The Christ Event

From “Christianity and Liberalism"
by John Gresham Machen, 1881-1937

It is perfectly clear that the first Christian missionaries did not simply come forward with an exhortation; they did not say: “Jesus of Nazareth lived a wonderful life of filial piety, and we call upon you our hearers to yield yourselves, as we have done, to the spell of that life.”

Certainly, that is what modern historians would have expected the first Christian missionaries to say, but it must be recognised that as a matter of fact, they said nothing of the kind. Conceivably the first disciples of Jesus, after the catastrophe of his death, might have engaged in quiet meditation upon his teaching. They might have said to themselves that “Our Father which art in heaven” was a good way of addressing God even though the one who had taught them that prayer was dead. They might have clung to the ethical principles of Jesus and cherished the vague hope that the one who enunciated such principles had some personal existence beyond the grave. Such reflections might have seemed very natural to the modern man. But to Peter, James and John they certainly never occurred. Jesus had raised in them high hopes; those hopes were destroyed by the Cross, and reflections on the general principles of religion and ethics were quite powerless to revive the hopes again. The disciples of Jesus had evidently been far inferior to their Master in every possible way; they had not understood his lofty spiritual teaching, but even in the hour of solemn crisis had quarrelled over great places in the approaching Kingdom. What hope was there that such men could succeed where their master had failed? Even when he had been with them, they had been powerless; and now that he was taken from them, what little power they may have had was gone.

Yet those same weak, discouraged men, within a few days after the death of their master, instituted the most important spiritual movement that the world has ever seen. What had produced the astonishing change? What had transformed the weak and cowardly disciples into the spiritual conquerors of the world? Evidently, it was not the mere memory of Jesus’ life, for that was a source of sadness rather than of joy. Evidently the disciples of Jesus, within the few days between the crucifixion and the beginning of their work in Jerusalem, had received some new equipment for their task. What that new equipment was, at least the outstanding and external element in it (to say nothing of the endowment which Christian men believe to have been received at Pentecost), is perfectly plain. The great weapon with which the disciples of Jesus set out to conquer the world was not

1 Compare History and Faith, 1915 (reprinted from Princeton a mere comprehension of eternal principles; it was a historical message, an account of something that had recently happened, it was the message, “He is risen.”

But the message of the resurrection was not isolated. It was connected with the death of Jesus, seen now to be not a failure but a triumphant act of divine grace; it was connected with the entire appearance of Jesus upon the earth. The coming of Jesus was understood now as an act of God by which sinful men were saved. The primitive Church was concerned not merely with what Jesus had said, but also, and primarily, with what Jesus had done. The world was to be redeemed through the proclamation of an event. And with the event went the meaning of the event, and the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine. These two elements are always combined in the Christian message. The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine.

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried,” that is history.

“He loved me and gave himself for me,” that is doctrine.

Such was the Christianity of the primitive Church.

“But,” it may be said, “even if the Christianity of the primitive Church was dependent upon doctrine, we may still emancipate ourselves from such dependence; we may appeal from the primitive Church to Jesus himself. It has already been admitted that if doctrine is to be abandoned Paul must be abandoned; it may now be admitted that if doctrine is to be abandoned, even the primitive Jerusalem Church, with its message of the resurrection, must be abandoned. But possibly we can still find in Jesus himself the simple, non-doctrinal religion that we desire.”

Must we really take such a step as that? It would certainly be an extraordinary step. A great religion derived its power from the message of the redeeming work of Christ; without that message, Jesus and his disciples would soon have been forgotten. The same message, with its implications, has been the very heart and soul of the Christian movement throughout the centuries. Yet we are now asked to believe that the thing that has given Christianity its power all through the centuries was a blunder, that the originators of the movement misunderstood radically the meaning of their master’s life and work and that it has been left to us moderns to get the first inkling of the initial mistake. Even if this view of the case were correct, and even if Jesus himself taught a religion like that of modern liberalism, it would still be doubtful whether such a religion could rightly be called Christianity; for the name Christian was first applied only after the supposed decisive change had taken place, and it is very doubtful whether a name which through nineteen centuries has been so firmly attached to one religion ought now suddenly to be applied to another. If the first disciples of Jesus really departed so radically from their master, then the better terminology would probably lead us to say simply that Jesus was not the founder of Christianity, but of a simple, non-doctrinal religion, long forgotten, but now rediscovered by modern men. Even so, the contrast between liberalism and Christianity would still appear.

But as a matter of fact, such a strange state of affairs does not prevail at all. It is not true that in basing Christianity upon an event the disciples of Jesus were departing from the teaching of their master. For certainly Jesus himself did the same thing. Jesus did not content himself with enunciating general principles of religion and ethics; the picture of Jesus as a sage similar to Confucius, uttering wise maxims about conduct, may satisfy Mr H. G. Wells, as he trips along lightly over the problems of history, but it disappears so soon as one engages seriously in historical research.

“Repent,” said Jesus, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

The gospel which Jesus proclaimed in Galilee consisted of the proclamation of a coming kingdom. But clearly, Jesus regarded the coming of the kingdom as an event, or as a series of events. No doubt he also regarded the kingdom as a present reality in the souls of men; no doubt he represented the kingdom in one sense as already present. We shall not really succeed in getting along without this aspect of the matter in our interpretation of Jesus’ words. But we shall also not get along without the other aspect, according to which the coming of the kingdom depended upon definite and catastrophic events. But if Jesus regarded the coming of the kingdom as dependent upon a definite event, then his teaching was similar at the decisive point to that of the primitive Church; neither he nor the primitive Church enunciated merely general and permanent principles of religion; both of them, on the contrary, made the message depend upon something that happened. Only, in the teaching of Jesus, the happening was represented as being still in the future, while in that of the Jerusalem Church the first act of it at least lay already in the past. Jesus proclaimed the event as coming; the disciples proclaimed part of it at least as already past, but the important thing is that both Jesus and the disciples did proclaim an event. Jesus was certainly not a mere enunciator of permanent truths, like the modern liberal preacher; on the contrary, he was conscious of standing at the turning point of the ages, when what had never been was now to come to be.

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