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The Service Of The Bible To Our Own Time

( Originally Published 1906 )



Having glanced at the role which the Bible has played in the spiritual progress of the past, we need next to consider what service it may render to our own age. For we can by no means ignore the significant change that is taking place in the thought of men respecting the nature of the Sacred Volume; and if they are still to retain a vital interest in it, so as to read it with diligence and to derive substantial help from it, they must be enabled to see why they should thus submit themselves to its influence. One may, indeed, reverence and love it for the sake of what it has been to previous generations, whose culture he has in a measure inherited; but if one is to continue using it for himself, in such a way as to let it have real power over his life, and if he is to educate his children in its ideas and spirit, he must honor it for the sake of what it is now by understanding its present valid claims upon his attention. Accordingly an important specific task, urgently needing to be well performed, is to point out the positive value of the Bible, under the new general conception of its character, to the welfare of the individual and the progress of society in our own time, as we look forward along the various lines of an expanding civilization.

Two or three preliminary remarks deserve attention.

1. The fact that the Bible has exerted a potent influence in the past warrants the assumption that it possesses some great, enduring merit which will make it influential in the future. Experience is a safe guide here, as in other matters of moment. And assuredly experience abundantly proves the power of the Bible to quicken, inspire, enlighten, invigorate, comfort, moralize, and sanctify mankind to a degree matched by no other literature in the world. And in its career during the last two thousand years it has been tested among all sorts and conditions of men, not less the cultivated classes than the barbarian and the savage; it has traversed all areas of human life, from the most corrupt to the most saintly; and it has been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects, among all nations and tribes in all parts of the earth. Certainly the honor thus accorded it and the sway thus maintained by it justify us in believing that it has some unusual and permanent value that must render it vastly helpful to our own and coming generations, whatever changes of view it may undergo.

2. Careful reflection will show that the influence of the Bible in the past has not been mainly due to any particular theory which has been held regarding its origin. In other words, its power has not grown out of the fact that people have called it "the Word of God ;" but rather they have called it "the Word of God" because it has had such power over their souls. They have felt that it brought to them a divine message, making di-vine truth clear to them which was unknown or dimly guessed before; and so they have recognized its divine nature, and have claimed it as a divine revelation. But, all the while, it was not the theory that was the source of its power, but rather it was its power which gave rise to the theory. Therefore we should not expect a change in the general theory by which the origin of the Bible is explained to weaken its moral and religious influence in the lives of those who study it; on the contrary, such a change as is now occur-ring is likely, in due time, to increase that influence, simply because a larger intelligence, when valid, leads to a truer and fuller appreciation.

3. An increased knowledge of the Bible has nearly always been followed by a widespread spiritual quickening, and it is reasonable to believe that such will be the case now. In the days of Josiah, King of Judah, when the book of Deuteronomy was brought out and read to the people it made a profound impression and produced a revolution in their religious customs and moral conduct. When St. Jerome, in the fourth century, translated the Scriptures into the Latin, his work, although at first opposed, became in time the great literary medium by which the Roman Church built itself up and transmitted to later times, with less perversion than would otherwise have occurred, the precious religious story intrusted to her keeping. When Erasmus, in the early years of the sixteenth century, published his edition of the Greek text of the New Testament, with an improved Latin translation and comments, it ran over Europe like wildfire, and aroused the people to an astonished sense of the richness of their Christian inheritance, from which they had been largely shut out. When, upon the heels of this enterprise, came Luther's noble rendering of the Bible into his native German tongue, the people devoured it with eagerness, and found it virtually a new revelation of divine truth; and it quickly became the bulwark of the Reformation. Yet again, when the first English versions were made, a similar hunger awaited them, and a similar popular effect was produced by them; and, indeed, everywhere "the open Bible" became the watchword of Protestantism, and has kept Protestantism alive and growing ever since. In view of these facts, not to cite others, we may confidently look for a vast spiritual uplift to result in the near future from the new learning of these days respecting the Scriptures, if only we make sure to embrace it, to use it aright, and to educate the people at large with reference to it.

Now if we inquire closely what are the salient excellencies of the Bible which make it worthy of our most earnest study, and what is the peculiar service which it may render to our present civilization, we shall find a number of important points to be considered.

I. Obviously the first of these is the fact that it preserves the threefold story of the Israelitish people, the life and teaching of Jesus, and the work of the apostles in planting the Christian Church. What if there had been no literary record of these extremely significant things? What if we had been obliged to depend upon oral tradition, or even upon the authority of august institutions, for the transmission of such facts during two or three thousand years? We very well know what perversions and corruptions the truth about these selfsame matters has suffered not-withstanding our possession of this mass of literature, by which we are now learning to correct the vast traditionalism of nineteen centuries or more ; and it is beyond all question that, without these priceless literary memorials, we should have no trustworthy account of that ancient, unique and inestimable history wherein the sublimest spiritual ideas and ideals of the present age originated. The value that tradition sometimes has may be freely granted, as may also the fact that the Christian Church antedates the written New Testament; but this in nowise invalidates the contention that, with tradition alone, we should have been certain to wander far and wide from the truth of history and from the great lessons which it teaches us. For instance, what should we know, in a reliable way, of Greece and Rome but for the Greek and Roman classics? At least, how meager and tantalizing would be our gleanings from their archaeological remains! Like-wise, how dim would be the light that shines through the intervening ages from Egypt, Babylon, and Nineveh, if there had been no inscriptions on their long-buried monuments, now happily exhumed, to tell us their strange stories and to re-veal the thoughts and imaginations of men's hearts in those times ! Correspondingly, it is al-together probable that, without the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the history of Israel, the life-work of Jesus, and the origin of the Christian Church would be to us like the memory of a great dream experienced long ago by our race, susceptible of no verification, and distorted into every conceivable shape through the loving amplifications and the selfish misconstructions to which human nature would have subjected them. When we duly measure the import of this consideration, we can scarcely be too thankful for the sacred literature that has preserved for us the most precious spiritual heritage which comes to us out of all the past.

2. The Bible reinforces and purifies the worship of mankind. We know that worship is one of the great facts of our human world; its universality and potency are recognized and understood by scholars today more fully than ever before. All nations, from the most primitive to the most cultivated, worship something; and nothing more surely influences conduct and character than does the outpouring of the soul in this sacred act. And a wide survey of the religious rites and ceremonies of our race shows us that worship is often grossly superstitious, sensual, and even cruel, accompanied by utterly false ideas, and imposing needless burdens of sacrifice and suffering upon the people. If we complain of priestcraft, even as it has been witnessed in Christian history, let us not forget that it is well-nigh a universal disease, from which no people, not even a people claiming enlightenment, has been wholly free.

Now the tremendous influence of the Bible, wherever it makes itself felt, not only increases worship but spiritualizes it. It quickens and strengthens the instinct of worship which is native to the human soul, because its writers were full of the spirit of devout aspiration—so full, indeed, that, in this far-subsequent time even, we can hardly find any language so suitable to voice our praise and thanks, our trust and love, our de-sire to consecrate ourselves to some divine purpose, as the strong words of Holy Writ; and so it comes to pass that the Bible helps to rear temples and gather pious congregations in all lands and among all peoples whither it finds its way. It also tends positively to make worship a living thing, not formal, perfunctory, hollow. Perhaps it does not entirely succeed in this; perhaps, in-deed, nothing can wholly keep us from lifeless conventionalism; for we easily fall into conventional ways in nearly everything—in conversation, manners, politics, education, and even art. But the Bible is the most potent safeguard against conventionalism in religion, and the best promoter of vitality therein, which we possess excepting the Spirit of the living God. It makes us feel that we must worship in spirit and truth, because the Being whom it presents for our ado-ration is Spirit ; it exalts all our conceptions of the Holy One that inhabiteth eternity ; and it constrains every soul to come before him in humility and purity, yet in loving gratitude and gladness. Thus it ennobles, sanctifies, and glorifies human worship as probably no other single agency could do ; and this altogether by virtue of the cleansing, invigorating currents of spiritual influence which it pours into our inevitably religious life, even when accepted as a purely human literature.

3. Again, the Bible brings the individual soul to itself in a way which is equaled by no other instrumentality. The deep spirit that pervades the Scriptures finds the deep places in each life. It seems to speak directly to you and me, to have a message for every heart. The Bible magnifies the importance of the individual human soul by making every man feel that he sustains a personal relation to God, that God deals with him as an accountable being, and loves him as a son. And can we measure the significance of this single, sublime truth? Here we are in an infinite universe, of unfathomable mystery. How strange it is; how overwhelming at times! What are we but atoms? No wonder that men some-times think of themselves as "the small dust of the balance," and "altogether lighter than vanity" ! No wonder, then, that they sometimes throw their lives away! But the Bible teaches them that their lives are precious in the sight of God; that all this mystery is understood by him ; and that the whole material universe is but the vesture and theater for the working-out of his plans for these very children of men. Ah, how that conception changes everything ! How it helps us to find ourselves in this vast wilderness—yea, even to find ourselves at home in it ! "We are sons of God; and if sons, then heirs—heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ!" And "if God be for us, who can be against us?" Such is a hint of the way in which the Bible brings the human soul to itself by bringing it to its Heavenly Father, and thereby saves it from its sense of loneliness, of orphanage, in this immense and often-seemingly cruel universe.

Does one need to say that this sense of the divine solicitude carries with it somewhat of the sense of sin, and also the sense of forgiveness? When the Bible makes us feel that we are children of God, it makes us feel that we ought to act as such. This means that the voice of con-science, bidding us do right and be true, or reproving us for wrong and falsehood, is recognized as God's prompting or restraining Spirit in the soul; and thus we come to feel ourselves more keenly responsible for every word or deed Therefore the whole of life, all our personal con duct, even the inmost thought of the heart, takes on a new sacredness : we are in God's world, God sees us, we cannot get away from his loving yet rebuking Spirit; and so sin becomes a frightful reality, and righteousness a higher and a glorious reality. Thus we come to understand what life means in its ethical aspects, and the Voice that speaks to us out of the Bible forever echoes and reinforces the voice of our own hearts: "Be ye holy, for I am holy ;" "this do, and thou shalt live."

4. Once more, the Bible directly and power-fully promotes the welfare of society. By magnifying the importance of the individual and making his life more sacred, it improves the social units. If you were going to build a brick wall, one of the prime conditions of your success in building a good wall would be that each brick should be a good one. No more can a satisfactory social order be established without right-minded, sound-hearted men and women. Make each man intelligent, honest, free, fearless, unselfish, consecrated, and society will be just, pure, and prosperous. Because, therefore, the Bible deals primarily with the individual soul in such a way as to ennoble it, the Bible ministers immediately and vitally to the social welfare. And we shall never get beyond this method of trying to improve the race, no matter what rearrangements of government and industry we may make. Systems of social philosophy which ignore this truth are bound to go to pieces very speedily.

And yet the Bible deals most effectually with men in a distinctively social capacity. There is no literature that drives home to people more forcibly a sense of their social relationships and responsibilities. Notwithstanding the vein of independence in the natural character of the early Hebrews, their ethical spirit and their religious devotion carried them into such unity under their theocratic government that at last it was the nation as a whole, or the purified remnant saved from the disasters of centuries, that became the servant of Jehovah; and he, a God of righteousness, required of them the practice of righteousness among their fellowmen at every step in their long career of suffering and discipline. This mighty moral energy expressed itself in the utterances of the prophets, who denounced social wickedness as strongly as they condemned idolatry; and as we read those trenchant messages today, we feel that the same holy spirit rebukes all our social injustices and oppressions, and calls us likewise to obey the moral law as the very first condition of social prosperity. When we pass over to the New Testament and grasp its great doctrine of the divine Fatherhood, and see its corollary of human brotherhood, and listen to the Golden Rule, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and all the injunctions of charity, justice, and kindness, we are impressed still more deeply with the binding force of our social obligations, constraining us to live in righteousness, peace, and helpfulness with all mankind. In fact, it is not too much to claim that, outside of the human conscience itself, no agency or influence promotes social justice, social order, social stability, social freedom, social happiness, and social progress so directly, potently and widely as the great teachings and spirit of the Bible. This may seem extravagant language, but wherein should it be qualified?

An illustration may serve to fix the lesson here taught : The transformation of pig-iron into Bessemer steel involves a structural improvement in the material through the combustion or expulsion, by fire and air, of the impurities contained in the crude ore—the sulphur, the silicon, the excess of carbon, etc. So the transformation of society into the kingdom of heaven involves a structural improvement in the human race; and programmes for social betterment, however ingenious, must wait upon such an improvement, to a large extent, for their execution or success. Because the influence of the Bible tends vitally to effect precisely such a structural improvement in human character, the Bible promotes both individual development and social advancement most surely and extensively. The world will have need of this influence long after many utopian schemes have fascinated, failed, and disappeared.

5. Finally, the various merits indicated in the foregoing account culminate in the witness which the Bible bears to the spiritual realities of the universe and of man's life in it, and in the spiritualizing influence which it thus exerts upon our whole civilization. The struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between the things of the body and the interests of the soul, is the perpetual struggle of humanity. Perhaps it was never more severe than at present. The increase of material commodities has stimulated physical de-sire, multiplying or extending wants beyond the possibility of immediate satisfaction; and the result is, for the time being at least, a widespread discontent, an oppressive sense of failure because wealth is not accumulated for each, and a growing tendency to believe that might makes right in the domain of social and industrial life. All this is aggravated for many minds by the supposition that a materialistic philosophy of the universe is warranted by the disclosures of modern science —a supposition due mainly to the undigested knowledge thrown upon contemporary thought.

Now the only effectual offset to such an attitude is a vital and profound spiritual reassurance, helping men to feel that they are spiritual beings, that mind is more than matter, that character is greater than riches, that morality is something vastly higher and more substantial than brute force and shrewdness, and that human destiny is far more glorious than an extinction of the soul when the body is buried in the earth. This re-assurance is afforded by the Bible through its awakening influence upon all the spiritual susceptibilities of human nature; it arouses con-science, it quickens aspiration, it inculcates the sublime conception of a Divine Government, universal and eternal, established in righteousness, inflexible and unwearied; and it instils a spirit of love and hope that both ennobles and encourages the mind amid its hard, baffling circumstances. Thus it emphasizes character, exalts the ideal, enjoins the seeking of excellence rather than wealth or even happiness, and so strength-ens faith in the slow but sure triumph of truth and justice as to inspire an unswerving devotion to duty and an all-conquering patience in good works. Superadding to the motives and considerations prompting worthy conduct, which may be drawn from "the life that now is," the transcendent inducements yielded by the belief in "the life that is to come," it deepens the conviction that man has a place of permanence, of dignity, and of ultimate victory in God's universe, and thereby sustains him in all his conflicts by filling his soul with "the power of an endless life." Then the things of time and sense drop into their proper rank of subordination, while the interests of mind and heart are appraised at their true value; then life takes on its due symmetry; a clear, high purpose defines all earnest endeavor, and serenity and strength come at last to reward the consecration of a human spirit made in the likeness of God and seeking to do God's will.

If the Bible imbues individual men and women with this resolute and holy sense of their nature and their mission, it must surely touch all phases of their life and of the civilization which they help to mold with a spiritual glory that is of priceless worth. And surely our present civilization waits for just such a spiritualization. Its industry, its wealth, its learning and art must be transmuted into character and joy ere it can reach the full fruition of the labor and suffering which have produced it. Neither sensualism, whether refined or coarse, for the individual, nor turmoil for society, can be the ultimate goal of human development; every noble instinct in us cries out for something better, and all good influences must work on for the realization of that "something better," however tedious may seem the process. Among these good influences that which emanates from the ideas, principles, and spirit of the Bible is one of the highest and strongest and tends most thoroughly to spiritualize all the interests and activities of mankind.

There is something in the social atmosphere created by a widely diffused acquaintance with the Scriptures, which moderates the acerbity of economic strife, shames the arrogant selfishness of prosperity, and mitigates the embittered resentments of want. Far better than intermittent disquisitions from a supreme ecclesiastical authority is the stamping indelibly on the public conscience of that conception of human duty which is expressed in the gospel. This great service to peace and to social reformation is rendered by the Bible in the familiar usage of the people.'

In claiming so much as the foregoing pages assert respecting the service of the Bible to our own age, it is not meant to imply that everything in the Bible must be regarded as good and helpful. On the contrary, we must frankly admit that much in the Scriptures is below the intellectual, moral, and religious level of our time. So palpable is this truth, when fairly considered, and so harmful may be a misunderstanding and misuse of the Bible, that Count Leo Tolstoy, one of the loftiest spirits of our day, is led to exclaim :

People talk of harmful books! But is there in Christendom a book that has done more harm to mankind than this terrible book, called "Scripture History from the Old and New Testaments"? And all the men and women of Christendom have to pass through a course of this Scripture History during their childhood, and this same history is also taught to ignorant adults as the first and most essential foundation of knowledge—as the one, eternal truth of God.'

It is manifest, however, that the indictment here brought is occasioned, not by the Bible as a whole, but by the primitive and crude conceptions contained in some parts of it, and still more by the misinterpretation and abuse to which the Book has been subject. The indictment cannot stand a moment against such a conception and use of the Scriptures as the present writer is earnestly seeking to recommend ; indeed, it only serves to emphasize the need of so educating the people as to enable them to see very clearly that the Bible is not all of one piece, and that the crudities and errors of early Hebrew thought are not to be elevated into equal importance with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Then they will see that those crudities and errors—intellectual, moral, religious—have been like the ways and stays for the launching of a ship necessary, but temporary; or they have served to develop the great spiritual truths of the gospel, even as the corn-stalk serves to produce the ripened ear, being no longer needed after the fruit is gathered.

While holding fast to all that has been said in appreciation of the service of the Bible to our own age, it will be well to remember that it is possible to depend too exclusively upon the Bible. For the Bible, at best, brings us a message out of the past. But we are living in the present, our interests are in the present, and God is in the present. Life is sacred here and now ; the human soul has its daily experience in great, eternal spiritual principles; the truth which ancient prophet and apostle taught we ourselves may find and prove if we will. Let man speak today—man the child of God, capable of hearing God's voice and of knowing God's will; let the present power of the Divine Spirit be felt, moving the soul of man to new insights and new achievements now. Then this living experience will be the clearest light in which the Bible may be read, and the surest proof of its holy lessons; and the Bible in turn will become chiefly a great instrument for awakening the spiritual susceptibilities of the soul, for attuning the inward ear, in order that it may hear the more distinctly the voice of the Lord God. Thus daily life and the Bible will act and react upon each other, supplement each other, and correct or confirm each other. Thus the Bible will render the highest of all its services to our own age by helping to put each one of us into a deeper conscious harmony and co-operation with Divine Providence amid the toils and conflicts of the present generation. So shall we find that

The present moves attended
With all of brave and excellent and fair
That made the old time splendid.



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