( Originally Published 1888 )
The importance of right views of the Bible can hardly be overstated when we remember the part that Book has played in the history not only of religious beliefs but of Christian civilization. A careful discussion of any one of the Sacred Writings that compose it would be impossible in this brief chapter; we must rather limit ourselves here to a general statement of the Bible's worth, and of the reasons for the pre-eminence it holds and must ever hold in literature.
Every great Religion has produced its Bible or collection of Sacred Books, most of which are now to be found in our libraries, printed in English. If we want to know whence the Chinese religionists draw their inspiration, we must turn to the Sacred Books edited by Confucius in the sixth century before Christ and to those compiled after his death by his disciples. If we would find the source of the religious inspiration of the people of India we must open the Vedic writings, the Sacred Books of Brahmanism, the oldest of them dating back perhaps two thousand or more years before Christ ; or to the Buddhist Scriptures, with their threefold division, compiled in the sixth century B.C., just after the Buddha's death. If we are studying the history of Persia, we shall be charmed with many a passage in the Avestas, the liturgical books of the Zoroastrian Religion. If we desire light on the complicated religion of the most deeply religious nation of antiquity, the Egyptian, we shall have to turn to the five classes of Egyptian Sacred Books, composed several thousands of years before Christ. The Greeks had their Orphic writings, the Teutonic and Scandinavian Religion had its Eddas, the Mohammedans have their Koran, and the Jews, belonging to the Semitic race, had, and wherever they are found still have, their Sacred Books, which, grouped together, we call the Old Testament.
In our English Bible there are thirty-nine of these Hebrew books, but in the Hebrew compilations certain books were united so that there were but twenty-two or twenty-four, and these the Jews divided into three classes, which they called the Law, the Prophets, and the Sacred Writings, or the Psalms.
These three classes of Sacred Books differ widely in the purpose of their composition, as well as in authorship and date, and while some of them bear unmistakable traces of the times when they originated, the history of others is not yet sufficiently determined to enable us to say with certainty when they received their final shape. In modern days these writings have been viewed entirely without perspective—history, prophecy, and poetry alike. Any statement from the Bible has been treated just like any other, people forgetting to ask when and how the idea embodied in the statement arose, or by what peculiar circumstances it was colored.
In reality, these Sacred Books comprised the national literature of the Hebrews, some of them embodying their history, or supposed history, some the best thoughts of their poets, and some expressing the lofty moral sense and elevated spiritual conceptions of that unique body of men, their Prophets. Nor are the books that have reached us the only ones the Hebrews had. In certain portions of the Old Testament there are incidental references to such books as the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the Book of Jashar, and the Annals of the Kings of Israel and Judah, all lost before our Saviour's time, yet all, no doubt, of equal interest historically, poetically, or spiritually, with those preserved.
The writing of this mixed collection of He-brew books covers a period of somewhere about sixteen hundred years, the earliest of them, according to tradition, tracing to the time of Moses, the latest to the time when Nehemiah was governor of Judea in 420 B.C., and in them we find reflected all the different phases of Israel's life and culture and the vicissitudes and changes that successive generations had to re-cord. The early traditions of their origin, such as every nation of antiquity had, are here to be discovered. Their descent from Abraham is recorded, their slavery in Egypt, the beginning of their national life under Moses, their settlement in Palestine, their history as a republic, their history as a monarchy, their conquest by a foreign power, and the subsequent restoration to them of independence. Besides this, we have here the lofty moral utterances of their prophets, a body of men who, in successive generations, appeared as reformers of the popular religion, which too often degenerated into a system of merely external observances ; and .we have a large collection of lyrical psalms, whose best parts are so catholic that, although composed "long before the foundation of Rome and before the time of Homer," they are still in use in Christian worship all over the world, and are " in every age a fresh spring of hope."
Extending over so long a period, we should naturally expect to find reflected in these writings a great variety of religious views and states of mind. The Hebrews, even with their marked genius for religion, a genius similar to that displayed by the Greeks for art and by the Romans for administration, never long remained stationary in matters of religion. From age to age their religious conceptions changed, even as their ritual took color successively from the observances of the national religions of Egypt and Assyria. And in the same age, widely contrasting views and differences, as between the spiritual theology of the prophets and the grossly material theology of the priests, are often to be found.
The theory of the Bible that has prevailed among us has not left room, even in the Old Testament, for differences of religious opinion, much less for inaccuracies or mistakes in historical or other matters. But the Old Testament makes no such claim of infallibility for itself. It simply claims to be the national literature of a people, with the very texture of whose organized life a deep religious sense is interwoven. It records their changing and sometimes contradictory views concerning God and man. It gives expression to a thousand lofty sentiments that the Divine Spirit has enkindled within them. It voices the universal hope and aspiration of religious souls, and puts words of penitence and trust into the lips of the sinning and sorrowing.
" Out from the heart of nature rolled
Of the whole Bible Dr. Mulford says : " It embraces the most varied forms of literature ; as genealogies, laws, histories, records of legislative and judicial procedure, methods of sanitary, civil, and military administration. There is legend and myth ; there are various forms of poetry : the ode, as in the antiphone of Moses and Miriam; the drama, as in the Book of Job ; the idyl, as in the Song of Solomon ; the lyric, as in the Book of Psalms and the opening pages of the Gospel of St. Luke ; and in the writings of St. Paul citations from the Greek comedy, as from Menander.
" There are traces in these writings of the races, countries, and ages in which they appeared, and of climatic conditions, with respect to languages and customs and laws. There is a popular element, as in the stories of Samson and Ruth ; and there is also a priestly and a kingly element, as in the books of the Chronicles and Kings. In some books there are traces of reflective phases of thought, as in the Book of Ecclesiastes ; and in some there are traces of Asiatic forms and Asiatic institutions."
In short, the Old Testament writings must be studied with the same care as other books, and the laws of literary and historic criticism must be applied to them as searchingly as to the literatures of other ancient peoples. Allegory and legend must be carefully distinguished from straightforward narration ; prophetical rhapsody and fervid poetry must not be forced to yield what is technically known as doctrine. And above all the meaning of inspiration must be clearly defined.
When we come to the New Testament writings, of which there are, in all, thirty-seven, we find that the conditions under which they have been produced are somewhat different from those under which the various books of the Old Testament have come to be. They were produced in Palestine amid the new religious enthusiasm enkindled by the life and teachings of the Messiah, whose advent indeed made the dawning of a new day for men.
As Sakya Muni (the Buddha) arose in India, in the seventh century before Christ, to reform the popular religion, so Jesus came in Palestine to reform not only the Hebrew, but all religious faiths. Foretold by the prophets, who, what-ever we may think of their other predictions, certainly foresaw the Messianic times and the more spiritual religion that the Christ should bring, at last the Sun of Righteousness arose " with healing in his wings," the Word became flesh and dwelt among men, full of grace and truth, and they beheld his glory, and were in-spired with love for the life in God and for him who taught the simple way of life. Out of this inspiration were born the Gospels and St. Paul's Epistles, and the few remaining books that compose the New Testament.' There are interesting questions connected with the writing of each of them ; date and authorship are not in every case fully known, nor can we tell the changes that have come upon them in course of transcription. But such matters are not vital. We know from the New Testament that Jesus lived, and that he preached faith in God and man, and taught that self-renunciation, striving after the ideal, is the true way of life, and that at last he died for his principles, and so dying, gave his life for the world ; all else in the records being incidental, and of comparatively little importance to faith.
The twenty-seven books which compose the New Testament are not all the Sacred Writings known to the early Church. The Gospel of Nicodemus, the Epistles of Barnabas and Clement and the Shepherd of Hernias were read in many churches and held in equal reverence with the books comprised in our Canon ; while for a long time the right of the 2d and 3d Epistles of St. John, the Epistles of St. James, St. Jude, and the 2d of St. Peter, and the Book of Revelation to be regarded as Scripture was greatly disputed.
As in the case of the Old Testament writings, the true significance of these Epistles and Gospels was not at first obscured by superstitious reverence of any sort. But, as happened in later ages with the Hebrew writings, and as indeed has happened with the Bibles of all faiths, there came a time in the history of Christianity when what was written, as most books are written, with simple integrity and true purpose, and with common desire to impart to others truth that men had received, came to be regarded as given supernaturally by God. Inspiration is a figurative term, which means divine in breathing, or movement of the spiritual forces of the soul, but in later Christian times, and especially since the Reformation, inspiration has commonly and most unreasonably meant the dictation by God to men of not only the sentiments but the words of Scripture. There are many of us to whom in early life that view of the Bible was taught, and to whom, at one time, it seemed sacrilegious to express a doubt of the literal truth of even the stories of Samson or Jonah, or the standing still of the sun and moon at Joshua's command, or the speaking of Balaam's ass. And that feeling arose from the belief we had that the Almighty, who never makes mistakes, had chosen certain men as His amanuenses, and had bidden them write all that we found between the covers of the Bible. The view was superstitious and, in the last analysis, destructive of true reverence for the Bible. The Bible with its history, poetry, prophecy, homily, apocalypse, legend, and myth, is a varied record of God's ever progressing, ever widening revelation of truth to men. It shows God not speaking supernaturally out of heaven to men's ears, but speaking naturally, age after age, through their hearts and consciences. It shows the gradual advance of spiritual knowledge and the preparation of at least one part of the world for the Christ, and best of all, it brings us face to face with Jesus himself and his divine work.
Let us confess frankly that we find in the Bible mistaken opinions, inconsistencies, contradictory statements, and inaccuracies of various sorts. But that does not disturb our enjoyment of the Bible, either in a literary sense, as our noblest English classic, or in a spiritual, as the tenderest and most sacred record of religious thought and experience in the world. We know that some of the Psalms contain false and cruel sentiments common in the times when they were written, but that fact does not prevent our valuing the truly spiritual parts of the Hebrew Psalter; that the mind and words of Jesus were not fully apprehended by his earliest disciples, yet surely such knowledge does not forbid our basking in the sun-shine of the Saviour's life and teachings which they record.
The Bible was written much as other books are written : the historical narratives compiled from all available sources of information, and sometimes perpetuating as history what was clearly mythical or legendary ; the poetical parts shaping themselves in the fervid imaginations of poets ; the prophetical having their origin in an unusually high degree of spiritual illumination.
Its value consists, first, in its appeal to the ethical and spiritual side of man's nature, the divine in him ; and, second, to what is often almost entirely overlooked, its literary greatness.
It is related that Sir Walter Scott, in his last illness, when asked what book he would like to have read to him, said : " There is no book but the Bible," and we can all understand what he meant by such words. There .s no book like the Bible to quicken the conscience and arouse faith in God. There is no book that can so satisfy man's spiritual hunger, and in life's darkest hours so bring peace. There is no book that so shames the sordid and sensual spirit of the world, and whose utterances are so pronounced against oppression and wrong. The Bible is not a storehouse of proof-texts with which to build systems of theology, but rather the witness to God's life in nature, in history, and in man. It contains the truth of God ; its record is part of the great revelation that is in progress in the world by means of literature, art, government, scientific discovery, and the various movements of individual and social life.
People sometimes say: " If I must read the Bible just as I read other books, separating between true and false, in its narrative and other parts, how am I ever to be sure that I have the truth ? " The answer to that is: the Bible was given to teach the old truths that save the soul —that is, that make men brave and manly, devout and tender, honest and pure ; given to help us keep in mind that we are all children of God, and that sin against Him and His divine laws means sin against our own natures ; that the Bible teaches no truth as necessary to salvation but the old truths that in every age have found response in the hearts and consciences of wise and reverent men.
If we are ever in doubt about the truth of the moral or religious sentiments expressed in any part of the Bible, we may safely test them by the highest standards we know, especially the standard of Christ's perfect life and teachings. If they agree with that they are right, if not they are wrong. Lord Falkland wisely says : " To those that follow their reason in the interpretation of the Scriptures, God will either give His grace for assistance to find the truth, or His pardon if they miss it."
The literary value of the Bible has been but little regarded in places where people cared about the Book principally for the proof texts it yielded for their favorite dogmas. But the Bible is a collection of venerable and noble writings, that together make a book without a parallel in the world. It is a varied literature, containing lofty imagination, eloquence and poetry unsurpassed, wonderfully-written narrative, delightful biography, interesting tradition and legend, profound spiritual utterances, and fresh, clear, crisp suggestions for practical life.
There have been few, if any, great literary men who have not been lovers of the Bible, whether they cared for the popular theology that was forced from its pages or not. Emerson, whose great mission was to show that rev-elation is not confined to a book, but is broad and deep as human history and human life, nay, universal as creation itself, says, among other noble things, of the Bible: " The most original book in the world is the Bible. This old collection of the ejaculations of love and dread, of the supreme desires and contritions of men, proceeding out of the region of the grand and eternal, seems . . . the alphabet of the nations. ... The elevation of this book may be measured by observing how certainly all observation of thought clothes itself in its words and forms of speech. . . . Whatever is majestically thought in a great moral element, instantly approaches this old Sanscrit. . . . Shakespeare, the first literary genius of the world, the highest in whom the moral is not the predominating element, leans on the Bible ; his poetry pre supposes it. . . . People imagine that the place which the Bible holds in literature it owes to miracles. It owes it simply to the fact that it came out of a profounder depth of thought than any other book."
To the ordinary teaching of the Bible by religious people and in the Churches, is distinctly due much of the neglect the Bible now suffers among us. It is the record of faith and so the inspirer of faith; and it is our noblest classic, to be studied before Homer or Shakespeare, or any of the great authors of ancient or modern times. It should be read rationally. It should be read daily. Its sacred words should be committed to memory in early life and treasured to old age. Its biographies should be studied, its poetry enjoyed, its righteous principles taken into the soul, and its uplifting, spiritual truths suffered to steal into our lives like the perfume of flowers, or soft strains of music at the even-tide.