The Right and Wrong Uses of the Bible
R. Heber Newton
Part 2 out of 4
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to set it in its entirety before all
classes and all ages._
On the old view of the Bible no man might dare to omit portions of it in
public reading or home instruction. The horrible atrocities and brutal
lusts of the early Hebrews, and the coarsenesses of their later days, as
unbearable by modern ears as the rough talk of Shakespeare's ladies, had
all to be read to mixed assemblies of young men and maidens; and be read
with blushing face by the pure mother to the purer children at her knees.
For us, who see the Bible in its true light, there is no necessity for a
minister to offend against the taste of a refined age, or for a mother to
introduce the unsoiled soul of her child to evil, by reading straight
through the successive chapters of the Bible. It has been left for
Protestant piety to excel Romanists and Jews in superstition. The Church
of Rome, as you know, discourages the use of the Bible by her laity,
erring in the other extreme. The Jewish rabbis had a saying that no one
should read the Canticles before he was thirty years of age. If you follow
the public readings of the Bible in this church from your own Bibles, you
must often appreciate the relief this liberty of omission brings. Use the
Bible in this way with your children at home. Who would think of an
indiscriminate use of the original Shakespeare? Stage managers cut him so
freely for rendering before grown up folk as to have made another
Shakespeare. He who cares for his children's innocence will set before
them an expurgated edition like that of Rolfe. So we should use at home
such an expurgated edition of the Scriptures as "The Child's Bible,"
published by Cassel, Petter & Galpin, of London. No timid soul need fear
that imprecation in the last chapter of the Revelation:
If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy
God shall take away his part out of the book of life.
That sounds like the ruling passion, strong in death, of the Son of
Thunder; who in youth asked if he should call down fire from heaven upon a
hamlet which did not welcome Jesus, and was well rebuked for his zeal by
the gracious Master. It is part of the human weakness through which the
voice of God speaks, taking its tone from the defects of the instrument.
This imprecation had reference, in all probability, solely to the
copyists, against whose carelessness the author sought to guard himself by
an awful threat. It certainly had reference to this book alone. Not until
long afterwards did the Church determine what books were to enter the
canon of the New Testament, and in what order they were to stand. That
order placed the Revelation as the last book in the canon, and thus made
this threat appear to cover the whole Bible.
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to accept its utterances indiscriminately
as the words of God, to quote every saying of every speaker in its pages,
or every deed of every actor in its histories as expressing to us the mind
Such use of the Bible is thoughtlessly common. Some time ago before going
into a church in whose service I was asked to participate, I ventured to
show some slight hesitancy in using certain Psalms which were set down in
the Psalter for the day. When asked, why, I mildly answered that I could
not request a Christian congregation to join with me in singing, after the
embittered Jews in Babylon:
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem. How
they said, "Down with It! down with it! even to the ground." Oh,
daughter of Babylon, who art to be wasted, Happy shall he be that
rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be that taketh
thy little ones and throweth them against the stones.
Nor could I ask the people to unite in praying:
Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb; yea, all their princes as Zeba
I had in mind the fate of Oreb and Zeeb and of Zeba and Salmana,
splendidly brave fellows even in their death, as told in the seventh and
eighth chapters of Judges, where you can learn what sort of prayer was
this of those savage Jews. Naturally, as I thought, I objected to voicing
such heathen imprecations in the nineteenth century of the era of the
Prince of Peace. My good friend, with a look of amazement, replied, "Why,
these Psalms are in the Bible." That ended the question for him.
This incident is typical of a vast quantity of wrong uses of the Bible.
Thus our American slaveholder read that 'precious' word of the ancient
tradition, "Cursed be Ham," and smoothed his troubled conscience. He had
the sanction of the Bible for the curse plainly upon Africa. He was
fulfilling the Divine will in breeding black cattle for the auction block.
Piety and profit were one, and godliness had great gain, and some
contentment also. Thus the extermination of the Canaanites, for which the
Hebrews pleaded long after the Divine order, and for which they had
substantial warrant in Destiny's determination to rid the land of these
corrupting tribes and make room for the noble life Israel was to develop,
has been the stock argument of kings and soldiers for their bloody trade.
Thus poor human consciences have been sorely hurt and troubled as men have
read, in stories such as those of Jael and Sisera and Jacob and Esau, of
acts which their better nature instinctively condemned. They have felt
themselves arraigning the Bible and suspecting God.
If indeed the Bible is a book let down from the skies, of which God can be
called the 'author,' then all such uses of it may be correct enough, and
in those dark and savage words and deeds I may be obliged to find the
words of God and the deeds He holds up to our admiration and imitation;
though I do not see that such a use is a necessity, even on this theory.
Fancy a man quoting Shylock when he pleads for his bond, or Iago's
devilish innuendos against Desdemona's purity, as showing what Shakespeare
liked or what he would have us imitate! "These are the words of
Shakespeare!" Yes, but of Shakespeare's Shylock, Shakespeare's Iago.
If, however, the Old Testament is the national library of the Jews, I
must expect to find all sorts of early Jewish notions, in ethics and
religion, bodied in the words of the speakers they introduce, and the
deeds of the men of whom they tell the tales.
If the Bible is the record of a real revelation which came in the spirits
of ancient men, through the historic growth of conscience and reason; and
if these books are the literature embalming that growth of a people out of
ignorance and superstition into the light of pure ethics and spiritual
religion; then I must look to find all sorts of crudities and crassnesses
in the representation of God, and all phases of unmoral and immoral life,
as parts of the error and imperfection out of which they were educated.
These deeds and words are the milestones in the path of progress by which
Judaism reached Christianity. If the individual is to reproduce the story
of the race, as our wise men tell us, then these words and deeds are in
the Bible to carry us through the same course of education; to exercise
our consciences in discriminating right from wrong, and to lead us to grow
out of such conceptions and desires toward the spirit of Christ. In a
cruise last summer we dropped anchor in a lovely little out-of-the-way
harbor of Buzzard's Bay, which proved to be near Pocasset; where, not long
ago, a pious man, reading the Hebrew tradition of Abraham and Isaac, as a
real command of the Most High, and having this word of the Lord borne in
on his mind, as spoken to himself, murdered his child in sacrifice to
God--no angel interfering to stay his knife. He simply made a _reductio ad
absurdum_ of this use of the Bible.
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to accept everything recorded therein as
If the historians were simply the amanuenses of the Infinite Spirit, then
of course they could not have erred in anything they recorded. If they
were ordinary writers, trying to tell the story of their peoples' growth;
searching court archives, state annals, old parchments of forgotten
writers, consulting the traditions of town and village, using their
material in the best way their abilities enabled them to do; using all to
teach virtue and religion, for which alone they were specially qualified
of God; then all questions of historical accuracy are beside the mark.
Nothing in their inspiration guarantees their historical accuracy; their
philological learning in using ancient poetic language, or their critical
judgment in detecting exaggerations. Are we to wait anxiously upon the
latest Assyrian tablets or the freshest Egyptian mummy to confirm our
faith that God has spoken to the spirit of man? Are we to quake in our
shoes when a few ciphers are cut off from the roll of Israel's impossible
armies? If much that we read as literal history turns out legend and myth,
are we to find a painful alternative between a blind credulity and as
blind a skepticism? We follow this same re-reading of Roman and Grecian
story untroubled, and see the heroes of our childhood turn into races and
sun-myths without calling the Muse of History a fraud.
Has it been such comfort to us to read the doings of Samson as actual
history, slaying a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, tying
fire-brands to the tails of three hundred foxes, etc., that we should
resent the translation of this impossible hero into the Semitic Hercules,
a solar myth? Or if, perchance, the historian accepted from remote
antiquity the accounts of great deeds and striking events, as they were
told at the camp fires of the Hebrew nomads, or in the merry makings of
the Palestinian villages, with an ever growing nimbus of the marvelous
gathering around them; and if thus impossible marvels are reported to us
soberly, are we to be compelled to accept them uncritically or reject the
Bible altogether? The Bible itself points us to the interpretation of such
legends We have some histories written by the actors in the scenes
narrated. Nehemiah and Ezra, leaders in the most important movement of
Hebrew history after the migration led by Moses, left accounts of their
work from their own pens. In such a crucial epoch as that of the
restoration of the Jews to their native land, after the dispersion in
Babylonia, we might expect to find miraculous interpositions on behalf of
the chosen people, if they are to be found anywhere. But no tale of
miracle adorns their simple pages. No other old Testament history, written
by the actors in its scenes, tells of miracles. Such stories are found in
the traditions written down long after the events narrated, by men who
knew nothing of the facts at first hand. Exceptions to this rule occur
alone in such startling events as the mysterious calamity that befell
Sennacherib; which strongly impressed the imagination of the people and
naturally gave rise to exaggerations that we can no longer resolve.
Perhaps Elisha's iron axe head did swim upon the water. I am prepared to
believe almost anything after our spiritualistic mediums, and their
exposers. Whether it did or did not concerns me no whit. I shrug my
shoulders and read on. I cannot make out the historical fact which was at
the basis of the Red Sea deliverance; nor do I care much to make out this
or any other Old Testament miracle. If I felt obliged to accept literally
these stories, or to lose my faith in the voice of God which speaks
through the men of the Bible I should care greatly. In the true view of
the Bible I am delivered from solicitude about these traditions, and am
under no constraint of credulity. Those who can believe the story of
Elisha and the bears, or of Elijah's ascension into heaven, may; those who
cannot, need not; and both alike should reverently read their Bibles, not
for these tales of wonder, but for the still small voice of the eternal
spirit sounding through holy lives and holier aspirations, until He came
whose life was the Word of God, the Wonderful.
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to consult it as a heathen oracle for the
determining of our judgments and the decision of our actions._
The pagans, even such grand old pagans as the Romans, before undertaking
any important action would solemnly consult the auspices. Men with reason
given them of God would stand anxiously around the steaming entrails of a
bird, to find out whether the fates were propitious to their undertaking.
Great generals would open or delay a campaign according to the intestinal
revelations of a goose. Intelligent people use the Bible in some such way.
When at a loss how to proceed, instead of calmly consulting their own
judgments and the judgments of their wisest friends, and then acting like
reasonable beings, men and women will open their Bibles at random, let
then-eyes rest on the first verse which arrests their attention, and
accept any possible bearing on the question in hand as the voice of God.
The journals of John Wesley and other eminent men contain examples of this
abuse of the Bible. I call it an abuse, for such action degrades the Bible
to the level of a heathen oracle. Isaiah, like all the great prophets,
habitually contrasted the true and the false communications of of the
Divine will by the test of the reasonableness of their manifestations. The
real prophet heard the voice of God, not so much in dreams and visions, in
the "peepings and chirpings" of the oracles, as in the calm and sober
working of his mind, illumined from on high. The oracle was the antithesis
of the prophet. The oracle represented unintelligent, unreasonable magical
means of getting at a desired knowledge. The prophet represented the
intelligent, reasoning, natural means of getting at that knowledge; the
lighting of that candle of the Lord which is the spirit of man. In the
profound double significance of the original, the _Logos_ is the Word or
the Reason. The Word of God which comes to man is the Divine Reason, of
which each human reason is a ray. To train and use that reason in all our
exigencies, humbly looking up to the Eternal Reason to let the light in us
be pure and clear, is the way to hear the Word of God.
To consult the reason of the holy men of old on themes whereon they were
qualified to speak is rational and right. To make of their writings a new
oracle whose mysterious meanings we are to guess, as the ancient Greeks
puzzled over the messages of the Delphic shrine, is to revive Paganism in
Christianity. "No prophecy is of any private interpretation." No passage
in the Bible was written, centuries ago, with reference to your private
affairs. All that is there written concerned men and affairs of distant
days. The principles there applied will help you now, if you will take the
trouble to search for them, since principles do not change with the
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to go to it, as the heathen went to their
oracles, for divination of the future._
The pagan oracles were the shrines of a Power sought for the forecasting
of events. The inspiration of an oracle was proven by the success of its
predictions. In the same way men have turned to the Bible as a sort of
sacred weather bureau, a book which, if we could only interpret its mystic
utterances, would tell us what things were going to happen upon the earth.
I remember an eloquent Irish divine who came to this country on a great
mission a number of years ago. His first sermon was on Ezekiel's vision by
the Chebar. He said that this was the age of science, and that such a
marvel as science could not have escaped the vision of the prophets. This
mystic creature which the prophet saw, with wheels, whose appearance was
like burning coals of fire, which turned not as it went, and so on,
was--the locomotive! This folly was only more undisguised than the mass of
the lucubrations called Prophetic Studies.
Let any political crisis occur, and some sage will write a book showing
how Daniel had foretold this issue of diplomacy. I have not forgotten the
learned tracts and essays called forth by the fascination Louis Napoleon
exercised upon the imaginations of half-educated people; all proving
beyond a doubt that he was the mystic man of sin, the Anti-Christ in whom
history was to culminate.
America, the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, and the Church of Rome
especially inspire, at present, these crazy conjectures. They ought all to
issue from Bedlam.
This mad and maddening use of what, rightly read, are noble and
instructive books, grows out of a misunderstanding of what were the
functions of Hebrew prophecy.
Prophecy has been taken as a synonyme for prediction. There is not much
verbal difference between foretelling and forthtelling, but there is a
vast difference for the purposes of religion. Taking prophecy as the
synonyme of foretelling, the essential function of the prophets became
predicting. They were supposed to have been busy in forecasting the things
which should come to pass in the far future. The success of these
long-range predictions was the demonstration of their being charged with
miraculous powers. The prophecies constituted the chief evidence for the
supernatural character of the Bible. Of course, with this theory in the
mind of the church, a predictive character would be read into everything
capable of bearing it; and the history of the Hebrews, the eloquent
orations of their great statesmen, the pious longings of their hymn
writers, became mystic anticipations of everything in the heavens above
and the earth beneath.
But Hebrew prophecy never was the synonyme for prediction. It meant
forth-telling. The prophets were "men of the spirit," whose pure nature
mirrored the supreme laws of earth, the moral laws; whose intuitions made
application of those laws to the policies of statecraft, and enabled them
to divine the issues of the stirring events amid which they lived. Their
glory is that they saw above the brute force of great empires the might of
right, and dared to vision its triumph, and that history has verified
their moral insight. But they chiefly spake, as the author of The
Revelation declares of his prophecy, "of things which must shortly come to
pass" upon the earth. Their horizon bounded a very nigh future the
approach of Syrian, Assyrian, Egyptian invaders the overthrow of
In these predictions they were often mistaken; nearly as often in error as
in the right. We seldom hear of these unfulfilled prophecies, but they are
in your Bibles. They should teach you, that which the prophets tried so
hard to teach their own cotemporaries, that the essential distinction of
the true prophet was not that he predicted the future, for this they
scornfully left to the false prophets the oracles of the pagan Jews, but
that they forthtold the inner mind and will of God, read the 'laws mighty
and brazen' which constitute the essential nature of the Most High and
hold the supreme felicity of man. I believe I know of no one passage of
the prophets which can be certainly said to point to any event beyond the
near future of the writer. Only in so far as they spoke of the ideal
forces, of ethical victories, did they launch out upon the far future.
But you say, Do not the Old Testament prophets surely point on to Christ?
I answer both No, and Yes. Of any mere literal prediction of the events of
His life I know none. The many passages that have been made to read like
predictions of His miraculous birth, His sale for thirty pieces of silver,
and so on, refer to personages and experiences in the time of the writers.
Isaiah expressly says this about the Virgin--that is, the young bride--who
was to conceive and bear a son. Before he should be able to distinguish
right from wrong the relief of Jehovah to Israel would appear. The
passages which seem to our eyes, looking through orthodox spectacles, to
have this predictive character, lose it in a more exact translation.
It is doubtless true that the Gospels make many such applications of Old
Testament words, adding to their record of minute incidents--"That it
might be fulfilled which was spoken by ... saying." But the Gospels, as we
now possess them, have been slowly fashioned by the labor of many hands,
working over the tradition which gradually shaped itself out of the
reminiscences of multitudes of men and women. Pious Jews, trained in this
Rabbinical use of their Sacred Scriptures, delighting to make application
of ancient mystic sayings to the life of their adorable Messiah, read into
the Gospel narrative these fulfillments of prediction.
This use of the Old Testament has been pushed to absurdity in learned
books over which I have patiently toiled. "The Gospel of Leviticus," gave
me the Hebrew civic and ecclesiastic legislation mystified into 'sound
evangelical' symbols. "Christ in the Psalms" twisted every heathenish
imprecation of the Hebrew hymns into language which could be put upon the
lips of the dear Lord, and turned the bitterest curses into sweet and
The culmination of this moon-struck exegesis, as far as my knowledge
reaches, is in the ancient and fantastic reading of the tradition of the
escape of the spies from Jericho, which gave a young and eloquent Bishop
of our church a favorite sermon; wherein he showed conclusively that the
scarlet cord by which Rahab let down her visitors over the city wall was a
type of the atoning blood of Christ!
This Chinese puzzle-book of predictions exists nowhere save in the
imagination of its readers.
There was, however, a most real and substantial typifying of Christ
through the Old Testament; but it was natural, organic, ethical and
spiritual; in those books as first in the lives of the people. The growth
of the nation onward toward the true Image of God, the true Human Ideal;
the travail of the nation with the Divine-Human Character which at the
last came to the birth in Jesus the Christ; this was a mystery of natural,
organic evolution, which 'must give us pause' in every shallow denial of
a supernatural involution in human history. This makes true rationalism
reverent before 'that Holy Thing' born not alone of Mary but of Mary's
race, begotten plainly of the overshadowings of some Holy Ghost, of whom
our best judgment is, now as of old,--"He shall be called the Son of the
The whole history of Israel is a growth of The Christ, and that is the
abiding wonder of it.
In such a mystic evolution it may well be, in history as in nature, that
the organic processes type the oncoming form of life; but to trace these
rightly there is needed a finer criticism than that which has given us the
* * * * *
Let us pause here for to-day. And let us take home, as the heart-thought
of the morning, an assurance which may comfort us as we stand under the
shadow of Christmas. If the dear Christ's throne stood on any such flimsy
basis of prophecy as men have built up beneath it, then, when the
underpinnings came tumbling out, as to-day they are doing, we might fear
that His authority was dropping in with them; that no longer we were to
call Him Master and King; that criticism had pronounced His _decheance_.
But His throne really rests on a nation's growth of the human Ideal and
Divine Image. And, since this nation's growth was on the same general
lines as the religious and ethical progress of other races, His throne
rests on no less secure a foundation than humanity's evolution of the
human Ideal and Divine Image. Man's best and noblest life aspires after an
ideal which is the Christly character. Man's best and noblest thoughts of
God fashion a vision which is the God revealed in Christ. He is Humanity's
"Master of Life."
The wrong use of the Bible
"The Scriptures will be more studied than they have been, and in a
different manner--not as a magazine of propositions and mere dialectic
entities, but as inspirations and poetic forms of life; requiring,
also, divine inbreathings and exaltations in us, that we may ascend
into their meaning. No false _precision,_ which the nature and
conditions of spiritual truth forbid, will, by cutting up the body of
truth into definite and dead morsels, throw us into states of excision
and division, equally manifold. We shall receive the truth of God in a
more organic and organific manner, as being itself an essentially vital
Horace Bushnell. God in Christ; p. 93.
"But, further, the zealots for the Bible _as it is_, just because it
_is_, forget that, in their outcry in behalf of every existing book,
and paragraph, and sentence, and word in the present edition of it, as
'God's Word written,' they are simply begging the question, What _is_
'God's Word written'? What _is_, without any doubt, a genuine portion
of those writings which contain the message from God? The question is,
in no case, 'Will you part with any utterance of God's voice, whether
through apostle or evangelist?' but only, 'Is this particular word, or
sentence, or passage, truly such an utterance? Have we good grounds for
accepting it as such? Nay, have we not overwhelming grounds for
doubting it to be such?' We do right to hold fast 'the faith once
delivered to the saints,' but the more we are determined to be faithful
to this faith, just the more sedulous and more searching must be our
inquiry, Have we here this faith in its integrity?"
Thomas Griffith, late Prebendary of St. Paul's, London: The Gospel of
the Divine Life, p. 418.
The wrong use of the Bible.
"Every Scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for
reproof for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man
of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."--2
Tim. iii; 16-17.
"Use the world as not abusing it" was a great principle of the Apostle,
which has many special applications. One of these comes again before us
to-day: Use the Bible as not abusing it.
I proceed to point out some further wrong uses of the Bible:
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to go to it as an authority in any sphere
save the spheres of theology and of religion._
In the traditional view it was an infallible authority upon every subject
of which it treated.
The Divine Being had prepared a book which answered off-hand the questions
man's mind naturally starts concerning the problems of existence; a book
which taught officially how the earth came into its present form, how life
arose upon it, how man was made, how sin entered, how the world was
peopled, how mankind was to fare upon the earth, how the present order was
to come to an end, and many things beside. To answer authoritatively these
questions was the _raison d'etre_ of the Bible. It laid a solid foundation
for a science of life. With the passing away of the unreal Bible all
reference to it for such information should cease. These books, as actual
human writings, the studies of men of long past centuries, of men having
no guarantees of infallibility, cannot be expected to have anticipated the
solution of the great problems of knowledge, towards which the human
intellect has been laboriously working through the generations since they
were written; towards which it is still toilsomely striving, content, even
now, with the cold, grey light as of the dawning day.
Our truer idea of revelation--the evolution of nature and the historic
growth of man--forbids such a notion of any book. It has plainly pleased
the Most High that knowledge of these mysteries should come to man through
his patient, persevering effort after truth. Such continued endeavour wins
gradually better knowledge, and with it better life. This process of human
discovery is yet more truly a process of the Divine self-revealing. In
each and every real knowledge man is learning to know--God. Each truth of
science is a manifestation of somewhat in the Infinite Power in whom we
live and move and have our being. Had it pleased God to have given,
centuries ago, a super-natural answer to these problems of earth, He would
simply have dismissed His children from school, with-held from them that
noble education which lies in the discipline of study, and, while giving
them truth, have robbed them of that keenest joy of life, that benediction
richer even than the possession of truth--the search for it.
How indeed, even in the resources of omnipotence, could an answer to the
earth-problems have been framed, which, while coming down to the plane of
the age of Moses, should have kept level with the rise of human knowledge
through the climbing centuries? No, the Bible was not prepared as an
Encyclopedia of Knowledge for the successive generations of men. Its
writers may anticipate the thought of ages by profound intuitions,
pregnant imaginations, visions of the seer, as Plato does. Genius often
outstrips the plodding feet of generations. But genius must not put on the
airs of omniscience. It must submit its claims to trial by jury. They are
to stand, if stand they shall, not because they are in Genesis or the
Republic, but because they prove true.
When (_e.g._) the Biblical writers speak of the Creation, the Garden of
Eden, the Fall of Man, etc., they give us their thoughts, the thoughts of
their age, the thoughts of earlier ages, of greatly gifted minds in many
ages gathering into an imposing tradition; which, as we now see, came down
through successive generations of Hebrews, from a remote antiquity in
which this race had not been thrown off from the common Semitic stock. On
the baked clay tablets of Babylonia we read to-day the same stories. The
Hebrews worked them over, under the plastic power of their religious
genius, into the lofty ethical and theistic forms in which they stand in
Genesis; forms which, rightly read, are parables fresh and inspiring now,
as when, twenty-five hundred years ago, Jewish children listened to them
with awe beneath the willows by the water courses of Babylonia. That most
exquisite story of our weird Hawthorne, the Marble Faun, is a version of
the legend of the Garden of Eden. Commingled with these lofty truths we
find crude notions of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology How
could it be otherwise, since these sciences were embryotic then, or even
unborn? We hearken, reverently, thankfully, to the philosophy and poetry
of Hebrew, Chaldean and Accadian sages and seers, in these profound and
subtle parables of the mysteries which still fascinate us. We dismiss the
knowledge of nature set forth in these legends and myths as the
child-sciences of Israel and Chaldea and Accadia.
We go to our savans for knowledge of physical nature. We make no attempt
to reconcile Genesis with the Origin of Species. Genesis is no authority
in science, and The Origin of Species is no authority in philosophy,
poetry, theology or religion.
The accounts of man in the dim distance of pre-historic times, given in
Genesis, belong to the departments of the antiquarian, and the
philologist; and we trust their story, no matter how it collides with the
Hebrew traditions. So through every sphere of knowledge upon which the
Biblical writers enter, outside of their own special spheres, we follow
them as venerable guides, but as entirely fallible authorities, expressing
the knowledge of their age and race.
Thus, to take one example from later times, St. Paul, in the first epistle
to the Corinthians, condemns woman's participation in the exercises of
worship and instruction in the Christian assemblies of Corinth. This
judgment is accepted, by those who hold to the unreal Bible, as forclosing
the case of woman versus man in the vocation of the ministry, in this land
and age as in all lands and ages. We saw lately the action of this theory
over in Brooklyn. Though she had the gifts and graces of a Lucretia Mott,
though her preaching were blessed as that of a Miss Smiley, though woman's
temperament seems peculiarly fitted for the inspirational influences of
the pulpit, yet Nature's ordination must be disowned because Saul of
Tarsus thought it unseemly for a woman to speak in meeting! He thought it
unseemly also, as he tells us in the same letter, that woman should appear
unveiled in public assemblies; in which you do not seem to consider him an
authority. Why should you defer to him in the one opinion and disregard
him in the other? Both opinions formed part of his education as a Jew of
the first century of our era; as which he frankly confessed that he
regarded woman as inferior to man. We do not consider the Jewish
physiology and psychology of that age binding on us; and St. Paul's
opinion on such a matter falls to the ground with it.
_It is a wrong use of the Bible, for the purposes of theology or religion,
to give its language any other meaning than that which similar language
would have under similar circumstances._
People of sound minds do not read poetic language in other books as though
it were prose. They do not take words thrown off at white heat; crowd
them, all molten with feeling, into the mould of a Gradgrind
understanding; force them to take the form of such matter-of-fact minds;
and then, when the emotion is cooled down, and the fluent fancies are
reduced to stiff, hard prose, say--"there, that is the exact meaning of
this language!" Fancy Shakespeare's impetuous, tumultuous riotous imagery
treated by such 'criticism!'
Yet that is the sort of treatment which many learned pedants call
'expounding the Bible!' It is with the greatest difficulty that the
Western mind can rightly read the Eastern's language. We miss the rich
aroma of their nectared speech, and find only the grounds left. And we
take these grounds for the true original beverage of the gods! Out of such
residuum of poetry, when the poesy has exhaled, we make our spiritual
food! Poetry petrified into prose--is the real explanation to be offered
of many an absurdity of Bible-reading.
A visitor to one of the Shaker communities describes the men and women as
engaging in the most preposterous play of making-believe; performing upon
imaginary instruments as they marched in procession; going through the
motions of washing their faces and hands as they surrounded an imaginary
fountain; and, finally, plunging bodily into this spiritual fountain, by
rolling over on the grass! To an exclamation of surprise at such childish
doings, answer was made that thus they were becoming as little children,
in order to enter the kingdom of heaven!
Luther sat disputing with Zwinglius the doctrine of trans-substantiation,
and to every argument of his rational opponent answered by laying his
sturdy finger on the words, "This _is_ my body." The most powerful Church
of Christendom bases itself upon this prosaic reading of a poetic saying.
Many a mysterious dogma would simplify itself at once by remembering that,
in the language of the imagination, "the letter killeth, but the spirit
giveth it life."
We are not to rush from this extreme into the opposite error and turn into
mystical and marvellous meanings the plain sense of the Biblical writers.
Imagine the result of putting all sorts of mystic glosses on the
straight-forward accounts of men and things in ordinary writings. Such is
in reality the folly of turning the sober statements of Biblical prose
writers into allegories, parables, symbols, types; and of finding
underneath the plainest meanings a double, triple and quadruple sense.
In the hour of Christ's approaching arrest he warns his disciples, in His
usual figurative manner, that they must now learn to provide for
themselves; since he would shortly be taken from them. "He that hath a
purse let him take it; and he that hath no sword let him sell his garment
and buy one." And his disciples, being very unimaginative folk, or being
perhaps stupefied with wonder and anxiety by His strange words and actions
on that night of sad surprises said--"Lord, behold here are two swords."
The Master answered, with a weariness of their obtuseness that we can feel
in the curt reply, "It is enough." And the wisdom of the Roman Church sees
herein a type of the temporal and spiritual power of the Papacy!
I am solemnly warned against such learned puerilities every time I turn to
my shelves and encounter Swedenborg's "Arcana Coelestia." In ten goodly
volumes he interprets Scripture history after this fashion:
"'And Rebecca arose'--hereby is signified an elevation of the affection
of truth: 'And her damsels'--hereby are signified subservient
affections: 'And they rode upon camels'--hereby is signified the
intellectual principle elevated above natural scientifics."!
Of all this pious sort of folly we may say with the Master--"Enough."
It is the common mistake which gathers a nimbus of mystic sense around
every book excessively revered. Thus the Greeks fancied an inner and
mystical sense in Homer; and thus Italian professors expound the esoteric
significance of Dante.
The fantastic dream of mysterious meanings in the Bible must take wings
after its kindred fancies of Greeks and Italians, at the touch of a
ripening literary judgment. One rule holds of all human letters. Where
there is legend, myth, metaphor, or other clear form of poetic fancy,
language is to be read imaginatively. Otherwise, in the Bible, as out of
it, the ordinary meaning of words must be followed.
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to construct a theology out of it, by the
mechanical system of proof texts in vogue in the churches._
With a preconceived system of thought in their minds, drawn from the most
highly evolved speculations of the New Testament, men have gone through
both Testaments; and whenever they have lighted upon a sentence which
seemed to coincide with this system, it has been torn bleeding from its
place in a living texture of thought, impaled on some one of the "Five
Points," and set up in the Theological Cabinet, duly labelled "Proof-Text
of Original Sin," or "Proof Text of Future Punishment."
What a monstrosity an ordinary Sunday School Scripture Catechism is, with
its statements of received doctrines, to which are appended proof-texts
drawn from Genesis and Isaiah and Paul; _i.e._, from some pre-historic
tradition, from a Hebrew states, man's oration and from a Christian
apostle's letter. It makes no difference what the character of the writing
from which the sentence is taken. Everything is grist for this mill. A
"judgment" or "doom" of the nomadic Hebrews, a burning metaphor from a
late poet and a metaphysical proposition from an Alexandrian philosopher
are jumbled together side by side, as co-equal proofs of the most awful
An ancient historian, gathering up the traditions of his primitive
fore-fathers, records the legend of the Flood, in which it is told that
"God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,
And that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart
Was only evil continually."
The poet who wrote, out of the deep of some experience of shameful sin,
the pathetic penitential hymn, known as the Fifty-first Psalm, said, in
the course of his self-condemnings:--
"Behold I was shapen in wickedness,
And in sin hath my mother conceived me."
The poet who wrote his unrivaled prophecies amid the humiliation of the
national exile in Babylonia, cried out in one place:--
"We are all as an unclean thing,
And all our righteousness are as filthy rags."
And these mythic and poetic words, true to man's abiding sense of evil in
his deepest hours, stand to-day in the arsenal of theology as proof-texts
of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity!
Even this folly has been surpassed. Among the proverbial sayings of the
Jews was one to this effect;
"If the tree fall towards the South, or towards the North,
In the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be."
The meaning of such a proverb is surely plain enough. Death's action is
irrevocable. As it meets a man it leaves him. His plans and schemes lie as
incapable of development as the fallen tree is incapable of new
sproutings. At the time the book of Ecclesiastes was written, the belief
in any life after death was little known in Israel. This book was the work
of a thorough pessimist, whose constant refrain was--Vanity of Vanities,
all is Vanity. It gives no hint of a second life; and in the absence of
this faith the present life is to the writer an insoluble problem. This
saying really expressed the popular belief that death ended everything. A
man falls like a tree, and, like a prostrate tree, as he falls he lies.
And lo! this Jewish proverb is the first proof-text generally quoted for
the dread doctrine that after death there is another life, but that its
character is fixed forever by the state of the man at death; the dogma of
everlasting conscious suffering in Hell!
What Midsummer Night's Dream reasoning, turning common-sense topsy-turvy,
and treating the words of God in the very reverse way from that in which
all sane people agree to treat the words of man!
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to disregard the chronological order of
its parts in constructing our theology._
We are not to read the Biblical writers as though they were all
cotemporaries. They are separated by vast tracts of time. The later
writers stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors and see further and
clearer. We are not to view the institutions or doctrines of the Bible as
though, no matter in what period of the development of the Hebrew Nation
or of the Christian Church they are found, they were equally authoritative
upon us. That would be to say that green apples are as good food for us as
ripe ones. The time-perspective is essential to set any Biblical
institution or dogma in the true light.
Romanists and our own Ritualists entrench their sacerdotalism behind the
priestly system of the Jews. As though, because that was once needful and
serviceable to an ignorant, half heathen people, it was still
indispensible to us. As though what providence once ordained, providence
perpetually imposed on humanity. Such a rule would keep us with our
primers always in our hands. Progress is marked by the debris of discarded
institutions, wholesome and necessary once, but incumbrances after a time.
The whole _rationale_ of sacerdotalism is exploded by this simple common
sense principle; and we see in its light the significance of Paul's
impatient sweeping away of the Law; of the entire ignoring of the
sacrifice and the priesthood in the life and teaching of Jesus himself.
"The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain,
Nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. God is spirit;
And they that worship must worship him in spirit and in truth."
Dogmas also must be seen in historical perspective. Thus, for example, the
doctrine of the Second Advent, which still exercises the Christian mind,
is wholly cleared up as looked at through the time-vista.
We see the progress of the Messianic expectation through the centuries
immediately prior to the age of Christ, in our old Testament books and in
the Apocryphal writings. In these latter works we see it gradually
gathering round itself visions of the winding up of the present aeon, the
renovation of the earth, the judgment of the nations, the resurrection of
the pious dead, and the opening of a millenial era in which the Messiah
should rule the world from Jerusalem. It would appear to have even
developed the notion that the Messiah, after his appearance on earth,
would depart into the spirit-world, to consummate his preparation; and
would return thence to assume full power. This had became the popular
expectation by the Christian era.
When then the early Christians became satisfied that Jesus was the
Messiah, it followed of necessity that they should after his death, say to
themselves--"He has gone into the heavens to receive his institution into
the office he has won by his sinless life and suffering death. He will
come again in the clouds with power; the conquering Messiah."
This belief seems to have taken shape first in Paul's fervid mind. His
earlier epistles were full of it. His converts became unsettled by it, and
in their excited expectation of the return of the Messiah they neglected
their earthly duties; and Paul had to caution them against this impatience
and cool their heated minds.
This and other experiences sobered Paul's own mind. He found that as year
after year came round the Messiah did not return. In the rapid ripening of
thought which went on in the tropical climate of his soul, he grew into a
more spiritual apprehension of Christ. If you read his undoubted letters
in the order of their writing; First Thessalonians, First and Second
Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, etc., you will note a steady decrease of
reference to this topic, until it fades away into a vague vision of the
dawning day of God; the absolute assurance that Christ would conquer and
rule the earth, though it might be in the spirit and not in the flesh; the
certain conviction of a good time coming though beyond his ken. The later
light of the apostle corrected his earlier misapprehensions; and would
correct our crude and carnal notions of the second coming of Christ, if we
would only study Paul, as we study Turner or Shakespeare, in his ripening
Were this one principle followed, our popular theology would soon
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to cite its authors as of equal authority,
even in the spheres of theology and religion._
The teachings of any human writing come clothed with such authority as the
author's name lends to it or its intrinsic force wins for it.
If in the work of an obscure economic writer, of no perceptible ability,
you come upon the theory that the land of a people belongs to the people;
that its passing into the absolute ownership of private persons is the
basic evil of our civilization; that the nation must resume the
inalienable rights of the people at large, in the resources of all wealth,
and regulate the individual usufruct of land in the interests of the
entire body politic--you will probably toss the book contemptuously from
you as the crazy lucubration of a fool.
If in reading John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy you come
upon this theory, cautiously broached, you are constrained to treat it
with the consideration due an acknowledged master in this science. If
again in the first elaborate work of a new author, Progress and Poverty,
you meet this same theory, boldly laid down as the central theme of the
book, and contended for as the real solution of the persistent problem of
pauperism, you are disposed to pass it by unheeded. The author's name
carries to your mind no prestige of tradition. He speaks from no
time-honored university chair. No array of imposing titles hang upon the
plain 'Henry George,' of the title page. But you become interested in
these brilliant pages of genius and follow the author, with growing
sympathy, to the end.
You lay the book down, feeling as though a spell had been upon you, in
which you could form no sound judgment. You lay it by accordingly, to take
it up after some weeks, work over its positions, and find your first
impressions confirmed; to realize that here is a work of real, rare power;
an epoch-making book, which, if it does not carry your conviction,
commands your careful consideration.
Precisely so we are to be affected by the Biblical authors. There are
writings in the Bible by utterly unknown writers. A letter of an obscure
author cannot come with the weight of a letter from St. Paul. There are
writings of widely different mental force. Biblical authors varied in
personal power as much as other authors. Inspiration cannot do away with
the limitations of the human individuality. It must be modified by its
instrumentality. The saints are of various orders. Even the diamond books
which reflect the light of God so brilliantly may not be all of first
water. We must allow for the hues in the less perfect prisms. Were the
greatest musical genius in the world to sit before the key-boards he could
not draw from a harmonium the notes of a Lucerne organ. The impact of a
writing on our souls must be proportionate to the spiritual and ethical
force with which it is charged. Everyone recognizes this practically. None
of us, however orthodox, professes to be as much inspired by Esther as by
Job; by Chronicles as by Kings; by Daniel as by Isaiah; by Jude as by
Paul. That simply means that there is not as much inspiration in some
Biblical authors as in others. No author is always at his best. His work
differs. The second epistle to the Thessalonians is not level with the
epistle to the Romans. The third epistle of John, if it be of John, is
surely not as highly inspired as the first epistle of John. Inspiration is
plainly a matter of degrees.
The recognition of this common-sense principle, theoretically, would
remand the darker doctrines of Christianity to such authority as the lower
order of Biblical writings possess. The terrifying and torturing teachings
of the New Testament are from obscure authors, or from the masters in
their lower moods. The representations of a wrathful God, of an avenging
Christ, of a hell of horrors, are found in such epistles as Second
Thessalonians, whose authorship is uncertain; as Jude or Second Peter,
about whose authorship and date we have only the probability that no
apostle wrote them, and that they were written after the first, fresh
inspiration had passed from the church. Rabbinical speculations and Greek
superstitions show themselves at work in the Christian Church. The
unquestioned letters of Paul are sunny and sweet. In them we see the
father of Christian Restorationism. If he knows anything of a dark side to
the resurrection, as he shows elsewhere that he does, he leaves it in its
own shadows; and in the height of this great argument of Corinthians
brings to the front only the resurrection to life and joy. "Knowing the
fear of the Lord we--persuade men."
The first epistle of John is true to its favorite symbol of the light.
There are no clouds in it. The God revealed in the greatest writings of
the greatest authors of the New Testament is Love. The Christ they picture
is _Christus Consolator_. The full breath of inspiration opens only the
upper register of notes. The voices of the soul are buoyant, joyous,
If you are willing to follow the most inspired writers, in their most
inspired moods, up into the heights whither the divine afflatus bore them,
you will mount above the cloud-level, and leave to those who lag after
feebler guides on the lower ranges of truth, the chill mists that eat into
the soul, while you rejoice in the light.
_It is a wrong use of the Bible to manufacture cut of it any one uniform,
system, of theology, as the fixed and final form of thought in which
religion is to live._
Let me define these contrasting terms, so commonly confounded. Religion
is man's perception of the Power in whom we live and move and have our
being, and his emotion towards this power. Theology is man's conception of
this Power, and his thought defined and formulated.
Religion is man's feeling after God; theology is man's grasp of God. The
two are necessarily connected. They are different forms of one and the
same force; the heat and the light which stream from God; but the heat and
the light are not always equal. A worthy thought of God ought to sustain
any worthy feeling towards Him. It generally does so. A heightened thought
of God may often be found back of a rising flow of feeling after Him. More
often the emotion precedes the conception; the vague, awed sense of God
travails till a new thought is born among men. This has been the order of
development in history. Men felt the Divine Power and Presence ages before
they had learned so much of theology as to say--God. The feeling of
God--religion--always keeps, in healthy natures, far ahead of
theology--the thought about Him. The deepest religion finds no word for
the mystery before which it bows. Its only thought may be that no thought
"In that high hour thought was not."
Theology, then, as man's thought about God, is necessarily conditioned by
man's mind. It is under the general limitations of the human intellect,
and the special limitations of thought in each race and age and
individuality. It cannot escape these limitations, expand as they may. A
flooding of the mind from on high may overflow these embankments but they
still stand, shaping the flow of the fullest tides. The individuality of a
great writer asserts itself most strongly in his greatest works. His
deepest inspiration brings out most plainly his mental form, just as the
drawing of a full breath shows the real shape of a man. No possible theory
of inspiration should lead us to look for the submergences of the dykes of
thought cast up by race and age and individuality.
As a matter of fact, we find no uniformity in the theologies of the New
Testament writers. Men have tried hard to make it appear that there was
such a unity of thought. Never was more ingenious joiner-work done than in
the "harmonies" of the New Testament writers. But facts are stubborn
things, and in this case have resisted even the omnipotence of human
ingenuity; as open minds have seen, despite the doctors.
St. Paul's Epistles reveal a theology by no means as precise and fixed as
is popularly imagined, undergoing rapid changes, growing with his growth,
always suffused from the soul with emotions which struggled against the
prison bars of thought and speech. His intensely speculative mind had
furnished a system of thought into which he built such ideas as these: The
pre-existence of Christ, as, in some mystic, undefined way, the Head of
Humanity; the sacrificial nature of His death; the justification of the
sinner through faith; the life of Christ within the soul, as the Human
Ideal; the speedy return of Christ in person to reign on earth (at least
in the early part of his career); the resurrection of the pious dead; the
translation of living believers; the final victory of goodness over evil;
and the ending of the mediatorship of Christ, God then becoming all in
This was the form which the mystery of God's relationship to man took in
the mind of this great genius, and around which the fiery passion of his
hunger after righteousness shaped itself.
In the Epistle of St. James, assuming the traditional authorship, how much
of this theology can you find? The incarnation is nowhere clearly stated.
The name of Christ occurs but twice. His atonement is scarcely mentioned.
The prophets are held up as examples of patience, under suffering without
any reference to Christ. Paul's especial doctrine of justification by
faith is explicitly denied. Of his fellowship with the Gentiles and his
broad human sympathies, there is nothing whatever. All is intensely
Jewish. If Paul's theology is orthodoxy, James is dreadfully unsound.
"The fundamentals" are all lacking.
Both Paul and James differ very decidedly from the mystic soul who wrote
the First Epistle of John; and all three differ again, quite as much, from
the philosopher who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. How little have
either the Apocalypse or Jude in common with Paul! We can no more make a
uniform theology out of the New Testament writers than we can out of
Calvinism, Arminianism Catholicism, and Unitarianism.
These various theologies can be traced to the elements making up the
individualities of the different writers. The idiosyncracies of Paul are
clearly marked. He was a man of strong speculative mind, of mystic piety,
of lofty enthusiasm for great ideals, a-hungered after righteousness. A
Jew and yet a Roman citizen, his education developed the two-fold
sympathies of an Israelite of the dispersion. At the feet of the liberal
rabbi, Gamaliel, he learned the curious and mystical lore of the rabbins,
while drinking in from his Master the spirit of freedom. Thrown from a
child in constant contact with the Gentiles of his native city, Tarsus,
race prejudices had been sapped unconsciously; while in youth or manhood
the wisdom and beauty of the Greek genius had apparently been opened to
Paul's personality, fusing the materials of his education, and out of them
building a body of thought around The Christ, explains his theology. He
reproduces the conceptions of the rabbis, of the popular Jewish belief, of
Gamaliel, of Tarsus, of Athens; transfigured on the heights of thought to
which he climbed, in his intense musings over the problem of Jesus of
Nazareth, while buried away in Arabia.
The small amount of theology in the practical Epistle of James is quite as
plainly Jewish, of the school of the Sages, with a touch of Essenism. The
theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews shows throughout the influences of
the philosophy of Alexandria. The theology of the introduction to the
Gospel according to St. John is just as unquestionably this same
Alexandrian philosophy, still further developed.
These variant schools of Christian theology, so plainly revealing the
sources of their variations, deny the existence of any one uniform system
of thought in the New Testament writers, and pronounce the different
systems transient and not final forms.
Whatever the Church may offer us, the New Testament offers us no fixed and
final body of thought. In the Bible, Christian theology is still a soft
vase, plastic to the touch of each worker upon it. Had Paul's fine hand
played around it even another decade, how different the shape it might
With the incoming of a more rational, ethical, and spiritual age, we may
surely expect a finer fashioning of the forms of thought blocked out in
the New Testament, under the first, fresh inspiration of the age of Jesus;
into whose larger patterns shall be taken up all the truths revealed
through the various sciences of these rich later ages; while all shall
still take on the shape of Him who is the image of the invisible God.
"The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of His holy word."
The true Biblical theology is--Christ himself. His thought of God, and not
even Paul's thoughts about Christ, are to mould our thinking. The Supreme
Son of Man must have had the truest thought of God. Two words formulate
his theology as bodied not in a creed, but in a prayer--"Our Father." The
earliest, simplest, deepest cry of the human after God, now by Him who
lived its spirit perfectly, the trusting, loving, holy Child of the
Father, made no longer a sigh, a dream, a vision, but a life. "The life
was the light of men."
That light is the sufficient clue to the dark labyrinth in which we wander
I cannot always make out the face of a Father on the stern, harsh Power
in whom we live and move and have our being. Then I turn to my Divine
Brother, who, of all the children of men, saw deepest into the mystery,
and in his far-mirroring eyes I read the vision which satisfies me.
With poor dying Joe, I whisper to myself:
"'Our Father:' yes, that's werry good."
The Right Critical Use of the Bible.
"I am convinced that the Bible becomes even more beautiful the more one
understands it; that is, the more one gets insight to see that every
word, which we take generally and make special application of to our
own wants, has had, in connection with certain circumstances, with
certain relations of time and place, a particular, directly individual
reference of its own."
Goethe: quoted by M. Arnold in "The Great Prophecy of Israel's
The Right Critical Use of the Bible.
"God, who at many times and in many manners spake in time past to the
fathers, by the prophets."--Hebrews, i. 1.
The right use of the Bible grows out of the true view of the Bible.
The Old Testament is the literature of the people of religion, in whom
ethical and spiritual religion grew, through all moods and tenses, toward
perfection. The New Testament is the literature of the movement which grew
out of Israel, the literature of the Universal Church bodying around the
Son of Man, in whom religion came to perfect flower and fruit. The real
Bible is the record of this real revelation coming through real ethical
and spiritual inspirations; a revelation advancing with men's deepening
inspirations toward the Light which rose in the Life of Jesus Christ our
God, who at many times and in many manners spake in time past to the
fathers by the prophets, hath at the last of these days spoken unto us
by a Son.
These speakings of the Divine Spirit in the souls of men, at many times
and in many manners, were articulated, as best was possible, in the
writings of many ages and of many forms. The Bible is the collection of
these writings. They require a critical study, as _bona fide_ "letters,"
before we can know the degree of their inspiration, and their place in the
progressive historic revelation; before we can thus deduce aright the
thoughts about God out of which we are to construct our theology.
Concerning this right critical use of the Bible, I propose now to offer
some practical suggestions. Next Sunday I purpose giving you a bird's-eye
view of the general course of the historic revelation which led up to the
Christ, the Word of God. After which I shall pass on to consider with you
the pre-eminently right use of the Bible, in which our souls humbly
hearken for its words proceeding from out the mouth of God, on which man
liveth; and on them feeding, grow toward a perfect manhood in Christ
_Every aid of outward form should be used to make these books appear as
living "letters" to us._
The traditional form in which the Bible has been given to the people would
seem to have been devised with a design of robbing its writings of every
natural charm, as the best means of making men feel its supernatural
power. The fresh sense of "letters" disappears in this conventional form.
These many books of many ages have been bound up together, with the most
imperfect classification either as to period or character. A verse-making
machine has been driven through them all alike, chopping them up into
short, arbitrary, artificial sentences, formally numbered in the body of
the text. The larger divisions into chapters have been made in an equally
mechanical manner. By this twofold system an admirable provision has been
made for checking the flow of the writer's thought, and for effectually
preventing any easy grasp of the natural movement of the book. Poetry has
been printed as prose; thereby marring its rhythm, concealing its
structure, and blinding the reader to the dramatic character of immortal
works of genius. Through the whole mass of writings a system of
chapter-headings has been introduced that ingeniously insinuates into the
body of these sacred books, as seemingly an integral part thereof, a
scheme of interpretation which possesses now no pepsine power for
resolving their contents into spiritual nutriment, but rather positively
hinders our assimilation of many of these books.
Probably the greatest obstacle to the use of the Bible is the senseless
form in which custom persists in publishing it. I know few stronger
evidences of the intrinsic power of these books than their continued
influence, under conditions that would have remanded other books to the
topmost shelves of the most unused alcoves in our libraries.
We ought to have the different books, or groups of books, bound
separately; arranged paragraphically like other writings, with the present
verse divisions indicated, if need be, in the margin; and the poetic
structure properly indicated. These books should have brief, simple, lucid
notes; drawing from our best critics the needful information as to their
age, authorship, integrity, form, scope, obsolete words and idioms, local
customs historical allusions, etc.; with other readings throwing light
upon obscure passages. Each book should be thus provided with such a
popular critical apparatus as accompanies good editions of other classics,
and as Matthew Arnold has prepared for one book, in his primer entitled
"The Great Prophecy of Israel's Restoration;" which is the second section
of Isaiah, arranged as a "Bible-reading for schools."
This series of Bible-books should then be chronologically arranged, as far
as the conclusions of the higher criticism will allow; and should be bound
in uniform style and set in a Bible case, preserving thus the unity of the
whole. Such an edition of the Bible would stimulate a renewed resort to
it, in which men would re-discover a lost literature.
Until you can procure such an edition, provide yourselves with a paragraph
Bible, following the natural divisions of the writings and maintaining
their poetic form; and seek the information you may desire in some of the
manuals embodying the results of the higher criticism.
_Each writing having an intrinsic unity should, by such aids, be studied
as a whole._
Every intelligent Christian ought to have a clear conception of the
general scope of thought in each great Bible-book. Whatever fragmentary
use of these books for direct devotional purposes may be made, he who
would count himself as one of "the men of the Bible," ought to know as
much about them as he knows about his favorite authors.
Who that pretends to be a lover of Shakespeare is content with a scrappy
reading of his immortal plays? To enjoy them fully, even in fragmentary
readings, he seeks to have a foundation of critical knowledge, such as
Shakespearian scholars place within the easy mastery of any one. After
such a study of a play he can pick it up in leisure hours and see new
beauties every time he reads it. How many Bible Christians know their
What a revelation such a study makes! It is an alchemist's touch, turning
many a leaden book into finest gold.
The oldest book, as a whole, in the Bible, is the Song of Songs.
Attributed by later ages to Solomon, it was probably written by some
unknown author, anywhere from the tenth to the eighth century before
Christ. The poem is dramatic in form, though imperfectly constructed
according to our canons. Its scenes shift, and its speakers change with
true dramatic movement. It is the closest approach to the drama preserved
to us in Hebrew literature, whose genius never favored this highly organic
form. There is needed but the usual indication of the _dramatis personae_
to clear the movement of the plot, and to reveal the force and beauty of
A maiden, her royal admirer, ladies of the court, the girl's brother and
her shepherd lover, appear and disappear in animated conversation. The
country maiden is wooed away from her shepherd lad by the allurements of a
royal admirer, who employs all the resources of fervid flattery and
passionate persuasion to win her as a new attraction for his harem. He is
foiled, however, by her simple, steadfast loyalty to her absent lover, to
whom she at length returns, triumphant in her virtue. In a corrected
version, the sensuousness of our English translation disappears in the
ordinary richness of Eastern imagery, and the poem becomes a pure picture
of loyal love. It reveals thus the healthy moral tone of Jewish society in
that early age. This sound domestic virtue of the people, which looked
with abhorrence on the licentiousness of the court, becomes all the more
striking in contrast with the polygamous customs of the surrounding
nations. We see the social foundation on which Israel builded such a noble
structure of ethical religion. The people whose literature opens with such
a laud of loyal love might well rise into the pure splendors of a Second
Such a poem fitly introduces the canon of Scripture; since, into whatever
heights Religion aspires to lift the fabric of civilization, she must lay
its corner-stone in the marriage bond, and rear the church and the state
upon the family.
Perhaps we may also find in this Hebrew Song of Songs that mystic meaning,
not uncommon in Eastern love-songs, at least in later readings of them,
which Edwin Arnold has so vividly brought out in the Hindoo Song of Songs;
and may understand how the Church came to take it as a parable of the love
of the soul for its Heavenly Ideal, seen in the Christ.
Job, thus read, becomes a semi-dramatic poem, in which the problem of the
disconnection of goodness and good-fortune, the lack of any just ordering
of individual life, is discussed in the persons of an upright and sorely
afflicted patriarch and his three friends, who come to condole and counsel
with him. Through their interchanging colloquies, that bring up one after
another the stock theories of the age of the author, the argument moves
along without really getting on. No solution is found for the perplexing
puzzle, in which man's moral instincts beat vainly against the hard facts
of life. Once, for a moment, the thought of a future life flashes up, as
the true solution of the injustice of earth, in that thrilling cry of the
I know that my Redeemer liveth,
And that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
And though, after my skin, worms destroy this body,
Yet out of my flesh shall I see God;
Whom I shall see for myself,
And mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
But the vision fades upon an atmosphere unready for it, and the poet does
not return to follow this clue out into the sunshine.
All the light that he can discern is in Nature's manifestations of power
and order and wisdom. From a wide range of knowledge, the poet draws
together upon the stage the wonders of creation, which, with daring
freedom, he introduces God himself as describing; until at length Job
humbles himself in an awe not uncheered by trust:
Therefore have I uttered that I understood not.
Things too wonderful for me which I knew not.
* * * * *
I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear;
But now mine eye seeth Thee.
Wherefore I abhor myself,
And repent in dust and ashes.
By dropping out the episode of Elihu, as an insertion of some later hand,
the movement of the poem becomes sustained and progressive. The arguments
of the Jewish theology are cleverly presented, while the swift, sure sense
of justice in the sufferer pierces all sophisms, and riddles all pious
conventionalities. The descriptions of Nature are graphic and eloquent.
The _motif_ of the drama is one that voices the thought and feeling of our
far-off age, in which many men again vainly thresh the old arguments of
conventional theology, in trying to solve the "godless look of earth," and
take refuge anew in the manifestations of power and law in nature; not
without the ancient lesson, let us trust, of an awe which silences and
purifies, and leaves them in the light as of a mystery of meaning on the
sphynx's face, breaking into the dawning of a day which "uttereth speech."
Scientific agnosticism, in so far as it is an humble confession of human
ignorance, has its worship scored in this noble poem, ringing the changes
on the strain, at once plaint and praise:
Canst thou by searching find out God?
Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do?
Deeper than hell; what canst thou know?
Curiously enough, as showing the power of conventionalism, the author
winds up with a prose epilogue of the genuine story-book fashion, in which
all things are set right by Job's restoration to his lost wealth, in
multiplied possessions. Pathetic persuasion of the poor human heart that
all things must come right in the end!
What the Epistle to the Romans, that affrighting _vade mecum_ of
theological disputants, becomes when read thus reasonably as a whole, with
critical discernment of its real aim, I will not try to tell you; but will
content myself with sending you where you may see it beautifully told,
with Paul's own upspringing inspiration of righteousness in Matthew
Arnold's "St. Paul and Protestantism."
_Each great book should, as a whole, be read in its proper place in Hebrew
and Christian history._
The historical method is the true clue to the interpretation of a book. To
know it aright we must know the age in which it was produced. This is the
method by which such surprising light has been shed on many great works.
Who that has read Taine's graphic portraiture of the Elizabethan age can
fail ever thereafter to see Shakespeare stand forth vividly? What can we
make of Dante without some knowledge of Italy in the thirteenth century?
What new life is given to Milton's Samson after we have seen the blind old
poet of the fallen Protectorate in his dreary home! How can we rightly
estimate Rousseau's writings unless we know somewhat of the artificial and
luxurious age to which they came as a call back to nature? Taken out of
their true surroundings these writings lose their force and meaning.
In the same way we need to find the historical place of a Biblical
writing, and to read it in the light of its relation to the period.
The traditional view of Deuteronomy made it the last of the writings of
Moses, a Farewell Address of the Father of his Country; reciting to the
nation he had founded the story of its deliverance, repeating the laws
established for its welfare, and warning it against the dangers awaiting
it in the future. Such a view was attended with many difficulties, not
insuperable, however, to the critical knowledge of earlier generations.
Its real place in the history of Israel appears to have been found of
The Prophetic Reformation of Religion, begun in the eighth century before
Christ, by the group of noble men of whom Isaiah was the most conspicuous
had, by the latter part of the seventh century before Christ, become ripe
for an organization of the institutions of religion. Jeremiah was the
central figure in this second period of the prophetic movement. Upon the
throne of Judah at that time was the good young king, Josiah--the Edward
the Sixth of Israel--in whom the hopes of the reformers centred. About the
year 625 B.C. occurred an event that decided the future of religion in
Judah; described in the twenty-second chapter of the second book of
Kings. The high-priest sent to the young king, saying:
I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.
This book of the law of Moses, according to tradition, had been lost; had
been lost so long that its provisions had dropped into disuse, into
oblivion; an oblivion so complete that the nation's religion ignored and
violated the whole system of that law; had been lost so long and so
thoroughly that the very existence of such a law had passed from the
memory of man.
This was the book that Hilkiah claimed to have re-discovered in the temple
archives. It was at once read to the excited king. It made a profound
impression upon him by its revelation of the apostasy in which the nation
was living, and by its solemn threatenings upon such apostasy.
It came to pass that when the king had heard the words of the book of
the law, that he rent his clothes.
For, said he:
Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our
fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according
unto all that which is written concerning us.
The devout young king threw himself into a thorough reformation of the
prevailing religion. All local altars were swept away, all idolatries were
cleared from the Jerusalem temple, the priesthood was centred in the
capital and more thoroughly organized; in short, as our fathers read the
story, Mosaism was re-established, after some seven centuries of partial
or total disuse.
Through processes which we cannot now follow, our later critics have, I
think, fairly established the proposition, that this book of The Law was
none other than the substance of our book of Deuteronomy, then for the
first time written. The plans of the prophetic reformers had contemplated
the sweeping changes described above, in the interests of an ethical and
spiritual religion. They felt that they were but carrying out the
principles of the nation's great Founder. Of his original conception of
religion, bodied in The Ten Words, their aspirations were the legitimate
historical development; as the leaf and bud are the growth of the far back
roots. This programme of the prophetic reformers, presented in its true
light as a development of the ideas of Moses, was, by the priest Hilkiah,
sent to the king as the law of the nation's Founder, with the results
Read in this light, the book takes on a fresh and fascinating interest. It
marks the organization of the movement toward a higher religion which had
been started by the great prophets of the preceding century. It becomes
the Augsburg Confession of the Jewish Reformation, from which dates the
gradual possession of the institutions of the nation by ethical and
The lofty character of this book, the "St. John of the Old Testament," as
Ewald called it, is thus rendered intelligible; as it stands for the
aspirations of the noblest movement in ancient Jewish history. It is the
issue of a long travail of soul to whose words we hearken in such a truth
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the
Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all
Placed in this position, the book of Deuteronomy becomes the key to
Israel's history, by which criticism is reconstructing that story, on the
lines of the great laws of all life, with most significant consequences to
the cause of religion. The ideas and institutions known to us as The
Mosaic Law come forth now as the crown and culmination of a long historic
development. Israel's story is that of a slow and gradual education under
the divine hand; not a relapse, but a progress, not an apostasy but an
evolution. Israel takes its place in the general order of humanity's
movement. With it religion sweeps at once into the pathway of progress
which science has shown to be the order of nature; and the historic
revelation is seen to be, like the revelation in nature, a gradual,
progressive manifestation of Him "whose goings forth are as the
morning"--its orbit the sweep of the ascending sun.
With such mighty secrets does this little book grow luminous when placed
in the light of its real belongings.
The Book of Ezekiel, whose historic position was never disputed, becomes
of new value in the light of a fuller knowledge of its period. It presents
to the science of Biblical criticism the missing link in its theory of
Israel's development. It shows the process of transformation, out of which
issued during the exile the elaborate, hierarchical system known to us as
Mosaism. The new criticism seems to me to have reasonably established the
theorem, that the priestly cultus embodied in the legislation of the
Pentateuch was first systematized into the form it there presents during
the exile, and was first set up as the national system on the return to
Judea. It is not claimed that it was a new manufacture of that period. As
such it would be inconceivable. It is simply claimed that it was a
thorough codification, for the first time, of the scattered and
conflicting codes of conduct and systems of worship of the various local
priesthoods of Israel, as handed down by tradition and in records from
ancient times; a codification animated by the centralizing and
hierarchical tendencies working in the nation; which tendencies were
themselves the result largely of the prophetic spirit, and its
aspirations for a nobler religion. It is not difficult to account for
this remarkable priestly movement.
The institutional organization of religion that began under Josiah had
continued, with various fortunes, the aim of the higher spirits of the
nation down to the exile. The movement of life was in the direction of
uniformity and order. There was much in the circumstances of the exile to
stimulate this movement. The priests were left without their temple
worship, and, in the absence of outward interests, must have turned their
thought in upon their system itself, studying it as they had not done in
the midst of its actual operation. Like all wrongly lost possessions, it
became doubly dear. The Jews were placed in the midst of an ancient and
highly organized priestly system in Babylonia, whose benefits to culture
and religion they must have noted and pondered. In the national
humiliation and the personal sorrows of such a wholesale carrying away of
a people from their native land, a wide-spread awakening of the inner life
was experienced, a genuine revival of religion. A new wave of prophetic
enthusiasm rose in the strange land, lifting the soul of the nation to
heights of spiritual and ethical religion never reached before.
This revival was stamped with the impress of the intellectual influences
which were working upon the Jews in Babylonia. Some of the extant writings
of this period, alike in literary style, in moral tone and in religious
thought, mark a new era. Israel's genius flowered in this dark night--true
to the mystic character of the race. This highest effort of prophetic
thought and feeling appears to have quickly exhausted itself. In reality,
it followed the usual order of religious movements, and turned into a
priestly organization. The group of prophets around the first Isaiah
prepared the way for the priestly movement that followed a century later.
The group of prophets around the second Isaiah prepared the way for the
priestly movement that followed close in their steps. First comes always,
in religion, an epoch of inspiration, and then comes a period of
organization. The organization never bodies fully the spirit of the
inspiration. The ideal is not realizable in institutions. Institutional
religion is always a compromise, a mediation between the lofty conceptions
and impatient aspirations of the few who inspire the new life, and the low
notions and contented conventionalisms of the many whom they seek to
inspire. The compromise is necessarily of the nature of a reaction; but
the interplay of action and re-action is the law of ethical as of chemical
Israel really needed the conserving work of a great organization. The
prophetic religion was far in advance of the popular level. The high
thoughts and lofty ideas of the prophets needed to be wrought into a
cultus, which, while not breaking abruptly with the popular religion,
should imbue the conventional forms with deeper ethical and spiritual
meanings; should, through them, systematically train the people in ethical
habits and spiritual conceptions; and should thus gradually educate men
out of these forms themselves.
In the providence of God, and under the influences of His patient Spirit,
this needful system was developed in the exile: a system whose symbolism
was so charged with ethical and spiritual senses that it led on to Christ;
as the Epistle to the Hebrews rightly shows and as Paul distinctly
declares. As the first priestly period, following the first prophetic
epoch, bodied that double movement in a book--Deuteronomy; so the second
priestly period, following the second prophetic epoch, bodied this double
movement in a book, or group of books--the present form of the Pentateuch.
The traditions and histories and legislations of the past were worked over
into a connected series of writings, through which was woven the new
priestly system, in a historical form. On the restoration to Judea, this
institutional reorganization was set up as the law of the land, and
continued thenceforward in force--the providential instrumentality for the
_ad interim_ work of four centuries. Such a remarkable process of
development, so deepening in us a sense of the guiding hand of God, ought
to show some sign of its working, in the literature of the period. However
clear, from our general knowledge, the tendencies which were at work in
that period, we could not feel assured of our correct interpretation of
this most important epoch, in the absence of some such sign, in a writing
of that date.
The Book of Ezekiel supplies the missing link. The writer was a
prophet-priest, who went into the exile, and wrote in Babylonia. In the
earlier part of his life-work, recorded in the earlier portion of his
book, he was thoroughly prophetic, intensely ethical and spiritual,
breathing the very spirit of his great master, Jeremiah. In the latter
part of his career he was visited with dreams, such as are plainly
indicated to us in the remarkable vision occupying the concluding section
of his book. The fortieth chapter opens thus:
In the visions of God brought he me into the land of Israel, and set me
upon a very high mountain, upon which was as the frame of a city on the
Then follows, through eighteen chapters, a sketch of the temple system in
the expected restoration. It is a thoroughly ideal sketch, a vision
destined to take on much simpler and humbler proportions in its
realization; a picture probably not intended for copying in actual
construction, but, like all ideal work, a powerful stimulus to the
aspirations it expressed.
It is a free sketch of the New Priestly System, on the easel, awaiting
correction and completion at the hands of Ezra and others. It reveals to
us the visions that were occupying the minds of the best men in the latter
part of the exile, and the work they were essaying. Thus we are prepared
for the final issue.
The Book of Daniel has been wrongly placed, traditionally, with most
serious consequences to the character of the book, and, through this
misconception to Christianity. Dated from the early part of the sixth
century before Christ, its story of Daniel's experiences read as literal
history, and its visions appear as actual predictions of long subsequent
A high authority has declared--
There can be no doubt that it exercised a greater influence upon the
early Christian Church than any other writing of the Old Testament.
That influence, owing to this misconception, is chiefly to be traced in
the growth of an apocalyptic literature, and in the fantastical and
material expectations of the Messianic Kingdom which they encouraged. It
has continued down to our own day turning heads as wise as Sir Isaac
Newton's, setting religion at conjuring with visions of monstrous beasts
and juggling with mystic figures until the name of Prophecy has become a
This book appears to take its proper place, at least in its present form,
about a century and a half before Christ. That was a period of deep
depression for Israel. Under Antiochus Epiphanes the nation had been
sorely oppressed, its temple denied, and its religion well nigh crushed
out. Men's hearts were failing them for fear, and for looking for those
things that were coming to pass upon the earth. Pious souls turned back to
the ancient time of bitter humiliation, when Israel had been scattered in
a strange land, and recalled the bold word of faith spoken by Jeremiah,
which had stayed the spirits of their forefathers. The great prophet
promised that after seventy years the nation should be restored to its
native land, and should renew its prosperity gloriously. It had won back
its home, but in the old homestead it had grown poorer and feebler,
generation after generation. Had the ancient promise of prophecy failed?
Good men could not think so. To some devout soul came the suggestion that
the seventy years had meant seventy Sabbatical years, each of which
consisted of seven years; that is, four hundred and ninety years. One can
still feel the thrill that must have gone through him, as he saw that this
computation would place the defiling of the temple--that sign of God's
having forsaken his people--in the middle of the last week of years. It
was then only about three years to the destined end of the weary period
that Jeremiah had included in the term of Israel's humbling, after which
would come Jehovah's help. Fired with this thought, he set himself to
inspire his people with fresh hope and courage.
Around a traditional Daniel, famed for his wisdom and piety, and possibly
upon an earlier document containing some tales of this sage and saint, he
wove a story which should interpret Jeremiah's prophecy and Jehovah's
purpose. With charming grace he tells the tale of Daniel's constancy and
trust under the sorest trials, and of the divine deliverance that always
came to him. Into his mouth he placed predictions of what had already come
to pass in history, that thus his reputation as a prophet might be
established. Then he caused him to present a striking series of symbolical
visions, the clue to which was furnished for the writer's contemporaries
by certain clear allusions. These visions foretold deliverance as about to
come at the approaching end of the four hundred and ninety years of
Jeremiah. Other visions sketched the ushering in of the Messiah-Kingdom,
in glowing pictures of lofty religious tone.
In that dark night over Israel this book was as the morning star. It was
truly, as Dean Stanley called it, "the Gospel of the age." Its story
spread, and with it spread renewed patience and hope. It doubtless fed the
forces of that glorious revolt that shortly thereafter burst forth under
the heroic Maccabees. Thus it kept alive the vital spark in the nation,
through a crucial hour, that else might have gone out before it had given
birth to Christianity. Noble as the book of Daniel is in many ways,
especially as the real father of "the philosophy of history," it has a
still deeper interest to us Christians for its timely service to the
sinking nation through which came at last our Blessed Master.
The Acts of the Apostles, when studied in the light of the tendencies
known to have been working in the apostolic church, becomes of similar
importance in New Testament history to Deuteronomy in Old Testament
The primitive Church was, as we well know, agitated by contending
factions. Two leading parties dominated all minor schools of thought; the
Jewish Christians, who naturally wanted to keep within the old religion,
and who would have made a reformed Judaism, and the Gentile Christians who
as naturally objected to being herded within Judaism, and who wanted to
make a new and universal society. The first party rallied under the name
of Peter, and the second used the name of Paul. There was imminent danger
that the new society would break apart, with fatal consequences to
posterity. Real and deep as were the differences between Peter and Paul,
they did not, in all probability, sunder these great natures as widely as
their followers imagined. There must have been meeting points between such
souls, in love with the one Master. To find these convergences and
construct out of them a peace-platform on which both wings of the new
society might stand, was the aim of The Acts. It embodied genuine journals
of a traveling companion of St. Paul, notes of his addresses in various
cities, traditions lost to us outside of this book, of Peter's
conciliatory attitude and utterances; and groups these historic fragments
into a sketch, in which the two apostles are shown as dividing equally the
labors of founding the Christian Church, as preaching the same views, and
acting in cordial harmony. This book is a sign of the disposition to draw
together which was gaining ground among the primitive churches, a
disposition fostered largely by this writing; out of which process of
comprehension and conciliation arose the Catholic Church, naming its great
cathedrals after St. Peter and St. Paul.
_The books which are of a composite character should be read in their
several parts, and traced to their proper places in history._
Thus, for example, in reading Isaiah uncritically we pass from the
fragment of history that forms our thirty-ninth chapter, to the
magnificent strain of impassioned imagination which opens with the
fortieth chapter, as though there were no hiatus; and we proceed straight
through this latter section of the book, taking it all as written in the
reign of Hezekiah, that is, in the latter part of the eighth century
before Christ. We thus view this second section of Isaiah from a wrong
standpoint. The panorama of its visions becomes blurred. We cannot focus
the glass upon the objects in its field. The real significance and beauty
of this noblest reach of prophetic imagination evanishes from our vision.
To see this second section of Isaiah aright, we must push it down the
stream of time nearly two hundred years. It is the work of a prophet, or
group of prophets, in the latter part of the exile, about the middle of
the sixth century before Christ. Watching the signs of the times, the
gifted and gracious spirit who led this chorus of hope saw tokens, as of
the dawning of day after the long, dark night. Rumors of the all
conquering Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king, made Babylon tremble with fear,
and Israel thrill with excited expectation. In the ethical and spiritual
religion of the advancing Persians, the Jews might look for a bond of
sympathy. It would be the policy of Cyrus to make friends of the foes of
Babylon, and to place the captive people in their own land on the borders
of his empire, as his grateful feudatories. The seer saw thus, in the
conquering hero, the Servant of God, raised up to restore the chosen
people to their native country. Prophecy kindled anew for its final flame,
and burst forth in the immortal strain of hope for the long-tried Israel:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,
Saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
That her warfare is accomplished,
That her iniquity is pardoned.
I never read this sublime chapter without a fresh thrill, as I hear the
voice of a crushed race, lifting amid its misery a cry of unconquerable
confidence in the Just and Holy One, who was ordering alike the embattled
armies of earth and the starry hosts of the skies, and through history, as
in nature, was sweeping on resistlessly to fulfill the good pleasure of
His Will. No wonder the matchless oratorio of the Messiah opens with this
aria, abruptly as the original words are spoken in Isaiah. They sound the
key-note of the good tidings of great joy which, growing as a hope in
men's souls through the centuries, became a faith, an assured conviction,
in the life of the Christus Consolator; in whom God is seen as "Our Father
which art in heaven."
Every gem of this second section of Isaiah takes on a new lustre in this
setting. It is the cry of the lost sheep in the wilderness, catching
sight of the Shepherd who they thought had forgotten them, that we hear in
the gracious strain:
He shall feed his flock like a Shepherd,
He shall gather the lambs with his arm,
And carry them in his bosom,
And shall gently lead those that are with young.
The vision of the Suffering, Righteous Servant of God grows clear and
pathetic in the true historic light. The chastened nation feels itself
called to a higher mission than that of political power. It is to teach
the other nations of the earth the knowledge of God. That knowledge it is
itself to learn in the school of sorrow. It is to save humanity through
the sacrifice of itself. Thus the secret of suffering is spelled out, not
for ancient Israel alone, but for all mankind; the secret which is
shrined, for ever sacred to us, in the story of our Lord Christ; from whom
you and I this day, through a simple symbol, are to learn anew that if we
sorrow it is that we may be made perfect through suffering, and thus be
fitted to lead our fellows up into the light and love of God.
_These writings should be read critically, until we can decipher the
successive hands working upon them, and interpret them accordingly._
Few, if any, of the books of the Bible stand now as they came from their
original authors. Nearly all have been re-edited; most of them many
times. Some of them have been worked over by so many hands, and have
undergone such numerous and serious changes, that the original writer
would scarcely identify his work. The historical writings of the Old
Testament take up into them all sorts of materials, from all sorts of
sources. If the annals of the Venerable Bede, the father of English
history had been re-written again and again through the subsequent
centuries; abridged, enlarged, interpreted by each editor; the
accumulating knowledge and growing experience of the nation read into his
simple chronicles; we should appreciate the critical care needful in
studying our edition of Bede if we would know the real original. Very much
such care is necessary if we are to use the Old Testament histories aright
for information. It is as though there were several surfaces to the
parchment on which the histories were written, on each successive film of
which, in finest tracery, an older record was inscribed.
Genesis, for example, presents us, at every step of what seems a
consecutive story, with successive layers of tradition, through which we
must work our way most carefully if we would really understand the book.
We readily observe a twofold tradition of the Creation in the opening
chapters of Genesis, differing very materially: a sign to us, if we need
it, that there was no one authoritative account of the Creation current in
Israel. Little attention is required to note a double version of the
story of the flood, whose artless piecing together is the cause of the
confusions and contradictions that puzzle many readers. The deciphering of
this double tradition of the flood first started criticism upon the true
track of Biblical study. The frequently recurring phrase, "These are the
generations," or beginnings, indicates the insertion of fragments of a
work giving an account of the origin of the world, of the races of earth,
of language, of the Jewish people, etc.; a work called by the critics "The
Book of Origins." In the fourteenth chapter there is what seems to be a
very ancient non-Jewish fragment of history, torn possibly from some
Syrian writing, which gives a tale of Abraham's prowess in war.
And even in one and the same tale of tradition, we apparently find strata
of thought laid down by successive ages. There are extant to-day
parchments in which, for lack of other material, a writer has scratched
partially away an earlier manuscript, and written over it another book.
Such a palimpsest is Genesis. "A legend of civilization is written over a
solar-myth, and a tribal legend over the legend of civilization, and a
theocratic legend over the tribal."
* * * * *
When such a mastery of the Bible-books is won, they are to be used in the
customary methods of critical study, with reference to their contents and
the significances thereof, under the same general laws of interpretation
that hold over other literature.
* * * * *
I think I hear some one saying--Is this the right use of the Bible, for
which I am asked to give up the dear, old, simple way of reading for my
soul's inspiration? Not at all, my friend. That blessed use of the Bible,
learned at your mother's knees, is still, and must always remain, the best
use possible to any one. Of this I shall speak hereafter. I am now
speaking, not of the right devotional use of the Bible, but of the right
critical use of it. It has been used critically in building our
theologies, but, to a large extent, amiss. Out of this wrong use of it has
come the misconceptions in theology which to-day perplex our minds and bar
the progress of religion. If we must use the Bible critically, let us by
all means try to employ a true and thorough criticism. Let us not think to
close every controversy by the phrase--The Bible says so. We shall be more
modest and less disputatious when we appreciate the study necessary before
any one can properly answer the question--What saith the Scriptures?
Again I hear a voice from the pews--Who then save a scholar is competent
for such a use of the Bible? I answer--No one, except a pupil of the
scholars. The scholars have placed within our reach the results of such a
critical study of the Bible. You can find the rational guidance you may
desire in the manuals which set forth the conclusions of these critical
processes; though you must painfully feel, as I do, the lack of the
religious tone in some of them. A crying need of our day is a Hand Book to
the Bible in which the new critical knowledge shall blend, as it may
blend, with the old spiritual reverence.
One should not rise from such a study of the Bible as we have made to-day,
in its merely literary aspects, without a new, strange sense of awe before
this mystic Book. It is the handiwork of no one man, of no group of men,
of no period. It is an organic product, the growth of a whole people the
coralline structure builded by a nation. Hands innumerable have toiled
over these pages. Voices indistinguishable now, in blended chorus from the
dawn of history, have joined in the cry of the human after God which
whispers upon us from this sacred phonograph.
Successive generations of men, struggling with sin, striving for purity,
searching after God, have exhaled their spirits into the essence of
religion, which is treasured in this costly vase. The moral forces of
centuries, devoted to righteousness, are stored in this exhaustless
reservoir of ethical energy. At such cost, my brothers, has Humanity
issued this sacred book. From such patience of preparation has
Providence laid this priceless gift before you. In such labor of
articulation--spelling out the syllables of the message from on high,
through multitudinous lives of men dutifully and devoutly walking with
their God--does the Spirit speak to you, O, soul of man. Say thou--
Speak Lord; thy servant heareth!
* * * * *
It is a matter of perfect indifference where a thing originated the
only question is; Is it true in and for itself?
Hegel: "Philosophy of History," Part III.: Sec. III.: Ch. II.
With reference to things in the Bible, the question whether they are
genuine or spurious is odd enough. What is genuine but that which is
truly excellent, which stands in harmony with the purest nature and
reason, and which even now ministers to our highest development? What
is spurious but the absurd and the hollow, which brings no fruit--at
least, no good fruit.
Goethe: "Conversations," March 11,1832.
No article of faith is injured by allowing that there is no such
positive proof, when or by whom these and some other books of holy
Scripture were written, as to exclude all possibility of doubt and
Watson's "Apology for the Bible," Letter IV.
The Right Historical Use of the Bible.
The principle of development involves also the existence of a latent
germ of being--a capacity or potentiality striving to realize
itself.... What Spirit really strives for is the realization of its
The profoundest thought is connected with the personality of
Christ--with the historical and external; and it is the very grandeur
of the Christian religion that, with all this profundity, it is easy of
comprehension by our consciousness in its outward aspect, while, at the
same time, it summons us to penetrate deeper.
Hegel: "Philosophy of History," pp. 57, 344. [Bohn.]
Let mental culture go on advancing, let the natural sciences go on
gaining in depth and breadth, and the human mind expand as it may, it
will never go beyond the elevation and moral culture of Christianity as
it glistens and shines forth in the gospel!
Goethe: "Conversations," March, 11,1832.
The Right Historical Use of the Bible.
"When the fulness of the time was come God sent forth His
Son."--Galatians, iv. 4.
St. Paul condensed the philosophy of Hebrew history into a metaphor.
Israel travailed in birth with Christianity. In the mind of the nation was
begotten, of the Most High, a conception of ethical religion, whose
gestation was a process of centuries. The period of parturition came, and
a universal religion was born into the world; bodied, as religion needs
must be, in a man, Jesus, the Christ.
"When the fulness of the time was come God sent forth His Son."
The sacred literature of Israel is the record and embodiment of this
organic growth of her religion, through its various moods and tenses,
toward its ideal in the Christ. The sacred literature of the Christian
Church is the picture of this flower of the soul of Israel, and of the new
growth springing up from its seeding down of humanity. The whole Bible
presents us with the growth of the religion of the Christ, below ground
and above ground; its rootings and its flowerings. The right historical
use of the Bible is, through a critical knowledge of the sacred literature
of Israel, to reproduce before our minds this process of the growth of the
Christ in Israel and of His new growth in humanity; with a view to our
intelligent perception of His true place in history, and of the
significance thereof. The heart of the Bible is Christ. That which our
fathers saw we need to see, that in Him all things stand together, as the
arch is holden by the key-stone. Rightly to read the secret of His life is
to find the secret of earth's problems. Therefore our fathers insisted so
strenuously on the Old Testament preparation for Christ. A tree's rootings
are proportionate to its size. In the gradual prefiguring of Christ
through Israel's story, they read the historic attestation of His
revelation. The picture of Israel's history that yielded them their vision
is dissolving before our eyes, at the touch of the new criticism, and men
are fearing that the secret of the Bible is escaping from our age. I
desire to-day to draw for you, in outline, the story of Israel's
development, as traced by our new masters; that you may see the old vision
re-emergent in truer, nobler forms. The re-construction of Hebrew history
makes real and certain an organic, natural development of the religion of
the Christ; a travail of the nation with the Son it bore to God.
The best method of studying any history is in its great epochs and
periods. The eras of Hebrew history group themselves clearly, in orderly
_The Epoch of Moses:_ B.C. 1300(?)
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