My co-author and the originator of the concept for this blog recently confided that he never imagined that This Day in Presbyterian History would be around this long. Now we are going into our fifth year in 2016. We make no great claims for the blog, but we’re pleased to be able to serve a (generally) growing list of subscribers and others.
In the annual review put together by WordPress, they summarize our 2015 statistics this way:
“Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 68,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take just over 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
The busiest day of the year was July 4th with 584 views. The most popular post that day was July 4: Happy ‘Presbyterian Rebellion’ Day.’ ” Visitors to the blog came primarily from the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada and 129 other countries around the globe.
For the year ahead, we have several plans that should keep things interesting. 2016 will be a big election year, and with that theme in mind we are very pleased that the Rev. Dr. David W. Hall, pastor of the Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia, will be writing a series of posts for us, focused on the early American practice of the election day sermon. These posts will run on Saturdays, beginning on January 30th, just before the Iowa Caucus, and will end on October 29th, just before election day in November.
Our long-running feature on the Shorter Catechism, written by the Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn, will conclude around April of 2016 and we are working on what will replace that Sunday feature. Many of our posts in past years have been biographical, and while biographies will continue to be part of the mix, there will be a greater effort to be more event focused. We also plan to include more posts on local church histories.
2015 began with a serious health challenge for me, and ended with emergency surgery for my son. The Lord preserved us through it all, and I pray for His blessings in the coming year, that it may prove to be a time of faithful service, of lifting up the name of Christ our Savior, and of doing His will in all that we say and do. If this blog can play even the tiniest part in all of that, it will have served its purpose.
Words to Live By:
Psalm 67 has been a particular comfort and guide in prayer over the past year:
1 God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.
2 That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.
3 Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
4 O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth. Selah.
5 Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
6 Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us.
7 God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.
It was on this day, December 30th, in 1856, that the Rev. Dr. William Henry Green brought a sermon on the occasion of the installation of Rev. Heman R. Timlow, as pastor of the Harris Street Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, Massachusetts. Rev. Timlow had been called to serve this church following the resignation of the Rev. W.W. Eels in March the year prior. All of which is admittedly a rather obscure set of facts and we might honestly wonder why it should merit our attention?
Among Presbyterians, the installation of a pastor remains to this day a service carried out in much the same way. So for one, if we were to look for a model for such an occasion, then here is one example. Moreover, we have here a sermon by an admittedly brilliant young man, at a point early in his remarkable career.
There is also the contrast of the youth of Dr. Green [1825-1900], just 31 years old when he served at the installation of this new pastor, compared with the advanced age of Rev. Dana, then near the end of his life yet still faithfully serving the Lord’s people at this installation. Dr. Green came from a long line of Presbyterians, among them, Jonathan Dickinson, first president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Green had graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1846, was ordained in 1848, and following a brief pastorate in Philadelphia, was installed in 1851 as professor of Biblical and Oriental Literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He remained a professor there until his death in 1900. Rev. Daniel Dana [1771-1859] as noted was near the end of his life, having long served the Presbyterian churches of Newburyport. It was Rev. Dana who had asked Dr. Green to bring the installation sermon on this occasion. Rev. Dana then brought the charge to the pastor. Others serving at this installation included the Rev. John Pike, of Rowley, who brought the charge to the people; and the Rev. A.G. Vermilye, of Newburyport, who extended the right hand of fellowship.
But the primary value of this sermon remains the message itself, as brought by Dr. Green that day. For his message, he chose the text of Luke 4: 18-19 :
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
By the standards of that era, Green’s message is rather brief, taking up just 12-1/2 pages in print. Many of his peers would typically produce similar sermons of twenty pages or more. But length is no judge of quality, and Green is succinct for a purpose, and from a pastoral standpoint, could be seen as a hallmark of his long career at Princeton Seminary, indicative of the heart of his ministry.
The above text, as Dr. Green states in the opening of his sermon, contains an exposition of Christ’s earthly mission. It is the commission which He received from the Father and it is the reason why He was anointed with the Spirit above measure. It comprises the errand upon which He came into the world. And so, to give a glimpse of his sermon, here below are a few choice portions:—
“The mission of the Savior was to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And yet when He ascended to the Father, He left behind Him a world still unreconciled to God, still in its pollution, misery and sin. It was filled still with poor to whom no glad tidings had been carried, with captives whose prison doors were barred as tightly, whose fetters were as galling and whose miserable dungeons were as dark and cheerless as ever; with the broken hearted to whom no voice of the comforter had spoken relief, and with the blind whose sight was as far as ever from being removed. But judge not from this that His errand was was abortive and His work a failure.”
“The work of the world’s recovery was not one begun in a moment and ended in a moment. As there was a protracted period of preparation reaching through many ages and employing various and potent instrumentalities before He came; so there is needed a protracted period for that scheme which He set in operation and which He still conducts and superintends, to work out its expected and certain consummation. The whole might have been accomplished in an instant had the almighty grace of God so chosen; and the moment of Christ’s triumphant resurrection from the grave might have been signalized by the complete ingathering and perfect sanctification of all God’s elect people, by the utter overthrow of Satan’s baleful empire, and by the entire and final banishment from earth of sin and its accursed effects. And so, had God chosen, the world might have been created in a moment, and all its forms of beauty and its innumerable orders of creatures sprung instantaneously into being, instead of being gradually evolved through six successive days. But thus God did not work in creation; nor did He in redemption.”
“To what has been said it may be still further added, that the verses before us are descriptive of the mission of the church of God, as composed of those who have embraced this precious system of saving truth, and stand as its embodiment, its representatives and its champions before the world. . . .Every one who has received the gospel of God’s grace into his soul, is not only one redeemed from the power of the enemy, but one commissioned to ransom others; not only one upon whom the balm of Gilead has begun its work of cure; but a physician, a healer of the hurts and maladies of others; not only a captive loosed from bonds, but set to the work of breaking the chains of those who wear them still. Every Christian is not a mere passive recipient of the truth and of its saving benefits, but in his measure and according to his station, opportunity and ability, he is set for its defence and propagation. He is a light kindled that it may shine—salt put into the mass for the preservation of the whole. The gospel is given to the church of God to spread it and apply it everywhere. . . It is a work of solemn obligation; and to every Christian unemployed in this his bounden duty, comes his Savior’s reproving voice—’why stand ye all the day idle? go, work in my vineyard.’ “
Words to Live By:
The call of the Gospel is a call to real action here and now. Christ saved us that we might bear fruit—that we might live out the life of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and so be used of Him to draw others into His kingdom. For one, as Dr. Green is careful to point out elsewhere in his sermon,
“. . . there is no warrant for restricting the redeeming virtue of the gospel solely to what is spiritual and eternal, and excluding from the sphere of its potency that which is temporal; or rather since it is expressly declared, that godliness has the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come,—as the gospel is capable of undoing and was intended to undo all the mischiefs of the fall, and to banish suffering and sorrow from this present world as well as deliver from it in the next, the church is God’s grand engine of philanthropy. There is not a question bearing on man’s amelioration, individual, social or national, in which the church has not an interest, and in whose solution she should not take her share. There is not a cry of distress, that may be suffered to break upon her ear unregarded. She carries in her hand the potent remedy; and she may not, through her culpable inactivity or through her criminal lack of faith in its sovereign efficacy, keep back from suffering men, what Christ has charged her as His almoner with bestowing upon them. She must hold up the gospel which she has received, before the eyes of men, as God’s appointed cure for all the evils that are in the world. Nor may she content herself with the mere propounding of its abstract principles, nor with the diligent application of it to one class of man’s disorders; as though her caring for one part of her commanded work absolved her from the rest,—as though by caring for men’s eternal, she was absolved from all regard for their temporal interests,—as though after proffering eternal salvation to men, she was thenceforward discharged from further care for them, and might shut up her bowels of compassion from her suffering and needy brother. . . . She must not only hold up the gospel in one of its aspects, but hold it up in all,—not only state its principles but search out and exhibit its applications. ”
A print copy of the above sermon may be found preserved at the PCA Historical Center. Or more conveniently, it may be found on the Web by clicking here.
Our post today comes from the web site of Grace Church, Lansing, Illinois, a church formerly part of the Reformed Church in America and for nearly a year now, a member church of the Presbyterian Church in America. This congregation began, as the account below relates, on this day, December 29, in 1937:
On November 24, 1937 a special session of Classis approved a petition which asked that another Reformed Church be organized in Lansing, Illinois. A committee then met with the interested parties on the evening of December 29, 1937. Thirty-two families chose to start a new congregation. The name “Grace Reformed Church” was unanimously adopted. Worship services were held inthe auditorium of the Indiana Avenue Public School at Indiana Avennue and School Street (now the site of the Lansing Public Library.)
In February, 1938 the congregation purchased the present church site. On March 19, 1938 the cornerstone of the original basement church was laid, and was ready for use by June, 1938. In June, 1938 a call was extended to the first pastor, Rev. Emo Ausema. In the fall of 1939 the congregation decided to build a parsonage of Dutch Colonial Style. Rev. Ausema served Grace Church ofr 6 years. The Lord blessed Grace Church during this time and it grew from 32 to 83 families.
In January, 1945, Rev. Bert VanMalsen was installed as our pastor. As the church continued to grow, plans were laid for the superstructure. In the Spring of 1949 construction began and was finished by June, 1950.
In January 1954, Rev. Cornelius Reynen became our pastor. Many additions such as a Sunday School Bus, stained glass windows and the Wick pipe organ were made.
In November, 1958, Rev. John Beenes became our pastor. The Church and Sunday School continued to grow and the decision was made to build an Education Wing, which was completed in 1962.
In August, 1966, Rev. Russell Sybesma became our pastor. Again, Grace Church prospered and grew in many ways. Annex property was purchased at 2718 Indiana (now commonly referred to the White House or Ministry House) and property on 181st was purchased for a parking lot.
The Misison program grew during this time. Grace Church started with Gladys Kooy as their first misisonary in its beginning. Supported 6 overseas missionaries by the 1960’s and today supports 12 missionaries in the U.S. and overseas; as well as many Mission and Venevolent Causes.
During this time the youth program began to formally develop through youth groups, and GEMS and Cadet programs. Grace first youth pastor, Rev. Ron VerWys was called in 1975; follwed by Rev. Tom Katsma in 1981; Rev. Scott Rees in 1987 and Rev. Dennis Colton in 2009. Mark Morris, Tim Sherman, Joe Greenwald and Scott Dykstra served and contracted Youth Directors as well as several Youth Interns . Rev. Fred Buseman served as an Associate Pastor 1984-1987. Pastor Leroy Childress currently serves as Grace’s Pastor of Youth and Outreach.
In 1984 Rev. Tom Katsma, who was currently the youth pastor, accepted the call to the Senior Pastor position. During his ministry Grace Church established a Contemporary Style of Worship, began a Coffee Break Women’s Ministry; had the addition of video equipment, the position of Music Director was added. Grace Church became aware of the changes and needs in the community around them and made changes to continue to reach out to the community.
In 1992, Rev.Don Schmidt was called as Senior Pastor. His ministry was cut short due to cancer and he went to be with the Lord in April, 1994. While at Grace his vision for reaching the community of Lansing was a stepping stone for the future of Grace.
Rev. Andy Nearpass served Grace Church as it’s Senior Pastor from 1995-2014. During this time Grace Church saw the continuance of a strong youth program; development of small groups; sent numerous mission teams out abroad and into the community, many facility updates; and a focus on prayer and God’s Word.
Pastor Leroy Childress was called as Senior Pastor on June 21, 2015. This marked Grace’s first pastor as a PCA church.
After much prayer and contemplation, on September 20, 2014 the Grace Church Congregation voted to transfer from the Reformed Church in America (RCA) to the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). On October 30, 2014 the Illiana Classis of the RCA voted to approve the requested transfer.
As Grace Church looks to the Lord for guidance in our future and where He will lead us, the mottos of previous years ring through: “Fear Not Little Flock,” “Hither to the Lord has Blessed Us,” “Living and Sharing God’s Wonderful Grace,” and “Reaching…, Healing…, Sending,” “Connect, Grow, Serve, Go.” Grace Church continues to strive to live out it’s mission: Raising up followers of Jesus who impact the community and beyond with God’s love.
A. — The reason annexed to the third commandment is that however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the Lord our God will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment.
1. Why is it that breakers of this commandment might escape punishment
The breakers of this commandment might escape punishment from men because so many times those in authority are just as guilty as those who break the commandment. It is so many times a case of the natural man dealing with the natural man and the things of God are bypassed.
2. Who are they that take the Lord’s name in vain?
The Bible teaches that those who take His name in vain are his avowed enemies. (Ps. 139:20).
3. What should be one of the greatest motivators to hinder us from taking His name in vain?
As believers simply the words “the Lord our God” in this question should motivate us toward recognizing His glory and this should fill us with reverence and a godly fear. It should burden our hearts with guilt if we should break this commandment.
4. Will those who take the name of the Lord in vain escape judgment?
Those who break this commandment will not escape judgment, because God is righteous and has promised that they will be punished.
5. Would you call His promise a threat?
Yes, it could be called a threat in that divine vengeance is aimed against the person breaking the commandment.
6. When will those who break this commandment be punished?
There are two times the breakers of this commandment could be punished. Sometimes they are punished in this life as is seen in Deut. 28:58, 59. Sometimes the punishment will not be given until the hereafter. However, it is certain they will be punished.
A WATCH ON OUR LIPS
“Set a watch, 0 Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” (Ps. 141:3). This verse is an excellent prayer, as we consider this particular commandment of the Lord. When the Bible says, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless”, regarding taking His name in vain, we should all take heed and seek to honor the Lord with our lips at all times. The question is: Are we afraid of speaking anything that might dishonor our Lord? Certainly we should be, for this is one way in which God’s glory is defiled, and as believers our responsibility here is apparent. In an old Presbyterian Prayer Book is found the following prayer:
“Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, we confess to Thee, that in many times and ways, by thought, word, and deed, we have exceedingly sinned against Thee; And are no more worthy to be called Thy children. But we humbly beseech Thee, 0 holy and loving Father, of Thy great mercy in Christ Jesus our Lord, to forgive us our offenses, and henceforth grant us true repentance and newness of life, to the honor and glory of Thy Name. Amen.”
Making this a daily prayer would be good for us all. And yet, there is danger involved in the speech of the believer. The Bible states the danger very well: “This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me.” (lsa. 29:13). The danger is ever present that we talk a good religion, but because our hearts are not right before the Lord we neglect to follow His ways. We are eager to be heard by others who love the Lord, but inwardly we are saying “No!” to Him as He deals with self inside our hearts. Indeed, our prayer should be for Him to set a watch before our mouths, and for the Holy Spirit to increasingly minister to our hearts.
The third commandment makes it plain that we will pay for dishonoring Him with our lips. The payment will be in this life or in the next. We know full well that the unbeliever will be punished, but sometimes we forget that we too will have to suffer. May God help us that our words may ever glorify Him, words lifting high the Lord Jesus Christ to a wicked and perverse generation! (Ps. 19:14).
Published By: The SHIELD and SWORD, INC.
Vol. 4 No. 52 (April 1965)
Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn, Editor
As we need presently need a break and since we still haven’t located the rest of the article shown below (hoping some new reader might help us!), the following is a reprise which we trust will prove profitable. Blessings in Christ our King!
The Auburn Affirmation was first issued on December 26, 1923, in response to the action of the 1923 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. It was then published in its first edition in January of 1924. Affixed to that document were the names of 150 pastors and elders within the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. A subsequent printing issued on May 5, 1924 contained the final list of signators, numbering 1274 names.
The Affirmation was a thinly veiled attack upon core tenets of the Christian faith. By most accounts the Affirmation was a gauntlet thrown down in response to five fundamentals espoused originally in The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910, a deliverance which was later reaffirmed by the PCUSA General Assemblies of 1916 and 1923. It was specifically the action of the 1923 Assembly that brought about the reaction that was the Auburn Affirmation.
Among those five key doctrines that the Doctrinal Deliverance sought to protect, the virgin birth of Christ was second on the list:
2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. The Shorter Catechism states, Question 22: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”
It was this subject that J. Gresham Machen took up in in the December 1924 issue of The Bible Today, the house organ of The National Bible Institute, an evangelical school located in New York City. Given the issues at hand before the Church that year, Machen’s article would have to be considered one of the earliest replies to the Affirmation signatories, though he does not specifically mention the Affirmation by name in this first part of his discussion. And since we only have the first part of this article available to us, we will have to leave it stand at that, until some gracious donor comes forward with other issues of The Bible Today. We’re looking particularly for vol. 19, no. 4, January 1925. From another source we know that part two of this article appeared on pages 111-115 of that issue. (We’re also looking for any other issues of The Bible Today from the years before 1941).
So, introduction aside, here is the text of “The Virgin Birth” by J. Gresham Machen (1924).
THE BIBLE TO-DAY, 19.3 (December, 1924): 75-79.
The Virgin Birth
By J. Gresham Machen, D.D., Assistant Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis in Princeton Theological Seminary
An address delivered at a National Bible Institute Bible Conference, New York City.
ACCORDING to the belief of all the historic branches of the Christian Church, Jesus of Nazareth was born without human father, being conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. In the present lecture we shall consider very briefly the origin of this belief. The belief of the Christian Church in the virgin birth of Christ is a fact of history which requires an explanation. And two kinds of explanation are possible. In the first place, the belief may be explained as being based upon fact. It may be held that the Church came to believe in the virgin birth because as a matter of fact Jesus was born of a virgin. Or in the second place it may be held that the belief arose in some other way. The task of the historian is to balance these two kinds of explanation against each other. Is it easier to explain the belief of the Church in the virgin birth on the hypothesis that it originated in fact or on the hypothesis that it arose in some other way?
I. Belief in the Virgin Birth Based on Fact
We shall first examine the former hypothesis—that the belief in the virgin birth is based upon fact. Of course, the most obvious thing to say is that this belief appears in the New Testament in the clearest possible terms. And most of our time will be taken up in examining the New Testament evidence. But before we come to examine the New Testament evidence it may be well to glance at the later Christian literature.
At the close of the second century, when the Christian literature outside of the New Testament becomes abundant, when we have full information about the belief of the Church at Alexandria, in Asia Minor, at Rome and in the West, we find that everywhere the virgin birth was accepted as a matter of course as one of the essential things in the Christian view of Christ. But this same kind of belief appears also at an earlier time; for example in the old Roman baptismal confession which was the basis of our Apostles’ Creed, in Justin Martyr at the middle of the second century, and in Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, at the beginning of the century. There were, it is true, denials of the virgin birth not only by opponents of Christianity but also by some who professed a kind of Christian faith.
But all of these denials look far more as though they were due to philosophical prepossession than to any genuine historical tradition. The plain fact is that the virgin birth appears just as firmly fixed at the beginning of the second century as at the end of it; it is quite impossible to detect any gradual establishment of the doctrine as though it had to make its way against opposition. Particularly the testimony of Ignatius and of the Apostles’ Creed shows not only that the virgin birth was accepted at a very early time, but that it was accepted as a matter of course and as one of the facts singled out for inclusion even in the briefest summaries of the most important things which the Christian needed to know about Christ. Even this evidence from outside the New Testament would suffice to show that a firm belief in the virgin birth existed in the Christian Church well before the close of the first century.
But still more important is the New Testament evidence, and to that evidence we now turn.
The virgin birth is attested in two of the New Testament books, the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to Luke. The value which will be attributed to this testimony depends of course to a considerable extent upon the view which one holds of each of these two Gospels as a whole. Obviously it will not be possible to discuss these questions here; it would carry us too far afield to discuss the evidence for the early date and high historical value of the two Gospels in which the virgin birth appears. But one remark at least may be made in passing : it may at least be observed that the credit of the great double work, Luke-Acts, has been steadily rising in recent years even in circles which were formerly most hostile. The extraordinary strength of the literary evidence has led even men like Professor von Harnack of Berlin, Professor C. C. Torrey of Yale, and the distinguished historian Professor Eduard Meyer, despite their rejection of the whole supernatural content of the book, to accept the traditional view that Luke-Acts was actually written by Luke the physician, a companion of Paul. It will not be possible here to review that literary evidence in detail; but surely the evidence must be very strong if it has been able to convince even those whose presuppositions render the hypothesis of Lucan authorship so extremely uncomfortable.
But if the Third Gospel was really written by Luke, its testimony as to events in Palestine must surely be received with the greatest possible respect. According to the information derived from the use of the first person plural in the Book of Acts, Luke had been in contact with James, the Lord’s own brother, and with many other members of the primitive Jerusalem Church. Moreover he was in Palestine in A.D. 58 and appears there again two years later; so that presumably he was in the country during the interval. Obviously such a man had the fullest possible opportunity for acquainting himself, not only with events concerning the Gentile mission of Paul but also with events in the life of our Lord in Palestine. It is therefore a matter of no small importance that the virgin birth is narrated in the Third Gospel.
But the virgin birth is not merely narrated in the Third Gospel; it is narrated in a very peculiar part of that Gospel. The first two chapters of the Gospel are possessed of very remarkable literary characteristics. The hand of the author of the whole book has indeed been at work in these chapters, as the elaborate researches of von Harnack and others have clearly shown; but the author’s hand has not been allowed to destroy the underlying literary character of the narrative. And that underlying character is very strongly marked. The truth is that the first two chapters of Luke, with the exception of the typical Greek sentence in Luke 1:1-4, are in spirit and style, as well as in thought, nothing in the world but a bit of the Old Testament embedded in the midst of the New Testament. Nowhere is there a narrative more transparently Jewish and Palestinian than this. It is another question how the Palestinian character of the narrative is to be explained. Some have supposed that Luke used a written Palestinian source, which had already been translated into Greek or which he himself translated; others have supposed that without written sources he has simply caught the truly Semitic flavor of the oral information that came to him in Palestine. At any rate, however the Palestinian character of the narrative is to be explained, that Palestinian character itself is perfectly plain; in the first two chapters of Luke we are evidently dealing with a narrative that came from Palestinian soil.
That fact is of great importance for the question of the virgin birth. It shows that the virgin birth was narrated not merely in Gentile Christian documents but also in the country which was the scene of the narrated event. But there is still another reason why the Palestinian character of the narrative is important. We shall observe in the latter part of the lecture that the great majority of those modern scholars who reject the fact of the virgin birth suppose that the idea of the virgin birth was derived from pagan sources. But if that hypothesis be accepted, the question arises how a pagan idea came to be attested just by the most transparently Jewish and Palestinian portion of the whole New Testament. The Palestinian Judaism of the first century was passionately opposed to pagan influences, especially that loyal type of Palestinian Judaism which appears with such beautiful clearness in Luke 1:2. How could a pagan idea possibly find a place in such a narrative ?
The question is really unanswerable; and in order to attempt to answer it, many modern scholars have had recourse to a truly desperate expedient—they have maintained that the virgin birth was not originally contained in the Palestinian narrative found in the first two chapters of Luke but has been inserted later into that narrative by interpolation. This interpolation theory has been held in two forms. According to the more radical form the virgin birth has been interpolated into the completed Gospel. This hypothesis is opposed by the great weight of manuscript attestation, there being not the slightest evidence among the many hundreds of manuscripts containing the Gospel of Luke that there ever was a form of that Gospel without the verses narrating the virgin birth. A more cautious form of the interpolation theory has therefore sometimes been preferred. According to that more cautious form, although the words attesting the virgin birth formed an original part of the Third Gospel they did not form an original part of the Palestinian source which the author of the Gospel was using in the first two chapters, but were interpolated by the author himself into the source which elsewhere he was closely following.
The Interpolation Theory
What shall be said of this interpolation theory? Very often the best and only refutation of an interpolation theory is the refutation which a distinguished preacher is once said to have applied to theosophy. A lady is reported to have asked the preacher, after one of his lectures, to give her the strongest evidence against theosophy. “Madam,” he replied, “the strongest evidence against theosophy is that there is no evidence in its favor.” Similarly it may be said that the burden of proof is clearly against those who advance an interpolation hypothesis; if no clear evidence can be adduced in its favor the hypothesis must be rejected, and the narrative must be taken as it stands. Even such a consideration alone would be decisive against the interpolation theory regarding the virgin birth in the infancy narrative of the Third Gospel. The advocates of the theory have signally failed to prove their point. The virgin birth is not merely narrated with great clearness in Luke 1:34, 35, but is implied in several other verses; and no reason at all adequate for supposing that these portions of the narrative have been tampered with has yet been adduced. But as a matter of fact we are in the present case by no means limited to such a merely negative method of defense. The truth is that in the present case we can do far more than disprove the arguments for the interpolation hypothesis; we can also actually prove positively that that hypothesis is false. A careful examination shows clearly that the virgin birth, far from being an addition to the narrative in the first chapter of Luke, is the thing for which the whole narrative exists. There is a clear parallelism between the account of the birth of John and that of the birth of Jesus. Even the birth of John was wonderful, since his parents were old. But the birth of Jesus was more wonderful still, and clearly it is the intention of the narrator to show that it was more wonderful. Are we to suppose that while narrating the wonderful birth of John the narrator simply mentioned an ordinary, non-miraculous birth of Jesus? The supposition is quite contrary to the entire manner in which the narrative is constructed. The truth is that if the virgin birth be removed from the first chapter of Luke the whole point is removed, and the narrative becomes quite meaningless. Never was an interpolation hypothesis more clearly false.
But personally I am very glad that the interpolation hypothesis has been proposed, because it indicates the desperate expedients to which those who deny the virgin birth are reduced. The great majority of those who reject the virgin birth of Christ suppose that the idea arose on pagan ground, and admit that other derivations of the idea are inadequate. But in order to hold this view they are simply forced to hold the interpolation theory regarding the first chapter of Luke; for only so can they explain how a pagan idea came to find a place in so transparently Jewish a narrative. But the interpolation theory being demonstrably false, the whole modern way of explaining the idea of the virgin birth of Christ results in signal failure. The naturalistic historians in other words are forced by their theory to hold the interpolation hypothesis; they stake their all upon that hypothesis. But that hypothesis is clearly false; hence the entire construction falls to the ground.
The Virgin Birth in Matthew
So much then for the account of the virgin birth in Luke. Let us now turn to the Gospel according to Matthew. Here the virgin birth is narrated with a plainness which leaves nothing to be desired. Some men used to say that the first two chapters of the Gospel are a later addition, but this hypothesis has now been almost universally abandoned.
The value of this testimony depends of course upon the view that is held of the Gospel as a whole. But it is generally admitted by scholars of the most diverse points of view that the Gospel was written especially for Jews, and the Jewish character of the infancy narrative in the first two chapters is particularly plain.
If this lecture were being delivered under the conditions that prevailed some years ago it might be thought necessary for us to enter at length into the question of Matthew 1:16. Some time ago the textual question regarding this verse was discussed even in the newspapers and created a good deal of excitement. It was maintained by some persons that an ancient manuscript of the Gospels which was discovered in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai provided a testimony against the virgin birth. The manuscript referred to is the so-called Sinaitic Syriac, a manuscript of an ancient translation of the Gospels into the Syriac language. This manuscript is not, as has sometimes been falsely asserted, the most ancient New Testament manuscript; since it is later than the two greatest
manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, which also have the inestimable advantage of being manuscripts of the original Greek, not of a mere Syriac translation. But the Sinaitic Syriac is a very ancient manuscript, having been produced at about 400 A.D., and despite the fact that the extravagant claims made for it have now for the most part been abandoned, a few words about it may still be in place.
The Sinaitic Syriac Manuscript
The Sinaitic Syriac has a curious reading at Matthew 1:16. But the importance of this witness must not be exaggerated. In order to accept the witness of the Sinaitic Syriac against all other documents one must suppose (1) that this manuscript has correctly reproduced at the point in question the ancient Syriac translation from which it is descended by a process of transmission, (2) that this ancient Syriac translation (which was probably produced in the latter part of the second century) correctly represented at this point the Greek manuscript from which the translation was made, and (3) that that Greek manuscript correctly represented at this point the autograph of the Gospel from which it was descended by a process of transmission. All of this is exceedingly uncertain in view of the over-whelming mass of evidence on the other side. To accept one witness against all the other witnesses is a very precarious kind of textual criticism where the evidence is so exceedingly abundant as it is in the case of the New Testament.
But as a matter of fact the Sinaitic Syriac does not deny the virgin birth at all. It attests the virgin birth in Matthew 1:18-25 just as clearly as do the other manuscripts, and it implies it even in Matthew 1:16. The reading of the Sinaitic Syriac which has given rise to the discussion is (translated into English by Burkett) as follows : “Jacob begat Joseph. Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, begat Jesus that is called the Messiah.” That would be self-contradictory if the word “begat” meant what it means in English. But as a matter of fact the scribe of the Sinaitic Syriac, if he thought of what he was doing and was not simply making a careless mistake, clearly used the word “begat” in the sense, “had as a legal descendant.” It is interesting to note that Professor F. C. Burkitt, the greatest British authority on the Syriac manuscripts, who certainly is far from being prejudiced in favor of the virgin birth, holds that even if the original text were simply “Joseph begat Jesus” (which as a matter of fact appears in no manuscript) it would be absolutely without significance as a testimony against the virgin birth; for it would only mean that Joseph had Jesus as his legal heir. The author of the First Gospel is interested in two things, in one of them just as much as in the other. He is interested in showing (1) that Jesus was the heir of David through Joseph and (2) that He was a gift of God to the house of David in a more wonderful way than would have been the case if He had been descended from David by ordinary generation.
Thus even if the Sinaitic Syriac did represent the original text, it would not deny the virgin birth. But as a matter of fact it does not represent the original text at all. The original text of Matthew 1:16 is exactly the text that we are familiar with in our Bibles.
Accordingly we have an unequivocal double witness to the virgin birth of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. These two witnesses are clearly independent. If one thing is clear to modern scholars—and to every common-sense reader—it is that Matthew has not used Luke and Luke has not used Matthew. The very difficulty of fitting the two infancy narratives together is, to the believer in the virgin birth, a blessing in disguise; for it demonstrates at least the complete independence of the two accounts. The unanimity of these two independent witnesses constitutes the very strongest possible testimony to the central fact about which they are perfectly and obviously agreed.
But at this point an objection is often made. The rest of the New Testament, we are told, says nothing about the virgin birth; Paul says nothing about it, neither does Mark. Hence the testimony in favor of it is often said to be weak; and men are often impressed with this argument from silence.
Argument from Silence
Now the argument from silence needs to be used with a great deal of caution. The silence of a writer about any detail is without significance unless it has been shown that if the writer in question had known and accepted that detail he would have been obliged to mention it.
But that is just exactly what cannot be shown in the case of the silence about the virgin birth. Paul, for example, does not mention the virgin birth, and much has been made of his silence. “What is good enough for Paul,” we are told in effect, “is good enough for us; if he got along without the virgin birth we can get along without it too.” It is rather surprising, indeed, to find the Modernists of today advancing that particular argument; it is rather surprising to find them laying down the principle that what is good enough for Paul is good enough for them, and that things which are not found in Paul cannot be essential to Christianity. For the center of their religion is found in the ethical teaching of Jesus, especially in the Golden Rule. But where does Paul say anything about the Golden Rule, and where does he quote at any length the ethical teachings of Jesus? We do not mean at all that the silence about such things in the Epistles shows that Paul did not know or care about the words and example of our Lord. On the contrary there are clear intimations that the reason why the Apostle does not tell more about what Jesus did and said in Palestine is not that these things were to him unimportant but that they were so important that instruction about them had been given at the very beginning in the churches and so did not need to be repeated in the Epistles, which are addressed to special needs. And where Paul does give details about Jesus the incidental way in which he does so shows clearly that there is a great deal else which he would have told if he had found occasion. The all-important passage in I Corinthians 15:3-8 provides a striking example. In that passage Paul gives a list of appearances of the risen Christ. He would not have done so if it had not been for the chance (humanly speaking) of certain mis-understandings that had arisen in Corinth. Yet if he had not done so, it is appalling to think of the inferences which would have been drawn from his silence by modern scholars. And yet, even if the occasion for mentioning the list of appearances had not happened to arise in the Epistles it would still have remained true that that list of appearances was one of the absolutely fundamental elements of teaching which Paul gave to the churches at the very beginning.
That example should make us extremely cautious about drawing inferences from the silence of Paul. In the Epistles Paul mentions very few things about the earthly life of Jesus; yet clearly he knew far more than in the Epistles he has found occasion to tell. It does not at all follow therefore that because he does not mention a thing in the Epistles he did not know about it. Hence the fact that he does not mention the virgin birth does not prove that the virgin birth was to him unknown.
Moreover, although Paul does not mention the virgin birth the entire account which he gives of Jesus as an entirely new beginning in humanity, as the second Adam, is profoundly incongruous with the view that makes Jesus the son, by ordinary generation, of Joseph and Mary. The entire Christology of Paul is a powerful witness to the same event that is narrated in Matthew and Luke; the religion of Paul presupposes a Jesus who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.
The silence of Mark is of just as little importance as the silence of Paul. The Gospel according to Mark seems to have been pre-eminently the missionary gospel; it was not intended to give all the facts about Jesus, but simply those which needed to be given first to those who had not already been won to Christ. Reading the Second Gospel, you stand in astonishment like those who were in the synagogue at Capernaum in the scene described in the first chapter. You see the wonderful works of Jesus; you stand afar off looking at Him; you are not introduced to Him with the intimacy of detail which one finds in Matthew and Luke. The fact that Mark does not narrate the virgin birth does not prove that he does not believe in the virgin birth or that it is to him less important than other facts; but shows merely that the narration of the birth of Jesus in any form is quite contrary to the plan of his Gospel, which begins with the public ministry. The most important things that need to be said are not always the first things; and Mark is concerned with the first things that would make an impression even upon those who had not already been won to Christ.
The New Testament does indeed imply that the contemporaries of Jesus in Palestine were unaware of the story of the virgin birth, and perhaps it also “makes probable that the virgin birth formed no part of the earliest missionary preaching of the apostles in Jerusalem. But all that is just what would be expected even if the virgin birth was a fact. The virgin birth was a holy mystery which was capable of the grossest misunderstanding; certainly it would not be spoken of by a person like Mary whose meditative character is so delicately and so vividly depicted in the first two chapters of Luke. It would not be spoken of to the hostile multitude, and least of all would it be spoken of to the brothers of Jesus. Also it would certainly not be mentioned in the earliest public missionary preaching before the crowds in Jerusalem. Only at some time after the resurrection, when the miracle of the virgin birth had at last been vindicated by the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus would Mary breathe the mystery of Jesus’ birth to sympathetic ears. Hence it found its way into the wonderful narrative preserved by Luke and from there into the hearts of Christians of all the ages.
Such is the course of events which would be expected if the virgin birth was a fact. And the attestation of the event in the New Testament is just exactly what is suited to these antecedent probabilities. The attestation in the very nature of the case could not be equal to that of an event like the resurrection, of which there were many eye-witnesses; but it is just what it would naturally be if the event really occurred in the manner in which it is said to have occurred in Matthew and Luke.
But the full force of the New Testament evidence can be appreciated only if the accounts are allowed to speak for themselves. These narratives are wonderfully self-evidencing; they certainly do not read as though they are based on fiction; and they are profoundly congruous with that entire account of Jesus without” which the origin of the Christian religion is an insoluble puzzle.
(To be continued – that is, if we can locate that next issue from 1925!)
This is the concluding article in the series PRESBYTERIANS IN AMERICA. The author, Rev. Prof. Paul Woolley, was formerly the professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I do hope you have found Rev. Woolley’s articles both interesting and instructive, and I do trust that our readers are more familiar now than […]
Dr. Paul Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America continues today with a segment on churches of Covenanter ancestry. Please keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time. VI – The Churches of Covenanter Ancestry [Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 86.3 (March 1952): 25-26] […]
On August 27th, 1820, the Rev. Sylvester Larned appeared for the last time before the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans. He had remained in the city during the summer’s “sickly season.” Death from fever was everywhere, and Rev. Larned has spent those weeks and months ministering to the city’s poor who […]
Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America continues today with a focus on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church. Our Monday and Tuesday posts will conclude this series. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time. V […]
We continue today with Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church. Presbyterians in Americaby Rev. Paul Woolley IV […]
We continue today with Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time. Presbyterians in Americaby Rev. Paul Woolley III – The Presbyterian Church in the United States [Reformed Presbyterian Advocate, 85.12 (December 1951): […]
We continue today with Dr. Woolley’s series of articles on Presbyterians in America. Do keep in mind that these articles were written in the early 1950s and so much has changed since that time. Presbyterians in Americaby Rev. Paul Woolley Part II – The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. [first published in The Reformed Presbyterian […]
Yesterday we ran a post with a genealogical chart of Presbyterian denominations in North America. As it was from the 1950s, it’s dated, but adequate to provide the basic scheme of things. (see the embedded link).Today we begin with Part 1 in Dr. Paul Woolley’s brief series on Presbyterian denominations in North America. Presbyterians in […]
This week we will be presenting a series of articles by the Rev. Dr. Paul Woolley [1902-1984], who served as professor of church history at the Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, from the start of that school in 1929 until his retirement in 1977. This series of articles appeared on the pages of The Reformed Presbyterian […]
“The day in which we live, and the present circumstances which the people of God and these nations are under, do loudly proclaim a very great necessity of being in this broken and tender frame; for who can foresee what will be the issue of these violent fermentations that are amongst us?” Returning after a […]