J. Gresham Machen Bibliography

Guide to the works of J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937). Scholar. Preacher. Founder of Westminster Theological Seminary. Leader in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

▷ The Supernatural Christ

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I have been talking to you about the deity of Christ, and have shown you that Jesus’ testimony to His own deity is not found merely in the Gospel according to John. It is found in all four Gospels and it pervades all parts of the Gospels. Even in the so-called ethical parts of the Gospels like the Sermon on the Mount the stupendous claim of Jesus is really presupposed.

We must now, however, notice something else. We must notice that this claim of Jesus is everywhere supported by His power to work miracles. That is the way in which the Gospels represent the miracles. They represent them as attestations to show that Jesus spoke the truth when He came forward with His stupendous claim.

This Biblical estimate of the miracles has often been reversed in the minds of modern men. The miracles, men tell us, even if they really happened, are at best an obstacle to faith rather than an aid to faith. People used to believe, they tell us, because of the miracles; they now believe, if they believe at all, in spite of the miracles.

A curious confusion underlies this way of thinking. In one sense, of course it is true that the miracles are an obstacle to faith. Unquestionably a narrative that has no miracles in it is easier to believe than a narrative that contains miracles. Of course that is so. Who ever denied it? A perfectly trivial narrative is easier to believe than one that contains an account of extraordinary happenings. So if I should tell you that when I walked down the street today I saw a Ford car, my narrative would have at least one advantage over the narratives in the New Testament—it would certainly be far easier to believe. But then it would also have one disadvantage. It would be far easier to believe, but then, you see, it would not be worth believing.

So if the Gospels contained no miracles they would in one sense be easier to believe than they are now. But, do you nor see, the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from the thing that is believed now when we take the Gospels as they stand. If the Jesus of the Gospels were a purely natural and not a supernatural person, then we should have no difficulty in believing that such a person lived in the first century of our era. Even skeptics would have no difficulty in believing it. Defenders of the faith would have an easy victory indeed. Everybody would believe. But then there would be one drawback. It would be this—that the thing that everybody would believe would not be worth believing.

A purely natural, as distinguished from a supernatural, Christ would be just a teacher and example. There have been many teachers and examples in the history of mankind. It would place no particular demands upon our faith if we were told that this teacher and example was a little better than any of the others. But then, you see, we are not looking for a teacher and example. We are looking for a Saviour. And a purely human, a merely natural, as distinguished from a super-natural, Christ can never be our Saviour. He would merely be one of us. He would need a Saviour for himself before he could save others; he just as much as we would need a supernatural Saviour.

We have such a Saviour presented to us in the Gospels, a Saviour who is not merely man but God. The really difficult thing to believe is that such a Saviour really entered into this world. It is a very blessed thing, but it is certainly not a trivial thing. It is not one of those trivial things that are so easy to believe because they occur every day. It is certainly not a thing that can be believed without a mighty revolution in all a man’s thinking and all a man’s life.

If now you ask whether it would be easier to believe that thing without the individual miracles narrated in the Gospels than it is to believe it with those individual miracles, we answer emphatically, No. It would be easier to believe the story of a mere religious teacher without the miracles. Certainly. That goes without saying. But not to believe the story of the life upon earth of the incarnate Son of God. The whole appearance of such a divine Person upon earth is itself a stupendous miracle. The individual miracles, with their individual attestation, do make it easier to believe that great central miracle. They are proofs of it. They are exactly what the Bible represents them as being—true testimonies to the truth of that stupendous claim of Jesus to be very God.

If you examine carefully the views of those who reject the individual miracles, you will discover that they do not really hold on to the great central and all-pervading miracle. They may seem to do so. They use the old terminology. They love to speak of “incarnation”; they love to speak of God as having become man. But when you come to look at them closely, you discover that this use of traditional terminology on their part only serves to mask from them themselves and from others a profound difference of thought. They mean by “incarnation” just about the opposite of what the Bible means by it. They do not really mean by it that the eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, became man this once, and this once only, “and so was, and continueth to be God, and man, in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever. No, they mean something entirely different. They are very far indeed from believing on Christ for salvation as He is offered to us in the gospel.

The truth is that the Bible picture of Jesus possesses a wonderful unity. Without the miracles as the Gospels narrate them the unity would be sadly destroyed. Every one of the miracles, with its historical attestation, adds its quota of evidence to our great central conviction that this Jesus is indeed the Son of God.

It is interesting to observe the way in which the miracles of the life of Christ have been treated in the history of modern unbelief. The cardinal principle of unbelief is that miracles have never happened. What, then, shall be done with the accounts of miracles that are found in the Gospels?

The first impulse of a skeptic might be to say that since the Gospel picture of Jesus contains miracles, and since miracles never happened, therefore the whole picture is untrue. But that of course will not do at all. It is perfectly clear that we have in the Gospels an account of a real person who really lived in Palestine in the first century of our era. The picture is entirely too lifelike ever to have been the product of invention. That is admitted by all except a few extremists. Very well, then. If the picture is the picture of a real person, what shall be done with the miracles that it contains? Those miracles, according to the initial assumption of our skeptical investigator, never happened; yet they are narrated in an account of a real historical person. What shall be done about it?

The obvious answer of unbelievers is that the miracles must be rejected in order to leave the rest. In this way, it is supposed, we shall be able to sift the material in the Gospels in order to arrive at the modicum of truth that they contain. When, it is said, we have removed from the Gospel picture of Jesus these gaudy colors of the supernatural we shall have Jesus as He actually was.

Well, it sounds easy. Surely it must have been accomplished long before now—the removal of the miracles from the picture of Jesus in the Gospels. Many of the most brilliant of modern men have been engaged in it during the past hundred years. Surely their effort must have been successful.

That is certainly what one might expect. But in this case expectations are not borne our by the fact. The plain fact is that this “quest of the historical Jesus,” as it has been called—this effort to take the miracles out of the Gospels—has proved to be a colossal failure. It is being increasingly recognized as being a failure even by the skeptical historians themselves. The supernatural is found to be far more deeply rooted in the Gospel account of Jesus than was formerly supposed.

At first, it seemed to be quite easy to get the miracles out of the Gospels. All we shall have to do, said the skeptical historians, is just to take the miracles out and leave all the rest. Even the miracle-incidents themselves, they said, can be accepted as historical; only, we must observe that they were not really miraculous. So Luke tells us in the first chapter that Zacharias the father of John the Baptist went into the Temple at the hour of incense and received an announcement about the birth of a soil. Is that incident historical? Did Zacharias really go into the Temple that day? Certainly, said the men of this way of thinking, the incident is historical; certainly Zacharias went into the Temple. Of course he was slightly mistaken about what he saw! He thought he saw an angel when what he really saw was just the smoke rising from the altar in that dim religious light. But such mistakes do not cast any general discredit upon the narratives in which they stand.

So also all four of the Gospels say that Jesus one day fed five thousand men. Is that incident historical? Did Jesus really feed those five thousand men? Certainly the narrative is historical, said the men of the way of thinking with which we are now dealing; certainly Jesus fed those five thousand men. What He did was just to take those five loaves and two fishes and set a good example by distributing them to the people immediately around Him. That led the other fortunate people among the crowd to do likewise. His good example was contagious. People who were fortunate enough to have any food distributed it to those around them and so everybody was fed. Thus the incident is perfectly historical, but it was not really miraculous. The whole trouble has come from the fact that readers of the Gospels have insisted on putting a supernaturalistic interpretation upon an incident that was really quite natural.

It is all perfectly easy and simple, is it not? How nicely the task has been accomplished—miracles as neatly extracted as an appendix is extracted in a modern hospital, everything else allowed to remain “as was,” the general trustworthiness of the Gospels rescued, Jesus made to keep within the bounds of nature’s laws! What was all the bother about? It is all so perfectly simple!

Such was the so-called “rationalizing” method of dealing with the miracle narratives, as practised by Paulus and others one hundred years ago. It had considerable vogue in its day. But its vogue was of short duration. God raised up a besom of destruction for it in the person of a disconcerting young man named David Friedrich Strauss.

Strauss published his “Life of Jesus” in 1835. It was unquestionably one of the most influential books of modern times—a very important book to have been written by a young man of twenty-seven years of age.

I said that Strauss’s book was influential. I did not say that its influence was good, and as a matter of fact it was not good but very bad. Strauss did not write in the interests of the truth of the Gospels; he did not write from the point of view of a real Christian believer. On the contrary he wrote from the point of view of an extreme unbelief. His book remains to the present day perhaps the fullest compendium of what can be said against the truthfulness of the Gospel narratives.

Yet such a book had at least the use, in the providence of God, of demolishing the rationalizing method of dealing with the miracle-narratives in the Gospels. In those narratives, Strauss said, the miracles are the main thing; they are the thing for which all the rest exists. How absurd, then, to say that the narratives have grown up out of utterly trivial events upon which a supernaturalistic interpretation was wrongly put! No, said Strauss, we must give up all attempts at finding a modicum of historical truth in these narratives; they are simply myths—that is, they are popular expressions, in narrative form, of certain religious ideas; they are merely the way in which popular fancy expressed the great debt which the early Christian Church owed to Jesus.

At first, Strauss’s book caused great consternation. He had not, indeed, denied the historical existence of Jesus, and of course he really held that much that is narrated about Jesus in the Gospels is true. But so radical was his criticism, and so completely did he fail to put together into any continuous positive account of Jesus what was left after his criticism had done its work, that it was quite natural for people to feel that Strauss had almost removed Jesus of Nazareth from the pages of history.

Then, however, an attempt was made to repair the damage. I am not, referring to the defence of the Gospels by believing scholars, but I am referring to the attempt by men of Strauss’s own way of thinking—men, that is, who like Strauss denied the occurrence of miracles—to discover and make use of the modicum of truth that might be thought to remain in the Gospels after criticism had been given its rights.

Possibly, it was supposed, that modicum of truth might be discovered by what is called “source-criticism.” The Gospels, it was admitted, contain much that is untrue, but if we could discover the earlier sources used by the writers of the Gospels we might get much nearer to the facts. Well, an imposing attempt was made in that direction. The Gospel according to John was rejected as almost altogether unhistorical, and then the two chief sources of Matthew and Luke were held to be (1) Mark and (2) a lost source composed chiefly of sayings of Jesus as distinguished from accounts of His deeds. That was the famous “two-document theory” as to the sources of the Gospels.

On the basis of that theory a supposedly historical account of a purely human Jesus was constructed. People became quite enthusiastic about it. The troublesome miracles, it was supposed, were all removed; the theological Christ of the creeds was done away. But, it was said, something better had been rediscovered—a really and purely human Jesus, a Jesus who was one of us, a Jesus who started where we started and won through to sonship with God, a Jesus who kept His own person out of His gospel and simply taught—by word and by life—the great liberating truths of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

Such was the so-called “Liberal Jesus.” It was an imposing reconstruction indeed. It was thought to offer great promise to the human race. The shackles of dogma, it was supposed, had been removed. A new Reformation would soon take place.

But alas for human hopes! Nothing has been seen of the new Reformation, and the imposing reconstruction of the Liberal Jesus has fallen to the ground. I think the first thirty-five years of the twentieth century might almost be called, in the sphere of New Testament criticism, the period of the decline and fall of “the Liberal Jesus.” That is a great outstanding fact. I think that it is a fact that is going to loom up very large to future historians when the history of the period in which we are living comes finally to be written.

The great trouble is that the miraculous in the Gospels is found to be much more pervasive than it was at first thought to be. It runs through the Gospels as we now have them. That is clear. But it also is found to run through the sources supposed rightly or wrongly to underlie the Gospels. All right, then; suppose we go even back of those earliest written sources and examine supposed detached bits of oral tradition out of which they are sometimes supposed to have been composed. Alas, we obtain no relief. Those supposed detached bits are found themselves to contain the objectionable miraculous element. There seems to be no escape from the supernatural Christ. At the very beginning of the Church—not at some later time but at the very beginning—Jesus was regarded not just as a religious teacher or just as a prophet but as a supernatural Deliverer.

That is the result at which ultra-modern criticism has arrived. It is a far cry from the cheerful, rationalizing days of Paulus one hundred years ago. It is a far cry from the time when men thought they could explain away this miracle-narrative and that, and have a perfectly good account left of a great religious teacher.

The outstanding result of a hundred years of effort to separate the natural from the supernatural in the early Christian view of Jesus is that the thing cannot be done. The two are inseparable. The very earliest early Christian account of Jesus is found to be supernaturalistic to the core.

Very well, what shall we do about it? The earliest view of Jesus that we know anything about represents Him as a supernatural person. It is found to exhibit a remarkable unanimity at this point. What shall we do with it? There are only two things to do with it. We can take it or we can leave it.

Modern skeptical historians are saying we must leave it. All our information about Jesus is supernaturalistic, they are saying; therefore all our information about Jesus is uncertain. We can never disentangle the real Jesus from the beliefs of His earliest followers. The only Christ we really know is the supernatural Christ of Jesus’ earliest followers. We can never rediscover the portrait of the real Jesus.

Are you afraid of skepticism like that? I am not afraid of it a bit. It is easily refuted by a mere reading of the Gospels. I beg you just to read the Gospels for yourselves, my friends, and then ask yourselves whether the Person there presented to you is not a living, breathing person. The extreme skepticism of the day will always be refuted by common sense.

That being so, the extreme skepticism of our day is very instructive. I get great comfort from it. Do you not see, my friends? That extreme skepticism of Bultmann and others is the inevitable result of trying to reject the miracles in the Gospels. That extreme skepticism is absurd. What is the conclusion? The conclusion is that the process which inevitably led to that extreme skepticism was wrong from the beginning. We never ought to have tried to reject the miracles in the Gospels at all.

I wonder when men are going to draw this conclusion. It does seem to lie so very near at hand. When will they cease to be blind to it? The Gospels present to us just one Christ—the supernatural Christ. They do so with overwhelmingly self-evidencing force. When shall we just accept their witness? When shall we just say that God did walk upon this earth? When shall we just come to that divine Christ and ask Him to be the Saviour of our souls?

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