24 Sep 2012

Quibbling With Chesterton

Religious 14 Comments

I’m reading (and loving) G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. But in his essay on Bernard Shaw, Chesterton ends with a passage that seems a bit off to me:

Mr. Shaw cannot understand that the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man–the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob a coward–in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

For the most part, I love what Chesterton is saying here. However, I think it’s too hard on Peter and too easy on Paul and John. Yes, Peter is a man, but so were Paul and John. Paul’s claim to fame is that he literally persecuted Christians before Jesus made the scales fall from his eyes. Paul wasn’t being falsely modest when he said he was the worst sinner of all. I know some Christians like to say Paul was just being a role model for us there, but no, I think he actually believed that. Precisely because of the mental faculties and training in the Jewish Law with which God had blessed him, it was unconscionable that Paul should’ve missed who Jesus was initially. I definitely would understand if Paul thought his error was far more scandalous than what Pontius Pilate had done.

As far John, I was always amazed that he had his followers ask Jesus if He were the Messiah, or if they waited for another. John recognized the Lord in his presence as a fetus. Yet the grown man, supposedly in close communion with God, and despite God the Father Himself saying, “This is my beloved Son” after John baptized Jesus, still apparently had doubts when he was languishing in prison.

But back to Peter: Chesterton is making it sound as if Jesus picked the worst possible guy, just to make sure the system couldn’t be toppled by an even bigger clown down the road. But no, I don’t think that’s true at all. Jesus picked Peter because he was a rock. Neither John nor Paul were rocks. Yes, Peter denied Jesus three times, but the only reason he was in the position to do so, was that he followed Jesus (after declaring that he would die for Him). Nobody else was there to deny that they were Jesus’ disciples, because they had fled in terror after the arrest.

Jesus didn’t just grab some random person, nor did He seek out the weakest link, when He approached Peter and his brother who were fishing at the time, and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” For one thing, that invitation/command itself wouldn’t have worked on just anybody.

14 Responses to “Quibbling With Chesterton”

  1. importanttopics says:

    I agree with you about Peter, Robert. He was a rock for Christ. He did, however, seem to be subject to brief episodes of denying the gospel due to pressure from others or for fear of being attacked by them. This was evident not only in his thrice denial of Christ in the courtyard, but also in his shunning of Christian Gentiles, which is documented by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. That is probably what Chesterton had in mind when he wrote that. In the end though, all things being considered, he was a rock and a zealot for Christ.

  2. Yosef says:

    Bob you wrote, “Jesus didn’t just grab some random person, nor did He seek out the weakest link, when He approached Peter and his brother who were fishing at the time, and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” For one thing, that invitation/command itself wouldn’t have worked on just anybody.”

    I don’t know, I think it could have worked with just anyone. Jesus could find two repairmen and say “Follow me, and you will repair men.”

    • integral says:

      Or two whores, and he could have said….

  3. Scott Angell says:

    I was under the impression that John the Baptist and the mystic John (who wrote, I think, the Book of Revelation) were different people. I thought John the Baptist got his head chopped off before Jesus died (Mark 6:14-29).

    • Scott Angell says:

      Oh yes, and also wrote all those other books that were named after him… duh…

      So far as I know, John the Baptist didn’t write anything.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Oh, it’s possible Chesterton had a different John in mind! I just assumed that if Chesterton had been thinking of people Jesus could have picked to found the Church, that John the Baptist would have been a contender.

  4. Blackadder says:

    Good post.

    I’ve long thought that Peter gets a bad rap among lots of Christians. For example, people will make fun of Peter for failing at walking on the water and having to be saved by Jesus, but this overlooks that 1) none of the other apostles even tried, and 2) Peter did actually walk on the water for a bit before he got scared and started to sink.

    Of course, Peter is my confirmation name, so perhaps I’m just biased. 🙂

  5. Dan Rice says:

    Another Chesterton fan! Huzzah! If you haven’t read ‘Orthodoxy’, it’s a must. And as much as you seem to enjoy discussions with atheists, I found his short novels ‘Manalive’ and ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ quite relevant and enjoyable.

    Perhaps Chesterton’s seemingly uncharitable portrayal of Peter is ultimately geared toward emphasizing the magnificence of his redemption. I’m sure, given Chesterton’s self-deprecating humor and his affinity for romantic paradoxes (such as “the last shall be first”), that he himself probably felt a stronger connection to Peter than either Paul or John. Peter is unique, in that Jesus told him, face to face, that he would fail. Then and there Peter doubted Jesus’ words, as later he doubted Jesus’ actions. Paul only had to fall off his horse once. John’s (I’m going to assume GKC actually meant the brother of James) record is more that of a trusting child, even to the foot of the cross. But Peter–Peter knew what it was to fail; to receive the confidence of the Lord, and then totally drop the ball. I think Chesterton sees this as a great hope for any man, and a supreme demonstration of the poetry of God’s divine will: “For the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Peter was not always a rock. He was remade a rock.

  6. Joel says:

    Another possible quibble with Chesterton’s passage here is his (apparent) interpretation of Peter being the rock. I don’t claim to be an expert, but some argue that in Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus is illustrating Peter’s confession of faith, not Peter himself, as the rock upon which He will build his church. Which is a significantly different interpretation.

    By the way, I’m a huge fan of your site. Thanks for sharing your economic insights!

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Does it matter that Jesus changed his name?

      • Joel says:

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you may be referring to Peter being adressed as Petros here. Since I’m in over my head, I hope you don’t mind that I refer you to an article by Dr. James White who makes a strong case based on the underlying Greek text regarding the petros/petra arguments. Disclosure: He is a reformed baptist.


  7. ThomasL says:

    I think you are looking at the wrong John. By “the mystic John” he likely means St John who wrote the book of Revelations, not John the Baptist, who was beheaded before there was a church to found.

    “Nobody else was there to deny…” Peter was brought there by “another disciple” (cf. John 18). I suspect that was probably John, but his modesty prevented him from saying as much.

    FWIW, I don’t think Chesterton is attempting to give Peter a bad rap. I think he means that of all the disciples, the average man sees himself in Peter more easily than he sees himself in a great visionary (St John) or a great missionary (St Paul).

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Yep someone else also pointed out that Chesterton probably didn’t mean John the Baptist, and now I agree.

    • Ken B says:

      The ‘mystic’ John is more likely the apostle traditionally (if wrongly) credited with the fourth gospel than John of Patmos, the author of Revelations. But he’s certainly not John the Baptist.

      Hard to see though how Jesus, the man, could have chosen Paul, since they never met.

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