60 Years With The Bible - The New Century
( Originally Published 1917 )
AT the close of the Nineteenth Century I had been engaged for a decade in the work to which my life had led me. My method of using the Bible had been longer than a decade in practice, and through practice had only grown clearer and more consistent. I had had no wish to go back from it, and could not have gone back if I had desired. It had been attained through one of those movements of growth that cannot be revoked. Consequently the years of the new century have not recorded any great changes in my attitude toward the Bible. Nevertheless, I must say a few words about these years. The due result of my previous experience has appeared in them in a manner that I must not leave unmentioned.
In this last period I have not been working upon my Bible nearly so much as I was in the Seventies or the Eighties, but I have been working with it, by means of it, in the light of it, in a manner that was then impossible. From being mainly an object of study, the Bible has passed on to be more and more a means of study; and such it has continued to be until the present time, and will be through the remainder of my life. I am glad to report that this has come to pass, for I am sure that this accords with the will of God for his children.
The story that I have told illustrates this double use of the Bible, first as an object of study and afterward as a means of study. In the late Seventies, when without will of my own I was plunged all at once into investigation of the atonement, the keynote of my later work was sounded. I have described the change by saying that I then passed on from using the Bible in the Iight of its statements, to using it in the light of its principles. Not that the later method was then first introduced, or the earlier then abandoned. Both enter into all sound study, and both have been with me more or less from first to last, or I should have no experience with the Bible worth recording. But the two periods were unlike, in that attention to statements was characteristic of the earlier, and attention to principles of the later. Once it seemed sufficient to inquire what the Bible said upon a given subject, and to analyze and classify the answers. Afterward it became necessary to inquire not merely what the Bible said, but what it taught, upon a given subject—to ascertain what light it gave, by means of its great revelation of God and life. What it teaches through its large revealing may be something different from what it says in its various statements. Certainly what it teaches in this large way is different from what it says in some of its statements. In my later years I have had to look beyond the sayings to the teaching.
The significance in a man's life of this change is evident. It needs no proof that this change of method is in effect the same as that which was mentioned just before it. When I viewed the Bible as a body of statements, it was natural that I should use it chiefly as an object of study. I was seeking to know what the statements meant. When I came to view it as an expression of principles, the principles of divine religion, it thereby became to me a means of study: then I sought to know whither the principles led. The book thus became to me an instrument of advance, an opportunity for the obtaining of. further light upon the matters of which it treats. The significance of these last years is that in them I have more and more used the Bible as the divine guide and inspiration for my own study of the things of God. It seems to me that this change must correspond to God's intention for a man advancing from youth to age. In youth he must wish me to master the statements of the Bible. In later life it must be his will that I seize upon the principles of the revelation that it brings me, and use them in exploring the heights and depths of his truth.
In these years of the new century it has been my lot to be doing such work as this in connection with the Christian doctrine of God himself. Having been intrusted with the task of giving expression to that supreme doctrine, I was both entitled and required to follow the method that I have now set forth, and to explore the bound-less field in the light which the Christian revelation affords when its full contents have been brought out. The task is too great for man, but no other task does a man undertake when he endeavors to exhibit the Christian doctrine of God. Exactly this has the Bible been to me in this great research-the bearer of the light that guided mind and heart to the vision of the divine reality. In my endeavor to see God in the light of Christ, the Revealed in the light of the Revealer, the Bible has ministered to me the Christian truth that illumines all the great realities, human and divine. In using it in this manner, I conceive myself to have been seeking knowledge of God in a way that he must approve.
It is evident that in putting the Bible to such use as this a man needs to be confident, and sure of his ground. If I had been afraid that my Bible was slipping away from me and likely to be lost, I should not have been able to employ it thus. Many do fear that it is slipping away, and are not sure that they are entitled to trust it simply. There are so many open questions about it-so much about it is unsettled and liable to change it seems so certain that open questions will continue to embarrass our efforts after knowledge sure and clear: how can it be put to highest uses with such unquestioning confidence as my purpose requires ?
With regard to open questions about the Bible, I can say that within recent years some of them have been settled for me. On various points that were doubtful I have come to a sense of certainty that I believe to be well grounded. Many perplexities have thus been done away. But by this I do not mean that the era of open questions is closed, or closing. It is equally true that within the same period some new questions have been opened for me, and that some, both old and new, remain open until now, and seem likely to remain open, I do not know how long. I fully expect, too, that other questions may be opened in time to come. But in all this there is nothing to be wondered at. In our knowledge of the Bible, as in all other knowledge, open questions are to be expected to abide with us. No knowledge is without them, or ever will be, any more than any knowledge has ever been without them in time past. With reference to the Bible, we have reached a time when we are more aware of them than before: that is all. In this field, as in every other, we must count upon them as ever-present companions of our thought. If we cannot have confidence in our Bible in the presence of questions that we do not know how to answer, confidence we cannot have. If strong and happy use of the Bible is incompatible with waiting for light upon a multitude of points, we shall always be helpless.
For my part, there are many points about the Bible on which I have no certainty, and many on which I expect future light to alter present judgment. Many of these open questions may remain open for a long time to come, and I have no doubt that others, equally important with these, may be opened here-after. But to say this is to tell no strange story. It is only to say that knowledge of the Bible is increasing and destined to increase. New understanding always opens new matters that are yet to be understood, and new light always brings the certainty of future changes. It is very true that if I were still using the Bible in the method in which I was reared, this condition of things might be very troublesome, and my confident: freedom might be greatly impaired. My release from that method was a necessity. But in my present attitude the existence of open questions does not distress me, and I have no fear that the questions outstanding will be settled in such manner as to destroy the value of the Bible. My confidence in it rests on a securer basis.
The ground of my confidence is this. By this time in the history of the world the quality of the Bible as the book of divine religion is so established that we may think of it with serene confidence. It is certain that the Bible gives us knowledge of Jesus, and that Jesus gives us knowledge of God, and that God as Jesus reveals him is the true light of life. Our sacred book is thus our guide to Jesus, to God, and to life divine. This fact has been established in long human experience, and can be trusted. We are not to be deprived of it: it will stand. For some minds it may be obscured, but it is a steadfast certainty, on which we are entitled to rest in peace. In this view of the Bible I hold it, and use it, and expect to use it as long as I live, and commend it to the generation following. I beg my fellow-Christians not to distrust it or fear for it, as if open questions were to be settled to its destruction or even to its weakening. The question of its religious value is not an open question, and we must not act as if it were. It is a gift of God that will abide.
The chief danger about the Bible at present is, on the one hand, that it will be studied too much in the mere spirit of criticism, without regard to its religious value, and, on the other, that the timidity of Christian people on critical grounds will prevent them from holding that religious value in its true rank and place. In its religious preciousness and power the Bible is gloriously their own; but there is danger that they will not hold that fact in a sufficiently strong and intelligent confidence. I believe that the religious confidence in the Bible to which I have been led is a sample of that to which the Christian people are entitled, and I wish they all might have it. That is the reason why I have tried to set it forth in these reminiscences, and am calling the children of our Father to join me in such experience as I here commemorate. I am thankful for the way in which I have been led to this free confidence, and gratefully testify that the ancient book still brings me the light and inspiration in which I work; and I invite all timid souls out into the liberty that I have found.
Since these pages began to be written, I have listened to a sermon that left me rejoicing in more ways than one—rejoicing in so strong and winning a presentation of a searching truth, and rejoicing again that I did not fall under its condemnation. The text was, "Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things," and the theme was the impossibility of maintaining a satisfactory adult religious life on the basis of ideas received in childhood. For illustration the preacher took the conceptions of the Bible and of God that childhood can apprehend. He showed how full these conceptions are of worth and beauty, and how genuine a religion of childhood they may support, but he showed also how inadequate they are to support the religious experience that is normal to adult humanity. The childish ideas are too light and small to bear the strain of advanced life: they need to yield their place to ideas that have been, grappled with and made one's own by the powers of maturity. And yet, the preacher said, the childish ideas are exactly what thou-sands of Christians are endeavoring to live upon all their days. The weakness of much life in the church he attributed to this unfortunate combination of adult needs and infantile supplies. To his hearers, or as many of them as the accusation suited, he said, in effect: "You went out from the Sunday-school in your teens, with such ideas of God and the Bible as you had then been able to receive, and you have been living your religious life upon them ever since. In the world's work you have bent your powers to large undertakings, and have grappled with the enterprises of adult humanity. But upon the Bible and the thought of God you have never made strenuous exercise of your maturer faculties : you have never done man's work in seeking a more adequate knowledge of these realities, but have tried to live along nourished by no larger or richer conceptions than you made your own when your powers were those of children. No wonder that your adult minds cannot more than half believe in the Bible and the God of your infancy: no wonder that your religious life is narrow and poor, your minds are perplexed by the hard questions of the day, and your energies are repressed or misdirected. You need to put away childish things, and to make your own the Bible and the God of men." I approved the message with all my heart and was glad that I was able to listen to it without remorse. I might, I said to myself, have tried to live until now upon the ideas of the Bible and of God to which I had attained at the end of the Fifties of the Nineteenth Century—true ideas and not unworthy then, but too small, too unreasoned, too ill-supported, too unspiritual, for the needs of my later years; and I was glad that I could say to God and my own soul that I had spent the lifetime of a man in enlarging, deepening, and correcting the ideas that as a child I had received, and in seeking better foundations for a better faith. Thanking God for this, I thanked the preacher for his message, and wished that his sound words might go forth to all the Christians in the world.