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How To Read The Bible In Its Modern Aspects

( Originally Published 1906 )



Having obtained a clear conception of the revolution which is taking place in the thought of intelligent people regarding the nature of the Bible; and having tried to form a just estimate of the great service which the Sacred Volume has rendered to the interests of spiritual progress in the past, is still rendering at present, and is bound to render yet more largely in the future if we be not unfaithful to it, we are now prepared to consider the immediately practical question : How shall we seek to use this precious literature in order that it may most truly help us? How shall we read it for our personal profit? How shall we teach it to our children? How shall we em-ploy it in the church and Sunday school? And what place, if any, shall we give it in our so-called secular education? Evidently this question is of such moment as to demand the plainest, most careful, most candid answer that can be given it. One may well approach the task with diffidence, and yet with a serious resolution to express with perfect frankness the truth which he is sure ought to be uttered.

I. Perhaps the very first thing to be said is, that we are not to be afraid of the truth. Every enlightened person ought by this time to have been emancipated from all such fear. Yet the real timidity of many minds shows the need of reassurance. A kind of superstition still lingers in the realm of religious thought, though banished from nearly every other. But slowly the influence of growing knowledge will dispel its last vestiges, and men will learn that they are not to dread the discovery of truth in any do-main. For when we consider how modern physical science has opened the material universe to our view, at each successive stage disclosing new and marvelous truths which have been found in due time to establish a larger and grander harmony with all other certainly known truths. we must have the utmost confidence that Truth is the one substantial reality in the universe, that Truth is of God, and that therefore every iota of truth is to be welcomed, whencesoever it may come. To beget such a confidence in our minds, and to inform and train us so that we can distinguish between truth and error, are the chief ends of all our intellectual discipline. There can be no wholesome, happy study and growth in religion without this freedom.

We are, then, first of all, to be open-minded and unafraid. The universe is overwhelmingly vast, mysterious, rich, glorious. It cannot possibly be that any man, or any church or book, at any time in the past, has gathered up all that is to be known about it, or even about any portion of it. Forever it is to be expected that there is yet more light to break forth. Therefore we are to be students, learners, at once humble and bold ; proving all things, holding fast that which is good ; willing to be corrected, but thoughtful, careful, and above all sincere. If we approach the Bible in this attitude, we shall find our doubts, perplexities, and anxieties giving way to in-creasing illumination, growing knowledge, and deepening satisfaction.

2. Perhaps the next thing to be said is, that, for the general reader, especially if past the period of youth, there is need of a simple Introduction to the Study of the Bible, containing a clear sketch of its external history, a plain account of the traditional view of it, an explanation of the development of the modern view, an indication of the real but great value of this ancient literature, and a trustworthy guide to a correct method in reading it. There are, to be sure, numerous Introductions of an elaborate and scholarly character that have served in theological seminaries and for advanced students ; but. mostly, they are unsuitable for popular use, and too often are vitiated by the old and invalid conception of the nature of the Bible. Such a hand-book as is here proposed is admirably supplied, as far as it goes, in Professor Walter F. Adeney's little book entitled How to Read the Bible; but it does not cover quite so much ground as is desirable, though it deserves to be in the hands of every parent and Sunday-school teacher. Doubtless the more complete treatment of the introductory matter required will be forthcoming ere long; and even now, if one is really interested to study—and not much can be done for anyone who is not really interested—there is an abundance of instructive, explanatory material, which may serve to guide the reader of the Scriptures to an understanding of their origin, history, character, value, and best uses. The main thing needed by each person, after all, is a genuine desire to get the message and the blessing which the Bible contains.

3. Another general fact to be borne in mind is, that a proper comprehension of the Bible demands considerable information respecting its historical origin. Let not this remark frighten anyone. It does not mean that every man must be an erudite scholar in order to derive any benefit or enjoyment from the Sacred Writings, for such an implication would be far from the truth. Neither does it mean that the great, heart-searching utterances in which the Scriptures abound cannot make themselves felt with impressive power and helpfulness even to the uneducated, so true to life in all its deeper experiences are they. Rather, the thought is that, taking up the Bible as literature, we are to remember that it is an ancient literature; produced by a people of antiquity who lived within a definite historical environment; and bearing, therefore, the indelible stamp of the social, national, and international setting, and of the prevalent ideas, beliefs, and aspirations, which belonged to the age or ages that yielded it. Accordingly we need to know something about all these facts and circumstances, at least in a general way; and there is so much more to be known now than formerly concerning that remote past, partly long-buried, that not only is such intelligence at once more necessary and more accessible, but it is also more interesting and enjoyable, than heretofore; and consequently ignorance is the less excusable.

Of course the extent of the knowledge to be thus sought must depend a little on what you read the Bible for. If you are reading mainly for spiritual quickening and comfort, for devotional purposes, you will not need so much of this historical information as if studying expressly to ascertain the meaning of the various biblical authors in the light of their times and conditions. Still, in any case, without a reasonable under-standing of the character of the peculiar soil in which the Bible grew, you will be liable to wan-der into the widest and wildest vagaries in seeking to interpret and apply its teachings. What misconstructions of the Prophets, for example, have resulted from failure in this regard ! The story of the misuse and abuse of the Bible, the wresting and perversion of its contents, the building-up of vast systems of half-truths, is a long and sorry one; and the only sure corrective of them and protection against them, one and all, is the thorough historical knowledge here contended for.

4. The next advice to be given is to approach the Bible frankly as a human literature. Let all thought of its divine character, of its containing "the Word of God," wait. If it really possesses a divine character, it will speak for itself : let it speak, let it make its own impression. If it contains a message from God, can we not trust God to make himself heard? At any rate, as has been frequently remarked, whatever else the Bible may be, or may be thought to be, it comes to us as literature first of all—as a work in human language, growing out of the deep and varied experiences of human souls, full of the lights and shadows of human hope and fear, joy and sorrow, love and hate, goodness and wickedness. Let it be taken up and read simply as such. If God is in it, he will find us. If the great spirit of the Bible is the Spirit of the Divine Life, our hearts will soon know it; and it is far better to feel God in the Bible, in the world, in our lives, than to have him too much pointed out and explained to us. Just read the Bible as you read the Book of Nature—contemplate it, feel it, yield yourself up to its influence, learn to love it, caress it, and let its mighty heart-beat reach your soul: you will quickly find that it speaks to you as no other literature does, and fills you with a strength you have not gained in any other way. Then, after much experience in such communion with the spirit of the Bible, formulate—if you wish—your thought or theory of the inspiration and the revelation contained in its hallowed pages. When you come to do this you will avail yourself of the thought of others, and will seek all the information you can appropriate to enlighten and validate your own conception. The great advantage of this method will be found to consist in the production of fresh, natural ideas and convictions, growing out of original, personal experience under the impression made by the Bible itself, rather than a set of notions and beliefs taken on from other men's experiences and theories, with which you suppose your own must be made to square.

Following these general counsels, a few specific directions may be properly given.

a) It is not best to try to read the Bible through by rote. That is the old-fashioned way, and, of course, it is far better than no way at all; moreover it is consistent enough with the traditional conception of the nature of the Bible. But it is not consistent with the new conception, and entails a needless waste of time and energy.

What we want to get out of the Bible mainly is its great spirit, its potent influence, its sublime teaching; and we shall most quickly and surely do this by taking the salient portions and grasping the underlying, pervading truths that run through the Scriptures like threads of gold in the warp and woof of some antique tapestry. Read the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, and the Kings for the historical narratives of the Old Testament— read them at first without any reference to the analysis into their component parts; and later read them in their analyzed form, as given in Professor W. E. Addis' Documents of the Hexateuch, or in Professor Charles Foster Kent's. The Student's Old Testament. Read the Psalms for the devotional spirit; read the Prophets for the spirit of patriotism and religious faith and fortitude; read the gospels, of course, for the beautiful life-story of Jesus, and for his heavenly teaching; read the Acts for the narrative of the planting of the Christian Church; read the epistles of Paul and John and Peter for spiritual inspiration, admonition, and comfort. Read for nourishment as well as for information; and therefore read what you are hungry for, what really feeds you—different portions at different times.

b) Another important direction is, to read the Bible in generous allotments. Unfortunately, we have fallen into the practice of reading only detached and very small fragments, selected from various books in a series of very slightly related passages, that can scarcely fail to confuse and bewilder adults as well as children. It has been a baneful method, breaking up all sense of wholeness or continuity in contemplating any given writing in the Bible; and to it must be ascribed no small part of the lack of real knowledge and real appreciation of the literary structure of the Sacred Volume, of which we hear frequent complaints today as prevailing even among college students and many church people. We cannot too quickly begin to counteract the evil by teaching the young to read the Bible itself, instead of lesson leaves, and also to read long or large portions of the Scriptures continuously. For example, let the entire story of Joseph be read at one or two, not more than three, sittings; the story of the plagues in Egypt and the flight of the Israelites, at a single sitting; and the account of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, in perhaps a couple of sittings. Likewise, from the New Testament, let a number of chapters from the gospels be read at a stretch, taking Mark first; follow with the book of Acts in the same way; and take extended sections of the great epistles, and of the shorter epistles read the whole at a time. In this way some sense of totality, of literary continuity and comprehensiveness in each production, will be acquired. Better still, we shall thus be likely to read the Bible enough to be saturated with its noble thought and spirit, which is the main thing, after all, for us to seek.

This rule becomes especially urgent if one is to gain any just notion of the peculiarities of the different biblical writers—their characteristics of style, their ruling ideas, their points of view. For they are not all alike in these respects. There is a wide dissimilarity between Deuteronomy and Job, for example, or between Isaiah and Ecclesiastes; and, in the New Testament, between Mark and John, or between Luke and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Now a large part of the profit in reading the Bible lies in appreciating the real distinctions thus appearing in its various books—in understanding the actual qualities which make Paul's writings different from those of any other author, or which render the Gospel and the letters of John unique, or which put a stamp of individuality upon the books of Chronicles. Both the intellectual and the religious benefits accruing are sure to be greater under such intelligent discrimination than under the old notion of uniformity. I can respond to the spiritual sublimity of II Isaiah more earnestly when I know it as a different work from I Isaiah, and thus know its historical origin and its characteristics, than when supposing the whole book which bears the name of Isaiah, consisting of sixty-six chapters, to be one and the same work, by one and the same author. So I can derive much greater help from Paul when I understand him as Paul than when I thoughtlessly assume him to be just like John or Peter or James. The remark applies generally throughout the Scriptures. The interest of the reader will be heightened, his moral perception will be sharpened, and his religious insight will become deeper and clearer when he is taught to observe real distinctions in this varied literature than if allowed to reduce it all to one common level.

c) A good practical rule also is to read various translations. Happily we now have several of these in the English language. If you desire to read for intellectual as well as for moral and religious profit, it will be well to begin with the American Revision, on account of its accuracy, its proper paragraphing, its indication of quotations and of poetic forms, and its use of the word "Jehovah" in the Old Testament, in place of the word "Lord," for the name of the Hebrew deity. If you are reading for devotional purposes mainly, and love the old forms of expression, read the Authorized Version, noble and impressive in its somewhat antique yet stately idiom. If you wish to understand the historical occasions of the production of some of the books of the Old Testament, read the paraphrases in the series of volumes by Professors Sanders and Kent, entitled Messages of the Bible; or if you want to understand the scholarly analysis. of the Old Testament books into their component parts, take the new series of volumes already referred to, en-titled The Student's Old Testament, by Professor Kent.' It is interesting and often instructive to read the Psalms as given in the Book of Common Prayer, in the translation made by Miles Cover-dale in 1535. In the New Testament, if one desires a fresh, vivid rendering, in the language of today, he may find much value in The Twentieth Century New Testament. The gospels as here printed show their fragmentary character very clearly. The work has been used with great ad-vantage in Sunday-school classes of children from ten to thirteen years of age; the boys and girls were intensely interested in the story of Paul's life and work, as well as in the broken sketches of the Master's career. For children also an admirable work is The Bible for Children, comprising nearly all the portions of Scripture, from both Testaments, which are really suitable for the young to read, and furnished in most attractive typographical form. An excellent series of paraphrases of the leading Old Testament stories, chosen for their value in the moral education of the young, is the small volume of Bible Stories, by Mr. Walter L. Sheldon.

By employing such a variety of translations, the individual reader or the class may easily ac-quire much important knowledge about the structure of the Bible, and by comparing one rendering with another may often gain a better conception of the meaning and the teaching of a given passage than could possibly be obtained in any other way. This method is preferable to the use of commentaries, because it trains the reader to ascertain what the Bible really says, and to let it speak for itself and make its own impression. Thus it enhances both interest and profit.

d) A caution may be properly given, to beware of the interpreters of the Bible who appear to be infallible, and who build complete and final systems of science or philosophy or theology out of it. Their name has been legion, and in the past they have wrought gross perversions; indeed, the bane of biblical interpretation has nearly always been just this passion for system-building. Fortunately, it is now beginning to weaken, under the influence of the New Learning, and consequently we shall soon witness the collapse of some stupendous, time-honored schemes of doctrine. Yet others may arise to take their place, as even our own age abundantly warns us; for Adventism still lingers, and Christian Science grows apace. But the whole tendency to build such systems, which was fostered by the old conception of the Bible, is utterly discouraged by the new conception; and in proportion as the reader apprehends the new view, and learns to use the Bible in the new way, he will find himself safe-guarded against being swept off his feet by any ambitious, comprehensive scheme, claiming to be the one sure key to unlock the mystery of the Scriptures and reveal the meaning of the universe, and promising the complete redemption of the world.

e) A suggestion worth considering, by ministers especially, is to give interpretative Bible readings. If a minister is fairly educated in the modern view of the Scriptures, and is a good reader, he can greatly interest, instruct, and spiritually help his people by giving them occasionally, in classes or groups, extended readings with very brief explanatory introductions and comments. For instance, if he desires to illustrate the literary beauty of the Bible, let him read the book of Ruth in this manner; or the entire story of Joseph; or the account of the relations and the friendship of David and Jonathan. To illustrate the moral sublimity of the Scriptures, take those parts of Deuteronomy which Professor Moulton calls "The Orations of Moses," using the little volume Deuteronomy in "The Modern Reader's Bible;" or take selections from I Isaiah or II Isaiah, or, indeed, almost any of the Prophets. To illustrate the religious power of the Bible, one may turn naturally to the Psalms; or to the parables of Jesus; or to some of the earnest appeals in Paul's epistles. Here is a sample of a single reading from the gospels, as once given by the present writer, with much satisfaction, as a part of his Lenten work :

BIBLE READING I

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK

(From the Twentieth Century New Testament.)

1. Brief Introduction.

a) Author.

b) Date—65—75 A. D.

c) Characteristics:

1) Simplicity.

2) Mainly narrative.

3) Graphic, vivid style.

4) Frequent mention of casting out evil spirits.

2. The Reading :

Chap. I—vii. 12. The early work in Galilee.

3. Further Reading:

vii. 23–chap. ix.

The above is merely a hint of what may easily be done, to the profit of both reader and hearer. Another instructive reading from the gospels may be made from Luke ix. 51—xix. 27, containing what Professor Adeney styles "Luke's New Contribution to the Gospel History"—although the material, is extensive enough for two or perhaps three readings.

Professor Richard G. Moulton has given, in a single evening, an interpretative reading of the book of job, which has been illuminating, interesting, and religiously impressive to his auditors. Others have done similar work even more extensively; and there is no good reason why an intelligent pastor might not employ such a means for the intellectual and spiritual culture of his people.

In addition to the foregoing practical counsels and suggestions, it remains only to urge two serious thoughts.

1. Read the Bible diligently. Do not discard it wholly for the newspaper, the magazine, or the modern book. Do not neglect it. Read it privately; read it freely; read it both for instruction and for spiritual enrichment. It is one of the world's great classics—taken all in all, it is justly regarded as the world's greatest literature. No one can afford to go without its quickening, restraining, guiding, comforting, sanctifying influence. Let it have its due place of honor and power in each life and in each home. It will abundantly repay the esteem and devotion accorded it by hallowing all thought and affection, and by helping the human soul to realize its divine mission.

2. But let the light of truth from any and all other sources blend with the light that shines from the pages of the Bible. Stupendous developments have taken place since these ancient Scriptures were produced. Greece and Rome have transmitted and diffused their respective legacies ; the nations of modern Europe have arisen; the Protestant Reformation has occurred; America has sprung up here in the West; science has been born with its own new and glorious revelation of God's works and ways; and at length the gates are unbarred in every land, and the heralds of truth are entering into every corner of the earth, and "the people that sat in darkness have seen a great light."

All these significant events and achievements have their ministry for our minds and hearts; they all bring us messages from out the wondrous Book of Human Life; and we must seek to understand them aright, and to let them modify as they must the peculiar and most valuable teaching which it has been the mission of the Chosen People of old to give the world. We may rest assured that all that is true in the Bible is in harmony with all other truth, and is permanent. While many of the historical accidents and incidents of these venerable Writings must be allowed to fall away, as of a transient character and service, yet the living and mighty spirit that throbs through them will still pulsate side by side with all other good influences, will still thrill our souls with the power of the Divine Life, bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and will thus continue to guide our feet into the way of peace.



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