Radio station WIP was founded by the Gimbel Brothers. They had built their flagship department store in downtown Philadelphia, and in 1922 they put a radio antenna high atop that building for advertising and promotional purposes. It soon became the most popular radio station in Philadelphia. And in 1935 and 1936, J. Gresham Machen, formerly of Princeton Theological Seminary and the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, began recording a radio show that aired on Sunday afternoons that he called the Westminster Seminary Hour. His broadcasts were recently published in a beautiful book called Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology.
Let’s look at one of those radio episodes. It was the thirty-ninth episode (out of fifty), and Machen called it “The Progress of Christian Doctrine.” He begins this particular episode by saying, “For the benefit of my listeners it may not be amiss for me to say just a word or two about the plan which has governed this Westminster Seminary Hour from the beginning. What I’ve been trying to do is to present just as plainly as I can the system of truth revealed in the Bible. And when I say system of truth, I mean what I say. I mean that the Bible is not just a storehouse of inspiring sayings thrown out in some haphazard or isolated fashion, but that it presents one great system.”
Then Machen says, “Fortunately, I do not need to undertake this task as though no one has ever undertaken it before. The Bible has been in the world for nearly nineteen centuries, and during all those centuries learned and truly devout men have been searching the Scriptures and have been endeavoring to summarize what the Scriptures teach. It would be a sad mistake indeed,” Machen continues, “If we should cut ourselves off from the past history of the Christian church and our interpretation of the Word of God.”
Now I want you to catch what Machen says next: “I am indeed trying to take you always to the foundation of truth, the Bible itself. But in my study of the Bible with you, I have been dependent throughout upon what the collective wisdom of the church of all ages has been able to do with the gracious indwelling of the Holy Spirit toward understanding the truth that the Bible contains.” There is that great line that I want you to see: “the collective wisdom of the church of all ages.” Church history is the development over time of the church taking the Bible seriously, taking the Bible as God’s true and eternal Word, His message to us.
The Bible is fixed. It is the reference point. We come along and understand it and try to apply it. Many come along and deny it and twist it. So here we are in the church presented with challenges. We are presented with questions. What does the Bible teach? What does it affirm? What does it reject? The answers to these questions become the great creeds and the confessions of the church. The Bible is the foundation. Church history, this collective wisdom from the ages, is the superstructure that has been built upon it. And in this little episode, Machen walks through the early centuries and their creeds. He walks through the Middle Ages, and he goes right up through the Reformation.
As Machen brings this radio address to a close, he says, “What I am trying to do on these Sunday afternoons is to study the Bible with you. It should never be forgotten that all Christian doctrine is derived from and must ever be tested by the Word of God.” And then Machen offers one final word of encouragement: “Consistent Christianity in the long run is the Christianity that stands firmest against unbelief.” That is J. Gresham Machen on the Westminster Seminary Hour from 1936, teaching us that church history is the collective wisdom of the ages.