist in having faith in God like the faith which Jesus had in God? Was Jesus for Paul just an example for faith—just a pioneer in the religious life, just one who attained sonship with God and inspired others to attain it?

Well, some people have tried to look at the thing in that way. But they have done so only by closing their eyes to what actually stands in the documents from which our information is to be derived. If you simply close your eyes and construct out of your own inner consciousness what you think Paul ought to have said, then of course you can make Paul out to be an adherent of what men call "the religion of Jesus"; you can make him out to be a man whose religion consisted primarily in an imitation of the religious experience through which Jesus Himself had passed; you can make him out to be a man whose religion consisted in an effort to have the same kind of faith in God as that faith which Jesus had in God.

But the moment you allow yourself to be hampered in the flight of your imagination by some knowledge of the facts, the moment you seek to view Paul not as you think he ought to have been but as he was, you will observe that his religion did not consist merely in the effort to have the same kind of faith in God as the faith which Jesus had, but that it consisted in having faith in Jesus. Jesus, according to Paul, was no mere example for faith, but was the object of faith. He was the object, for Paul, of a faith that was truly religious. What does that mean? It means plainly one thing. It means that Paul stood toward Jesus not just in the relation in which a disciple stands toward his teacher, but in the relation in which a man stands toward his God. The deity of Christ is the foundation of Paul’s life.

In the light of this fact, we are not surprised to read what Paul says about Christ in detail. Jesus Christ, according to Paul, existed from all eternity. He was the One through whom the universe was made. He came into this world as a man not as other men come but by a voluntary act—an act of wonderful condescension and love. His death was not just a noble martyrdom but an act of cosmic significance. It meant the redemption, from the wrath and curse of God, of a great multitude of men of all nations. After His death He rose from the dead and is now exalted far above all principalities and powers. He belongs with God the Father in a category entirely distinct from that of all created things.

Have you ever stopped just to think how extraordinary that Pauline doctrine of the deity of Christ would seem to you to be if you came to it for the first time? Here was Jesus, a man who had lived only a few years before and had died a shameful death. Here was Paul, a contemporary of Jesus, an associate of Jesus’ intimate friends, yet attributing to Jesus the highest divine attributes, and standing to Him always in the relation in which a man stands to God.

Have you ever heard of anything like that anywhere else in the history of the human race? Perhaps you might be tempted to say, Yes. Perhaps you might be tempted to say that this was not the first time or the only time in the history of the world when one man has attributed deity to another. There was the deification of the Roman emperors, for example, and the deification of oriental monarchs.

But do you not see the stupendous difference, my friends? Those who deified the Roman emperors were polytheists; they believed in many gods. There was nothing extraordinary, therefore, in their believing that one more god was to be added to the great host of gods with which Earth and Heaven were already peopled. Paul, on the other hand, was a monotheist. He believed that there was one God and one God only, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. He was a Jew, and the Jews were nothing if not monotheists. Both before and after his conversion the belief in one God was the very breath of his life. With all his soul he hated the very thought that any other could be called God save that One.

Yet it was such a monotheist sprung of a race of monotheists who paid to one of his contemporaries, Jesus, honors that belong only to God, who reposed in Him a truly religious faith, who applied to Him Old Testament passages that spoke of Jehovah the covenant God of Israel, the one living and true God, the God who in the beginning created the Heavens and the Earth.

No, there is nothing like that in the whole history of mankind, nothing like that ascription of deity to the man Christ Jesus by the Apostle Paul. It is no wonder that H. J. Holtzmann, ablest representative, perhaps, of the unbelief of the nineteenth and beginning of he twentieth century, admitted that for the deification of the man Jesus as it appears in the Epistles of Paul he was able to cite no parallel in the religious history of the race [H. J. Holtzmann, in Protestantische Monatshefte, iv, 1900, pp. 465 f., and in Christliche Welt, xxiv, 1910, column 153.].

I tell you, my friends, it is only ignorance that can trip along lightly over this amazing phenomenon. Real scholars are at least immensely intrigued by it.

But so far I have not mentioned what is the most surprising thing of all about it. The truly amazing thing is not merely that Paul believed in the deity of Christ, but that he does not argue about it; the truly amazing thing is that he seems to treat it as a matter of course. About other things there was bitter debate. There was debate, for example, about the place of the Law in the attainment of salvation. About that opponents of Paul appealed to Peter and the original apostles of Jesus against Paul. Even about that, indeed, their appeal was a false appeal. The original apostles were really with Paul and against those Judaizers. But about the deity of Christ the Judaizers evidently did not make any appeal at all. Paul just assumes that everyone in the Church, including his opponents, will agree with his stupendous view of Jesus Christ. Still more clearly does he assume that the original friends of Jesus will agree with it. That is the truly extraordinary thing. The intimate friends of Jesus—think of it—those who had walked and talked with Him when He was on Earth, those who had seen Him subject to all the petty limitations of human life—these intimate friends of Jesus stood, so far as we can see from the Epistles of Paul, in the most complete agreement in their view of Jesus with one who regarded Jesus as very God.

Who was this Jesus who was exalted to the throne of God not by later generations but by His own intimate friends? The Gospels give the only believable answer to that question. Their picture of Jesus is independent of Paul; it is certainly not just spun out of what the Pauline Epistles say about Christ. Yet it presents just the Christ whom the Epistles presuppose.

Deny the truthfulness of the Gospel picture of Jesus, and you can never explain the origin of the religion of Paul. Take the picture as it stands, and all is clear. The two great testimonies to Christ—the Gospels and Paul—lead to the same end. And at that end of the testimony we find the Savior of our souls.

Next Chapter

Return To Main Index

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