Chapter 1: Many Ways To God

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 1: Many Ways To God

That great teacher and saint A. J. Gossip used to have a favorite saying. Often he would say that there are not four Gospels but five. There are the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and there is the Gospel according to a man's own experience -- and the fifth is the most important of all. It was not enough for the disciples to be able to tell Jesus what others said and thought of him. The basic and essential and all-important question was: "You -- who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16.13-16). A man may be an expert able to pass an examination on all Christologies ancient and modern, but the real question is not what Jesus Christ meant to Irenaeus or Origen, Anselm or Aquinas, Luther or Calvin, Ritschl or Macleod Campbell, Barth or Aulen, but: "What does the Gospel mean to you?" God does not treat men as mass-produced, identical repetitions one of another: he treats men as individuals, no two of whom are alike. "God", as it has been said, "has his own secret stairway into every heart." "There are as many ways to the stars as there are men to climb them." "God", as Tennyson said, "fulfils himself in many ways."

In what follows we shall go on to think of the Gospel in the Synoptic Gospels, in John, in Paul, in Peter, in James, in Hebrews, in the letters of John, in II Peter and in Jude, and in the Revelation; but it is of the first importance to remember that we are not dealing with a series of Gospels competing with one another for our allegiance. The different expressions of the Gospel are not competing and antithetic: they are cooperative and complementary

Although we do not mean ourselves to use the classification, it is of interest to note that it has been said that broadly speaking there are four different types of religion presented in the NT.

1. There is the conception of religion as inward fellowship with God, resulting in a union so close that the believer can speak of himself as in Christ, and can say that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. That is the characteristic experience of Paul.

2. There is the conception of religion as a right way of life, a right standard of living, and the inspiration to attempt, and the power to reach, that kind of life. That is the characteristic experience of James and Peter.

3. There is the conception of religion as the highest satisfaction of a man's mind, the truth to which he reaches out, and which by the help of the Spirit of Cod he grasps, and in which he rests. That is the characteristic experience of John.

4. There is the conception of religion as access and approach to God, in which a man enters out of the shadows into the light, out of the passing things of time into eternity, out of the world into the presence of God. That is the characteristic experience of the writer to the Hebrews.

It may well be that there are two things to which we do not ordinarily attach enough importance.

1. There is the effect of a man's personal experience of life upon his religion. It is always true that we only grasp those parts of the truth which we are compelled to grasp. There are things which we know well enough with our minds, but which only the compulsion of experience can make part of our very lives. I do not think, for instance, that the idea of the life beyond death ever becomes vividly and intensely real to us until someone we loved has died. Clearly, there will be a difference between the experience of the man who from his childhood days has known and loved Jesus, who has never had any real doubts, who has never, so to speak, been away from home, and the experience of the man to whom Jesus Christ is a new discovery, who has wandered in the deserts of infidelity, who has stained and blotted his life, who has been in the far countries of the soul. It is out of experience that faith is born, and a man's experience will colour his faith.

2. There is the effect of a man's temperament on his religion. There are those who are by nature placid and even lethargic, and there are tempestuous beings whose passions are at white heat and whose temper is on a hair trigger. There are those who are constitutionally disposed to accept things and to whom the blue waters never call, and there are those who must understand or perish and who must ever adventure on the uncharted seas of thought. Clearly, the difference in temperament will beget a difference in the experience of religion.

There is a word which the NT uses to describe the grace of God, the word poikilos (I Peter 4.10); the AV translates it manifold; the RSV and the NEB translate it varied. It really means many- coloured; and the idea is that there is no colour in the human situation which the grace of God cannot match. Whatever be a man's experience, whatever he a man's temperament, Jesus Christ has that which can meet man's need.

This is the thought with which this book is written. We have of late years heard much about the unity of the NT, and to that we will in the end come; but there is a strong case for thinking sometimes of the diversity of the NT. We are not seeking to present the NT as a series of contradictory and competing Gospels; we are trying to se how those who wrote it were witnessing to what Jesus Christ meant to them so that we may be moved to see what Jesus Christ means to us.