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The Literal Reign Of The Bible

( Originally Published 1912 )



The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.—Paul.

In this sentence, from the writings of Paul, lies the idea that a strict adherence to the mere form of a thing is fatal to its beauty and its usefulness. Everything should be interpreted by its larger meaning. Its literal significance is narrow, partial, and temporary; its spiritual significance is universal and enduring.

This is no more true in religion than it is in nature or art or law. The form changes and perishes; that which makes the form is constant and immortal. In nature the same forces were at work producing the gigantic ferns and cone-bearing trees, of the carboniferous age, that are now producing the roses and the maples. The same kind of forces and elements that produced the huge animals that swam in the primeval seas and floundered in the prehistoric marshes, now produce the finer animals that fly through the air and walk on the earth. For nature to have clung to the old forms of vegetable and animal life would have defeated the end of creation. The many formed art, lying all along the way from Egypt and Phenicia to the present, shows the flowing of one constant sentiment of beauty into variable shapes. To have merely copied the old forms would have been fatal to all advances and refinements of the sense of beauty. The laws of Moses in Palestine and Solon in Greece came from the same source from which come the laws of modern England and America. They arose from the desire to regulate the conduct of human beings in their relations to each other and to the community and to establish justice in society. But a literal application of some of those ancient laws to modern conditions would be destructive of justice.

In the same way and for the same reason a close adherence to the letter of a religious doctrine or custom, after the conditions among which it arose have passed away, and the spirit that once inspired it is no longer present, destroys the aim for which religion exists. It is only when the meaning is exalted above the form, when it is permitted to become flowing and is left free to adjust itself to new races, new temperaments, new climates, new civilizations that religion, in any true and valuable sense of the term, can survive and remain the constant friend and inspirer of mankind.

These reflections furnish an approach to a study of the position which the Bible has occupied in the Christian world, the position it now occupies, and the position it will probably occupy through some of the coming years.

The incitement to such a study at this time is found in two incidents recently brought into public notice. One of these is that of a distinguished English Churchman, Canon Henson of Westminster Abbey, who has recently impugned the popular conception of the Bible and has spoken of parts of it in terms that are anything but those of praise. He speaks plainly of its defects. He calls some parts of it: "Incredible, puerile and demoralizing narratives." He declares that "indiscriminate reading of the bible in public is an extremely perilous proceeding;" and "the rigidity which restricts the modern English church to canonical scriptures is as intrinsically indefensible as it is practically mischievous." You will notice that this is not from Charles Bradlaugh or Mr. Ingersoll, but from a Canon of Westminster; and yet the heavens have not fallen. The other incident is that of the trial for heresy of a distinguished Methodist Minister* for the constructive admission that parts of the Bible are "mythical and unhistorical." In the statements themselves there is nothing remark-able. Similar opinions have been expressed by scholars many times within these passing years. The only thing noteworthy about these views is that they are entertained and uttered by two men holding eminent positions in great orthodox denominations.

By these incidents moved to speak upon the subject of the Bible, the task naturally assumes two shapes each one of which may, in turn, claim attention.

The first part of the work is concerning the power swayed by the letter of the sacred book over the mind and heart of Christendom. Upon some future Sunday morning we may be permitted to study its spiritual import and power.

The first part of the task is not a pleasant duty. It is only attempted because it seems to be necessary. It is a law of our nature that the brightness of the day is enjoyed all the more because of the night's gloom. Winter is the best foil for summer. Thus the defects of the Bible may serve as a background upon which its many excellent qualities may be more clearly seen. The sadness, the disappointments, the miseries which a too literal reading and a too rigid application of some of its pages to human life have wrought, may serve as the dark storm-cloud, over which is drawn the brilliant bow, giving promise of a future hope and gladness which its sublime truths have in store for the children of time.

The crusade, begun by scholars against the literal historic accuracy of the Hebrew writings in the last century, has become very general. The multitudes raised by Peter the Hermit to rescue Jerusalem from the Moslems, in number, would not compare with the multitudes now following the standard unfurled by those few German rationalists nearly a hundred years ago whose object was to rescue religion from the hands of tradition and superstition into which it had fallen. Recruits have come from every direction and from all classes. Those who first espoused the new views en-countered much opposition, * Their paths were not flower-strewn. Forty two years ago Bishop Colenso was tried and deposed for teaching that some parts of the Pentateuch contain inaccuracies. Since then great changes have occurred in the method of regarding those writings. A rational investigation has gone quietly forward. In its results it has been very effective. It is difficult now to find any intelligent churchman who has escaped its influence. It is felt outside of merely theological circles. The information, at first possessed by a few scholars, by means of cur-rent and passing literature, papers, magazines, and books of fiction, has become the possession of all per-sons who read. The time has come when the literal accuracy of the Bible is determined as the accuracy of any book is determined. It is not a question of sentiment, but a question of evidence. It is not determined by one's power of belief, but by one's power to exercise common sense. The issue is not between faith and infidelity, but between credulity and a reasonable belief. We have all been taught that the Bible is inspired, but we are all reaching the conclusion that even inspiration is not equal to the task of making a false statement true or a sinful thing holy. It cannot reconcile contradictions nor make a thing be and not be at the same moment. However strong one's prepossessions in favor of its literal exactness in every particular may be, he finds them somewhat weakened when he reads in one part of the Bible that David was punished for three years and in another part for seven years of famine for the one sin of taking a census of the people. When one, reads in one place that fifty shekels of gold were paid for a threshing floor and, in another place, that six hundred shekels were paid for the same piece of property, at the same business transaction, however great one's veneration for the book may be, he cannot avoid wondering how both accounts can be literally true. Is there any kind of inspiration that can make fifty and six hundred equal each other ? We have been taught that the Bible is an infallible guide to human conduct. Our faith in its infallible guidance in righteousness must be warm, indeed, if it is not somewhat chilled when we read that, in the campaign against the Amalekites, no man, woman or child was spared alive, because some centuries before the ancestors of those people had obstructed the march of the Israelites. In another place it is stated that fifty thousand people were slain because they looked upon the ark of the covenant. Uzzah was struck with instant death because he put forth his hand to keep the same ark from falling off a cart. A man was killed because he gathered sticks of wood to kindle his fire on the Sabbath. Children were stoned to death for disobeying their parents. Joseph's brothers sold him into Egypt and he, in turn, practised a cruel deceit upon them in after years. Abraham was sometimes untruthful. The departing Isralites stole from the Egyptians. Thus when we speak of the Bible as an infallible guide of faith and practice we must make many mental reservations. It is not only a demand of good sense, but a demand of good conduct to refuse parts of the Bible as a divine guide to human life. There is a form of unbelief in some of its statements that is no more a sign of reason than it is of morality.

Reading the book, with sentiment backed by reason, there is found that which one might expect to find. There is a commingling of history and legend, of the universal and partial, of the rational and the absurd. Its contents are partly Persian, partly Egyptian, partly Greek, and partly Jewish in their origin. It is the flowing together of many streams of influence,—national, poetical, religious, philosophical, scientific from many widely separated sources for a period of some hundreds of years, There is traced in it, almost hopelessly entangled in legends and myths, many of which are much older than the events with which they are coupled, the history of a people who began low down and gradually ascended to a much higher stage of civilization. It begins with a belief in many gods, in the divine right of force, in human sacrifices. Running through it the principle of growth, of evolution may be seen at work. In its amendments the Constitution of our country shows the growth of the ideas of liberty and justice in the heart of the American people. Thus the Bible reveals a similar advance of Jewish ideas as touching religion and human conduct. The Emancipation Proclamation shows that the American mind had made some advance from the time when it framed a Missouri Compromise and passed a Fugitive Slave law. So the Sermon on the Mount and Paul's hymn of charity reveal a marked advance from the time when the laws of Moses were enacted, when Joshua waged his wars of extermination, when slavery was sanctioned, and polygamy was tolerated. The intelligent reader will note these varying qualities and he will not make each part of the book of equal value. He will not permit his sentiment to master his common sense.

Our planet is composed of many kinds of material, More than sixty elements may be discovered in the great compound. There are many great strata of rock of different kinds and of varying grades of value. These are graded upwards from almost worthless-sandstone to granite and Carrara marble. Mingled with these layers are veins of coal, iron, copper, silver and gold, whose rarity and value are in the order named. Here and there precious stones,—rubies, amethyst, topaz, garnet and opal are found. In a few places on earth, as if nature had tried to see what she could do in her mysterious laboratory, diamonds—crystallized sunbeams—may be found.

Thus the sacred Book was formed. By some law of attraction were drawn together more than the number of elements that form the earth. They may all be necessary, but they are-not all of equal value. They grade all the way from cruelty to a divine pity, from gross superstition to a refined spirituality. Scattered all through it, are gems of wisdom whose richness cannot be surpassed and some unbiassed experts say cannot be equalled elsewhere. Perhaps no other fields can furnish such diamonds of wisdom as those of Palestine. Whichever way they are turned they flash back brilliant rays of truth. They are crystallized thought.

Marching away from Egypt, by the instruction of Moses, the fugitives carried with them all the jewels they had borrowed from their former masters. Saying nothing of the morals of the transaction, that which they carried with them was of little value compared with other treasures. The learning and laws of the old nation, carried in the mind of Moses, were much more precious than the golden ornaments which decked the ears and fingers of the Hebrew maids and matrons. Those laws furnished a basis for the code of the new nation, These laws were transmitted by oral tradition and, in passing, were adjusted to meet new conditions. Growing old, they became more sacred and were made more binding by importing into them a divine authority. Later, with the addition of myth and legend, they were written out to be read with impressive ceremony in worship. Probably every time they were copied they received some additions. As the nation advanced, ,prophets and poets appeared. There came philosophers and proverb makers, who tried to express the common wisdom of human life. Historians arose, who sought to collect the national annals and preserve them for future generations. There came those who, seeing all natural phenomena, attempted to give an account of their origin; hence the first chapters of Genesis would be written. Thus, through hundreds of years, theories, of creation, codes of civil laws, rituals of worship, systems of ethics, proverbs of experience, epics of war, lays of love, the hopes and dreads of a nation were flowing together. Meeting, these dissimilar fragments were united and the Bible is the result. In our moments of sentiment whatever of divineness we may find in it, in our moments of reason we may be sure that no more human book ever appeared upon earth.

It is one of the mistakes of many that they do not discriminate, between that which is partial and that which is universal in the sacred writings, This fault is of long standing. Christ's mission was a movement from the letter to the spirit of religion. For a time, this movement was successful. But it was not very long until a party arose who wished to make the new religion an appendage of the old and to carry it for-ward by methods belonging to the older system. This party was successful. The Jewish ritual, magnificent and appropriate in its day, but absurd, detached from its time and surroundings, was imposed upon the religion of the spirit. The same kind of literal exactness with which directions were given to priests how to kill a lamb or a dove for sacrifice, how to trim their robes, how to make the kind of perfumery that was most acceptable to God, and the kind of linen and fur and fringe that must be used in decorating the altar, was carried over into the new church. The position of the crucifix and the candles, the facings and bowings and kneelings, the recipe for holy water and wafers, the trimming of the altar cloth, the form of the priest's robe, the pattern of the bishop's sleeves, the specification of the kind of amusements and food forbidden at a certain season of the year,—all these small things show how strong a hold the letter of the Bible has had and still has over some divisions of the Christian church.

But the non-ritualistic churches are by no means blameless. They, too, have erred in placing so much emphasis upon the small things of the Bible. They have read its pages, not so much to find its universal spiritual principles, as to find some text whose literal rendering would give support to some of their sectarian doctrines or customs. Unimportant things have been given a prominence far greater than they merit. Quartz has been made of equal value with the gold it contains. The frame has been more highly appreciated than the picture.

The soul has thus been greatly hindered in its worship. It has not been permitted to find its motives and inspirations within itself. Instead of being left free to seek for divine revelations in the star-sown firmament, in the miracle of the seasons, and in universal human experience, it has been compelled to search for them in the customs of a nation that has long since perished. A great multitude of people have gone to the annals of this far off age to find the rules and sanctions of religion. Returning, we do not find them transfigured and reverent mortals, overflowing with gratitude to the supreme Goodness and ready to join in every kind and virtuous action. Instead of this they are seen returning with some information concerning candles or censers or rosaries or the nature and extent of atonement or whether sprinkling or immersion is most pleasing to God or the quality and duration of future punishment or the use of instruments in worship or the proper attitude in prayer. The letter of the Bible has thus hindered rather than helped the religious sentiment. The law that came by Moses has imprisoned the grace that came by Jesus Christ.

But the tyrannical power of literalism has not been confined to religion. The whole domain of life has been too much ruled by this despot. The fourth century of our era placed a Christian monarch on the throne of the Roman Empire and, for centuries, the Mosaic law was the arbiter of political government. The descendants of those people who decided doubtful things by the flight of birds or consulting the entrails of a slain animal were found consulting parchment to discover a warrant for their actions. War was declared by consulting sacred texts. If a king wishes, to capture and pillage a city and put all its inhabitants to the sword, he could find a precedent in the Bible. If he wished to gratify his revenge or his avarice or his lust, he could find examples in the sacred book for so doing. Spain found authority there for her cruelty to the Netherlands. The state papers of Philip II and the Duke of Alva contain many allusions to the wars of Israel. They show the similarity between their wars with the Hollanders and those waged by the Bible warriors against the Canaanites. Cromwell found a parallel between his deeds and those of Joshua. The 'loth Psalm was a favorite with him; and when Charles Stuart was beheaded the great Puritan quoted: "The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings; he shall fill the places with dead bodies; he shall wound the heads of many countries." New England attempted to form a government after the Old Testament model. Not only the church, but the state, the family, and the individual were to be regulated by the Mosaic laws. One of the enactments of those new comers to America reads thus: "If any child above the age of sixteen years shall curse and smite his father and mother he shall be put to death." This enactment was partly copied from the old Testament. From Galileo to Darwin the letter of the Bible has placed itself firmly in opposition to every new interpretation of nature. It is hostile to the theory of evolution, but it was no less hostile to the Copernican Astronomy. Those who read the Bible literally think that Huxley in our day was an atheist, but the same kind of readers two hundred years ago thought New-ton was an atheist. There are many wrongs that have been defended by quotations from the pages of the venerable book. If a war of conquest was to be undertaken, if a heretic was to be tortured, if a woman was to be condemned as a witch, if a slave was to be returned to his master, if some royal libertine wished to justify himself, if woman was to be silenced in all public assemblies or in any way made to occupy an inferior position, if national or race or religious prejudice doomed millions of persons belonging to other races and religions to eternal woe, some text could always be found in support of the wrong. The letter of the Bible has circumscribed the intellect and hardened the heart of mankind. It has crushed out tender instincts and led man to enact deeds of-cruelty. It has repressed natural joy and barred the way to many an innocent pleasure. It has turned many away from paths of reason and freedom and kindness and led them along paths of superstition and bondage and cruelty. In many ways it has proven the truth of Paul's words: "The letter killeth; it is the spirit that giveth life." Thus while we may not wish to join with the eminent orthodox Churchman in calling any part of the Bible "a pack of lies too gross for toleration," we may all try to make a distinction between that part of its con-tents which belongs only to one period and one nation and that part which belongs to all time and all humanity.

The fact that two orthodox teachers are speaking in such plain ternis would indicate that henceforth we shall all be permitted without blame to treat the sacred book with greater freedom of interpretation. That exactness of interpretation, which made skeptics of all whose minds were rational, will be supplanted by a free and literary treatment of its contents whose tendency will be to lead all alienated minds back to its great treasures of wisdom and poetry and spirituality. Turning to the spirit of the sacred Book, we shall find religion need not be administered with ceremonial exactness, but after the free manner which the soul shall elect. We may believe in inspiration, but what an inspiration it will be! It will not be a voice telling Moses how many curtains there should be in a tabernacle and into what colors the fabric should be dipped; telling what animals to eat, what vestments priests are to wear, what field to plow and what duties belong to the seventh day of the week. It will be a voice awakening the heart to a belief in great principles, calling into activity its noblest motives, and filling it with sublime hopes. Veneration there will be in our treatment of the Bible, but there will also be good sense. There will be sentiment, but it will not becloud reason. Its partial laws, its local customs will no longer be a hindrance to the soul in its search for truth and happiness. It will not be regarded as some-thing exact and binding as a volume of mathematics, but as a flexible and flowing volume of many formed and many colored human experience. It is not a small field with accurate bounds and contents. It is more like a great sky where clouds alternate with bursts of sunshine, a moving horizon where heaven and earth meet with a mysterious blending of fact and dream.

Thus, having lost a part of its unjust power, the sacred book will rise to a far greater height of beneficent influence. From its history and poetry and legends and morals and spirituality may be seen issuing a conception of life that is full of value to man-kind. Its truths are paths of peace and pleasantness here and lead to a great happiness hereafter.

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