Presbyterians of the Past

The Golden Rule, Matthew 7:12

This year, 2023, is the centennial of Christianity and Liberalism, published by J. Gresham Machen. In his era, The Golden Rule was the single-question catechism for a modern, progressive, justice seeking, and liberal Christianity. The Golden Rule reads, “Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them” (Mt 7:12), but the slimmed-down popular version is, “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” Matthew’s text in its paraphrased form has been adopted by some individuals as their fundamental ethic, but unfortunately, in our increasingly biblically illiterate society they may not recognize it is from Scripture. 

One individual advocating use of The Golden Rule during the controversy between theological Modernists and Fundamentalists in the nineteen twenties was Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). He taught in Union Seminary, New York, for nearly four decades and in 1927 became the minister of Riverside Church which was built with Fosdick in mind for the pulpit. He preached often in many venues, made effective and extended use of radio, and was recognized as a leader of the Progressive movement’s theological branch called modernism or liberalism. But before the Riverside years, Dr. Fosdick, a minister ordained a Baptist, was working as the “preaching minister” of First Presbyterian Church on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. His sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” delivered May 21, 1922 in New York, was viewed by his fundamentalist contemporaries as a direct challenge to biblical and confessional doctrines including the inspiration of Scripture, the substitutionary atonement, and the historicity of God’s miracles in the Bible. Fosdick said these essential doctrines along with the virgin birth of Christ were nothing more than playing “with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion.” Anyone holding to the historic Christian faith finds trivialization of these theological fundamentals heterodox. It seems more than a coincidence that the Presbyterian General Assembly including ninety-nine commissioners from the Synod of New York were gathered in distant Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, Iowa, leaving fewer ministers and elders to respond to the sermon locally.

Predating his “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” by a few years is Fosdick’s The Meaning of Service, 1920. The book is a devotional with the daily meditations organized in twelve chapters correlating with months that are then divided into weeks, then days. Fosdick quotes Scripture passages with brief comments about them for each day.

Dr. Fosdick said:

(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 and manager Yogi Berra (1925-2015) could examine current 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 in an ordered society. However, the Golden Rule in its popularized form, and as Fosdick used it, ignores the context within which it was stated by Jesus. Look at the whole verse.

Therefore, all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

In the Greek New Testament the verse is a single sentence which in nearly all of the dozen English versions consulted is translated in one sentence. To break up the statement and use just the first portion denies the sufficiency and necessity of God’s Word rightly interpreted for faith and life. For Fosdick, the Bible was not the unique revelation of God’s will but instead was a resource for ethical teaching coming forth in social action–religion is in the doing. Further, history was moving forward as man advanced from a socially, scientifically, politically, and theologically inferior past—note Fosdick’s opinion 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). God’s Law exposed “barbarous morals” in a barbarous era, but modern man had progressed beyond such behavior, according to Fosdick. For him, the principle stated in the first portion of Matthew 7:12 was a golden nugget for social change panned from the river of religious schools of history and the world, but the latter portion was antiquated and odious in the nostrils of progressivism whether religious or political. He failed to recognize that true justice needs to come from authority and the Bible is that authority. It is good for Christians growing in sanctification to use the Golden Rule as a simple way to determine the right way to handle situations, but it must be applied mindful of the immediate and overall scriptural context and an eye to the Law. The Bible is consulted for authoritative instruction because as the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 3, expresses it succinctly but comprehensively,

“What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”

Scripture teaches what to believe about God (doctrine) and what to do for God (obedience); correct doctrine followed correctly yields correct and loving obedience by followers of the Lord. Christians are not perfect, but through the indwelling Holy Spirit renewing and enabling them sanctification progresses in loving obedience. Some of Dr. Fosdick’s illustrations provide helpful insights into how important it is to consider the problems of others in the light of one’s own desires, but the benefits of these insights are undermined by his theological foundation that denies the uniqueness and sufficiency 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, after all it has been harvested from Scripture, but don’t forget the second part of Matthew 7:12 and the overall context within the Bible.

Barry Waugh

You might also be interested in reading the article, “50th Anniversary PCA and OPC, Christianity and Liberalism, J. G. Machen,” posted on this site May 29, 2023.

Notes—The header shows the Iowa capitol as rendered by a circa 1908 postcard from the New York Public Library online digital collection. The portrait is from the NYPL via Wikimedia Commons. World religions and philosophers claim authorship of the Golden Rule, but since it 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 quote 5 on page 101 are the words “to the full” which made the sentence cumbersome.

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