The Right and Wrong Uses of the Bible
R. Heber Newton.
"In it is contained God's true Word."—Homily on the Holy Scriptures.
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I. The Unreal Bible. II. The Real Bible. III. The Wrong Uses of the Bible. IV. The Wrong Uses of the Bible. V. The Right Critical Use of the Bible. VI. The Right Historical Use of the Bible. VII. The Right Ethical and Spiritual Use of the Bible.
"The Gospel doth not so much consist in verbis as in virtute."
"Liberty in prophesying, without prescribing authoritatively to other men's consciences, and becoming lords and masters of their faith—a necessity derived from the consideration of the difficulty of Scripture in questions controverted, and the uncertainty of any internal medium of interpretation."
"To those who follow their reason in the interpretation of the Scriptures, God will either give his grace for assistance to find the truth, or His pardon if they miss it."
[Rational Theology in England in the Seventeenth Century; John Tulloch, D.D., II: 181, I:398, I:160]
It has been my custom for several years to give occasionally a series of sermons, having in view some systematic instruction of the people committed to my care. Such a series of sermons on the Bible had been for some time in my mind. With the recurrence of Bible-Sunday in our Church year, this thought crystallized in the outline of a course that should present the nature and uses of the Bible, both negatively and positively, in a manner that should be at once reverent and rational. In the course of this parochial ministration public attention was called to it in a way that has rendered a complete report of my words desirable.
The views set forth in these sermons were not hastily reached or lightly accepted. They represent a growth of years. Their essential thought was stated in a sermon that was preached and published eight years ago. My positions concerning certain books, etc., have been taken in deference to what seems to me the weight of judgment among the master critics. They are open to correction, as the young science of Biblical criticism gains new light. The general view of the Bible herein set forth rests upon the conclusions of no new criticism. In varying forms, it has been that of an historical school of thought in the English Church and in its American daughter. It is a view that has been recognized as a legitimate child of the mother Church; and that has been given the freedom of our own homestead, in the undogmatic language of the sixth of the Articles of Religion of the Protestant Episcopal Church. It is distinctly enunciated in the first sentence of the first sermon in the Book of Homilies, set forth officially for the instruction of the people in both of these Churches.
"Unto a Christian man there can be nothing more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of holy scripture, forasmuch as in it is contained God's true word, setting forth his glory, and also man's duty."
The whole controversy in Protestantism over the Bible may be summed into the question whether the Bible is God's word or contains God's word. On this question I stand with the Book of Homilies.
These sermons were meant for that large and rapidly growing body of men who can no longer hold the traditional view of the Bible, but who yet realize that within this view there is a real and profound truth; a truth which we all need, if haply we can get it out from its archaic form without destroying its life, and can clothe it anew in a shape that we can intelligently grasp and sincerely hold. To such alone would I speak in these pages, to help them hold the substance of their fathers' faith.
R. Heber Newton.
All Souls' Church, March 1, 1883.
The Unreal Bible.
"The Bible, and the reading of the Bible as an instrument of instruction, may be said to have been begun on the sunrise of that day when Ezra unrolled the parchment scroll of the Law. It was a new thought that the Divine Will could be communicated by a dead literature as well as by a living voice. In the impassioned welcome with which this thought was received lay the germs of all the good and evil which were afterwards to be developed out of it: on the one side, the possibility of appeal in each successive age to the primitive, undying document that should rectify the fluctuations of false tradition and fleeting opinion; on the other hand, the temptation to pay to the letter of the sacred book a worship as idolatrous and as profoundly opposed to its spirit as once had been the veneration paid to the sacred trees or the sacred stones of the consecrated groves or hills."
Dean Stanley: "History of the Jewish Church," iii. 158.
The Unreal Bible
"Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things which thou wast taught by word of mouth."—Luke i. 1-4.
This day, in our Church year, calls us to think upon the influence of the Bible on the advance of man into the Kingdom of God.
Since the growth of written language great books have been the well-springs of thought and feeling for mankind, from which successive generations have drawn the water of life. Since the introduction of the printing-press books have been, beyond all other agencies, the educators of men. And of all books of which we have any knowledge, those together constituting the Bible form incomparably the most potent factors in the moral and religious progress of the western world; and as all other progress is fed from moral and religious forces, I may add, in the general advance of Christian civilization.
From these books the lisping lips of children have learned the tales of beautiful goodness which have nourished all noble aspirations. Over these charming stories of Hebrew heroism and holiness the imagination has caught sight of the infinite mysteries amid which we walk on earth. Their touch has quickened conscience into life. Through their voices the whispers of the Eternal Power have thrilled the soul of youth, and men have learned to worship, trust, and love the Father-God. These books have preserved for us the story of the Life which earth could least afford to lose, the image of the Man who, were his memory dropped from out our lives—our religion, morals, philanthropy, laws and institutions would lose their highest force. These books have taught statesmen the principles of government, and students of social science the cardinal laws of civilization. The fairest essays for a true social order which Europe and America have known have laid their foundations on these books. They have fed art with its highest visions, and have touched the lips of poesy that they have opened into song. They have voiced the worship of Christendom for centuries, and have cleared above progressive civilization the commanding ideals of Liberty, Justice, Brotherhood. Men and women during fifty generations have heard through these books the words proceeding from out the mouth of God, on which they have lived. Amid the darkness of earth, the light which has enabled our fathers to walk upright, strong for duty, panoplied against temptation, patient in suffering, resigned in affliction, meeting even death with no treacherous tremors, has shone from these pages. In their words young men and maidens have plighted troth each to the other, fathers and mothers have named their little ones, and by those children have been laid away in the earth in hope of eternal life. All that is sweetest, purest, finest, noblest in personal, domestic, social and civic life, has been fed perennially from these books. The Bible is woven into our very being. To tear it from our lives would be to unravel the fair tapestry of civilization—to run out its golden threads and crumble its beautiful pictures into chaos.
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Yet we are threatened to-day with no less a loss than this. The Bible is certainly not read as of old. It is not merely the distraction of our busier lives, or the multiplicity of books upon our shelves, that turns men and women away from these classics of our fathers. Men and women no longer regard these books as did their fathers. They can no longer use them as their parents did; they see no other way to use them, and so they leave them unopened on their tables.
An intelligent lady said to me some time since: "My children don't know anything about the Bible. I cannot read it to them, for I do not know what to say when they ask me questions. I no longer believe as I was taught about it: what, then, can I teach them?"
A confession which, if all parents were as frank, would have to be made in many other households. Where it is still used in home readings, it is, in hosts of houses, with the pain which mothers know when their children's honest questions cannot be as honestly answered.
Such a state of things is sad and dangerous. Unless some way be found to read these books without equivocation, they will gradually cease to be used in home instruction, and the coming generations will grow up without their holy influence. This state of things ought not to have been brought upon us. The reverent reading of the Bible alone would never have led us into such straits. It is the old story of all human reverence. That which we revere, we exaggerate. Glamor gathers around it. The symbol is identified with the spiritual reality. The image becomes an idol. The wonderful thing becomes a fetish. So we end in an irrational reverence of that which is worthy of a real and rational reverence. Then we have a superstition. Superstition always results in destroying the rightful belief of which it is the exaggeration and distortion.
This is the common story of superstition, from the totemism of savage tribes and the image-worship of semi-civilized peoples on to the heathenism of the Mass. Men who felt the reality of a mystic communion with Christ, of which the Supper of the Lord was the symbol,—who felt the strengthening of their characters as their thoughts fed upon the words and life of Jesus,—naturally came to speak of the sacrament in terms of awe, which magnified the mystery, until at last they bowed down before the veritable body and blood of Christ, and trembled with fear as the tinkling of the silver bell announced that the priest was bringing God down into a wafer! They had really heard God speaking to them through the sacrament; and this never could have done them harm. But when they tried to express what they felt, they exaggerated and distorted the simple symbol of the Infinite Presence, identified it with the spiritual reality, and set up a Christian idol, a civilized fetish, which has done incalculable harm to men. The spiritual truth became an intellectual lie, and in every Catholic country superstition has eaten out faith, and reason refuses to reverence the sacrament.
The Bible has repeated this common story. The spiritual influence felt forth-flowing from it, the voice of God heard speaking through it, drew man's natural reverence to it. In trying to express the reasons for this reverence he has over-stated and mis-stated the nature of these books. The symbol has been identified with the reality. The Bible has become an idol, a fetish.
Bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible, is responsible for the lack of the reasonable reverence these sacred writings merit. This reasonable reverence can be recovered only by frankly putting away the unreasonable reverence. We must exorcise a superstition to save a faith. We must part with the unreal Bible if we would hold the real Bible. Iconoclasm is not pleasant to any but the callow youth. It may be none the less needful; and then the sober man must not shrink from shivering the most sacred shrine.
As runs the Hindu thought, the Destroyer is one of the forms of the Divine Power. God is continually destroying worlds and creeds alike; but in order to rebuild.
"Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain."
According to its root-meaning, "learning" is a "shaking." Every new learning shakes society, now as in the days past. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews saw, it is God who is shaking society in every such new learning, to the end that "those things which cannot be shaken may remain." Man need not fear to follow in the steps of God.
There is danger now in shaking men's faiths. There is danger, too, in leaving men's faith unshaken—unless the Divine process of progress is wrong. In the stress and storm of the tossing sea, Faith may go down in the waters. It may also die of dry rot by the old wharves. There is danger in rash utterance, but there is at least equal danger in timid silence. The time never comes when a reconstruction does not imperil some great interest. None the less the reconstruction must go on. Delay in pulling down may make building up of the old structure impossible.
As the story of past civilizations sadly shows, the gulf between the popular superstitions and the thoughts of scholars may widen until no bridge can span it, and religion perishes in it. It seems to me that the time has come when the pulpit must keep no longer silence. Its silence will not seal the lips of other teachers. Books and papers are everywhere forcing the issue upon our generation. Men's minds are torn asunder, their souls are in the strife. It behoves the Churches to remember that great word of Luther:
"It is never safe to do anything against the truth!"
When the venerable cathedral, in which our forefathers sought God and found Him, grows dangerously unsound; when its columns have crumbled and its arches have sprung, and its stout oaken timbers have dried into dust; the guardians of the sacred pile must plan its restoration as best they can. They must shore up its treacherous walls, take out its dead materials, carve new heads for the saints in the niches of the doors, build up the edifice anew, following faithfully as may be the old lines, and striving for the old spirit. When the scaffolding comes down, we may feel a shock of pain at the strange raw look of that which Time had stained with sacredness. But the minster has been saved for our children; and, when they shall gather within its historic walls, those walls will have grown venerable again with age, and they will not feel the loss which we have suffered, while as of old, they, too, shall hear the voice of God and find His Holy Presence.
I propose to consider with you, carefully but frankly, the real nature and the true uses of the Bible.
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Let us examine to-day the traditional view of the Bible.
It is not easy to define the popular theory of the Bible. Like its kindred theory of Papal Infallibility, it is a true chameleon, changing constantly in different minds, always denying the absurdity of which it is made the synonym, ever qualifying itself safely, yet never ceasing to take on a vaguely miraculous character. Various theories are given in the books in which theological students are mis-educated, all of which unite in claiming that which they cannot agree in defining. The Westminster Confession of Faith may be taken as the dogmatic petrifaction of the notion which lies, more or less undeveloped and still living, in the other Protestant Confessions.
This Confession opens with a chapter "Of the Holy Scriptures," which affirms in this wise:
"The light of nature and the works of creation and Providence .... are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of His will, which is necessary to salvation.... The authority of the Holy Scripture.... dependeth.... wholly upon God, the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God....
"....and the entire perfection thereof are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God, and establish our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof.
"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added by new revelations of the Spirit.
"Being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages.... in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them."
The notion which the learned divines set forth so elaborately at Westminster, art has expressed in forms much better "understanded of the people." Mediaeval illuminations picture the evangelists copying their gospels from heavenly books which angels hold open above them.
A book let down out of the skies, immaculate, infallible, oracular—this is the traditional view of the Bible.
Let me lay before you some of the many reasons why this theory of the Bible is not to be received by us.
This theory has no sufficient sanction by the Church.
The Catholic or OEcumenical Creeds make no affirmation whatever concerning the Bible. This theory is found alone, in formal official statement, in the creeds of minor authority, the utterances of councils of particular churches; as, for example, in the Tridentine Decrees and the Protestant Confessions of Faith. There is no unanimity of statement among these several Confessions. Some of the Protestant Confessions of the Reformation era state this theory moderately. Some of them hold it implicitly, without exact definition. One at least is wholly silent upon the subject. The later creeds of Protestantism vary even more than the Reformation symbols. Such important Churches as the Church of England, our own Protestant Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Church have nothing whatever of this theory in their official utterances. These three Churches unite in this simple, practical, undogmatic statement (the sixth of the thirty-nine articles):
"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."
The Bible nowhere makes any such claim of infallibility for itself.
The prophets did indeed use the habitual formula, "Thus saith the Lord." So did the false prophets, as well as the true. It was the common formula of prophetism, indeed, of the Easterns generally when delivering themselves of messages that burned in their souls. The eastern mind assigns directly to God actions and influences which we Westerns assign to secondary causes. We are scientific, they are poetic. We reach truth by reasonings, they by intuitions. No one can follow the processes of the intuitions. To the mystic mind they are immediate illuminations from on high, inspirations of the Spirit of God. In the realm of law we trace the action of natural forces, and are apt to think there is nothing more. In the realm of the unknown we feel the supernatural, and are apt to think it all in all.
The great prophets themselves did not accept this language of other prophets unquestioningly. They denied the claim unhesitatingly when satisfied that the messages were not from on high. They distinguished between those who came in the name of the Lord; and so must we. They tried the spirits whether they were of God; bidding us therefore do the same.
Tried by the severest scrutiny of successive centuries, of different races, the great prophets prove to have spoken truly when they declared, of their ethical and spiritual messages, "Thus saith the Lord." If ever messages from on high have come to men, if ever the Spirit of God has spoken in the spirit of man, it was in the minds of these "men of the spirit." But they made no claim to infallibility, or if they did, took pains to disprove it. Every prophet who goes beyond ethical and religious instruction, and ventures into predictions, makes mistakes, and leaves his errors recorded for our warning. We must try even the inspired men, and when, overstepping their limitations, they err, we must say, Thus saith Isaiah, Thus saith Jeremiah.
No biblical writer shows any consciousness of such supernatural influences upon him in his work as insured its infallibility. Nearly all these authors begin and end their books without any reference to themselves or their work. The writer of the Gospel according to Luke thus prefaces his book:
"Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us which from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things which thou wast taught by word of mouth."
This is the only personal preface to any of the Gospels, and it is thoroughly human. There is not even such an invocation as introduces Milton's great poem.
These writers at times, after the fashion of the older prophets, affirm that they speak with divine authority; but they also as expressly disclaim such authority in other places. St. Paul is sure, in one matter referred to him, of the mind of God, and writes:
"Unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord," etc.
Immediately after he writes, as having no such assurance:
"To the rest speak I, not the Lord."
Later on in the same letter he is so uncertain as to add to his judgment:
"And I think also that I have the spirit of God."
Again, in the same connection, being conscious of no divine authorization, he gives his own opinion as such:
"Now, concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord, but I give my judgment."
Eighteen hundred years after he wrote, men insist that they know more about St. Paul's inspirations than he did himself. Against his modest, cautious discriminations, our doctors set up their theory of the Bible, clothe all his utterances with the divine authority, and honor him with an infallibility which he explicitly disclaims.
The New Testament writers use language which seems, to our theory-spectacled eyes, to ascribe an infallible inspiration to the Old Testament books. But the words have no such weight. The Epistle to the Hebrews opens with the words:
"God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets," etc.
The author of the Second Epistle of Peter writes:
"For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."
Such passages as these command the instant assent of all who reverence an ethical and spiritual inspiration in the prophets, and a real revelation through them, and they command no other belief.
In the first Epistle General of Peter we read:
"Concerning which salvation the prophets sought and searched diligently who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you; searching what time or what manner of time the spirit of Christ which was in them did point unto, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that should follow them."
Any idea of a progressive revelation implies that there was a light coming on into the world, which to them of olden time showed dimly a mystery into which they strove to look further. A vision of ideal goodness rose before them. It rested above the ideal Israel, chosen and called of God for a holy work. It shadowed that righteous servant of God with sorrow. The lot of the elect one was to be suffering. Thus the world was to be saved to God. This the great Prophet of the Exile saw. Christ's coming filled out this mystic vision, and it is fairly translated into the terms the Epistle uses.
The prophets were, in such lofty visionings, under an influence beyond their consciousness.
"The passive master lent his hand To the vast soul that o'er him planned."
All other passages claimed in support of the notion of an infallible Bible fail on the witness-stand.
There is positively nothing in the New Testament which lends a reasonable countenance to such an amazing theory.
Even the stock argument, used when all other quotations failed, disappears in the honesty of the Revised New Testament. People who know no Greek see now that Paul did not write "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God"; but
"Every Scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."
This is precisely the claim to be made for the Bible, as against the exaggerated notions cherished about it. It is good for—all forms of character-building. Its inspiration is ethical and spiritual. The test of the inspiration of any writing in it is its efficacy to inspire life with goodness.
The Bible carries the refutation of this claim upon the face of its writings.
They thrust upon the attention of all who are not blind the traces of human imperfection, of a kind and an extent which precludes any notion of a clean copy of a perfect script let down from the skies.
The Old Testament historians contradict each other in facts and figures, tell the same story in different ways, locate the same incident at different periods, ascribe the same deeds to different men, quote statistics which are plainly exaggerated, mistake poetic legend for sober prose, report the marvellous tales of tradition as literal history, and give us statements which cannot be read as scientific facts without denying our latest and most authoritative knowledge. I shall not enumerate these "mistakes of Moses," and of others. That is an ungracious task for which I have no heart. It may be needful to remind the children of a larger growth, who persist in believing a saintly mother's beliefs to be final authority in their studies, that she is not infallible. But one does not care to catalogue her mistakes and taunt her with them.
That which carries no such reproach in it, but is, when rightly read, an honor to the Bible, may be pointed out, as the Biblical writers, indeed, do for us themselves.
The marks of a patient and noble literary workmanship are in every writing.
We can see this as our fathers could not see it, because the glasses through which to read literature critically have been ground within our century. Literary criticism is the study of literature by means of a microscopic knowledge of the language in which a book is written, of its growth from various roots, of its stages of development and the factors influencing them, of its condition in the period of this particular composition, of the writer's idiosyncrasies of thought and style in his ripening periods, of the general history and literature of his race, and of the special characteristics of his age and of his contemporary writers.
Every educated person knows something of the working of this criticism on other books. You have read your Shakespeare with intelligence, and have felt many misgivings as to the genuineness of a few plays, and of passages in many plays. The brutalities and beastlinesses of Titus Andronicus seemed impossible to the author of "The Tempest" and the "Midsummer Night's Dream." The historic plays seemed to you often "padded." But there was nothing more than guess-work in your conclusions, and, you suspected, in the more pretentious opinions of others. You take up, however, the lectures of Hudson or the charming study of Dowden, and you find that criticism is becoming, not merely an art, depending on certain instincts and tastes, but a science, building slowly a well-settled body of laws and rules, and shaping already a well defined consensus of judgment. The growth of the English language and literature, the characteristics of society, of language and of literature in the Elizabethan era, the idioms of Shakespeare's contemporaries, the manner of Shakespeare himself, in his different periods, have all been so minutely studied as to form a distinct specialty in knowledge. The Shakespearian scholar is a well differentiated species of the genus scholar, and speaks with a substantial authority upon what is now a real science. You can follow this teacher into Shakespeare's work-shop, watch the building of his plays, distinguish the hands which toiled over them and mark their journeyman's work, till quite sure where the Master's own inimitable touch caressed them into noble form, and in what period of his life he thus wrought. There is a new revelation of Shakespeare to our age.
This criticism turned upon the great books of the ancients. Niebuhr led the way in reconstructing the early history of the Romans. Dr. Arnold predicted that a Niebuhr of Jewish literature would arise. He came duly. His name was Ewald. Successors have followed in abundance. The principles and processes of literary criticism were applied to the Hebrew writings.
In the present immature stage of this science of Biblical Criticism there are, of course, plenty of speculations and guesses, of hasty generalizations and crude opinions. Time will correct these. Meanwhile there is already so much that may claim to be well established as to constitute a new knowledge of these old books.
The historical books are seen to be the work of many hands in many ages. They gather up the popular traditions of the race, carry down on their slow streams fragments from such far back ages that we have almost lost the clue to their story—glacial boulders that now lie strangely out of place in the rich fields of later eras; songs of rude periods, nature myths, legends of semi-fabulous heroes, folk lore of the tribes, scraps from long-forgotten books, entries from ancient annals, pages torn from the histories of other peoples to fill out the story; the whole worked over many times by many hands in many generations.
Just as Thirlwall and Grote give us studies of Grecian history from the standpoint of Monarchism and Republicanism, so in the Kings and Chronicles we have studies of Hebrew history from a prophetic and priestly point of view.
The legislation of the Pentateuch, supposed formerly to have been drawn up by Moses, appears, as it now stands, to be a codification, made as late as the period of the Babylonian exile, under the influence of the hierarchical and ritual system, then crystallizing into the form familiar to us all. This codification, like its famous parallel in Roman history, the code of Justinian, collated the decisions and decrees already in existence from various periods, and reissued them as one body of laws.
It brings together the "Judgments" of early days upon questions of civil life—the decisions of tribal heads concerning the rights of person and property, the counterparts of the "Dooms" of English history; the moral rules of the local priests in a simple state of society; and the ritual and discipline of a late ecclesiastical age. The compilation is not very skilfully done, so that we pass from the minutiae of a priest's vade mecum in a highly developed hierarchical period to the civil statutes of a rude patriarchal society, whose very crimes are archaic.
The prophecies break up into fragmentary collections, in which the words of many different and obscure prophets are grouped under the name of some great prophet, as was quite natural in an uncritical age; the whole mass being arranged with little chronological order.
The Psalter separates into several books of sacred song, dating from different periods. They repeat the same Psalm, and divide one Psalm into two and join two into one, on principles by no means apparent to us. Some of these Psalms are of a highly artificial and mechanical structure. There are acrostics, in which the couplets begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet; double acrostics, and other refinements of literary ingenuity; the sure signs of a flamboyant and decadent literature.
The other writings of the Old Testament and the books of the New Testament have yielded similar general results to the touchstone of criticism; concerning which it is needless to speak further.
Our critical glasses bring out, clear and strong, the fact of a human, literary craft in these books, the signs on every hand of the labor of brain and skill of pen through which the literature of a venerable nation, and of the infant church born of it, took slow shape into our Bible. Such a work needs must have in it the traces of human imperfection; and these limitations of thought and knowledge, these mistakes of fallible writers, are to be seen by every one, save those who will not see.
It is impossible after such a study to rest in the illusion of an infallible book, of which, as a book, God can be said to be the "author."
The growth of this theory is plain to us, and discredits its authority.
The explanation that Max Mueller makes of the growth of superstitious reverence for ancient traditions in Hindu history is suggestive on this point.
"In an age when there was nothing corresponding to what we call literature, every saying, every proverb, every story handed down from father to son received very soon a kind of hallowed character. They became sacred heir-looms, sacred because they came from an unknown source, from a distant age. There was a stage in the development of human thought when the distance that separated the living generation from their grandfathers or great-grandfathers was as yet the nearest approach to a conception of eternity, and when the name of grandfather and great-grandfather seemed the nearest expression of God. Hence what had been said by these half human, half divine ancestors, if it was preserved at all, was soon looked upon as a more than human utterance. Some of these ancient sayings were preserved because they were so true and so striking that they could not be forgotten. They contained eternal truths, expressed for the first time in human language. Of such oracles of truth it was said in India that they had been heard, Sruta, and from it arose the word Sruti, the recognized term for divine revelation in Sanskrit."
How, in later times, the great writings of the Hebrews came to acquire the same exaggerated sacredness, we can also observe. We read in one of the historical books of the Jews that "Nehemiah founded a library and gathered together the writings concerning the Kings, and of the prophets, and the (songs) of David and epistles of Kings concerning temple gifts." This formation of a National Library was really the germ out of which grew the Old Testament. It was a purely civic act by a layman, but it expressed the honor in which the national writings were coming to be held. It is coincident with this that we find a priestly movement to draw a sacred line around the more important writings of the nation.
Tradition has credited Ezra, the priestly coadjutor of Nehemiah, with the first formation of the Old Testament Canon. The two traditions express one and the same fact from the secular and ecclesiastical points of view. In the exile, the stricken nation came to value and honor its national heritage as never before. Its literary sense was quickened by close contact with the civilization of Babylonia, whose great library constituted one of the chief treasures of the central city. It was natural that on their return to their native land the Jews should gather their race-writings and found a National Library.
The genius of Israel had always been religious. Its very literature was pre-eminently religious. That their venerable writings should be received as sacred was thus wholly natural. They were in reality sacred writings.
Moreover, a large part of these writings, and that part largely drawn from very ancient times, was composed of judicial decisions, legislative codes, etc., around which veneration properly gathered. This veneration was heightened by the popular traditions which assigned to Moses the bulk of their legislation, and traced it through him to Jehovah himself. During the exile a remarkable priestly development, which had been running on through two centuries, at least, culminated in a completely organized hierarchy and an elaborate cultus.
In the process of this final development in Babylonia the legislation and histories of the nation were worked over by priestly hands in the priestly spirit. The law of Moses was now for the first time completely set before the people, and on the restoration to Judea was made the law of the land. It became, therefore, in a new sense sacred.
The fresh, free inspirations of the prophets—inspirations most real and divine—died out in the exile, smothered partly by this priestly development.
When no living prophet arose to make men hear the voice of God, men had to hearken for that voice in the words of the dead prophets. In the synagogues or meeting-houses which developed during the exile, when the holy temple was in ruins, and which, having been found useful, were continued in the restoration, the writings of the prophets were read each Sabbath. The true writings of the chief prophets had therefore to be indicated. Thus came the canon of the prophets.
The freedom with which the author of the Chronicles used the material of the older historians which had been taken up into the sacred writings, shows that the sacredness attached to them had not isolated them into extra-human writings even a century and a half after Ezra.
The process of exaltation was at work, however, and continued thenceforth through the national history, increasing as the life of the nation ebbed. It was the period immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, which busied itself in closing the canon of Jewish Scriptures Death bound up that Bible. No new chapters could be added, because there was no more life left to write them. In its dotage this noble nation became known, by its superstitious reverence for the law, as "the people of the book." Learned doctors gravely taught their pupils that "God himself studies the law for the first three hours of every day."
The superstitious exaltation of the sacred writings, coincident with the lapsing life of the nation, was partially responsible for it, as it discouraged the fresh inspirations of the soul, and suppressed all free spiritual thought.
The genesis of the similar theory concerning the Christian Scriptures repeats the story told above.
The formation of the Christian Church was a period of astonishing literary productivity, commensurate in extent and worth with the importance of Christianity. It was a creative epoch in history. The life and teachings of Jesus stirred the minds and thrilled the souls of men. The higher spheres brooded low upon our world. Spiritual influences of unparalleled magnitude were working in society. The "Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."
Writings of all sorts abounded. They carried such weight as their author's name or their intrinsic worth imparted to them. Even the most valuable were not so prized or guarded as to prevent some of them from being lost. Paul's own letters suffered from this neglect. Had a few copies of these inestimable letters been made by the churches to whom they were sent such a fate could not have befallen any of them. These writings were quoted freely by the early fathers, who rarely cared to give the exact language even of the great apostle.
As the churches multiplied and organized, the need of selection from the multitudinous literature of Christianity was felt. Genuine letters had to be distinguished from spurious letters. Accurate knowledge of the life and teachings of Christ had become a vital necessity. The growth of legend and fable, in the Apocryphal Gospels, threatened to swallow up the memory of the real Jesus. A sifting process went on in the churches, by which the unimportant and objectionable writings were gradually winnowed out and the wheat retained.
The Christian consciousness tried and tested every writing, accepting those which approved themselves inspired by inspiring.
In the course of time this thoroughly vital process, through which public opinion passed upon the Christian writings, was recorded officially in the legislative action of councils, and thus, after many incertitudes and vacillations, the selection of sacred writings was finished and the New Testament canon was closed. It was closed, as in the case of the canon of the Old Testament, by the gradual loss of free spiritual and literary productivity; closed, as the visions fade and the tides fall within the soul, and the period of criticism follows the period of creation.
These writings became rightly sacred as the mementoes of the Divine Man, and the counsels of the great apostles; a shrine in which men drew near to the supreme manifestation of God upon earth. But they became wrongly sacred also, as the lengthening lapse of time isolated these precious heirlooms of the Christian household into relics it was blasphemy to criticise; as the falling waters of the river of life stranded high above men's reach the thoughts and experiences of the inspired fisher-folk of Galilee. In the Dark Ages, when to read was a sign of distinction, and to write a schoolboy history like "Eginhard's Charlemagne" was a prodigy; when to lead clean lives, and to labor as hosts are doing now for their fellows made a man a saint; the literary and spiritual power of the apostles was nothing less than preternatural.
In the Reformation the old story repeated itself.
In the days of fresh inspiration men surely did not fail to prize the blessed books whence had come their new life. But the sense of the divine life in their own spirits enabled them to judge of the inspiration of the Apostles at once reverently and rationally. They did not hesitate to criticise freely the sacred books. Erasmus wrote of the Revelation:
"I certainly can find no reason for believing that it was set forth by the Holy Spirit.... Moreover, even were it a blessed thing to believe what is contained in it, no man knows what that is.... But let every man think of it as his spirit prompts him."
Luther wrote of the Epistle of James,
"In comparison with the best books of the New Testament, it is a downright strawy epistle."
The ebbing tide again left the second generation critical and not creative. After the sages and prophets of Protestantism came the scribes and doctors, and they were concerned not so much with the manly religion of free learning which Erasmus cherished, or the ethical and spiritual religion which Luther roused, as with establishing Protestantism and waging its doctrinal controversies. They wanted an authority for faith and morals to set over against the authority of Rome. The age knew of no other authority than external, extra-natural official authority, the king by divine right in the realm of thought. In the place of the authority of the Church rose the authority of the Bible; an oracular, infallible, miraculous Book, instead of an oracular, infallible, miraculous Church. Men could only sustain the elaborate speculative system they had spun out of the New Testament letters, by insisting upon the authority of the apostles in metaphysics as strongly as upon their authority in ethical and spiritual principles. When dogma became divine, the books whence it was drawn were deified.
We simply enter into the heritage of the men who spent two and a half years in elaborating the Westminster Confession, the first chapter of which petrified this superstitious theory of the Bible. Profoundly as we reverence these truly sacred books, for the real revelation they record as coming in the spirits of holy men who spake as they were moved of the Holy Ghost, and supremely in the person of the Son of Man; and rightly as we recognize a Providential purpose in the preparation of these books for the guidance of human life; the history of these same thoughts and feelings in the past should warn us from renewing ancient exaggerations, injurious to the best influence of the Bible.
This theory is incapable of a statement which is not self-stultifying.
To be an infallible authority upon all the matters upon which it treats, a book must not only be guaranteed in its thought. Thought changes more or less in finding an expression. No two statements of an idea or of a fact can be exactly alike. There are no real synonyms. Interchangeable words have each a special shade of meaning. The guarantee must cover the phraseology of the original language in which the book is written. The words must be dictated to amanuenses. The thorough-going verbal inspirationists are the only logical defenders of infallibility.
But the guarantee would need to be pushed still further in the case of a book written as was the Bible. The best stenographers make mistakes in filling out their abbreviations and in distinguishing the similar signs which stand for very dissimilar sounds. Early Hebrew was a language of abbreviations. No vowels were used. Consonants stood alone, and their conjunction, aided by memory, was expected to suggest the proper vowel accompaniments. Vowel points were added to the written language centuries after the last book of the Old Testament was written. Their insertion demanded a guarantee, if infallibility was to be secured.
This guarantee must then have followed every copyist in the original tongues, every translation of the Hebrew and Greek into other tongues, every copyist in modern tongues through the ages before the printing-press, every printer, who, since Gutenberg, has issued a Bible—if we are to be absolutely sure of having an oracular and an infallible Book.
The Westminster Confession, indeed, seems to follow its theory through most of these lengths, and a Protestant Council in Geneva in 1675, with a magnificent courage of conviction, actually affirms this supernatural direction of the translators of the Bible. But such notions are of the same nature with the preposterous traditions of the Jews, as to the translation of the Septuagint; according to which, seventy elders, separated from each other, produced seventy versions, which, on comparison, "agreed exactly"; whereby men knew that the Scriptures were "translated by the inspiration of God." With such tales we must leave the theory they seem necessary to authenticate in the lumber-loft of superstitions.
This theory of our Bible is, in our age, seen to be the same theory which all peoples have entertained of their bibles.
For the first time in the history of Europe, Christian people have the knowledge by which they can correct their ideas about the Bible, in what may be called a comparative science of Bibliolatry. We know that nearly every race has had its own Sacred Book. These Sacred Books are now within the easy reach of all. Any one can examine for himself the Vedas, the Zend-Avesta and the other Bibles of humanity. Every one can readily form a just judgment of these Bibles. The light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world shines from many pages in all of these books. There are profound thoughts of God, noble ethical ideals, deep perceptions of sin, yearning desires for human good, gleams of life beyond the grave. There are prayers we could use here with a few verbal changes, and you would not recognize their pagan source. There are songs of praise which might be made our canticles. There are parables that the Master Himself might have spoken. But the light which shines from heaven through these books does not disguise their earthly character. Having no glamor of tradition over our eyes, we can see them to be histories, poems, philosophies, rituals, counsels of religion, hallowed by age into Sacred Books.
Yet we find precisely the same notions current in each race about its Bible that we have cherished concerning our own Bible. The Hindu talks of his Vedas as the Christian talks of his Testaments. Nay, we find our conceits quite outdone in the dogmas of these heathen. Mohammedan doctors of divinity divided into fiercely contesting parties over the question whether the Koran was created or uncreated; the latter theory, as most highly magnifying their Sacred Book, of course, becoming the orthodox doctrine. These learned orthodox divines assured men that the Koran was verily eternal and uncreated, and of the very essence of God; that the first transcript of it had been from everlasting by His throne; that a copy, in one volume, on paper, was, by the hands of the angel Gabriel, sent down to the lowest heaven in the month of Ramadan; from whence Gabriel revealed it to Mohammed in instalments, giving him the privilege, however, of beholding the heavenly volume, bound in silk and adorned with gold and precious stones, once a year.
We cannot mistake the fact that thoroughly human writings have been exaggerated into super-human scriptures by the deference rightly called forth towards these venerable books, so influential in the histories of nations, so potent in the lives of men; and we can study the phases through which a wholesome reverence degenerated into a puerile superstition.
Bibliolatry is pushed to a reductio ad absurdum in these pagan worships of their Sacred Books. Men will see their folly in the reflected light of these kindred follies, and another superstition will disappear from Christendom.
* * * * *
On these grounds, as on others, the unreal Bible must be expected to pass away. The Church at large never properly authenticated it. The Bible nowhere calls for such a view of itself. Scripture reveals to a critical study manifest tokens of its human fallibility, its thoroughly literary character. We can trace the growth of this theory, and account for it naturally. As a theory it cannot be stated reasonably. It is a theory which is shown to be a superstition in the bibliolatries of other peoples.
Our bibliolatry is disappearing none too fast. It has always wrought evil as well as good on civilization Like all other anachronisms, its original helpfulness to progress has now become a hindrance. The day when it was of service is past for educated people, whose minds are open, and the evils it has caused flow from it still.
It has bred a superstitious use of the Bible which has always made mischief, though a mischief never realized as sensibly as now. It has taught men to turn to these holy books and accept unquestioningly all therein recorded as authoritative on our thought and life. It has barred all research which even seemed to contradict its history or science, and has held Europe in mental swaddling-bands, preventing normal growth. It has taught Most Christian Kings to war with easy consciences, after the fashion of the Israelites in Canaan, and priests to sing solemn Te Deums over battle-fields where men lay weltering in one another's blood. It has given slave-owners the coveted proof that the peculiar system was a divine institution, and has founded the auction block for human cattle solidly upon the laws of God. It has supplied Joseph Smith with a warrant for polygamy in the social usages of the Arab sheiks three thousand years ago. It has opened a sacred refuge for every lie and wrong; no wildest form of which could fail to find some precedent within these Hebrew histories, which tell the story of a people's upward growth from savagery. It has furnished an arsenal stocked with proof texts, from which, through many generations, priests and doctors have armed themselves to war with one another; exhausting in ecclesiastical and theological strife the holy energies of Christian enthusiasm, which might else have changed the face of the earth. It has arrayed faith against reason, by the necessity it has imposed of reconciling every new discovery with the cosmogony of Genesis, or the metaphysics of Romans; putting asunder those whom God hath joined together, in the needless conflict of science and religion.
It has driven away from the real revelation held in these sacred writings increasing numbers, in the growing generations; deafening their ears by its irrational clamor to the voice of the Living God which whispers in these pages, through the holy men who spake as they were moved of the Holy Ghost. It has fathered the doubt which to-day sits, cheerless and chill, within the hearts and homes of thousands who once rejoiced in the warmth and light of God, but who now accept the alternative their teachers thrust upon them—"all or none"—and throw away the Blessed Book wherein God of old revealed Himself to them.
It has made the sacred ark of Israel so vulnerable that its defenders dare not challenge the great Goliath of the Philistines, who, year by year, comes forth to strut before the armies of the saints in ridicule of that they hold so dear; and thus it is to be held responsible for the loss of the young men who throw away their ancestral faith and go over to the apparently victorious side of Unbelief.
It has slid in a false bottom to men's faith; shoving in a supposititious revelation of miracle above the real revelation which is in nature and in man, and in the Christ as the ideal man; and thus holds back that reconstruction of belief which Providence is forcing on, as It is shaking all things, to settle faith upon the everlasting verities: whereon religion, planting its feet on the solid rock, may lift its head into the skies, and worship Him in whom we live, and move, and have our being, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, "Our Father who art in Heaven."
In the name of religion let it die!
Then there will be a resurrection, and the Bible will live again, clothed in a higher form for our most rational reverence. All that ever made the Bible a Sacred Book, lives on to-day and will live on while these books exist. Holy men of old spake as they were moved of the Holy Ghost. They were most truly inspired. The Biblical writers recorded a real revelation. These books hold for us the words of God. The Word of God speaks to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
These spiritual realities, no criticism can touch. And these spiritual realities make the Bible.
Book of our Fathers, venerable and sacred, speak still to our souls those words proceeding from out the mouth of God on which man liveth!
The Real Bible.
"Out from the heart of nature rolled The burdens of the Bible old; The litanies of nations came, Like the volcano's tongue of flame, Up from the burning core below,— The canticles of love and woe.
* * * * *
The passive Master lent his hand To the vast soul that o'er him planned.
* * * * *
Himself from God he could not free."
The most original book in the world is the Bible.... The elevation of this book may be measured by observing how certainly all observation of thought clothes itself in the words and forms of speech of that book.... Whatever is majestically thought in a great moral element instantly approaches this old Sanscrit.... People imagine that the place which the Bible holds in the world it owes to miracles. It owes it simply to the fact that it came out of a profounder depth of thought than any other book.—Emerson, The Dial, October, 1840.
The Real Bible.
"Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."—2 Peter, i. 21.
"Men of the Scriptures" was the title assumed by the Karaites, a sect of devout Jews, who, about the middle of the eighth century of our era, threw aside tradition, and accepted as their sole authority the canonical writings of the Old Testament. Seeing the good that the Bible has wrought for man in the past, we may well emulate the reverence of these Karaites; while, seeing the unreality of the traditional notion of the Bible that they held, and the mischiefs it has bred, we may well disown their superstitiousness. Can we gain a view of the Bible which, without stultifying our intellectual nature, may satisfy our spiritual nature, and leave us free to call ourselves men of the Scriptures? The only road to such an end must be that which our age is opening so successfully through every field of study; as, dismissing preconceptions, it builds with care and candor, upon solid facts, the causeway to a certain knowledge.
Let us take up the Bible as we would any other collection of books, and see if, without assuming anything concerning it, we cannot find our way to a rational reverence for it, as real as that which our fathers had. The lines of our inquiry have been projected by a hand you own as high authority. The results of the survey are in the text. Real men wrote real books; holy men wrote holy books; and, when we come to account for their holy, human power, we can only say—The Divine Spirit stirred in them; "holy men of old spake as they were moved of the Holy Ghost."
The Bible is a collection of many writings, in many forms, by many hands, from many ages. Genuine letters these, whether they be belles-lettres or not; by every mark and sign most human writings, whether they be holy Scriptures or not; the product of honest toil of brain and hand. Whatever more they are, these are bona fide books, of men of like passions and infirmities with ourselves.
What is there in these books which has led Christendom to assign to them so high an honor?
1. These books have the venerableness which belongs to ancient writings.
With what interest and care we handle a very old book, and turn its well-worn pages, thumb-marked and dog-eared by men of Oxford or of Florence in the Middle Ages! Unless we are the baldest materialists, we will not reserve for the parchment body of some old book the respect called forth by its soul. The latest re-embodiment of an ancient writer, fresh from the presses of Putnam or of Appleton, merits the honor belonging to the book given to the world so many centuries ago, and fed upon by successive generations. Thus I look at the Plato on my shelves. How venerable these writings! Over their great words, on which I rest my eyes, my fathers bent, as their fathers had done before them; generation after generation finding inspiration where still it flows fresh and full for me. Thus every reverently minded man ought to feel concerning the Bible. The latest of these books is probably seventeen hundred years old, and the earliest has been written twenty-seven hundred years; while in the more ancient of these writings lie bedded some of the oldest fragments of literature known to us. These books have been the constant companions of men and women through two or three score of generations. The crawling centuries have carried these books along with them—the solace and the strength of myriad millions of our kind. Forms, now turning into dust, holy in our memories, read these familiar pages. Men whose names carry us back through English history knew and prized these writings; Cromwell, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Great Alfred. When Rome was the seat of empire, Constantine heard them in his churches. Aurelius informed himself about them. In the lowly hamlet hidden away among the hills of Galilee, the boy Jesus listened to these tales of Hebrew heroism and holiness from His mother's lips. Judas, the hammerer, fired his valiant soul from them; and, while wandering in the hill country of Judaea, David chanted, to his harp's accompaniment these legends of the childhood of his race. The Bible is hallowed by the reverent use of ages.
2. These books form the literature of a noble race.
The Old Testament is a Library of Jewish Letters. The germ of the collection was planted by Nehemiah when "he, founding a library, gathered together the acts of the kings, and the prophets, and of David, and the epistles of the kings concerning the holy gifts." This germ grew gradually into its present shape. The Apocrypha belongs to it, and is rightly bound up in our Bibles, for reading in our churches. These books of the Canonical and Apocryphal writings do not cover the whole literature of the Hebrew nation. Many writings have been lost inadvertently. Many have been dropped as unworthy of preservation. We have the garnered grain of Hebrew literature in our Bible—a winnowed national library. It includes histories, juridical codifications, dramas of love and destiny, patriotic songs and state anthems, the hymnal of a people's worship, philosophic writings of the sages, collections of proverbial sayings, works of religious fiction, orations of statesmen, and oracles of mystic seers.
The New Testament is the literature of the Christian Church in its creative epoch; the work still, in the main, of Jewish hands, as Judaism was blossoming into a universal religion. It is thus the literature of the most important religious movement civilization has experienced; a movement whose unspent forces we are feeling still, in the flooding tides of progress. It, too, forms a winnowed library; the siftings of Sayings of Jesus, lives of Christ, apostolical and other letters, visions and romances; and holds the choicest mental products of this fertile era. In it are gathered memoirs of the Founder of Christianity, doctrinal and ethical treatises from the hand of the man who, under Christ, was the chief factor in the early Church; similar essays, in the form of letters, from other more or less important leaders, representing the various phases of original Christianity; a fragmentary and free sketch of the apostolic labors, and the last great effort of apocalyptic genius, in the Revelation of St. John, the Divine.
3. This literature of the Jewish nation and of the Christian Church is intrinsically noble.
The Bible has lost much of its fresh charm for us, with whom its finest sayings are household words.
We parsed Virgil and Homer in our boyhood until the aroma of poetry exhaled from their hackneyed pages, and we can scarce think of them now save as grammatical exercises. The Bible has thus palled upon our imagination, through the uninspiring familiarity of early task-work. But were it possible to read it in our manhood for the first time, how the blood would beat and the nerves thrill over some of its pages. We should then understand the sensations of a French salon upon a certain occasion. Our shrewd philosopher-minister Franklin, had previously heard the literati wont to gather there ridiculing the Bible, and had guessed that they knew little of it. Upon this evening he observed that he would much like to have the judgment of the assembly on a certain Eastern tale he had lately come across, unknown probably to most of those there present, though long ago translated into their own tongue. Whereupon, drawing from his pocket a copy of the Bible, he had a Parisienne, let into the secret, read in her sweet tones the book of Ruth. The company was thrown into raptures over the charming tale, which lasted until they found its name.
How fresh, with the crisp air of morning, are these tales of primitive tradition! How naif these simple stories of Hebrew heroes! What so fine in religious poetry as some of the strains from the Jewish Hymnal? What a noble drama is Job, the Hebrew Faust! How wise the proverbial sayings! What pure passion and lofty imagination stir through the pages of the greater prophets! Where are to be found letters like those of Paul? What biographies have the artless simplicity of the Synoptic Gospels, or the mystic spirituality of the Gospel according to St. John!
No critic of our age has finer literary feeling or more dispassionate judgment than Matthew Arnold; and he has edited the second section of Isaiah as a text book for the culture of the imagination in English schools. In the introduction to this Primer he observes: "What a course of eloquence and poetry is the Bible in our schools."
Goethe shared Arnold's love of the Bible, and was so constant a reader of it that his friends reproached him for wasting his time over it. Burke owned his indebtedness to the Bible for his unique eloquence. Webster confessed that he owed to its habitual reading much of his power. Ruskin looks back to the days when a pious aunt compelled him to learn by heart whole chapters of the Bible, for his schooling in the craft of speech, in which he stands unrivaled among living Englishmen.
"The most original book in the world is the Bible. This old collection of the ejaculations of love and dread, of the supreme desires and contritions of men, proceeding out of the region of the grand and eternal seems ... the alphabet of the nations, and all posterior writings, either the chronicles of facts under very inferior ideas, or when it rises to sentiment, the combinations, analogies, or degradation of this. The elevation of this book may be measured by observing how certainly all observation of thought clothes itself in the words and forms of speech of that book.... Whatever is majestically thought in a great moral element, instantly approaches this old Sanscrit.... Shakspeare, the first literary genius of the world, the highest in whom the moral is not the predominating element, leans on the Bible; his poetry presupposes it. If we examine this brilliant influence—Shakspeare—as it lies in our minds, we shall find it reverent, not only of the letter of this book, but of the whole frame of society which stood in Europe upon it, deeply indebted to the traditional morality, in short, compared with the tone of the Prophets, secondary.... People imagine that the place which the Bible holds in the world, it owes to miracles. It owes it simply to the fact that it came out of a profounder depth of thought than any other book."
Even what seem to us valueless books turn out, when studied naturally, most interesting and suggestive.
Jonah, that stone of stumbling and rock of offence to the modern youth, becomes, when rightly read, a noble writing, full of the very spirit of our age. Around the tradition of Jonah, the son of Amittai, a prophet of whom we know nothing in other writings, some forgotten author has woven a story, to point a lofty moral. Jonah feels himself called to go to Nineveh and cry against it, because of its wickedness. Quite naturally he does not relish such an errand.
The prospect of a poor Jew's reforming the gay and dissolute metropolis of the earth, which sat as a queen among the nations, singing to herself, "I will be a lady forever," was not brilliant enough to fascinate him; and the prospect of the reward he would get from the luxurious people of pleasure, whose well-opiated consciences he should rudely rouse by calling their intrigues and carousals wickedness, was only too clear. Jonah fled from his duty. In his flight occurs the marvelous experience with the big fish, that has so troubled dear, pious people who have read as literal history what is plainly legendary. After this fabulous episode, the story takes up its ethical thread. Jonah finds that he cannot flee from the presence of the Lord, that he cannot decline a mission imposed from on high. He goes to Nineveh; cries out against its sins, as God had told him; and, as God had not told him, predicts its overthrow in forty days, as a judgment on its crimes. But, contrary to his expectations, the city is stirred by his preaching; and King and court and people repent and amend their ways. Whereupon the Divine forgiveness is extended at once to these wicked Pagans, and the fate they had deserved is averted. But in this turn of affairs Jonah's prediction failed, and so he was displeased and was very angry, and took the Almighty to task quite roundly, for his lack of vigour.
"Was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore, I fled before unto Tarshish, for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness and repentest thee of the evil."
What was to become of preachers if, after they had threatened destruction upon evil-doers, the Most High went back upon them thus? The later breed of Jonahs may profitably study the after scene, in which God is made to rebuke the frightful selfishness and hardness which, rather than have one's theories belied, would have a city damned.
"Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not labored ... and should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?"
The moral marvel of Nineveh's general repentance on the preaching of an obscure Jew is as unnatural as the physical marvel of the fish story.
Recognizing that the whole tale is a parable, which takes upon it purely legendary drapery, and ridding ourselves thus of all the questions which puzzle Sunday-school scholars and theologians, we are ready to read the meaning of the parable. God is not the God of any one race or religion. He cares for Gentile as for Jew. He sends a prophet of Israel to bid a pagan city repent, that He may forgive it freely. These Pagans understand the message of the Jew. The commands of conscience are owned and honored by the heathen, even more quickly than by the people of God; whose own Jerusalem never thus quickly obeyed a prophet's message. The city whence had come Israel's woes is held up as a pattern to the sacred city herself. All men, then, are brothers, partakers of the same moral and religious nature; children of One Father, whose voice they hear in different tongues, speaking to their souls the same messages of holy love.
Thus read, Jonah becomes the protest of liberal Judaism against the narrow, exclusive tendencies of popular piety in Israel. It is the writing of some genuine Broad-Churchman of the olden time, proclaiming the high truths of Human Brotherhood under a Divine Fatherhood, breathing that spirit of which, long after, another Jew dared say—
"And now abideth faith, hope and charity, but the greatest of these is charity."
If such be the hidden value of one of the least attractive of these writings, we may well say, with Milton,
"I shall wish I may deserve to be reckoned among those who admire and dwell upon them."
4. This literature has been very influential in the development of progressive civilization.
When the writings of Greece and Rome had been buried in the ruins of the Roman Empire, the literature of Israel was preserved by the pious care of the Christian Church. The light of Athens went out, and the light of Jerusalem alone illumined the dark ages. The only books known to the mass of men through long centuries were these writings of the Hebrews and the early Christians. Thought was kept alive by them, imagination was fed from them, conscience was educated and vitalized through them. For a thousand years there was practically but one book in Europe—the Bible. When the long gestation of the middle ages was fulfilled, and the modern world was born, while the educated classes read the exhumed classics of Greece, the people still read the Bible. It gave, in the person of Luther, the impulse that restored intellectual liberty and moral health to Europe. It has continued the best read book of Western civilization; the only book much read, until of late, by the mass of men; the one foreign and ancient literature familiar alike to the plain people in Germany and France, in England and America; the common well-spring of inspiration to thought and imagination, to character and conduct.
It is the Magna Charta of our liberties; the revered companion and master of the Pilgrims who sailed the wintry seas, and, on Plymouth Rock, building wiser than they knew, founded a nation covenanting freedom of conscience unto all men; a nation on whose Bell of Independence runs the Bible legend, "Proclaim liberty to the inhabitants thereof."
Wherever society is found to-day in travail with a new and higher order, the conception can be traced to the seminal words of the Bible. The institutions and manners of progressive civilization are what they are because in the heart of that civilization has lain the Bible.
My brothers, were these books nothing more to us than such ancient writings, the literature of so noble a race, a literature intrinsically fine, to which our civilization owes so much of mental and of moral influence, they should win our reverence, and should shame the wantonness of liberalism, falsely so called.
What if in these ancient writings there are ancient errors, the marvels which a child age exaggerated into miracles, stories of savage cruelty and brutal lust in rude, rough times, acts of superstition dark and dreadful, utterances which to us are blasphemous ascribed to the Eternal and Holy One? Such faults are inevitable in the literature that records a nation's growth from barbarism. Were a man in the name of Liberty or in the name of Truth to hunt through Homer, to rake together all the errors and superstitions embalmed in these immortal sagas, to haul up from the obscurity where sensible people leave them the lewdnesses suggested or described, and then to fling these blemishes at the book in which the children of Greece and England and America have read with tingling blood the tales which stirred their souls, by what name would we call him? By that name let him stand forth impaled upon the scorn of an age that has not lost the grace of reverence, who, mindless of majestic age, the dignity of letters, an influence unrivalled and benign, associations tender and most holy, upon these venerable and sacred books spits his shallow scepticism, spumes his spleenful sarcasm, and smuts them with his own sensuality.
Let Irreverence stay her ribald tongue before these illustrious writings, and Indecency vomit her own nastiness elsewhere than on our Bible.
The Bible lays a yet deeper claim upon our reverence These books constitute the literature of a people whose genius was religion, whose mission was its evolution into universal forms, whose writings express the moods and tenses of that development; whose history is the organic growth which flowered in the life of Him who freed religion from every swathing band, and gave the world its pure essential spirit; after Whom all races are being drawn as one flock under one Shepherd.
1. Israel's specialty in history was religion.
Every people finds laid upon it certain necessary activities, in most of which all peoples find their common tasks. Every nation must cultivate agriculture handicrafts, trade and commerce; must develop social, political and religious institutions. Each people will, however, do some one thing better than the rest of its tasks, better than it is done by other peoples. Each great race has some commanding inspiration; some ideal which masters every other aspiration and ambition, energizes its efforts and shapes its destiny. It creates a specialty among the nations. The real legacy of each great race lies in the works wrought in the line of its highest aptitudes. Thus Rome developed a genius for civil organization. She conquered the whole western world, united isolated nations under one empire, cleared the Mediterranean for safe and free communication, opened roads as arteries through the vast body politic, established post communications for travellers and the mails, carried law and order into every obscure hamlet, consolidated a polity which, by sheer massiveness, lasted for generations after the soul of Rome had fled, and left to posterity, in her institutes the basis for modern jurisprudence. Thus Greece evolved a genius for art, developed architecture and sculpture to the highest perfection the world has seen, made statues thicker than men in Athens, made men more beautiful than statues, sighed even after Virtue as the Becoming, the Perfect Beauty, left the world temples whose ruins are inspirations, and marbles whose discovery dates the epochs of culture. Israel essayed to do many things that other peoples achieved, and promised success in more than one direction. At a certain period she bade fair to develop into a martial empire, and to become a lesser Assyria or Rome. A little later she seemed about to rival the Phenicians in commerce. About the same time she
"advanced as far as the Greeks before Socrates towards producing an independent science or philosophy."
But she found herself content with none of these roles. She had a higher part assigned her in the drama of history, to which her secret instincts resistlessly drew her. Her predominant characteristic was an intense religiousness. Everything in the life of her people took on a serious and devout tone. Patriotism was identified with piety. Her statesmen were reformers, idealists, whose orations were sermons, like the speeches of Gladstone in the Midlothian campaign, dealing with politics in the light of eternal principles. Legislation was developed through the "judgments" of priestly oracles. Poetry lighted her flames at the altar. Philosophy busied itself with ethics. The Muse of History was the Spirit of Holiness. The nation's ambitions were aspirations. Her heroes grew to be saints. The divine became to her, not the true or the beautiful, but the good. She evidently had, as Matthew Arnold said of John Wesley, "a genius for godliness."
2. Israel's literature became thus a religious literature.
Her histories were written for edification. They present the past of the people in such light as to inculcate virtue and inspire piety. Her poems are songs of pure love, like Canticles; or dramas whose plot lies in the problem of evil, like Job; or hymns in which the soul seeks communion with God. The Psalter is the hymnal of the temple choir at Jerusalem. The prophets are preachers of righteousness, personal, social, political. Even the writings of her sages or philosophers are almost wholly ethical and religious. No other people's literature is so intensely and pervasively religious. Other nations have religious writings as a part of their general literature. Israel's whole literary life was sacred. There is scarcely a book left by her to which we may not go to feed religion.
3. Israel's literature presents us, in the various moods and tenses of her life, with the various phases of religion.
The glory of a truly National Church is that it takes up into itself every form of spiritual and ethical consciousness within the nation, and exhibits in each successive school of thought, in each movement for a nobler social life, a phase of true religion. This is the glory of Israel. Religion never separated itself into an institution apart from the State.
There was no Jewish Church, of which Dean Stanley wrote the history. Church and State were one. Sacred and secular history flowed in one common stream. The history of Israel was the history of Judaism. Its choicest literature formed its sacred writings. Religion was never narrowed to a theory, an institution, an "ism," a sect, a school. It was as generous and as rich as the broad, free life of the nation. Every factor essential to a noble religion was thus supplied from the sound and healthy life of the people.
The inner life of the soul was voiced in the hymns of Israel, to which we still turn for the inspiration of personal piety in our private devotions; and which lift the public worship of the moderns as they swelled the souls of the hosts who waited in the temple courts at Jerusalem, two thousand years ago.
A cultus of character through ritual and discipline was elaborated by the priesthood in that wonderful system which, rebaptized, does duty still in the Catholic Church. The true outer sphere for personal religion, trained, if need be, by an ecclesiastical cultus, was fashioned by the great prophets, the men of the people; who poured their passion for righteousness into aspirations for a true commonwealth, in which Justice should be throned on law, and international relations be ruled, not by Policy, but by Principle. Natural religion was nobly set forth by the sages in Proverbs, The Wisdom of Jesus, and the other "Writings;" all of which were characterized by a calm and rational philosophy, that recognized the laws of life and fed the wisdom which obeys them. Even Agnosticism, in so far as it is the confession of the inadequacy of every interpretation of the universe, finds despondent yet still earnest expression in Ecclesiastes, and humble, hopeful expression in Job; and the silence of many of the noblest natures of our age, which the churches brand as irreligious, finds place among the phases of religion in their Sacred Book.
Almost every form of strenuous ethical life, almost every answer that earnest souls have found to the problem of life, is to be drawn from the writings of this many-sided people. Thus their literature feeds a rich, and rounded life of religion.
4. Israel's literature presents us with the record of a continuous growth of religion upward through its normal stages.
Religion grows like every form of human life with the growth of man himself. It is coarse, crude and cruel while man is a savage, and as he becomes civilized—by which I mean something more than wealthy—it becomes intelligent, reasonable ethical and spiritual. The growth of Israel from barbarism carried with this progress the growth of Israel's religion. In the earliest times which we can historically reach the Israelites were semi-nomadic tribes, slightly distinguishable from their kindred Semites. The religion of the people appears to have been then a commingling of fetichism, the worship of things that impressed the imagination, great trees and huge boulders, with the worship of the various powers of nature, the orbs of heaven, the reproductive force of the earth, etc., under the usual savage and sensual symbolisms.
From such unpromising beginnings, through the successive stages of polytheistic idolatries, religion was gradually led up, in the advance of the general life of the people and through the inspirations of a series of great men, to the recognition of One Eternal and infinite Being; the Lord of nature and of man, the Father of all mankind, Holy, Just and Gracious; whose truest worship is the aspirations of his children after goodness.
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord," writes the Deuteronomist; "and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might."
Malachi, looking round upon the manifold forms of worship of the various nations, and discerning that through them all the soul of man was feeling after one and the same Divine Being, makes God say:
"From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name is great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense is offered unto me and a pure offering; for my name is great among the heathen, saith the Lord of Hosts."
"What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?"
Of this continuous growth of religion the Old Testament is the record.
5. Israel's literature records the forcing forward of this growth of religion, as by some Power back of man, shaping its ends, rough-hew them as it might.
The Niebuhr of Hebrew history rightly pointed out this significant fact in the introduction to his great work.
"The manifold changes and even confusions and perversities, which manifest themselves in the long course of the threads of its history, ultimately tend to the solution of this great problem."—Ewald: Intro.
A singular succession of great men arise to save and revive and reform religion in every critical epoch. Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Ezra, Judas Maccabeus come upon the stage, one after the other, perform their several parts with singular aptitude, and prepare the way for the next movement when it comes due. The history of the people rightly read becomes a mighty drama, in which the right man is never wanting at the right time, and the action moves on steadily toward a climax.
The experiences of the people, even those most perplexing to the faith of the nation at the time, fit singularly into this organic evolution of religion. The rending of the Kingdom of David, that blighted the fair prospect of a martial empire, turned the nation aside from the false career on which it was entering. The overthrow of the Northern and then of the Southern Kingdom, and the deportation of the people to Babylonia, seemingly the ruin of the sister countries, threw them in upon their inner life; and in the exile their religion found its highest reach of thought.
Even that hierarchical movement which so quickly followed upon this bloom of prophetism, and which to the superficial look seems only the arrest of life and the beginning of death, reveals a legitimate function in the organic processes of the national religion. In this priestly organization of institutional religion, all free prophetic inspiration did indeed die out for over four centuries. But even this was a necessity for the right flowering of religion. The age was not ready, politically or intellectually, for the ripening of the thoughts of the prophets. Had they ripened then, they would have fallen to the ground, as the untimely fruit of a too-early spring. Four centuries were to be tided over before the political and intellectual conditions were found for the blossoming of this flower. This holding back of the normal evolution of Hebraism was the function of the Priestly Reaction—a curious parallel to the function of Catholicism in Mediaeval Christianity.
Like the Catholic Church, the Jewish priesthood held society together when, in the destruction of the political power, there was no other bond of unity. As in the Catholic Church, the High Priest became a temporal ruler, the Prince of Israel, as he was called; and kept the sacred city still the seat of government. As in Catholicism the institutionalizing of religion that followed the period of free prophetic life was an effort to embody that life, to incrust and thus preserve it; and, in the one case as in the other, though the crust of institutions choked the further growth of spiritual religion, it yet did keep it sluggishly alive within this hard bark, through times that else would have proved fatal to it. As in Catholicism, this priestly cultus really drilled deep into the natures of men the principles and laws and habitudes of ethical and spiritual religion; and stored the force which, when its rigid routine and fettering formalism became unbearable, burst through this crust and opened a new world of fresh, free life.
Of this singular shaping of the nation's experiences to further the growth of true religion, the Old Testament is the impressive record.
6. Israel's literature thus presents the picture of a nation's patient, insistent pressing forward, through long centuries, toward the fruition of its ideal, the realization of true religion.
So continuous is Israel's movement toward the ideal of religion, so straight the line of her advance that it seems as though the nation had a conscious aim, seen afar and steadfastly pursued by generation after generation, unwilling to stop short of attainment. It is the founder of scientific Biblical criticism who thus expresses his sense of the wonderfulness of this historic movement:
"This aim is Perfect Religion; a good which all aspiring nations of antiquity made an attempt to attain; which some, the Indians and Persians, for example, really labored to achieve with admirable devotion of noble energies, but which this people alone clearly discerned from the beginning, and then pursued for centuries through all difficulties, and with the utmost firmness and consistency, until they attained it, so far as among men and in ancient times attainment was possible."
7. The literature of Christian Israel records the realization of this long sought ideal, the fruition of this organic growth.
The nation found the times ripe at last for the final process of this historic evolution; the dead cerements of Judaism fell apart, and thereout bloomed that perfect flower of religion, the religion of the Christ, simple, free, ethical, spiritual. The extant literature of this last creative effort of Israel constitutes the New Testament. The Gospels tell the story of the life of the Founder of Christianity, clearly enough in the main outlines, and embalm many of the words and deeds of the Son of Man. The other writings of the New Testament illustrate the working of the thought and spirit of the Christ in the Church bodying around Him through the growth of a century. In them we see that the long cherished ideal of Israel, an Ethical and Universal Religion, had at last incarnated itself in The Master whose plans laid the foundation of this new Order; into which men were coming from the east and from the west, and from the north and from the south, and were sitting down in the Kingdom of God.
The high-water mark of religion in human history is recorded in these writings. To enter into the spirit of these writings is to feel the force of the free, full tides of ethical and spiritual life which rose, as never before nor since, in the dawning day of Christianity. The flow of such a force within the individual soul and through society has been the power of the New Testament in Christendom.
8. This organic growth of a national religion into a catholic ideal, not without parallels elsewhere, is, however unique in respect to the conditions for a truly Universal Religion.
The scene of this evolution is not the heart of the East, as in Buddhism, but the meeting point of East and West. Palestine is the race centre of the earth. Camels unload in Jerusalem the goods laden upon them in the seats of the most ancient empires; and on her pebbly beaches the Mediterranean rolls, bearing the commerce of Europe. Behind Judea lies the past, before it opens the future. Its Race-Man came at the epoch when, first in history, the East and West were brought together under one empire and opened to the free interchange of thought. And when we analyze the religion of the Christ, grown in this central land and coming to the birth in this central period, we find that it holds, alone on earth, the elements of each race-religion in well proportioned combination.
No eastern religion, Buddhism not excepted, appears to contain conceptions that satisfy the western mind. The religion of the Christ, however can be shown to hold whatever ideas and ideals make vital the great race-religions of the East. It is as many sided as humanity, and presents a family face to every people. It takes up the ideas and ideals of other religions, disengages and deposits whatever in them is temporal and circumstantial, preserves whatever is essential and eternal in them, combines these vital elements with the polar truths needful to their wholesomeness, and crystallizes ethical and spiritual religion into perfect forms, forms capable of translation into the idioms of every race of earth. This religion of the Christ is the one religion which to-day holds the promise and potency of further evolution, in the progressive civilization of mankind on which it is enthroned.
9. Of the literature of the people through whom came this organic evolution of the keystoning religion of earth what can we say but that it records a real revelation coming through genuine personal inspirations from on high!
Revelation is the opposite aspect of the mystery which we call discovery; the uncovering of that which was hidden; the unveiling of that which was not known; the coming on of truth into the light wherein man can see it. "Discovery" expresses the human effort by which truth is thus uncovered and found out. "Revelation" expresses the divine effort which lies back of all human aspirations and endeavors; as the Spirit within man stirs him up to seek for Truth, flashes in upon his mind strange hints of where and how she is to be found, allures him onward with the mystic whispers of her voice, until at length he stands upon the mount of vision whence her holy form is seen, and cries—"I have found her!"
To him who believes in a Spirit of Truth, guiding men into all truth, the growth of ethical and spiritual religion into perfect form in Jesus Christ is a real revelation. It is the oncoming of the Light which lighteth every man that is in the world; the dawning of the day of earth on the hills of Judea, over which has risen the Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings.
This revelation came not to the mystic "man writ large" we call society, direct from heaven in abstract form. It came to individual men, struggling for larger light and nobler life, and breathing their higher spirit on their fellows. Religion is always life, the experience of souls. We can name the individuals through whom each important advance was made. The greater souls who led the worship of the host welcoming the rising Light, thrilled with the vibrations of a voice deeper and holier than the voice of man. The lesser souls who formed the chorus of this anthem of The Dawn thrilled each alike with this mystic sense of God. That which we must aver of every truth discovered or revealed, of every knowledge needful to man and won by man; that which we must affirm as the only rational interpretation of the mysterious suggestions rising below the conscious thoughts of man, and prompting to noblest benedictions on the race; that we must, with deepened awe, say of the holiest truths shown to the human soul,—Inspired!
With sincere and reverent confession we must say then in the words of Holy Writ:
"Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." "Every Scripture profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness is God-inspired."
The consciousness and experience of Israel could not have found fitter expression than in the words of our great seer:
"I conceive a man as always spoken to from behind, and unable to turn his head and see the speaker. In all the millions who have heard the voice, none ever saw the face. That well-known voice speaks in all languages, governs all men; and none ever caught a glimpse of its form. If the man will exactly obey it, it will adopt him, so that he shall not any longer separate it from himself in his thought; he shall seem to be it, he shall be it. If he listen with insatiable ears, richer and greater wisdom is taught him, the sound swells to a ravishing music, he is borne away as with a flood, he is the fool of ideas, and leads a heavenly life. But if his eye is set on the things to be done, and not on the truth that is still-taught, and for the sake of which the things are to be done, then the voice grows faint, and at last is but a humming in his ears."
We have thus seen in the Bible an ancient and noble literature, the literature of a noble race, the literature supremely influencing and enriching Christian civilization; demanding, therefore, our rational reverence, as constituting a truly Sacred Book.
We have seen in the Old Testament the literature of the people of religion, commissioned with its normal evolution; writings charged with deep religiousness; the records of the various moods and tenses through which religion grew continuously and insistently toward perfection, in an organic process watched and directed by a Higher Power than man. We have seen in the New Testament the record of the realization of this long-sought aim of the people of religion; the story of the Divine Man, who breathed religion out into perfection, and the writings that depict the bodying around Him of the Universal Church, the Church in whose truth and life is growing the religion of the future, "the Christ that is to be."
The fuller knowledge of our age, in evanishing the unreal Bible restores the real Bible. It is the record of the visioning and embodiment of the Human Ideal, the Divine Image—The Christ. It is the Providentially prepared Hand Book of religion in whose rich and varied phases of ethical and spiritual thought all men may find the nourishment they need. It is the spiritual reality our fathers rightly felt, but wrongly expressed, when they called it as a whole The Word of God. It holds the words proceeding from out of the mouth of God on which man liveth. It bodies in "letters" The Word of God, embodied in the flesh in Jesus Christ the Lord. It records a real revelation. This revelation, however, denies no other revelation. It affirms the fact of the withdrawal of a veil in each new knowledge won; the fact that man has felt in calling the new knowledge a discovery; and it interprets this unveiling as Tennyson has learned of it to do:
"And out of darkness come the hands That reach through nature, moulding man."
These books are the products of a real inspiration. This inspiration, however, denies no other inspiration. It interprets the sense of a higher than human influence in the noblest searchers after truth, throughout the world, in every action of the intellect. It affirms the validity of that consciousness.
The revelation in the Bible is the Light of God which streams through it, making it a "lamp unto our feet." The inspiration in the Bible is the life of God breathing through it into man, "and he becomes a living soul." The book which, above all others, reveals God to man, he must call the supreme revelation of God. The book which, above all others, inspires the life of God in man, he must call the most inspired of God.
If, then, any one asks me how he may know that there is a revelation in the Bible, I tell him to walk in its light, and see what it reveals. If any one asks me how I know that the Bible is inspired I answer him in Mr. Moody's words: