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The Bible And Spiritual Progress

( Originally Published 1906 )

The new appreciation of the Bible, as literature, as history, and as a revelation of life, may be profitably supplemented by a fresh consideration of its relation to human progress. The subject is a large one, presenting many aspects, and opening the way for extravagant statements; yet it ought to be possible to arrive at an intelligent, discriminating, and approximately just judgment. Such, at least, should be our aim; and if we hold fast to this purpose, we shall not be likely to wander far from the truth.

The career of the Bible covers roundly three thousand years, including the earlier stages of the distinct national life out of which it arose. How large a portion is this of the entire known history of the world? Not half of it, so far as time alone is concerned; for the civilization of Chaldea dates back nearly twice as far—at least to 3700 B. C.; while that of Egypt has an antiquity much greater still, being traceable to the remote distance of 6000 B. C. Besides, the Bible has been limited in its direct ministry to a comparatively small part of the human family. Of course it was confined to the Israelites at first, until the advent of Christianity; and even of those only a fragment really knew anything about it—that is, about the Old Testament, for the New Testament was not yet produced; because, of the multitudes who had been carried away into the Babylonian Captivity, not more than about 40,000 returned to Palestine, bringing the substance of "The Law" and "The Prophets" with them,' to which were subsequently and slowly added the other writings which complete the Hebrew Scriptures. Then as the dispersed Jews, and later the Christian missionaries, bore some parts or some knowledge of the Bible abroad, it was only into the Graeco-Roman world that they went with such a possession : the teeming millions of Asia lay mainly beyond their reach, the savages of Africa were unknown, and nobody had ever dreamed of the western hemisphere which we now inhabit, or of the wild peoples who have been since discovered in the isles of the sea and at the ends of the earth. It was not until quite late in the modern era—principally within the nineteenth century—that the Bible began to find its way into all lands and races and tongues. Yet even now scarcely more than 400,000,000 of the 1,400,000,000 of the population of the globe—less than one-third—can be claimed as Jews and Christians, using our Scriptures.

But the nations reached by the Bible in this period of three thousand years have been precisely those that have had most to do with the development of a progressive civilization. First it touched the Greeks, modifying and being modified by the subtle, brilliant, many-sided genius of that wonderful race; with the result of giving Europe a Hellenized Judaism as the body of Christianity, with the teaching of Jesus as its soul. Next it en-gaged the Romans, the most orderly, practical, conquering, governing people known in history ; and they built its precepts and ideas, with some-what of its holy spirit, into the new institutions of the European nations that grew up to take the place of the decaying Empire. Then it came into contact with the Teutonic race, and may be said to have exerted its influence upon the fresh, free, and vigorous spirit of this noble stock more strongly than upon any other in its whole career.

Now when we reflect that the Greeks, Romans, and Teutons have virtually made Europe as we know it, excluding the Slavic portions, and have thus produced our western civilization, as we see it in France, Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and America, and to a large extent also in Austria, Italy, and Spain; and when we further reflect that the various branches of the Teutonic race are still expanding and seem likely to play an enormous role in the affairs of the world in the immediate future, we can see how closely the Bible has been connected with whatever progress has actually taken place ; and we thus obtain a broad basis upon which to estimate the manner in which the Bible has helped to effect or modify such progress.

That spiritual progress has actually occurred during the last two or three thousand years, can not be seriously questioned. One does not need to indulge in overpraise of our own time, or to be blind to existing evils, in order to maintain that the modern world is far in advance of the ancient world in most of those respects which re-late to the higher interests of mankind. While art and philosophy and a certain buoyant joyousness reached a degree of perfection in the golden age of Greece which the present age of Europe and America does not witness, we remember that those were blessings for the few rather than for the many. The prevalence of slavery precluded any better state of things; for in both Greece and Rome in their palmiest days about one-half of the population consisted of slaves; and although many of these were highly educated, often being teachers, artists, architects, physicians, and even merchants and bankers, the profits of whose labors accrued to their masters, yet the existence of such a fundamental institution on so vast a scale prevented the uplift of society as a whole. The very fact that at length this condition has been left far behind is itself one of the clearest and most substantial proofs of the great improvement which has taken place during the Christian era.

To describe this improvement in its many phases would be to trace the history of Christian civilization, which is impossible here. It is not difficult, however, to indicate its general character, its main aspects, and some of the influences contributing to its production, even within the compass of a few pages.

i. Perhaps the most significant feature of the spiritual progress which has been accomplished since the days of Mesopotamian supremacy has been the slowly growing appreciation of human nature—the rise in value of the individual man. A new sense of the sacredness of human life, a higher estimate of the capacity of the human soul generically, a more sublime conception of human destiny, and a wider, more real sentiment of human brotherhood have crept into the consciousness of millions of people, making the modern world vastly different from the ancient, and vastly nobler and brighter for the average man. While the various activities of the human mind, the growth of knowledge, the conquest of material nature, the enlarging universe, have all helped to beget this increasing sense of dignity, this enhancement of human values, it is certain that an-other powerful factor has lain in the teaching of the Bible. The passing of polytheism and the establishment of monotheism, with its ideas of an almighty spiritual Deity, Maker and Ruler of the universe, Father of the spirits of all flesh, Governor among the nations, Judge of all the earth, holding moral relations with mankind, righteous in all his dealings, respecting no man's person or station, yet infinite in mercy, and loving every soul with an everlasting love—this has brought the human race, and every member of it who has learned the lesson, into a position of honor and unity under a Divine Government which has ennobled and sanctified life and every interest as nothing else conceivable could have done; and all this has come directly from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. They are full of precisely these conceptions, and wherever they have gone they have operated, even through imperfect and often obstructive agencies, to educate the children of men to this exalted thought of their place in the scale of being. With our present knowledge of history, it is impossible to imagine what other influence could have effected such a result.

2. Along with this fundamental element, and partly in consequence of it, there has grown up in our developing civilization, during the extensive period referred to, a new feeling of respect, sympathy, and solicitude for man as the child of God. Nothing is more foreign to our modern ways of thinking, or seems more pitiful, than the almost universal contempt which prevailed in the ancient world for aliens or inferiors. But when people began to think of all men as objects of the divine love, as having some standing thus in the court of the Most High, they gradually learned the difficult lesson of sympathy. This conception and this lesson, inculcated even in the Old Testament more fully than was at first understood, were greatly reinforced by the example, spirit, and sacrifice of Christ. "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common," said the voice to Peter in the vision; and it led him to exclaim: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him."

So it was everywhere in some degree: a recognition of the great truth that God Almighty had loved the children of men, even the lowliest and the wickedest, sufficiently to provide for their eternal salvation, forbade the proud any longer to despise the humble, or the powerful to oppress the weak. Jew and gentile, bond and free, male and female came thus to stand upon a level in a new and very real way; and none was permitted to destroy, for any self-gratification, a brother for whom Christ had died. Forbearance, forgiveness, charity, respect, sympathy, solicitude, brotherly kindness, mutual helpfulness, together with an earnest aspiration toward all goodness these were the traits and practices everywhere enjoined among the early Christians, as the letters of the New Testament abundantly witness ; and the essential spirit of all this teaching was in keeping with the profounder meaning of the Old Testament revelation of the righteousness, mercy, and laving-kindness of God. Such counsels, appeals, and influences, overflowing at length the bounds of race and country, and spreading gradually throughout the Greco-Roman world, bore a new message of both divine and human love, yielding new hope, to millions weary with sin and suffering and the empty faiths and philosophies of the time; and so, little by little, a new spirit of justice and tenderness began to make itself felt at the heart of pagan civilization, like the sunshine in spring in our northern clime.

3. Thence arose the philanthropies of Chris-. tendom, whose name is legion, and whose work, in spite of many faults, has been the crowning glory of the passing centuries. As one reads a book like Charles Loring Brace's Gesta Christi: A History of Humane Progress under Christianity, telling how some of the hoary evils of paganism—such as paternal tyranny, the subjection of womanhood, licentiousness, the exposure of children, slavery, war, and the unjust distribution of property—were assailed, checked, and largely overcome by the influence of the person and teaching of Jesus, operating through the lives of his followers, one sees not only how portentous was the struggle, but also how splendid was the victory, even though it has never been complete. Let a single paragraph indicate the tenor of the long and thrilling story:

The influence of the great Friend of humanity was especially seen in the Roman Empire in checking licentious and cruel sports, so common and so demoralizing among the classic races; and in bringing on a new legislation of beneficence in favor of the outcast woman, the mutilated, the prisoner, and the slave. For the first time the stern and noble features of Roman law took on an unwonted expression of gentle humanity and sweet compassion, under the power of Him who was the brother of the unfortunate and the sinful. The great followers of the Teacher of Galilee became known as the "brothers of the slave," and the Christian religion began its struggle of many centuries with those greatest of human evils—slavery and serfdom. It did not, indeed, succeed in abolishing them; but the remarkable mitigations of the system in Roman law, and the constant drift toward a condition of liberty, and the increasing emancipation through-out the Roman Empire, are plainly fruits of its principles. All these and similar steps of humane progress are the Gesta Christi and the direct effects of His personal influence on the world.

These sentences afford merely a hint of the vast humanitarian movement of the Christian era, which has not yet accomplished its holy mission, but which, even so, has brought incalculable benefits to mankind. Through many instrumentalities—asceticism, monasticism, ecclesiasticism, schools, missions, charitable institutions of one kind and another—and notwithstanding blunders and dire consequences often, the benign spirit of Christian philanthropy has grappled with the actual and terrible evils of the world, and has slowly, partially, but substantially and nobly triumphed over them, establishing justice and sympathy in place of cruelty, and incarnating kindness in a thousand forms of social helpfulness.

4. Another outcome of the enhanced valuation of human nature resulting from the influence of the Bible, and especially from the influence of the Christian gospel, has been a slowly growing spirit of democracy. The enthronement of Jehovah as King of kings and Lord of lords, the one living and true God, the inexorable but impartial Judge of all the earth, the common Father of the children of men, had the effect of putting mankind upon a certain spiritual equality before him; artificial distinctions in society were obliterated; the only distinction that counted in his sight was the distinction between righteousness and wickedness —a good man, though poor and humble, being acceptable to him; while a wicked man, though rich and mighty, was condemned and rejected by him. This ethical teaching of the Old Testament was renewed and intensified in the New Testament; and, most deeply impressed upon the world by the exalted and beautiful character of Jesus Christ, it began to diffuse a new influence in the hearts of men, and to awaken a new sense of equality—a conception and feeling of equality which had never before existed. The slave and his master were alike children of a common Father, owning a common Savior, and inheriting a common hope of eternal life; therefore they were really brothers, and must live together in justice, kindness, and peace. So they worshiped in the same sanctuary, knelt before the same altar, and partook the same communion ; and so "brotherly love" became the great, beautiful watchword of a new social order, binding the world "by gold chains about the feet of God."

Now nothing short of such a sublime spiritual conception and conviction could break the ancient tyranny of caste and class, and give inner hope and consecration to the individual soul. The power of the past was overwhelming; the world was held in the vise of custom solidified into law. The individual was merely a unit in a vast corporation, the State, to which his interests were entirely subordinate ; and religion was largely a device for sanctioning the established order of things. Only an idea which lifted the individual above the world, centering his main interests in a Divine Government that cared for his personal welfare, and that might rectify and supersede the governments of earth, could deliver him from this matrix. Such was the task and service of the faith which lay at the heart of the Bible. To quote from a recent writer :

The monotheistic idea of God, as the prophets conceived it, entailed an impassioned belief in human equality. Compare the Old Testament with Plato. The sacred nation in prophetic thought was in truth provincial. Beyond the frontiers of this one people the best things, for the most part, did not travel. Plato also was by reason of his exaltation of his own race provincial, quite as provincial as the prophets. But compare them as their thought and plan holds good over the territory they try to cover. Within Plato's commonwealth, while there are no castes in the technical sense, yet there are lines of separation drawn so clearly and with so much suggestion of permanence, that we are led into a thoroughgoing aristocratic view of things. But in the prophetic common-wealth all distinctions are removed. There's one God, one good, for all men. One capacity for receiving the good is ascribed to them all. Aggressive universalism inheres in prophetic monotheism. In it the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of men, are implicit.

Therefore the attempt to popularize monotheism was in itself a grand act of faith—faith in the sovereign value of the idea itself, faith also in the spiritual capacity of the common man. As plainly as human thoughts can express anything, did this undertaking proclaim an absolute conviction that the lowest classes were level to the highest knowledge, and that the constitution of our common humanity called for no mysteries that should be the prerogative of the few. And so the success that crowned the attempt to popularize monotheism was one of the great steps taken by history towards Democracy. For the unity of God draws after it the unity of the race and the unity of society. The logic of monotheism limps unless it brings up at last on the conception of a nation, a church, a humanity, within whose pale there are no distinctions save temporary and economic ones. The caste principle has no foothold anywhere within it.

There surely have been many influences— of racial temperament, climate, political experiment, growing knowledge, invention, and widening intercourse—which have wrought through the long centuries toward the production of this fruit of the spirit, democracy, that is ripening in our time; but it is safe to say that, among them all, none has been so effectual as the ethical and religious faith expressed in the Bible, rooted and grounded in Hebrew monotheism, and flowering most perfectly in the teaching of Jesus Christ. The world is yet very far from realizing the full blessing of this precious fruitage; but it is slowly moving forward toward such a larger realization, and nothing so constantly sustains it in its patient, toilsome advance as the spiritual idealism enshrined in the sacred literature of Christendom, and forever palpitating as a living "Word of God" in the soul of every aspiring man.

5. It remains to be said that the Bible has contributed directly and immensely to spiritual progress by promoting the spiritualization of religion. A study of the world's history shows that religion has always been a powerful reality. Existing wherever man has existed, appearing in ages of darkness as well as those of light, and expressing itself in forms of superstition and fear quite as much as in those of intelligence and love, it has been a constant presence and a potent factor in the formation of character and the development of civilization. Sometimes it has been productive of ill, and sometimes of good ; now holding an individual, a race, a nation in the thraldom of ignorance and cruelty; and anon effecting the deliverance of such out of the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. It has claimed the attention of all sorts and conditions of people, has allied itself with all sorts of interests, and has created or supported a large variety of institutions. Whether for weal or for woe, it has been a power which could never be permanently ignored ; and today it is abroad in the earth exerting itself and doing its work as steadily and positively as the force of gravity. It is no myth, no product of a sick fancy, no child even of poesy; but rather a great, natural energy, whose seat is in the human soul, but whose source is hidden away in the depths of the Infinite. Man does not make himself religious, no church or sacrament makes him religious, nor is he made religious by any miracle save that greatest and most primitive of all miracles, the miracle of his creation as a spiritual being, the child of the living God. And because religion is thus native to man, a spiritual energy or life that is governed by its own absolute laws, nothing can entirely suppress it or perpetually withstand it; it must rise to its legitimate place of dignity and power in human development sooner or later; no man can be forever irreligious; no skepticism, no worldliness, no ignorance, no wickedness can eternally alienate him from the life of God; and no society, no civilization can be permanently immoral and unspiritual.

Seeing thus the vast importance of religion as a vital force in our human world, we see at once that whatever influence may enlighten, elevate, and purify religion must greatly benefit mankind. A debased religion means a degraded manhood ; an exalted religion means an ennobled manhood. Now the ideas, principles, and spirit which pervade the Bible tend most strongly to produce a pure and undefiled type of religion. To be sure, there are, in the earlier portions of the Old Testament especially, many crude, imperfect, essentially erroneous conceptions, which are the remains of a prevalent polytheism and a gross anthropomorphism; and even in the later portions there are endless rules and regulations for an elaborate ceremonialism which to us seem to militate against vital inspiration and growth. But, along with these shortcomings, there are the sublime thoughts about the one only and true God, Jehovah, about his righteousness and grace, about his inexorable government of the children of men, in justice and yet in mercy, which have in all generations helped powerfully to awaken a reverent faith and an ethical devotion; and the passion of this faith and devotion, flaming out in the utterances of the prophets, and singing or weeping in the piety of the psalmists, has carried the hearts of unnumbered myriads of human beings into a seriousness and earnestness of feeling and endeavor which have glorified life with a new consecration. Then in the New Testament we find the defects of the older religious life largely outgrown; particularly in the teaching and character of Jesus we perceive the purest spirituality ever witnessed among men —intelligent, sane, balanced, sincere, chaste as the sunshine, ardent as love, stronger than death ! This beautiful and mighty religion permeates all the writings in the New Testament, in spite of the limitations which characterized their several authors and have left their impress of error or weakness upon its pages. It glows like a heavenly light in the soul of every disciple, evangelist, or apostle who has been really touched by the spirit of his Master; and the countless hosts who, since the first days, have read this priceless literature have been awakened to a vision of spiritual life and character, of moral purity and loving service, of inner peace and joy which have been to them the one transcendent meaning and blessedness of their existence. Religion has been thus lifted up, purified, sanctified, and made to be a radiant experience of power in the heart,—an experience of faith, hope, and love—issuing in an outward life of benevolent activities. Millions of men and women, sharing in some degree such a spiritual experience, have made the world brighter and warmer than it could possibly have been otherwise. Slowly the religion of the masses has become more vital, ethical, practical, hopeful; fear and gloom are at length beginning to vanish; a healthful, happy, beautiful piety is beginning to spring up; and all these fair results may be as surely attributed in part to the influence of the Bible, more especially the influence of the Christian portion of it, as the flowers that adorn the fields may be attributed largely to the sunshine.

The transformation of popular ideals and habits is an exceedingly slow process. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump," indeed, but it necessarily does its work very gradually. It was comparatively easy to establish the Jewish church and the Christian Church as outward institutions; it was a vastly more difficult task to impregnate human society with the true spirit of Judaism and Christianity to such an extent as to quicken a new life in the heart of the individual, and to reform the terrible social abuses under which the world was groaning and travailing in pain. But the Bible has wrought patiently at this gigantic task; untold millions who have been reached by its influence during the passing centuries have not been touched wholly in vain; minds have been divinely enlightened, hearts have been softened, miseries have been alleviated; and, little by little, civilization has taken on a mildness, a sacredness, and a benignance which would have been scarcely conceivable but for the vital inspiration of this wonderful literature. It has accomplished what no political or ecclesiastical government could ever accomplish—it has molded "the thoughts of the hearts" of mankind; and from this inmost center working outward, in the individual and in society, it has exerted a regenerative influence which has begun the establishment of a new dominion among men—the kingdom of Heaven on earth.

The deeper history of every period is not the history of wars and of empires, but rather the history of the inner, spiritual life of the race. As we have here caught a glimpse of the manner in which the Bible has at least partially conquered the paganism of antiquity and the barbarianism of the Middle Age; and as we see how at length, in our own day, it is finding its way into all languages, while it is better understood than ever before, and while popular education is spreading everywhere, so that it may be read and enjoyed by the waiting millions, we are encouraged to expect in the future a yet more marvelous demonstration than even the past has afforded of the great value of the Bible in relation to spiritual progress.

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