The Importance of Christian Scholarship (XV)
This excerpt from Machen’s Education, Christianity & the State reminds us that philosophical questions are important to Christians, and that philosophy is inherent in the Bible, from the account of the creation of the world forward.
What a world in itself the Bible is, my friends! Happy are those who in the providence of God can make the study of it very specifically the business of their lives; but happy also is every Christian who has it open before him and seeks by daily study to penetrate somewhat into the wonderful richness of what it contains.
A man does not need to read very long in the Bible before that richness begins to appear. It appears in the very first verse of the Bible; for the very first verse sets forth the being of God: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
We are told today, indeed, that that is metaphysics, and that it is a matter of indifference to the Christian man. To be a Christian, it is said, a man does not need at all to settle the question how the universe came into being.
The doctrine of “fiat creation,” we are told, belongs to philosophy, not to religion; and we can be worshippers of goodness even though goodness is not clothed with the vulgar trappings of power.
But to talk thus is to talk nonsense, for the simple reason that goodness divorced from power is a mere abstraction which can never call forth the devotion of a man’s heart. Goodness inheres only in persons; goodness implies the power to act. Make God good only and not powerful, and you have done away not only with God, but with goodness as well.
Very different from such a pale abstraction, which identifies God with one aspect of the universe, is the God whom the first verse of Genesis presents. That God is the living God; it is He by whom the worlds were made and by whom they are upheld.
No, my friends, it is altogether wrong to say that the Christian religion can do perfectly well with many different types of philosophy, and that metaphysical questions are a matter of indifference to the Christian man. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, everything else that the Bible contains is based upon the stupendous metaphysic that the first verse of Genesis contains. That was the metaphysic of our Lord Jesus Christ, and without it everything that He said and everything that He did would be vain. Underlying all His teaching and all His example is the stupendous recognition that God is the Maker and Ruler of the world; and the Bible from beginning to end depends upon that same “philosophy” of a personal God.
That philosophy ought to have been clear from an examination of the universe as it is; the Maker is revealed by the things that He has made. “The Heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handy-work.” “The invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” Natural religion has, therefore, the full sanction of the Bible; and at the foundation of every theological course should be philosophical apologetics, including the proof of the existence of a personal God, Creator and Ruler of the world.
I know there are those who tell us today that no such study is necessary; there are those who tell us that we should begin with Jesus, and that all we need to know is that God is like Jesus. They talk to us, in that sense, about the “Christlike God.” But do you not see that if you relinquish the thought of a personal God, Creator and Ruler of the world, you are dishonouring the teaching of Jesus from beginning to end? Jesus saw in the lilies of the field the weaving of God; and the man who wipes out of his consciousness the whole wonderful revelation of God in nature, and then says that all that he needs to know is that God is like Jesus, is dishonouring at the very root of His teaching and of His example that same Jesus whom he is purporting to honour and serve.
The existence of a personal God should have been clear to us from the world as it is, but that revelation of God in nature has been obscured by sin, and to recover it and confirm it we need the blessed supernatural revelation that the Scriptures contain. How graciously that revelation is given! When we rise from the reading of the Bible, if we have read with understanding and with faith, what a wonderful knowledge we have of the living God!
In His presence, indeed, we can never lose the sense of wonder. Infinitesimal are things that we know compared with the things that we do not know; a dreadful curtain veils the being of God from the eyes of man. Yet that curtain, in the infinite goodness of God, has been pulled gently aside, and we have been granted just a look beyond. Never can we cease to wonder in the presence of God; but enough knowledge has been granted to us that we may adore. (J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity & the State, pp. 38-40)
This post is the fifteenth of a series of excerpts from chapter 2 of J. Gresham Machen’s book Education, Christianity & the State, “The Importance of Christian Scholarship.” This chapter is a compilation of addresses given at the Bible League meetings in Westminster, London, on June 17, 1932. Page references are from the 1987 Trinity Foundation edition of this book.