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The Moral And Religious Authority Of The Bible

( Originally Published 1906 )



In what sense and to what extent is the Bible authoritative in matters of faith and morals? This is the most vital question involved in these chapters. Indeed it is the one essential question lying at the heart of all the discussions of our time concerning the Scriptures. We may ascertain what the Bible is in its external history and its inner nature ; we may give a reasonable account of its inspiration and the character of the revelation which it affords ; and we may proceed to show its practical uses and value : but all this is merely relative and incidental to a true estimate of its authority. What every thoughtful person wants to know, and what current study is seeking to determine, is the sense in which and the extent to which the Bible solves the great problems of religion, life, and destiny; how far it tells us, and how far it is to be trusted in telling us, what religion really is, what and whence life is, whether and what God is, whether there is a future for the human soul and of what kind, together with the doctrines that must be believed and the practices that must be observed to insure our highest welfare. We are asking—thousands of honest and serious minds today are asking—Does the Bible really solve these problems at all? If so, how and how far? And he who can answer this question wisely and justly will render one of the best possible services to his fellow-men in the present state of the world's thought and feeling.

Now it may seem presumptuous for me to attempt to answer so great and grave a question. But each man's best thought is his best contribution to the progress of the race; and therefore he should put it forth, modestly but earnestly, to be confirmed or corrected by the inevitable growth of knowledge. Nor can a conscientious religious teacher evade the duty of serious thought upon so sharp an issue as we are here to confront. If we are to keep a firm footing and a clear vision amid the changing faiths of our time, so that we may lead the perplexed and the skeptical to a new and more valid trust in the great spiritual verities, and may be able to appeal to the indifferent with an effectual persuasiveness in behalf of a noble religion, we cannot avoid the most searching inquiry into the very nature of the soul's best assurances respecting things divine. To fail at this point is to fail everywhere, soon or late. We must know what we believe and why we believe, if we are to help others to believe at all. The importance of the present subject lies in the fact that it touches the deep foundations of our Christian faith, hope, and love.

Evidently the first thing to be done is to as certain the meaning of this word authority. We want to know what we are talking about when we speak of the Bible or of any person as having authority. Therefore let us ask what this term really denotes.

Like most of our important words, this contains a variety of ideas. From among the six different shades of meaning given by the Century Dictionary I select, as concerning us, these three: First, power or admitted right to command or act; as the authority of parents over their children, the authority of an agent to act for his principal. Second, the power derived from opinion, respect, or long-established reputation ; influence conveyed by character, office, station, mental superiority, and the like; as when we speak of the authority of a distinguished jurist or scientist or historian or physician, in his special line of thought and work. Third, that to which or one to whom an appeal or reference may be made in support of any opinion, action or course of con-duct; as when we speak of the testimony of a witness or the weight of that testimony; the credibility or reliability of an historian; the importance of the judgment of a certain scholar; the value of the decision of a court. As examples illustrative of these various significations we may take such familiar instances as these: A shareholder in a stock company has been authorized, and therefore has authority, to vote for absent shareholders in a business meeting; that is to say, power, consisting of liberty and right, has been given to him for this purpose. Again, an eminent specialist in the treatment of certain diseases is considered an authority in all such cases : that is, his opinions carry so great a weight as practically to settle the question for others. Once more, in matters of history we state certain things on the authority of ancient writers like Herodotus or Josephus or Eusehius or Plutarch; that is, these writers are our sources of information, and we take their word with whatever degree of confidence we repose in them, according as that confidence has been produced by acquaintance with their works and tests of their utterances.

Now we perceive running through all these different shades of meaning the one idea of power power to rule or act, power to command respect and confidence, power to convince of truth; and therefore I think they all may be gathered up into one comprehensive definition by saying that the word authority denotes power to influence the mind, in one way or another. Especially is this the case when we speak of the Bible or of any personage in it as having authority : we mean that it or he has power to command our assent, our acceptance, our belief, our compliance. If we say that the Bible is an authority in religion, we mean that, in some way, it has power to form, sway, and guide our religious thought, feeling and conduct; originating, it may be, or at any rate shaping, our beliefs respecting God, sin, retribution, salvation, right living, and final destiny.

But what is the precise nature of this power, and whence does it arise? Here we come to the parting of the ways, where we shall find two different conceptions producing two quite opposite attitudes.

I. There is the conception of authority in its objective aspect, as mainly an outward affair. For instance, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself authority—that is, power; that is, liberty and right and ability to determine what is true and obligatory in matters of faith and morals ; and that authority is looked upon and heeded by every loyal communicant in the great ecclesiastical household as external in its nature, having been derived from the apostles who received it from Jesus Christ. This is the kind of authority that is possessed by every priest, bishop, or superior potentate in the Church of Rome, and to some extent in other churches; an authority conferred upon those receiving and exercising it, and imposed upon those who must obey it. It is essentially the same sort of authority as that which is possessed by the Czar of the Russias, or by any other political monarch—the authority of dictation. An example of it in the Bible may be found in the case of the Roman centurion who said to Jesus : "I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me; and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth ; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it." This is the kind of authority which is possessed by every officer in an army—the power to command and be obeyed.

Now those who ascribe this objective authority to the Bible necessarily conceive it in such an outward fashion, as a power to be imposed upon the mind of its docile, unquestioning recipients. They look upon the Bible as a great pronunciamento, as a declaration and promulgation of the thought, will, and purpose of the Almighty, to be accepted without hesitation and to be obeyed with alacrity. Accordingly they are prepared to believe anything and everything that the Bible says, because the Bible says it. Their position is virtually that of the little boy who argues with his playmates : "It's so, for ma says so; and if ma says so, it's so if it ain't so !" There are thousands of people who have reasoned in this way regarding the Bible, just as there are thousands more who have reasoned likewise regarding the Roman Catholic Church : they have practically said : "It is so, for the Bible or the Church says so; and if the Bible or the Church says so, it is so, no matter how clearly science or experience may prove the contrary." People have argued this way about geography, astronomy and geology, about slavery and wine-drinking, about capital punishment and the subjection of woman, about the existence of the devil and an everlasting hell. Because they have thought their views on these subjects were taught in the Bible, and because they have had this conception of the authority of the Bible, they have believed in such views and persecuted those who did not. It is this conception of the authority of the Bible which leads people to call the Sacred Volume "the Word of God" "from back to back" or "from lid to lid ;" and they regard all criticism or dissecting of the Bible as the lifting of unholy hands against the oracles of the Most High.

2. There is the other conception of authority in its subjective aspect as mainly derived from an inner experience. For instance, you have a friend whom you revere and love; who is so great and noble, so pure and true that he instinctively and irresistibly attracts and holds your admiration, respect, confidence, and affection; who awakens in your soul such a feeling of sympathy, such a harmony of spirit, that all your finest affections go out to him, and you honor him, trust him, love him, and are happy in his presence. He does not ask such rich spiritual gifts from you, much less command them ; but he gets them without asking, because he wins and deserves them by virtue of his own inherent worth. Therefore he has power over your soul-the very best and highest kind of power—not so much by trying to have it, by exerting himself, as by simply being and being known to you. The diamond does not command our aesthetic love by saying anything, but by simply being a diamond and lying still before us in all its purity and perfection. The lily likewise does not request us to smile and rejoice when our eyes fall upon its delicate structure and sweet beauty; but we do this instinctively because we scarce can help it, because its own intrinsic loveliness meets and wins our delighted admiration. So it is with any great literary production, any true poem, any fine work of art, any noble deed, any lofty and lovable human character; its own intrinsic excellence has power to win us to itself, to awaken within us and draw out from us the best thought and feeling of which we are capable. Such is always the power of real excellence in any form—real worth, real beauty, real goodness, real love; it makes its own sure impression upon the human soul ; and in contrast with it how poor and hollow are all counterfeits, all falsehoods, all shams, all affectations, by whatsoever artifices they may be foisted upon us ! Who does not know the difference between these? Who does not feel himself capable of detecting that difference? You know, by your own intuitions, without anybody's telling you, whether the love of your affianced is true love, whether your friend's professed friendship is sincere, whether your minister's piety is genuine or affected.

Now this spiritual power over the human soul is the highest kind of power and the truest form of authority in all the world. Let us think of the father and his child. That father has a natural and proper right to command his child, and the physical ability to coerce him into obedience. But suppose he command and coerce him unrighteously and in anger; the child may, indeed, obey, but will he not obey under protest and with an inward sense of wrong that rebukes the father, and makes both father and child know that an in-justice has been done? And is such obedience ever worth one-half so much as that which the father secures through right and reason and patient kindness, winning the child's full respect, honor, confidence, and love, and thus the free self-surrender of his own will in glad acquiescence in the father's will, which the child feels to be just and holy? Alas that we do not know more of this power of righteousness and love ! But we know enough of it to know that it is the highest and truest power in the world. The laws of the land, with their executive agencies, may compel me to submit to some inherently unjust, iniquitous regulation, like the old fugitive slave law, for example ; but such power over me can never equal in worth or efficiency that of an inherently righteous law which my own conscience approves. Therefore no law can ever be really strong that is not grounded in righteousness ; no government on earth can be permanently secure that is not established in justice and truth ; and those governments must be most stable and happy, in the long run, which, like our own, "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed."

This spiritual power over the human soul was the kind of authority which Jesus possessed. It is said of him that the people "were astonished at his doctrine; for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." That is to say, he did not repeat to them, at second hand, the letter of the Jewish law, in a formal or perfunctory manner; but declared to them the truth of divine things, fresh and living, from out of the depth and purity of his own spiritual insight, and with such evident sincerity and earnestness that his utterances carried conviction to the hearts of the people, and awoke within them an approving response which made them feel like saying, if they did not actually say, "Amen and amen ! This is indeed the Christ ! This is that Prophet that should come ! Thou art a Teacher come from God!"

And this is precisely the kind of authority which Jesus possesses in the world today—the authority of convincing power, the power to win the assent of the mind, the approval of the con-science, the love of the heart, and the sanction of the spirit. No other authority in all the world is comparable to it. It is like the silent power of the sunshine in the material world, that melts the iceberg, warms the earth, lifts the waters of ocean, lake and stream into the air, calls the grasses and flowers into life, and spreads beauty and fruitfulness everywhere. It is the authority or power of inherent spiritual excellence, bearing its own weight, making its own impress, winning its own sweet way among men, gaining the admiration, gratitude and affection of the soul, softening the hard heart, removing prejudice, overcoming wrath, rebuking, correcting, purifying, and invigorating the whole spirit and character. Where else shall we find such a power? No king, prince, or potentate, no military officer, no ecclesiastical dignitary ever possessed any such power except in so far as it was really of this kind; that is to say, no power different from this ever equaled it in effectiveness. And what authority do we more readily acknowledge? before what law do we more reverently and gladly bow than before "the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus"? There is no sway on earth today like the sway of this majestic Prophet of Nazareth, the principles and spirit of whose teachings and character are gradually achieving their victories over sordid, sinful, selfish, afflicted men and women, making them to aspire, to be generous and pure, to hope and love, to be patient, gentle, and strong. And yet all this sway is only the influence of intrinsic spiritual excellence, embodied in the Son of Man and uttered in his spoken gospel. That Son of Man and that gospel are authoritative, that is, are of binding force, to you and me simply and only by virtue of their convincing power over our souls. If they have no such convincing power, they are not authoritative; but if they have, then we do actually acknowledge their authority, and in consistency ought to comply with it in all our conduct.

Now, in so far as the writings of the Bible possess any authority at all, it is of this spiritual kind. Theirs is not the authority of dictation, but the authority of conviction. Their power over the human soul is no less and no more than their power to win the assent of the mind, the approval of the conscience, the love of the heart, and the sanction of the spirit. And they do this through no factitious means. They have this power, not because they are writings of the Bible, but because they are writings of real and intrinsic worth—because they contain so large an element of truth, and breathe so potently the spirit of reverence, righteousness, trust, mercy, and love. Containing this truth and breathing this spirit, they help us to a clearer apprehension of this truth and a more complete realization of this spirit. In producing such an effect upon us they have to do it, and only so can do it, in the face of ignorance, doubts, questionings, misgivings, moral delinquencies, and spiritual deficiencies on our part. They have to take us as they find us, as we are, and manifest their excellence to us, convince us of their truth, and impress us with whatever spirit of goodness they possess. If they can not do this, they can not have any authority for us. If the story of creation, in the first chapters of Genesis, cannot convince me of its truthfulness, cannot win the assent of my mind, it can by no possibility have any authority for me ; I reject it, I cannot honestly accept it: how, then, can it be authoritative to me? If this sentence in Ps. cxxxix : "Do not I hate them, 0 Lord, that hate thee ?—1 hate them with perfect hatred," can not win the approval of my conscience or the sanction of my spirit, it can not have any authority for me, and could not if it were written in a hundred Bibles. If Paul teaches that woman should be in subjection to man, and should not speak in meeting, and should not even dress her hair in becoming fashion; and if I do not agree with Paul, but believe in the equality of the sexes, and accord the same liberty to others that I claim for myself, then Paul's teachings can have no authority on that subject for me, however much I may like and endorse his utterances on other subjects. A similar remark is applicable to the teachings of St. Paul and the apostles generally regarding the second coming of Christ and the end of the world; if it is clear to me that they were mistaken in their belief respecting this matter, their words cannot be authoritative doctrine for me to accept and inculcate now. If one of the gospel narratives says that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and its testimony is not to me conclusive, it cannot have authority for me in this particular, for it cannot win the honest assent of my mind—and such assent must be honest, or it is really no assent at all.

On the other hand, if many of the historical statements of the gospels appear to me to be credible, and by all the tests I can apply or scholars have employed, are not invalidated, then they have authority for me; for I accept them with good reason; and I cannot accept anything without reason and at the same time preserve my intellectual integrity, which is the prime condition of all faith. If Jesus says, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you;" 2 and if this injunction awakens an approving response in my soul, leading me to say: "Yea, and amen! if everybody would do that, the world would be soon rid of hate," then that utterance is a divine law with highest authority for me : it meets with the sanction of the purest and best spirit in my soul, and I can follow no higher or better authority than the highest and best that I am capable of appreciating. Or, if Paul says : `Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another ; "render to no man evil for evil;" "let him that stole steal no more;" "let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth;" "pray always;" "in everything give thanks," etc. ; and if I respond : "Yes, Paul, you are right; such are true and blessed injunctions, and would that all men might heed them!" then those sayings, receiving thus the sanction of the holiest spirit in my heart, become a heavenly man-date for my soul, with as much authority as if spoken by an angel.

In view of these considerations, I conclude that the nature of the authority possessed by the Bible, or by any part of it, is simply its spiritual power over our souls—its power to win the assent of the mind, or the approval of the conscience, or the love of the heart, or the sanction of the spirit. And the extent to which the Bible, or any part of it, is thus authoritative is precisely the extent to which it has this power. The authority of the Bible is therefore the authority of a helper—no more, no less. The Bible does not solve for me the great problems of life; it merely helps me to solve them. The Bible does not make me believe in God; it simply helps me to believe in him. The Bible does not make me believe in human immortality; it simply helps me to believe in it. The Bible does not make me good; it simply helps me to be good.

Accordingly, nothing is to be accepted just because it is in the Bible; there must be other good and sufficient reasons for such acceptance, as there must be also for rejection. Even though the doctrine of endless punishment were taught in the Bible, I should not feel that therefore I must believe it. Or if I am convinced that the doctrine of universalism is taught in the Bible, this fact alone is not an adequate reason for my belief in that doctrine; other considerations must harmonize with it and support it. And what I here say about the Bible I would say, with all reverence, about Jesus Christ. I do not believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ merely because they are his teachings, although I wish to say very emphatically that the fact of his teaching any given doctrine would go a great way toward leading me to believe in it—would go farther, indeed, than any other influence except my own best thought and purest spirit. Rather, I believe in Jesus Christ because he taught what he did. In other words, I do not accept the teachings of Christ because I believe that God sent him into the world. Rather, I believe that God sent him into the world because I see and feel that his teachings are true; they appeal to the best that is in me, and the best that is in me responds with a deep and holy approval. That is to say, the teachings of Jesus Christ must stand upon their own intrinsic merits, as must all teachings in the last analysis. If they are to endure and do good in the world, as I have the utmost faith that they are, it will be be-cause they deserve to do so, not merely because he inculcated them. And the grandest thing about Christ's teachings is that the experience of man-kind is all the time proving their merits, and thus giving to them the cumulative power of repeated and increasing corroboration and reinforcement.

We see, then, that everything in the Bible, even everything in the teachings of Jesus Christ, is to be brought to the touchstone of the human soul itself, to be tested and thereupon accepted or rejected. People may call this rationalism and heresy; it is merely that view of spiritual things which perceives that the human soul, although it is not the author of truth, is emphatically the judge of truth. I may not originate, or even discover, the law of gravitation; but I can test it. I may not be the author of the great principle of brotherly love; but I can tell whether it is a beneficent force in human society. I may not be the first to dream of human immortality; but I can say whether I consider it to be anything more than a dream. Jesus Christ may reveal or declare to me the Fatherhood of God ; but it is for me to decide, and in all lowliness I must hold myself competent to decide for myself, whether I believe that sub-lime doctrine to be reasonable, soul-satisfying, and blessed. And so I do not say that man is to be deemed the author of religious truth; but I do say that he is to be regarded as the judge of it —a distinction which we need always to bear in mind.° I do not claim that man may write his own Bible, and has no need of the Hebrew and Christian Bible; or that man may be his own Savior, and does not need such a saving teacher as Jesus Christ—far be it from me to suggest the thought !—but I do maintain that he is to pronounce, as best he can, upon their merits, and that they can have no authority for him except as they win the assent of his mind, the approval of his conscience, the love of his heart, and the sanction of his spirit.

I see no escape from this position except in the surrender of the intellectual, moral, and religious judgment of the individual human soul. Either we must judge for ourselves, or we must yield to the judgment of another. We may yield to the assertion of a great and mighty Church, or to the declaration of the Holy Scriptures, or to the utterance of Jesus Christ, or to the interpretation of these given by one of our fellowmen; but if we thus yield without finally deciding for ourselves as to what we consider to be true and right and obligatory, we simply abdicate the supreme privilege and responsibility of a spiritual being, namely, self-determination. Let us remember that Jesus Christ never requires any such abdication on our part; rather he summons us always to judgment, decision, choice, self-direction. He said to the people: "Why even of yourselves judge ye not not what is right ?" "Judge not acing to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment;" "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." His appeal in all his teaching is to the deepest, purest, highest thought and spirit in the soul of man; and forever does he urge men to take his teaching and put it to the supreme test of experience in actual conduct. He waits for men to accept him; if they reject him, he leaves the responsibility with them; he never seeks to drive people, but rather seeks to lead them by winning their free indorsement, trust, and love. In this he is supremely wise; he respects too much the august nature of the human soul ever to coerce anyone by imposing his authority upon mind, conscience, or heart. He will have our intelligent, sincere, voluntary, affectionate discipleship, or he will let us go our own way. Likewise, the Bible does not dictate. It exhibits divine truth, and indicates the will of God; it appeals, exhorts, entreats, urges the holiest considerations, and pleads with men for righteous and pure living; but it leaves the duty of decision and action with them, saying : "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve." 10 And because the formation of correct spiritual judgments, in matters of morality and religion, constitutes a large part of our best education, the Bible affords us in its varied and rich literature the most valuable material we possess, aside from our own daily experience with our fellow-men, for making the most important distinctions we are ever required to make, namely, the distinctions between right and wrong, between true and false, in conduct and character, in the service of God and man. Therefore it is of the greatest consequence that the view of the Bible which I have presented, calling upon the individual soul for discernment, and leaving with the individual soul at all hazards the privilege and duty of final judgment as to the teachings of the Bible, should be maintained as against that conception of its authority which virtually denies the right of such private judgment.

I am aware that this reasoning will seem to cut the ground out from under the feet of many devout and earnest people. I know very well how strongly certain excellent persons desire to believe in a Bible and a Savior given directly from God, bearing the unmistakable seal of his approval, whose utterances may be accepted without any question or misgiving. Such a faith in such a Bible and such a Savior seems to afford great rest, peace, and comfort to the soul ; and I can easily understand how, for weary, troubled, sin-sick mortals, it is an unspeakable relief to believe, with reference to Christ particularly, that they can lay all their burdens down at the feet of an in-fallible Teacher of divine truth, a heavenly Savior, who actually knows what divine truth is, without any uncertainty, and who therefore is able to remove all their perplexities, so that they need only to hear what he says, take his word with implicit trust, and go on obeying it, no longer trying to think out for themselves the great problems of life, but simply believing and doing their duty with child-like docility and fidelity. I grant, indeed, that this attitude is natural, reasonable, and wholesome, especially for those who have been torn by temptation and sin, distracted by doubts, and overwhelmed by sorrow ; and I rejoice to know that the Bible and Christ are able to meet just such needs, to deal with us all as with little children, to condescend to our lowliness and imperfection, to take us by the hand and lead us through the tangled pathway which we feel ourselves powerless to thread alone. In fact, so great is the Bible, and so great is the Savior, that they are both able to help the weakest as well as the strongest; and when the wrongs or the woes of life press most heavily upon us, when the world grows dark, and our feet falter, and our wisdom fails us, and our hearts are fearful, the Divine Voice, speaking through each of these Comforters, says to us: "This is the way, walk ye in it ;" "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine ;" "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

But in all this we need to remember that such help as we thus derive from Christ and the Bible springs, not from what we imagine them to be, but from what they really are. We cannot make either of them superhuman by merely calling them so; we cannot give to either an authority in spiritual things by ascribing all sorts of miracles and marvels to them; we cannot first put infallibility into them, and then appeal to them as infallible sources of moral and religious truth. Whatever truth there is in them already, regardless of us, will help us when we find it; and no amount of reverent and extravagant praise, no factitious claims, no superlative adjectives, can make them other than what they actually are. What they are is, as I have said that they are, helpers to true living—not substitutes for thought, or love, or the dictates of conscience, or the spirit of holiness in ourselves; but simply aids to all these; and the only authority they possess is in their power to draw us toward the life of God, or to awaken us to a consciousness of the life of God within us—a power which they are perpetually proving themselves to have, as one after another of God's children puts them to the supreme test of practice. If you and I will but learn to apply this test, we shall soon find that both Christ and the Bible are able to lift our souls into the sunshine of the Divine Presence, ever mysterious and ever blessed, wherein the clouds of error, doubt, and sin dissolve, and where alone can be found the "peace which passeth all understanding."



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