Cunningly Devised Fables
By Rev. Lardner W. Moore
[THE SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 8.24 (15 April 1950): 8-9.]
(Sermon preached by Rev. L. W. Moore, retiring chairman, at the opening of the Annual Meeting of the Japan Mission in January.)
II Peter 1:16, 19:
“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables (myths) when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
“We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well to take heed.”
Attention is called to the words “cunningly devised fables.” The King James and the American Standard Versions translate the word “fables.” The Revised Standard Version translates it “myth”, which is no doubt closer to the original. Fables have to do with stories of animals which speak and talk like men, such as in Aesop’s Fables. But according to Webster a myth is “a story the origin of which is forgotten, ostensibly historical but usually such as to explain some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon.” “A person or thing existing only in the imagination.” “Myths are especially associated with religious rites and beliefs.” A myth is a story “ostensibly historical” which explains a belief or institution associated with religion.
It is very interesting that both Peter and Paul, at the close of their ministries warn the believers against myths. Paul says in 1 Tim. 1:3 “Neither give heed to fables (myths) and endless genealogies” and again in 4:7 “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables (myths) and exercise thyself rather to godliness.” In 2 Tim. 4:4 “And they shall turn away their ears from the truth and shall be turned unto fables (myths).” And in Titus 1:13, 14 “Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; not giving heed to Jewish fables (myths) and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.”
The contrast is brought out clearly in the two verses of our text. Peter and the apostles knew that the religions of their day not only were based on myths but that the great majority of the people knew nothing of any other form of religion. So he says, “Yea, I will give diligence that at every time ye may be able after my departure to call these things to remembrance.” “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables—but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” The religions of his day were recognized as being cunningly devised but Peter claimed the authority of one who with his own eyes had beheld the glory of Jesus or as we find it in John, “we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” It will not be necessary to remind you that Paul bases his authority as an apostle on the fact that he had seen the Lord Jesus.
And yet Peter goes on to say in the 19th verse “and we have a more sure word of prophecy.” We need not go into the discussion as to whether Peter meant to speak of the written word of the Old Testament as on a par with or above the testimony of the apostles; it is sufficient that Peter says we have a surer word since they had seen the Christ and his works, they had been given the Holy Spirit and even the Old Testament prophesies bore the sign and seal of the word of God spoken through holy men who so recorded it. The contrast between the myths that formed the basis of the other religions of his day and the “surer word” which was the possession of the Christians of that day.
How the church has been cursed with myths in spite of the warning and assurance of these apostles! We can only refer to some of the myths which grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, many of them still cherished. The myths of the childhood of Jesus; how he and his friends made clay pigeons and when he commanded, they actually came to life and flew away. Or the myth of the Immaculate Conception; that is, that the Virgin Mary was born sinless. Or the myth that the Virgin Mary has special access to Jesus in Heaven and our prayers will be answered more readily if made through her. Or the assumption of pontifical authority by the Apostle Peter. All of these things are held as historical and much of the life of that church is built on the assumptions associated with them.
As for us here in Japan, we blushed with shame as we read of the ceremonies throughout the land and the world as the arm of Xavier was carried from city to city. We grieved to hear the Japanese Buddhists referring to those performances as being very similar to Buddhist practice. It would seem to insult the reason of man, to say nothing of the power of our Lord, and yet the whole mythical ritual was carried out by a world church.
But has Protestantism, or the Protestant Church, a better record? Since the name of Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Seminary, New York, has been in the religious news, Japanese ministers have asked me of his theological views. Being ashamed to say I had not read any of his books, I was compelled to buy his “The Nature and Destiny of Man.” In that book, he speaks not infrequently of “the myth of the fall” (of Adam). In other words here was a so-called leader of Protestantism who believes that some of the theories of Genesis are based on myth.
It has not been more than ten years ago that I sat in a church in New York and heard Dr. George Buttrick, also of Union Seminary, preach a sermon based on “that beautiful myth” of the raising to life of the man thrown on Elisha’s bones, found in 2 Kings 13. Now when I was in the Seminary in Richmond some thirty years ago, it was generally understood that Union New York had departed from the faith as to the authenticity of the Bible. This year I find Dr. Buttrick speaking at the Centennial of Austin College, and Dr. Coffin, of the same Seminary, invited to speak in Richmond. In other words, we find our own beloved church making common cause with men who believe that much of our Scripture and hence our religion originated in myth and legend.
Now if we are to follow the counsel of the apostles appointed by our Lord we must not “be given to Jewish myths” and Peter denies that the things he preached had anything to do with “cunningly devised myths.” If there are Jewish myths in the Old Testament they should be avoided and yet the leaders of Protestantism for the last half century have been more and more accepting, approving and proclaiming the mythological origin of much of our Bible or, what is worse, they tell us, as long as we follow Jesus, it makes no difference.
What of the effect of this teaching among the Japanese? Now it is readily admitted that the Shinto religion of the Japanese is based on myth. And there are among them stories which could not be published in the language of the people because of the actual filthiness of some of the deeds of the so-called gods. But they were “ostensibly historical” stories which were revered by hosts of people, old and young. What has modern Protestantism offered the Japanese in place of their own myths? We have witnessed the Christian Church trying to lead people to substitute “Jewish myths” for their own revered legends. It is easy to see how the mind of the modern Japanese refused to admit that “Jewish myths” were superior to Japanese myths. And yet we find modern Protestantism trying to do just that It is no wonder that there were and still are, many Japanese who felt that they could fit the moral precepts of the New Testament onto the mythological origins of Shinto. At this point, Protestantism has done, not only the cause of Christ, but the intellectual feelings of the Japanese people a deep injury; an injury which is more devastating than the atom bomb since the atom bomb had to do with physical death while belief in myths is equivalent to “turning away from the truth.”
But there is another myth which Protestantism is propagating to the injury of the cause of truth in Japan. It is that the defeat in war has wrought a miracle in the hearts of the Japanese people. Shinto is dead! The Japanese are turning to the church in crowds! If defeat in war can bring true repentance to the heart of the people, where is the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion? It is true that doors have been opened to the free course of the gospel but we also know that as far as the hearts of the people are concerned there is more knavery of every kind going on freely in Japan than was allowed under the regime of the Militarists. The doors have been opened both ways and it does no good to us nor to the work to preserve “cunningly devised myths.”
What can we as a Mission offer the Japanese? It is our glorious opportunity and duty to present the truth of God in contrast to myths, Jewish or otherwise. Luther and Calvin found the world of their day so burdened with myth and legend that it was impossible to tell what was Christian and what was not What did they do? They turned to “the surer word of prophecy” namely, the Old and New Testaments. They proclaimed the evil of myths on every hand as man made and as the work of the Devil. In contrast, they proclaimed God’s word from Genesis to Revelation as of God and true and for the edification of all, both Jew and Greek. If the Old Testament is myth, let us shun it as we would poison. If the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection are myth, let us face the facts and tear these legends out of our Bibles and be fair with our fellow workers, be they American or Japanese. But the testimony in our hearts bears witness with the testimony in the Scriptures that they are the word of God. We are a Mission which has taken its stand on the word of God as defined in our Confession of Faith. If we hold fast we will be able to repair a part of the breach in the wall in defense of our faith and with the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, we can go forth to breach the gates of Hell. No, not with “cunningly devised myths” but by “a more sure word of prophecy.”