God the Creator
J. Gresham Machen
Machen (1881-1937) was Professor of New Testament, first at Princeton Theological Seminary, and afterwards at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Excerpts from The Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936).
The Bible is doctrinal through and through. It gives not the slightest bit of comfort to the skeptical notion, so much in vogue today, that doctrine is merely the necessarily changing form in which Christian experience expresses itself. The Bible, unlike this skepticism, grounds life squarely on truth. Christianity, according to the Bible, is a life founded upon a doctrine.
That doctrine upon which the Bible grounds life is not one isolated doctrine, and it is not a mere series of doctrines, but it is a system of doctrine. If the Bible contained a number of divergent systems, it could not possibly be the Word of God, because it could not possibly be true throughout. The ordination pledge is quite right in speaking of the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.
I think great stress ought to be laid upon that fact. A great deal of harm is done when people take one part of the teaching of the Bible out of its connection with the rest, or when they leave gaps in their presentation of what the Bible teaches. It is very important to see that the Bible does far more than present isolated truths. It is not a system which man has devised, but a system which God has revealed – revealed graciously in His holy Word.
Where shall we begin in our study of that great system of revealed truth that the Bible contains? I think we ought to begin where the Bible begins. I think we ought to begin with a consideration of what the Bible teaches about God as the Creator and Ruler of the world.
There are many today who insist that we ought to begin at another place. There are many who tell us that we ought to begin with a consideration of the human life of Jesus. In fact these people often tell us that that is where we ought not only to begin but also to end. They are telling us that that is all we really need to know.
All that we need to know about God, they tell us, is that God is like Jesus. We do not need to know how the universe came into being, they tell us, or whether there is a God who governs it in its course. We are not interested, they say, in the question whether God is powerful, but are only interested in conceiving of Him as good.
Such is the view of those who use the phrase “the Christlike God.” That phrase, as it is commonly used, grates upon Christian ears. It grates upon the ears of those who believe not that God is like Jesus, but that Jesus Himself is God.
But what is wrong with that view? Aside from the terminology that is used to set it forth, what is wrong with the view itself? What is wrong with this notion that all that we know about God is that He possesses the moral excellencies that are found in the man Jesus?
Two things at least are wrong with it. In the first place, it is terribly degrading to Jesus. That may seem strange at first sight. It may seem strange that a view which holds that all we need to know about God is that God is like Jesus should be derogatory to Jesus, but a little reflection will show that it is derogatory to Jesus in the extreme.
It is derogatory to Jesus because it does despite to the deepest things in Jesus’ teaching and example. At the very heart of the life of Jesus was just that view of God which is being so contemptuously rejected by those who say that the moral life of the man Jesus tells us all that we need to know about God.
Jesus certainly believed that God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, and that belief belonged to the foundation of everything that He believed. Not a sparrow, He said to His disciples, shall “fall on the ground without your Father.” It is God, according to Jesus, who clothes the lilies of the field, and it is God who makes the sun to rise on just and unjust. There can be no doubt whatever but that Jesus held just that view of God which the persons of whom we have been speaking reject. He put at the very foundation of His teaching and His life that divinely revealed metaphysic which is found in the first verse of Genesis. Everything that He did, with everything that He said, was based upon the great truth: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” God, according to Jesus, is the Creator and the absolute Ruler of the universe, bringing all things to pass in accordance with the counsel of His will. You may not like that view of God, but if you are a historian who sees things as they are you will be obliged to recognize the fact that it was certainly the view held by Jesus of Nazareth.
Moreover, Jesus certainly held that men had a true knowledge of God before He appeared upon the earth. He held that they had that true knowledge of God from the Old Testament. Jesus regarded the Old Testament as the very Word of God and He put that conviction about the Old Testament at the very heart both of His teaching and of His life. How, then, if you reject that conviction, can you possibly think that you are doing honor to Jesus? If you hold that the revelation of God contained in the Old Testament is valueless and that all that we need to know about God is found in the moral character of the man Jesus of Nazareth, what will you do with the fact that the Jesus to whom you appeal put at the very basis of that moral character which you so much admire a view of the Old Testament and a view of God which you contemptuously reject?
Jesus did, indeed, present Himself as revealing God and as being in His very person the revelation of God. “He that hath seen me,” He said, “hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” But that certainly does not mean that the disciples who were with our Lord on earth were told by our Lord suddenly to regard as of no value the knowledge of God which they already had. The key to what our Lord meant when He said, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,” is to be found, I am inclined to think, in the words in John 1:18: “No man hath seen God at any time; God only begotten, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared Him.” Devout readers of the Old Testament had known God, but they had not seen Him, since God is invisible. But now the one who is both God and only begotten, the eternal Son, has become flesh, and because He has become flesh can actually be seen with men’s eyes. A man who sees Him sees the Father, since He is Himself one in substance with the Father. Thus, in Christ, the longing of men actually to see God is satisfied.
At any rate, what is perfectly clear is that everywhere Jesus presupposed the knowledge of God which His disciples had from the Old Testament. He just assumes that His disciples have that knowledge, and then, building upon that knowledge, He leads them on into a fuller and more glorious knowledge.
To hold, then, that all that we need to know about God is found in the moral character of the man Jesus of Nazareth, and that we can be indifferent to the question whether God is the Maker and Ruler of the world, is to treat Jesus Himself with contempt, since it means that we reject what He Himself put at the very foundation of His life and of His teaching.
But that view is not only derogatory to Jesus. It is also derogatory to God. What a low view of God it is, to be sure, when men say that they are not interested in the question whether He is powerful, whether He is the Creator or Ruler of the world, but are only interested in the question whether He is good!
Is that view of God really right? Has all our trust in the infinite power of our God been wrong when in the midst of storms and trials and a host of enemies we have quoted the words of Scripture: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Was Isaiah wrong when he turned his eyes to the starry heavens and said: “Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth”? Was Jesus wrong when He bade His disciples trust in Him who clothes the lilies of the field and when He said: “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”?
What then is the view of God which the Bible presents to us?
If you will let me answer that question in one word, and if you will not forbid me to make that one word a convenient word which philosophers use, I will just say that the view of God which the Bible presents is the view which philosophers call “theism” – that is, it is the view which holds that there is a personal God who is Creator and Ruler of the world. That is the view which Jesus presents with particular clearness, and that is the view which the Bible presents as a whole.
To understand just what that view of God is, we cannot do better than contrast it with the view that is stifling the life of such large portions of the Church today. That is the ancient error called “pantheism.” It is held in very many different forms, and with many degrees of consistency. According to the strict meaning of the term, it is the view that “all is God,” the view that simply identifies God with the totality of existing things.
I suppose the first impulse of the ordinary man, untrained in philosophy, is to regard that view as absurd. It was in that way that I regarded it when I first heard of it when I was young. It seemed to me almost more preposterous than the idolatry of the heathen who bows down to idols of wood and stone.
But here is the strange thing – a great many people who regard pantheism as wrong if the meaning of the term is explained to them are practically pantheists themselves. They are not aware of the fact, but they are pantheists all the same.
We find ourselves in the midst of the mighty process of nature. It manifests itself in the wonders of the starry heavens and the equal wonders that the interior of the atom now reveals. It is seen in the revolving seasons and also in the achievements of the human mind. In the presence of that mighty process of nature, we stand in awe; we are impressed with our own littleness; we understand that we are but infinitesimal parts of a mighty whole. And to that mighty whole, to that stupendous world-process, whose vastness we moderns have come to understand as never before, the pantheist applies the dread name of God. God is thus no longer thought of as an artificer apart from his machine; He is thought of rather as the universe itself, conceived of not in its individual manifestations but as a mighty whole.
Such is pantheism in the strict sense of the word. We can well understand the appeal which such a view has for many minds. It has stimulated some of the most brilliant thinking and inspired some of the grandest poetry of the race.
But it contains no comfort whatever for oppressed and burdened souls. If God be merely another name for the totality of things, then if we possess Him we have nothing that we did not have before. There is for us now no more appeal from nature to nature’s God. We are now nothing but the playthings of blind force.
Feeling, perhaps, the defects of the stark pantheism which identifies God with all that exists, some men have sought for a “higher pantheism” of various kinds. No, they say to themselves, God is not simply another name for the universe as a whole, but is to be identified rather with the spiritual purpose that runs through the universe. Some of them have said that God is the soul of the universe. As the human body has a human soul, so the universe has a soul, they say, and that soul is to be called “God.”
Two profound defects are found in all these forms of pantheism, high and middling and low. In the first place, they give us a God who is in some kind of necessary connection with the world. Not only does the world not exist apart from God, they tell us, but God does not exist apart from the world. What becomes, then, of the holiness or separateness of God? Clothe such a view with all the beauty of language with which it has been celebrated by poets and philosophers, and still it gives us a God who is merely a function or an aspect of the world. Such a God can never bring us into contact with that dread and mysterious realm of the beyond into which our souls long to enter.
In the second place, pantheism high or low can never really give us a personal God. A God of which we are parts can never be a God with whom we can have communion. We can never stand in the presence of such a God as one person stands in the presence of another. We can never say “Thou” to such a God, and such a God can never say “Thou” to us. We can never love such a God, and such a God can never love us. An abstraction can neither love nor be loved. Never could we say to a “world process” or to a “spiritual meaning” or to a principle of goodness: “Our Father which art in heaven.”
How gloriously are those two defects of pantheism avoided in the teaching of Holy Scripture!
The former of the two defects is certainly avoided. What is it that stands out sharply in the Bible from beginning to end? Is it not the awful holiness or separateness of God, the awful distinction between the finite and the infinite, between the creature and the Creator?
The Bible does indeed teach us that God is immanent in the world. He is not a God afar off. He is not a God who stands aloof from the universe as an artificer stands aloof from his machine. The devout reader of the Bible can say with Tennyson: “Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.”
But if God is thus immanent in the world, He is also transcendent. The world is dependent upon Him, but He is not dependent upon the world. He has set bounds to the world, but the world has set no bounds to Him. It is the work of His hands, but He is from eternity. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” Running all through the Bible is the awful separateness of God from the world. That is what the Bible calls the holiness of God. The Bible, unlike the pantheists, presents to us a holy God.
But the Bible also – and again unlike the pantheists – presents to us a personal God. The God of the Bible is not just another name for the universe itself, nor is He a name for a spiritual purpose supposed to run through the universe, or for any impersonal principle of goodness. No, He is a person. That much is clear at the start. We shall speak subsequently of the deeper mystery of the three persons in one God. But at least it is clear that God is personal. He is not a force or a principle or a collective somewhat of which we are parts. He is a person, to whom we can say “Thou,” a person who can, if He will, speak to us as a man speaketh to His friend, and who can, if He will, become to us a heavenly Father.
But what is needed first of all is that we shall stand in awe before His throne. We are living in an age when men have forgotten God. They have become engrossed in their own affairs. They have been puffed up in their pride. They have put God out of their thoughts.
How is it with you, my friends? Have you been walking in your own paths? Have you forgotten God? If so, I bid you read the blessed book that will tell you how He may be found. If you heed His Word you may first stand in awe before His throne, and then, by the way that He has provided, you may come to be at peace with Him and be His child forevermore.