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Use And Abuse Of The Bible In Sunday School

( Originally Published 1906 )



Among the practical problems involved in the new views of the Bible which modern learning compels us to take none is in greater need of serious consideration than the one here propounded. It brings up the whole subject of the moral and religious education of the young, the function of the Sunday school in subserving this high interest, the value of the Holy Scriptures as an instrument therefor, and especially the right and wrong ways in which they may be employed. It is apparent at once that the large and vital questions thus raised open room for wide differences of opinion, and that the judgment which any man may render must be colored by his personal temperament, his experience, and his convictions regarding human nature, true religion, educational processes, and the peculiar conditions and requirements of the age in which he lives. The utmost I can hope for is a careful and candid statement, with perhaps a few particular applications, of those leading ideas and principles which I believe to furnish a valid guidance for parents and teachers who desire to do wisely and well their human part in the very delicate and important work of shaping the spiritual development of the children committed to them a little while for nurture and instruction.

At the outset we need to understand that the real end to be sought in all our moral and religious dealings with the young is, or should be, the very thing which I have just mentioned—spiritual development. To be sure, this is precisely one of the points at which some of those differences of opinion to which I have alluded are bound to occur : one man will say that our business with our children is simply to make good Roman Catholics of them; another, good Episcopalians; another, good Universalists; another, good Christian Scientists; and still another, good citizens. But I should say that each of these results is too narrow, if the human soul is spiritual and immortal, with a capacity for growth to which we cannot set limits, and if also the spirit of liberty means anything great and potent. Holding such a view of man's nature, and of the worth of freedom in his life, I cannot doubt that the true goal which God sets before him, and which parents and teachers are to have in mind for their children, is the full, harmonious, continuous development of all the potential good that lies wrapped up within one of these mysterious beings that we dare believe to have been made in the divine image. None of us can say how vast, rich, manifold such a development may be; we are entirely warranted in believing that the possibilities of every soul for noble attainment far surpass our highest ideals; and if we could look upon each human child as Jesus Christ looked upon. men, knowing "what was in man," we should undoubtedly cherish a more sublime faith, hope, and love for each than we have ever dreamed.

Conceiving thus the best spiritual development of which human nature is susceptible as the real and inclusive object of moral and religious education, we need also to understand that such a development may be promoted, such an education supplied, in a variety of ways. The home, the so-called secular school, general reading, the influence of society at large, the influence of nature, the work of life, the deep promptings of the spirit of man, the holy aspirations and beautiful ideals that lift and lure the soul, the joys and sorrows that the years inevitably bring, the sins, contritions, and retributions of which all have some experience, and chiefly "the inspiration of the Almighty"—these are some of the means which may contribute to the unfolding of the divine potentialities of the human being; and I often think that they constitute the principal means, after all, for what President Hyde has well called "God's education of man."

But we are next to note that the Christian Church is a powerful agency that aims directly and specifically at the same great result—the spiritual development of mankind. And the Christian Church has established, in these modern times, the institution of the Sunday school to serve still more particularly in this capacity for the moral and religious education of the young. How far this modern institution in the church really fulfils a valuable function,' what are its palpable defects, how these may be remedied, or what other agency may be substituted for the school as now ordinarily conducted—these are grave questions, but they cannot be properly treated here. It must be assumed that the Sun-day school is in the great majority of our churches to stay for the present, and probably for a long time.

Now the Sunday school uses the Bible as its chief tool in prosecuting its work. It uses other tools also service-books, song-books, lesson papers, and explanatory material, pictures, maps, story papers, library books, festival occasions, and above all living officers and teachers, who speak out of their real lives and characters, for good or ill ; but all these subordinate tools are related to the great tool, the Bible, are imbued more or less with its ideas and spirit, and are designed to inculcate its wonderful truths.

Why do we give the Bible such a predominant place in the work of the Sunday school? It will be worth while to answer this question carefully. And of course the comprehensive answer is: Be-cause we have derived our religious conceptions and convictions mainly from this Sacred Volume. Nearly all we know about Christianity and its mother-religion Judaism has reached us, directly and indirectly, through these Holy Scriptures; and it is certain that our best impulses, our no-blest beliefs, and our purest affections are continually nourished and strengthened from the same great source. So true is this that I suppose not one person in a thousand, in our own part of the world, ever imagines that we should have any religion at all if it were not for the Bible. But I have asked the question: "Why do we give the Bible such a predominant place in the work of the Sunday school?" exactly for the purpose of arresting attention and exciting thought at this very point. For until we see that religion and morality are at least possible without the Bible, we shall not make them what they ought to be with the Bible. By this I mean that there is something deeper in human life than either the Bible or the church, namely, the ethical and religious instinct, out of which both the Bible and the church have sprung, and which would still be one of the mightiest forces in the world even if there were no Bible and no church. The recognition of this fundamental fact is the very first condition of making a right use of the Bible, and of correcting the abuses to which we so often subject both it and those whom we teach from it.

Here, then, is the bedrock upon which we must stand : Man is a moral and religious being by nature; in his own soul are spiritual impulses, promptings, intuitions, aspirations; and Bibles, churches, and teachers are merely helps, to wake him up, enlighten him, guide him, bless him. This clear, simple, profound and vital truth is the one which, more than any other that I can state, needs due appreciation in the religious thinking of our time; and when duly appreciated, it will do more than any other to clarify religious discussion and instruction. It is the great central truth in all the new, valid thought of the present age.

Now consider the bearing of this fundamental principle upon the use of the Bible in the Sunday school.

1. At once we see that the most important object in the Sunday school is not the Bible, but the child. This little human being, with all his capacities and powers, this living creature made in the likeness of God, with unmeasured possibilities for good or evil, is here before us, the real center of all our interest ; and what for? I answer : To be helped, especially in the direction of spiritual development; to be awakened, enlightened, strengthened, guided in the way of a true moral and religious life. The teacher is here be-side this child, meeting him on the basis of interest and love, for the express purpose of trying to help him thus. Let the teacher never forget this fact, let the whole school remember it always—the central object of our concern is the living individual child.

2. Down deep in the heart of this child, hid-den from the superficial gaze and but half recognized by the clearest insight, are native instincts, latent potentialities, vague, flitting feelings and longings, slowly forming into tendencies, ex-pressing themselves in actions, and later developing habits and producing character. No man knows all of the good or evil that may come out of that little child's heart ; but we do know, at least we are absolutely to trust, that there is something divinely noble and beautiful there to which the wise and loving teacher may appeal. This is the most precious and sacred fact that claims our attention; it is prior to all Bibles, churches, and schools; and we must not fail to keep it distinctly in view in the presence of all our methods and mechanisms.

3. As already intimated, the teacher's main task is to do what he can, by wisdom and affection, to shape the unfolding of these inner spiritual tendencies of the child's nature; to awaken the divine voices in the chambers of his little soul ; to strike the finer chords of his being, whose mu-sic is the sweetest and holiest that he may ever hear; to help him understand the sacred and au-gust meaning of all his purest desires and convictions—in short, to bring him to moral and religious self-consciousness, so that he shall know himself as a spiritual being and be able at length to guide himself securely amid the temptations and duties of life. Such ought to be every teacher's intelligent aim, such his passionate desire, if he really seeks to help his pupils. Need I say that it is the most delicate and difficult, as it is the most blessed, service in all the world? Alas, that we blunder at it as we do!

4. In seeking to perform this vital service for the child, the teacher and the school have two particular things to do, namely, to nurture the child and to instruct him. The two processes are closely related, but are not identical. True, there is a sense in which all instruction, if it be real, is nourishing; and yet it is not always or altogether so. Instruction consists mainly in imparting in-formation; and information is not so much food as it is the 'raw material of food. At any rate I am sure there are ways of so presenting great, divine truths and ideals to the human soul as to nourish it in virtue, grace, and love, feeding it with what we justly call "the bread of life;" and there are other ways of so presenting them as merely to engage the contemplation of the mind and afford a correct intellectual view. I am equally sure that these two processes need to go together—the impartation of truth, and the inculcation of the spirit of truth; but I think that what young children chiefly need is nutriment rather than information. In other words, we should warm their little hearts with love, and nourish them in goodness, and strengthen them with high and righteous purposes before we try to give their minds a knowledge of many facts or a critical view of life's problems.

Now, if all this is plain, we are prepared to see why we should use the Bible in the Sunday school, why we must not use it too much, and how we may best use it.

1. Remembering that the nature and welfare of the child come first, and that the Sunday school exists for the purpose of ministering to his spiritual development, we are to use the Bible simply as a help to this end, and because it is a great, mighty, blessed help. It is such a help be-cause it is so full of spiritual power; it throbs with the sense of righteousness, with faith in God, with the longing after a good life ; and if we read it so as to drink in its spirit, or study it so as to appreciate its true teachings, we soon find that it powerfully quickens our native sense of right and wrong, vivifies our purest ideals of worthy living, makes us feel the presence of God in the affairs of this turbulent world, and shows us the pathway that leads the individual soul and the human race toward light and peace. No other literature was ever so rich and strong in these respects. To feed ourselves upon it, to instil its spirit into the hearts of our children, is to quicken and invigorate every noble impulse in us and them. To imbue our nation with its principles is to help our nation to be reverent, serious, honest, virtuous, fraternal, benevolent. It were almost impossible for any people or any person to drink long, deep draughts from this fountain without experiencing a life-giving influence of priceless value.

It is because the Bible has proved itself, through centuries of use, among all sorts and conditions of men, in nearly every land on the face of the earth, to possess this power and to produce in some degree these effects, that we are warranted in continuing to employ it in our Sunday schools as our chief instrumentality for ministering to the moral and religious education of the young. Its solemn, impressive words make our liturgies and inspire our songs as no others are able to do; every mood of the soul, from penitence and grief to victory and joy, can express itself with wonderful felicity and variety in phrases or sentences culled from its pages; and the spell which its stately language and its exalted thoughts weave over our hearts brings us into communion with divine things, hallowed and beautiful, such as we scarcely ever realize in any other way-such as only Nature can afford us when we are in our finest, most receptive, most responsive attitude. Indeed, without the Bible to prompt our worship and guide our meditation, it is altogether likely that we should not see one-half of the spiritual meaning which we now read in the great Book of Nature. The Bible helps us to interpret Nature divinely, as it likewise helps us to interpret life and our own souls and the universe divinely. For all these reasons, and the many that go with them, we use the Bible in the Sunday school, and feel that nothing else can take its place. And yet it is only a help, a tool, in the hands of living men and women to minister to the spiritual development of the young.

2. But we must not use the Bible too exclusively. It is entirely possible, even easy, to do so. Remembering that the Bible is not the source of the ethical and religious impulses of the human soul, but merely an instrumentality for their reinforcement, we must always pay chief attention to this living word of God that is written and en-graven, not on tables of stone, not on rolls of parchment, not on printed pages, but "in fleshly tables of the heart"—the freshest and most potent of all divine influences for every spiritual child of the Eternal Father. It is here, if anywhere, that God and man must meet—in the inner sanctuary, the true "holy of holies," of each human life; it is here that each of us must learn somehow to feel, recognize, and understand God; it is here, in these deepest and most august experiences, that "the Spirit beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God." If we allow the Bible or any other external agency to come too abruptly or too frequently into this private sanctuary, we put something between our-selves and our Father which may possibly hinder rather than help our communion ; and if we thrust the Bible or any other agency thus between the little child and the great God, we may prevent the very thing we want mainly to secure—the child's reverent hearing and glad recognition of the living voice of its heavenly Father. Here is our perplexing paradox : No Bible, no church, no minister must be permitted to stand between the human soul and God to separate the two; and yet all Bibles, all churches, all ministers must be welcomed to stand between them to bring them together.

Again, if we use the Bible too exclusively, we shall almost inevitably convey the impression that the Bible and religion are identical, that we are necessarily studying and teaching religion when we are studying and teaching the Bible; whereas such is not the case. The Bible is an historical product of the religious spirit; as such it is of measureless worth, because bearing so clear and copious a witness to God's dealings with a certain race, or with certain races, and likewise with many individuals, in the remote past; but it is not itself religion, and we must guard against the notion that God confined his dealings and his disclosures to the Israelites of two and three thou-sand years ago; also we must guard against the notion that whatever belonged to the Israelites—their land, which they took by violence from the Canaanites, their battles and intrigues, their crude and erroneous conceptions of the universe—must necessarily have been religious and acceptable in the sight of God. What we really want to make sure of is that we and our children shall see that, as God dealt with the Israelitish people in the olden time, and made known to them somewhat of his truth and will, so does he deal with all peoples today, and unfold his great, holy purposes for their guidance and blessing. To this end we need constantly to translate history into experience, to interpret history in the light of experience, to read the story of God's ways in the past in the light of his ways with us here and now. Surely, if we thus learn to find God in the life of the present, for ourselves individually, for our own country, and for the whole modern world, we shall not fail to trace his handiwork among the nations of antiquity, even more widely than Israel ever dreamed.

3. From these reflections it becomes apparent that we shall best use the Bible in the Sunday school by using it discriminatingly, selectively, yet comprehensively, and above all vitally.

a) We must discriminate between true and false, good and bad, high and low in its contents; for they are not uniform and equal. For in-stance, take the conduct of Jacob in defrauding his brother Esau by deceiving their aged father Isaac at the instigation of their mother Rebekah : if there is any reason for presenting this story at all to young children, and if it is to be studied by older pupils, the whole case should be brought squarely to the bar of their intelligence and con-science for just judgment; and even very young children may be enabled to see and feel that the conduct of Jacob and Rebekah was grossly reprehensible. No hesitation should be indulged in pronouncing this verdict, when fairly and sincerely reached, because forsooth Jacob became the servant of Jehovah for great ends; he did not become such a servant because of this deception, but rather in spite of it; and the religiously valuable truth may be impressed, that God often uses imperfect and very faulty men to work out his vast purposes, but their faults and sins are nevertheless to be condemned and do really hinder the divine plans.

Similar distinctions, intellectual or moral, will occur frequently in the Bible narratives : for ex-ample, in the story of Rahab, the harlot, when she hid the spies and lied about it; in the accounts of the ruthless slaughter of people and animals by Joshua's conquering armies ; in the tale of David's wicked act of procuring Uriah's death; and—not to mention many others—in the New Testament record of Peter's base denial of the Master. All these, just because they involve such distinctions, which appeal to the sense of right and justice in the human soul, are most instructive instances of conduct; but to fail to bring them out, to fail to evoke the honest judgment of the young regarding them, is to make well-nigh a total failure in their use as material for moral and religious education. Even as children must be taught to discriminate and judge justly in regard to the words and deeds of living men and women in the world around them today, so must they be helped to do with respect to the characters that come before them in the Bible. Nothing is more important than to acquire the habit of sincerely trying thus to judge justly about people and questions in everyday life; and the study of the Bible, if pursued in this way, may be made to contribute effectually and abundantly to such a discipline. But the neglect of this principle of discrimination, leading to a blurring of distinctions in the Scriptures, and to a consequent blunting of the finest sensibilities of the soul, may render the study of the Bible harmful rather than helpful. Therefore teacher and pupil alike should, so far as possible, heed the significant question once asked by the great Teacher of whom we all are glad to learn : "Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?" 2

b) The Bible should be used selectively. Not all of it is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for discipline which is in righteousness."' Certainly many portions of it are unsuitable for the instruction of young children, and others are questionable even for boys and girls under twenty years of age. Not only the genealogical lists and the ceremonial laws found in the Old Testament; but also the stories of sexual sins, of barbaric cruelties, of murder, of merciless bloodshed in war, are unfit for the spiritual culture of the young. For this and other reasons, an expurgated Bible is needed—such an edition, for example, as The Bible for Children. Of course in the Sunday school only small sections of the Scriptures can be studied anyhow, for want of time ; but the point here made is that, on grounds of fitness or merit, there must be a careful selection of passages.

In making such a selection the guiding principle should be to try to meet the real needs of the pupils, which will be different at different stages of their development. For the youngest children —such as are usually included in the primary grades—it is best to use only a few biblical materials, consisting mainly of those choice stories or sentences which help to give them the great and beautiful thought of God's loving care for the world of nature and human kind, and which tell them a little about the childhood of Jesus and about his noble character as a great and good Teacher. Other materials—especially pictures, and lessons from Nature, and the Christian holidays, and the life of the family—can be used to excellent advantage; and above all the intelligent, reverent, and loving attitude and influence of the teacher, with songs, prayers, and other exercises, will make the work of this department happy and sweet. Older children—from nine to fourteen years—will be interested and helped by the Old Testament stories, and by the New Testament narratives of Christ's life and Paul's work; and also by the parables and teachings of Christ, if wisely and vitally handled by the teacher. Still later, the young people can be led to see and feel the essential nobleness of Jesus' character, and the loftiness and soundness of his ethical and religious teachings; and, with him as a center or standard, they can trace the moral development of the Israelitish people through their long, hard history. At every point the ruling aim should be to adapt the Bible to the actual needs of the pupils, and to employ such portions of it at different stages as may be best calculated to appeal vitally to their growing spiritual consciousness.

c) At the same time, the Bible should be studied somewhat comprehensively. By this I mean that there should be some evident totality, wholeness, completeness in the passages chosen. Especially should this principle hold in the older classes, with pupils sixteen years of age and over. Separate books of the Bible should be taken up as wholes. Students who, in the public schools of even the grammar grade, spend a few weeks in reading "The Merchant of Venice," until they know it almost by heart and very thoroughly appreciate it, can surely be taught to read and comprehend the Gospel according to Luke, if a reasonable length of time is taken and if the teacher is competent. The same may be said respecting nearly every other book in the Bible; and it is vastly better to study each book separately, as a whole, and somewhat thoroughly, seeking to understand the point of view, style, and leading ideas of its author, than to "run, hop, skip, and jump" from book to book and passage to passage, until nothing but fragmentary, hazy, and bewildering notions of the Bible can remain in the pupils' minds. A certain class of boys, seven in number and from sixteen to twenty years of age, has recently spent about four months—that is, about twenty-five minutes each Sunday for four months—in reading the book of Job, with only a little comment, and with no preaching or moralizing on the part of the teacher; and it is perfectly plain that they have been much more interested and have derived greater profit than could have been the case in any desultory study of a half-dozen different books in the same period. The class had previously read, in a similar way, the bulk of Genesis, Exodus, parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, a portion of Judges, the whole of Ruth; and will go on to read perhaps Isaiah and Jeremiah, and several of the New Testament books. All lesson papers and "helps" are discarded; the Bible is given a chance to speak for itself ; and each particular book studied is treated as an entity, until its individuality is somewhat clearly understood. This is what is meant by the principle of comprehensiveness in the use of the Bible in the Sunday school. Much more might be said concerning other aspects and applications of the principle, but limits of space forbid.

d) Finally, and chiefly, the Bible should be used vitally. Perhaps the worst evil in Sunday-school work—possibly in all other kinds of religious work—is a lack of vitality, reality, sincerity. Songs are sung, Scriptures are read, prayers are said that are not half meant; these exercises become lifeless formalities; they do not come from the souls of the leaders, and do not "reach" the souls of the followers. What wonder that, in such an atmosphere, the study of the Bible is a meaningless procedure, and that the Sunday school loses its grip upon the young people? Nothing will hold them long or do them any good except reality—a vital and sincere spirit in the hearts of officers and teachers. Given this, there will be earnest work; a note of genuineness will be felt in all the services; and the lessons from the Bible will be approached in reverence and with positive interest. It is pitiful, it is al-most sacreligious, to take the great utterances of Scripture, full of exalted and holy meanings, and bandy them about, or repeat them flippantly; and likewise to sing carelessly the loftiest and sweetest hymns, that have been born of anguish or transcendent joy, when human souls have been transfigured in the light of God's presence. Is there anything that can work a more serious in-jury to the finest sensibilities, of the spirits of children and youth, in the name of religion, than mockery like this?

Plainly, then, it is imperative that the principal condition of effective spiritual work in the Sunday school should be recognized as that of spiritual vitality on the part of pastor, officers, and teachers. The great, strong, holy spirit of the Bible must first penetrate their hearts; then it will be surely felt, to some extent, throughout the school. The noble teachings of the Bible must have some real power and find some real exemplification in the lives and characters of those in the church who are set to lead and teach the young, or this very best Book in all the world will fail to accomplish its blessed mission in behalf of souls naturally susceptible to its beautiful influence. In other words, the Bible must be translated into life, into experience, by the teacher, and must thus reach the pupil through the personality of the teacher, in order to do its inestimable work in the moral and religious education of children and youth. The teacher is to be the living connecting link between the Bible and the child.

Because the spiritual cultivation of the young is the most delicate and sacred task committed to the Sunday school, or indeed to any other agency, and because the Bible is the greatest and best of tools for this purpose, it becomes supremely important that the utmost pains should be taken to enable the teachers to understand the Bible, to understand childhood, and to know how best to try to give the former to the latter. All this implies intelligent preparation, knowledge, skill, loving interest and devotion, and a living apprehension and appreciation of spiritual truth as related to an unfolding human life. It implies also the subordination of the Bible to the teacher and the child, rather than the subordination of the teacher and the child to the Bible. The Bible is merely an instrument, a vehicle, a means to an end ; the teacher is a superior agency to reach the same end ; and that end is the spiritual awakening, enlightenment, refinement, invigoration, and sanctification of a growing child of God. The child is the center of interest; and both teacher and Bible are to work together, the one as master and the other as implement, to fashion in immortal beauty the slowly developing character of a being made "but little lower than the angels."

It will be a happy day for the Sunday school, and a blessed augury for the vital advance of the kingdom of heaven, when the new appreciation of the Bible and the new appreciation of childhood are duly supplemented by a new appreciation of the joyous privilege and the high responsibility of the religious teacher, who shall know how to use and not abuse the Bible, how to help and not hurt the child ; and who shall be adequately supported by a church that knows how to honor and compensate such a holy service. The dawn of that golden day is already at hand.



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