60 Years With The Bible - The Fifties
( Originally Published 1917 )
WHEN I speak of sixty years with the Bible, I am thinking of the period that extends from about the middle of the Nineteenth Century to the present time. I take this whole period for my field, for the reason that my memory covers it all. In this ninth year of the Twentieth Century I am sixty-seven years old, and my remembrance of the Bible as an element in my life runs back into the late Forties. As I give form to my memories, the decades may well serve me for divisions. Indeed I could not ask for better divisions, for each one of them has in my memory a character of its own, and represents a distinct stage in the movement of my mind with reference to the Bible. With the first decade that I name, the earliest memories may be gathered in.
I cannot remember when I could, not read, or when the Bible was not in my hands for reading. My earliest remembrance of it brings up the picture of family worship. How clear it is, and how calm and beautiful! There were five of us—father, mother, and three children, of whom I was the second. In the morning, not before breakfast, but after it, we all sat down with Bibles in our hands, and read in turn three verses apiece. My verse was the tenth, and when we read around twice the twenty-fifth. In this manner day by day the Bible was read through. Genealogies were omitted, and sometimes we passed over other hard places. I think the New Testament may have been repeated, while the Old Testament was read but once. But on principle the reading was continuous and impartial, doing justice to the book as a whole. There was very little explanation, usually none. The reading was followed by solemn prayer, all kneeling. Whether I understood it or not, the body of the Scriptures was thus presented to my childish mind, and with or without understanding it made its impression. The mental atmosphere of which I was conscious was one of solemnity and reverence. Of course I sometimes looked off and was indifferent: even now I can hear my father's voice calling me back to my reading: but that was the exception, not the rule. It was assumed, and to me was real, that in dealing with the Bible I had to do with God.
Was it burdensome and hateful ? Did we dread the morning worship ? No. Probably I should be going too far if I said that we children actually loved the service, but I know that for my part I never rebelled against or wished it out of the way. It was a matter of course, and a good matter of course, a proper part of the day's life. No hatred of the Bible ever came from it. For in fact the use of the Bible was not a matter of the morning worship only: it was a part of the family existence.
My father, a minister of the gospel, was constantly in communion with the book, though he talked little of his work. He was not a highly educated man, but he was a man of sweet reasonableness, and his theories of doctrine were tempered in application with a fine practical wisdom. I suppose he must have had some theory of inspiration, but he never made the value of the Bible depend upon it. He had no need of the theory, for he was building upon the reality. Here was God's own message, and for him, and for my mother, the Bible was the last word. She, reared in the godliness of an earlier day, carried the Bible in mind and heart. She was not always quoting it, but for guidance of her life, and of ours, it was always with her. It is true that she was in unconscious bondage because the Bible brought her the spirit of Judaism as well as the Christian faith, and not until' old age did she come out into the liberty of the children of God; but with a willing loyalty she held the Bible as her law. Reverence for it we learned from both our parents. It was never a theme for jests, and I grew up with almost a horror of joking on biblical subjects. About the Bible there was a holy air, which to us children was attractive, not repellent.
No one could believe the Bible more thoroughly than I did. In school with me when I was perhaps fifteen years old there was a young man a few years older who had the name of being an infidel—so easily did neighbors classify and condemn upon slight acquaintance. Whether he deserved the name I do not know: he was a serious-minded fellow, much in earnest, and with at least a glimmer of some large ideas. He loved to talk, and one night he told me that there were contradictions in the Bible that could not be reconciled. This I could not admit, for it would mean that God had contradicted himself, a thing incredible. I assured him that he was wrong, and told him to bring me his contradictions, and I would tell him how they were to be explained. This offer was less conceited than it seems, for my father had a book in which a man of high repute had dealt with alleged contradictions in the Bible. I sup-posed that of course so great a man must have found them all and adjusted them, and had no doubt that I should find the young man's difficulties satisfactorily at-tended to. After a few days he brought me three or four questions. I have forgotten what they were, though I remember how the paper looked upon which he had written them. I betook myself at once to my book, but was surprised to find that these particular contradictions were not mentioned there—not one of them. Could it be that this young man had hit upon difficulties which the great man had not noticed, or did not know how to solve ? I came away with a first lesson in the disappointingness of books, and also with a vague feeling that there were points of uncertainty about the Bible, though I had supposed there were none. My confidence was not shaken, for I had no doubt that the questions could be answered and the honor of the Bible be completely vindicated; but I could not solve the contradictions at the time, and knew that I could not. Nothing more was ever said on the subject, for I had nothing to say, and the other was generous enough not to call the matter up—a magnanimous infidel. I remember the episode as an interesting one, and it was important, too, for it gave me my first experimental glimpse of a point of view about the Bible different from my own. I had heard of sceptical questions, and supposed that these belonged to that class, but had not known whether any of them had any shadow of reason on their side.
When I was sixteen years old my personal religious life began. The blossoming of the long-prepared bud came suddenly, and I was full of fresh delight in the holy interests that were opened to me. Food for my soul I knew was to be found in the Bible, and I remember on the very first day asking my father what in the Bible I should read. Wisely or not, he referred me to the eighth chapter of Romans. I remember where I sat to read it, and what Bible I read it in. I remember the eager expectation with which I began. I remember, too, the effect. My soul was fed with heavenly food. There were solid and splendid expressions of truth there, so clear and glorious that I could not miss them, and so harmonious with my new life that they could not fail of entrance. Some of the divinest words in the world found me that day, and entered into the stock of my life. Nevertheless I rose from the reading with a faint shadow of disappointment. Those magnificent lights of God seemed to shine out through clouds. There were matters in the chapter that I did not grasp, and there were forms of thought and modes of presentation that did not appeal to me. The Jewish law in which the apostle had been reared was real to him when he wrote, but it was not real to me, and his references to it, which entered into the very substance of his discourse, did not seem to belong to me, or to bring me any message. The glories of the Christian life stood before me in this splendid passage, but why should there be so much more besides?
I did not exactly state this to myself, but the two feelings were mingled in my mind. I had never been taught any rigid theory of the equality of all Scripture, but the assumption that the whole Bible was equally from God had carried with it the assumption that any part of it would be found profitable for the soul. I knew indeed, in a general way, that Leviticus, for example, was not so profit-able as Luke; but when I was sent to a great Christian passage like the eighth chapter of Romans I did not suppose that there would be any drawback upon its availability, but expected to find food in every thought. Was it all my ignorance that I did not find so much ? At any rate I learned, practically though still inarticulately, at the very first endeavor of the new hunger, that not everything in the Bible is equally available as food for the soul.
I have never since judged that the difference was due to my youthful ignorance alone. Of course a part of it was, and I have since seen glories in that passage that I could not discern that day. But I have learned that some of Paul's connections for the gospel may have seemed to him and his first readers to be a part of the gospel itself and to have like force with it, while they could never hold that rank with me, trained in so different a world. No wonder that the ancient law was not alive to me, for I had never lived with it but only heard of it. I think that my young Christian appetite was healthy, and seized upon the rich and abundant food that lay before me, and passed by what it could not assimilate, as it had a right to do. And I can well understand how a writing of the first century may have contained much that a modern Christian appetite can never assimilate as genuine Christian food.
Whether I am right or wrong in this, it is certain that from that day began the selection of my personal Bible. From day to lay and from year to year I went on finding what in the Bible was precious to me, and making it my own. Some-times this Bible of mine within the Bible has been growing larger and my proprietorship in it has been becoming more positive and intense. Sometimes it has grown smaller, through the dropping out of something that was discovered to be less Christlike than I had taken it to be. This is no process peculiar to me. All Christians gather out their personal Bibles to feed upon, all smaller than the great book, and for them more available. I am only noting that my work of selection was going on, though I did not yet understand what I was doing, from the very first day of my Christian life. My childhood with the Bible was ended, and I was entering upon the work of a man. Let it not be supposed, however, that the main work of those early days was rejection, or anything that resembled it. No : it was recognition, selection, assimilation. I was taking food, not refusing it. I well remember the keen delight with which in those days I was taking to myself what I found precious in the holy word.
Scarcely had this personal dealing with the Bible begun when another significant experience appeared. Almost immediately I encountered my first real questioning about the relation of the Bible to science. Thus early in life was this great question brought home to me. At the time I was studying Geology in a secondary school. Our text-book was the work of two Christian men collaborating, who wrote in a reverent spirit. They made the geological story absolutely plain and convincing, but were anxious not to disturb a student's confidence in the Bible. At the end we found a chapter in which they compared the testimony of Geology with that of Genesis with regard to the creation of the world. There I became acquainted with the chief endeavors to reconcile the two records, and was encouraged to believe that sound reconciliation was quite possible. But of course I had learned earlier in the book that the doctrine of an earth only six thousand years old, which I had always understood the Bible to teach, was forever irreconcilable with Geology and impossible of belief. Facts enough to convince me of that had already been presented, and I was convinced. Science had demonstrated that the earth was ancient, and it was useless to object. The Bible appeared to teach otherwise, but we must have misunderstood the Bible. Some other interpretation of it must be possible, and must be sought. So the text-book argued, and I agreed thereto.
Here, it is true, arose the question whether a Christian may rightly allow science to interpret for him the word of God, or even to call for a new interpretation of it. With my new love and reverence for the Bible, I could not fail to be interested in this inquiry. My father, with the reverent caution of the older generation, decidedly hesitated here, thinking that the revelation of God must be interpreted by religion and by that alone. The Bible stood by itself, and must be interpreted in its own light. But though I appreciated the motive of this reasoning, I found myself yielding to facts, and allowing science, not my reading of the Bible, to tell me what I should believe about the age of the earth. In this my opening mind was opening aright. But I never supposed for a moment that science was taking the place of the Bible as the decisive witness : I supposed that it was only interpreting the Bible.
As to the creation itself, my authors told me of Hugh Miller's harmonizing theory, then current—the brilliant poetic fancy of a series of visions supernaturally opened to the mind of Moses, showing him the course of God's creative work, and successively described by him in the first chapter. But they did not urge this view upon me, since they could not say that the order of the visions corresponded to the order of the geological facts. In other words, they did not hold that the first chapter of Genesis agreed with the geological record. Their theory was that the sublime first verse, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," announced the unimaginably ancient fact of the primeval creation, that between that verse and the second there lay a great pause, or chasm, covering the entire geological period, and that then the chap-ter went on to describe an actual six days' work of God upon the earth at the end of that period, "fitting it up to be the abode of man": whatever that might mean. This sounds impossible enough at present, and yet it is as good as any of the attempts to make Genesis and Geology agree. This I accepted at the time as a satisfactory explanation, and went my way untroubled by conflict. The Bible had been taken out of the way of the facts.
At the time I could not know how much this meant. But the fact was that I had consented to submit one item of knowledge with which the Bible dealt to another authority instead of the Bible. At the dictation of scientific facts I had accepted a new meaning for the initial chapter; that is, I had allowed the Bible to be altered for me to suit the facts.
This I had done, and happily I did not know that I had done anything of serious importance. If I had known, I should have been troubled. But I simply adopted the new meaning into my sacred book, and understood the Bible in its proper meaning to stand as a witness to the view of the facts which I had obtained. No shadow of change had fallen upon my confidence in the Bible, but here was a first step in a new manner of understanding it and using it. And at present any one can see that this was a part of the work of the coming age. When this was done, old things were passing away.
Owing to the religious character of my early training, my lot was happier than that of another youth who long afterward told me his experience. A few years later than this he entered college, and went on the first Sunday to the students' Bible class. The teacher began with the Bible at the beginning, and in that first hour my friend learned for the first time that there were people who believed that Genesis and Geology did not agree. By the discovery he was utterly broken up. 'Geology was a science of facts, and were facts against the Bible ? So external and so loose was the grasp of his mind upon the Bible that under this shock he lost it altogether, and years passed before he got it back. His Christian faith, too, suffered a like eclipse. Because I had been better trained than he, and was holding to the Bible in a more rational confidence, I was led through this first stage of revolution without a break with the past or a shock of fear for the future. My mind was simply opening to the facts that must be received. Indeed, I most thankfully acknowledge that this whole story which I am to record is a story of quiet development, with very little of sharp struggles and alarms.