Saturday à Machen: On the Miracles in the Gospels

This coming Wednesday, December 25/January 7, we will celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. As is well known, the “birth narratives” in the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke are filled with one miraculous occurrence after another, which admittedly cause a great deal of trouble to many “modern,” “enlightened” readers. Of course, this difficulty is neither new nor peculiar to the modern age, and (as we would expect) Machen had some words to say on the subject. Today I have chosen to post the main thrust of his comments, and in later “Saturdays à Machen” I will expand on their context, which elucidates his argument.

J. Gresham Machen“. . . It may be admitted that miracles conceivably might occur. But have they actually occurred?

This question looms very large in the minds of modern men. The burden of the question seems to rest heavily even upon many who still accept the miracles of the New Testament. The miracles used to be regarded as an aid to faith, it is often said, but now they are a hindrance to faith; faith used to come on account of the miracles, but now it comes in despite of them; men used to believe in Jesus because He wrought miracles, but now we accept the miracles because on other grounds we have come to believe in Him.

A strange confusion underlies this common way of speaking. In one sense, certainly, miracles are a hindrance to faithbut who ever thought the contrary? It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy mannot a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 102-104)

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3 responses to “Saturday à Machen: On the Miracles in the Gospels

  1. I’m slowly coming to realize how “meet and right” (sorry, redundancy police!) it is for you to venerate this teacher and scholar. May God send us more Machen’s!

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  2. But Nick! Don’t you realize the enormous importance of the emphatic use of the word today? This is true both of the Epistle to the Hebrews and liturgical texts, both Eastern and Western. ;-) Thanks for catching that! My proofreading (which was never great anyway!) has suffered greatly from my lack of internet–and the mall WiFi is now broken, to boot!

    Zac, it is meet and right not only that I should revere Machen, but that all should do likewise! May God send us more like him, indeed.

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