The Bible is a vast storehouse. It contains treasures of priceless value, unlimited variety, and general adaptability. Its supplies are suited to the requirements of every age, race, and condition. Its doors are always open; its riches to be had for the asking; and, unlike material depositories, demands upon it do not diminish its resources. The Biblical framework, with its various partitions, shelves, and cases, has only a nominal value; but within it are contained royal treasures and gifts,—"gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
The Written Word is also like a great mine. There are shafts, tunnels, and galleries; engines, wheels, and pulleys; there is pumping, draining, hoisting, and assorting; and afterwards, stamping, melting, and molding. What is the purpose of all this activity? and have all these complex processes any special significance? Is there order and unity in the midst of such seeming confusion? The bars of bright and shining metal, which are the final result of these energetic operations, furnish the answer. The treasure was hid, and could only be extracted, reduced, and purified by such a severe and searching process. There are deep veins of truth embedded in the strata of national history; and rich specimens of the ore of virtue, wisdom, love, and self-sacrifice, cropping out above the surface of individual character in patriarchs, kings, peasants, and slaves. The pure gold and silver of the Spirit are found in an endless variety of combinations and degrees of richness. Some of its ores are free and easily separated, and others are refractory and difficult of reduction to the pure metal of truth. There must be much crushing and heating before the golden product can be released from the grasp of its local combinations. If the whole mining territory were solid gold, the metal would lose its rarity and extreme value. An important element of its great worth consists in the labor and patience involved in its production. The unprecedented study and searching criticism of the Bible which characterize the present era are but a more vigorous working of the mine, not for its destruction nor its exhaustion, but in order to the production of greater wealth.
The Bible is a library rather than a book; but notwithstanding its marvelous variety, it does not claim to be a complete or finished revelation. But if it does not contain all truth, its pages glow with spiritual pictures which have every variety of coloring, foreground, and perspective. It is richly garnished with jewels; but their polish, setting, and framing, show wide diversity. But though it is precious, it is not a fetish which possesses any miraculous charm, nor a divinity to be worshiped, but rather a great consensus of experiences and object-lessons. It furnishes compass, chart, and steering directions for the voyage of life. It is not an end, but an important means to an end. Truth does not originate in its pages, nor gain its authority from textual declarations, because it eternally existed. Truth is not true because the Bible says so; but the Bible says so because it was already, and is everlastingly, true. The sole use of the collective Inspired Library—voluminous though it may be—is to teach men two very brief rules of action, or rather principles of living,—love to God and love to man. These are the concentrated golden product of the wonderful profusion of law, history, psalmody, prophecy, and philosophy, which make up the Old and New Testaments. The human mind is so constituted that it does not readily assimilate concentrated, abstract truth; otherwise, the great collection of Sacred Writings might at once be reduced to a simple statement of the two all-inclusive motives before noted. That this fine gold of principle may be received and transmuted into living spiritual fiber, it must be presented in all possible combinations and conditions; seen at all angles and in different lights, and tested in its application to varying ages, nations, and civilizations. Its essence must flow into the lives of rich and poor, high and low; its quality must be exhibited in all stages of development, from germ-planting through successive stages of growth, to blossoming and full fruition; its energy must be brought into contact with prosperity and adversity, knowledge and ignorance, nations and individuals.
The Bible is like a great mirror for every class and condition. Though in itself a grand Unit, each one sees it from a different side, and catches an aspect not quite like that of any other. It has one message, but many interpretations; one melody, but endless variations. Objectively it is always the same, but the diverse color of the lenses through which it is viewed gives it all possible hues. Unchangeable in itself, it is always changing in significance, even to the same individual in different moods and periods. To each observer—in the last analysis—it is not the real objective Bible which is the Bible to him, but it is his conception of it that is the veritable Book. From diverse subjective colorings, scores of sects and denominations find their peculiar creeds and theologies in the One Book. The Calvinist and Methodist, the Quaker and the Baptist, the Trinitarian and the Unitarian, all find an abundance of what they look for. It is "all things to all men," because, as in a mirror, all see their own reflection. If every word and punctuation point were of divine dictation, so that the Scripture writers were amanuenses, pure and simple, and we had a perfect translation of their messages, the diversity of doctrinal interpretation would not thereby be diminished.
The nature of scriptural inspiration is one of the burning problems of this closing decade of the nineteenth century, for we are passing through a period of wonderful transition. The Bible has been burdened with a heavy load of literalism, superstition, and fetishism, which is now being swept away by what is known as the "Higher Criticism," and by a rational interpretation of that which constitutes inspiration. The demand that God-given reason should be held in abeyance when the Book was approached, has given it an unnatural and mechanical character. The Roman church withheld it from the masses lest they might misinterpret it, and ecclesiastical Protestantism has put supernatural restrictions upon it for much the same reason. There has been a feeling that the Book could not be trusted to stand alone,—upon its merits,—and that some kind of priestly explanation must accompany it. As if its inherent spiritual quality and power were not sufficiently plain to show its divine character, the theologies have been impelled to "steady the Ark of the Lord" by supernatural and superstitious props and defenses. The Bible is abundantly able to take care of itself. 'The evidence of its being an embodiment of divine truth is inherent, rather than from without. It is not dependent upon the authenticity of its reputed writers; the historic genuineness of its ancient manuscripts; nor even upon the accuracy of its translations,—desirable as these all may be,—but in its lifelike portrayal of human character and its needs, and in its power to energize life and motive. The real test of all inspiration lies in the measure of its ability to inspire.
The theory of verbal inspiration, including literal inerrancy, which so many sincere but unwise Biblicists think it necessary to maintain as a "defense" of the Book, renders it inharmonious, eliminates its human element, and mars its practical adaptability. Carried to its logical conclusion it would make the Infinite to be the Author of self-evident imperfection. But such a logical result is hardly followed out, because, at a blow, it would obliterate all the individual freedom and personality of the writers, the evidence of which shines out in every chapter. But those who feel it to be a necessity to defend verbal inspiration, do not choose to consider the necessary result, but leave the subject at some indefinable point midway. The transition from the literalism of past periods, to a deeper and more spiritual interpretation, is general and rapid. Many deplore it with undoubted sincerity or undisguised alarm, and believe it to be progress toward less or no religion; but it is safe to assume that nothing intrinsic will be lost. If external and arbitrary Biblical authority be in some degree weakened, the manifold strengthening from within will render abundant compensation.
Verbal inspiration has been held as a protective doctrine, but its power to promote moral or spiritual energy is wanting. It has been relied upon more as a security and authority for doctrinal belief, than as a force to quicken life. Every sect has used it as an armor to defend its peculiar tenets, more than as an energizing motive and tonic. The prevailing conception of the nature of the Book has been rigid in form, but deficient in vitality. It has been held sacred as a source of correct theology, but its power to infuse God-consciousness is largely unrecognized. Its spiritual energy is the highest and only test of its divine truthfulness, while verbal inerrancy is a technicality, and invites attention to "the letter that killeth," rather than to the "Spirit which giveth life." The letter appeals to the intellectual faculty, but only the Spirit can infuse new life and convey spiritual momentum. Ancient history, law, and prophecy, and also the teaching of Christ and his Apostles, must be translated into fresh and personal manifestation.
The "Higher Criticism" is useful, not because of its discovery that the so-called Mosaic writings are the work of various authors, nor because in general it more correctly locates authorship and discriminates regarding the local and peculiar conditions under which books were written, nor even because it recognizes both the divine and human elements, but for the reason that it approaches the Book impartially—as it would any other book—for what it really is. It is eminently a Book of common-sense; and the removal of its ecclesiastical, doctrinal, and denominational bandages greatly increases its transforming power in daily life. It is an armory filled with spiritual weapons. It is not especially a Sunday book, nor a special message which requires peculiar and official interpretation, but an ever-available Invigorator and Restorer.
If the Scriptures were inerrant in detail, they could not be a progressive revelation, for there would be no room for progress; but because they do contain a fallible element, they are adapted to human needs. If the inspired writers received their revelations in some supernatural or abnormal manner, their experiences would have little value for us. Those men of old would thereby constitute an order by themselves, and, follow them as we might, we could never be fellow-sharers of the same powers and privileges which they enjoyed.
It is only through the intellectual faculty that there can be any possible danger of confusing the divine and human elements of the Inspired Word. Its intrinsic lessons and spiritual delineations can only be discerned and measured by the inner perception, and by such discernment they need not be mistaken. The fine gold of love, faith, truth, life, and spirituality, constitutes the true inerrancy. The imperfection of the human element of the Bible only makes the pure quality of its truth in the spiritual realm more conspicuous. Only with humanity intermingled with divinity in the Word would it be practically comprehensible. It does not try to separate God from human consciousness, but to bring Him nearer; yea, to show Him as in us, the illuminating and energizing force. The Decalogue was inscribed in man's nature long before it was graven upon tablets of stone. The world has looked upon the Bible as a code of divine legislation, a great and comprehensive "Thou shalt not;" but it is rather an emancipation proclamation. The love of God, wrought into the lives of men of old,—men like us,—through all the lights and shadows of human experience, brings out in high relief the ideals to be sought, and the mistakes to be avoided in the uneven pilgrimage over which they passed far in advance of us.
Up to the time of Luther and the Reformation, religion, theology, and authority were centered in the organized Church; but since that time, among the Protestant branches, everything has crystallized around the Book. There is a tendency ever manifesting itself in humanity to build from without rather than from within.
The general law of evolution is so distinctly written upon all animate and inanimate creation, that its general acceptance, as a process, is becoming almost universal. Though still so far, far below his ideal condition, man has progressed, instead of retrograded, though there is a sense in which his future potentiality was present when the first breath of the divine spiritual life was breathed into him. The Bible in itself is a notable example of evolutionary unfoldment. Starting on a low plane, there is a steady though slow development and refinement in the quality and standard of its delineations of human character, from Genesis to Revelation. The grand scope and purpose of the unrolled panorama of Sacred Literature, is the evolution of the ideal spiritual man from the animal selfhood. Here is evolution which is worthy of the name, because an infinite leap upward is taken, even though the latent force which makes it possible has been in a process of accumulation through the eons of the unfathomable past. God's moral economy is unchangeable and perfect, and human conceptions are slowly approaching toward it, as shown by higher standards from age to age. If the Bible were purely a divine book, the Patriarchal ideals of character would be as pure and lofty as those of John and Paul. The standard of righteousness, even among the beacon lights of Old Testament history, was low, although they towered far above their contemporaries, and, for their times, lived very near to God. It is not irreverent to suggest that their comprehension of Him may be said to have been great in quantity, but moderate in quality. To a greater or less extent they were given to polygamy, sensuality, and slavery, and even the great Psalmist of Israel, who was said to be "a man after God's own heart," was guilty of many heinous offences. The authors of Sacred Writ lived and wrote under all the limitations and weaknesses that are common to mankind, otherwise their experiences would contain no living lessons for us. Their records show a continual growth and unfoldment in the apprehension of spiritual truth, both in individual and collective life, during the broad period covered by the Inspired Narratives. Man will know more to-morrow than to-day; and no consistent interpretation of the Scripts-res can be made, except in the light of this principle. In any other way the Book loses its cohesion and unity, and becomes unintelligible. The skeptic says to the literalist: "Your Bible indorses slavery and polygamy, and sanctions war and revenge;" and the literalist cannot deny this from his own method of interpretation. There is hardly a doctrine so irrational, or a course of conduct so gross, that isolated texts cannot be found, by the letter of which they are inculcated or may be defended; yet, disregarding such plain inferences, some of the leading dogmas—as, for instance, those regarding election and future endless punishment—have for their whole foundation a strained construction of less than half a dozen verses of the whole Bible. What a wonderful elevation in the standard of human conduct and spiritual consciousness took place in the period between Noah and John; yet the former, no less than the latter, towered far above the standards of the age in which he lived.
The blind acceptance of the supposed necessary theory of Biblical infallibility has been an incubus upon the Church, and has largely shorn the Book of its living power to inspire. Such an assumption has made it appear at once unreasonable, unattractive, and unnatural. The well-meaning men who imagined that they were doing "God service" by a zealous defense of his Book, unwittingly made it so contradictory and unlovable, that mankind—who so much need its lessons—have been repelled from it.
The Scriptures are not a revelation, but are records of revelations; the treasure, in varying degrees of richness, being contained "in earthen vessels." Reasonable interpretation makes them incomparably the most beautiful, harmonious, and profitable of all literature. Through them, from first to last, runs a golden chain without a missing link. The dogmaticians have buried the Bible beneath confessions and scholastic systems; and it is for these, rather than for the Book, that they are concerned. Their use of it has been secondary and defensive; as a breast-work for the protection of institutions and systems. Thousands have been kept from its earnest study because of unwarranted claims that inspiration is verbal, and that its authority depends upon the acceptance of traditional theories of authorship, and the accuracy of ancient manuscripts with their perfect translation and preservation.
Of text and legend. Reason's voice and God's,
Nature's and duty's, never are at odds.
—John Greenleaf Whittier
The literalists are very determined against a "rational" study of the Word, because such a fair interpretation of its teachings will endanger their systems; but they can as easily keep back the tides of the Atlantic, as arrest the great transition, stifle the spirit of modern inquiry, or suppress the desire for unadulterated truth.
It is not within the province of this work to make any critical or detailed analysis of the Bible, nor of its history and composition. The rich and growing literature of the "Higher Criticism," and the able and comprehensive teaching of eminent pioneers in the work of Biblical disenthralment, like Professors Briggs, Harper, Dr. Abbott, and many others, furnishes abundant evidence of the harmony between a reasonable theory of inspiration and scholarly and exhaustive technical research.
As the Sacred Literature of the Jews makes up the canon of the Scriptures, the world is indebted to the Hebrew race for its Christian Bible. It is a Semitic Book; and yet, as the Jewish race is a factor of the great human family, its remarkable experiences and their lessons have a universal adaptability. The fact, however, that it was written by men of the East, and is thoroughly Oriental in tone and coloring, must not be over-looked. It's warm, picturesque allegory, parable, poetry, and hyperbole, are with difficulty transmuted, unimpaired, into cold English phraseology. Eternal principles never change, but their accessories may be of infinite variety. The earnest seeker after truth need not be baffled, for true spiritual discernment plunges far beneath the changeable surface of race, time, and custom. Just here is an abundance of "inerrancy." Unselfish love, faith, truth, and spirituality, are entities which have the same divine sparkle and fixity in all possible combinations.
Other races and peoples besides the Hebrews have their records of revelations which contain divine elements; but the Bible is incomparably superior to them in quality and power. It is a graphic and earnest history of individuals, families, tribes, and races, in the process of spiritual evolution. Its production was in every respect natural, and involved no suspension of divine laws nor supernatural interposition. As its writers were moved by the Holy Ghost, so other writers and other men, then and now, are inspired in like manner when under similar spiritual condition and development. Any other theory presupposes a changeable and partial Deity, rather than He "who is without variableness or shadow of turning."
The inspired Book is like a vast landscape, rich and varied, both in foreground and perspective. There are majestic mountain peaks whose summits pierce the clouds; peaceful valleys containing green pastures; trees and plants, waving grain and blooming flowers, fruitful gardens and sandy wastes, purling brooks and mighty rivers, lowing herds and gentle flocks, rocks, pitfalls, precipices, fog, sunshine, and shadow. Law, History, Poetry, and Prophecy, in the Old Testament, and the higher ethical and more spiritual teaching in the Gospels and Epistles of the New, are mingled in changing proportions in the different periods of the unique history of the Hebrew nation. Upon the surface of this great swift flowing current are seen the simple dignity of patriarchal and pastoral life, the cruelty of slavery, institutes of priestly orders and sacrificial offerings, the government of judgeship, the authority of kingship, graceful poetry, and metrical psalmody, weary ages of captivity, prophetic teaching and warning, Messianic expectancy, fulfillment, tragedy, spiritual baptism, persecution, the planting of churches, and racial dispersion.
What wonderful life-lessons are dramatically portrayed in the grand epic poem of Job; and its impressiveness does not depend upon its historic verity, any more than does the significance of the "Parable of the Ten Virgins." The Psalms of David, which are full of pictures of ever-changing and diverse spiritual moods, are equally instructive and true to nature, whether written by the royal Psalmist or by a score of less-known authors. The letters to the "Seven Churches" would have the same applicability if addressed to the churches of the world, as they had to those of a little corner of western Asia. The Sacred Hebrew Writings make up a grand chorus of warning, reproof, discipline, incentive, and inspiration.
No matter which way we turn,
We always find in the Book of Life
Some lessons we have to learn.
The Inspired Book touches every life in its full breadth, and at every point. That supreme spiritual aspiration and God-consciousness that illumined men of old will inspire men of today. Those great divine sources and springs have not lost their power to kindle new life. The history of the Jewish nation is a grand drama, the ever-shifting scenes of which portray vice and virtue worked out in character and life, each to their legitimate result. With natural, free interpretation of the Book, its light will grow clearer and broader, and it will be an ever unfolding source of inspiration to human life.