What Then Of The Bible
( Originally Published 1907 )
IN this little book I have tried firmly to base the fundamental elements of religious belief on the deliverances of our own nature. I have contended that we have within ourselves, if we properly interpret and wisely trust our own faculties, incontrovertible testimony that we and the world in which we live are the offspring of God, that he is our Father, that we are his children, that he cares for us and loves us, that we may enter into actual communion with him in prayer, drawing from that communion peace, gladness, and moral strength, and that he will bring about in the end the triumph of good over evil, of righteousness over sin.
Whether I have been in any measure successful in that contention it is for others, not for me, to judge. But I desire once more to point out that, in this course of reasoning, I have followed a route quite other than that which is commonly pursued by the defenders of Christian faith. Indeed very many of those defenders of the faith would, I am afraid, straightway condemn my little book as one of vain speculation, and myself as a vain speculator substituting the questionable imaginations of human reason for the certainties delivered once for all to men in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This would without doubt be the attitude, for instance, of so learned, liberal, and persuasive a disputant as Mr. Gladstone, who recently followed up his splendid edition of the writings of that famous theologian, Bishop Butler, with a volume of ` Studies subsidiary to that author's works. For Mr. Gladstone takes the volume known as the Holy Bible, together with the solemn oecumenical pronouncements of the Christian Church in the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds and elsewhere, as the very starting-point for any religious inquiry. These and these alone to him represent certainty, solid ground where one may plant one's feet firmly without fear of error ; while the use of reason outside that certified territory or the adducing of considerations that are not based on a text or a creed, he regards as at best a dangerous business, and one the results of which must be rigidly tested by comparison with Bible or with Prayer Book.
The position taken up by Mr. Gladstone and by a host of less illustrious controversialists is that in the Scriptures (to pass by the later declarations of the Church) God has once for all revealed to us such measure of religious truth as it is meet for us to be acquainted with, and that any excursion into out-side speculation is legitimate only if it holds itself in readiness at all points to be checked, corrected, and condemned by reference to this supreme authority.
According to such thinkers, no doctrine resting on other foundations can ever claim the same certainty or take the same rank as belongs to those which are found upon the Scripture page. These have a divine seal which is impressed on the utterance of no secular philosopher, the writings of no unauthorized theologian.
Thus, for example, Mr. Gladstone lays it down as an absolutely unquestionable fact ` that our Lord preached to certain disembodied spirits, and that these were the spirits of the men who had been disobedient in the days of Noah,' and founds a far reaching argument on that event, the ground of his certainty being that the statement occurs in the so-called First Epistle of Peter. But he rebukes very severely those—with Tennyson among the number—who from general considerations of the character of God, argue that he will at last win the souls of all his children to himself, because there is no text in the New Testament which, in so many words, gives us that assurance.
Thus then the attitude of this distinguished man and a host of lesser writers is this — Whatever is stated in Scripture is to be accepted absolutely, because the Scriptures are a Divine Revelation ; whatever is not stated in Scripture is a mere human speculation and, if incompatible with any declaration of Scripture, is to be ruthlessly rejected, no matter what reasons may be adduced in its support. Hence the one sole ground of real religious know-ledge is, we are taught, the Bible—together, say some, with the authoritative pronouncements of the organized Church.
Now such a view is in absolute contradiction to the view which I have advocated, the view, that is, that our religious belief is to rest on our own innate faculties. On the one hand, we have the view that religious belief is to rest on and make its final appeal to reason, conscience, and the immediate flash of God upon the soul. On the other hand, we have the view that the only secure basis for religious belief is in a Divine Revelation comprised in that particular book or collection of books which we call the Bible.
There could not be a more far-reaching divergence in first principles. 'What then are we to say to this tremendous claim put forward for the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—this claim that they shall take superior rank to reason and con-science and be the paramount authority for our beliefs about God and Man and eternal life.
There seems to me to be one thing to be said, which is absolutely fatal to this extraordinary claim. That one thing is this : The claim itself can only be established, if at all, by the use of those very faculties which this Divine Revelation is to supersede. If you cannot trust our reasoning powers to begin with, then neither can you trust them to establish this prodigious claim for the Christian Scriptures. Even if it were true that these Scriptures were an infallible revelation of the religious truth, they could only be proved to be so by the marshalling together of an immense and protracted argument entering into countless details and resting on an enormous mass of minute and varied learning. All except the picked scholars of the world; all the ordinary mass of mankind, must simply accept the alleged authority of Scripture on the word of others, whose learning and whose reasoning they have no possible means of putting to the test. But that is an act of intellectual suicide ;—and seeing that God has given each one of us reason and conscience of his own, to hand these over, bound and gagged, at the command of those who can give us no guarantee of their authority, would seem to be as gross and flagrant an act of infidelity as it is possible for the mind of man to conceive.
Let us consider for a moment, by way of illustration, how many propositions of an intrinsically disputable nature Mr. Gladstone has to take for granted before he can build up that theological argument of his on the basis of the propositions that ` our Lord preached to certain disembodied spirits, and that these were the spirits of the men who had been disobedient in the days of Noah.' The text on which this is based runs thus : ` he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.'
Mr. Gladstone has to assume (and cheerfully does so) that (I) this Epistle is by the Apostle Peter, who (2) wrote under an inspiration which guarantees his accuracy in all matters of fact ; that (3) the passage cited has always formed an integral part of this Epistle, and (4) is therefore rightfully included in Canonical Scripture. Further, he must assume that (5) the Church is right in interpreting ` prison ' as ` hell ' in which the spirits of the unsaved survive in a disembodied state, that (6) the story of the flood as told in Genesis is substantially correct, and that (7) of the whole population of the world eight souls only were saved from death by drowning.
All these propositions, then, must be accepted before we can go one step with Mr. Gladstone in his argument. But on most of these propositions the learned and scientific world is divided, with a steadily growing weight of opinion on the adverse side. Yet every text upon which Mr. Gladstone can build involves, if it is to be treated as of absolute authority, a similar array of assumptions the legitimacy of which only the learned can decide. In how lamentable a dilemma, then, does the unlearned man find himself if he submit to Mr. Gladstone's leading ! Faith, hope, trust in God, the blessed life of religion, must wait till the learned have decided all these things, and decided them too in a sense contrary to the existing trend of opinion, and convinced the unlearned of the authority of their decision.
The great facts of religion are the Power, the Wisdom, and the Goodness of God, the reality of communion between the human spirit and the Divine, the conquering power of Good over Evil. It is given to us to know these truths from our own reason and our own experience. To remove them from this natural basis on which God has set them and stake them on the theory that a particular set of books written from seventeen to twenty-five hundred years ago, and selected some fifteen hundred years ago by a particular group of ecclesiastics to the exclusion of all the rest of human literature, contain and constitute the sole authoritative revelation of God to man, would be as insane as to attempt to root up the Great Pyramid from the platform of rock on which it has rested for seventy centuries in order to balance it on its apex on the crest of one of the slim and slender palm-trees that rear their graceful forms between the desert and the Nile. The doctrine that the Bible and the Bible only comprises the revelation of God to Man was invented to make religious faith secure ; as a matter of fact, it cuts off religious faith from its true and broad foundation to rest it on a slender Eiffel tower of propositions of questionable soundness in themselves, and but loosely bolted together, which only the learned can test, and which most of the learned emphatically reject.
We have then to accept the position that reason and conscience are not to be tested by the statements of the Bible, but the statements of the Bible are to be tested by reason and conscience.
Is then the Bible, that ark of so many sacred associations, the Bible which has gathered round it the affections and the reverence of such multitudes of the best and noblest of our race, to be in-continently cast aside, as a literature whose pretensions have been exposed, a scripture having no value for enlightened religious men ?
That is far indeed from being my opinion.
There was a time in the history of human thought when the writings of Aristotle were taken almost as a Bible of the intellect. It was enough to show that such and such a philosophical theory had been put forward by Aristotle. If that were so, then it was thought that the theory in question was sufficiently established. There was no more to be said about it. But with the light of the New Learning some four centuries ago, men began to feel that, great as Aristotle was, he was not infallible, that he had only used with exceptional power and ingenuity that reasoning faculty with which God had endowed the sons of men generally, and that, if one were to accept an Aristotelian doctrine, it must not be merely because Aristotlč had laid it down, but because it stood the test of thoughtful reasoning and inquiry. Did men therefore fling Aristotle aside ? On the contrary, he was thenceforth studied with a more mature intelligence, and by the intrinsic merits of his writings, their balanced wisdom, their admirable method, their marvellous outlook on human nature and the world, they have held their own from that day to this as classics in the realm of thought ; and they are woven inextricably into all the best and wisest reasoning, enter into the structure of the daily thought of multitudes who never heard the name of Aristotle, and have helped to discipline the mind of modern Europe.
And in like manner that truly wonderful literature which we call the Bible, though we no longer approach it as the one infallible treasure-house of divine truth, yet has entered into the very structure of our faith and trust, has fed and disciplined our spiritual life, has helped to make vivid in our hearts precious trusts and hopes which have never been expressed in loftier strain or with truer touch on the deepest truths which God writes in our souls. The old Greek story of Pygmalion always seems to me most happily to illustrate the difference between the manner in which the old way of regarding the Bible affects men and that in which under this new way it touches our hearts. You remember that Pygmalion wrought in marble the figure of a nymph. Stately and beautiful was her form, but she had no life in her. Then at his prayer the statue descended from the pedestal and became flesh with all the glowing warmth and loveliness of a living woman, and a woman's heart beat within her bosom. In like manner the Bible has indeed come down from the pedestal on which it stood, but not to be dishonoured, but to be quickened with the life of our humanity, and to be the companion, the comforter, the inspirer of our daily life.
Open such a volume as Mr. Moncure Conway's Sacred Anthology or the more recent collection of passages from the Scriptures of all nations made by Mr. Coupland. Turn over its pages. You shall find a great wealth of beautiful selections from the sacred books of the Hindu, the Parsee, the Chinaman, the Arab, and many others. But it is the Hebrew and the Christian excerpts that arrest your attention and go straight to your heart. For this Hebrew people among whom this literature arose, had the very genius of religion ; and there is nothing in the rest of literature quite to equal or to parallel, on their own lines, the lofty pćans of the later Isaiah, the ethical glow of Micah, the seraphic gladness of some of the Psalms, the noble pleadings of Paul, and, above all else, the Beatitudes and Parables of Jesus, the Master.
But the condition of arriving at a true appreciation of the Bible is that we let it take its place among the literature of the world, that we do not fence it off or separate it or guard it in any special way. When I have been visiting the sick and have offered to read to them from the Bible, I have some-times asked what passage I should select, and received the answer that it is all equally good. That is idolatry, not appreciation. The chronicles of the Kings of Israel are not ` equally good ' with the twenty-third Psalm or the magnificent fortieth of Isaiah, nor the story of Ananias and Sapphira with the great speech ascribed to Paul at Athens or his own sublime account of charity or love. We must set down this great literature of Israel among the other noblest products of human genius, the writings of Homer, of Plato, of Dante, of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Tennyson. Some things in each of these are worth ten times more than some things in the Bible. But the Bible as a whole is worth more than all these put together. Remove all artificial restraints and barriers, and the power of the writers of the Old and New Testaments over the hearts and consciences of men will assert itself victoriously, whatever be their theories of inspiration and of theological authority.
And if to the due appreciation of the Bible this freedom of estimate be essential, much more is that so with the central and transcendent person in whom it culminates. Those who have most endangered the ascendancy of Jesus of Nazareth over the affections and the loyalty of men are those who have most insisted on theological definitions of his nature. There is at the present moment a considerable movement in certain Evangelical circles, while acknowledging that the Bible as a whole can no longer serve as the ultimate basis of religious belief, to assign this function without qualification to the words of Jesus Christ. No writer has pleaded for this position more per-suasively than Dr. John Watson—better known as ` Ian Maclaren '—in his essay on ` The Mind of the Master.' Such writers would seem to forget, indeed, that the actual words of Jesus are not preserved to us in any contemporary monuments, and that the Gospels themselves must necessarily be subjected to a like criticism with other Bible documents ; so that it would be hard to draw up a catena of the utterances of Jesus with that absolute and indubitable certainty which would be necessary were they to be made the one sole basis of our religious faith. But, waiving that difficulty, let us rather insist that the authority of the beautiful sayings of Jesus rests on the fact of the response which they awaken in our own moral and spiritual nature ; and that the authority of our moral and spiritual nature does not rest on the sayings of Jesus. To say this is exacted from us by loyalty to God ; and it assuredly involves no disloyalty to that wondrous Son of Man. He is pre-eminently a man among men. It is as a man among men that his moral and spiritual power becomes transcendent. Set him down, this peasant son of Mary, among the millions of his fellow-men. Let him find his own place in the company of the world's heroes, prophets, martyrs, saints. Have no fear for him. Let us meet him eye to eye and clasp his hand in ours. Let us talk with him on the way, kneel with him on the mountain-side, move with him among the crowd, hear the cordial of his speech to weary men and stricken women, watch him at the last through the shadows of Gethsemane and the gloom of Calvary, and you need have no fear but what he will assert his power over our thought, our imagination, our emotion, our life.
The religious life is the life in which a man knows God as the ever-present Father, hears and obeys his living voice in conscience, and holds intimate communion with him in prayer. But though that life be open to us all, yet our realization of the God-presence is apt to faint and fail, and in the tumult of human affairs we are apt to lose living touch with the Heavenly Father. Then is it a help beyond expression to lift up our eyes and behold the face of him, the great Teacher, or to listen to the words that fall from his gentle lips. For then we see and know the life of the human child with God in its fullest realization. It is not because Jesus has told me so that I believe that the Eternal God is my Heavenly Father, but because God himself has told me so in the hours of rapt communion. But when I lose my way in life, and through the dimness of my spiritual vision know not how it behoves a child of God to acquit himself in this turmoil of strife and struggle, then, if I look up into the face of Jesus, I see the answer to my bewilderments, and my heart goes out to the Brother who, of all whom I have ever known, helps me the most and leads me the truest way.