J. Gresham Machen’s The Origin of Paul’s Religion was first published in 1921. My edition is from 1925, and it is autographed. It says, “With warm regards, J. Gresham Machen, October 6, 1927.” Machen gave it to George Fisher, and George Fisher meticulously underlined and put in margin notes throughout this whole book. Sometimes you find books with notes and they stop after the first chapter or two, but these notes go all the way through.
Paul’s Religion originated in lectures. In fact, a page at the beginning says, “The James Sprunt Lectures. In 1911 Mr. James Sprunt of Wilmington, North Carolina, gave to The Trustees of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia the sum of thirty thousand dollars, since increased by his generosity to $50,000.” The purpose of that money was to set up a lectureship.
In 1920–21, the Sprunt Lectures were given by the Reverend Dr. John Gresham Machen. The year before, the lectures were given by the great London pastor G. Campbell Morgan, and the year after Machen, the lectures were given by the honorable William Jennings Bryan, just three years before Bryan would get into a courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee.
Machen titled his lectures “The Origin of Paul’s Religion.” Three views were floating around New Testament scholarship of the origin of Christianity. German and English New Testament scholars at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century made a distinction between the Jesus of the Gospels and the religion of Paul. They saw Jesus as one who talked about behavior and ethics and made religion essentially how we live. Paul was the great systematizer and turned all of those systems of behavior into belief codes that you had to believe.
So that was the argument: there was the Jesus of the Gospels and there was the religion of Paul. And so where did Paul’s religion come from? German scholar Adolf von Harnack argued that Paul was not building on a foundation of the Gospels, but was his own mix off of the Gospels. Harnack did not like Paul. He didn’t like John either. He only liked the Synoptic Gospels, and then not even all of them. And he certainly didn’t like things like the Apostles’ Creed. Harnack said, “Paul deified Christ and turned him into somebody that Christ never claimed to be.”
There was also the German scholar William Wrede. He said that Paul founded the Christian religion on certain Jewish elements from the intertestamental period, but certainly not from Jesus. And scholar Wilhelm Bousset said that Christianity wasn’t founded on Judaism at all; Paul founded his religion on the Greek pagan religions.
Machen did not agree with any of that. In this very scholarly book, Machen makes the case that the origin of Paul’s religion is from Jesus himself. (The book was about three hundred pages when it was done. Machen had wanted it to be five hundred pages, but the publisher said that would be too much.)
At the very end of the book, Machen says, “Paulinism was not a philosophy; it was not a set of directions for escape from the misery of the world; it was not an account of what had always been true. On the contrary, it was an account of something that had happened.” And what had happened was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Machen wrote, ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me.’ There lies the basis of the religion of Paul; there lies the basis of all of Christianity.”