How Machen Helps Me Sort Out Wacky Jesus Scholarship
In his exceedingly helpful and insightful book Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen writes, “the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies…spring from different roots.” (Machen, 266-267). Machen goes on to explain that the differences can be contained in a single word: “naturalistic” and “supernaturalistic.” From these divergent roots spring two completely separate systems of thought.
I cannot begin telling you how helpful Machen’s simple insight has been in my latter seminary days.
Recently, for example, I was writing a paper on The Gospel of Mark when I stumbled across an author (actually several) who believed that a (hypothetical) document called “Q” came first, then The Gospel of Mark, then the others and finally John. These authors claim that Jesus was originally just a simple carpenter with some pithy sayings but by the time a generation had passed, he became God incarnate in John. This theory falls apart on numerous levels – not least of which is that Mark begins his Gospel with the words “This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – but why even bother deconstructing it? Simply by looking at what these authors have said, I can see in an instant that they are writing and thinking from a naturalistic point of view. That is, they do not believe that God exists (atheism) or, if He exists, then He does not usually interfere with human life (deism) or, if He interferes, His workings cannot be known (agnosticism). From the vantage point of naturalism (that is, Liberalism) the one thing which could not have happened is for God to become incarnate, live, work miracles, die for the sins of humanity, rise again, and send the Holy Spirit from on high to inspire an accurate account of all these goings-on. By definition, miracles Do. Not. Happen. And it doesn’t get any more miraculous than God becoming incarnate, etc. In the tightly ordered universe of a naturalist/Liberal, the Gospels simply cannot fit. And so many scholars are busily at work trying to explain: “If it is not true that Jesus really came as the Son of God, etc., (because, of course, our presuppositions rule out such a possibility) then exactly how did the Bible come to be?” Most of the books and articles coming out of Liberal scholarship on the Gospels seems to have been written to answer just such a question.
Now, before I read Machen this stuff really troubled me. For example, when you read pages and pages of people who are saying, “well, this verse obviously belonged to this earlier manuscript, and that verse was added to combat this particular sect, and this passage was added to prop up the early church’s idea of God and that verse was added to censure the Jews” one certainly begins to wonder. What is it that these scholars (most of which have more degrees than I will have in a lifetime) know that I don’t?
Now that I have read Machen, however, I can simply smile and read on. Everyone has their perspective: it just happens that these poor unfortunate people have a very flawed perspective. They do not believe that miracles happen or that God can intervene in human affairs. Why these people are in Biblical studies is beyond me: but no matter. Such people tend to be rather diligent and attentive to details. So long as I understand where they are coming from, I can follow along in their works without any intellectual struggle, looking for the occasional pearl or insight, all the while knowing that the only reason they are going to so much work, and straining the evidence and their intellect to such herculean measures is because they have ruled out from the beginning the possibility of a miracle.
But this is no problem for me. I am a Christian. I believe in miracles. The whole tree of Liberalism withers from the roots up the moment you make that simple statement.