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Witness of the Gospels





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Witness of the Gospels





MR. Ph?:sii)kxt and Gentlemen of the Board of Direc-
tors: — It is with a deep sense of its responsibilities that I
have accepted your call to the Chair of New Testament Literature
aad Exegesis. In formally entering upon its duties I am con-
scious of the greatness of the work, its importance for the Church
we serve and its close relation to the kingdom of our Lord and
Saviour Jesus Christ. It is my earnest desire that grace may be
given me to be found faithful in the administration of the high
trust which you have committed to my charge. I am well aware
of its difficulties. They do not, however, weaken my conviction
that in loyalty to the pledge which I have taken, in loyalty to
the truth as it is given me to see it, in patient and honest inves-
tigation, they will provide opportunities for a deeper insight into
the manifold wisdom of God.

With a painful appreciation of my own limitations and a keen
feeling of my unworthiness to follow in the footsteps of those
illustrious men of God, Dr. Charles Hodge, Dr. Joseph Addison
Alexander, Dr. Caspar Wistar Hodge and Dr. George Tybout
Purves, who here served their Master and are now fallen asloej).
I take encouragement both from your call and from the cordial
support and sympathy which the Faculty of the Seminary have
given me during the four years I have spent in pleasant and grate-
ful association with them. When I first came among them, they
were the men whom as a student I had learned to love and respect.
Two have now departed. One, the noble scholar, learned instructor
and devoutly Christlike man, the Rev. Dr. William Henry Green,
who opened to me the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Following
him likewise into his rest my friend and beloved teacher whose work
I am now called to continue, the Rev. Dr. George Tybout Purves.
At his feet I first learned to love with enthusiasm the New Testa-
ment of our Lord, and for one brief year I enjoyed the privilege

* Inaugural address delivered before the Board of Directors of Princeton
Theological Seminary in Miller Chapel on induction into the Chair of New Testa-
ment Utcraturo and Kxegpsis on Friday, September IS, 1903.


of sharing with him his plans, hopes and labors for this Chair.
To his memory, which is blessed among the sons of Princeton Sem-
inary, I gladly and from my heart pay a tribute of love and honor
and gratitude, in recognition of his life of self-sacrifice and devo-
tion and of his splendid scholarship, ever aglow with the warmth
of close contact with life. His sympathies were wide, his labors
unceasing, his ideals of Christian service the noblest and most
unselfish, and these, with his enthusiasm for his work, springing
from a strong conviction of its value, and his deep interest in men,
made him a power for good to all those who knew him. He was
always both a teacher and a preacher, teaching us to love truth and
reverence it as the revelation of God. He knew its beauty, and might
have exclaimed with the Jewish philosopher, t\ 5' wuVw? h ^(u) xaXw
th? aX-rjOsca* But he kucw also that its relation to life was more
vital than the satisfaction of the aesthetic sentiment, touching as it
does the very springs of all truly moral and rational life. In seek-
ing truth he taught us to seek God ; to cherish every revelation that
through it He might make to us; but chiefly to know, revere and
trust the revelation which He has been pleased to make through
His written Word and in His Son, and through its intimate appro-
priation to gain sustenance for our spirits, that we might realize
in ourselves His purpose to the praise of the glory of His grace.
"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
To serve, to know, to love the truth, and thus to serve Christ and
God, was the service of freedom which he taught us, and in his life
he showed to us its joy. From such a memory I take inspiration
as I face the possibilities of the future, thankful for the heritage
which through him whom I was permitted to know has come down
from the past, and cherishing the hope that the same spirit of
loyal devotion to the truth as it is in Christ will continue with me
during my work in Princeton Seminary.

I shall not attempt at this time to give an account of Dr. Purves'
conduct of the New Testament Chair. One well qualified to speak,
himself a New Testament scholar and a classmate and colleague of
Dr. Purves, has, as the Faculty's representative, addressed you in
commemoration of his services, f It is my desire, however, if only
briefly, to make mention of them again. The relation which Dr.
Purves sustained to Dr. Caspar Wistar Hodge is well known. For

* Philo de judice, M. II, 346.

t An address delivered in Miller Chapel on November 26, 1901, by B. B. War-
field, D.D., LL.D. Cf. The Bible Student, Vol. iv, No. 6, December, 1901,
pp. 310-323; Purves, Faith and Life, Presbyterian Board _of Publication, 1902,
pp. ix-xxx.


eight years (1892-1900) he strove to maintain in the department of
New Testament studies the same high standard of excellence which
Dr. Hodge liad established, and in the light of the progress of
scientific investigation to deepen and broaden the fomidations he
had laid. By the inaiiguration in 1893 of a professor of Biblical
Theology his work was divided, but in 1899 its needs had again
become so pressing that an Instructor in the New Testament was
appointed to give opportunity for the further enlargement which
he planned.

To those who sat under Dr. Purves his controlling interest
seemed to lie in the field of exegesis; and here he revealed care-
ful and exact scholarship, sanity of judgment, thoroughness of
method and forcefulness of presentation which made disciples of
his pupils. And yet exegesis was with him always a means
to an end. With true historical sense he sought by it to under-
stand and interpret to his students the sources of early Christian
history, while with this was united the deeper religious interest
of one who had made his own the principles of the Protestant
Reformation. Hence, while his chief interest and w^ork was
directed to the New Testament, he sought to study also with his
students the historical environment in which it arose. Even before
he came to this Chair, when invited to deliver the L. P. Stone
lectures, he chose as his subject The Tesliviony of Justin Martyr
to Early Christianity* thus revealing an interest and an insight
into the historical problems surrounding the origin of Christ-
ianity which characterized in a marked degree his subsequent
work. To this his articles and reviewsf bear witness, as does
also his admirable book entitled Christianity in the Apostolic Age.X
He loved exegesis and he loved it as a teacher. To it in his class-
room he gave himself with compelling intensity which kindled an
abiding and commanding interest in the New Testament. Rightly
to estimate its effect one must weigh the influence which has gone
out through the lives of his students who, scattered throughout the
world, bear testimony by their work to his power as a teacher.
His work will endure, engraven as it is upon the hearts of the living,
and for it Princeton Seminary may well be deeply thankful.

* The Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity. Lectures delivered
on the L. P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Tlieological Seminary in March
1888. Randolph ct Co., New York, 1889.

t Among others The Presbyterian Renew, October, 1888, p. 529ff.: "The Influ-
ence of Paganism on Post-.\postolic Christianity " ; The Presbyterian and Reformed
Rerieir, ISO."), p. 2:^9ff. : "The Formation of tlie New Testament"; Ibid., 1898,
p. 23fT.: "The Witness of Apostolic Literature to Apostolic History."

X Christianity in the Apostolic Age. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900.


It is fitting that I address you on some theme in the depart-
ment of New Testament Literature and Exegesis. For purposes
of lower criticism the New Testament falls naturally, by reason
of the nature of the materials upon which we are dependent, into
four sections: the Gospels, the Acts and Catholic Epistles, the
Pauline Epistles with Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Equally
natural for purposes of historical study is the twofold division
by which our principal sources for the history of the Church in
the days of the apostles — the Acts, Epistles and the Apocalypse —
constitute, because of their close interrelation, one group; while
the Gospels, the chief sources for our knowledge of the life of
Christ, may be treated as forming another group. This division,
of course, is a broad one, and does not obscure the fact that a
very close relation subsists between the Gospels on the one hand
and the Acts and the Epistles on the other. The Acts and Epis-
tles contribute much to our knowledge of the life of Christ;
while the Gospels, regarded as literary products, fall within the
history of the apostolic Church. But if the epistolary literature
of the New Testament be in part earlier than the Gospels, and the
Gospels fall within the history of the apostolic or post-apostolic
Church, there emerges for the student of New Testament litera-
ture and exegesis a problem of some importance. Has the
testimony of the Gospels been deflected, distorted or discolored
by the environment in which they arose, and if so, to what extent?
It is my purpose to face this problem, and to consider in some of
its aspects the question of the trustworthiness of our Gospels as
sources of our knowledge of the life of Christ; or, more briefly
stated, my subject is "The Witness of the Gospels." Such a sub-
ject may be approached from a number of viewpoints and dis-
cussed in many different ways. For my present purpose the
discussion may be ordered under two principal lines of thought,
namely, the character or nature of the Gospel witness, and its
origin in relation to its value.

The Character of the Gospel Witness.

The word Gospel {snayyiho',) means good news, though in Ara-
maic the root "lt!^3 does not indicate so plainly as the Greek
the kind of news.* It occurs frequently both in the Epistles and in
the Gospels, where it means a message rather than a book. In
the Epistles and Acts it is used of the message which the apostles
proclaimed concerning Christ; in the Gospels of the message of

* Dalmann, Die Worle Jesu, S. 84.


Christ concerning the kingdom of God. The apostohc usage con-
tinued for some time, and lies at the basis of the titles given to
our Gospels. The message concerning Christ was conceived as
unitary, and hence the different Gospels were regarded as but
different narratives by their several authors of the one Gospel.
We have four such Gospels in the New Testament; and out of the
differences and the agreements between them arise very intricate
and difficult literary and historical problems. It is clear that the
fourfold Gospel furnishes us with a twofold message concerning
Christ; that of the three synoptics which, whatever be the cause,
present the same general features, and that of John.

What are the chief characteristics of this twofold tradition
concerning Christ? In order to ascertain them and properly to
estimate it, it will be necessary to bear in mind several things.
The Gospels are manifestly Christian documents. They were writ-
ten to meet the needs of the Church, and like the apostolic Gospel-
preaching they contain a message about Christ which is at the
same time a witness to Christ. What effect this has on their
value as trustworthy historical sources we shall consider later.
Here it is important to note their close connection with the
apostolic idea of the Gospel. In accordance with this, three char-
acteristics of the Gospels in their twofold witness to Christ stand
out distinctly: an account of the facts of Christ's life, including
the environment in which He lived and the character of His
teaching ; a very distinct estimate of His person ; the significant
prominence given to His passion.

Of the synoptic Gospels only Matthew and Luke give the
narrative of Christ's supernatural birth. Luke alone gives us a
glimpse into the boyhood of our Saviour, and tells us of His nor-
mal development during the period previous to His entrance on
His public ministry. All three agree in connecting His ministry
with that of His forerunner, John the Baptist; and from this point
on their representation is in broad outline the same. Matthew's
arrangement, however, is topical, and Luke furnishes material
not found in cither Matthew or Mark. Matthew and Luke, more-
over, give us a much fuller account of the teaching of Jesus.
But the picture is the same in all. They represent John's work
as prophetic and preparatory for the Messianic work of Jesus.
After the baptism of Jesus, His temptation in the wilderness and
the imprisonment of John, Jesus comes into Galilee. He takes up
the call of John to repentance, and adds to it the call to belief in
the Gospel which was His own i)roclamation of tlie kingdom of


God. We see Him moving through Gahlee in a ministry of heahng
and teaching. He gathers about him a band of disciples; and the
people flock to hear him, bringing their sick that He may heal them.
In the midst of this popular enthusiasm we are struck by two
things : the character of His teaching and His intentional avoidance
of the Messianic title. He is training the people and His disciples
to appreciate the spiritual character of the kingdom, and His avoid-
ance of the Messianic title may have served simply a pedagogic
purpose, or, as is more probable, it may have been practised by
Jesus in the control which He exercised over the events of His
public Messianic work. It is not long, however, before opposi-
tion from the religious leaders of the people, the Pharisees, arises,
and the enthusiasm of the people begins to wane. The opposition
found its occasion in the neglect by Jesus and His disciples of
the Sabbath customs; but this only served to make clear the op-
position in principle between the two forms of religious life thus
brought into conflict. The legalism which had become all-pervading
in the religious life of the nation found itself face to face in the per-
son of Jesus with the denial of its raison d'etre, and through its
accredited representatives it was logically compelled to crush Him.
"It was expedient that one man should die for the people."*

From this time Jesus began to devote Himself to the instruction
of His disciples, with a view to preparing them for the issue which
He foresaw. He continued to speak to the people, but He spoke
in parables, while in His relations with His disciples He seems to
have been intent upon deepening in them a clear and abiding
insight into the significance of His own person for the kingdom
which He had been proclaiming. The Pharisees meantime had
taken council with the Herodians to kill Him. News of His
work had reached Herod; and the feeding of the five thousand
had made plain the fact that the old Messianic ideal still controlled
the popular mind. Jesus turns now to His disciples. At Caesarea
Philippi He calls forth by His question the confession of Peter.
From this time on he seeks to make clear to them that He must
suffer and after three days rise from the dead. Jerusalem is
now His goal; and here, after having given His disciples further
instructions regarding the future and having come into conflict
with the Jewish leaders, He is crucified by order of the Roman
Procurator, and on the third day rises again.

In the Gospel of John the course of the narrative is somewhat
differently ordered. Just as in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus at the

* John xviii. 14.


opening of His ministry is brought into contact with John the Bap-
tist. Here the fourth Gospel adds the testimony of John to Jesus,
and tells of a work of Jesus in Jerusalem, Galilee and Judea pre-
vious to the imprisonment of John the Baptist. Withdrawing
through Samaria He comes into Galilee, but concerning the length
of His stay and the nature of His work there we learn little. What
strikes us at once in this account of the early ministry of Jesus is
not so much the additional information which places the beginning
of Christ's ministry earlier than the time mentioned by the synop-
tics, nor the fact that its scene lies chiefly in and about Jerusalem,
but the difference in method. The Messianic claim is here openly
witnessed to by John • Christ Himself by cleansing the temple pub-
licly assumes the function of the Messiah, and in His conversation
with the woman of Samaria distinctly asserts His Messiahship. His
words in the temple* and His conversation with Nicodemus make
it clear, moreover, that even at this early time He looked forward to
His passion as involved in His Messianic work. Passing over much
of the work in Galilee, the fourth Gospel tells us of the beginning of
the conflict between Jesus and the rulers in Judea, the question
as in the synoptics being the violation of the Sabbath or the funda-
mental antagonism between Jesus and legalism. In the sixth chap-
ter the fourth Gospel joins the synoptics in the narrative of the
feeding of the five thousand. John tells us that Jesus walked in
Galilee, for he was unwilling to walk in Judea because the Jews
sought to kill Him.f With his interest in the ministry of Jesus at
Jerusalem, John tells us of Jesus' visit to the city at the Feast of
Tabernacles, and again at the Feast of Dedication. The resurrec-
tion of Lazarus constitutes a crisis in Jesus' relation to the leaders
at Jerusalem, and from this time on, after the withdrawal to
Ephraim, Jesus sets His face to Jerusalem and the last Passover.
As in the synoptic Gospels, so in the Gospel of John, Jesus is repre-
sented as performing wonderful works of healing. In both He
raises the dead. So also in regard to the teaching of Jesus. In
both He is a teacher, though the character of the teaching preserved
in the two traditions differs markedly both in form and content.
In tho synoptic Gospels the teaching of Jesus centres chiefly around
the kingdom, its character and the conditions of entrance. The
form for the most part is gnomic or parabolic. In the fourth Gos-
pel the teaching of Jesus centres about His own person. His rela-
tion to God and His own significance for the kingdom which He

* John ii. 19.
t John vii. 1.


was founding. The form is closely related to the nature of the
themes discussed, and is thus more theological — informed by direct
intuition of spiritual realities.

But beside the general environment"'^ in which Jesus' ministry
of healing and teaching is set, the Gospel witness contains also an
estimate of His person. From the sketch given of the Gospel wit-
ness to the character of Christ's ministry, there can be little doubt
that the Gospels represent it as Messianic and Christ as the Mes-
siah. Whether Christ Himself claimed to be the Messiah has in-
deed been questioned, and recently denied by Wrede,* but, as
it seems to me, without good ground. f Here, however, we are
concerned simply with the fact that the Gospels so represent
Him; and for the present we may leave open the question of His
own claim. In Matthew and Luke the genealogies trace Christ's
line of descent through David. His birth in Bethlehem, the city
of David, is significant to Matthew because of its Messianic associa-
tions, while Luke connects Christ's birth there directly with the fact
that Joseph was of the house of David. In fact, in both Matthew
and Luke the whole infancy narrative is controlled by the thought
that in this child the long-expected, prophetically proclaimed Mes-
siah had come. The prophetic message is taken up by John the
Baptist ; and the baptism of Jesus, whatever else it may have meant,
certainly, according to the Gospel narrative, signified for Jesus the
voluntary assumption of His Messianic work; while the temptation
which followed this baptism is represented as a trial of the Messiah
in view of His office and prospective work. In His temptation Jesus
as the Messiah relates Himself specifically to His future Messianic
work by maintaining His loyalty to the spirit of dependence on God,
of filial obedience and trust, in which He was determined to fulfill
the work to which in the baptism He had just consecrated Him-
self. However much He may have charged secrecy on those who
recognized in Him the Messiah, He nowhere disavows the title.
He accepts the confession of Peter; He calls Himself frequently
the Son of Man; He is called the Son of David, the Son of God;
and by His triumphal entry into Jerusalem He most publicly pro-
claims His Messianic dignity. In the fourth Gospel the testimony
of John the Baptist to the Messiahship of Jesus is given explicitly ;
and Jesus Himself, from the very opening of His public ministry
in Jerusalem, makes definite and distinct claim to be the Messiah.

* Das Messiasgeheimnis. 1901 .

fCf. O. Holtzmann, Das Leben Jesu, 1901, and Zeitschrift jiir die Neutest.
Wiss., 1901, S. 265; J. Weiss, Da^ aelteste Evangelium, 1903.


This representation, in fact, lies so plainly upon the face of the
Gospels that it will not be necessary to treat it in detail.

It is important, however, for our conception of this aspect of the
Gospel witness to notice, that the character of the Messianic work
which Christ performed is intimately bound up with what He was,
or with what He is represented by the Gospels to have been.
While He came as the Messiah, He did not fulfill His work in
the manner popularly expected. His work was through and
through self-determined, the conscious carrying out of a purpose
definitely formed. Back of His work stands the volition of a per-
son dependent only on God. He is represented distinctly as the
creator of His work, never as its product, the child of circum-
stance; and this is the representation in the synoptic Gospels as
well as in John. It is true that we do find adjustment of His
work and teaching to the changes which took place in His sur-
roundings during His public ministry, but never a departure
from His controlling purpose nor an alteration in the character
of His work. It is consistently determined throughout in the
interest of moral and spiritual renovation. Hence the central
place of His person in His whole work and teaching. In the
synoptic Gospels emphasis is laid at first on His message, but it is
ever His message through which, by its very character, the dignity
of His person and His authority clearly appear. In John's Gospel
the determining relation which Christ sustained to His Messianic
work is characteristic. From this point it is now not difficult to
understand the transcendent significance which the Gospels assign
to the person of Christ.

In the opening chapters of the first and third Gospels we find the
narratives of His supernatural birth. It is often affirmed that they
belong to the secondary strata of Gospel tradition; but here again
we are concerned with the representation of our Gospels as they
stand ; and this must be distinguished from the further questions as
to how they came to give such a representation and what value, in
view of its origin and character, we may allow to it in forming our
view of the actual occurrence. The fact that two of the Gospels
contain such narratives constitutes them a part of the Gospel wit-
ness and cannot be without significance for its representation of the
nature of Christ 's person. As we watch the progress of His ministry
in the synoptic Gospels, we are impressed by the power which He
exercises in the performance of miracles, by the authority with
which He speaks, by the spotless purity of His life, by a conscious-
ness in which no trace of a sense of sin can be found, which acknowl-


edges its dependence on God, but knows Him in intimate, mibroken
communion. At the request of His disciples He teaches them to
pray, embody mg in their prayer the petition " forgive us our debts,

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