“Christianity and Liberalism” and the Old Testament as History

June 12, 2019

by Elizabeth Groves

In his book Christianity and Liberalism, J. G. Machen repeatedly emphasizes that Christianity cannot float in a vague, ethereal sea of timeless principles. Rather, it is and must always be tethered to the historical events that founded it—namely, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Historicity is similarly critical for the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. It tells about a God who created the world, chose Abraham, and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, among hundreds of other things. If these events did not really happen, if they are just legends or embellishments, then the Old Testament is no more than the musings of an ancient people about what sort of god they longed for. Both the legends and the god featured in them are, for people of other times and places, just a passing curiosity or a subject of scholastic research.

Mercifully, gloriously, this God of the Bible is eager to be known, and is generous in his self-disclosure.

However, if the events that the Old Testament narrates really did happen in time and space as it records, then we see a God who exists independent of man’s imaginings, who acted on his own initiative and according to his own plan, who is, in fact, real! That is something that is relevant to all people of all times.

Mercifully, gloriously, this God of the Bible is eager to be known, and is generous in his self-disclosure. Each time God acted in human history, he revealed something about himself to those who witnessed it or heard about it—just ask Rahab (Josh. 2:9–11). But each revelation would have benefitted only the people of that time if God had not preserved a record for people of later generations. Yet he went beyond merely recording his deeds. As Machen says of New Testament history, the biblical documents provide more than just the bare facts. In the Old Testament as well as the New, God also supplied his own explanation of the meaning of his actions, lest his people misapprehend him based on faulty interpretation of the events. For instance, God let Israel know that he sent the plagues on Egypt and parted the Red Sea not because he was grumpy, or bored, or vindictive, but to show them—and Egypt, and all the watching world—that he was mighty beyond imagining, had absolute authority, and was faithful to his people and his promises. In the unfolding show-and-tell throughout the history of the Old Testament, God both demonstrated and explained what he was like and what was on his heart.

God was taking history somewhere, and that somewhere was the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of his Son.

Jesus, as Machen notes, held a high view of the truth and authority of the Old Testament as God’s Word. When the question arose as to whether or not Jesus was God, the term “God” was not nebulous or pantheistic. For Israelites of the first century, it was filled with all of the rich content God had revealed about himself throughout the Old Testament. Because God recorded both his deeds and their interpretation, we today can know that rich content too, and can better understand what it means that Jesus is God.

Machen says that Jesus “was conscious of standing at the turning-point of the ages, when what had never been was now to come to be.” Throughout the Old Testament, God is presented as reigning over the affairs of men and the unfolding of history. God was taking history somewhere, and that somewhere was the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Because God knew every detail of his unfolding plan of salvation in advance, he could embed symbols, types, and shadows of Jesus in every aspect of the Old Testament—not just in prophecy, but also in the very events of history and the structures of Israelite society. The signposts are present in God promising Adam and Eve a descendant who would defeat the serpent; in God providing a ram to die in Isaac’s place; in the Passover; in the sacrificial system; in the judges, kings, prophets, and priests; in a boy from Bethlehem defeating the Lord’s giant enemy; and in every other event in Old Testament history. All of it points forward to Jesus, as Jesus himself explained to his traveling companions en route to Emmaus.

As Machen emphasizes, it matters that Jesus really rose from the dead, and it also matters that God acted in human history leading up to that event, recording and interpreting his own actions in his Word. Thankfully, God continues to be involved with humanity in this broken world today as we look forward to Christ’s second coming. To that end, Westminster aims to train men and women to love God and his Word—both Old and New Testaments—and to be instruments of his continued involvement in human history by sharing his incomparably good news.


Excerpted from Christianity and Liberalism: Legacy Edition, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 245–247. Used with permission of the publisher.

Elizabeth Groves

Mrs. Groves (MAR, Westminster) is lecturer in biblical Hebrew at WTS.

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