Review of The Origin of Paul’s Religion by J. Gresham Machen

The Origin of Paul’s Religion, by J. Gresham Machen, 1925, Eerdmans 1947, 329 pp.

In The Origin of Paul’s Religion J. Gresham Machen argues against various modernistic theories of the sources of the Apostle Paul’s Christianity. Machen’s contention is that the Biblical account itself provides the best explanation of the resulting history. He concludes, “Everywhere in the Epistles Paul stakes all his life upon the truth of what he says abut the death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel which Paul preached was an account of something that had happened. If the account was true, the origin of Paulinism is explained; if it was not true, the Church is based upon an inexplicable error.” (p. 316)

This book, like Machen’s The Virgin Birth of Christ—which I read some three years ago—is difficult to review because of the scope of material covered. Machen’s impressive learning over wide subject areas is pressed into each of these academic treatises in each their own way. Machen’s books are certainly dated by this point in time. This is not to say that Machen’s conclusions are only culturally or historically determined and not therefore Biblical, but rather only to note that Machen was well-read on the latest relevant academic materials and these these materials are now almost all aged one hundred years or more.

Since my primary goal in writing book reviews is to be able later on to quickly refresh myself about the highlights of book in view, it should suffice if here I just note some quotes from the book which I found insightful.

One section of the book I particularly enjoyed is Machen’s explanation of the mistakes of the Judaizers in their claim to be following the apostles.

“There was indeed a bitter conflict in the apostolic age, but as Ritschl observed against Baur, it was a conflict not between Paul and the original apostles, but between all the apostles, including both Paul and Peter, on the one side, and an extreme Judaizing party on the other. The extreme Judaizing party, not having the support of the original disciples of Jesus, soon ceased to be influential. The various sects of schismatic Jewish Christians where appear in the second century—“Ebionites” and the like—if they had any roots at all in the apostolic age (which is more than doubtful), could trace their spiritual descent not from the original apostles, but from the Judaizers.” (p. 125-126)

“Even if Peter was not an advocate of legalism the appeal of the Judaizers to him can be explained. It can be explained not by the principles of Peter, but by his practice. The early disciples in Jerusalem continued to observe the Jewish fast and feast; they continued in diligent attendance upon the Temple services. Outwardly, they were simply devout Jews; and the manner of their life might therefore have given some color to the Judaizing contentions.” (p. 126)

“The apostles continued to observe the law. And by doing so, they gave the Judaizers some color of support. Thus if the Judaizers did appeal to the original apostles in support of their legalistic claims, the appeal does not establish any real unity of principle between them and the original apostles, or any divergence of principle between the original apostles and Paul.” (p. 128)

“At any rate, even if the Judaizers did appeal to the original apostles for the content of their message, the appeal was a false appeal; the original apostles repudiated the Judaizers, and recognized Paul as a true apostles, with authorization as direct as their own.” (p. 128)

Other quotes I found interesting include:

“What Jesus really gave him [Paul] near Damascus was not so much the facts as a new interpretation of the facts. He had known some of the facts before, but they had filled him with hatred.” (p. 145)

“The paucity of references in the Pauline Epistles to the teaching and examples of Jesus has sometimes been exaggerated. The Epistles attest considerable knowledge of the details of Jesus’ life, and warm appreciation of his character. Undoubtedly, moreover, Paul knew far more about Jesus than he has seen fit, in the Epistles, to tell. It must always be remembered that the Epistles do not contain the missionary preaching of Paul; they are addressed to Christians.” (p. 151)

“The Gospels, like the Epistles of Paul are more interested in the death of Jesus than the details of his life. And for the same reason. The Gospels, like the Epistles of Paul, are interested in the death of Jesus because it was a ransom from sin.” (p. 154)

“The plain fact remains that if imitation of Jesus has been central in the life of Paul, as it is central, for example, in modern liberalism, then the Epistles would be full of the words and deeds of Jesus.” (p. 166)

“The religion of Paul, in other words, is a religion of redemption. Jesus, according to Paul, came to earth not to say something but to do something; He was primarily not a teacher, but a redeemer.” (p. 167)

“Christianity, according to Paul, is both a life and a doctrine—but logically the doctrine comes first. The life is the expression of the doctrine and not vice versa.” (p. 168)

“The term ‘Lord’ in the Pauline Epistles, the characteristic Pauline name of Christ, is every whit as much a designation of deity as is the term ‘God.’” (p. 198)

“Philosophy had contributed to the decline of the ancient gods. Had it been equally successful on the positive side? Had it been able to fill the void which its questioning had produced? The answer on the whole must be rendered in the negative. On the whole, it must be said that Greek philosophy was unsuccessful in its efforts to solve the riddle of the universe.” (p. 224)

“The religion of Paul was not founded upon a complex of ideas derived from Judaism or from paganism. It was founded upon the historical Jesus. But the historical Jesus upon whom it was founded was not the Jesus of modern reconstruction, but the Jesus of the whole New Testament and of Christian faith; not a teacher who survived only in the memory of His disciples, but the Savior who after His redeeming work was done still lived and could still be loved.” (p. 317)