How May God Be Known?
The following is an excerpt from J. Gresham Machen’s Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology (Westminster Seminary Press, 2020). Read what Credo Magazine’s executive editor, Matthew Barrett, thinks of the book:
It is not hyperbole to say that J. Gresham Machen is one of the most— some would say the most—significant Christian thinkers of the 20th century. His sobering apologetic against Protestant liberalism was a timely alarm, exposing liberalism’s illegitimate claim to the Christian religion. But now, thanks to Westminster Seminary Press, Machen’s voice is heard once again— yet this time Machen puts forward a positive presentation of the Christian faith. Things Unseen is saturated throughout with doctrinal truth as Machen, with urgency in his voice, calls sinners back to the Bible to hear the voice of God afresh and to receive the eternal life only God himself can give through Christ.
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.
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. Click To Tweet 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 remembered 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, 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?
To Different People in Different Ways
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 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.” I think a man might travel through all the world and never see anything lovelier than a White Mountain brook. Click To Tweet
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 God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (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 sky above proclaims his handiwork,” says the psalmist (Ps 19:1). 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” (Matt 6:29).
Why Do So Few Listen?
When men do not see something, there are two possible explanations of the fact: one is that there is nothing there to see and the other is that the men who do not see are blind. Click To Tweet 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—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 and 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 hearts,” says Paul, “were darkened” (Rom 1:21). Hence, they did not see. The fault did not 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.
**Headings added by the Credo editorial staff**