The Christian Faith in the Modern World

Topic: Revelation Type: Book Author: J. Gresham Machen 

Chapter 2


In the first talk of this little series, I tried to tell you why I think you cannot postpone attention to God and to an unseen world. It is true that this world presents pressing problems, but you can never solve even those problems aright unless you first face the question of your relation to God. That is the all-important thing, and the distresses of the present time only serve to press it still more insistently upon our attention.

But if it is important for us to face the question of our relation to God, how can God be known to us? How can we discover whether there is a God at all, and then, if there is, what sort of being He is?

I have something rather simple to say about that question at the very start. It is something that seems to me to be rather obvious, and yet it is something that is quite generally ignored. It is simply this—that if we are really to know anything about God it will probably be because God has chosen to tell it to us.

Many persons seem to go on a very different assumption. They seem to think that if they are to know anything about God they must discover God for themselves.

That assumption seems to me to be extremely unlikely. Just supposing for the sake of the argument that there is a being of such a kind as that He may with any propriety be called "God," it does seem antecedently very improbable that weak and limited creatures of a day, such as we are, should discover Him by our own efforts without any will on His part to make Himself known to us. At least, I think we can say that a god who could be discovered in that way would hardly be worth discovering. A mere passive subject of human investigation is certainly not a living God who can satisfy the longing of our souls.

Some years ago I was asked to contribute to a composite volume which had as its general title, "My Idea of God" 1[My idea of God, edited by Joseph Fort Newton, Litt.D., D.H.L., 1926]. Various writers told, each of them, what his own idea of God was. One said, "I think of God so"; another said, "I think so." Now I shall not presume to say whether the essay that I contributed to that volume had any particular merit at all. Perhaps it was a rather poor effort. But I do very deliberately maintain that I was right at least in saying at the beginning of it that if my idea of God were really mine I should attach very little importance to it myself and could reasonably expect even less importance to be attributed to it by others.

A divine being that could be discovered by my efforts, apart from His gracious will to reveal Himself to me and to others, would be either a mere name for a certain aspect of man’s own nature, a God that we could find within us, or else at best a mere passive thing that would be subject to investigation like the substances that are analyzed in a laboratory.

I think we ought to stick to that principle rather firmly. I think we ought to be rather sure that we cannot know God unless God has been pleased to reveal Himself to us.

How, then, has God revealed Himself to us?

In the first place, He has revealed Himself by the universe that He has made. How did the world come into being? It is here. That cannot be denied. But how did it come to be?

The question forces itself upon the attention of every thinking man. We may try to evade it. We may just say that it is unanswerable. We may try to put it out of our minds. But it continues to haunt us all the same, and for ages it has haunted the human race.

I think the universe itself provides the answer to that question. The answer is itself a mystery, but it is a mystery in which we can rest. The answer is a very simple answer. The answer is that this world came into being because God made it. It is the work of an infinite and all-wise and all-powerful God.

That answer presses itself upon different people in different ways. It has been defended by philosophers and theologians by way of detailed reasoning. That reasoning has been divided logically into what are called the "theistic proofs"—indications in the world itself that point to the existence of a personal God, creator and ruler of the world.

I am not going to speak of them here except just to say that I think they are good proofs, and that the Christian man, whether he has a detailed knowledge of them or not, ought never to depreciate them or regard as a matter of no importance the debate about them among philosophers and learned men.

But I am not going to attempt any exposition of those proofs. What I do want to do is just to point out that the testimony of nature to nature’s God comes to different people in different ways. I remember listening some time ago to a lecture by an eminent man of science. The lecturer traced the progress of scientific investigation and pointed out, if I remember aright, its material benefits. But then he paused to speak of another product of the scientific spirit; the true scientist, he said, is brought face to face at last with the ultimate mystery, and at that point he becomes a religious man. There is endless diversity in the world, said he: but the progress of investigation has revealed the electron; and the electrons, said he, are all alike—they are machine-made—and their marvelous likeness reveals the existence of a mystery into which man cannot penetrate; in truly religious awe the man of science stands at length before a curtain that is never lifted, a mystery that rebukes all pride.

I am not saying that man of science had a true knowledge of God. I do not think that he had. I should have liked, if he had been willing to listen to me, to tell him of the way in which, for little children as well as for learned men of science, that dreadful curtain of which he spoke has been pulled gently aside to give us at least a look into the mysteries beyond. But at least there was one aspect of nature that brought that scientist to the threshold of a knowledge of God.

To some men the testimony of nature to nature’s God comes by such precise knowledge of nature as was possessed by that scientist. To others it comes by a reasoned consideration of the implications of nature’s existence. But to still others it comes by what Browning calls "a sunset touch." To one man in one way, to another in another.

To me nature speaks clearest in the majesty and beauty of the hills. One day in the summer of 1932 I stood on the summit of the Matterhorn in the Alps. Some people can stand there and see very little. Depreciating the Matterhorn is a recognized part of modern books on mountain climbing. The great mountain, it is said, has been sadly spoiled. Why, you can even see sardine cans on those rocks that so tempted the ambition of climbers in Whymper’s day. Well, I can only say that when I stood on the Matterhorn I do not remember seeing a single can. Perhaps that was partly because of the unusual masses of fresh snow which were then on the mountain; but I think it was also due to the fact that unlike some people I had eyes for something else. I saw the vastness of the Italian plain, which was like a symbol of infinity. I saw the snows of distant mountains. I saw the sweet green valleys far, far below, at my feet. I saw the whole glorious round of glittering peaks, bathed in an unearthly light. And as I see that glorious vision again before me now, I am thankful from the bottom of my heart that from my Mother’s knee I have known to whom all that glory is due.

Then I love the softer beauties of nature also. I wonder whether you love them with me. Some years ago, in the White Mountains, I walked beside a brook. I have seen, I suppose hundreds of brooks. But somehow I remember particularly that one. I am not going to tell you where it is, because if I did you might write to the C.C.C. or the National Park Service about it and get them to put a scenic highway along it, and then it would be forever ruined. But when I walked along it, it was untouched. I cherish the memory of it. It was gentle and sweet and lovely beyond all words. I think a man might travel through all the world and never see anything lovelier than a White Mountain brook. Very wonderful is the variety of nature in her changing moods.

Silence too, the silence of nature, can be a very revealing thing. I remember one day when I spent a peaceful half-hour in the sunlight on the summit of a mountain in the Franconia range. I there experienced something very rare. Would you believe it, my friends? It was really silent on that sunny mountain top. There was not the honk of a motor horn; there was no jazz music; there was no sound of a human voice; there was not even the rustling of the leaves. There was nothing but a strange, brooding silence. It was a precious time indeed. I shall never forget it all my life.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not asking that everyone should love the beauties of nature as I love them. I do think, indeed, that the love of nature ought to be cultivated. At least I do not think that government ought to go into the business of crushing it out of a people’s soul as the United States government is doing by some of the artificialities and regularities of its National Parks. I think some sweet and delicate little things ought to be left untouched. But I well understand that there are many people who do not love the beauties of nature. Are they shut off from finding God revealed in the world that He has made?

Indeed, that is not so, my friends; indeed, it is not so. The mystery of the existence of the world presses itself upon different people in different ways. I remember, for example, a talk that I heard from a professor at an afternoon conference service many years ago. I do not know just why I should remember it, but I do remember it. The professor said that he had had a friend who had come to a belief in God, or had come back to a belief in God, by—what do you suppose? Well, by a trip through Europe! As he went from city to city and observed the seething multitudes, the throngs upon throngs of men and women, somehow, he said, the conviction just seemed to come over him: "There is a God, there is a God."

Was that a foolish fancy? Were those experiences in my own life of which I have been bold enough to speak merely meaningless dreams? Or were they true testimonies to something marvelous beyond? Were they moments when God was graciously revealing Himself to me through the glory of the world that He has made?

I think a Christian ought not to be afraid to give the latter answer. The revelation of God through nature has the stamp of approval put upon it by the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that nature reveals the glory of God.

In a wonderful passage in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans the Apostle Paul says that the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead [ROM 1:20]. Here the Bible approves the arguments of those who in systematic fashion argue from the existence of the world to the existence of a divine Maker of the world. But the Bible also approves those more unreasoned flashes of knowledge in which suddenly we see God’s workmanship in the beauty and the majesty of His world. The Heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork, [PSA 19:1] says the Psalmist. And what said our Lord Jesus Christ. Even Solomon in all his glory, said He of the lilies of the field, was not arrayed like one of these [MAT 6:20].

All that is true. The revelation of God through nature is a very precious thing. But then a serious question arises. If God has revealed Himself through the things that He has made, why do so very few men listen to the revelation? The plain fact is that very few men arrive by a contemplation of nature at a true belief in a personal God. Even those scientists whose religious views are sometimes being incautiously welcomed by Christian people are often found upon closer examination to believe only in a God who is identical with a spiritual purpose supposed to inhere in the world process itself and are found not to believe at all in a living and holy God, are found not to believe at all in the true God who created the Heavens and the Earth.

Why is that so? If God has revealed Himself so plainly through the world that He has made, why do men not see?

Well, when men do not see something, there are two possible explanations of the fact. One is that there is nothing there to see. The other is that the men who do not see are blind.

It is this latter explanation which the Bible gives of the failure of men to know God through the things that He has made. The Bible puts it very plainly in that same passage already quoted from the first chapter of Romans. Their foolish heart, says Paul, was darkened [ROM 1:21]. Hence they did not see. The fault did nor lie in nature. Men were without excuse, [ROM 1:20] Paul says, when they did not see what nature had to show. Their minds were blinded by sin. That is a hard saying, but like many other hard sayings it is true. You will never understand anything else that I may say unless you understand that we all of us, so long as we stand in our own right, and have not had our eyes mysteriously opened, are lost and blind in sin.

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This Page Last Updated: 12/06/98 A. Allison Lewis