The Danger of Flattening

According to J. Gresham Machen:

. . . the witness of the New Testament, with regard to Jesus as the object of faith, is an absolutely unitary witness. The thing is rooted far too deep in the records of primitive Christianity ever to be removed by any critical process. The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust.

But by modern liberalism He is regarded in a totally different way. Christians stand in a religious relation to Jesus; liberals do not stand in a religious relation to Jesus − what difference could be more profound than that? The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But he does not stand in a religious relation to Jesus. Jesus for him is an example for faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus. According to modern liberalism, in other words, Jesus was the Founder of Christianity because He was the first Christian, and Christianity consists in maintenance of the religious life which Jesus instituted. . . .

Yet in the Gospels Jesus is represented constantly as dealing with the problem of sin. He always assumes that other men are sinful; yet He never finds sin in Himself. A stupendous difference is found here between Jesus’ experience and ours.

That difference prevents the religious experience of Jesus from serving as the sole basis of the Christian life. For clearly if Christianity is anything it is a way of getting rid of sin. At any rate, if it is not that it is useless; for all men have sinned. And as a matter of fact it was that from the very beginning. Whether the beginning of Christian preaching be put on the day of Pentecost or when Jesus first taught in Galilee, in either case one of its first words was “Repent.” Throughout the whole New Testament the Christianity of the primitive Church is represented clearly as a way of getting rid of sin. But if Christianity is a way of getting rid of sin, then Jesus was not a Christian; for Jesus, so far as we can see, had no sin to get rid of. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Wouldn’t Machen’s logic, not to mention his noteworthy battle with liberalism, be a reason for avoiding statements that regard Jesus as the greatest Christian ever?


43 thoughts on “The Danger of Flattening

  1. But there is another difficulty in the way of regarding Jesus as simply the first Christian. This second difficulty concerns the attitude of Jesus toward sin. If Jesus is separated from us by his Messianic consciousness, He is separated from us even more fundamentally by the absence in Him of a sense of sin…

    Once affirm that Jesus was sinless and all other men sinful, and you have entered into irreconcilable conflict with the whole modern point of view…

    The religious experience of Jesus, as it is recorded in the Gospels, in other words, gives us no information about the way in which sin shall be removed.
    Yet in the Gospels Jesus is represented constantly as dealing with the problem of sin. He always assumes that other men are sinful; yet He never finds sin in Himself. A stupendous difference is found here between Jesus’ experience and ours.

    Machen, Christianity and Liberalism


  2. Jones actually did not write that Jesus was the greatest “Christian” ever, but opined that Jesus was “… the greatest believer who ever lived.”

    Jones goes on to provide Vos’ explanation:

    Thus, Vos, in contrasting Paul’s writings with Hebrews, remarks: “while in these other writings Christ is the object of faith, the One towards whom the sinner’s trust is directed, here the Saviour is described as himself exercising faith, in fact as the one perfect, ideal believer.”

    I don’t see Machen’s view opposing Vos’ (or Jones’) view on the matter of Jesus exercising faith


  3. Frank, how would you unpack these quotes from Jones’ book? At a minimum they seem to be confusing in the close analogy he draws between the perfect person of the sinless Redeemer and the very imperfect persons of sinners redeemed.

    How and in what power was Christ made holy? And what relation does his own pattern of holiness have to his people?…

    He, like us, relied upon the Holy Spirit for his holiness (Isa. 11:2)… [is this even true, that Christ relied on the H.S. for his holiness? Isa. 11:2 hardly proves that assertion.]

    Obviously, Christ’s assurance and our assurance are not strictly the same… Assurance, for Christ, was not simply looking to the promises, but also looking to the inward graces communicated to his human nature by the Holy Spirit…. More than that, returning to the objective side, Christ received assurance at his baptism and at the Transfiguration (Mark 1:9–11; 9:2–8). The Father assured Jesus that he was God’s Son, and was well pleasing to him. But Christ would also have received assurance that he was God’s Son in the subjective realm as he prayed. Surely what is true of believers, namely, that the Spirit enables us to cry “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15–16), is true of the man who was endowed with the Spirit above measure (John 3:34)…


  4. It’s too bad DGH didn’t live in the days of John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Francis Turretin. He could have schooled them in the dangers of “flattening” via his vastly superior theological acumen — or at least via his ability to quote Machen in an entirely different context (unless Owen, Goodwin, and Turretin were proto-Liberals).


  5. Frank, you would if you had the man crush on Machen that you have on Jones.

    Jesus a believer? That’s not the language of Jesus as a model believer/Christian?


  6. DGH,

    1. Nice diversionary tactic. No other response?

    2. Actually, Goodwin (as a member of the Westminster Assembly) did swear the Solemn League and Covenant.


  7. So Jones can find some people who say that Jesus lived by faith. I’m still not convinced. I don’t see it in the pages of Scripture.

    But the point about Machen and his perspective is brilliant. And I think the same thing could be said for Warfield. He wrote a substantial work on sanctification. I would think that would be the ideal place for Warfield – arguably the greatest American systematic theologian – to point out how all of the unorthodox theologies of sanctification of his day had missed this important point about Jesus (and Adam) having faith. It could just be my memory, but I don’t recall that in Warfield.

    But if that is true for Machen and Warfield, it certainly seem to hold true for other Princeton theologians. I know Jones quotes Vos – but his quote from Vos hardly says everything that Jones says. I think the Vos quote could be taken very much in the same way that Kline understood Christ’s faith: that if Jesus had faith, it was simply trusting that the Father would actually give him the reward he had held out to Christ on condition of Christ’s obedience.


  8. What is Jones saying about Christ’s faith that is different from Vos, Goodwin, Owen, Turretin, et al?

    Jesus trusted/believed his father to deliver on his promises. That’s all I read Jones to be saying, and indeed the others. He’s hardly saying Jesus needed a savior. Any idiot knows that’s impossible.

    This is getting petty.


  9. Did I just read Jones advocating the Romanist doctrine of infused righteousness to Adam’s pre-fall state? What’s this guy doing on a “Reformation” blog?


  10. Yeah, Jones and all those other Westminster divines who affirmed that view. Lol.

    Did you read the post where Jones explicitly talks about how the Reformed did not embrace the Catholic donum, and also rejected the Socinian view?

    What are you doing in the comments box?


  11. Darren- I’m not a sycophant of Jones, so no, I did not see that post.
    Whether or not he denied it previously this quote should cause concern:

    ” But that does not mean, it seems to me, that we cannot also affirm that God was gracious in assisting Adam (i.e., superadded gift) by giving him the Holy Spirit so that Adam could enjoy communion with God in the context of his obedient life.”
    The implications are clear: If Adam was not created holy and righteous in his original state then by extension neither can we say Jesus was holy and righteous apart from some super added gift.

    It’s pretty clear what you are doing in the comment box.


  12. Not a sycophant? But you criticize without reading. Interesting.

    Someone can be holy and righteous and receive the Spirit, too. Why are there so many references to Jesus receiving the Spirit? Or is that just for show?


  13. The Gospel Retardation Network in living color with Jones as an online segment co-host:

    Bringing balance after nearly 20 years of imbalance to the topic of sanctification, Rev. Reeder and Rev. Phillips, et al? And for $16,000 a pop (plus or minus) and a signed contract (Sinaitic Covenant) to revitalize churches, Rev. Reeder? With New Side/New School legalism? With your endorsement of the ‘Flattener’ Mark Jones?


  14. If you think it mitigates against this quote then post a link. I’m merely taking Jones at face value based on this quote.
    The problem the Reformers had with Donum was that presumed that man was deficient in nature at creation and that human nature needed help to climb the chain of being to reach God. The Reformed have always held that man was created “very good” and not in need of any added grace to commune with God. So when Jones says, “giving him the Holy Spirit so that Adam could enjoy communion with God”, it mimics the Romanist error.
    If we apply the same to Jesus then we are declaring his human nature as imperfect and in need of some additional grace to commune with God. If that’s the case then, as Machen quote shows, Jesus becomes merely a moral example of living in the Spirit to commune with God instead of the perfect man from conception whose death covers our sins.


  15. I guess you could mark me as “mildly concerned” about this article. There are odd phrasings:

    “Jesus received help from God in many forms…”

    (does he mean “help from the Father”? “help from the Triune God”? What is the Christological picture here? Repeat after me: “It’s just a blog…”)

    Then there’s

    Christ’s obedience – all of it – was done in the power of the Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the “immediate operator of all divine acts of the Son himself, even on his own human nature. Whatever the Son of God wrought in, by, or upon the human nature, he did it by the Holy Ghost, who is his Spirit” (Owen).

    Right, but the distinction is that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ — His very own! — so that “in the power of the Spirit” takes on a very different meaning for Christ than it does for us. Christ’s work in the power of the Spirit is His own work, inasmuch as where one person of the Trinity is at work, all are. For us, “in the power of the Spirit” means “not our own work.” That’s hugely different. (I don’t expect Jones to disagree, obviously).

    I’m not generally happy with polymorphic theology, words that take on multiple meanings in different contexts.

    But here:

    “For let the natural faculties of the soul, mind, will, and affections, be created pure, innocent, undefiled, – as they cannot be otherwise created immediately by God, – yet there is not enough to enable any rational creature to live to God; much less was it all that was in Jesus Christ.”

    This is true for Adam; this is true for Christ. The parallel stands between the two. Their obedience was not “naked” obedience, as if their natural faculties were sufficient because they were sinless. No!

    This is interesting inasmuch as Turretin posits that the Covenant of Works has these characteristics (8.3). It is

    * legal
    * of works
    * of nature, meaning that it required obedience in Adam’s own strength.

    Meanwhile, the covenant of grace is

    * evangelical
    * of faith
    * of grace, meaning that God supplies the conditions he requires.

    So I wonder about the Owen quote above. Is there a genuine tension between Owen and Turretin? Is Jones over-reading Owen? Am I over-reading Turretin? (Possible, but FT is so clear …). For FT, it is essential that Adam obeyed naturally. For Jones, it is essential that he didn’t.

    I get the same odd feeling about this para

    Returning to the covenant of works for Adam, we can affirm that Adam was placed under a covenant of works. We may rightly argue that Adam had to perfectly obey God in order to “earn” or “merit” (ex pacto) his reward. But that does not mean, it seems to me, that we cannot also affirm that God was gracious in assisting Adam (i.e., superadded gift) by giving him the Holy Spirit so that Adam could enjoy communion with God in the context of his obedient life.

    Let’s talk about this notion of Adam having the Spirit.

    * Where taught in Scripture?
    * Then why the Fall?
    * just musing: The Spirit was given because Jesus was taken up from His people. Yet Adam walked with God. Is it true then that Adam needed the Spirit to enjoy communion with God?

    But all these are just interesting questions, right? The real concern is, What is the prize? Where is this going? Jones seems to have some unshared connection between the Adam/Jesus/us parallel and his views on sanctification. Hence:

    Christ’s human nature was “sanctified, and filled with grace according to the measure of its receptivity.” The Holy Spirit endowed Jesus with all grace. Why is this so crucial?

    Is the prize simply to say that those who have the Spirit will be sanctified? OK, then. But this seems like a really round-about way to get there.

    Jones’ project is not yet clear to me. I suppose that means I have to buy the book. *sigh*


  16. Does every Mark Jones posting follow the same form? First, state position. Second, assemble a collection of Reformed or Puritan quotations, then slide them across the table like a pile of poker chips. Third, say, “And there you have it.” Repeat for next go round. Some of us sola Scriptura die-hards would pay more attention to his posts if he presented relevant Biblical texts and explained them, then, in a footnote, note that every Reformed writer (and their wives) who has ever lived explained them the same way. I’m Reformed, but I am also weary of this Mishnah way of doing theology. Anyone can comb the index of a “The Works of . . . ” and find the relevant topics, but by itself, it doesn’t persuade.


  17. Darren, awesome name, and the only reason I’m spending any time to give a response to someone who thinks that “lol” is an argument.

    Do you really not see the potential difficulties created in Jones’ formulations? Perhaps you can offer a more substantial reconciliation of Machen’s warning with Jones’ writings. It’s not simply a question of whether he is repeating the words of Westminster Divines. I find that to be a very shallow analysis. But what is he repeating these words FOR? Identical words can be employed to mean and accomplish radically different and opposed ends.


  18. Chris: “All this guy does is quote other writers; not convinced. Machen and Warfield say…” Hmmmmm, I’m not convinced. Can someone be the “greatest American systematic theologian” who didn’t even write a systematic theology and is iffy on inspiration? Hmmmm, not convinced. I don’t think anyone who quotes Machen and Kline the amount you guys do can anything against Jones quoting the puritans especially since he’s doing so to make the point that many Reformed have made these points.


  19. Alexander, don’t you think it helps to see the implications of the quotations you’re quoting. I mean, look at Russell’s comments here, or David R.’s. A quote without comment settles nothing unless the guy you’re quoting lives in Rome and wears a funny hat (not in a tee hee or Mark Jones way, but peculiar).


  20. So I read the other “sacred” text by Jones:
    Here’s the gist of it: Theological terms become polymorphic (as Jeff noted).
    Creation= grace
    Covenant of Work=grace
    Everlasting life=grace
    Imago Dei=grace
    Which leaves the term without meaning or distinction. (He redefines and expands the work of the Holy Spirit and Faith as fits his needs as well.)
    In the final analysis, from this view, natural man (the image bearer) is a lump of meat in need of animation.
    The Thomists and the Reformed experientialists sing together: Graces elevates nature


  21. iggy, welcome to the right side on this one. I didn’t think you had it in you.

    If only Stellman were still around to combat this in that whacky PCA presbytery.


  22. diggy, I’ve always been there (don’t mess with grace). My disagreements with you have been over the other kingdom and the degree to which we are involved with all image bearers (I’m Dutch after all).


  23. The Christian View of Man, by Machen, Banner, p 160–

    “Thus the covenant of works into which God entered with man was a gracious thing. It contained indeed a possibility of death, but it contained also the promise of assured and eternal life. If the temptation was resisted, even the possibility of death would be removed.

    “Now do you think that if Adam had not sinned, the entrance into that higher condition would have been closed to him? Do you think he would have left to an eternal jeopardy in which the dread possibility of his sinning would ever have been before his eyes?”

    mcmark: Well, as long as it’s only a “if that, what then, would have happened” question, and as long as we don’t have any Bible either way, and I am being asked what I think—Yes, I think endless probation “would not have been unjust” and justice does not demand grace.


  24. Dr. Hart- Agreed. But then none of you seem interested in engaging with the quotes. Clearly there is something to what Jones is saying, even if it’s unfortunate he’s the one saying. But to say it’s not Reformed to say or think something and then ignore the evidence of many Reformed who seemed to say and think that exact thing doesn’t help. Take grace, for example. Clearly there are Reformed who feel quite comfortable talking about grace pre-fall. I have you lengthy quotes from Boston showing just that. It’s quite established for the Reformed to talk about different types of grace. If you want to argue that the grace after the fall has a different character then fine; if you want to argue that the grace pre-fall was really God’s goodness or His condescending to fellowship with a finite being then fine. But to so narrowly define grace that it only means the specific act of salavtion is to literally become Protestant Reformed. God and Adam were not on an equal footing pre-Fall. There has to be some way to talk about it.


  25. Dr. Hart- Sorry, but merely mentioning names doesn’t mean anything. I’ll need some explanation. But I’m certainly intrigued to see you call Boston a Shepherdite: please elaborate.


  26. Well, I argued for Boston’s view and you keep implying I’m a Shepherdite, ergo you’re saying Boston was one, anachronism or no anachronism.


  27. Talk about flattening:

    Christmas is the comforting feast of God’s taking on our humanity, and, except for sin, sparing himself none of the experiences from love to loneliness that we carried out of Eden with us. Our inheritance, even as we strive for holiness, is our being human. Ironically, we can never become saints unless we first become human.
    That, of course, is one of the great lessons that the women religious of America taught us as they built the church in this and other countries. They took on the toughest jobs, like the company that cleans up after disasters with the promise that the site will look like nothing ever happened.

    America’s religious women, in effect, took on the challenge of cleaning up Eden after the Fall. The nuns as teachers, nurses, and all-round social workers did the day labor in the cities swollen by Catholic immigrants, living with the poor, the needy, and the uneducated, transforming them within a few generations into high achievers in — and high contributors to — American life and accomplishment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.