60 Years With The Bible - The Seventies
( Originally Published 1917 )
DURING the entire decade of the Seven-ties I was neighbor and pastor to a Theo-logical Seminary. It would naturally be expected that such a period in a young man's life would provide an important chapter in the story of his relations with the Bible, and in my case so it did. Under various influences the story developed very gradually, perhaps more gradually than logically, but it advanced to results for which I am profoundly grateful. I was aware of this period as largely a time of harvest from my earlier life, but afterward I knew it as far more truly a seed-time.
How strange it seems to remember a time when there was neither consciousness nor foresight of the changes that were on the way ! Such was the time of which I speak. So far as they were aware, the people of my second parish were unchanged from the past in their attitude toward the Bible. They knew that knowledge was increasing, and were thankful, but increasing knowledge had not yet reached the revolutionary stage. The prevailing reverence for the book, and the prevailing manner of using it, remained essentially the same in kind as in an earlier generation. The Bible was regarded as equally inspired throughout, and inspiration meant nothing less than full divine authority. Naturally, how-ever, the using of such a book implied interpretation, and it was only the book in its true sense, which sense a Christian must make his best endeavors to ascertain, that we were bound to accept as God's word and the rule of life; but in its true meaning, once ascertained, the book was binding upon the understanding and upon the conscience. One was no more at liberty to doubt its statements of fact or to reject its judgments upon truth than to disobey it in conduct. In the minds of a few this serious and exacting view of the Bible was fortified by a special doctrine of its inspiration, but by the greater number it was held as a matter of reverent inherited belief ; and to both classes alike the Bible was the object of sincere reverence and loyalty. I am sure that this description fairly represents the attitude of that parish toward the Bible at the time of my first acquaintance with it, when the Seventies were coming in; and I myself had by no means passed out of practical sympathy with it.
But there were influences that were surely bringing on a change. In the school of Theology for many years, until just before my coming, one of the pioneers of modern scholarly biblical interpretation, a masterful teacher, had been guiding and inspiring his pupils to judge for themselves what is that true meaning which is binding upon mind and heart. The practice that he encouraged is more revolutionary than any one at the time was aware. In fact, the inherited belief was doomed to be altered, when once men's godliest and most scientific endeavors were devoted to the interpretation of that book to which they acknowledged absolute allegiance. When a man is set to interpret the standard that he must obey, it means that henceforth he is to obey a standard that he has interpreted. For his own mind, he has helped to determine the duty that he is required to do. But interpretation is not final. Nothing is more certain than that it will change with new light, continued study, and personal growth. Thus as interpretation advances the standard is altered, and it becomes increasingly true that the student has had a share in making the standard to which his obedience is pledged. This, whatever the result may be, is on the face of it a pro-found change from the attitude toward the Bible that the fathers held. They said,' "This is the word: we must obey it." Their children were saying, "This is the word : we must find what it means and obedience will vary much with the meaning that they find. Such change as this was irresistibly going on in my parish, though yet mainly concealed, for there faithful men were conducting the studies from which the change must come forth. The heirs of the scholarly influence that I have mentioned were diligently continuing the work upon the Bible into which it had led them, and thus were preparing the way of a future that they did not foresee. In this they were by no means alone, for they were imply bearing their part in a large movement of the time. The day was coming when examination of what the Bible teaches and requires must take effect upon conceptions of what the Bible is.
In my new parish the next stage in my own biblical education was marked out for me by imperious conditions. The work was prescribed, and not elective : I did as I must. First the method of my weekly work was dictated to me. I was a very young man in a very exacting pulpit, and the situation was no easy one. If I was not to fail, I must preach as well as I could every time. I became convinced that I could do the best work by writing my sermons; and thus it came to pass that through all the Seventies I wrote and read every sermon that I preached. So uniform was this practice that my best friends came to think that I could preach in no other way. Writing became easy, and preaching from manuscript came to be quite compatible with fluency. The practice had its drawbacks, but it had also its great advantages, and I have never regretted that in my earlier ministry I was for ten years a writer and reader of sermons. Neither have I ever regretted that I followed that practice for ten years only.
Driven to my best work, I was driven also to my Bible. How vividly I recall my inexperienced manner of resorting to it in those days! Not yet had dawned for me that great day in a young man's life after which he knows that by the time that he has to say something he will have something to say. It came before long, but meanwhile I was nervous about getting my message in hand. The Bible was my sole resource, and I never thought of looking elsewhere for suggestions of material. I can see myself now, sitting before it and turning it over and over and over, looking through history and poetry and prophecy and all the rest, hoping that something new or old might catch my eye and offer itself as the message of the hour. I have spent days upon days in this manner, but usually in vain. This external method of resorting to the Bible rarely gave me what I sought, and I grew more nervous rather than less while I used it. And yet I remember those anxious hours with gratitude. They were never wasted. Though I rarely found what I was looking for, I always found something that was worth looking for. The richness of the book vindicated itself, for even these hours of random communion with the Bible, though for the time they seemed wasted, always left me with something suitable to occasions that were yet to arise.
But the main point now is that I was driven to my Bible. My earlier work came to my aid when I was in need, and it came to pass that throughout this period I was predominantly an exegetical preacher. A biblical preacher, perhaps I ought to say, but the more specific adjective is appropriate, for the exegetical method became thoroughly characteristic of my work. A friendly comment of a student hearer once enlightened me. From a remark that he made I discovered that the students had come to expect that the introduction of my sermon would uniformly give an exegetical account of my text and offer textual justification of what I was to say. I did not know that the exegetical habit was so strong upon me, and was glad to be informed. Yet I ought not to have been surprised, for at that time I almost believed that the exegetical way was the only way to preach. A sermon, I said to myself, ought to come out of a text, and straightforward exegetical proceeding was the only right way to bring it out. Upon this theory I acted to a very great extent, though of course not without some exceptions. By necessity a man would make exceptions, but the exegetical method directly underlay the most of my preaching. Sermons were oftener textual than topical, and the analysis was most likely to be on a textual basis. Often the text served as the key to a larger passage, and the sermon was virtually expository. I did not expound the Scriptures in a continuous way, taking a book together, for I had little confidence in my ability to sustain the interest of my congregation in a course announced be-forehand; but my ordinary preaching contained a good deal of exposition. Our Sunday-school was at mid-day, and in a later service, afternoon or evening, I have reproduced and interpreted many a historical lesson. Many a Bible story have I retold, many a character have I set forth, and many a familiar scene have I placed in its local and historical setting. Many an out-of-the-way matter in the Bible also have I brought into the open for my hearers.
In all this work it was my constant endeavor to act as a loyal and faithful interpreter. I took it as my task to find out, as far as I had the power, exactly what my passage meant in the intention of the writer; and I was not willing to give it any meaning or use that was inconsistent with its original sense. Misuse of texts seemed to me a kind of irreverence, or profanity. I can truly claim that in interpreting the Bible I was profoundly conscientious. I had to feel that my interpretation was correct before I could use my passage. I remember once being suddenly stopped in the composition of a sermon. I had written two or three pages when by some means I became informed for the first time that competent authorities gave my text a meaning practically opposite to the one that I was using. Down went my pen. I was powerless to go on until I had weighed the question whether I had a right to proceed. In that instance I became convinced that my exegesis was correct, and wrote the sermon. If I had judged otherwise, it would have been unfinished until now. I am sure that in those days no listening student learned from me to be unfaithful to his Bible or indifferent to accuracy in interpreting it. Until now, indeed, I believe I can say the same. And I am sure that no one can have learned from me to seek additional interest for his preaching by turning away from his Bible. I never felt the need of that. Other fields are legitimate, but fine surprises in preaching are to be found by going farther into the biblical mine, as I have illustrated many a time.
In this endeavor after fidelity the habit of writing was very helpful. I might have had the best of intentions in preaching extemporaneously, but in unconsidered speech my painstaking interpretation might easily have been dissipated. The habit of writing tended to make me careful in doing justice to the meanings that I had found. In fact, I regard my ten years of sermon writing as a very valuable term in that course of biblical education which I am here describing.
The desire for accurate understanding of the Bible led me, as it had led my early teacher, to take an interest in textual criticism. What are the words that I am to interpret ? was a necessary question, and I became deeply interested in searching it out. Of course, I was never more than an amateur in textual criticism, but I was an eager amateur, and one who attained to some little knowledge. Already in my student days, as I have said, the Received Text had retired never to return and been superseded by Tischendorf, who held the field until the coming of Westcott and Hort, in the early Eighties. But meanwhile for daily use I exchanged his text for the New Testament of Scrivener, with its foot-notes that gave all the important various readings. My pocket Scrivener became very dear to me. Then I bought Tischendorf's eighth edition of the New Testament in its complete form, with all the critical apparatus, and made much use of it. In some degree I became acquainted with the methods and materials of textual criticism, and learned to judge for myself the true text. I never used my New Testament without the question of the correct reading in mind, and never used a text from it without considering whether it stood before me as nearly as possible in its original form. I keenly enjoyed such researches in Tischendorf as I was competent to make, and accounted these studies greatly to my advantage as a Christian student. The interest has always continued. If I have not consulted my books so much of late, it is largely because I have gathered into memory many of the passages in which there are variant readings that would make serious difference in the sense.
Another important influence now came in. In those days commentaries were relatively much more in use than they are at present. With my method of study I was using them a good deal, and alike by the good and the evil that I found in them I was led to desire the best. So I bought Meyer on the New Testament in what was then the latest edition, and for many years Meyer was my principal counsellor in interpretation.
There were some things in Meyer that I did not prize, but I could pass them by. When he wrote, the history of interpreitation was accounted more important than it is now felt to be. I imagine that Meyer initiated the conditions in which it naturally came to be less regarded. But on any given passage, if there were any serious differences about it, he carefully reported the judgment of all important commentators. In condensed form, arranged in groups when classification was possible, he laid before me all the explanations that had reputable standing up to that date. Sometimes this was a valuable contribution, by which I was really helped. I was always glad to know the opinions of the few great exegetes, and in contested or obscure places a larger roll of witnesses was often useful. But sometimes the list seemed superfluous, and on the whole I came to feel that I was invited to give too much attention to miscellaneous judgments of men of earlier time. It did not seem to me that the best guidance was to be obtained by such comparison of opinions. But I could always leave this if I chose, and turn to Meyer himself.
For his influence I have always been profoundly grateful. I had used good books before, but I had also had experience of commentaries that dealt in allegory and fanciful renderings and interpretations that ignored historical conditions. Meyer was to me the master of sound processes, the apostle of common-sense. Occasionally I was compelled to dissent from his judgment, but usually he carried me with him. His discernment of the main point, his rational setting aside of minor matters, his clear, straight-forward stroke into the very midst of a question, his lucid judgment and transparent expression, his loyalty to the spirit of Jesus which ought to rule in interpreting the gospel, all this commanded my enthusiastic admiration. He appealed to me as the most reasonable interpreter of the Scriptures that I had ever known, and I rejoiced to put myself under the leading of so able and rational a guide. The years of his immediate influence cleared my convictions and improved my methods, and his contribution abides in my life.
It was very early in this decade that Meyer came to my help, and he was with me while I was doing the exegetical work of which I have spoken. He was my chief companion in the study that pre-pared me for the pulpit. He taught me how superfluous are homiletical commentaries, by doing far better for me as a preacher than they could do. Together with Meyer I came into the daily habit of using Grimm's Wilke's " Clavis," which was then the standard Greek lexicon of the New Testament, a work that was thoroughly worthy to rank with Meyer's commentary and was superseded only by the coming of Thayer, its English representative, a decade later.
I must not fail to mention certain personal influences that were upon me in those years. Earliest among them, and latest, too, was that of the theologian to whom I looked up almost as to a father. Older than I by more than a score of years, he received me from the first into a warm friendship, which remained unaltered to the end of his days. As soon as I knew him I was attracted by the sweetness of his spirit, and also by his candor, his patience, and his well-balanced judgment. I did not always agree with him, but in all his work I knew him as the truest of men. Toward the Bible his attitude was one of the utmost reverence and loyalty. To him it brought the truth and will of God, and he joyfully acknowledged its authority upon his conscience and his intelligence alike. In his work of theological construction he considered himself bound, and limited, by what the Bible contains. To him a text was a proof ; but it must be a text critically verified, fairly interpreted, and used in accordance with its meaning. The real meaning of a text thus handled was God's meaning, and the text was God's word. He held a distinct doctrine of inspiration, but his theory was the result of his reverence for the Bible, and in no sense the cause of it. Sometimes I thought that he interpreted too theologically, and I often felt that he was too much in the power of his doctrine of inspiration, but he was never wanting to me as an ex-ample of godliness at work. The presence and fellowship of such a scholar could not fail to influence me in the use of the Bible. Preaching to him, consulting with him, and watching his work all kept the preciousness of the Bible before my eyes. At the same time his influence was strong and wholesome upon me in leading me to think for myself. His candor and quiet zeal inspired me to independent work, in which his example encouraged me to take my own way. And if my way sometimes led me to differ with him, he would not call me back on that account.
The man of my own age who was nearest to me was teacher of New Testament Interpretation. He was one of the last pupils of the great exegete whom I mentioned at the beginning of this chap-ter, and had been called to take his place; and I was with him in the years when he was growing to his work. He was a man of immense force, keen of intellect, deep seeing and far-seeing. By patient concentration he developed a rare exegetical sense, and became a very remarkable interpreter of the Scriptures. He was a powerful teacher, too. Contrarious students had small chance with him, and open-minded students were led by his strong reasonableness into larger thought. In teaching others he taught himself, and from stage to stage his dear-seeing mind marched steadily forward in apprehension of the Christian truth. The years brought changes in his conception of the Bible. He began, as I did, with the assumption that all the Christian doctrines were developed within the New Testament, and that our permanent standard of belief there lay before us, needing only to be interpreted. But as he went on he became better acquainted with the writers of the New Testament, and formed a different conception of their relation to Christian students of the present day. He came to think that the writers, instead of being final authority concerning divine truth, were fellow-interpreters of the gospel with himself and with all Christians. He was not bound by all their statements, but counted it his privilege to seek the light of Christ for himself by their help. He read the New Testament as the inestimably precious record of Christianity, not as its source, or as our final standard for defining its doctrines. I remember his saying one day, "A man has no idea how great a man Paul was, or how great was his teaching, as long as he feels obliged to agree with him." Released thus from the claim of conformity, he took his place among the free searchers for the truth of God. I need not tell how helpful it was to me to, have so conscientious and enterprising a student for my companion in the study of the Bible. Many a single passage and many a large meaning have I worked out with him, and my permanent indebtedness to him is very great.
Of these two personal companionships, each inspiring in its own way, perhaps it may be said, though with a margin of in-accuracy, that one would hold me where the Bible had brought me, and the other would send me wherever the Bible might lead me. But the influence of my own generation was strong upon me, as it was upon my friend of my own age, and it was quite inevitable that I should respond, though slowly, to influences that tended to change. Slowly, I say, for it seems to me now that it took me a long time to do what appears to have been quite natural and very simple. But time is a peculiar element in such experiences. Progress from one realm of thought to another is apt to be halting and uneven: gains sometimes seem to be lost, and progressive experiences have to be duplicated. Once in one of my removals I came across a bundle of forgotten sermons about a dozen years old, and found that they gave pretty good expression to a set of ideas that I really supposed I had only just begun to hold and to preach. So little does a man understand his own journey while he is on the way. At the beginning of that dozen years I had met the ideas in question, but my acquaintance with them had been so slight that I could forget the meeting. At the end of it they had come to live with me.
The history of the first exegetical paper that I ever published illustrates much in the movement of my mind with regard to methods of interpretation. About the middle of the Seventies I wrote an article on the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, discussing whether or not that tragic story of the divided self was intended by Paul to be descriptive of an experience in the regenerate life. I brooded long over the passage, viewing it in all the lights that I could see, and wrought out an interpretation which I felt to be correct. It seemed to me the only one that the passage would bear, and I wrote it out in full confidence. Exactly when this confidence began to desert me I do not remember, but it did desert me, and in the course of time, long after the paper had been published, I be came fully convinced that I had been at work on the wrong side of the question with which I began. A friend who dissents from this later judgment says that I have never answered the arguments by which I established my first conclusion. I think he feels that they have never been answered. It may be that they have not: in their own place they may be unanswerable. But I do not feel constrained to answer them, for I have ceased to regard them as arguments that are decisive of the meaning. It seems to me that my interpretation of the passage in the Seventies was a work of word-exegesis, while the one that afterward displaced it was rather a work of thought-exegesis. In the former, I was impressed by the force of certain particular expressions, which I could reconcile with only one view of the meaning of my passage; and to the requirement of these expressions I was bending the interpretation of the whole.
In the latter, I was more impressed by the general thought of the passage and the larger relations in which it stood; and when I had entered into this larger view I found that it gave new light upon the particular expressions that had formerly seemed so decisive. Under this broader treatment I saw that the passage most naturally bore the meaning that I had at first rejected; and I am sure that I was acting on the right principle when I exchanged the one interpretation for the other. I can now see that my earlier work had been more minute and special, and that in my later work I was using larger and sounder principles. A man hesitates to say that he has advanced from narrower to broader and juster methods in his work, lest he be judged guilty of conceit or of spiritual blindness. But I may be allowed to record my belief that my mind was moving in the right direction.
Perhaps I may say that I have never had any hesitation about giving up an interpretation that I have held when a better one appeared, or about avowing the change. If I cling to what I have because it is my own, I have no assurance of finding that which is the Lord's. I am reminded that before the same body of ministers I have read two papers, a few years apart, on what is called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, maintaining two opposite views of the matter. The difference between them was very much like the difference between my two views of the seventh chapter of Romans. The earlier interpretation was narrowed in this case also by too exclusive attention to special terms: the later was broadened by the free admission of general principles. My conviction in favor of the latter was a conviction of sounder and worthier kind than its predecessor. At first I said, "The Scriptures limit me to this" : later I said, " The Scriptures open my way to this." At first I was regarding the restraints of the Bible : afterward I was following out its spirit.
The decade of the Seventies was the period of Lives of Christ and similar books, and I, like all my generation, came thus under a healthful influence. Not that the entire contribution of the Lives of Christ was either permanent or essentially valuable. Most of them have already been left behind, and in general the idea that a genuine biography of our Master can be written is passing away. We are learning that our materials are not of the right kind for such work. Nevertheless, the Lives of Christ brought us a genuine blessing. They were the popular and effective part of a large movement to bring him out of the region of dogmatic conceptions, partly unreal, into the realm of real life. To vivify our mental image of Jesus the modern knowledge of history, geography, and archaeology brought its treasures, and the great theme was presented by an imagination enlightened by this new knowledge, as well as by the old love and reverence. The apostolic history, too, was enriched by the same manifold contribution. But the main point was that study of the Saviour of the world, from being a study of doctrinal conceptions, now became study of a living person, into which all the wealth of this illuminating knowledge was poured.
My own share in this benefit was just such as I have now described. For me Jesus really took his place among the living facts of history, more vividly than ever before. The Old Testament had never ceased to glow with the light it had received in the days of my first pastorate from Stanley's "Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church," and now the New Testament received a similar illumination. Here I am indebted to a book that did not long remain among my counsellors. Farrar's "Life of Christ" even then seemed much too rhetorical for its subject, and much too ingenious in piecing the narratives together and building up meanings that depended upon the combination; but despite its faults it did give my mind a powerful impulse toward conceiving Jesus Christ as real. His "Life and Work of Paul" brought similar help toward living in the midst of the apostolic age. Other books stood in the same helpful company. Out of this period of biography there came to me an influence that made the whole New Testament more full of the glow and interest of life. But more important than this general result was the distinctness, the practicality, the living force, that these studies imparted to my conception of Jesus Christ himself. The Jesus of my later years is the Jesus that rose be-fore my vision in the divine beauty of his human life under the influence of this period of biographies. And I wish to call attention to the fact that this new vitalizing of my conception of Jesus Christ is an essential element in that change concerning the Bible which these reminiscences are intended to record.
An influence of quite another kind now came in effectively to modify my conception of the Bible, and I can truly say that in the resulting change I was following whither the Bible itself led me. I have never been urgently interested in the subject of the second advent, and yet that subject has filled a more prominent place in my religious history than one would expect. I was brought up in a way that promised trouble, for I was taught in my childhood that the kingdom of Christ had a long and glorious future in this present world, and yet that the end was always imminent, and any day he might descend from heaven for judgment. The theory put the end indefinitely far away, and yet I listened trembling for the trump of God in every thunder-storm. Some time, of course, this contradiction would have to be disposed of; and in fact this was one of the first regions in which my views of the Bible began to be clarified.
During the Seventies I was usually in attendance upon a weekly conference of ministers living in and about a city, at which all sorts of religious and theological topics were discussed. More than once in the decade the advent question was taken up, being a question that men were interested in discussing as they are not now, and on both sides of it I heard as able advocates as our denomination contained. The premillennial and postmillennial views of the advent were presented, elaborated, and defended, sometimes with conspicuous power. It was not in vain, though the results were not such as the disputants were seeking. In consequence of the discussion several things became clear to me, some at once and some on further reflection.
The first thing that I observed was that neither of the two theories could be better defended from the Bible than the other. Either could be defended perfectly well, by making proper selection of proof-texts. The Bible contained the confident prediction of an early advent, and at the same time it contained an outlook upon the future that neither included an early advent nor had place for one. I observed that both doctrines were obtainable from the Bible, but was impressed by the fact that neither one was the doctrine of the Bible as a whole. In the sense of being found in the Scriptures, both were scriptural; but in the better sense of rightly representing the Scriptures, neither was scriptural The contesting theories had been too successful in debate: each by its very success had destroyed not only the other but itself.
At first I did not see how much this meant, but gradually it came to me, and a very important change in my convictions was a necessary result. It was borne in upon me that the Bible contains material for two opposite and irreconcilable doctrines about the early return of Christ to this world. Both doctrines cannot be true : one of them at least must rest upon misjudgment. Since this is the fact, it certainly cannot be that I am required to believe all that the Bible says because the Bible says it. If either one of the theories is true, no matter which, I certainly am not bound by the testimony that the Bible bears in favor of the other. Whatever its nature may be, the book in which these facts are found cannot have been given me by God as a book that bears his own authority in support of all its statements.
The book from which these two theories can be drawn is of necessity a different book from that. Thus the Bible itself, upon examination, shows me that it is not a book infallible throughout, in which error does not exist, and that I am not required to say that it is. This negative statement followed plainly from the discussion.
Of course the corresponding positive statement was just as evidently true. The discussion showed that upon one point at least the early Christians, including apostles and writers of the New Testament, were mistaken—not only could be mistaken, but were. They believed that their Lord was soon to return to this world in visible glory. He did not so return : hence they cherished an expectation that was wrong. This I was required to affirm on the authority of facts, even though the disappointed expectation stands recorded on the pages of the Bible. I was required to affirm it in fact; on the authority of the Bible itself. Of this I could have no doubt. It is true that I heard some of the best men I knew laboring hard to show that the expectation did not exist, but their labor was in vain. I saw that it did exist, and that it proved to be a false expectation. Arguments to the contrary were quibbles, well-meant though they were. At present, of course, the intense vitality of the advent hope is one of the commonplaces of New Testament knowledge. No one who professes scholarship at all ever thinks of doubting it. At that time, however, understanding of the matter was less advanced, and it is less surprising than it would be now that the fact could be argued against. Nevertheless, upon me the truth was dawning: how could it fail to dawn ? I perceived that writers in the Bible had recorded unquestioning expectation of the almost immediate occurrence of an event that has never occurred at all. Certainly they were in error on that point. Their inspiration, of whatever kind it was, was not a safeguard against this error, but allowed them, or rather perhaps impelled them, to work their mistaken view of the immediate future into our holy book.
From all this it followed that I was not obliged to agree with these writers in all that they had written, or to look upon them as infallible guides. It did not follow that therefore I ought to throw the Bible away, and I am thankful that that foolish suggestion so often supposed to attend upon such discoveries did not occur to me. But it did follow that I was not required to accept all statements in the Bible as true and all views that it contained as correct. Apparently I was a free reader, not a reader upon whom assent was obligatory. Apparently I might judge its statements in view of facts. And it was not some outside heretic or unbeliever that was persuading me to this conclusion : I was led to it by examination of the book itself. Its own contents bore witness to its errancy—to use a word with which I afterward became familiar. In coming to this judgment I was simply going whither the Bible led me. As I look back I wonder on what ground I ought to have proceeded if I was to judge otherwise. What would any friend advise ? How, starting from the facts that I first encountered, should I have reached the conclusion that all statements in the Bible were binding upon me ?
I have said that I moved slowly and unevenly in the change that I am now recording. I have dated this conviction against the inerrancy of the Bible here in the Seventies, and here it belongs, for at this time it was planted in my mind and I began to be aware of its presence and its importance. But its growth was gradual, and its victory over my thinking was slow in coming—surer perhaps for being slow. Years passed before it came to its own. This is no wonder, in view of my early training. Nevertheless, when the new conception had made so valid an entrance it deserved well of the future, and was sure to do its work.
Not from without myself, but from within, came the next great modification of my view of the Bible. The hint in-deed was external, but no more. The field was doctrinal. At various times already I had given some study to various doctrines of the Christian religion. In my first pastorate I studied, as well as I could, the doctrine of sin, and made some gains that were permanent. But what I now entered upon was not so much a study as an experience. Now for the first time I was impelled, and compelled, to work my way through from obscurity to clear light, upon one of the great historical Christian doctrines.
One Sunday, late in the Seventies, I was conversing with a Sunday-school class about the fourth chapter of the First Epistle of John. We were talking of the words, "Herein is love; not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Of course the conversation turned upon the atonement, which was a fixed point in the doctrinal belief of us all. I do not remember what was said by any of us, but I do remember how the impression was borne in upon me that I did not know what the familiar passage meant. I confessed to myself that in my heart I did not know what an atonement was, or what was meant when the Son of God was called the propitiation for our sins. I had always believed in the atonement of Christ, in the ordinary manner, which is not a very vital manner. While I was a student I had worked out a sketch of the history of the doctrine, and had some conception of the course of Christian thought on the subject. I had never supposed myself to be holding any very definite theory of the atonement. As a matter of fact, like most ministers then and now, I had held a group of ideas that represented fragments of various theories which, if I had analyzed them, I should have found ill-assorted and inconclusive. I had long been dimly aware that in the centre of that doctrine there lay a region that I had never adequately explored. I had not been especially uneasy about it, for I knew the subject to be mysterious, and had not blamed myself for not understanding it; moreover, I had been occupied with other works and studies, and the question had not forced itself upon me. But now it claimed its rights. On that Sunday afternoon I went home under the spell of a new compulsion, for I knew that from that hour I was called to find out for myself what the atonement was. It proved that I was right. There was no rest for me till I had worked the problem through. Not in agony, it is true, and yet with all earnestness, I bent to the work.
I read some books on the doctrine, without finding anything that went to the bottom of it. I remember reading a book that was then offering itself as a standard on the subject, rushing eagerly along in suspense till I should reach the conclusion that I saw held out before me in the final chapter, only to find it vague and lame and unsatisfactory. I remember another book, that claimed to be all biblical; but its very abundance of biblical language weighed it down with a hopeless burden of ambiguities. I studied the Bible faithfully. But I found there various views of what Christ had done—one set of ideas in Paul, another in the Johan nine writings, and another in the Epistle to the Hebrews. I perceived that these were views of the great reality from various points, and that they could not be combined into one clear doctrine. I perceived, too, that it was not possible for any mind to agree with all these utterances, except in the broadest sense, if in-deed a modern mind could really think any of them precisely as the writers thought them long ago. So I could not solve my problem by adducing the testimony of Scripture concerning the atonement as clear and final.
But I was not seriously troubled by being thus left without an authoritative statement, for my subject was drawing me on in another direction. The question before me was not one that could be decided for me by authoritative statements unless I was content with the most external kind of explanation; and I was seeking nothing less than the genuine interior meaning. The question was, What is it that the good God and Father of Jesus Christ has done in him for us in our sinfulness ? If this could be answered by a text or a formula, still, I should have to inquire what the text or formula meant, for it would not serve my necessity at all, except as it embodied some large spiritual principle. And I now saw clearly in what region the question lay. It lay in the realm of ethics. The decisive fact is the character of God. The God whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us has acted in accordance with what he is. In this work he has acted out his real self. It was morally impossible for me to believe that he has done anything for our salvation that does not accord with and express his own character. If a voice of inspiration or a voice from heaven had told me that he had, I should have been compelled to say that the voice was not from God. And if I am to find out what he has done, I must find it out not at the dictation of voices, whether from earth or heaven, but in the light of the ethical and spiritual principles that the revelation of Christ gives me to be the guides of my inquiry. That is to say, God does not dictate to me an explanation of his gracious work. If I wish to understand it better, I must search it out in the light of God himself.
So I found myself doing just what I felt that I had been commissioned to do: I was inquiring for myself what the atonement was—not what the Old Testament had foreshadowed, or what Paul thought it was, or what it seemed to be in the light of the Jewish law, or what the church had taught, or what theologians had built up into doctrine, but what it really was, in the best moral and spiritual light that the Christian revelation ministered to the inquiry. To do a man's work in this great quest was my business for the time, and I could no more take my conclusion from dictation of the Bible than I could from dictation of the church.
I was constrained to go back of both. I must search out for myself how the principles of the divine character had , been wrought out in a work of help for sinful beings: and this I found myself bending my best energies to do. The Bible was my indispensable and invaluable helper in the quest, but it had not been offered to me by God as containing the ready and final answer to my question, as I once supposed it had. The answer I myself must find.
For months I was held to my task by a power from which there was no escape —from which indeed I had no desire to escape. It was a great experience; for now, under an impulse that I knew to be from God, my best powers were for the first time grappling with the prime moral facts of existence. I had been handling divine realities all my years, but never until now had I been under such strong and joyful constraint in dealing with them. Such labor could not be in vain in the Lord, and to me it was richly fruitful.
After a time, when I had begun to be satisfied that my work was yielding true results, I embodied my conclusions in a gaper, which I entitled, "The Saving, Interposition of God." Naturally it consisted of two parts, a negative and a positive, or a destructive and a constructive, if one chooses to call them so. Naturally also, the first part was better than the second. In the first part I brought out the ethical principles of the divine character, which the Christian revelation has brought to light, and allowed them to sweep away such elements in the inherited doctrine of the atonement as could not abide in their company. They swept much away. I felt, and still feel, all things considered, that this indispensable preliminary work was well done. I certainly set forth some unquestionable truths, by which some ancient statements of the doctrine of salvation were rendered impossible. I did not need to prove the impossibility of these, for the ethical positions that I advanced carried their own evidence. Having thus cleared the ground I proceeded to constructive work, endeavoring to set forth the true doctrine. But I had not yet followed my problem far enough to be thoroughly ready for the constructive task, and it was only natural that the second part should not satisfy me so well as the first. Yet even in this more exacting field I know that I presented some affirmations that belong to the body of eternal, truth, and offered a doctrine more in accordance with the divine character revealed in Christ than any that I had ever been taught.
I read the paper before a club of ministers of which I was a member, where it was variously received, as I expected. It was never published, but it had a considerable circulation by lending. Men of my own age, many of them, were eager to be led into more simple and spiritual thought upon this great theme, and welcomed a comrade's work. Several times for months together the paper was out of my possession, travelling from hand to hand. As much as twelve or fifteen years later I received a request for the loan of it, from a man who was beyond the original circle of its acquaintance. How far the readers agreed with it I do not know, but it helped them to think in normal fashion, to accept their freedom of rejecting the untenable, and to apply their best moral judgment to the apprehension of divine truth. The subject was alive for them, and my treatment of it, springing from my own soul, was recognized as a vital work.
It now seems to me strange and rather sad that I had lived well toward my fortieth year without encountering that strong inward necessity that compelled me to make my doctrine my own. But I fear there is reason to believe that many ministers live as long, or longer, perhaps even all their lives, without experiencing this particular kind of work of grace in their souls. A work of grace it is, and any man is to be congratulated who hears and answers this call of God to better knowledge of divine realities. With me the experience was not an agonizing struggle, but if it had been it would still have been a gift to be thankful for.
This story has its rightful place in the present narrative, because this experience counts very largely in the history of my relation to the Bible. The work of years had brought me up to a point where I was ready for a method different from that which I had followed before. I may del scribe my forward step by saying that hitherto I had been using the Bible in the light of its statements, but that now I found myself using it in the light of its principles. Its great revealed truths, rather than its special declarations, were guiding me in the study to which I was now impelled. I was not asking what the Bible specifically said upon my theme, but was taking the large truths that the Bible brought me, and wielding them as my instruments in a spiritual work of inquiry. I was not collecting the testimony of authoritative passages; I was moving in the spirit of the Bible toward apprehension of the great salvation of God. Thus in my investigation I was using the Bible as a man naturally and rightly uses helps to knowledge—not that he may serve them, but that they may serve him. I was acting on the principle that the Bible was made for man, not man for the Bible, as I am sure the Master would have me act. I was exercising my Christian freedom in seizing the great principles of divine revelation, and using them for further exploration of the works of God. In thus applying the great principles of revelation I was doing exactly what Paul and the writer to the Hebrews had done before me. They sought out the meaning of the divine gospel of redemption in days when it meant something to talk of the Jewish law : I was called to do the same in days when the Jewish law belongs to the far past, and universal ethical principles must be the guiding light, and the character of God revealed in Christ is the decisive test. This work, so like the work of prophets and apostles, I was not afraid to under-take, for I had come out into the liberty of the sons of God, where I could freely take my Father's revelation as the guide of my personal endeavor. At the end of these studies I was another man than on that Sunday afternoon when my face was turned toward the new investigation. Far more truly than ever before I had entered upon freedom of inquiry, and a broad world was before me, which I was sure that I should find to be the world of God. And the Bible had become the instrument of my liberty.