The Divine Revelation In The Bible
( Originally Published 1906 )
The new learning regarding the Bible calls, not only for a restatement of the doctrine of inspiration, but also for a reconsideration of the kindred question of revelation. In what sense is it true that "the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind"? If the Bible is "the Word of God," or "contains God's true Word," how does that "Word" express the Divine Mind, and how does such an expression differ from the disclosures afforded by "the Book of Nature"? This is a question with which any valid, critical treatment of the Bible must deal seriously.
The answer hitherto given to this question has been definite, positive, precise; but it no longer satisfies because it is now seen to be too simple, naive, childlike. In ancient times, when the gods were thought to be more numerous, nearer to the earth, and more human than subsequently, and were supposed to participate in all important mundane affairs, it was easy to believe that they spoke directly with men. The history of antiquity is full of their imagined doings and sayings. The primitive Israelites, still polytheistic, shared the universal ideas in this respect; and when they developed at length a pure monotheism, they retained, if they did not even increase, their conviction that Jehovah their God not only ruled "in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth," but also communicated his messages and mandates to whomsoever he would. Knowing nothing of secondary causes, the Almighty was the immediate cause of every significant occurrence : it was he that hardened Pharaoh's heart, he that turned the tide of battle, he that raised up and threw down potentate and priest; likewise it was he who prompted and imparted the utterance of lawgiver and prophet, wise teacher and psalmist. God, to the Hebrew, was "in His world," as well as above it, not exactly in the same sense, and yet as really and vividly as to us-perhaps even more so ; and "the Lord said," or "the Lord spake unto me, saying," were expressions more frequent and natural than they can possibly be to our modern thought.
In view of this general attitude of mind, it is easy to understand how the writers and speakers in the Old Testament era should have believed very sincerely in a divine inspiration and revelation; and likewise how, in the later centuries of Judaism, when their deliverances were gathered up and canonized, "the Scriptures" should have been regarded as the direct gift of God, holy and flawless. Speaking of the various titles by which these "Scriptures" were designated at about the time of Christ, Professor W. Sanday says :
It is common to all these titles that they indicate a Divine origin. And this is a point which may be illustrated with overwhelming abundance. There can be no doubt that it was a rooted idea among the Jews of the first century, both Hellenistic and Palestinian, that the Scriptures of the Old Testament came from God. Philo expresses this in the most uncompromising manner.
Professor Sanday further shows that Josephus and the Jewish doctors had precisely the same view as to the divine source of these Scriptures, and that the New Testament reflects it also in its allusions to the Old Testament. And when, in the course of the first four Christian centuries, the New Testament writings came to be put upon an equality with the Old, it was inevitable that the same general conception of their supernatural character should attach to them—indeed, this was the very reason for their canonization as "Scripture."
Now this ancient and traditional conception, inhering somewhat in the Bible itself, and reaching us unquestioned, in the main, until the rise of the present critical era, has educated popular Christian thought to consider both Testaments as a divine revelation in much the old primitive sense. Of course it has been modified more or less, but substantially it still prevails among the Christian masses, and is fairly stated in this brief passage from a recent book:
According to it [popular theology], it would seem as if there existed before the foundation of the world a certain number of divine truths, all absolute, none relative. A page of these truths, so to speak, was given to Abraham, another to David, another to Hosea, another to Paul. The complete collection of these revelations constitutes the Bible. In accordance with such a view, revelation is always absolute, of equal value for all time.'
Deeming such a conception mechanical, and not in harmony with what we know to be the natural workings of the human mind ; deeming it also inconsistent with a true view of the Scriptures as literature, because tending to obliterate all traces of variety in them, we must seek to formulate a better conception of revelation, more justly explaining the ways in which the Bible may be said to disclose the Divine Mind to mankind.
1. Let us start with the fundamental thought that, if the universe is really divine, its divineness may be expected to manifest itself somehow to spiritual beings capable of apprehending divine truth. This ought to be obvious without much argument. If a world is orderly and rational, its order and rationality must be discernible by denizens having a natural sense of order and endowed with reason. If the planets are actually governed by mathematical laws, those laws must be cognizable, in part at least, by beings possessing a mathematical cast of mind ; and the point is that such beings do not read their mathematics into the firmament, but rather merely discover the mathematical principles already established there. Sir Isaac Newton did not create gravitation; it was a preexistent reality, and he at length perceived it. So we may say of beauty; the artist does not put it into the landscape, but recognizes it when he finds it already there. So we may say of goodness and love in human life; wherever they really exist, they manifest themselves soon or late to other good and loving hearts. It all resolves itself into a question of reality. The primary ground of any knowledge on the part of man is the assumption that knowledge is possible, that is to say, that the universe is intelligible, that reality can be apprehended. If, then, the universe is divine as well as intelligible, that is, if it is spiritual, having a spiritual order and spiritual meanings, its spirituality may be expected to manifest itself, sometime and in some degree, to spiritual beings inhabiting it.
a) Man is such a spiritual being. He thinks, feels, wills, knows; conscious intelligence is the highest form of knowledge which he experiences ; and consciousness testifies daily to his spiritual nature, while such testimony is corroborated by all the observations and tests which he can make in the lives of his fellow-men. If he can be sure of anything in this world, he is sure that he is a spiritual being by nature. This is an ultimate postulate of thought; he can neither flout it nor go beyond it.
b) As such a spiritual being, man finds traces, hints, indications of an existing divineness in the universe. He does not make them or read them into the universe, any more than the sensitive beholder makes or puts into the cathedral the solemnity which so quickly impresses him as he enters the sacred building. The beholder finds the solemnity because it is both there and in himself, and because he is therefore able to recognize it. So man as a spiritual being perceives a divine character upon the face of the universe because it is there and because there is such divineness in him that he is able to recognize it there. If any given person should deny its existence, he would only confess his inability to perceive it, as a man color-blind might deny the beauty of a rose.
c) Thus detecting, here and there, hints and fragments of an existing divineness, man is forever trying to interpret them, trying to read the strange language (yet not wholly strange) written all over the earth and sky. He is like Chainpollion, who patiently deciphered the trilingtua.; inscription of the Rosetta stone, in the early part of the nineteenth century; or like the host of scholars who have been translating the cuneiform writings on the clay tablets of ancient Assyria and Babylon ; only that the hieroglyphs in which the Divine Mind has written the story of eternal wisdom, goodness, and love in the Book of Nature, in human history, and in the inner experience of the individual heart are a living language, as fresh and inspiring today as "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy."
d) Spelling out a few words of this divine language, or a few sentences of this divine story, man becomes increasingly convinced that there are larger, deeper, higher meanings yet to be apprehended than he has ever dreamed of ; that he has scarcely learned the alphabet of this marvelous medium by which the spiritual element in his own soul may enter into the spiritual treasures of the universe; and that he has only to press on, in patience and love, to discover vaster, more beautiful, more benevolent purposes and methods in the divine constitution and order of the world than eye hath seen, or ear heard, or the heart of man conceived. And so, with growing assurance and joy, he says with Browning —
This world's no blot for us
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
e) But one more thought must be borne in mind in this connection, namely, that man is limited in his discernment of the divine meaning of the universe by his own limited capacity. You can get no more out of a foreign language than you are able to read ; you can get no more out of an opera than you can understand and appreciate; and if in either of these cases you get nothing, the fault is not in the language or the opera, but in yourself, How much of man's thought, love, learning, plans, and purposes can be apprehended by the domestic animals? A little bit, we are sure; yet how very little! Going a step higher, let us consider how meagerly a child may grasp its father's knowledge, intentions, hopes, or even affections; or a pupil his teacher's learning; or a half-civilized negro the culture of an Emerson or a Curtis; or a coarse, wicked sensualist the exalted, pure, unselfish, spiritual insight and ideal-ism of the Christian saint. In each instance the limitation lies upon the inferior soul—his eyes are holden, that he cannot see. So every man's apprehension of the divine significance and glory of the universe is inevitably and inexorably limited by the limitations of his own spiritual capacity. He can have as much sunshine as he can take and enjoy; as much truth as he can understand; as much goodness and love as he can appropriate and appreciate; as much of the Divine Life as his own life can contain and manifest.
2. Now we are prepared to see how God may be reasonably supposed to be seeking to disclose himself to his spiritual children. Not only. are they forever seeking to apprehend more and more of the divine meaning which flits before them and invites their reocgnition ; but he who put the meaning there, and is himself its Source and End and Explanation, is likewise seeking to tell them as much of himself as they can understand. At least this is a familiar and congenial thought to the Christian. If we are warranted in conceiving of God as "a Divine Mind and Will ruling the universe, and holding moral relations with man-kind," it is easy to think of him as perpetually expressing himself in and through the government which he thus maintains, thereby putting himself in the way of being apprehended by those of his finite creatures who have acquired sufficient intelligence to recognize some traces of his in-dwelling existence. If we go a step further and characterize God as paternal, we must see that his love for his children is only another name for an infinite yearning for recognition and communion—a yearning that is immeasurably deeper and purer in him than it can be in us, and that constantly broods over us and solicits our answering knowledge and love. Even as the parents and teachers of Helen Keller strove, with an ineffable affection and patience, to make some sign by which she should understand their love and their thought, in other words, sought earnestly to communicate with her; so may we believe that God—so must we believe, if he is to us the God and Father of Jesus Christ—is continually seeking to make known his thought, goodness, and loving-purposes to us, his earthly, spiritual, shut-in children.
This waiting desire of God's universe to reveal its secrets to the human mind is well expressed in Mr. Lowell's lines —
We trace the wisdom to the apple's fall,
3. Granting so much, we have next to note how God makes use of the outward world to reveal somewhat of himself. On the field of the material realm, in the midst of which we dwell for a time, and to which we sustain relations of vital dependence, he displays, in infinite abundance and variety, evidences or expressions of his presence and character, which are to be learned by us. Like pupils entering the high school from the lower schools, and finding upon the walls of the new rooms maps, charts, diagrams, pictures, and quotations from foreign languages, all of which are strange and cannot be understood at first, but whose meaning will become known in the course of study ; so we, pupils in the great school which is the world, are surrounded with wonderful symbols which convey some fragmentary message of the Divine Father's loving thought, or some reflection of his transcendent wisdom and glory, and these we are slowly to learn to interpret aright. Doing so, we pass "through nature to God" by "thinking God's thoughts after him."
If we ask what the outward world reveals of God or about him, the answer may be indicated, in part at least, by these words, namely: "Power," "order," "life," "wisdom," "goodness," "beauty." These terms which the human mind employs to designate what it perceives in the world are but so many names of the varied manifestations of that inscrutable Essence which the scientist calls the all-pervading Energy of the universe, which the mystic calls the immanent Spirit, and which the Bible calls the living God. The name is of slight consequence, the Reality. is everything; and the Absolute Reality can be, at best, very imperfectly apprehended by us through the veil of material phenomena.
4. When, however, we press a little more closely and consider how God makes use of the human realm to reveal himself, we see all these manifestations taken up and carried to a higher stage, bringing us more nearly face to face with the Eternal Father. For in this realm we find a new series of phenomena, denoted by such words as "intelligence," "will," "virtue," and "love." It is only in rudimentary form, if at all, that these qualities appear in the lower realm, the realm of nature; but here, in the higher realm, the human, spiritual realm, they are so abundant, so distinctive, and so exalted as to be dominantly characteristic; and along the loftier ranges of the human world, as exhibited in a Plato or a St. Paul or a Dr. Martineau, we find ourselves confronted by facts and forces wholly transcending the utmost reaches of the physical domain. In the presence of such ideas, thoughts, and garnered learning, such aspirations, affections, and fine discernments, such disinterested benevolence, such august sanctions, such holy passion as we witness in the great and good who have crowned our world with glory and honor, we read a new language telling a new story of the Indwelling Spirit that seeks by these additional signs to communicate with our minds and hearts. Thus do these spiritual traits, appearing in human life, indicate the Greater than these that is their Source; and thus "the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God."' As the products of man's creative genius—as in the case of the artist, the poet, the dramatist, the musician—prove the reality of his talent, and partly express his ideals and his character, and yet do not exhaust his power, but rather increase it ; so do these spiritual phenomena of the human world prove the existence of God, partially express his character and his disposition toward us, and yet leave his resources of wisdom and love unexhausted and infinite in their plenitude.
5. Now are we not ready to consider how God may employ races of men to express or reveal different phases of his thought, or to present different aspects of his educative, disciplinary providence? As a teacher in the school may use a certain class of pupils to show what may be accomplished in the study of language, and may use another class to show what may be accomplished in the study of music, and still another to show what may be done in drawing and painting; so the Great Teacher, Almighty God, may endow and inspire certain races of men in such ways as to enable them to show what may be achieved along lines of intellectual and aesthetic culture, or along lines of social organization and power, or along lines of moral and religious insight and influence. And in each of these cases the results wrought out may be justly held to indicate, not only what human nature is capable of, but also what is in the purpose of the Over-ruling Mind. As the workmen, skilled and unskilled, who are employed in the erection and adornment of a noble building, like a cathedral or the Library of Congress in Washington, show not only what they can do, but reveal even more clearly the conception and will of the architect who designed and planned it all ; so do the various peoples of the earth, in working out through the ages their natural tendencies and achievements, show, not only their own potentialities, but even more remarkably unfold and exhibit the beneficent thought and the stupendous plan of the Supreme Architect of the universe. Thus does human life, on a vast scale, in its slow, evolutionary development, reveal the wisdom and goodness of God; and with intelligence, as well as with reverence and gratitude, the devout heart may sing:
He rules the world with truth and grace,
It is in the light of this large view of the subject that we are to interpret spiritually the mission of Greece, to show the world the excellence of knowledge and beauty; of Rome, to show the excellence of social order; of Israel, to show the excellence of morality and religion; and of them all to "declare the glory of God" and to work out his vast designs for the ultimate blessing of the whole family of mankind.
Considering the case of Israel particularly, we see how striking and significant are the facts. Although we may reasonably hold that all men are by nature moral and religious beings, it was given to the Hebrew people to exhibit these traits in an exceptional degree. With them the ethical instinct became at length a passion for righteousness, and the religious sentiment became a fervent spirit of holiness, trust, and love that survived all "shocks of doom." Beyond any other people known to history, they felt the presence of God and the moral character of his government of the world. To say that he impressed himself and his justice and goodness upon them, more deeply than upon others, is but to claim that he was active in this part of his world in peculiar or special ways as, indeed, he is active in other realms and in different individuals in yet other peculiar ways. Genius is wonderfully diversified ; no two poets or musicians are exactly alike; and why should any two races be identical in their apprehension and experience of divine truth. One flower differs from another flower, even as "one star differeth from another star in glory ;" but all flowers and all stars reveal the beauty and wisdom which the Creator has embodied in these forms of material nature. So does the Hebrew race, in its historical development, apprehend and therefore unfold or disclose the higher aspects of moral and religious truth, what it means to feel the power of righteousness and the presence of God. To that race as a whole, and to many an individual member of it, the Great Spirit, the living God, seemed more real and potent, more august and holy, more merciful and paternal than to any other people in all the world. It is not too much to say that he drew especially nigh to them, impressed himself especially upon them, and so moved or wrought within them as to make them singularly aware of the divine and holy character of the life to which they were prompted to aspire. "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord," and the Lord lights it! "There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding"—gives him insight, apprehension, appreciation. How this is done we cannot tell, any more than we can tell how it is given to the poet to sing his songs, or the philosopher to grasp the profoundest truth, or the mother-heart to love and to know by loving what is pure and good. The mystery of mysteries is the in-dwelling of the di-vine in the human : how, then, shall we attempt to define it? We touch the border of the infinite life, and we understand and explain only as we learn by experience. But assuredly every heart that has thus learned to feel and know the presence and power of God, however imperfectly, can easily believe that he may have manifested himself to seers and prophets in the olden time with exceptional potency and fulness, and that he may have so wrought upon and within the Israelitish people as to justify the psalmist's remark, "He hath not dealt so with any nation.
It is this providential dealing with the Hebrews, as a whole, this progressive experience which they had in moral and religious ways, this growing apprehension on their part of the divine meaning of conduct, of human existence, of the worlds and the ages—it is this, taken largely, that constitutes God's revelation of himself to them ; and out of all their experience, their thoughts and feelings, their mistakes and sins, they produced that wonderful literature which expresses their deepest life, and thereby expresses whatever measure of God's spirit and purpose he was able to put into them.
In what, then, does the substance or essence of the biblical revelation consist? In the words of another, "is it the history of the cosmos, the origin of man, the Israelites in the wilderness, the conquests of Joshua, the levitical priesthood, the exploits of Samson, the deeds of Saul? Does it forecast the future; tell of a kingdom that shall pass away, of a deliverer that shall come? Does it announce the end of the world, a final judgment, an ultimate salvation and reprobation? Do we read it literally in the texts of Judges and Isaiah and Ezekiel, in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, in the colloquy of Mary and Elizabeth, in the rhapsody of Zacharias, in the arguments of Paul, in the visions of the Apocalypse?" 8 Such has been the common belief. But a better conception is that which is at once more simple and more comprehensive; namely that the substance or essence of the revelation lying back of the Bible and contained in it is the self-disclosure of God to the spiritual consciousness of man—the self-disclosure of God in his moral character and as a gracious Providence; a disclosure made in a marked degree to the Hebrew people because they were remarkably qualified to receive it; a disclosure, nevertheless, which, in some degree, is made to all his earthly children. As Dr. Martineau finely says, this
self-disclosure of God to the human spirit . . . . carries in it the consciousness of a present Infinite and Eternal, behind and above as well as within all the changes of the finite world. It brings us into contact with a Will beyond the visible order of the universe, of a Law other than the experienced consecution of phenomena, of a Spirit transcending all spirits, yet communing with them in pleadings silently understood. But it recites no history; it utters no sibylline oracles; it paints no ultra-mundane scenes; it heralds neither woes nor triumphs of "the latter days."'
If we recognize this great central truth as the very heart of the biblical revelation—God's impression of himself, in his moral character and as a gracious Providence, upon the Hebrew people—we immediately find room for the principle of development, and can readily allow for all crudities and errors in the apprehension of divine truth on the part of the Israelites. That is to say, we see that the revelation was progressive; there was a progressive seeking after God by the most spiritual men of Israel ; and there was a progressive intensifying of God's presence and power among them, and a progressive unfolding of his purposes regarding them and the world, from age to age. As we trace this spiritual evolution in the Bible, we see how the Hebrew race was led gradually from lower to higher ideas and ideals; how polytheism and anthropomorphism prevailed among them in the beginning; how at length monotheism triumphed, and Jehovah became spiritualized, and righteousness and mercy came to be more important than wars and sacrifices. So we behold, in the long history covered by the Old Testament, a grand moral and religious development which becomes an example and an interpretation of the religious evolution of the entire human family. In the light of it we see that what Israel learned of morality and religion, of God and his government, all men everywhere are in process of learning, more or less thoroughly, and always will be in some stage of that process; so that the Bible, which grew out of the ethical-religious experience of that particular race, in its particular historical setting, will always speak with some great measure of truth and power, to the hearts of all other men and women regarding divine things. Thus the God who drew nigh to Israel draws nigh to us and to all men in the intelligent, sympathetic reading of those ancient Scriptures which are the literary record of his providential dealings with that "peculiar people ;" and the words of President Henry Churchill King are entirely justified :
Here in the Old Testament we come into fellowship with the real God, who is the creator of the real world and acts in the real course of history. Not an imaginary God, a dream God, a God of mystic contemplation or of metaphysical speculation, but the real God of real life and history—Israel discerned. This is the glory of these books, and the secret of their sanity and permanence and power as well. To be quickened ourselves, therefore, by the faith and vision of God of these old prophetic spirits, whatever their limitations, and then to be able to see for ourselves in this history of Israel the presence of God, by his own. revelation in us—this is the supreme office of the Old Testament. This is the self-evidence of the Old Testament—God speaking through it.
It remains only to remark that the divine revelation in the Bible culminates in the character and teaching of Jesus Christ. What elsewhere is seed and root, in him becomes flower and fruit. In him are fulfilled "the Law and the Prophets," not, in-deed, in any literal sense, but most sublimely in a vital and spiritual sense. In him were realized the purest longings of the best men of his own nation in its pathetic yet morally glorious history of nearly two thousand years. At the same time, although "a Hebrew of the Hebrews," he was singularly independent of race and country and age in his thought and spirit. As Dr. Henry Van Dyke has well said :
He was not a commentator on truths already revealed. He was a revealer of new truth. His teaching was not the exposition ; it was the text. And this higher revelation not only fulfilled, but also surpassed, the old; replacing the temporal by the eternal, the figurative by the factual, the literal by the spiritual, the imperfect by the perfect. How often Jesus quoted from the Old Testament in order to show that it was already old and in-sufficient; that its forms of speech and rules of conduct were like the husk of the seed which must be shattered by the emergence of the living germ! His doctrine was in fact a moral and intellectual day-break for the world. He did far more than supply a novel system of conduction for an ancient Iight. He sent forth from himself a new illumination, transcending all that had gone before, as the sunrise overfloods the pale glimmering of the morning star set like a beacon of promise upon the coast of dawn His teaching is neither ancient nor modern, neither deductive nor inductive, neither Jewish nor Greek. It is universal, enduring, valid for all minds and all times. There are no more difficulties in the way of accepting it now than there were when it was first de-livered. It fits the spiritual needs of the nineteenth, as closely as it fitted the spiritual needs of the first, century. It carries the same attractions, the same credentials in the Western Hemisphere as it carried in the Eastern. It stands out as clearly from all the later, as it did from all the earlier, philosophies. Tt finds the soul as inevitably today as it did at first"
We see, then, that the divine revelation implicated in the Bible consists, not in any particular form of words, howsoever written or by whomsoever uttered, but rather in the record which it presents of man's—specifically the Hebrew man's —spiritual experience in a growing apprehension of God's presence and power, of his moral character and gracious providence, culminating at last in a vision of his absolute paternity, as portrayed in the teaching of Jesus Christ; all of which means, on the other side, a constant seeking by the Eternal Spirit to break into the minds and hearts of his earthly children with the glorious light of his own ineffable truth and love, to prompt and guide them, to restrain and correct them, to discipline and develop them, and so to bring them to know and love and enjoy him, and then to make him known to other and more backward souls, among all the nations, throughout the ages, and in all the world ! It is thus the revelation of God to man; the revelation of man to himself; and the revelation of the spiritual constitution, meaning and destiny of that cosmic process by which our humanity has come into existence, and by which also it will be ultimately "delivered out of the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.