The Christian Religion and Facts (Machen)

 The Christian faith is not based on feelings and emotions, but facts and truth.  The Christian religion is historical in that its main doctrines and teachings are part of history.  The Christian faith is a historical faith.  Scripture is a what we call a record of redemptive history, things that God did in history to save his people.  Of course, the centerpiece of redemptive history is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son.  The overwhelming witness of the Scriptures is that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners and three days later rose from the grave.  J. Gresham Machen commented well on this fact:

…If the Christian religion is founded upon historical facts, then there is something in the Christian message which can never possibly change.  There is one good thing about facts – they stay put.  If a thing really happened, the passage of years can never possibly make it into a thing that did not happen.  If the body of Jesus really emerged from the tomb on the first Easter morning, then no possible advance of science can change that fact one whit.  The advance of science may conceivably show that the alleged fact was never a fact at all; it may conceivably show that the earliest Christians were wrong when they said that Christ rose from the dead the third day.  But to say that the statement of fact was true in the first century, but because of the advance of science it is no longer true – that is to say what is plainly absurd.  The Christian religion is founded squarely upon a message that sets forth facts.  If that message is false, then the religion that is founded on it must of course be abandoned; but if it is true, then the Christian church must still deliver the message faithfully as it did on the morning of the first Easter Day.

J. G. Machen, Selected Shorter Writings, p. 95.

Shane Lems
Covent Presbyterian Chruch (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015



Abandon Facts but Keep Feelings? (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen Liberalism is not new.  The liberal seminary magazines I get in the mail are printed in full color and talk about smartphones, laptops, and podcasts, but the liberalism in them pre-dates today’s technology.  The magazine I got in the mail last week doesn’t mention the cross, sin or the resurrection, and it barely mentions Jesus or the Bible.  But it does talk about social justice, “Christian” art, interfaith dialogues, and debt.  This kind of liberalism has been around quite some time.

J. Gresham Machen and others had to deal with liberalism a century ago.  Back then the liberals didn’t mind letting go of facts as long as they could keep their religious feelings.  In other words, it didn’t matter to them if Jesus actually came back to life.  What was important was that they could feel him living on in their hearts.  Machen addressed this false Christianity quite well:

“It seems to be such a promising solution of our apologetic difficulties just to say that science and religion belong in two entirely different spheres and can never by any chance come into conflict.  It seems to be so easy for religion to purchase peace by abandoning to science the whole sphere of facts in order to retain for itself merely a sphere of feelings and ideals.”

“But in reality these tactics are quite disastrous.  You effect thus a strategic retreat; you retreat into …an inner line of defense whence you think that science can never dislodge you.  You get down into your pragamtist dugout and listen comfortably to the muffled sound of the warfare being carried on above by those who are old-fashioned enough to be interested in truth; you think that whatever creedal changes, whatever intellectual battle there may be, you at least are safe.  You have your Christian experience, and let science and biblical criticism do what they will!”

“But do not comfort yourself.  The enemy in this warfare is good at mopping up captured trenches; he has in his mechanistic psychologists a very efficient mopping up squad.  He will soon drive you out of your refuge; he will destroy whatever decency and liberty you thought you had retained; and you will discover, too late, that the battle is now lost, and that your only real hope lay not into retreating into some anti-intellectualistic dugout but in fighting bravely to prevent the initial capture of the trench.”

“No, the battle between naturalism and supernaturalism, between mechanism and liberty, has to be fought sooner or later; and I do not believe that there is any advantage in letting the enemy choose the ground upon which it shall be fought.  The strongest defense of the Christian religion is the outer defense; a reduced and inconsistent Christianity is weak; our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word.”

Exactly.  Abandoning the facts of the faith (like the flood, the exodus, the wilderness wanderings, the monarchy, the miracles of Christ, his death and resurrection, etc.) may seem like a peaceful move, but it only exposes one to the head-on assaults of Satan.  Machen is right: “Our real safety lies in the exultant supernaturalism of God’s Word,” which gives the historical, factual accounts of God’s supernatural intervention to redeem his people from sin through Christ’s cross.  Under that banner, the Christian can bravely fight the battle!

The above quote is found on page 362 of Machen’s Shorter Writings.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


A Historical Exodus: Essential For Christian Theology

Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture The historical nature of the Exodus is of utmost importance in Scripture and for the Christian faith.  Modern critics have questioned, doubted, and denied the historical nature of the Exodus for more than a few years, and in light of this, it is important for Christians to understand and uphold the Bible’s teaching that the Exodus was an historical event.

James Hoffmeier defends this claim in his excellent essay, “Why A Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology.”  Hoffmeier’s main point is this:

“The exodus and wilderness narratives are central to OTT (Old Testament Theology), and that without them, the tapestry of Israel’s faith and the foundational fabric of Christianity unravels.”  …These events stand at the heart of Israel’s religious life, as evidenced by the fact that these themes are ubiquitous throughout the Old Testament itself. (p. 106, 111).

Hoffmeier goes on to give some detail on the various ways and times the Exodus theme shows up in the OT.  Here’s a brief summary:

1) God’s self-disclosure often refers to the Exodus (Ex. 20:2, Lev 19:36, 25:34, Num. 15:41, Deut 5:6, Ps 81:10, Hos. 12:9, etc.).  Many times in the OT God reveals himself as Yahweh who brought his people out of Egypt and made a covenant with them.

2) The historical prologue of the Sinaitic covenant refers to the Exodus (Ex. 20:1-2; cf. Josh. 24:4ff).  ANE covenants of this sort often gave a historical background to the terms of the covenant; so did Israel’s covenant.

3) Legal matters of Israel had to do with the Exodus.  Many ethical laws in Israel had their background in the Exodus.  For example, Israel was to free their slaves after a certain time because God freed them from their slavery (Lev 25:46ff, Deut. 15:15, etc).  Israel was not to mistreat foreigners because they were foreigners before the Exodus (Ex. 22:21, Lev. 19:34, etc.).

4) Many of Israel’s religious festivals, observances, and rites had roots in the Exodus.  Religious rituals are reenactments or repetitions of sacred moments or events, behind which stands an archetype.  In Israel, they celebrated the Passover and feast of unleavened bread, not to mention the feast of booths, observance of the Sabbath, and consecration of the firstborn.  All of these laws were based on the pattern of the Exodus.

5) Some of Israel’s hymns recounted God’s power in the Exodus.  The Song of Moses and of Miriam celebrate the event (Ex. 15).  Deborah’s hymn refers to the Exodus (Judg. 5:4-5).  See also Ps. 78, 105, and 106 (etc.).

6) The prophets refer to the Exodus and Sinaitic covenant.  Over and over the prophets, prosecuting the covenant, remind Israel that Yahweh brought them out of slavery (Hos. 11:1, 13:5, Amos 9:7, Micah 6:4-5, etc.).

7) Non-Israelites mention the Exodus.  Jethro and Balaam are two examples (Ex. 18, Num. 22-23).  Rahab of Jericho had heard about the Exodus, which made her believe in God (Josh. 2:9-10).  The Philistines also had heard of it (1 Sam. 4:6-8).

8) Israel’s calendar was based on the Exodus.  The Exodus from Egypt, because it was a founding national event, served as a chronological benchmark or anchoring point in subsequent periods (Ex. 12:1-2, 19:1, Num. 9:1-2, etc.).

9) The Exodus is referred to in retrospect quite often.  Moses looked back and reminded the people of the Exodus (Num. 20:14-17), the theme is found in Judges (Judg. 6:13, 11:13-16), and Saul recounts it (1 Sam. 12:6-8).

Again, those points are very short summaries of Hoffmeier’s essay that shows how the Exodus theme runs through the fabric of the Old Testament and its theology.  (Note: Hoffmeier also mentions the Exodus theme in the NT, but I don’t have the space to summarize it here.)  Hoffmeier does a nice job of proving this point: the Exodus as an historical event is essential for Old Testament theology and is also an essential part of Christian Scripture (and faith!).

Hoffmeier’s article can be found in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), chapter 4.

shane lems

Historicity, Revelation, and Redemption (Vos)

Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos As many of our readers know, the historicity of Adam and Eve has been discussed in Christian circles these past few years and before.  In light of these discussions, I very much appreciate how Geerhardus Vos linked Christ’s birth and resurrection to this earlier events recorded in Scripture (emphasis mine):

“Granted that our salvation stands or falls with the actual occurrence of the supernatural birth of Christ and his resurrection, can we affirm the same with reference to, say, the historical character of Noah and Abraham and all that is related of their lives?”

“To this we would answer as follows: if we can show that revealed religion is inseparably linked to a system of supernatural historical facts at its culminating epoch in Christ – as we think can be done – then this creates the strongest conceivable presumption that the same will hold true of every earlier stage of the process of its development.

“It is certainly reasonable to assume that God will have adjusted the course of things that led up to Christ, to the fundamental character of the work of Christ – in the sense that he will have scattered over it great miraculous interpositions, to shadow forth the true nature of redemption, and, more than this, that he will have hung it not on the slender thread of legend and fiction, but on the solid chain of actual history.”

“We confess that it would impose a severe strain not merely on our intellectual belief in supernaturalism, but also on our practical faith, were we compelled to admit that back of the time of the prophets or of Moses there lies a great prehistoric blank, in which for aught we know God remained a hidden God.”

Redemption and revelation, in order to be intelligible and credible, require a degree of continuity.  A system of supernatural interpositions which suddenly emerges from the midst of an immemorial evolutionary past satisfies neither our intellect nor our heart.”

“And therefore we say, it is not a matter of small consequence whether or not we are permitted to continue to believe in the historical character of the account of the exodus or the patriarchal narrative.  To make light of such questions is but a symptom of the spiritual levity [fickleness] of our age.”

Supernatural history is an organism, not a mechanical aggregate of pieces, and it behooves us to treat it with the respect that is due to the organism of a divine economy of grace.  In every one of its parts, even those that might seem to us to have but the remotest connection with the center in Christ, it is worthy of our defense and protection.”

I appreciate Vos’ words because he approaches the subject not from a fundamentalist point of view, but from a redemptive historical point of view – a Reformed point of view.  In other words, we can argue for the historicity of Adam and Eve as we start with Christ and trace him back through the Old Testament in light of the covenants (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2-5).

The Vos quotes above are found in his article/address called “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History” from Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ch. 26.

rev shane lems

The Significance of the Chronicler’s Genealogies

  While reading through the Solomon accounts in Chronicles, I’m using The IVP Biblical Background Commentary.  Though it is a brief commentary, I’ve really appreciated it.  Recently I ran across a helpful paragraph entitled, “The Significance of Genealogies to [a] Postexilic Audience.”  In other words, what would the Chronicler’s genealogies mean to the 5th and 6th century exiles?

“Though most of the material of Chronicles covers the history of the preexilic period, it is written for those who returned from the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries and reestablished themselves in the land.  Genealogies to them represented the charter of their identity.  Their covenant with the Lord had established them as an elect people of God living in the land promised by him.  Their family lineage was their certificate of membership.  It was their heritage and their legacy.”

“Often in the ancient world genealogies served sociological rather than historical functions.  Instead of offering a strictly sequential report of the order of generations, they were designed to use continuity with the past as an explanation of the current structure and condition of society.  Israel carried along with this an additional theological emphasis and significance that was inherent in their genealogical reports.  Continuity with the past would give meaning to their current theological situation.”

“Individuals in the ancient world found their identity not in their individualism, but in their solidarity with the group.  This included not only those that made up their contemporary kinship group but extended throughout the generations.  The genealogies were their way of fitting themselves into this pangenerational solidarity.  Every generation is not necessarily represented.  One might compare the selective list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.  Americans today take pride in being able to trace their ancestry back to those who crossed on the Mayflower or those who signed the Declaration of Independence.  The difference is that in Israel these connections gave rights and privileges rather than being simply status symbols” (p. 413).

These paragraphs are helpful to remember as we consider the long list of names in 1 Chronicles – and other genealogies in the Bible.  I especially appreciate the emphasis on covenant, solidarity, history, and sociology – not to mention the fact that genealogies weren’t meant to be exhaustive.  There is more to say about genealogies, but this is a good start.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The Old Testament Ed. Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2000).

The (Futile?) Search for Christian America

Here’s a book that deserves to be brought back into our discussions and onto our reading lists: The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden.  It was first published in 1983 and then expanded in 1989.  But the message is completely relevant for Christians today.

Here are some questions the book tackles: How “Christian” is America’s religious past?  Is the “Christian Nation” concept harmful or helpful to effective Christian action in society?  Was/is America God’s treasured nation among all nations?  Should we try to “go back” to “Christian America?”  What relationship does idolatry have with patriotism, if any?   How is the First Great Awakening related to the American Revolution?

If those questions didn’t grab your attention, here’s the two-fold argument of the book (in the authors’ own terms):

“1) We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.  There is no lost golden age to which American Christians can return.  In addition, a careful study of history will also show that evangelicals themselves were often partly to blame for the spread of secularism in contemporary American life.”

“2) We feel also that careful examination of Christian teaching on government, the state, and the nature of culture shows that the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ is a very ambiguous concept which is usually harmful to effective Christian action in society” (p. 17).

I’ll come back to this book later.  For now, let me simply say that I highly recommend it.  Though it flies in the face of many American evangelical beliefs, I believe it is a must-read for Christians living the U.S.  The Search for Christian America will help the today’s church remain distinct from the world and able to engage culture in a wise, biblical, and prophetic way.

FYI, at the time of this post there are quite a few used copies on Amazon for less than $10 shipped.  It’s certainly worth that!  And my thanks go out to one of our readers for mentioning this book last week.  I trust he’ll back up my recommendation!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Butchering History?

 I’m sure some of our readers know what an exegetical fallacy is – word study fallacies, grammatical fallacies, etc.  It is also important for us to realize that we can make errors when interpreting history or historical texts.  We’ve all made some historical fallacies at one time or another.  For example, if we read only a few chapters from a book by Luther and then go around saying “Luther taught X” as if we were an expert – that’s a historical fallacy.  Another example might be Eric Metaxes’ biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer, where he paints Bonhoeffer as an evangelical when he clearly was not.  One more example of a historical fallacy, speaking of Bonhoeffer, is someone like Glenn Beck using Bonhoeffer as an example of a good patriot we Americans should emulate.  Since we’re prone to these kinds of historical fallacies, Carl Trueman’s book, Histories and Fallacies is a great help to avoiding these mistakes.

One excellent emphasis of this book is Trueman’s discussion of neutrality and objectivity when it comes to interpreting history and writing it. Today, some people say that all interpretation of history is bunk because it was written from a certain point of view.  In one of his discussions on this topic, Trueman notes, “While there is no such thing as neutrality in the telling of history, there is such a thing as objectivity” (p. 21).  Great note – and when I got to this point early in the book, it was hard for me to set it down.

In the rest of the book, Trueman spent some time illustrating how the Holocaust denying historians commit historical fallacies.  Trueman also discusses Pliny’s 1st century letter and what it has to do with interpreting the NT.  Throughout the course of the rest of the book, he also deals with historians who say Luther was a racist and those who say that Turretin is not in the same theological trajectory as Calvin.

The last part of the book is where Trueman explains specific historical fallacies: reification (making an abstract thing a concrete thing), oversimplification, post hoc propter hoc (after this, because of this), the word-concept error (confusing a word with a concept and vice-versa), the genetic fallacy (allowing origins to determine meaning), generalization, question asking (rightly or wrongly), and category confusions.  This part of the book reminded me of Don Carson’s book on exegetical fallacies, since Trueman basically listed several historical fallacies and explained them clearly.

Trueman explains that the main reason he wrote Histories and Fallacies is “simply to make historians more self-conscious about their role in the writing of history…it is important that we spend some time reflecting on the potential hazards and pitfalls that are involved when it comes to explanatory schemes” (p. 70).

So who should get this book?  First, I recommend it to pastors.  Good pastors deal with history every week; this book will help them avoid making dumb historical errors in the pulpit (i.e. the above note of Luther being a racist or saying the Reformed tradition is not evangelistic).  Second, I recommend it to seminary students and anyone whose studies include writing historical papers.  Third, I recommend it to any layperson who often reads and interprets history (from political history to church history).  I’m glad I read it – I’m certainly guilty of committing some of these fallacies, but now that I know them I will for sure do my best to avoid them.  In a day where everything is dumbed down and hyped up, this book will help the Christian historian maintain a level head and accurate scholarship.

shane lems