Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mr. (Rev. Dr. Prof.) Machen's "New Testament:" Historical Backgrounds

          Machen, J. Gresham. The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History.  Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976. Available at:

I haven't made my mind up.  First, it is clean, succinct, direct, catholic (not Roman), Reformed and historic.  Second, it has no bibliography (big problem).  Third, it would work for a classical school, e.g. high school level.  Fourth, it would work for an adult SS class. Fifth, it is not adequate for graduate level or seminary work...other than a handy outline of issues. Prof. Machen's more scholarly works, e.g. Virgin Birth, Paul's Religion, Notes on Galatains, assuredly are on a graduate level.  Sixth, Mr. Machen and associates kept the Reformed and Confessional faith alive in the US. Seventh, Mr. Machen, schooled in the catechism as a lad, retains that.  It shows too. Eighth, that catechetical outlook does not often obtain these days even within Reformed circles. Ninth, the "could" work for a 1st year college level, if supplemented with other works. Tenth, for a new Christian with no background:  a MUST-READ. Eleventh, along with catechetical work, every Rector/Pastor should ensure that every adult has been through a course in Mr. Machen's introduction;  that should be standard fare for all hands.
The study of the New Testament is “primarily historical.” Like history, one needs to learn the facts. It is a record of events.  It requires “study.” There is an anti-intellectualist piety that assumes and asserts that piety is opposed to thinking, research and hard study. Christianity is not speculation and it is not mysticism. “Historical study is absolutely necessary for a stalwart Christianity” (9).  The study is not an end to itself, but a means to an end…assurance wherein thou has been instructed (Luke 1.1-4)
Historical Background of Christianity
1.      The New Testament, pages 13-19
Jews and the Bible.  The Old Testament was the Bible of the early church.  It was the “sum and substance” of education and the “supreme judge in every controversy” (one hears here Mr. Machen’s catechetical background emerging even as a sophisticated, serious and schooled Professor…the old catechism never leaves even in later years). Jesus and the Bible.  Jesus was in full sympathy with a high and inspired view of the Old Testament. He blamed the scribes for faulty interpretation and used the OT to best Pharisees in an argument. He used the OT in the temptation.  He used the OT prophecies about Himself. Early Christianity and the Old Testament.  It informed 1st century preaching.  (End of that discussion.) New Testament.  Added to the OT canon. But, by what authority?  By the authority of the LORD of the Church under both administration of the covenant.  Jesus taught that his words were co-equal in authority (cf. Mt. 7.24ff, inter alia and, by us, defended elsewhere).  Jesus authenticated His Personhood and authority by His words and miracles.  He authorized, commissioned and empowered His apostles in apostolic mission (Jn. 16.13; 17.18, inter alia). “The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the LORD Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God and the apostles are from God” (1 Clement 42, translated by Lightfoot).  Or, the apostolic words were accepted as Christ’s. Purpose of the Bible.  To reveal God.  We cannot find God on our own beyond His everlasting power and divinity (Rom.1.20).  More is needed.  God provided that. Divisions: Gospels (historical facts), Acts, and Epistles.  “Christianity is the religion of a book.”
2.      The Roman Background of Christianity, pages 20-26
The story is well-told elsewhere, but Mr. Machen gives the essentials. Roman republic gives way to Civil Wars, Julius Caesar and his assassination, further conflicts and the emergence of Octavius in 31 B.C.  This is marked as the beginning of the Roman Empire and the end of its republic. Advantages. Pax Romana or the Roman peace. Augustus was a prudential and able ruler.  There was a healthy development of commerce. There was safety, coinage, roads, imperial administration and more that made the extension of the Gospel easier (than without it).  Initially, the Empire was not anti-Christian.  Polytheism was naturally tolerant. Christianity, viewed as a sect of Judaism, lived under the protection of a religio licita.  NONE OF THIS WAS BY CHANCE. “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son…” (Gal. 4.4.)  Only Calvinists and Augustinians talk like this.
3.      The Greek Background of Christianity, pages 27-32
Again, this story is told better and more fully elsewhere, but Mr. Machen offers the obligatory and necessary notes to the issue.  Alexander the Great’s conquests take his language, literature and culture as far as India.  His Empire dissolves into other provinces, but the language goes everywhere.  Koine obtained (after the Attic dialect) from 300 B.C. to about 500 A.D. The Romans are susceptible to Greek influences and language. Greek Religion and Philosophy.  Homeric legends, polytheism, and the mythology of the Olympian deities.  The Greek poets and philosophers criticized the immoralities of the deities.
4.      The Jewish Background of Christianity—Palestinian Judaism, pages 33-38
The Jewish background is more important to Christianity than the Roman and Greek backgrounds. (This is, to us, a tad bit simplistic, but is the essence of Mr. Machen’s presentation.) But, this much: “the Book” is the bedrock of Christianity.  Parties. Sanhedrin, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes. Languages. Hebrew had ceased to be the language of the common man. It was still read in the Temple and still the language of the learned Rabbis. Aramaic, or Syrian, was the language of the land, the language of the masses, and the language that Jesus used and in which he prayed, even in His dying words on the cross. Greek was the language of the diaspora and the early church. Religious Life. The Temple was central.  The Temple received upgrades from Herod the Great.  For simple folk in the country, the synagogue was the home for pious Israelites.  One should not forget the simple piety of Israelites: Zecharias and Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon, being examples.
5.      The Jewish Background of Christianity—the Judaism of the Dispersion, pages 39-43
Causes and extent. Jews were scattered throughout the empire. Jeremiah was dragged off to Egypt (Jer. 47.4-22; 43).  There was a 6th century B.C. Jewish community in Elephantine, Egypt, 600 miles south of the mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean Sea. The Seleucids had encouraged Jews to settle in Asia Minor. Also, by the 1st century A.D., there was a sizeable Jewish population.  These Jewish communities were the first audience for the Christian message.
Mr. Machen handily summarizes the three factors favorable to the extension of the Christian message: (1) Jewish dispersion throughout the Empire, (2) the advantages of the Pax Romana, and (3) the Greek language of the Empire.
6.      The Messiah, pages 44-48
The presupposition of the Gospel is the Jewish faith.  Israel had the Gospel.  The Promise.  The promise was given in the Garden after the fall.  Showing his catechetical hand again (most excellently), Mr. Machen notes: “All mankind by their fall, lost communion with God, and are under His wrath and curse (WSC, 19).  Adam is under sin and guilt (Gen. 3.8).  The promise is given to crush the serpentine head and curse. Genesis 3.15: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”  The promise is repeated to Abraham.  This includes not just land, a symbol of divine favor, but the promise of God Himself.  God is the inheritance of Abraham and his descendants. This promise runs through the rest of the Old Testament and is the foundation of the New Testament.  Genesis 12.3: “… and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”  Genesis 17.7:  “…And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.  Promise unfolding.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David to Jesus Christ, “the seed of Abraham which is Christ” (Gal. 3.16).   Actual Israel had been rebellious, but the ideal Israel and the ideal King was Christ, the “Anointed One” (Psalm 2.6), the One under Jehovah’s care (Psalm 2.7), the One more than man (Is. 9.6-7), the mighty King (Psalm 2.8-9), the One with a righteous and peaceful dominion (Is. 11.2-4), and the Suffering Servant who atones for the sins of His people (Is. 53).

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