Presbyterians of the Past

The Golden Rule, Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule reads, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Mt 7:12), but the slimmed-down popular rendition is, “Treat others as you would be treated yourself.” Matthew’s text in its paraphrased form has been adopted by some individuals as a fundamental ethic, but unfortunately, in our increasingly Bible-illiterate society they may not recognize it is adapted from Scripture. One advocate of The Golden Rule during the division between Modernists and Fundamentalists (a more generic term than the way it is used currently) in the nineteen twenties was Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). He taught in Union Seminary, New York, for nearly four decades and in 1927 become the minister of Riverside Church. He preached often in many places, made use of Guglielmo Marconi’s technology by speaking on radio, and was recognized as one of the leaders of the fruit of social-political progressivism called theological modernism, i.e. liberalism. But before the Riverside years, Dr. Fosdick, ordained a Baptist minister, was the “preaching minister” of First Presbyterian Church on 5th Avenue in New York. While at First Church he published The Meaning of Service, 1920. Two other books were issued in the series, The Meaning of Faith, 1918, and The Meaning of Prayer, 1920. Fosdick was recognized by his Fundamentalist contemporaries as the one who threw down the gauntlet challenging Fundamentalism in his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” It is a brief sermon but in it he characterized doctrines such as the inspiration of Scripture, substitutionary atonement, historicity of the Bible’s miracles, and the virgin birth as playing “with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion.” Anyone who holds to the historic Christian faith finds trivialization of these theological essentials horrid.

So, now that a bit is known about where Dr. Fosdick was coming from theologically, the following considers quotations in which he commented on using the Golden Rule in his popular book, The Meaning of Service, 1920. The book is formatted as a meditation/devotional book and the quotes come from the section “The Sixth Week, Seventh Day,” which uses Matthew 5: 43-45 for its passage and is in the chapter titled, “Justice.” Enumeration in parentheses is for reference.

(1) Then what does the Golden Rule mean, if not that positive saviorhood is also the demand of justice? After all, justice and love run very close together. “We can be just only to those we love.” (page 97)

(2) Justice does not include all that love does. Love goes deeper, is more intense, will sacrifice more, and carries in its heart a personal self-bestowal which justice alone does not know. But if the Golden Rule is its summary, justice is something far beyond the infliction of appropriate penalties. When a man does as he would be done by, he judges fairly, speaks kindly, refuses to exploit personality for private gain, protects the weak, rescues the fallen, and treats even his enemies as though they might some day become as friends. (98)

(3) Men may differ about loving everyone. Yet the unappreciated depth and height and breadth of this applauded virtue is at once suggested by the fact that its most succinct, complete description is the Golden Rule. Consider what large matters are involved in that! (100)

(4) The keeping of the Golden Rule is quite impossible without the use of generous and sympathetic imagination. No man can do to another what he wishes another to do to him, unless he has the gracious power to put himself in another’s place. (100)

(5) Whoever kept … the Golden Rule except the Master? It is not easy to keep. No one is just who does not put himself in the place of those with whom he deals. And to do that one must see men as he does stained glass in a cathedral window, not from without in, but from within out. (101)

(6) Moreover, to do to others what we wish them to do to us involves not only sympathy, but active good will. Who of us has not been served with constant, sacrificial care, by family and friends; and lacking such attendant ministry would not have slipped and fallen on ruin, moral and practical, a hundred times? (101)

(7) Too often justice is pictured in terms of abstinence from rank injustice. Not to be cruel, not to oppress the poor or to crush the faces of the needy, that is to be just. But the Golden Rule cannot so negatively be kept. Justice is positive. It means the painstaking bestowal upon other lives of the same sort of constant, sacrificial ministry by which we ourselves have lived and without which we could not really live at all. (102)

(8) If once the Golden Rule were seriously taken, if men in earnest put themselves in the place of all oppressed, benighted folk, un-befriended, and cheated of their share in civilization’s gains, and if in earnest they set themselves to do for them what they themselves in similar case would need, there would come a world-wide transformation of social life. (103)

(9) This extension of the Golden Rule into areas of human relationship where our affections do not easily go meets its greatest difficulty when it deals with positively unfriendly folk. Sympathy and good will may justly be expended upon some people beyond the borders of our emotional tenderness, but can it be just to give one’s self in generous ministry to enemies? Is not justice comprehended in the old law of Leviticus (24:20). “Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be rendered unto him?” Such strict retribution appears just, but the Master’s command to love our enemies and do them good seems far to overpass the limits of fair play. (104)

(10) In an age of barbarous morals, when none disputed the right of vengeance, this old law was set up to restrain the extravagant wrath of angry men. Its message is not: you may return to a man whatever harm he has done to you. Its message is rather: you may not return to a man more harm than he has done to you. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth—so much revenge you may take, if you must; no more. (104-5)

(11) Let a man face the mercies he already has received from family and friends, the unearned benedictions he already has been given, bought by other blood than his and the toil of other hands, the forgiveness he has needed and will need again from sources human and divine, and then let him face the Golden Rule! He will see that the Lord’s Prayer is urging him to simple justice: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them who trespass against us.”

The justice of the Golden Rule involves understanding sympathy, active good will, and far-flung service. Its kingdom is wider than the narrow realm where our intimate affections dwell. It takes in even enemies. Only by such justice does a man contribute to life what to make living rich and worth he must take from life. (107)

In conclusion, if the New York Yankees’ former catcher Yogi Berra (1925-2015) could examine media sources regarding key views in America and then read these quotes composed a century ago in The Meaning of Service he might say, “It’s like day-ja-voo all over again.” In the eleven quotes the word “justice” occurs a dozen times. As God’s image bearers people exhibit the communicable divine attribute of being just, so seeking justice in the home, on the job, in the church, society, or in other areas is good. Justice is necessary for life and an ordered society. However, the Golden Rule in its popularized form ignores the context within which it was stated by Jesus. Look at the whole verse.

Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you,

do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

In the Greek New Testament, the verse is a single sentence and in nearly all of the dozen English translations consulted it is one sentence. To break up the statement and use just the first portion denies the sufficiency and necessity of God’s Word for faith and life, but then for Rev. Fosdick, the Bible was not the unique revelation of divine will but instead a resource for ethical teaching coming forth in social action. For him, history was moving forward as man advanced and the past was inferior—note Fosdick’s comments that the lex talionis, Leviticus 24:20, is “old law” (9,10), and the “old law” was needed in an “age of barbarous morals” (10). For Fosdick, the principle of the first portion of Matthew 7:12 was a golden nugget for social change panned from the river of religious history, but the latter portion was antiquated. Justice needs to come from authority and the Bible is that authority. There is nothing wrong with a Christian bearing the Golden Rule in mind, so long as the rest of the verse is not forgotten, and the uniqueness of the Bible is remembered as God’s inspired revelation. Some of Dr. Fosdick’s illustrations provided helpful insights into how important it is to consider the problems of others in the light of one’s own experiences, but the benefits of these insights is undermined by his theological foundation and view of Scripture. So, when you are faced with a decision in a situation with others, it is good to assess it with the Golden Rule, just don’t forget the second part of Matthew 7:12


Notes—I am aware that world religions and philosophers claim authorship of the Golden Rule principle, but since the Rule summarizes the Law and prophets, the Law of God delivered at Sinai is the more ancient text. Some sources say Fosdick started at Riverside in 1926. For the quote from Fosdick’s sermon see page 13 of Shall the Fundamentalists Win? A Sermon Preached at the First Presbyterian Church, New York, May 21, 1922, the sermon was taken down by a stenographer and is not Fosdick’s manuscript. The portion removed from the quote on page 101 are the words “to the full” which made the sentence cumbersome.

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