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60 Years With The Bible - The Sixties

( Originally Published 1917 )

VERY early in the Sixties, near the end of my college course, I pledged myself in spirit to the work of the Christian ministry, and before very long I was a student in a Theological Seminary. There our main work was biblical. We had a course in History, and one in Systematic Theology, and a little work in the practical topics; but our chief text-book was the Bible, and the department of Interpretation was the most exacting of them all. Not that there was any formal appointment to this effect; but this was in harmony with the view of the ministry that makes the minister to be first and chiefly, if not solely, an interpreter of the Scriptures, a view that was largely accepted in the churches which the Seminary served.

I had not been doing much with my Bible during my years in college, but turned to it now with new enthusiasm under a new influence. This, happily, was the personal inspiration of a teacher.

He was a good scholar, though I do not know that he was an exceptionally great one. But I do know that he was a man of strong convictions, of a most beautiful devoutness, of absolute sincerity, and of perfectly unconquerable industry. His permanent physical condition was such as would have made many men idle and most men easy, but his holy resolution held him to an amount of work that put his students to perpetual shame. He did not affect every one as he affected me, but to me he was simply irresistible. His Christian character held my love and admiration, his scholarship commanded my respect, and his industry was contagious.

What I could do I had to do, while I was with him.

What was his aim ? His aim was to bring out the meaning of the Bible, and to train us in ability to do the same. For him the voice of the Bible was the voice of God, and therefore he bent his ear to listen. Since the book brought him the divine testimony concerning God and Christ, the great salvation and the common duties, he was its unweariable student, judging no labor too great if he could understand the message. I do not remember what he thought of inspiration, if I ever knew, but I saw for myself what he thought of the word of God. The sacredness of the study dominated everything. He was an enthusiastic believer in textual criticism, and required us to make use of Tischendorf's text, then the best in existence, and all for a religious reason. In reading the message of God we must have before us as nearly as possible the very words that were originally penned. This was not merely a privilege that was open to us in modern time, but an absolute duty in the sight of God. To use an antiquated and inferior text when a better was within our reach would be a sin. From the same devout point of view he gave his strength to exegesis, affectionately tracing out the inspired thought, and laboring to know the very thing that the divine Spirit had led the writers to express.

His influence and example made me a Bible student. Our outfit of helps was pitiably meagre, but with such as we had I set myself to the work. He taught us the right use of commentaries and the like, insisting that whatever helps we might use, our conclusions as to the meaning must be in an honest sense our own. We must not shirk the responsibility of judging what our Bible means. I learned that lesson early, to my lifelong advantage. He made it impossible for me to shoulder off upon commentators my duty of understanding the Bible. One of his exhortations abides in memory : "Let no word of man come between your soul and the pure word of God." It was because in the Bible he found the pure word of God that he would purge the text of errors, and let commentaries be helpers only, and bring his own soul to reverent and joyful communion with the divine utterance in the sacred book. I remember also the joyful zest with which he once said to me that Christianity calls for no illegitimate intellectual processes, and has place for none.

It was under such influence that I now went to work. Of course my work was youthful and crude, but it was sincere. Under my teacher's influence I trained myself in paraphrasing—a very useful method for a student—expressing in my own words with all attainable precision the author's continuous thought. In this there was call for the investigation of every word, and for the most careful judgment as to structure, connection, and purpose. At various times in the course of my life I have put large labor into such paraphrasing of parts of the Bible, and consider the labor extremely well invested. In the student period I was trying to master the art of understanding the Bible, and was making a beginning in the actual work of interpreting it, gathering into my storehouse as well as I could the contents of the divine revelation. I conceived of all divine revelation as contained in the Bible, and was doing what I could toward making the wealth of it my own. I was happy in my studies, the best that was in me going out in search of the truth of God.

Much Scripture, as I have said, was already in my memory, and now I was obtaining command of more. With the contents of the Bible I was becoming more largely acquainted, to my lasting advantage. With the substance of the New Testament, both in English and in Greek, very few students are as familiar as I was when I left the Seminary. With the Old Testament I never did quite so well, though I was much at home with it, but the New Testament I had at my fingers' ends. A little later I could give chapter and verse on call, for all the great passages and a host of the minor ones, and could identify a verse when the first Greek words of it were read to me. Later still I knew out of what stratum of thought or group of conceptions in the New Testament any given expression came—a knowledge far more valuable than that of verse and chapter. As for my familiarity with the New Testament in my student days, it was unusual, but it was by no means excessive. I think every theologue should thoroughly master his New Testament by way of familiarity, not neglecting the Old, while he is still a student.

In such an atmosphere it naturally came to pass that in general theological thought I was a firm biblicist. I remember how my feeling toward the Bible influenced my feeling about Systematic Theology. My teacher in that department was a man of different mould of mind from my teacher in the Bible. He ranged more widely, he was more mystical in his vein, and he was more of a philosopher, thinking for himself and outreaching far and wide. One was searching in the Bible to discover the truth of God; the other was using truth that he had found there or anywhere else, in the broad excursions of a reverently exploring spirit. To this speculative work of the theologian I felt deep objection, because it was not biblical enough : it was not built on proof-texts, or but-tressed by them, as I thought it ought to be: it was too speculative, I thought, and grounded elsewhere than in the word of God. In this judgment I was sincere, but I was wrong. The theologian was using Scripture as it had been assimilated by his mind and yielded him its teaching, a process that I could not then understand. The Bible inspired his theology : I thought it ought to dictate it. His method was legitimate and truly Christian, and to his large uplifting influence, which I understood better in later years, I am indebted no less than to the influence that led me at first to be suspicious of it. In my day his teaching power was comparatively undeveloped, but in later years he became a teacher of magnificent inspiration.

From neither of the two men did I get any clear theory of the inspiration of the Scriptures, though I studied the theories that were current. I cannot say that I ever really believed in the ancient theory of dictation, or verbal inspiration, though of course I inherited the effects of ancestral belief in it; but in the course of my studies I became aware that it could not possibly be true. Later, in the early Seventies, I listened to a strenuous and elaborate defence of verbal inspiration by a minister of high repute, which gave the doctrine its death-blow for me. With such defences, it was doomed. But already it was outside of my world. It was impossible that that theory should be really alive in the presence of my studies, which rested upon textual criticism with its uncertainty as to the very words, and constantly called my attention to the large and living human element in the Scriptures. Nevertheless, my view of inspiration was no dead letter. I looked upon the Bible as so inspired by God that its writers were not capable of error. I did not feel myself at liberty to dissent from its teachings, to doubt the accuracy of its statements, or to question the validity of its reasonings. This was not the result of a theory of the manner of inspiration : it was my working principle in use of the Bible, inherited from earlier times. Anywhere else, I should not have taken seriously the great age of the patriarchs; but since it was written in the Bible I thought that nothing but scepticism would doubt it. If I doubted that, I might doubt anything that was written there. So I believed that Methuselah lived his nine hundred and sixty-nine years. The hand of Paul, I saw, lay heavily upon the activities of Christian women, but I distrusted the arguments by which some were endeavoring to lift it off—or rather, I distrusted the entire business of tampering with such matters. Paul was an inspired man, and his prohibitions were not to be set aside. As a witness to truth, Paul, or any other inspired writer, was the same as God. Hence the presumption was that his commands were universal and permanent in their scope, and to argue these prohibitions down to a local and temporary application in Corinth seemed to me to belittle the Bible and degrade it from its high estate. God's written requirements were presumably universal. And of this reasoning I do not think so badly, even now. If I still held the same premises, I am inclined to think that I should be compelled to hold the same conclusions.

As to the character of inspiration, however, I remember the rising of one rather startling question. No one heard it but myself, but I heard it and it went far into my mind. In the Sixties the famous book called "Essays and Reviews, by Clergymen of the Church of England," created a stir that now seems incredible. At present it would seem gentle as a summer's breeze, but then it was a veritable storm-centre in English theology. I did not read the book, but I picked it up one day in the library, and read the statement, in effect, that any theory of inspiration, or divine influence in writing, that can be true of the Bible must be true of all parts of the Bible: it must account for the qualities of Judges as well as of John, of Esther as well as of Isaiah, of the Song of Solomon as well as of the Epistle to the Romans, of the Apocalypse as well as of the Gospel of Luke. That startled me, and I laid down the book with the feeling that I had read enough for once. "Of course that is true," I said to myself, for there was nothing else to say. The statement proved itself. A good theory of inspiration must be good all round, fitting all the inspired writings. But before I had closed the book the conviction had flashed upon me that I knew no theory of inspiration that could stand this reasonable test. The theories that I had studied might account for some books, but were transparently impossible for others. They were framed to account for the highest quality of the Bible in its noblest parts, and assumed that that high quality ran through the whole-which it does not. I felt pretty certain also that it would be impossible to construct a theory of inspiration that would meet this reasonable demand, if inspiration was to bear anything more than a very general and indefinite meaning. I was not able to imagine a divine influence in writing that would equally account for the composition of Galatians, Proverbs, Job, and the Gospels, to say nothing of other books. I went away from the library under conviction" that these things were so. No immediate results followed upon this silent episode, but it had its lasting influence upon my life. Strong confidence in definite theories of inspiration was not to be expected of me after that.

Although I did not in my student days depart from my inherited manner of dealing with the Scriptures, I can now see plainly that suggestions of the historical method, unnamed and unrecognized, were creeping in. My studies in Theology and History were preparing me for larger methods though I did not know it yet, and so was my work upon the Bible itself. Textual criticism is a revolutionary thing : I have often wondered that advocates of verbal inspiration were so tolerant of it. If we cannot be perfectly sure of the very words that first were written, we cannot claim that any text in our possession is verbally inspired; and as for the idea that there was a verbally inspired and faultless text whose faultlessness was lost as soon as it was copied, the wonder is that any one ever took it seriously at all. Exegesis is revolutionary, too, and quite incompatible with permanent confidence in verbal inspiration. The practice of tracing out each writer's thought, with earnest endeavor to do justice. to all his peculiarities of every kind, is enough to bring other ideas of inspiration into view. And since I was bending my attention to exegesis based on textual criticism, these things were certain to come home to me. I remember also certain touches of unreality in some work of interpretation that I witnessed. My teacher once made strenuous efforts to show that certain words of Paul did not bear an extremely unorthodox meaning which they very naturally suggested. I listened somewhat wondering whether Paul needed thus to be steered into orthodoxy, if I may so speak; thinking also that there was some trace of special pleading in the arguments in which my teacher was so sincere. He felt that Paul could not be unorthodox, and defended him in view of this passage by means of interpretation that needed itself to be defended. I remember also how one day I brought in my own interpretation of some important verses, which appeared to me to do justice to the pas-sage, but did not reach the denominational conclusion that was expected. I afterward reconsidered the work, with a different result, probably more correct; but I well remember the dismay with which my first result was greeted, by teacher and by class, and my own feeling that their dismay or their approval ought not to influence me as an interpreter. I remember, too, how a feeling of incredulity came over me when I was told that the Congregational church polity was revealed, and therefore bore exclusively the full authority of God. Of course I knew that this was the theory, though I did not then know how confidently the same theory was invoked in support of the other polities. But it seemed improbable that all non-congregational Christians were thus permanently and incurably unchurched by a word from heaven two thousand years ago.

On the whole, I love to recall my student days in connection with the Bible, because I was then in the freshness and sincerity of youth, and was taking genuine delight in worthy work.

Before the Sixties were half spent I was settled in a quiet parish, and using the Bible in the honest and blundering manner of a beginner in the ministry. Now came sermons, and therefore texts. Of course it took years for my young ideal of exegesis to work out into anything like good practice, and I cannot claim that my handling of texts from week to week in my first period was of a high order. I remember samples of it upon which I look back with wonder. Yet I was loyally at work. I had not many books, and when I received a present of twenty-five dollars for the benefit of my library, I in-vested it all in books of the exegetical type. This was much to the disgust of a retired minister in my parish, who did not think much of "notes" on the Bible, and would have guided me in a more speculative direction. But I have never regretted my choice. I felt that a minister ought first of all to be a Bible man, and chose accordingly.

As to my studies, I found, like many a graduate, that though I could study very well in the routine of a school and at the suggestion of teachers, I did not know how to set myself at work to very good advantage when I was left alone. Hence my studying was not very well organized, and had slowly to settle clown into better method and efficiency. At first I wasted time from not knowing how to direct myself. But I was helped in many ways by one enterprise of that first pastorate, which is to me as memorable as it was audacious at the time. Under some now-forgotten suggestion, I asked my people to read the Bible through with me in a year, three chapters a day and five on Sunday, and promised them help from the pulpit as the reading went on. A good number accepted the invitation, and though some fell out by the way, Bible reading was a prominent feature in the life of the congregation in that year. I accompanied it with a course of Bible sermons, as I called them, each treating of a book in the Bible, or of a group of books. Of these sermons there were between forty and fifty in all. An accidental interruption carried the course over beyond the year, and so it happened that the latter part of the New Testament was treated a little more fully than it would otherwise have been. I had an available storehouse of information in " Smith's Bible Dictionary," which was then new and well up to date. The sermons differed among themselves in method, but in general they contained such information as I could give about authorship, date and kindred matters : I spoke also of purpose and historical connections, and endeavored to represent the religious value and significance. In a word, I sought to provide such information as would make the Bible most intelligible and useful to the reader, aid to the religious use being quite as prominent in my mind as help to the intellectual under-standing. I have not seen the sermons for many years, though I think they still exist. Certainly I would not have offered them to a congregation five years later, but I am extremely glad that I did it then, and wish I might see every young pastor undertaking as arduous and worthy a piece of work. It was a good service to my people, who appreciated it highly, and an extremely valuable service to myself, and I am very thankful that caution did not forbid courage to undertake it.

As for my own part in the benefit, the enterprise caused the whole body of Scripture to pass before me as student and as preacher in a short time; it led me to make thorough use of the best sources of information that were then at my disposal ; it taught me a mass of facts that I had never learned, and put the facts in better order in my mind ; it helped me to view the Bible in something like a real historical perspective; it gave me useful practice in presenting to my hearers matter that was unfamiliar to them, and it trained me in the effort to make general knowledge spiritually serviceable. Here also I caught the idea of using results without exhibiting processes. It is easy to see how this undertaking became an important stage in my biblical education.

By the brotherly kindness of older men I was adopted into a club of ministers, in which I received great benefit and to which I owe some lifelong friendships.

I mention it now because of one piece of work that the club assigned to me, which brought forth fruit in the field of biblical considerations. At that time Herbert Spencer was just rising upon our horizon, and to me was committed the task, no small one for a youngster, of telling what it was that he was trying to convince us of. Not the whole of his philosophy was then in print, but I studied his "First Principles," in which the scheme and substance of the whole was presented. I did not know enough to make a very thorough or intelligent study of so vast a field, but I did at least obtain some idea of the essentials of Spencer's system. Here I got my first clear glimpses of the evolutionary method. They were only glimpses; it is true, and yet they did afford me a rudimentary understanding of what was meant by evolution. Little as I learned well, the fact remains that some of the fruits of that labor have never been lost. When the time came I wrote as well as I could an account of Spencer's philosophy, and offered it to the club. I did not accept the evolutionary idea that I encountered there : probably indeed it was not so distinctly before me that I could have accepted it, in any proper sense. I cannot say that it really offered itself as a part of my mental furniture. Yet I was impressed by the simplicity and massiveness of the idea, and by the almost boundless wealth of illustration that Spencer was able to bring to its service. But my experience with it is interesting, and worth recording, be-cause it was precisely the reproduction in miniature of the experience of the Christian world in those first years of evolutionary doctrine. Here was my objection: I knew from the Bible what was the method of God in creating the world and man, and it was not the method that Spencer proclaimed as the actual one.

The doctrine was in contradiction to the Scriptures, and that stood as reason enough for leaving it aside. This was exactly the method of the Christian world for a considerable time in dealing with the evolutionary idea. Like me, the Christian world knew God's method of creation from the Bible, where he himself had told it to his creatures, and considered the testimony of the Bible sufficient to dispose of the differing proposal of evolution.

Nevertheless, I remember a kind of dim suspicion that perhaps the question was not one that could be finally disposed of in that way. When in the manner of the period I tried to quote texts against Spencer, somehow the method did not seem to be as effective as I thought it ought to be. Any great array of good texts it was not possible to find. Moreover, I found that my brethren in the club had not counted upon having Spencer convicted of unscripturalness and so disposed of, but appeared to think that some other kind of refutation would be better suited to the case if refutation were proposed. But I had done my best, and they saw that I had, and did not reproach me. The truth is that in my youthful mind two ways of endeavoring to establish truth were standing face to face, the method of authority and the method of fact, and I was beginning dimly to see how incommensurable they are. Arguments from one field did not seem to meet and answer arguments from the other, and I was left with a sense of inefficiency and disappointment. I was pained, too, for I felt that the biblical method ought to be more effective than I found it. But though I was dimly aware of this, my difficulty was not sufficiently urgent to change my attitude, and I settled down to think of the Spencerian doctrine as condemned for incompatibility with the Scriptures. I may add that later my sympathy was somewhat drawn to the evolutionists by the crudity, ignorance, and savageness of the attacks upon them that I used to hear from some ministers.

From this club I must cite another remembrance. Once in a discussion I discovered that some of the men, older than I and better educated, were finding it difficult to fit the facts of the New Testament into the scheme of their doctrine of inspiration. The reverse process did not seem to occur to them. According to their doctrine the inspiration was outwardly attested, rather than inwardly; they believed it to be in the Bible because it was promised to be there, not because of the evidence of inspiration that was found in the quality of the book. Their argument was deductive, not inductive. The doctrine was built upon the Lord's promise to the twelve, to bring all things to their remembrance and to guide them into all truth which was understood to be a promise that they should write infallible Scripture about him and his gospel. So the apostles were accepted without doubt as inspired men, and the writings of Matthew, John, and Peter could be acknowledged at once as writings of the Spirit. Paul, moreover, had been adopted into the apostolate, and it was not doubted that the promise had been carried over to him. Of course there was no evidence that it had, but his apostleship was accepted as sufficient evidence, and his inspiration was unquestioned. But the writers in the New Testament who were not apostles—how were they to be gathered in under a promise that was made exclusively to another set of men ? Of course they must be gathered in, for the inspired Bible contained their writings, but how ? Suggestions were ready. Mark was anciently reported to be a representative of Peter, and Peter may, perhaps, have read and approved his Gospel. Luke, it was suggested, had abundant opportunity of conversation with Paul, and may for all we know have read his Gospel over to him and received his imprimatur upon it, making it for us equal to Paul's own work. What provision if any was made for the Epistle to the Hebrews I do not remember : perhaps it was still regarded as a Pauline writing. I hasten to say that these suggestions of possible apostolical sanction were not offered in the discussion as if they were final or well established; but I regret to say that they were offered as suggestions that were not a waste of breath. I lacked confidence to discuss the matter in that presence, and held my peace, but even then such talk seemed to me utterly worthless and absurd. I felt that it was binding the Bible to a theory, not fitting the theory to the Bible; and I had a sense of the fact that men who had any use for it, however sincere they might be, were somehow on false ground, dealing with unrealities.

A little later I listened to an elaborate statement of the doctrine of inspiration that I had thus seen put to the test. It was not the ancient doctrine of verbal inspiration, but one considerably re-moved from that, although it sought in the end to make the Bible as infallible and authoritative as that doctrine made it. I remember the impression of ponderousness, laboriousness, and inconclusiveness, There was too much of it, and too much hinged upon points that could not be proved, All depended upon the promise made to the twelve, which was adopted as the centre of the whole argument; and even then I felt that it was very poor interpreting that would limit the promise of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, and make it pledge infallibility in a work of writing that was not so much as mentioned. But these glimpses of a better view were not full visions, and these thoughts remained with me chiefly as seed for future harvests.

The church of which I was pastor had suffered sadly from the MilIerite excitement, expecting the second coming of Christ in 1843, and all the intervening years had not been sufficient to wear out the ill effects. The echoes of that strange experience had been in my ears from childhood. Since I became a student of the Bible I had not heard much discussion of the advent, and the most of my parish had little to say about it now, save in regretful wonder at the past. But I found in the church one man of excellent character who was still strong in the ad-vent hope, and constant in proclaiming it. With a fine superiority he repudiated the rashness that would set a day for the Lord's return, but he was sure that the time-signals, of which he found many in the Bible, all pointed to the year 1868, then three or four years in the future, as the time of the end. He called himself a literalist, and insisted that all that he had to do with the Bible in order to understand it was to "take it as it reads." To him, "as it reads," in the English, it bore the perfect authority of God. Studying with him one day some of his favorite passages in Daniel, I pointed to the marginal readings, and tried to show him that in their startling divergence from the page they proved how far the translators were from being sure that they knew what the meaning of the original really was. But all in vain. He had no conception of the Bible as a translated book, though of course he knew and could say that such it was. To him the words of the translation were the words of God, and he had his understanding of them, the only possible one as he conceived, and from it he could not be moved. I saw him last about 1870. The date of hope had moved on, and the end was still coming soon.

Reflecting upon his method with the Bible, and upon the calamity of 1843, I remember questioning how it came to pass that so strange and widespread a popular delusion was possible. How, I asked, could Father Miller convince so many people, and do it so completely ? Of course such excitements were no new thing, for many a generation has believed itself to be the last of earth; but how was this special excitement created ? At first it seemed unaccountable, but on further consideration I became sure that I understood it. Miller's hearers were sincere Bible readers, of the ordinary literalistic kind. Without the habit of seeking light upon the page, except as light shone forth from the page itself, they were accustomed to "take the Bible as it reads," regard it all in its obvious meaning as the equal utterance of God, and consider it all applicable to themselves. This was what preachers and people were wont to do, using the Bible year after year in this sincere but superficial fashion. The familiar parts of the Bible were familiar in this way. And now Father Miller came along, a godly man and a powerful preacher, aflame with new discoveries. He simply applied the very same method to the predictive and apocalyptical parts of the Bible, "taking them as they read," reading them in the light of history ill understood and mathematics misapplied, and bringing out startling and revolutionary results that he believed with faith invincible; and no one could answer him or show him to be in error, because the average mind that he addressed not only believed in the method that he employed, but knew no other.

In the churches that had a better-educated ministry his doctrine had less vogue, but with average untrained readers of the English Bible he was irresistible. The great calamity of 1843 was due to general misapprehension and misuse of the Bible. Intelligent use of the holy book would have made it impossible. Such light upon the Bible as was opening upon me in my first pastorate, I felt, would have prevented the disaster from which my parish like a multitude of others was suffering still. With rational conceptions of the Bible such things could not occur, and I desired to be helpful in preventing them from ever coming to pass again.

At the end of my first pastorate I had promise of an interesting future with the Bible, but little foresight of what it was to be. I had not exchanged my inherited view of the sacred book for another, though I was on the way to doing so But some things had been done. I was beginning to know how much it means that the Bible is a translated book. This was a revolutionary knowledge, which most Christians about me, and many ministers, did not possess at all. With me it had been growing from my student days, and was now becoming clear, al-though I still had much to learn of what is meant by so simple a fact. I was be-ginning to know also, in slight degree, how much it means that the Bible is a genuinely historical book, having its rise and habitat in the human world, recording vital dealings between God and men, and to be understood in the light of its historical origins, intentions, and development. No longer an unrelieved level of equal authority, it was beginning to have its hills and dales, its lights and shades, as a book of real life, the life of God in man and of man with God. It was thus becoming more intimately my own because it was more alive, and was more available for my use in the ministry of Jesus Christ. But by what means these sound convictions were to be helped to do their wholesome work I little dreamed, nor did I imagine how great were the changes of which they held the promise.

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