The Origin of Paul's Religion

by J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham Machen is -- or was: he's probably long gone now, but maybe he still is -- a big name among conservative Christians. I think I first heard his name from my father when I was a kid. I just finished reading in ChristianityToday about the other founder of WorldVision (besides Pierce, the Korean guy you never heard of), that he went to Princeton, and Machen is the only faculty member there mentioned by name. I think his textbook was used in the class where I learned Greek (I still have the book, but it's not well-worn, and I don't remember). So when Machen's Origin of Paul's Religion was recommended to me, I bought one. It sat unread in my (boxed-up) library for maybe 55 yars. I got it out a few weeks ago to read it the first time. I was disappointed.

I had supposed that this would be a scholarly work showing in detail -- as I long ago learned in my own Bible reading -- how pretty much every part of Paul's Epistles came, either directly or by inference, from the Old Testament. He said nothing of the kind. There were a couple sentences maybe two thirds of the way through that said something like that, but no evidence was given, it was just an assertion like my own at the beginning of this paragraph.

This book probably counts as "scholarly" but it is secondary in nature. Rather than presenting his own primary findings, he devotes the entire book to arguing against other people's publications. It is essentially a polemic against the closet atheists of a century ago who were (presumably tenured, so they can't be fired for teaching against the religion of the people paying their salaries*) in German religious schools. Somebody had to do it, and Machen did a fine job of it: those foolish opinions are no longer held to be credible at the cutting edge of modern anti-Christian rhetoric. That has been the continuous state of the battle between the atheists and the Christians for centuries: somebody comes up with a new argument against the Christian faith, and some Christian answers it, and then the atheists think up another. These arguments are never very well thought out -- and Machen demolishes his opponents handily, damning them with faint praise -- because if anybody were to examine the Christian belief system carefully enough to build a sound argument against it, they would become convinced of its truth and switch sides. It happens all the time, and the atheists know it. So we (in this case Machen) get to waste valuable time chasing after silly crumbly arguments.

The point of this particular silly crumbling argument is that these closet atheists do not believe in any such thing as God or supernatural, so (in their opinion) the whole Christian faith is necessarily a fairy tale, and to convince themselves of that pseudo-fact, they need to explain why and how it got to be so popular. Today, a century later, the atheists have already achieved tyrant status in most world governments, so it is no longer necessary to win on arguments, they can do it on sheer political power. And they do. That also makes Machen's book less important today. But the gist of their argument as Machen refutes it, is that because Paul did not see a real, risen Jesus Christ, how could he be so compelling? Where did he get his "mythical" message of a crucified and resurrected Jesus. That is the central point of our Gospel (which Machen still admits, despite that he is already, 97 years ago, trying to morph that message into the Relationshipistic notion of God's Love -- and he found a verse (Gal.2:20) that says so. What Machen does not say (nevermind that's what Paul said) is that the Gospel message, the "good news" we should be preaching to unbelievers, is not God's "love" but the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus. That is what convinced Paul on the road to Damascus, and that is what every evangelistic message in the whole New Testament said. If Jesus did that, then He. Is. God. And we have an inescapable obligation to obey him, and that same crucifixion and Resurrection makes it possible. The atheists understand that, and they hate it. As in Jesus' parable, "We will not have this man to reign over us." So they try to convince each other (more than anybody else) that there was no resurrection, and Paul's "vision" was only his own fertile imagination, seeded by dying and resurrected gods in nearby pagan religions -- nevermind (as Machen points out) that the resurrection stories in those pagan religions came a hundred or more years after Paul and were probably copies of his viral religion, not the other way around.

From his book, it is apparent that Machen was a Calvinist: "Christ has borne on the cross the curse of the Law which rightly rested upon those whom Christ died to save" is Calvinist code for the Third point of "TULIP" = Limited atonement (Christ did not die to save the non-elect), and he ridicules Martin Luther's defence of the Real Presence. But more than anything else, he was a Relationshipist. He used the word often to describe Paul's faith, despite that the word does not appear in the Bible, which he often quoted in support of his claims about Paul. He is also rather repetitious: this is a polemic, rather than academic treatise. His aim was to persuade. It looks like he succeeded, nobody much any more tries to defend or depend on the old "form criticism" that these Germans were pushing. So the book did its job, and is no longer worth the time to read it.

So I was disappointed. The form critics were already losing credibility when I bought the book. Oh well.

One or two factual nits. In arguing against the possibility that Paul picked up threads of pagan religion in his hometown Tarsus, Machen points out that he was a Roman citizen and in no humble circumstances, but -- Machen is very thorough in covering all the bases -- why didn't he defend himself from all those beatings? Machen is a little weak here. The rights and duties of citizenship in a super-power like Rome (or the USA) can get detailed and intricate, and most of us are not aware of everything until somebody brings it to our attention. In Paul's case, that somebody was probably the Philippian jailor. Before (and including) that incident Paul took his beatings as if he could do nothing about it; afterwards he started insisting on his rights. *I* think the jailor, when he took him into his house to evangelize the whole family, probably made some off-hand remark like "Too bad you aren't a Roman citizen, they are exempt from beatings like you got." To which Paul might have replied, "I didn't know that. I am a citizen." And then he knew. I never heard anybody else offer that explanation, so Machen probably didn't think of it either. Just like Paul didn't realize that citizens don't get beaten. Jesus knew: when it came time to pay the tax, he invited Peter to think about who he was with. Citizens of Heaven don't pay Heaven's taxes. But, Jesus said, "we'll pay it anyway." Did Peter think that up all by himself? No, he needfed the (Socratic) Teacher to get him thinking in the right direction. We all need it from time to time.

A few pages later Machen is trying to argue Relationship with a Person as the explanation for the sudden turn-around where the atheists were arguing for a gradual enlightenment based on pagan theological influence. Relationship doesn't happen suddenly, and Paul was no Relationshipist. He was diligently pursuing his understanding of the Law of God, and God gave him that proverbial whack upside the head. It was an "Oops!" moment. His diligence did not change, all that changed (in Paul's mind) was the realization that this criminal Jesus whose followers he was pursuing was talking to him from Heaven. It was a course correction (rather a sharp turn) and then full speed ahead again. Paul answered the vision, "Who are you Lord?" He knew it was from Heaven, but he didn't know it was Jesus. Now that he knew, he needed some (a lot of) adjustments, and then back to work. I can relate to that. As a Relationshipist, Machen had no clue, they think differently.

Tom Pittman
2021 February 18

* I don't know that to be entirely true: I saw one French title, but most of them were German. I Googled six random names taken from his footnotes, and three of them fit my description, one was in London but not clearly being opposed, and for the other two Google did not turn up much biographical data.