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The Traditional View Of The Bible

( Originally Published 1906 )



The previous chapter presented some of the main facts in the story of the way in which we came by our English Bible. We have now to look at the estimation in which it has been held since about the time of the making of the Authorized Version, 161I A. D. It will be necessary to state the popular view, to point out its sources, to show its practical bearings, and to pass judgment upon it, before we can appreciate the better conception that will be developed out of our studies as we proceed.

The customary phrase in which the majority of Christians speak of the Bible is, "the Word of God." While there are, perhaps, few persons so densely ignorant as to suppose that the Al-mighty literally wrote the Sacred Volume and let it down out of heaven into this world, there are thousands whose ideas of its origin are not far removed from such a crude notion. For they consider that, even if God did not actually dictate the entire contents of the Bible to its writers, who simply acted as amanuenses to record what they were bidden, he at least sa fully and infallibly inspired and controlled the writers that they were mere tools, instruments, writing-machines, in his hand. Accordingly every book, chapter, paragraph, verse, sentence, clause, phrase, and word are the direct gift of God to the children of men, and the whole Bible is the veritable Word of God, all portions of it are of equal value and authority, and whoever denies any single part of it virtually denies it entirely, while whoever accepts any part of it is under obligation to accept it all. This is that doctrine of the so-called "plenary" (i. e., full) inspiration and absolute infallibility of the Scriptures which regards them not merely as containing, but as being, a message from God to man, which is wholly free from error, whether of historical, scientific, or moral character.

Such, in brief, is the general conception of the Bible that has prevailed, among most Protestants during the last three hundred years, scarcely yielding to even the slightest modifications until within the last half-century. It has dominated the theology of nearly all the so-called evangelical churches ; it has characterized the revival efforts which they have so often put forth; it has been instilled into the minds of the children who have grown up in them; and "for substance of doctrine" it still lingers in the belief of the great majority of their communicants, especially the less educated among them. The late Dwight L. Moody was wont to declare his acceptance of the Bible as "the Word of God from back to back;" and in 1895 he urged Sunday-school teachers to "believe the Bible, the whole Bible, with every fiber of the body." No doubt such a muscular faith was useful in moving the multitudes that Mr. Moody was accustomed to gather, and he was unquestionably sincere in his convictions ; yet it is not difficult to see that it was his Christian devotion and rich spiritual experience rather than his idea of the Bible that really made him the noble evangelist he was. He might have been equally devoted and successful with a very different conception of the Bible, so far as its formal origin was concerned. If, however, Mr. Moody and his faith and his multitudes may be considered fairly representative of modern orthodox Protestantism, I am justified in saying that the view I have stated, al-though being now abandoned or qualified by progressive preachers and many enlightened lay-men in the great communions included in that designation, is still the prevalent and dominant view in the rank and file of their constituency. In support of this judgment I may cite the disposition of the case of Professor Charles A. Briggs, resulting in his suspension from the Presbyterian ministry because he taught, among other things no worse, the probable "errancy" of the `original autographs of Holy Scripture, supposing they could ever be recovered; and also the opposition which manifested itself, briefly but sharply, to his ordination in the Protestant Episcopal Church.

Not pausing here to describe the grotesque features of this conception or the absurd lengths to which it has sometimes been carried, and only remarking that it is substantially inwrought, like a pattern, into the warp and woof of nearly all our popular religious thought and work—by which I mean the hymns, the liturgies, the Sunday-school instruction, and the everyday religious conversation of the masses of Protestant Christians—let me pass to inquire how it arose and gained such supremacy.

There have been three principal sources of this traditional view.

I. Historically it antedates Christianity. As regards the Old Testament, the mechanical theory of inspiration and revelation prevailed among the Jews during the last two or three centuries before Christ; and it was naturally carried over into the Christian era, and attached itself to the New Testament writings in the gradual process of their canonization. In fact, similar ideas respecting the divine source of written and spoken oracles were familiar to the gentile mind. Yet it was not until after the great rupture known as the Protestant Reformation that the general notion here considered assumed its rigid modern form; and then it resulted partly from the exigencies of the period and partly from the lack of learning among the people. Previous to that time all Christians in western Europe had been taught to regard the Catholic church, with its head at Rome, as the infallible authority and final court of appeal in matters of faith and morals; and when the Protestants broke with that authority and court, it soon became necessary to have another, in order to determine debatable questions. This they at length came to find in the Bible. To the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, they would appeal, and not to any ecclesiastical organization or power, as the supreme tribunal to settle all disputed points of religious teaching; and hence the right of every man to read and interpret the Bible for himself, without dictation from church or clergy, became the great boon which the Reformation conferred upon the liberated portion of the Christian community then and thenceforward. This right, the right of private judgment in matters of faith and morals, is the very gist of Protestant-ism, lies at the basis of modern civil liberty, and is the one radical, vital, and permanent opponent of Roman Catholicism.

But, at the time of which I am speaking, the masses of the people, and to a great extent the ministers of religion, and even many of the university teachers, were poorly prepared, because of deficient scholarship, to understand the Bible correctly and to use it properly. To be sure, learning was reviving and making rapid progress; but the process had not gone far enough to reach more than comparatively a few of the leaders of thought. The Scriptures had not been in general circulation, chiefly perhaps because the art of printing had not been fully developed yet, and the Latin Vulgate was the only translation that may be said to have been widely known. Even this could not be compared with the original until Erasmus published (1516) his Greek Testament, and Cardinal Ximenes, a Spanish scholar, issued (1514–17) his Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions in the four volumes known as the "Complutensian Polyglot;" for the. study of the Greek and Hebrew languages had not revived sufficiently to enable any except a very few to read the Bible in the original, and among even the best educated only a little was known about the text and the various ancient manuscripts. Besides, there was hardly any physical science worthy of the name ; philosophy was fanciful, airy, eccentric, and arbitrary; and the general history of antiquity, of Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Assyria, was practically a sealed book because the people were but slightly acquainted with any ancient language except the Latin. Under all these circumstances it is not strange that such a belief respecting the Scriptures as has been alluded to above should have been revived, impressed upon the popular mind, and transmitted down to us. Yet it must not be forgotten that it took on its extreme shape and inflexibility in the post-Reformation period; for Luther, Calvin, and the English Reformers were mote liberal concerning this subject than their successors of a generation or two later; and it was not until about the beginning of the seventeenth century that bibliolatry, the undue, unnatural, false exaltation of the Bible, crystallized into the dogma of its plenary inspiration and absolute infallibility that has held such wide and powerful sway ever since.

2. Another source of the view referred to is the, idea that the Bible is a divine revelation. In a general way this idea antedates the history which I have just sketched, and therefore helped to shape it; and, on the other hand, it has been promoted and inculcated by that history. It is an easy thing to say that the Bible is a divine revelation, just as it is an easy thing to say that the pope of Rome is the vicar of Christ; and because the multitudes of people do not think deeply or discriminatingly, especially concerning those interests that are called supernatural, it is easy, when such an idea or claim is put forth and accompanied by real and great merits, to get, it popularly accepted. One may almost say that there exists among the masses of mankind an insatiable appetite for striking evidences of supernatural power; so that whoever comes forward making stupendous pretensions, with any sort of show to support them, will find a host of followers; indeed, it sometimes seems as if he who can make the biggest claim, and can furnish forth the most imposing array of spectacular adjuncts, is sure of the largest crowds of adherents. In proof of this, witness the actual deification of the Roman emperor two thousand years ago; the. all but universal belief of the alliance of exceptional men with heaven; the idealizing and idolizing of national heroes; the throngs that gather about every truly great leader; the eager looking for signs and wonders, for miracles and marvels, on the part of all such; the readiness to swallow everything they say; and the remarkable éclat with which gorgeous displays of power and glory, whether civil, military, or religious, are everywhere received. This is an evidence, not that they love fictitious values, although a cynic might say they do, but rather that they are blindly seeking real values; and thus it is a pathetic testimony to the natural trustfulness of the human heart, and to the need of the light of knowledge for its guidance.

Now, when people have come, through whatsoever influences, to believe thoroughly in any set of writings as a divine revelation, they immediately begin to idolize them and think to exalt them by regarding them as free from error. In this way those who have called the Bible a divine revelation have gone so far as to say that there are no mistakes or blemishes in it of any sort, whether relating to fact, to quality f teaching, or to style of composition, or even to transmission; indeed, they do not see how there can be any such if it is really the "Word f God"—it must be absolutely faultless and infallible. Hence they cannot allow any correction of its subject-matter, or even any alteration its grammatical form. "It is impious and profane audacity," said Calovius, "to change a single point in the Word of God, and to substitute a smooth breathing for a rough one, or a rough for a smooth. Indeed, when it was found out, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that the Hebrew Scriptures were originally written in consonants alone, and the vowels were added by the Masoretes in the seventh or eighth century, a great outcry was made against this heretical fact as subversive of the very foundations of Christianity, and it took a hundred years to get,it fairly recognized. People positively believed that those vowel points were given by divine inspiration; and thus the idea f a revelation from God, which they attached to the Bible, carried them to unreasonable extremes of prejudice. So long as men continue to hold this bald idea, in this form of statement, without modification, they will retain the notion f the Bible's uniformity and infallibility. When they shall learn to be content to say simply that the Scriptures "contain God's true Word," or "contain a revelation of the character of God," etc., as certain Christian bodies have already done, they will have held fast to all that is essential, and will have made an immense advance toward intellectual and spiritual liberty, and toward a larger and deeper religious faith.

3. A third source of the view I have described lies in the natural veneration and affections of mankind. There is really so much that is great and good in the Bible, and does help so powerfully and blessedly the hungry soul that resorts to it for the bread of life, that it soon becomes very dear and sacred to the hearts of all such. They take it for "the man of their counsel;" over it they pour out their prayers of thanksgiving and supplication, of contrition and bereavement, of peace and joy; upon its pages fall their tears like rain, as they bend above it in the trying hours of life; into the hands of dear friends they place it, as they go away out into a cold and sinful world ; and from its treasure-house of wisdom, consolation, and sweet beauty, they cull sentences or phrases to send like flowers to absent ones who gather before the marriage altar, or around the funeral bier, or at the domestic fireside; nor does it fail to enrich and sanctify them in all these holy uses. It furnishes the language for the most impressive ceremonies of public and private occasions throughout Christendom; its words are the carrier-pigeons that bear our petitions and our anthems of praise heavenward in our services of stated worship; its truths give us our texts for our sermons, and its pregnant utterances drive home into the depths of our souls the lessons of righteousness which we so much need to learn. No other book in all the world is so full of power, sublimity, and spirituality; no other ever came out of such depths of moral and religious experience; and no other can reach, in such varied and effective ways, the manifold needs of the human heart. Therefore those who know somewhat of its surpassing merits, who have learned by experience to understand and appreciate its ability to help them, cannot but hold it dear and sacred. It becomes enshrined in their affections, and while they thank God for so precious a gift, they beseech him to guard and bless its holy mission among all the children of men.

Now this veneration of the Bible, which in itself is appropriate, beautiful, and profitable, and which no man should wantonly weaken, serves to confirm, establish, and perpetuate a false intellectual view of it, if such a view be prevalent and if there be but little enlightenment. If a person who has not been educated to think broadly and discriminatingly—and it is a bane of sectarianism that it often educates people in just the opposite way—conceives of the Bible as a divine revelation, which is all of one piece, fully inspired and wholly infallible, and then comes to attach himself to it through his moral and spiritual affections, in some such manner as I have indicated, he is almost sure either to cling to the dogma in all its rigidity, and so dwarf his intellect, or to shock his faith and disturb his peace in attempting to gain a more rational conception of the nature, structure, and true worth of the Scriptures. More likely it will be the former of these processes that he will go through. For he cannot bear to hear anything said against the Bible, and he construes everything that does not support his view as being thus said, and he will not listen to it. So he intrenches and fortifies himself in his ignorance, shuts the light of additional truth out of his mind and vainly imagines he is loyally defending the holy things of God, while others are proving themselves apostates, who are seeing higher, larger, clearer, grander things in the good old Book that is as dear to them as to him. To such a one we must say, as best we can, that the spiritual quality of a writing, no matter what that writing may be, in nowise determines the date and authorship of other miscellaneous writings which are bound up with it, and may not go far in determining even its own date and authorship. The fact that so many of the Psalms help you by voicing the deeper thoughts and feelings of the soul, in exalted and beautiful language, does not decide whether David or somebody else wrote them ; that is a question which other lines of evidence must settle. A true poem is a poem, even though it be utterly fugitive, so that no man can tell when it was written or by whom. So it is with the books of the, Bible; they are good and helpful, and we are all justified in venerating and loving them ; but out affection for them cannot pronounce as to their historic veracity, and certainly cannot prove them to be of miraculous origin.

Such are some of the main sources of the traditional view of the Bible—the peculiar conditions of the post-Reformation period, the influence of the idea of a divine revelation, and the strength of the natural sentiments of veneration and affection.

Now what shall be said of this view? A candid student must admit that it has served some good purposes. It has undoubtedly secured a degree of attention to the Bible which no other view could have obtained for it in the age and stake of culture in which it has prevailed. A more advanced conception could not be appreciated until a larger knowledge of many things --especially of history, ethnology, comparative language and religion, as well as the development of theology and ecclesiastical institutions- prepared the way for it. If, therefore, this view had not existed, the Bible would probably have been neglected, and the mighty moral and religious energy which it has imparted to our western civilization would have been sadly wanting. It is much to say for any idea or social custom that it has served its own time even fairly well; it is from this standpoint alone that we can judge justly f men and measures, f doctrines and institutions; and, thus regarded, we must concede that the traditional view f the Bible has been natural, or at least inevitable, and has contributed not a little to produce the very conditions under which it is now being outgrown.

Nevertheless, considered with reference to the present age, it has been, or is now, an unfortunate view; it has been narrow, and therefore cramping to the human mind; it has been rigid, and therefore has allowed little room for progress on the part f those holding it—so much so, indeed, that nearly all progress under it has had to bear the stigma of heresy; it has begotten bibliolatry, and therefore has made the Bible a fetich; it has fixed the attention of men upon the letter of Scripture, and therefore has shut out the influence of the spirit; and by putting the human soul in bondage to a thing, it has kept it from the free service of the one living and true God.

It may be well to supplement this general criticism with some specifications as to the bad effects which the view here rejected has produced.

1. It has been an obstacle to the advance of learning. Not to go back farther than the memory of living men reaches, it is known to all intelligent people that the teachings of modern geology have been opposed, and their promulgation resisted, because of their conflict with the accøunt of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis—and how ludicrous have been the attempts to harmonize them with that account!—that for the same reason the theory of evolution, now accepted in some form by nearly all scientist, has been scouted, and its adherents put under ban, even to the extent of having their professional positions disturbed, if not forcibly taken from them; and that the science f historical and literary criticism, of which biblical criticism is a branch, has been reproached and ridiculed, and some of its disciples likewise driven from their honored places, because the results reached by such study have not harmonized with the traditional conception of Scripture. All these things have occurred under our own eyes, and some of them are still occurring in these opening years of the twentieth century. Yet it is nothing new under the sun; for, fifteen hundred years ago, St. Jerome had to meet much the same sort of opposition; so did Columbus, Galileo, and Copernicus, and a host of other seekers after truth. It is simply a phase of human ignorance and bigotry, but it is a sorry spectacle.

2. It has sanctioned, supported, and perpetuated erroneous ideas and evil practices. Take, for instance, the doctrine f the second coming of Christ and the end of the world; how strangely persistent this has been, and what fantastic forms it has assumed ! yet it would have died out long ago but for this wrong view f the Bible. The same is true of the doctrine of endless punishment. Or take slavery, capital punishment, and the subjection of woman—all relics f paganism; how long have these hoary evils been buttressed by quotations from Scripture, that never would have been used thus except for such an extreme notion about its divine authority as I have combated ! In recent years the great Methodist Episcopal Church has been struggling over the question f the ordination f women to the ministry, which is strongly opposed be-cause Paul said to Timothy : "I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." a Even the liquor-dealers have not scrupled to quote the words f the same noble apostle, since they happened to find out that he said to the same young man

"Drink no longer water, but take a little wine for thy stomach's sake."

3. This traditional view involves such bond-age to the letter as to prevent spiritual growth. Paul said that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." When a religion begins to die, it begins to get hard and dry, like a tree that is going through the same process. Or, like an old Egyptian king, who, knowing his end was near, began to build a mausoleum to receive his remains; a religion that is already moribund begins straightway to make its casket and hew out its tomb, begins to encase itself in some outward shell of rite, or dogma, or institution, or sacred book. For proof, read the history of religion in India, in Judea, in imperial Rome, in mediæval Europe.

4. Still another fault chargeable to this view is that it disregards all progress of ideas in the Bible, and obliterates all distinctions between good and bad in the quality of its various writings. By teaching that it is all of one piece, and all the Word of God, it leaves no room for thinking that the ideas set forth in Genesis may not be so exalted or true as those contained in Isaiah or the Sermon on the Mount ; and it like-wise forbids us to suppose that the moral precepts of the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may not in some instances be just as noble and pure as the ethics of Jesus or Paul or John. But, as a matter of fact, there are wide differences in these respects, both intellectually and morally; there is a progress in thought from the days of the old Hebrew patriarchs to those of the later prophets, and there is an advance in moral standards from the time of Solomon to that of Christ. Now what can be more important than to teach ourselves and our children to see these distinctions, between high and low, between good and bad, between true and false, between right and wrong, wherever they really exist, in human life, in literature, in art, in philosophy? Is not this the main object of all our teaching, to see and choose and love the true, the beautiful, and the good, as distinguished from their opposites? But the traditional conception of the Bible tends to blunt our sensibilities in this respect; and we jumble together the notions and maxims of old shepherd-kings and warriors with the sweet spiritual visions and principles of the blessed Christ, and call them all, indiscriminately, the Word of God ! Then we teach them to our children, as all of equal value and authority; and can we wonder that the children are confused, unenlightened, unawakened, untouched?

5. Such a view of the Bible opens the way for all the vagaries and falsehoods of an irresponsible exegesis. It makes the Book an arsenal of proof-texts, by the dexterous employment of which almost any conceivable doctrine can be supported. By picking out a verse or sentence from one part of the Bible, and other verses or sentences from other parts, and then skilfully piecing them together, without any reference to their contexts 6r their historical origin and the real meaning of their authors, one can prove the most baseless and pernicious of theories. Then when the imagination is given free reins, and the allegorizing method of interpretation is carried to extremes, as was the case in the later centuries of Judaism and the early centuries of Christianity, and even among the Greeks, utterly fantastic results ensue. For example, "when we are told that Rebecca comes to draw water at the well and so meets the servant of Abraham, the meaning is, according to Origen, that we must daily come to the wells of Scripture in order to meet with Christ." Another, "commenting on Genesis 15:9, explains `the calf, the goat, and the ram of three years' in Abraham's sacrifices to mean his soul, his sentient faculty, and his mind." Innumerable instances of a similar character might be cited to show how this general idea of Scripture and these arbitrary methods of interpretation, misleading even so great a teacher as the illustrious Origen, have begotten among lesser minds a narrow dogmatism that has engendered harsh, bitter, disastrous controversies.

6. Finally, such a view breaks down at length from its own weight. When you claim that the Bible is a divine revelation throughout, fully' inspired and infallible, you make a stupendous claim. In logic it is extremely difficult to prove a universal negative; but this is exactly what is undertaken when one contends that the Bible is absolutely without error. Presently the discovery is made that errors are actually to be found within its pages—mistakes, discrepancies, imperfections which simply cannot be reconciled with this theory: what happens? A distinct shock to faith and morals is immediately felt, from which, alas ! many do not recover. The Bible seems no longer of any worth, on the very basis upon which it has stood ; for it has been said to be all of one piece, and if false in one particular, is false in all others. This is precisely what has frequently occurred in recent years; men have thrown the Bible and the church and religion to the winds, sometimes along with moral restraints, because they had been taught that the Bible was an infallible revelation of divine truth, not only in its spirit but also in its letter, and they have learned in the common school that its ideas on some matters—for instance, the history of creation—are erroneous.

Here is the danger for thousands of people, that they will let go everything connected with Christianity—its holy sanctions, its sublime ideals, its wonderful inspirations and consolations—when this fabric of unreasonable notions about the Sacred Book collapses, as it is doing and will continue to do.

From the foregoing reflections it would seem evident that there must be a better view of the Bible, more rational, natural, simple, heart-satisfying. I am absolutely sure that there is such a better view, which saves all the excellences of Scripture and frees us from all its defects; and it will be a delight to try to set it forth in succeeding chapters.



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