The Spiritual Reign Of The Bible
( Originally Published 1912 )
The letter killeth ; but the Spirit giveth life.—Paul.
Last Sunday the attempt was made to point out some of the results that have come to society from the long and powerful administration of the letter of the Bible. History was asked to come forward with the facts bearing upon the case. A somewhat hasty survey was made-of the fields of worship, of human rights, of science and of morals, and in all of them the effects of this reign were plainly visible. In closing that survey it was suggested that many indications are now present that the power of this empire is waning and the hope was expressed that the time is not far distant when some historian will write not only of its decline, but of its fall.
In the older countries of our globe lie the remains of ruined Kingdoms. The crumbling walls of cities, the broken columns of temples half concealed by climbing vines, fragments of fountains overgrown with grass, parts of an arch or a portico all remind the traveler of a power and splendor of former days now entirely vanished.
"So fleet the works of men back to their earth again, Ancient and holy things fade like a dream."
Thus is passing away this kingdom of the letter which has so long ruled over the intellect and con-science of mankind. The traveler in ancient lands wonders over the remains of a lost empire and finds it difficult to comprehend the meaning of many of its laws and customs. So will those of future generations be amazed over the ruins of this perished kingdom and will wonder over the strange things that were once commanded or permitted within its borders. It will be thought strange, indeed, that man was ever beaten or banished or burned because his opinions about God or creation or the shape of the earth or the movement of sun and star or the origin of races and language did not harmonize with the teachings of a book written by one nation in one small province of earth in the early days of human history.
But our world is so constructed that as one power sinks another rises. Often out of the fragments of the old the new is built. Each age preserves that which is most valuable of the preceding era. Thus good is cumulative. The philosophy and art of Greece rolled forward from Egypt and Phenicia gathering force as they advanced. When Greece perished, her wisdom and beauty reappeared in Rome. The marbles and pictures of Europe are much finer than those of Assyria. The music of modern Germany far surpasses that of any former time or nation. Thus, as this kingdom of a literal book crumbles, we may expect to see an-other rising on its foundation no less powerful and much more beneficent than the former. The more just and more humane European states came forth from the ruins of the Roman Empire. On the territory in Arizona and New Mexico, once occupied by a race that has vanished, now rests a civilization better than that of the Montezumas. So, out of the destruction of the power of the letter of the sacred book, will be formed the spiritual empire. The Bible of a nation sinks in order that the Bible of humanity may rise into full view.
It should not be thought strange that the famous Book is at the same time secular and sacred, partial and universal, human and divine. This two-fold quality may be found in every great thing. Each great poem or picture or piece of music is partly of earth and partly of heaven. It is the result of toil and inspiration. It is the meeting place of established custom and original thought. It is the soul expressing itself through actual current events. No writer can entirely escape from his own century. However great may be his thought, however sublime his emotions, however high his aim, he must partly conform to the age in which he actually lives. Homer could not free himself from his surroundings. In the Iliad he mixes men and gods promiscuosly and makes myths do duty as facts. Neither could Plato escape from the limitations of his times. His ideal Republic was colored by the actual country in which he lived. Neither could Dante and Milton free themselves from local opinions. Their magnificent imagination was shaped by the popular theological moulds into which it was poured. Living in an age of great art and great ecclesiasticism, Angelo's towering genius had to conform to the prevalent surroundings and the scenes he painted are out of date.
But, in studying the works of those exalted mortals, if left to act freely, the mind is not embarrassed by their limitations. It easily discriminates between the defects resulting from time and place and the perfections which, coming from the soul, are superior to times and places. In reading a great poem or great drama no attempt is made to give equal prominence to every part of it. The mind instinctly dwells longest upon its essential qualities, passing lightly over those portions which are peculiar to the age and locality and serve as illustrations of the larger movement involved. In the story of Edipus one does not need to believe the account of the cruel Sphinx that devoured all who could not guess the answer to a foolish riddle. That is only a minor incident in the unfolding of the plot. The lesson sought to be conveyed is that Fate seems to be always pursuing every wrong action. This lesson is as true to-day as it was in the days of Sophocles. The accounts of the sirens and Circe and the oxen of the sun and the one eyed giant in the Odyssey are purely fabulous ; but the lesson of bravery on the part of the wandering hero and the picture of devotion and constancy on the part of the home-staying wife remain true forever. Left free, the mind goes beneath the illustrations to the essential meaning. The eye passes quickly from the setting to the gem itself. Many of the religious pictures of Europe at first sight awaken no reverence. It is only when one recalls the mental and spiritual atmosphere in which they took form that their true significance becomes apparent. To find Deity portrayed in the form of an old man with white flowing beard seems almost absurd. But when one thinks of the way in which the idea of the Infinite came to a credulous and trusting age he can easily pass over all the incongruities of the picture. He may not wholly approve, but he will not sneer at the artist's work. Those pictures at Antwerp showing the physical suffering of Jesus shock the beholder with their awful realism. After a glance he wishes to turn away from them. But, when it is re-membered that the scene was put upon canvas in that way because it was thus first graven in the heart of the age that produced it, a new interest is awakened. When it is recalled that it was believed, not only that all good had come to earth by the path of self-sacrifice and suffering, but that these had reached their highest form in the pain rent body and sorrow stricken soul of Him who perished on the cross, eighteen hundred years ago, and became perpetual symbol of all human pain and sorrow, all criticism is silenced. One speaks in a whisper or keeps his thoughts unspoken in presence of the impressive scene.
With similar method the Bible may be regarded. We may pass from its form to its meaning, from its illustrations to its principles. The statement of the moral sentiment contained in some parts of the Old Testament may be as fabulous as some of the stories in the Iliad or in the Inferno, but the, blazing sun is no clearer than the meaning and purposes that manifest themselves through those stories. We may not agree with what the author of the book of Genesis wrote concerning the creation of the world, but the fact of a great world whose origin is mysterious lies before us, as it lay before him, and we are still waiting for a theory of creation that will be without objection and will leave nothing unexplained. The Garden of Eden may be a myth, but temptation and sin and sorrow are not myths. They came into the world in some way. Truth does not grow old nor out of date. That which was morally true by the banks of the Euphrates is morally true on the banks of the Mississippi. Gravitation was the same where Jacob set up the pillar of stones to mark the spot of his beautiful dream that it is now where men are laying the foundation of a State House or a Chamber of Commerce. The old sense of duty that stirred in the hearts of Abraham and Jacob is clinging to the hearts of us all. The mistaken opinions of Moses or Joshua concerning the shape of the earth or the movement of sun or stars no more detract from their belief in God and the law of righteousness than would the mistakes of Washington or Lincoln in matters of Geology or Electricity weigh against the value of human freedom which each one of them so loved and gave his life to establish.
The literal truth of a story is often a matter of very small importance compared with its moral or spiritual meaning. What instruction in morals and common-sense we have received from Esop's fables ! Fifty years ago the children of America were all reading and believing the hatchet and cherry tree episode in the Washington family. Now historians are saying that no such event ever occurred. But who can estimate how the conscience for truth was strengthened by that pleasing fiction? It is not known whether such persons as Curtius and William Tell and Arnold Winkleried ever lived. Yet the stories associated with these names are no less valuable because of this uncertainty. As legends they eloquently set forth that which is not a legend, but plain truth :— that thousands of young men have willingly leaped into a chasm to save their country; that when a tyrant is on the throne heroes are always needed ; and when liberty is to be gained some must always rush to the front and gathering the spear points into their bosoms, make an opening through which their countrymen may march to victory.
A similar treatment of the Bible will yield similar results. Some students say that the story of Sampson, like that of Hercules, is a sun myth. But the sun, itself, is not a myth. It is an unmistakable fact blazing there in the sky. But it is no more a fact than the moral truth contained in the story of Sampson. It is plain that yielding to temptation taps and wastes the source of strength,. making one the easy captive of any foe, while a return to virtue restores communication with the channels of original power and enables one to demolish temples of stone that are dedicated to wrong. Some critics insist that the ac-count of the sons of God marrying the daughters of men is a fragment of an older mythology, traces of which appear in the primitive legends of all nations. Perhaps this is true. But here again is a veiled truth of great power. It is that wherever strength and beauty, heaven and earth, thought and fact are wedded there upsprings a race of giants. Although there may be no historical persons corresponding to the names Abraham and Enoch, one of them will always remind us that a life of perfect faith is possible and beautiful and the other contains the eloquent suggestion that there is something in the uncorrupted human soul that is worthy to commune with God as a friend communes with friend. We are told that Jacob originally symbolized the Dawn. Perhaps this is true ; but the influence of the stories associated with that name will not soon lose its power. Preserved in poetry, the experience of that lonely dreamer will remain as admonition and inspiration to many a generation. His all-night struggle with the angel reminds us that persistent effort must at last triumph over all difficulties. The beautiful vision at Padam Aram re-minds us that there is communication between heaven and earth and that shining envoys pass freely from one to the other. Man's ascending prayers are met by descending blessings. If we cannot believe that the sun stood still for Joshua we can detach him from that incident and behold him as a hero attempting to found a nation for his countrymen. If we cannot believe that the ravens fed Elijah we can separate him from the ravens and see him toiling for religion as Marquette toiled for Christ in the American wilderness and as Livingstone toiled and died for civilization in the wilds of Africa. If we cannot believe the story of Gideon's fleece, we may detach him from that miracle and see him as a brave man going forth to save his land from the swarms of invaders. He and his three hundred followers at the hill of Moreh were as brave as Leonidas and his three hundred at the pass of Thermophylæ. Thus, from all the varying phenomena of the Bible, issues some truth that the world cannot spare.
In our day much doubt has been thrown upon authorship and dates of various books of the Scriptures. This doubt touches nothing essential. Truth is not dependent upon names, times and places. Gold is gold regardless of when and where and by whom it is found. The authorship of the book called Job is a matter of no importance compared with the magnificent imagery of the poem and the truths it contains. Here is portrayed the warfare between good and evil,—a battle as old as the the history of humanity and the tramp of whose legions can be heard at this moment all over the earth. What matter is it by whom the proverbs were written compared with the fact that they were written? They are the sum of human experience. The tears of Jeremiah are not those of one man. They are the tears of a world,—a sad rain for-ever falling because of the havoc made by sin and the desolation made by sorrow. We are told that the book of Isaiah had at least two authors. Perhaps this is true.-But, except to gratify literary curiosity, what difference does it make how many authors it had? Its rebukes and promises lose none of their power because of a double origin. Its transcendent hopes are born anew in the heart of each young generation. Nearly three thousand years have fallen away since it was written, yet the world does not grow weary in believing that a greater glory is about to dawn. It is very easy to forget all about the reported "mistakes of Moses" when we read :
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Though I pass through the valley and shadow of death I will fear no evil ; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
The mystery of Melchisedek is forgotten when one reads :
"Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God."
The story of the flood does not trouble us when we read :
"In my Father's house are many mansions. We have a building of God, a house not made with hands. Death is swallowed up in victory. I saw a new heaven and a new earth. There was no more sorrow nor crying nor death ; neither shall there be any pain ; and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."
Upon a tropical tree all stages of growth may be seen at once. There is the bud just beginning to feel a stirring of life within its folds. There are white blossoms looking upon the sun for the first time. There is the green bitter fruit newly formed. There is the fruit that is just beginning to show its golden color. On other branches there are forms fully ripened, waiting only for a touch to drop into the hand. A similar scene is presented in the Bible. There, in every stage of developement, religion may be found. It is graded from idolatry up to the matchless spirituality of Jesus Christ.
In some of the countries lying south of the United States the most diverse things are found flourishing side by side. Customs belonging to early Spanish and even more remote Aztec times are mixed with those of modern civilization. Types of several centuries mingle freely together on the same streets. In Mexico water is still carried by peddlers through some of the streets, as in Oriental cities notwithstanding there are railways and telegraphs and schools where the modern sciences are taught. Women and men may be seen carrying enormous burdens on their heads through streets lighted by electricity and they will sometimes inquire through a telephone where their load is to be delivered.
The same incongruities may be found in the Bible. Antique laws and outworn customs appear side by side with universal principles. Thus the book should be read with discrimination. Reading in this manner there will be found running through its pages a broadening and deepening stream of religion. The religion of a nation becomes the religion of Humanity. Beginning as a few prohibitory enactments or as a group of small ceremonies, it ends as a sentiment that includes the mind's highest thought about God and the heart's greatest tenderness toward all the world. Regarding the Jewish and Christian writings, not as a miraculous product, but as growing in a natural way from human experience, one soon becomes impressed with their meaning and purposes. Although natural, the Bible is not a common book. It deals with much that is deepest and highest and holiest in human existence. Some of its sentences are bridges, one end of which rests upon the finite, the other upon the infinite shore of the world. To some of its statements it seems impossible for the modern mind to add anything of value. If Emerson could say : "Plato is philosophy and philosophy is Plato," in the same spirit we may say : "The Bible is religion and religion is the Bible," Piety can find no higher formula than this : "Thou shalt love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself." There cannot be a nobler solution of the complex problem of human relation than this : "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." Do we wish for an illustration of the ideal compassion? Then read the parable of the Good Shepherd. Do we wish to know the meaning of penitence? It is found in the story of the Prodigal Son. If one wishes a symbol of gratitude, behold the weeping Magdalen. To know the power and extent of forgiveness hear the suffering Christ saying : "Father forgive them, they know not what they do." Asking for a definition of Deity, we find the sentence: "God is Spirit." Seeking a form of prayer it is in the Bible we encounter the words : "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." Do we wish confirmation of the hope of a second life? It is there we read : "Though a man were dead, yet shall he live again."
When seen in its large and spiritual import, to praise the Bible is unnecessary. It is as if we should praise the sun or defend the power of Niagara or commend the sublimity of the ocean. Thinking of a noble state a great orator said
"I shall enter on no encomium noon Massachusetts. She needs none. There she is: behold her and judge for yourself. There is her history; the world knows it by heart."
Thus it may be said of the Bible : It needs no en. comium. It speaks for itself. There are its philosophy and poetry, its Sinai and its Calvary and there they will remain forever. It contains the highest expressions of the natural wonder and awe of men over the unsolved mystery of existence. It is a history of the evolution of morals. It is the mother of modern literature. From it thousands of volumes have issued. All the great English and German classics have freely borrowed from its pages; and he w1 o is not acquainted with it cannot read with intelligence the great literature from Dante onward to Tennyson. Interpreted by the enlightened conscience of the best races, its ethical laws applied to society would bring into being the blessed era by bards and prophets long foretold. As all music lies in the eight notes and all possible harmonies come from their endless variations and combinations, so in the principles of this great volume lie potentially all the divinest powers and meanings of life.
That which was said in presence of another great work of the human brain and heart may be said of the sacred Book. Thus run the familiar lines :
"Oft have I seen at some cathedral door
So to this great volume not only laborers, but poets, philosophers, statesmen, philanthropists and worshipers may all repair: for, within it, may be found rest, inspiration, laws, principles that are as broad as the world and enduring as time. In their presence the many small customs and opinions and all partisan tumults fade away to make room for essential truths and a blessed peace.
Thus the spiritual succeeding the literal reign of the Bible we may expect it to become the inspirer of noble beliefs. As history it will continue to form the bridge connecting the clearly with the more dimly known ages. Its poetry will remain as the most exalted expression of which the soul is capable. Its moral ideals will perpetually challenge every heart that loves and longs for the perfect. Its prayers and psalms will continue to be the language of many devout and jubilant souls. As in the past, so in the future, in the hour when all else is failing, its transcendent hopes and gracious promises, gently invading every perturbed and fearing heart, will soothe and cheer it like strains of music that come from afar.