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The Christian View of Man Paperback – 1984
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About the Author
J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was an outstanding New Testament scholar and the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, USA. In a line of great American reformed theologians, he above all stands out as the master of a forceful literary style.
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The Author’s Preface to this 1937 book states, “This book constitutes the second part of a series of radio addresses which the author has been delivering over station WIP, under the auspices of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. The first part, Christian Faith in the Modern World, dealt with the authority of the Bible and with the Biblical Doctrine of God. The present volume deals with the Biblical doctrine of man, including the related subjects of the decrees of God and predestination… The book does not pretend in the slightest to be original. It is dependent throughout upon the masters of the Reformed Theology---particularly upon Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and Geerhardus Vos… Its several chapter proceed in logical sequence and seek to develop one central theme.” (Pg. 11)
In the first program, Machen says, “One point, at least, is clear—we cannot trust the Church. The visible Church, the Church as it now actually exists upon this earth, has fallen too often into error and sin… Well, then, is there anything at all to which we can appeal? Is there anything at all that remains constant when so many things change?... The world is in decadence, the visible Church is to a considerable extent apostate; but when God speaks we can trust Him, and His Word stands forever more… We can find the Word of God in the Bible…” (Pg. 13-14)
He observes, “But unbelievers will not accept the Bible record of Jesus as a whole. Very well, then, I will say to an unbelieving friend: ‘Here is a New Testament. Take it and choose any passage in it that you will in order to prove that your view of Jesus is right. You do not like my passages. Well, let us see what your passages say.’” (Pg. 18-19)
He states, “the choices of God’s will are always… determined by the ends which His infinite knowledge and His infinite wisdom place before Him. A denial of that view of the will… is sometimes represented a though it were in the interests of freedom… But a little reflection will show that the exact opposite is the case. If a man’s choices are not determined by the ends that he has in view, but simply by meaningless oscillations of his will, then they are determined by nothing but chance and the man becomes the mere plaything of something external to himself. That is particularly clear in the case of … God. If God’s choices were not determined by the holy ends he has in view… then His actions could only be regarded as dependent upon a blind meaningless chance… No, we must really hold to a sound determinism when we think of the will. The will of man is not free in the sense that it operates independently of the feelings and the intellect… What we call the will is just the whole person making choices.” (Pg. 28-29)
He explains, “I do take some things in the Bible literally and some things figuratively… But I have… a perfectly good way of deciding which things in the Bible I shall take literally and which things I shall take figuratively… You see, I hold that the Bible is essentially a plain book. Common sense is a wonderful help in reading it… I submit that if a man really reads with ordinary good sense and good will those utterances in the Bible where the Bible speaks of God as repenting of the things that He has done, and the like, he will have no difficulty whatever in seeing that those passages are mot emphatically not to be interpreted literally and that a literal interpretation of them is a very heinous exhibition of misunderstanding and bad taste.” (Pg. 32-33)
He argues, “If God does not know what His creatures, including man, will do, then a wild, unaccountable factor is introduced into the universe… Can we hold that although God does not know what the persons He has created will do, yet He can go on governing the rest of the universe in an orderly fashion? Surely we cannot hold that at all… God, moreover, on that view ceases to be God. He becomes a being who has to wait to see what His creatures will do; He becomes a God who has to change His plans to meet changing circumstances… He becomes a finite being… Also very unsatisfactory… [is that] while God does not determine or foreordain the actions of the persons whom He has created, but leaves their actions to the operation of their free will, yet He does know beforehand what their actions will be… this form of the theory does not really overcome the difficulty… the trouble is that if God really created these personal beings, knowing beforehand what, if created, they would do, He did really determine their actions. Their actions were certain before they did them.” (Pg. 37-38)
He points out, “Why is it that some men are saved? Is it because of anything they have done? Is it because they are less guilty in the sight of God than others? The whole Bible is concerned with denying that… According to the New Testament, as according to the Old Testament, those who … are destined to salvation, are chosen to form God’s people, not because of anything that they have done or would do, but simply because of the sovereignty of God’s good pleasure.” (Pg. 54-55) Later, he adds, “the doctrine of predestination … does not mean that God’s choice of some men for salvation is arbitrary or without good and sufficient reason---mysterious though the reason may be to us. It does not mean that God takes pleasure in the death of a sinner; it does not mean that the door of salvation is closed to anyone who will enter in… [But] the doctrine of predestination … is really the only solid ground of hope for this world and for the next… There is no … possibility of bread in the mighty working out of God’s eternal plan.” (Pg. 67)
He asserts, “in our day miracles have ceased. They have not ceased forever; but for the present day they have ceased. There is a good reason why they have ceased. But though miracles have ceased, certain other supernatural acts of God are wrought every day, when men and women are born again by the mysterious creative work of the Holy Spirit that the Bible calls the new birth.” (Pg. 113)
He states, “the real decision as to what view is to be held about the origin of the first man is not reached by a consideration of the evidence adduced by biologists or geologists… as a matter of fact the decision is reached on the basis of other kinds of evidence… Is there a God, Creator and Ruler of the world? Is He free to enter … the world that He has made?... If a negative answer is given to these questions, then no doubt the evolutionary view will be held regarding then origin of man. The biological and geological evidence obviously does not of itself justify such a view… On the other hand, to the person who does not share those naturalistic presuppositions, that leap from the actual evidence to the evolutionary hypothesis will seem to be a reckless leap indeed… Such a person will say with great confidence, not that man is a product of evolution but that God created man.” (Pg. 123-124)
He suggests, “The materialist explains that connection between physical processes in the brain and thought-processes in the mind by saying that only physical processes exist and that what we call the mind is only a very intricate form of physical process. The explanation is quite absurd, when you come to think of it. But why… cannot the connection between brain processes and mind processes be explained equally well just by saying that the mind makes use of the brain as its instrument?... No doubt the relation between the mind and the brain is a great mystery… But there are many mysterious things which yet must be accepted as facts. So with great confidence we can accept the teaching of the Bible … that man had a body and also has a soul, and that … both do most truly exist.” (Pg. 135-136)
He asks, “Does… the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity mean that the descendants of Adam, though themselves good, yet suffer the penalty of Adam’s sin? Does it mean that good people, because of what Adam did so long ago, are treated by God as though they were bad, suffering… many miseries in this life and the pains of hell forever? No, indeed, it does not mean that at all. On the contrary, every person who suffers the penalty of Adam’s sin is also himself bad. Indeed, badness is necessarily involved in that penalty itself.” (Pg. 217)
He explains, “[The doctrine of total depravity] does not mean that all men not Christians are at every moment just as bad as they possibly can be. On the contrary it is perfectly consonant with what is also plainly taught in Scripture---that the Spirit of God, by His common grace, restrains even unregenerate man from the full manifestation of the power of evil the dominates them… it means … that the corruption of fallen man affects all parts of man’s nature. His faculties remain, it is true; he is still a man, and as being still a man he is responsible. But all his faculties, all parts of his nature, are vitiated by the corruption into which he has fallen… The whole life of man… is corrupt… the Biblical doctrine of total depravity means that nothing that fallen and unregenerate men can do is really well-pleasing to God.” (Pg. 241-242)
Machen’s presentations of doctrine for a more “popular” audience (more so even than his sermons) are an excellent presentation of Reformed doctrines.
Because this book is a compilation of timed radio talks, each chapter of the book is short, about 10 pages each. As is typical of Machen, even in a book like this that purports to discuss the Christian view of man, Machen devotes many of the early chapters to discussing God rather than man. Machen held a great resentment, properly so, of theologies and worldviews that glorified man which masqueraded as products of the Christian tradition. As such, even in a discussion about man, Machen very deliberately makes God the focus, particularly in the early chapters. It is here that the nature of God is discussed, along with His decrees and His attributes, particularly where the creation in general and man in particular is concerned. In a discussion about man, the reader might think early on that Machen is not really dealing with the stated focus of the book, but he is as is seen by the later chapters.
It is in the last 7 chapters in particular where this book really becomes riveting, in my view. Machen's discussion of creation and the fall is very good. His treatment of original sin and its relationship to human responsibility is impeccable. His related critiques of Pelagianism, in all its forms, is devastating. Machen presents a very compelling case for the inability of man and the grace of God that intervenes in man's hopeless natural condition.
As I said at the beginning, this book, while excellent, is not his best or most important contribution. While Machen was obviously interested greatly in matters of theological purity, he also was a student of culture and current events. As a result, these talks touched upon a number of cultural issues that were current at that time and there are points in this book where Machen devotes considerable ink to discussing societal issues rather than strictly theological issues. While some of the societal issues discussed here are still pertinent today, the reader may at times sense that the book is at least somewhat dated in these areas, and I confess that some of those discussions seemed at least somewhat off topic, though I certainly acknowledge that my assertion here is debatable.
But in conclusion, this book still provides a much needed antidote to the man-exalting theologies that pack many pews in the American church today. Machen counters this trend with a solidly Biblical argument that confesses that it, like many faithfully Biblical arguments, will not win many popularity contests even among Christians. An important read on the nature of man and what that means relative to our relationship to God.