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Our Masses And The Bible - Part 5

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

So there is no doubt that we get a much firmer, nay an impregnable, ground for the Bible, and for recommending it to the world, if we put the construction on it which we propose. The only question is : Is this the right construction to put on it ? is it the construction which properly belongs to the Bible? And here, again, our appeal is to the same test which we have employed throughout, the only possible test for man to employ,—the test of reason and experience. Given the Bible-documents, what, it is inquired, is the right construction to put upon them? Is it the construction we propose? or is it the construction of the theologians, according to which the dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and so on, are presupposed all through the Bible, are sometimes latent, sometimes come more visibly to the surface, but are always there ; and to them every word in the Bible has reference, plain or figured?

Now, the Bible does not and cannot tell us itself, in black and white, what is the right construction to put upon it ; we have to make this out. And the only possible way to make it out,—for the dogmatists to make out their construction, or for us to make out ours,—is by reason and experience. ' Even such as are readiest,' says Hooker very well, 'to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of Scripture, what warrant have they that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged?' They can have none, he replies, but reasoning and collection ; and to the same effect Butler says of reason, that ' it is indeed the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.' Now it is simply from experience of the human spirit and its productions, from observing as widely as we can the manner in which men have thought, their way of using words and what they mean by them, and from reasoning upon this observation and experience, that we conclude the construction theologians put upon the Bible to be false, and ours to be the truer one.

In the first place, from Israel's master-feeling, the feeling for righteousness, the predominant sense that men are, as St. Paul says, ' created unto good works which God hath prepared beforehand that we should walk in them,' we collect the origin of Israel's conception of God,—of that mighty ' not ourselves' which more or less engages all men's attention,—as the Eternal Power that makes for righteousness. This we do, because the more we come to know how ideas and terms arise, and what is their character, the more this explanation of Israel's use of the word 'God' seems the true and natural one. Again, the construction we put upon the doctrine and work of Jesus is collected in the same way. From the data we have, and from comparison of these data with what we have besides of the history of ideas and ex-pressions, this construction seems to us the true and natural one. The Gospel-narratives are just that sort of account of such a work and teaching as the work and teaching of Jesus Christ, according to our construction of it, was, which would naturally have been given by devoted followers who did not fully understand it. And understand it fully they then could not, it was so very new, great, and profound ; only time gradually brings its lines out more clear.

On the other hand, the theologians' notion of dogmas presupposed in the Bible, and of a constant latent reference to them, we reject, because experience is against it. The more we know of the history of ideas and expressions, the more we are convinced that this account is not and cannot be the true one; that the theologians have credited the Bible with this presupposition of dogmas and this constant latent reference to them, but that they are not really there. ' The Fathers recognised,' says Cardinal Newman, 'a certain truth lying hid under the tenor of the sacred text as a whole, and showing itself more or less in this verse or that, as it might be. The Fathers might have traditionary information of the general drift of the inspired text which we have not.' Born into the world twenty years later, and touched with the breath of the `Zeit-Geist,' how would this exquisite and delicate genius have been himself the first to feel the un-soundness of all this ! that we have heard the like about other books before, and that it always turns out to be not so, that the right interpretation of a document, such as the Bible, is not in this fashion. Homer's poetry was the Bible of the Greeks, however strange a one ; and just in the same way there grew up the notion of a mystical and inner sense in the poetry of Homer, underlying the apparent sense, but brought to light by the commentators ; perhaps, even, they might have traditionary information of the drift of the Homeric poetry which we have not ;—who knows? But, once for all, as our literary experience widens, this notion of a secret sense in Homer proves to be a mere dream. So, too, is the notion of a secret sense in the Bible, and of the Fathers' disengagement of it.

Demonstration in these matters is impossible. It is a maintainable thesis that the allegorising of the Fathers is right, and that this is the true sense of the Bible. It is a maintainable thesis that the theological dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement, underlie the whole Bible. It is a maintainable thesis, also, that Jesus was himself immersed in the Aberglaube of his nation and time, and that his disciples have reported him with absolute fidelity; in this case we should have, in our estimate of Jesus, to make deductions for his Aberglaube, and to admire him for the insight he displayed in spite of it. This thesis, we repeat, or that thesis, or another thesis, is maintainable, as to the construction to be put on such a document as the Bible. Absolute demonstration is impossible, and the only question is : Does experience, as it widens and deepens, make for this or that thesis, or make against it? And the great thing against any such thesis as either of the two we have just mentioned is, that the more we know of the history of the human spirit and its deliverances, the more we have reason to think such a thesis improbable, and it loses its hold on our assent more. On the other hand, the great thing, as we believe, in favour of such a construction as we put upon the Bible is, that experience, as it increases, constantly confirms it; and that, though it cannot command assent, it will be found to win assent more and more.

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