The New Appreciation Of The Bible
( Originally Published 1906 )
It is interesting to study the workings of the human mind in its progressive apprehension of the truth. We may properly say that the realities of the universe, spiritual as well as material, for-ever await our cognition; but the universe is in-finite and its realities are marvelously complex, while we are finite and our mental expansion at best must be gradual ; hence we acquire our knowledge in fragments, by glimpses and slowly enlarging visions, and often through painful efforts to readjust ourselves to the changing views which command our attention.
A new idea is liable to shock, disturb, and per haps alarm us, if not indeed to arouse our angry opposition: but later, when we become acquainted with it and find it a friend instead of an enemy, we assent to its claims, embrace it, and let it en-rich our lives. How frequently this twofold experience has occurred, on a vast scale, even in the most important movements of thought, the history of Christianity and of modern learning abundantly shows. Jesus Christ came inculcating a liberal and lofty doctrine, far in advance of his time; but because his countrymen could not appreciate it, or would not allow it to displace their cherished notions, he had to suffer martyrdom ; yet later the world discovered that his was the most sublime teaching ever imparted, and now his name is honored as is none other in all the earth. When Galileo and Copernicus first enunciated their conceptions of the solar system, they were denounced as enemies of the Christian faith, and were subjected by the ecclesiastical authorities to shameful persecution; yet now all Christendom gladly acknowledges an immense, debt of gratitude to them and to other scholars like them for a stupendous enlargement of man's vision of the Divine Order in the material universe. The same thing is true of the disclosures of modern geology, which at first were repudiated as atheistic because not harmonizing with the accounts of creation given in Genesis, but later came to be recognized as vastly increasing the Christian's belief in' the infinite wisdom and power of him who may be now called, with greater fitness than ever before, the "Ancient of Days." Finally, in our own age, we have seen the wonderful theory of evolution condemned for similar reasons; and yet, so swiftly fly the wheels of time, this very generation has witnessed the quick reversal of this early judgment, and the grateful acceptance at present, by a host of the most intelligent and consistent Christians, of the evolutionary hypothesis as the largest contribution to religious faith—that is, to faith in a divinely ordered universe—which mankind has ever received, except from the gospel itself.
Such instances should teach us the folly of hasty opposition to new ideas. At the same time they should teach us patience; for we see that a prolonged effort is often necessary for the human mind to adapt its vision to the new light, to modify its old conceptions, to recast its thinking, and so perhaps to alter habits of conduct, methods of work, and the character of outward institutions.
Moreover, it is to be observed that different classes of people come to the apprehension of new truth with varying degrees of promptness. Naturally, the inquirers, investigators, explorers are the first to find it; then the scholars, very likely, pass judgment upon it; then the teachers, students, and intelligent readers learn about it; and last of all it reaches the multitude. Thus it may easily happen that the more enlightened among all these may become familiar with new ideas and facts, accepting and appreciating them, long before less progressive minds are made aware of them ; and so what is fully established with the educated at a given time may be just beginning to disturb others and to evoke their antagonism. At length, however, verified knowledge filters down through all grades of society, becoming the property of every mind and enriching the whole world.
Now it cannot be surprising to find that precisely such a history has repeated itself in the study of the Bible. We have learned that, during the last two centuries, there has been growing up, among the scholarly classes, a new general conception of the origin and character of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, which is not less important, in its implications and within the field of its influence, than the scientific disclosures in the physical realm to which allusion has been made. This conception, too, is scientific, and the noble science that has yielded it is given the name of "Biblical Criticism." Slowly and patiently, with laborious research, through many conflicts of opinion, and often in the face of bitter opposition, its theories and conclusions have been wrought out; and at length there is a vast body of information, legitimately entitled to be called scientific knowledge, which is unhesitatingly accepted by a host of the best scholars of the world, and is now freely shedding its light upon the wider circles that must soon greatly benefit by it and rejoice in it.
As yet, however, while this new and scientific view of the Bible may be said to be substantially established among large numbers of the educated classes and is rapidly winning new adherents, it is still in the disturbing, perplexing stage among the common people. They have heard something about it, but they do not understand it. Naturally and rightfully they cling to their old conceptions because these are deeply rooted in their minds and seem very precious, and because they do not quite comprehend the significance of the proffered substitute. What is needed, therefore, is not denunciation, on either hand, but information, instruction, enlightenment, patient consideration. Fortunately, much of this is now being afforded in many wise and helpful ways. Within recent years numerous handbooks have been published which have simplified the knowledge contained in the elaborate works of the scholars; the writings of the Bible have been issued in various translations and in attractive literary forms; and the ministers have taught their congregations and Sunday-school teachers somewhat of the new truth about the Sacred Volume as it has been elucidated by the science of biblical criticism.
As a result of all this education, both professional and popular, it is now beginning to be apparent to many thoughtful minds that the grand outcome of modern learning in this fertile field is, not a depreciation of the Bible, as some have feared, but rather a new and higher appreciation of it. This very gratifying fact is full of encouragement and inspiration for all who cherish the most vital interests of spiritual religion. Accordingly it becomes a happy privilege to portray the principal features of what may be thus most confidently stlyed "The New Appreciation of the Bible," so that it may be appropriated, and fresh light and power may be derived from the venerable pages of Holy Writ.
We are all aware that there was an old appreciation of the Bible, and that it is now passing away. It regarded the Book, from beginning to end, as "the Word of God." By this phrase was meant that it was fully inspired by the Almighty, and was infallible in its teachings; that it was all essentially alike in its nature, so that no part could be rejected without invalidating the whole; and especially that it constituted a divine revelation—that is, a revelation of God's thought and will concerning man, of his mercy and love, of the way of salvation, and of the eternal destiny of the human soul. Therefore a knowledge of the Bible, and particularly of the Savior whom it manifested, was considered indispensable to the redemption of mankind; and so missionaries have been prompted to go into all the world carrying these Holy Scriptures as a veritable way of life for the perishing nations, without which they were indeed rushing into the bottomless pit.
In this view the Bible was thought to bring to each person a direct message from God, in-tended as much for one reader as for another, and literally intended for all ; that is to say, addressed as much to the people of the twentieth century as to those of the first—a proclamation or summons from the Throne of Heaven to every man on the face of the earth whom it might reach; and woe unto him whom it did not reach ! And likewise woe unto him who, hearing, rejected or disregarded it ! How, then, could anyone who sincerely entertained such a conception fail to reverence, honor, and love these precious Writings, or fail to read them diligently, with fear and trembling? As a matter of fact, pious and earnest Christians did so esteem and treat them; and when the Scriptures began to be translated out of the Latin into the common tongues of Germany and England, in the sixteenth century, the people received them with devoutest joy and perused them with unwearied zeal; and we read of Puritan divines, in Boston, about 1635, sitting up all night, in the dead of winter, to study these written oracles of the Most High God. This conception and use of the Bible are sweetly embalmed for us in the poem of Robert Burns entitled The Cotter's Saturday Night.
How many souls have been brought to a conscious communion with God, to pure and faithful living, and to a triumphant death, under this old, reverent appreciation of the Bible, only the Re-cording Angel could tell ; certainly their number is legion; and if these moral and religious influences shall pass out of our civilization with the passing of the traditional ideas of the nature of the Bible, without leaving a better substitute, our civilization will suffer a spiritual impoverishment scarcely to be measured. But we must do our utmost to make sure that, with the coming of a new conception of the origin and character of the Bible, there shall come also a new appreciation of its great excellence, a new understanding of the truth which it discloses, and a more vital grasp of the spiritual realities to which it bears potent and perennial witness.
Let us begin by glancing at three fundamental aspects of the new appreciation of the Bible, the due consideration of which will prepare us for fur, ther estimates and applications.
i. There is a new appreciation of the Bible as literature. It is as a body of literature that the new conception primarily- regards it. For, whatever else the Bible may be, and whatever messages of divine import it may contain for us, it comes to us first of all as a collection of ancient writings—not a single book, but a library of sixty-six different books. As such a mass of literature, it is to be examined, analyzed, and appraised by the same rules and processes of study which the experience of scholars has found necessary in the study of any other literary products treated as literature; that is to say, no theory of supernatural inspiration can be allowed to set aside the fact that the Bible was written by men, in human language, under certain intelligible historical circumstances. Our first task, therefore, is to take any given portion of the Scriptures simply as a piece of human writing, to understand what the author says, to comprehend what he means as fully as we can, and, in order that we may do this, to have some clear and correct idea of the conditions under which he wrote, as to time and place, national or social influences, relations to surrounding nations, prevailing views, and any other elements in the situation which may explain his message.
Doing these things for the various writings which make up the Bible, we soon find that they constitute a peculiar literature—narrow, but deep ; profoundly ethical, intensely religious, and wonderfully expressive of the spiritual experiences of the earnest human soul. But we also discover that there is a great variety in its contents, that it is not all alike, either in literary form, or in ideas and ideals. It contains history, philosophy, poetry of many kinds, fiction, love-stories, a hymn-book, collections of maxims for practical conduct, brief biographies, letters of spiritual counsel and friendly correspondence, and ecstatic visions of seers and dreamers, along with sermons that rebuke sin and plead for uprightness with passion-ate ardor. And the quality of its utterances ranges from the childish notions of a primitive people just emerging from slavery, and from the moral pessimism of a satiated sensualist, to the sublimest and most comprehensive thought of the greatest spiritual Teacher the world has ever known, and to the mighty grasp of truth and the glorified ethical devotion of a philosopher who had drunk deeply from the wells of his ancestral religion, who knew something about the speculation and culture of Greece, and who had found the solution of life's problems in the holy gospel of the Son of Man.
It is in view of facts like these that many intelligent people are now pleading for the literary study of the Bible, especially in our colleges and universities. The Reverend Theodore T. Munger, D.D., was one of the first to make such a plea, perhaps as early as about 1885 ; others heartily approved the idea, and soon biblical professorships were established in a few institutions not specifically for the education of ministers. Now there are such professorships in a considerable number of the universities, and the work of the department meets with increasing favor. Mean-while, writers like Dr. Hamilton W. Mabie and Professor Richard G. Moulton are doing much to popularize this important idea. Professor Moulton holds the chair of English literature in the University of Chicago, and stands in the front rank of competent literary judges; and he has written :
It is surely good that our youth, during the formative period, should have displayed to them, in a literary dress as brilliant as that of Greek literature—in lyrics which Pindar cannot surpass, in rhetoric as forcible as that of Demosthenes, or contemplative prose not inferior to Plato's—a people dominated by an utter passion for righteousness, a people whom ideas of purity, of infinite good, of universal order, of faith in the irresistible downfall of all moral evil, moved to a poetic passion as fervid, and speech as musical, as when Sappho sang of love or AEschylus thundered his deep notes of destiny. When it is added that the familiarity of the English Bible renders all this possible without the demand upon the time-table that would be involved in the learning of another language, it seems clear that our school and college curricula will not have shaken off their mediaeval narrowness and renaissance paganism until classical and biblical literatures stand side by side as sources of our highest culture.
Again he has said :
A knowledge of Jewish literature and principles of morality and religion is essential, not only for our religious life, but for a complete education. Our modern life is drawn from two sources: from Greece we obtain our intellectual elements, from Palestine we take our religion and our moral ideals. A knowledge of classic literature has always been considered necessary to complete education. If, however, we study the classics only, our education becomes one-sided. In order to come into contact with the other essential element of our life, we must study the Jewish literature as we find it in the Bible.
The same writer points out that the mechanical form in which the writings of the Bible come to us hinders our appreciation of their literary structure.
In mediaeval times following the method of Jewish rabbis, the Bible was viewed as a collection of texts, and the only work in interpretation of the Bible was in the form of. commenting upon those texts At the time of the writing of the King James' version, this mediaeval spirit was at its height. As a consequence, our Bible is divided into verses and chapters. This division is harmful to a thoughtful interpretation of the whole. .... If we should make a collection of the works of Shakespeare, the essays of Emerson, the poems of Milton, and others of our great literary productions, remove from them all distinguishing marks of titles, so as to have a great conglomerate literary mass, and then should divide this mass into sections merely with regard to convenience of use as a textbook, but not distinguishing the different literary characteristics of the different works, we would have a condition exactly corresponding to that in the King James' version. The difficulty of interpreting such a mass is easily seen.
Professor Moulton himself has rendered the English-reading public a great service in this very direction by arranging all the books of the Bible, with their various contents, in what he conceives to be their appropriate literary form, so that the printed page enables the eye to see this at a glance, and by supplying introductory explanations, titles, and notes; and the entire work has been published in a series of most convenient little volumes which it is a delight to handle and read, and which may be had for about forty cents each.
If we approach and treat the Bible in the manner here indicated, we shall soon acquiesce in the judgment of Dr. Hamilton W. Mabie, that the conception of the Bible as literature is the only rational way of conceiving of it. Without the imagination which created the Bible, it cannot be understood. If it should come to us today unknown to us, how eagerly all men would turn to it! It is just as beautiful, and just as great, and just as divine as if it had been found only yesterday.°
2. There is next a new appreciation of the Bible as history. It comes to us out of a distant past, and it makes that past live again vividly, instructively, impressively. To most men the ages that are gone are a dim, shadowy, dark back-ground. Personal memory is very short; family traditions are exceedingly uncertain ; and beyond two or three generations the great majority of people can scarcely have any reliable information which does not come from an intelligent study of history. Like a great cloud on the far horizon, or like a vast, unexplored wilderness, is the unknown life of former times until illumined by the historian's torch. And because the present life of the world, with its manifold interests and tendencies, is the product of the past, and therefore can be understood only in the light of its antecedents, history becomes a most important branch of learning. Never was its importance more appreciated than now; never was its pursuit so realistic, so fascinating, so profitable.
Now the Bible takes our thought backward nearly four thousand years; and the earlier half of this period, as it concerns certain extremely significant developments, is reflected with remarkable clearness in its pages. As we read those pages we see, not only the people of Israel, but also those of Chaldea, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Phoenicia, Syria, Arabia, Greece, and Rome; and we learn something thus of the most influential civilizations of antiquity. Soon do we discover that the men of those ancient days were men of like passions with ourselves; the essential unity of the human race is confirmed in our thought; and the great, spiritual laws that govern conduct, together with the mighty Providence that over-rules the affairs and events of nations, are displayed on a stupendous scale. A sense of continuity grows up in the mind; we understand how, to the Divine Government, "a thousand years .. . . are but as yesterday when it is passed, and as a watch in the night;" and so nothing less than the sublime thought of God, transcendent yet immanent, can satisfy and hold us, can steady and guide us, as we think of our little, personal lives in the far-reaching stream of history. Thus the past lives again only to make the present even more real than ever; and we have faith in the future because we are thus enabled to see somewhat of "the purpose of the ages."
Only the historical view of the Bible—the view which reproduces, both generally and with much detail, the times and conditions out of which it grew up as a living literature—can serve us in this way. To regard the Bible first as written primarily for us, of a later time, is to miss this conception and service almost wholly ; but to regard it first as the product of a deep, strong, active life, lived by a certain people under definite circumstances in the distant past, is to make that life and that past very real; and then we are ready, as we cannot otherwise be, to connect the present and ourselves with those earlier struggles of mankind toward God and goodness, and to read our own aspirations and conflicts in the light of a vast, spiritual process of disciplinary development. . Thus to see each individual life in its large relations, perceiving how the Divine Order runs and works through all generations, is to derive one of the richest helps to faith and consecration which any religious ministry can afford. In the new sense of history which the historical and literary study of the Bible is quickening, we shall experience not only an increase of knowledge, but also an enlargement of view, a clarification of insight, and a deepening of reverence, gratitude and trust, issuing in a fresh devotion and patience.
So long as our religion continues to look to history for a considerable measure of its authentication, it must be careful to look to the truth of history. Christianity is, indeed, an historical religion, and Judaism is doubly so, in the sense that both have had a birth and a career in the past ; and if their claims are to be urged in the present, as binding upon us, they must submit themselves to a rigid examination of their historical antecedents, course, and influence. Therefore the Bible, as the literary product of those two forms of religious development, must be more and more scrutinizingly studied in connection with the history comprised in it. That history will become clearer and clearer, and in turn will make the pages of the Bible more and more luminous; and both in turn will help the individual soul of today to interpret its own spiritual experiences, and so to enter into a new and larger understanding of the works and ways of God in human life "a householder that bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old."
3. There is a new appreciation of the Bible as a revelation of life. It discloses a certain type of life in so marked a degree as almost to make it seem unique in kind. We call it spiritual life, and, indeed, can give it no better name ; for it is the life of the spirit, a spirit of moral and religious earnestness which gave its possessors a distinctive character. Other peoples have been more brilliant intellectually and aesthetically; but among no people has the moral sense been so keen, or the religious apprehension so clear and strong, as among the Hebrews. As Sabatier truly says:
When one is in the state of mind which may properly be called moral piety, it is impossible not to be struck by the nature and power of that spirit of holiness which created the history of Israel, the life and work of Christ, and in them reveals itself. There, amid the shadows and the sorrows of the times and the race, is a succession of men of God, each the spiritual father of the other, and all together creating in the bosom of humanity the high religion of the spirit. Their history is the history of God himself taking possession of the human soul, be-coming the inmate of the human consciousness to such an extent as in the consciousness of Christ to be identified with it.
This exalted spiritual life, pure and vigorous, which we discern as we read and ponder the Scriptures, becomes to us a revelation of the capabilities of the human soul. We readily understand that there is one kind of life among the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air; another kind among human beings who yet stand upon the physical plane merely, or but little above it; and still another kind among those races or individuals that have awakened to intellectual consciousness, and have attained to some measure of knowledge and culture; but here, above even this psychical plane, we recognize still another kind of life, which we call spiritual, or (to use a New Testament word) pneumatical. It is the life of human souls that have been awakened to moral and religious consciousness, and have attained to some clear, trustworthy apprehensions, convictions, judgments, and determinations respecting the divine order of the world. It is essentially a type of human experience, and its expression in the literature of the Bible opens a vista of progress for other souls that have not yet tasted the joy of this higher, finer, holier development. It is as natural as the experience, the attainment, and the rapture of a great musician ; but its blessings are available to a larger number of people, for all are spiritual beings, and all may be brought to some moral and religious awakenment. The spiritual life manifested in the Bible becomes both ex-ample and inspiration for all mankind. That which was realized in so large a degree by the ancient people of Israel, and especially by Jesus Christ and his noblest disciples, is realized in some degree by us, and may be more fully realized by all men when the great, spiritual purposes and plans of the Divine Providence shall be wrought out to a more complete fulfilment. And it thus appears to be precisely our greatest privilege and duty now to enter upon this glorious heritage and birthright, to "awake out of sleep," to rise into a full realization of the blessedness of that spiritual life which the Bible so forcibly brings to our notice, and of which the Christianity of Christ is the finest flower and fruit.
Because the Bible exhibits, more perfectly than any other literature, this noblest type of life, it will be increasingly appreciated as our civilization becomes more truly spiritualized. The "letter" of the Bible, indeed, may not be rigidly accepted it certainly will not be, in a multitude of instances; but the "spirit" and power of the Bible will receive a greater honor than hitherto, and will sway the minds and hearts of men more effectually, as our race moves slowly upward nearer to the lofty level of Jesus Christ.
Here, then, we find a threefold appreciation of the Bible which promises, not only to be permanent, but to increase; namely, as a great literature, profound and powerful, of perennial interest and vitality; as the product and record of a wonderful spiritual history, whose influence is rapidly becoming world-wide; and, as a revelation of an exalted and sublime type of human life, prophetic of a blessed moral and religious development which is at least possible to the whole family of mankind.
As the old appreciation of the Bible passes away, because of the breaking down of some of the theoretical conceptions which it implied, we may reasonably expect this new appreciation to take its place in the thought and affection of en-lightened people, and gradually to win a new allegiance and a new dominion in the spiritual life of coming generations.