Chesterton Explains His Faith Journey

G.K. Chesterton, OrthodoxyG.K. Chesterton. 2017. Orthodoxy (Orig. Pub. 1908). Satya Books.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those that are curious and think for themselves, many of the best known critics of the Christian faith come up short. The heart of atheism is not a philosophical critique of faith; it is a willful disrespect for all forms of authority, especially divine authority. The reasons for disbelief often border on mere slander of the faith, which becomes obvious as inconsistent criticisms morph over time and show themselves in conflict. Apologetics accordingly begins to resemble the case of the parent trying to reason with tired child when a good nap (or firm discipline) is needed.

Introduction

In his book, Orthodoxy, Gilbert Keith (better known as G.K.) Chesterton sets out to explain how he came to faith in his own words, the words and arguments that ultimately convinced him. In a puckish response to a question posed by his publisher, Chesterton recounts:

“‘Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?’ After a long pause, I replied, ‘I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.’ This is the book that I have written in answer to it.” (7)

When is the last time that you wrote a book to win an argument? Obviously, Chesterton (1874-1936) lived at a time when a “lettered” (“English writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic”[2]) man took his arguments seriously.

Orthodoxy Defined

Chesterton defines orthodoxy in these words:

“When the word ‘orthodoxy’ is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.” (5)

Belief in the Apostles’ Creed, summarized in five fundamentals of the faith:

  1.  The inerrancy of scripture;
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus;
  3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Christ died for our sins);
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
  5. The miracle-working power of Christ (Longfield 1991, 9, 78)

were required for ordination as a Presbyterian pastor between 1910 and 1925. After 1925, one could be ordained without believing the Apostles’ Creed (the liberal view) and, if you persisted in believing the creed, you would be described pejoratively as a “fundamentalist.” Thus, Chesterton’s simple definition anticipated a crisis that had not yet divided the American church, but even today lies at the heart of the culture wars.

Lampoon Champ

Chesterton spends considerable time in his book lampooning his critics for their inconsistencies. He writes:

“certain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation.” (79-80)

Clearly, this argument is dated, but the inconsistencies persist. Who, for example, remembers that the first co-educational college in America, Oberlin College, was started by two Presbyterian pastors and that the famous evangelist, Charles Finney, served as its president from 1850 to 1866? The feminist movement started as evangelical Christian movement (see Gal 3:28) and it is only after the Civil War that the woman’s movement took a secular turn (Dayton 1976, 121-135). Hopefully, Chesterton will be forgiven for his candid (and dated) comments on this issue.

Coming To Faith

So why did Chesterton adopt the Christian faith? He writes:

“my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” (146)

In my own experience, I have found critics quite willing to pick at this or that doctrine that they do not understand or accept without substituting an equally valuable replacement. Christianity as a faith fits the whole person and the entirety of life’s experiences better than competing religions and philosophies which is why it is found throughout the entire world, unlike other faiths that favor one or another ethnic group and region. Mere critics normally do not accept responsibility for their partial criticisms—they steal a person’s hope and faith, and leave their victims in despair. Such actions clearly troubled Chesterton as he weighed his options.

Assessment

G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a challenging but interesting read. He is challenging to read because he is better versed in philosophy and apologetics than most readers and his arguments often hinge on subtle word-play and knowledge of events and readings. Still, Chesterton is interesting to read because he writes roughly a hundred years ago and yet speaks directly to our own context. Read and enjoy!

References

Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Review: https://wp.me/p8RkfV-11c).

Dayton, Donald W. 1976. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Footnotes

[1] Satya is the Sanskrit word for truth (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satya).

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._K._Chesterton#Other.

Chesterton Explains His Faith Journey

Also see:

Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 1 

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What Do You Believe About God?

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:33)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Once as a youth leader, I asked each member of the group to write out a personal statement of faith. This assignment kept us busy all evening. In the end, most kids had statements resembling the Apostle’s Creed. For the Christian faith, this creed is foundational.

The Apostle’s Creed began as a baptismal statement of faith in the fourth century (Rogers 1991, 61–62). It has evolved into a key statement of faith that is often memorized and proclaimed in worship services around the world.

The Apostle’s Creed divides into three parts: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each part helps us to understand and to identify better with each person of the Trinity. The confession about the Father focuses on his role as creator. The confession about the Son recounts the story of Jesus Christ—conception, birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. The confession about the Holy Spirit links the Spirit to the work and key doctrines of the church.

The Apostle’s Creed primarily tells the story of Jesus. Other parts of the creed appear simply to bracket the story of Jesus. This is not an accident. The four Gospel narratives each focus on the story of Jesus. Early church sermons, recorded in the Book of Acts, also often focus on telling Jesus’ life story[1]. In general, the New Testament focuses on telling Jesus’ life story and applying his story to our lives.

When is the last time that you shared Jesus’ life story? How has Jesus’ life become a model for your life?

[1] Sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts13:16–41) focus on Jesus’ life story.

REFERENCES

Rogers, Jack. 1991. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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JOHN 19: Suffered, Crucified, Died, Buried

Cross_12092013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:7 ESV).

Jesus’ life story is an important part of the Apostle Creed which, in part, reads:  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell[1].  While Jesus’ death raises many questions, why is it important to remember the brutality of his suffering?

The answer to this question depends on one’s experience of suffering.  At one point, I spent a weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) had just been released and I attended the film with some seminary students, one of whom was African American.  The film blistered my mind and left me speechless sitting in an empty theatre afterwards.  The purpose of the graphic brutality eluded me—Christ’s resurrection, not Christ’s death, had always been my theological focus.  My African American colleague, by contrast, understood implicitly.  The bond between Christ’s suffering and hers was real—suffering people hear and feel the nails being pounded in the Gospel accounts.  That’s how they know that God feels their pain.

One measure of the brutality here is the word used for flogging.  Roman law distinguished three types of flogging:  fustigatio (beating), flagellatio (flogging), and verberatio (scourging)[2].  John 19:1 records a flagellatio flogging (ἐμαστίγωσεν)[3].  A fustigatio beating (παιδεύσας—literally teaching a child)[4] is recorded in Luke 23:16 which would simply be a warning.  Mark 15:15 records a verberatio scourging (φραγελλώσας)[5], where bones and internal organs would be exposed, which would be prelude to crucifixion and often killed the prisoner.  Because flogging generally preceded crucifixion, as the only writer who was also an eye-witness to the actual flogging John is recording a more nuanced account. This lends to his credibility. John’s choice of the word, flagellation, according suggests that Pilate truly had not made up his mind to crucify Jesus at that point.

Of course, Jesus’ suffering did not end with the flogging.

One of the principles of alcoholics anonymous is that it takes an alcoholic to understand an alcoholic[6].  Human suffering works the same way. Christ’s suffering gives him credibility to approach us in our suffering.  The extreme nature of his suffering implies that no human being could suffer more; hence, no one is excluded from relationship with Christ.  In effect, Christ’s suffering and death is what assures us that Jesus was truly human.

The English Standard Version divides chapter 19 into these section:  Jesus delivered to be crucified (vv 1-16), The crucifixion (vv 17-27), The death of Jesus (vv 28-30), Jesus’ side is pierced (vv 31-37), and Jesus is buried (vv 38-42).  …Suffered, Crucified, Died, Buried…

Christ crucifixion, death, piercing, and burial prepare us for the reality of the resurrection.  One must be truly dead in order to be resurrected.



[1]Question 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Faith Alive Christian Resources.  2013. The Heidelberg Catechism.   Online:  https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=372.  Date:  30 August, 2013.

[2]Gary M. Burge.  2000.  The NIV Application Commentary:  John.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. Pages 502-503.  Also:  Craig S. Keener.  2003.  The Gospel of John:  A Commentary.  Vol 2.  Peabody:  Hendrickson.  Pages 1118-1119.

[3]μαστιγόω (BDAG 4729): to beat with a whip or lash, whip, flog, scourge (of flogging as a punishment decreed by the synagogue).

[4]παιδεύω (BDAD 5489.2): to assist in the development of a person’s ability to make appropriate choices, practice discipline.

[5]φραγελλόω (BDAG 7809): flog, scourge, a punishment inflicted on slaves and provincials after a sentence of death had been pronounced on them.

[5]From the alcoholic’s perspective, of course.  Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.  1978.  Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic Through Religion and Psychology.  Nashville:  Abingdon.  Page 128.

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