60 Years With The Bible - The Eighties
( Originally Published 1917 )
At the very beginning of the Eighties a great change came to all my mental operations through a change in the scene of my work. From my pastorate of the Seventies I went to another which was as unlike it as possible in the conditions of life and thought. I carried myself with me, and all my past, but no man could be the same in the two places. Any man would be changed by such a transfer: that is, to speak after the manner of the operation of God, he would be developed, the new atmosphere stimulating in some new manner the growth of his mind. In my case, changes began at once. For one thing, I immediately threw off the practice of reading sermons. That is to say, I threw it off as a regular practice from the very first day in my new field, and my bondage to it, such as it was, fell away. I wrote and read when I chose, and preached in all ways between that and purely extemporaneous work. This emancipation the spirit of the new environment brought me, and evidently this was an exercise of freedom that tended to the enlargement of freedom. This in general was the characteristic of the new life upon which I now entered, that I found greater liberty in my mental and spiritual movements than before. I stood as a freer man. I can see plainly now that the experience which I have just narrated had been leading me straight out into the larger place in which I found myself ; but I did not understand it so well then.
I was not designing any new methods in the use of the Bible, but expected simply to go on using it as I had done hitherto. At first I was doing no special work with it, except in preaching. But in preaching I felt the new liberty and exaltation. Utterance was more and more a delight. With this new joy came naturally a fresh enjoyment in the wealth of the Scriptures. Never more than in those days have I enjoyed bringing out of the treasury things new and old, and at no period have I found larger things in the treasury to be brought forth. But though I was not planning new methods with the Bible, I was using them. It was impossible that my experience in searching out the atonement should be without immediate and valuable fruit in my ordinary work. In preaching now it was impossible that I should refrain from using the Bible as I had discovered my right to use it then. The bygone conditions could never be restored. I was handling the Bible now more personally, more as myself, and more as if I had a right to handle it. I still practised exegesis with undiminished fidelity, but the process was further removed from my sermonizing than before. My message was not so directly borrowed from the Bible as in former years, and was more suggested or inspired by it. Not the sight of my eyes upon the page, so much as the experience of mind and heart with its truths, was placing it at my disposal. Around me were many who seemed to me to reverence the Bible more for what it was than for what it contained; but for my part I was prizing it now for what it contained, and was using my Christian liberty, as man-fully as I might, to make its spiritual message clear, unhampered, and effective.
It scarcely need be added that my theology was changing meanwhile, for neither the outcome nor the method of my work on the atonement could allow it to stand unaltered, and in the new atmosphere of liberty I was certain to advance. The process of change consisted mainly in this same thing, that I was taking up the great truths of revelation, and using them for myself as truths, and following them to their application and result in doctrine, and allowing them to assimilate whatever could live with them and expel whatever could not. This I conceive to be the right way to form one's doctrinal conceptions. This revolutionary and reconstructive work, which is the proper work of truth as it is in Jesus, was taking a place in my life that it had not held before. The time was a period of enlargement to me, and of enlargement that I felt to be normal to a child of God. The experience was defective enough through fault and weakness of my own, but it was a genuine experience of growth into more abundant life. And if I were to give it a name, I should call it a passing over from traditionalism to reality.
Now it was that the Revised New Testament appeared. The first copy of it that I saw was sent to me by a religious newspaper, to be read and reported upon. I welcomed it with all my heart, and used it in public worship, from the first Sun-day. One of my men, seeing it in my hand on that first Sunday morning, said, "I hate that." But I was able to convince him that he had not hated wisely, or understood the book that he hated. How glad I was when it came! I remembered back into the days when revision of King James's Bible was discussed among American Christians, and recalled the bitterness of the opposition—opposition grounded largely in failure to understand the fact that the Bible is a translated book, and still more in that reverence for the familiar words which sprang from belief in verbal inspiration. I had had my hereditary hesitations about revision, but they were long since vanished. And now, when I was barely in middle age, the prejudice against revision had already been so far overcome that the book was actually in my hands, issued with splendid backing on both sides of the Atlantic. Doubtless it was not perfect, and it had still to win its way, but the beginning of improvement had been made, the new conditions had been established, and the good result was sure. Now, I said to myself, those things that I had known to be true about many a passage, but which the people could not know except through explanations which they might deem pedantic, and destructive, too, could be known to all readers. Now, when this book had won its way, the thoughts of the Bible would be more independent of the words ; there was some chance that people who hung upon the very words of Scripture might come to glory in the preciousness of the very thoughts and the very truths. Now was doomed that narrow reverence for the very words which gathered around the impossible doctrine of verbal inspiration. For the coming of this book was only a part of a great movement of the age toward making the Bible and Christ and divine religion more real to the people, a movement in which I with joy would bear my little part. When the Revised Old Testament appeared, four years later, there was less of thrill and glow in the reception of it, but the welcome was the same in principle. The Bible was now more ready to my hand, for the uses to which I was called to put it. I grasped the Revision as a better weapon for the warfare of the Lord.
It was at this time that my first book was written, a Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, for a series on the New Testament, issued by a denominational publishing house. By no fault of mine, the writing was crowded into a very short period, and for months I almost thought of nothing else. But the work was done with eagerness and joy. New thoughts about the Bible were not diminishing my zest for it. I was now studying the Lord's life in its simplest and most vivid form, and it was a perpetual delight to comment upon the doings of the living Jesus.
My manner of treating the Scriptures was not satisfactory to all my readers: in fact, it was suspected by many, and condemned by some. At present, however, it would have good standing as conservative, so far has conservatism moved on. It is true that I had little occasion to speak of the nature of the Scriptures, or to raise the question of their inspiration ; but when I went right on interpreting my Gospel in the best light of reality that I could obtain, without regard to any theories at all, some thought me to be on dangerous ground. The only paragraph in which I alluded to inspiration contained the remark, which seems to me to have been tenable, that the Bible is inspired as it is inspired, and not as we may think it ought to be inspired. This was stricken out by the editorial secretary of the publishing society, with the remark that my views of inspiration, whether correct or not, were far in advance of those of the denomination. This may have been true. I thought that whatever inspiration there might be in the book must be determined by the qualities of the book, not identified by reference to a definition or theory framed outside. I well remember the strong dissent with which years earlier I encountered a definition intended to safeguard Christianity, to the effect that inspiration is that divine influence in writing which produces an infallible record. I felt that the definition approached the subject from the wrong side: if the Bible is inspired, we must learn from the Bible itself what the qualities of its inspiration are. It was this that I was trying to say, in the passage that was unacceptable. But as a matter of fact, I was not writing on inspiration : I was simply commenting on the book that lay before me, without inquiring what qualities ,of inspiration it might possess, or how it came to have them.
Work upon one Gospel naturally made all the Gospels more familiar. It was a part of my task, in fact, to compare them and note their identities, resemblances, and differences. Inevitably the differences came to light—differences not only in phraseology but in narrative, in discourse, and in general portrayal. In statements of fact and in views of truth I found them more or less divergent. The point here to be recorded is that these differences suggested to my mind no difficulty as to the acceptance of the Gospels and their testimony. Of course they were fatal, as I had long known, to the claim of perfect accuracy in all the records, and of an inspiration that would produce it, but they were not fatal to confidence in the books. The writing of this commentary cured me of confidence in the possibility of harmonizing the Gospels with much completeness, or of weaving them into a continuous narrative, and placed them before me as separate witnesses, differing as witnesses will differ. When they had taken this position there was no trouble about accepting their general testimony : there was nothing in variations to invalidate their story, and I could read them as living records of a real life. At that time the problem of the Gospels was simpler than it is now, and many present-day questions I did not meet. Nevertheless, the principle that gave me confidence then gives me confidence still. My hold upon the central Person and his story is such that changes in my conception of facts about the Gospels have not shaken my faith.
Now again the doctrine of the second advent took a disproportionately prominent place in my affairs. It was necessary that I should explain the thirteenth chapter of Mark, the great eschatological discourse, the dread of expositors—unless indeed it chances to be their delight. It was the part of my task that I dreaded most, for I was well aware of the difficulty of the passage, and certain that I could not stand for any of the old interpretations. But I had been thinking more or less in that field, ever since the discussions of the advent that I have spoken of. Moreover, in the late Seventies a book treating the general subject of terrestrial eschatology had appeared, and had been much read and discussed in the circle of my acquaintance. The book was crude in some respects, and was far from uttering the last word in the constructive part, but it was unanswerable in its refutation of certain long accepted doctrines, and at least it pre-pared the way for something better. It has now gone out of sight, for it lacked some of the qualities that make for permanence; but it freed many of us from inherited untenable views of the second coming, and offered us at least a tentative doctrine in their place. Under this influence I wrought out an interpretation of the difficult chapter which satisfied me at the time, and this I embodied in my commentary.
It is interesting to note what this interpretation was, for the nature of it indicates again how far from being even and consistent was the movement of my mind. I have spoken of the growing conviction that the early advent hope, was disappointed, This conviction was steadily settling into certainty, and yet at this time I was fascinated by the claim that the hope had not been disappointed. I still felt that the prediction of an early advent must have been fulfilled, and that the fulfilment must be sought in the early history. So I accepted the idea that the fulfilment occurred in the destruction of Jerusalem. The taking of this position was not a consistent step in my progress, and yet it is quite accounted for by that blending of old influences and new to which every advancing mind is subject.
Knowing that my interpretation would be objected to, I purposely made my presentation of it just as positive and convincing as I could, in order that it might have as good a chance of favor as I could give it. As for the interpretation itself, it now seems to me to have been a very good way-station on the journey to the true solution of the problem. At the time, however, it was the best that I could do, and it was farther along the road than most of my readers were prepared to go. As I expected, it suited almost no one. After the first edition, the publishing society obtained another commentary on the chapter from an older man, embodying one of the more accepted views, and bound it into the book at the end of my chapter,' under the title of "An Additional View." To this I had no objection whatever, and cordially gave the consent which the society courteously- asked. At any rate, I had made my contribution to-ward a substitute for the old untenable views, and that was as much as I could hope to do.
As for the commentary itself, it contains much that I should now be glad to set right, for I can see in it many marks of immature judgment and insufficient knowledge. But the writing of it marked a great step in the forward movement of my mind in dealing with the Bible. It was the first large work of a new outspokenness. Views that had mastered me and become my own I was daring to offer to a larger company; and such work always takes hold upon the future of a man's own mind. In my case it was a preparation for still larger use of Christian liberty of thought and speech in handling the holy book. And my commentary occupied its place,* though a very small one, in the progress of the general thought about the Bible.
In the city where I lived there were many warnings against crude though reverent use of the Bible. I came across much influence of the Plymouth Brethren, whose attitude toward the Bible was reverent almost to the point of worship, but who seemed to me utterly to miss the point, and to be making of the Bible the very thing that God never intended it to be. Under this influence profoundly ignorant persons were exhorted to regard their own understanding of the Bible as unquestionably the interpretation of the Holy Ghost—usually with the result of a most comfortable superiority to all other Christians. I met with much interpretation that claimed to be simple literalism; and I was confirmed in my old conviction that there is no man who will find more fanciful meanings than the average literalist. I found people who were using the Bible to identify the British nation with the lost ten tribes, whereby they brought over to the existing British Empire all the promises of God to Israel. I knew many who found prediction of great things yet to come in what seemed to me passages of plain and simple meaning. The handling of unfulfilled prophecy, indeed, was a favorite employment with very many, who deemed this one of the most important uses of the Bible. In a farmhouse I met a godly soul who said he had long desired to see me, because he wished to get my views on the millennium; but I fear he obtained less from me than he had hoped. I knew a village where the favorite topic of conversation when the people met was the return of the Jews to Palestine. I remember a man, a somewhat professional interpreter, I think, in his own little circle, who asked me for my view of a certain passage of Scripture, of which an elaborate explanation entered into his framework of doctrine. When I had given him my understanding of it, he looked up at me with a fine expression of surprise and puzzlement upon his countenance. "Is that it ? he said: "you'll spoil me—it's so simple." There was danger indeed, for elaborateness was necessary to satisfy him. I once said to a man that I did not think the Bible was intended to provide us with a map of the future, whereupon he exclaimed, "Well! then I don't know what the word revelation means." When I said, "Revelation of God," the words seemed to make no impression on his mind. And once I went, a few minutes Iate, into a prayer-meeting of another church than my own, which a deacon, in default of a minister, had been unexpectedly called to lead. When I entered he was saying that he had had absolutely no opportunity for preparation, and could only read a passage from the Epistle to the Galatians, as he had just done, and offer as his contribution to the meeting a thought that had been with him much of late, namely, how good God is, to let us Gentiles in to the privileges of the Jews. So near, and no nearer, his mind had come to the religious situation of the present age.
By no means would I represent that the general Christian community used the Bible in these strange and misleading ways, for that would be a slander. Very much of devout and intelligent use of the Scriptures there was, and I have never enjoyed sweeter fellowship over the Bible than I enjoyed with some Christians in that time and place. Nevertheless there was an immense amount of such unfortunate work, and it all seemed to me a sad, perversion of the sacred book. I plainly saw that what was needed was a different conception of the whole matter from be-ginning to end. No mending-up would answer : these groups of earnest people needed a revolution in their entire conception of the book that they were both using and misusing. They held in their hands, as they understood the case, an infallible book, equally full of revelation in all its 'parts, and all addressed to them: and this book they were uncritically and unscientifically reading, taking their impressions of it as the word of God. When the book was thus viewed and used, the perversions that I was lamenting quite naturally followed. It was natural that the recondite parts should be the most fascinating, and that the unintelligible parts should seem to offer the best prospect of fresh revelation to the reader. It was natural, too, in certain stages of mental training, that the reader's interpretation should seem to him to partake of the infallibility of the book that he was interpreting. It was natural that the Bible should thus come to be regarded as a storehouse of mysterious information, rather than as a `spiritual guide of life. There was need of a revolution : and I understood the case well enough to know that the only effective revolution must follow the line in which my own mind was moving. The mistaken methods must give way to a free, intelligent, and reverent handling of the Bible as it really is. Of course this sense of need intensified my convictions. By sad observation of the sufferings of the Bible in the house of its friends, I was confirmed in my judgment as to the treatment that Christians ought to give it. This manifold discovery of the tremendous necessity urged me on in my course, and in those years I labored with my best powers to set a clear and safe example in rational use of the holy book.
But I remember an incident of this period that shows how uneven my progress was. It illustrates also the various lights in which the uniqueness of the Bible may be viewed. One Sunday evening there strolled in to hear me a pair of scientists with whom I had a slight acquaintance, one of them rather eminent in his generation. Afterward I wondered what they thought. I do not remember what my text was, but it was one of the condensed expressions of truth that abound in the First Epistle of John. I spoke of this epistle as later in origin than the book that stands at the close of the Bible, and as occupying a place at the very end of the long course of divine revelation. I appealed to its testimony as the last and highest word, the ripened fruit of God's great revealing process, the very climax of that which has come from him to his world of men. I spoke, in fact, as if nothing had been heard from God since that epistle was written. I did not know at the time how far away I was putting God from his world. But the retributive power did not overlook me. After a while a wave of remembrance swept over me, to my humiliation, and I wondered what my scientific acquaintances thought that I, a Christian minister, believed about the living God. If they believed in God at all, as I think they did, they believed in a God who did not close his work of self-expression and betake himself to silence eighteen hundred years ago, but who "worketh hitherto," a God self-uttering as the light, and I had been addressing them as if God had been silent to men through all these ages. I wish I might have the opportunity of preaching to them now; but one of them is gone to the other life, and the other I shall never meet.
I remember a similar limitation upon my thought at an earlier date. One evening in my study long ago I had in my hand a volume that contained only two or three of the shorter Epistles : probably it was a commentary: and I remember reflecting upon what it would be if that were the entire Bible, the sum of revelation, the whole of what I had or was to have from God. How earnestly, I thought, would I search the volume through and through, eager to miss nothing of that unique treasure, to which nothing would ever be added ! In the Bible, I said to myself, I had more than in that little book, but with equal eagerness I ought to search through that unique possession, the revelation of God. Revelation I was then regarding as something begun and ended, done and finished, written and preserved, gathered into one place, different from anything else that God has given or will give to men. Even as late as my preaching to the scientists the influence of that conception had not passed away, and later still it was upon me, though in diminished power. I was right in holding the Bible as a unique book, uniquely precious; but when one thinks of the living God, near to his human creatures and the same forevermore, it cannot be that he has given men no word of revelation from himself since it was finished. To know God as Jesus has revealed him is to know better than that.
I have spoken of the hand of Paul as lying heavy upon the activities of Christian women. For me the traditional deference for the Pauline prohibition long continued; but in the three parishes that I have spoken of there was a curious succession of attitudes on the subject of women in the church, which became an element in my biblical education.
In the first parish the general under-standing was that Paul forbade the women to take part in the meetings of the church; and yet there was a peculiar line of unconscious compromise. The women seemed to have a habit of confidence in the pastor as interpreter and representative of Paul. If he thought that Paul's prohibition was not binding upon them, they would feel free to speak; but if he disapproved on Pauline grounds, the most of them would not speak at all, and those who did would have some constraint in doing so, or at least some consciousness. In this way my opinion obtained an exaggerated importance. I was not understood to be very rigid in judgment against the woman's right, and I was not, for in fact I wanted all the gifts in the little church to be in use, and did not conceal the desire—and a large half of the gifts were feminine. But at the same time Paul made me timid and half-hearted about it : it became known that I understood him to be against us, and there was constraint upon the women. There were exceptions, but this was the rule. Their activity did not increase in my day. I think it rather diminished.
The training of my second parish had been rigidly Pauline for generations, and the atmosphere was full of the great apostle's influence. Rarely was a woman's voice heard in the church, his judgment of silence being accepted as the judgment of God. There was some private dissent, but the public sentiment, so to call it, was of one effect. The women of the parish were nobly going out into activities of larger and more important significance, against which no inspired voice had been lifted up; in fact, a large missionary organization of women had its origin there in my time ; but in the church, with rare exceptions, even the women of the largest gifts were silent. In this parish, however, the young people's meeting came in as an institution in my time, and in this the girls began freely and simply to do what their mothers had not dared, or even desired, in the face of an inspired apostle. Various excuses were made for this, though not by the young people themselves. Some used to suggest in those days that perhaps this was not a meeting of the church, and did not come under Paul's prohibition. Similar excuses were offered for the larger use of women in public work which was coming in. As to my understanding of Paul's words and intention, I had not changed; but gradually there was dawning upon me the improbability of God's intending to govern our movements in America through Paul's directions to the church in Corinth two thousand years ago. The method did not seem like the reasonable God. At the same time the quibbling arguments by which I heard good men evading the prohibition wearied me, and were almost enough to convert me. Thus the old influence was slipping away, and I did not blame myself.
In my third parish, with its brisker movement of life, all was changed. The women were taking part in the meetings of the church, as many of them as wished to do so, with perfect freedom. They knew all about the arguments for reading Paul's prohibition as local and temporary, at least the Corinthian one, and so had no fear that they were sinning against the Scriptures. But the real reason of their freedom was that in this matter they were not governed by Paul any more. Some of them had fine gifts for speaking and something to say, and would have found some way to speak their minds if Paul himself had been there with all the weapons that he was supposed to carry. They were acting out their real life from the heart, and the ancient hand was off from them. A few years of such freedom lifted it from me. I came to the conviction that the Christian life of women, as of men, must have free course in the activities that are normal to the age in which they live, and that Paul would be the first to have it so. In fact, I think he would have cancelled the prohibition, if he had foreseen what would come of it through long centuries. Better a little disorder in Corinth, he would have said, than such a handicap on the sex of Phoebe and Priscilla. In later years I have had no trouble with these Corinthian counsels; and since I ceased to believe myself required to accept all arguments in the Bible as valid because they are there, I have not been troubled by the inconclusive reasons for enforcing silence upon women that are found in the Pastoral Epistles. Thus by a long and slow evolution I have come to recognize the normal freedom of the Christian life. It seems a pity that I had to unlearn so much upon the way.
After this third pastorate I spent a few years as teacher of New Testament Interpretation in a Theological Seminary. Before I accepted the position I had a long talk with the president of the institution, in which I told him all about my point of view with regard to the Scriptures, and the various departures from the usual views in theology to which I had been led. I did not know but he would withdraw the invitation, as he had full opportunity to do; but he was not afraid of me, and I went to the new work, which had attracted me from the first, and which I found full of interest and enjoyment. Not more truly than in the pastorate, but in a special sense, the Bible was now my specific field.
I do not think that. my work was very well planned, or that I gave my students as comprehensive or helpful a course of instruction as they were entitled to receive. I could devise a much better method of proceeding now. Nevertheless, however imperfectly, I was aiming at the right point, and was working with enthusiasm. I was trying to train the men in ability to find out exactly what a writer meant by what he wrote. Lexical and grammatical considerations came first; then purpose, connection of thought, side-lights, and, most important of all, sympathetic entrance to the writer's point of view, and endeavor to think his thought along with him, as far as this was possible. I did not require them to study the inspiration of the Bible before they studied the Bible. I did not inquire beforehand whether the book was inspired in some particular manner or not inspired. I simply opened it as it was and began to read, seeking to interpret, in the sense that I have just presented.
How difficult genuine interpretation is, if one wishes to be exact, I was beginning to know. The fact is that absolutely perfect understanding of what a writer meant by a written page can never be obtained. Even the more external matters cannot be managed to perfection. Perfect translation is impossible. The meaning of words and the structure of sentences can never be so determined that there shall be no ambiguity whatever, and the historical setting can never be perfectly reproduced in the reader's mind. But even farther beyond reach is the inner work of interpretation. One man cannot perfectly take another's point of view and think his thought after him: least of all can this be done when the other speaks out of another age and training, thinking his thought in a world of personal experience which to the student does not exist. The thought of Paul, for example, precisely as he thought it, no modern mind has thought or can ever think. Part of the indispensable conditions are lacking and cannot be supplied. It is one of the delusions of theologians to think that they have done it. No one has done it. And if no one has perfectly thought the thought of Paul, of course no one has ever perfectly accepted it, or agreed with it. Very many have agreed with Paul as they understood him, but with the very actual identical Paul, with his very thought, no one has ever perfectly agreed, for no one has had the opportunity.
Was I trying then to train my students to do the impossible ? In a sense yes, in another sense no. A long way toward full success in interpretation we can go. We can understand Paul, for example, approximately, and in general we can understand him well; and we may be sure that with proper use of means, we can understand him as well as we need to. God does not require the impossible, and we may be sure that he has not made an unattainable understanding of the Bible essential to our welfare.
This fact of the possibility of an imperfect and the impossibility of a perfect interpretation carries with it an important lesson as to the nature of the Bible; and better progress would have been made in my classroom if we could all have done justice to it. It confirms the conviction that had met me but not wholly mastered me years before. It means that in the Bible God has not given us an infallible standard, to all of whose statements he requires our assent. If he had given us such a standard, he should, and would, have insured to us the power of understanding it perfectly. There is no good answer to the claim of the Roman Catholic Church that an infallible standard of belief requires an infallible interpreter. But since for the Bible God has not given us an infallible interpreter and perfect interpretation is impossible, we may be sure that he has not given us the infallible book with which we must everywhere agree, the perfect standard that requires infallible interpreting. The Bible is a book that we can hope to understand as well as we need to understand it, through the best human endeavors with the help of God. In handling it we are free students, not required to agree to every statement that we find.
The method of interpretation into which I was trying to guide my students may be called the historical method, or there may be other names that describe it truly. The point never to be forgotten is that the writer is to be allowed to mean exactly whatever he intended to mean by his words, so far as our studies can find it out. The student is not dictating to him, or even guiding him. Paul, if he is the author, provides the statement, and the student endeavors to find what he meant by it. We study our author to discover his meaning. Perfect success we do not expect, but the only genuine success lies before us on this road. If we dictate to our writer, we are off the track.
This is where we got into trouble. A good many of my students understood Paul already—other writers, too, perhaps, but Paul the best. They were familiar with his theology, and knew already what kind of doctrine they were going to find in the Epistle to the Romans, where especially this trouble came upon us. So sure were they in advance, that they were studying him not so much to find out what he really did think, as to find the teaching that they were already attributing to him. Their tendency was to find in Paul what they had brought to him, and then think in all sincerity that he had given it to them. This manner of using the Bible had been ingrained in them by early training, by years of listening to doctrinal sermons, by attention to Articles of Faith, by discussion of doctrine, and by practice of their own in preaching what they had been taught. I do not mean that they were worse in this respect than other students, or preachers, or Christians. They were a fine set of men, some of them of the very best. I only mean that their theology was standing between them and a proper under-standing of their Bible—in which position they can claim large company.
Here they were yielding to an insidious temptation well disguised. Like Christians generally, they believed that God required them to agree with Paul. They supposed also, as Christians usually do, that they did agree with Paul, and that they were certain to agree with him still further as soon as they understood him better. This may be a very convenient attitude if one wishes to quote Paul, but it is a very treacherous attitude if one wishes to understand him. When a man in this frame of mind sits down to interpret Paul, it is extremely easy to find Paul agreeing with him. In fact, it is the most natural thing in the world. When it is assumed that the student, God's loyal child, is in the required attitude of sub-mission to God's written word which he is reading, it is only too probable that the written word will be read in harmony with the views of the loyal child. And if this process is going on, it is evident that the real meaning is certainly not sought, and is by no means sure to be found.
I criticise my students for this the more freely now, because I myself was falling under the same condemnation. I did the same myself, and the remembrance of it is one of the stinging and profitable remembrances of this period. It is true that I did not vitally believe that God required me to agree with Paul. As I have said, the power of that belief was already broken. Yet I was not free from the surviving influence of it, and probably my environment was doing more than I was aware to keep the influence alive. I was still studying Paul with the feeling, though without a real belief, that his arguments must be received as sound and his views of truth in religion as authoritative. But of course this position was unstable. By this time it had come to pass that on some subjects of the first importance, with which Paul dealt, my mind was made up, and was becoming more intelligently settled every year. These immovable views of mine, whether orthodox or not, were no whims of my own: I saw them to be absolutely necessary in ethics, and of the very substance of truth in religion, and that was why I held them. Now, therefore, when I studied Paul with my students, it was very difficult for me to think, or to admit, that he did not hold them too, or to find in him any meaning inconsistent with them. My students, often differing from me in theology, were constantly attributing their own views to Paul. I re-proved them for it, and sought to teach them a more excellent way; and yet I myself was really doing no better. I, too, was scarce willing to let him mean just whatever he did mean, and was interpreting him more or less according to my-self. In this I was sinning against my own sound theory. I confess the fault. If any of my pupils of that day read this page, my confession is for them. My only defence is that it was my better part that was doing it. The fault was not all condemnable. If I must agree with Paul, my better part cried out that he must be on ground where I could agree with him: therefore, in defence of my own moral integrity, I felt compelled to insist that on such ground he was. Since I must agree with the Bible, my soul clamored for a Bible that I could agree with with-out sacrifice of my best moral judgment. The demand for conformity throughout has driven many a mind to rejection of the Bible. At this time it was driving mine to make the Bible conform.
Whether the students or 1 or neither of us understood Paul correctly is neither here nor there for the present purpose. I am only telling how we all used the Bible, and why we used it so. More or less, we all read it as agreeing with us, because we supposed that we were required to agree with it. In this we were carrying our inherited idea of authority to one of its natural results. They and I were burdened, they in thought and I still in feeling, with a sense of obligation to accept every statement in the New Testament as God's truth for us; and this peculiar perversion came naturally in consequence.
But for me the obligation was vanishing as an impossible one. This was its last prominent appearance. I was learning that in human language there can be no book so infallible that God can require all readers to accept all its statements. Such a book would have to be perfectly unambiguous, so that in accepting all its statements all would be accepting the same things. But no book in human language can be perfectly unambiguous. Experience in interpretation of general literature demonstrates that, and how far from being unambiguous the Bible is, the long history of its interpretation shows. In such a book, too, all statements must needs be final; for God could not possibly require the assent of all, in successive ages, to provisional statements of some past time, the nearest true that the times were ripe for, but certain to be superseded, containing truth partly wrapped up in temporary forms. But in just such statements the Old Testament abounds, as all readers know, and so, in its measure, does the New. It is so of necessity, for no book whose statements were all final could ever be understood by men or appeal to them. And if we are told that our familiar Bible calls in God's name for our assent to everything that it says, we still must ask, The Bible in what stage of our understanding it ? Our present stage of under-standing is imperfect, as all past stages have been. We know what it is to under-stand "as a child," and "as a man," and still imperfectly, and we expect year by year to leave behind our former under-standings as we attain to better ones. So surely does the Bible change for us as we go on to know it better, that we can never be sure that we have quite attained to that sense which is binding upon our souls. A book thus unfolding as we study it we can use as a divine gift and a perpetual inspiration, but not as an in-fallible standard. The experience that I have been recounting settled these conclusions in my mind for permanency, as I think it ought.
During a year or two of this period, to meet a temporary necessity, I gave instruction also in Homiletics. Throughout the period too I was preaching a good deal. I preached in many places, to congregations great and small, in pulpits of various denominations. Thus both in theory and in practice I was still dealing with the Bible in the field with which my life had made me familiar. Here there was no change in my attitude. I was urging students to be correct and faithful in their handling of the Bible, and to put it to no use inconsistent with its original intention. A little earlier I had delivered some lectures in which I insisted that every preacher ought to make of himself an exegete, that is, a man who could read his Bible intelligently, and explain it. This claim was not based upon any special view of inspiration, but upon the sacredness of the Bible and the seriousness of dealing with the truth that it brings. On this simple principle I was now helping my students to use texts in their proper meaning, and was trying for myself to do the same.
In my own preaching, I was gaining in freedom and variety in the use of the Scriptures. I had learned that preaching was more versatile work than I used to think it was: there were more legitimate ways to preach than I had once supposed, and I was employing texts with a wider range of method. Once—though that was later —I received a letter of protest from an old Scotch minister about a sermon that he had heard me preach on Christian liberty. He told me the only line of thought by which that subject could be approached according to the gospel, and practically gave me the sermon that I ought to have preached. But I had learned that a great many different sermons could be legitimately made from one text, as the long history of preaching proves. In this period the manifold suggestiveness of the Bible was growing upon me, and thus its practical richness and vast availability. It is interesting to remember, by the way, that in preaching for half-a-dozen de-nominations it never occurred to me to vary or select my message according to the pulpit to which I was invited, nor did I ever have reason to suppose that any one wished me to do so. I was drawing from the Bible a gospel that was as welcome in one place as in another.
After this period of teaching I returned to the pastorate. The place was the scene of my own education in college and seminary, and a chief attraction in the invitation was that it offered opportunity of preaching to a large number of students, among whom were many for the ministry. My old teachers also, of whom several remained, were among the best hearers that a man ever had. In this last of my pastorates my Bible was better in hand than ever before, and I was using it with my best energies for real benefit to a most interesting congregation. What wonder that the work was delightful ? In looking over the sermon record of the time I do not find that I was attempting anything out of the common course. I was simply bringing my message from the Bible with gladness.
It was at this time that the higher criticism began to influence my thinking about the Bible. Of course many questions of the higher criticism had long been familiar, and entirely free. With such light as I had, I had unreservedly discussed questions of authorship, date, historical setting, and literary character. But thus far these questions had practically been separate from one another, pertaining to one book at a time, or to some one group. Inquiry as to the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, was absolutely free, and decidedly interesting, and quite indispensable to our studies, but it had not yet presented itself to my mind as a sample of a method that was to be applied with equal freedom to the entire Bible. Now, however, I became aware of a new situation of great interest and importance. The method that I had used as a matter of course in fragmentary fashion was now organized into a system, and was used in examination of all that the Bible contained. It now presented itself as the coming method, destined to be characteristic of a period in the history of biblical science. Its advent marked a new era. I had been brought up in a period of exegesis, in which attention was directed to the contents of the sacred books, sentence by sentence and word by word; a period therefore of textual criticism also, verifying the very words as far as possible. But now was ushered in a period in which attention was to be turned less upon the contents of the books for interpretation, and more upon the books themselves, their origin, their general character, and their external history. On general principles it might seem that this class of questions would be considered first, when once the scientific study of the Bible had begun. It would seem right to search out the quality and history of the books before sitting down to read them word by word. But the esteem in which the Bible was held determined the order of the studies, and it was quite inevitable that the first scientific work upon it should be devoted to ascertaining what the Bible says. But it was equally inevitable that after a generation of students had bent itself to this task, another generation should set itself to inquire with equal diligence what the Bible is. This was the inquiry of the higher criticism.
In the late Eighties I read the debate between President Harper and Professor Green on this later method of study. The discussion did not cover the whole ground, but it contained samples that illustrated the method and indicated the nature of the outcome. Some men of modern thinking were inclined to speak words of quietness, to the effect that the new style of work would make but little difference. I could not agree with them. I well remember how the conviction was borne in upon me that the higher criticism was a thoroughly revolutionary thing. I plainly saw that the Bible would not come out of this crucible as it went in. From the generally accepted views there would certainly be great changes. No one could tell beforehand what they would be, but it was not to be supposed for a moment that the popular conceptions of the Bible, inherited from the Jews and from uncritical Christian ages, would all stand the test of critical investigation. Many of them would have to yield to new conceptions. The coming of great changes was as certain as the coming of the future, if this work went on.
What should I think of all this ? and what should I do ? There was no room for doubt. The inquiry that was under-taken by the higher criticism was perfectly legitimate, and I had no right to resist it or to wish it away. It was as legitimate, and as important in its place, as laboratory work in chemistry or investigation of the causes of disease. Moreover, though I should never be an expert in the practice of criticism, I was pledged to approval of the enterprise by all my history as a student of the Bible. I had sought to be a sound interpreter of the sacred writings; but sound interpretation is quite impossible without just such examination of time, place, history, and literary character as the higher criticism proposes. This I had always assumed, for long before I ever heard the name of it I had undertaken elementary work of higher criticism, as something indispensable to the understanding of a book. However imperfectly I had lived up to it, my rule had always been to let the Bible mean whatever it does mean. But if I am to let it mean whatever it does mean, I must consent to let it be whatever it is. I must not dictate its character, any more than its utterance : I must leave these to be determined for me by the facts, and must do my utmost to ascertain the facts. If they prove to be other than I thought, it is I, not they, that must change, and to make the needful change must be my first desire. And if by tradition or by reverence I were tempted to exempt the Bible from critical judgment as to its origins and character, my experience in interpretation should recall me to a braver and more reason-able mind. I had not found it to be an infallible book in its counsel to a reader, for it contained old forms of truth that were long ago superseded by truth in higher forms, and the Bible itself contains the record of that superseding. It was not inerrant, for I had found its writers often irreconcilable in details, and sometimes demonstrably in error. The Bible was commended to me by its spiritual character as exceeding precious, but it was not marked by qualities that should set it apart from examination—if indeed any qualities could do that. Least of all did I find the Bible claiming any such exemption. It claimed neither inerrancy nor perfection of any kind. It was simply itself, and asked for no privileges.
Thus by all my studies I was pledged to this new form of study which they called the higher criticism. How it has been misunderstood ! Well, I remember the solemnity with which a minister said in my hearing, "The higher criticism is not higher, morally." No one ever said it was. But it is legitimate morally, and necessary to the understanding of the Bible. And so it has been my duty to accept the general conclusions of the higher criticism. I must be patient in doing so, and must allow time for a good degree of certainty to be reached, for I do not wish to accept new views prematurely. Yet even on this point I must not be too cautious. It is just as undesirable to retain an erroneous idea as it is to accept one. It is a popular charge against the higher criticism that its conclusions keep changing; there is no finality; if we adopt something now we may have to change again by and by. This aspect of the matter is often alleged as a sufficient reason for doing nothing at all about it. "When the higher critics have got their final conclusions," it is said, "we will be-gin to think of dropping our old ideas." But students do not talk in that way about chemistry, or physics, or astronomy, or any other science, or even about the geography of the North Pole. All genuine study assumes that knowledge is a growing thing, and as changes have come already, so they must come again. No one waits for the end of a movement in thought to be reached, before beginning to go along with it. All students of science are glad to let old ideas give place to new, with the perfect understanding that final conclusions may still be far away. All sciences, indeed, are revolutionized as often as new facts can revolutionize them. In like manner, if my old notions of the Bible are untenable, I must leave them behind and join those who are seeking for true ideas to take their place. In the search I may accept conclusions and be obliged to give them up again and receive others in their place; but that is what all students of reality are doing all the time, and if I do it I shall only be exercising my duty and privilege as a seeker after truth. Nevertheless, although I still retain the prospect of changes, the fact is that the work of higher criticism has already led to many conclusions that are not likely to be reversed. If they are to be altered hereafter, they will be altered by pursuance of the line of change, not by reversion to what has been left behind. Certain general large results, and many more special ones, may fairly be said to have been established to remain. At the present day, therefore, it is both my duty and my privilege to accept such conclusions. I shall be wilfully mistaken if I refuse. And if I accept them I am not to accept them on the sly and shamefacedly, but freely and frankly, like an honest man; and when they have been accepted I am not to lay them on the shelf, as if by mere mental assent I had fulfilled my duty to them. I must live up to my acceptance. I must take them into daily use in my own understanding and presentation of the Bible. I must manfully move with the movement of truth. I have sympathy with the man who said, "If it is heresy to think ahead of one's time, is it not heresy to think behind one's time?"
Thus the case opened to me when the claims of the higher criticism were first presented. I have never seen it in any other light, and for many years I have not talked as if Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or the book of Isaiah had but one author, or Job or Jonah were historical. On these points and various others I am sure: naturally there are some on which I am waiting for certainty, and hold only provisional conclusions. At any given moment doubtless my opinions upon such matters of fact could be convicted of in-completeness and inconsistency, for I have learned more in some fields than in others. But I have found comfort in the statement that there is no moral obliquity in giving simultaneous shelter to propositions that may afterward prove incompatible. I must make progress as I can. But I believe in the process, and in the progress, and I am living in daily use of great benefit from these studies. Late in the Eighties I read the statement that the higher criticism had already relieved us of more than half of the moral difficulties of the Old Testament. I thought it true, and have never doubted it. Indeed, more is true. The higher criticism removes the cause of the deepest of those moral difficulties, for it shows us that Christians need not attribute to the God of Christ all the acts and passions that Israelites attributed to the God of Israel, or approve the moral judgments that were recorded in days of inferior moral light. In the history, I have found the new light making much intelligible that was once con-fused, and much credible that was once hard to believe. Thus the modern method has come to me not mainly as a perplexing thing, though of course it has brought perplexity now and then, but far more as a means of light and help.
Particularly in one respect has the higher criticism deserved well of me. By the revolution that it has wrought in my conception of the Old Testament it has largely unified and Christianized my Bible.
It was a day of mingled good and ill when Christianity adopted the Old Testament as its original sacred Scripture. Near the beginning of these reminiscences I spoke of my mother as unconsciously in bondage because of the blending of Judaism with the gospel in the Bible that guided her religious experience. We were all subject to the same divided influence, part Christian and part non-Christian, proceeding from our sacred book, and we all suffered in consequence. I was brought up to suppose that the fundamental and character-giving element in the Old Testament was the law, by which was meant the Judaic law in its completeness—not merely the instruction and requirement of God for the soul, the simpler and more spiritual torah, but the great complex institution whose means of grace was altar-sacrifice and whose principle was legalism, with its law of merit in the sight of God. The entire body of the law, I was taught, was proclaimed at Sinai by the same God who was revealed in Christ, and stood through the Old Testament period as expressive of his mind and will for Israel, and in fact for all men apart from Christ. The Levitical law represented God as truly as the gospel, and represented his ancient way of saving men. The principle of legalism was of God, and bore divine honors in the Old Testament. I supposed that in the days of the old covenant men were accepted by God on the ground of legal righteousness, and that only in the gospel did the principle of grace come in—and that even then grace had to make terms with law righteousness before it could have its way. Both methods, the legal and the gracious, represented God; which meant that God was a being who could be fairly represented by either.
It is true that this belief, which was the outcome of my early training, had its difficulties. Paul seemed to think quite differently from this at times, condemning the central principle of the law as none of God's own. The Epistle to the He-brews, with all its reverence for the ancient institution, declared it worthless for the highest spiritual purposes. Words of Jesus sounded out like thunder against the whole legalistic principle and method. The ceremonial and sacrificial system seemed to have nothing in common with his view of religion. Thus I was drawn into a very hard dilemma. If my hereditary view was right, one and the same God and Father had taken two opposite attitudes in two successive periods, first proclaiming and insisting upon a principle of acceptance with himself which he afterward repudiated and condemned. There were minor difficulties besides, like the impossibility of finding the complete institution of the law existing through the Old Testament period, and the fact that the prophets uttered their clearest note when they were repudiating the principle of legalism; but the chief difficulty was the impossibility of attributing legalism and Jesus to the same God. My early reverence for the Bible led me to suppose it must be all right, but as I grew older the case grew harder. Within the Bible God seemed to be contradicting himself.
With what delight and satisfaction then did I welcome the message of the higher criticism! I was now led to see that the central thing in the religion of the Old Testament was not the law but the prophets and their teaching; and the prophets held forth essentially the same religion of spiritual inwardness and sincerity that Jesus preached—save as some of the later among them partook somewhat of the legal spirit. Not legalism but godliness was the religion of the Old Testament, as of the New. The law was ancient in its rudiments, and the divine instruction came gradually, but the developed law with its cramping legalism, instead of being most ancient, came late into the field of life. Instead of being the ground upon which the prophets stood when they delivered their burning messages of righteousness, the legalistic system grew up after the greatest of the prophets had spoken their word and passed away. Instead of being the voice of God in old time, legalism came in because the genuine voice of God, uttered in the prophets, had not mastered the mind of Israel. The teaching that rep-resented God in old time was the spiritual teaching that most nearly resembled that of Jesus Christ. In this light I saw that God had not held two contradictory attitudes in the two Testaments, or taken back his own teaching, or trampled upon his own earlier methods. Throughout the Bible religion was one, and God was one. His method of salvation was one in all ages, true to his own ethical nature. So then there was no need that a learner from the Bible be in bondage to legalistic notions of the way to be acceptable to God, and suffer the accompanying temptations to self-righteousness or despair. No longer could the Bible seem to require a Christian still to be half a Jew of the old legalistic dispensation. For me the Bible was redeemed from this old division, and brought into clear Christian unity.
At the same time the Old Testament law itself was redeemed from its evil name by the help of the higher criticism. By revealing the strata in which that law was formed, the higher criticism has made it more intelligible, and shown us why it was so useful to Israel and so delightful to men of God in the Psalms. When the legalistic element is mainly taken out of the earlier law and shown to have come in at the end of the period, the earlier law itself is left more spiritual, and more like the prophets and the gospel. It appears as a righteous and kindly social order according to the standards of the age, and as a religious order in which the men of the period could find uplifting and satisfaction for their minds. It told of God in his goodness, and was adapted to nourish the best spiritual life that was possible in that time. It was far more worthy of God and helpful to men than that, elaborate system could have been which I had supposed to have been revealed in full by God through Moses. So while I could see that Jesus was right in his estimate of the legalism of his day, I could enter with equal fellowship into the feeling that Psalmists entertained toward the law of the Lord as it stood in their time, and could understand the deep spiritual delight with which they regarded it.
I commend this experience of mine to the many Christians who have been led to suppose that the higher criticism can be nothing else than a weapon of unbelief. For me it has made the Bible to be far more consistently a Christian book than it had ever been before, and has placed it in my hands more ready for all Christian use. In my progress toward the restful attitude concerning the Bible which I now hold, I thankfully recognize the higher criticism as one of the most valuable of helps.