By Harris Franklin Rall
THE MEANING AND PLACE OF THE BIBLE
I. YESTERDAY AND TODAY
A GENERATION OT two ago the question about the Bible would have been answered very simply: "The Bible is the Word of God. God gave it to men as the revelation of himself. He inspired it, so it is infallible. It is not only the word of God to man but the words of God, and our duty is simply to believe every word and obey every command."
The answer is not so simple today, and the reason is not because men have become skeptical and irreligious ; it is, rather, because men have been studying the Bible itself and learning from the Bible itself what it is. If any one thing characterizes the modern mind, it is the empirical attitude: look for the facts and let the theory follow. So men faced certain facts that made impossible the old theory of a book verbally inspired and infallible. The Old Testament is not all on a level. It has lofty conceptions of God, but there is here also the picture of a God who demanded that when a certain city was captured in war, its walls and buildings should be leveled, its trees cut down, its cattle destroyed, and every man, woman, and child should be put to death. Not all the atrocity stories, the propaganda which people swallowed during the World War, contained anything more terrible than that. There are noble words here which call for mercy and good will reaching to all men, but here also are the words which Jesus had to repudiate though they were given in "the law": "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." You cannot accept the supremacy of Christ and hold to the infallibility of the Bible.
The interesting fact is that in spite of all this the Bible did not lose its place. Men still found God in the Bible, and the guidance and strength for life. Some parts they simply passed by, others they read in the light of the highest that it offered. In times of sorrow, they did not read Ecclesiastes, with its terrible words: "Man hath no preeminence above the beasts: as the one dieth, so dieth the other." They turned to John fourteen: "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places." They knew the vindictive psalms were in the Bible, those psalms which John Wesley declared were "highly improper for the mouths of a Christian congregation," in which the writer calls for vengeance upon his enemy, asks that his very prayer be turned into sin, demands vengeance even upon the children: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock." They read instead of the pity of Jesus in the midst of the agony of death: "Father, forgive them," and of his summons that we should be merciful like our Father in heaven. The Bible is a greater book than man's theories about it. Here are imperishable treasures suited to man's need, here men still hear the living God calling to them. So men keep on reading the Bible today. Not in all the centuries have more copies been printed than today. There is hardly an obscure tribe in whose language it does not appear, and year by year in the centers of culture it sells more copies than any "best seller" in its brief day. Let us, then, look at it afresh, leave our theories behind, and try to see it as it is.
II. THE BOOK OF GOD AND THE BOOK OF MAN
The Bible is a human book; it is not something dropped from the skies, it has come out of the life of men. Here are man's hopes and fears, his prayers and tears, his struggles and victories and defeats, his search for God and his joy in finding God and in fellowship with him. It is, indeed, the most human of books. "Prick it anywhere and it will bleed." The Old Testament is the literature of a people: laws, history, prayers, poems, hymns, sermons, all are here. Some of these books tell the story of the people, others grew directly out of the experience of individual men, and in them they pour forth the wealth of what they have been given to see and learn. Indeed, for us "the Old Testament has been changed from a file of books into a line of men." We are not, then, surprised to find limitations here and differences, the fallible and partial. That belongs, necessarily, to whatever is human.
But men find the Bible a divine book today, just as their fathers did. It is still the Word of God to man. What do we mean by that? With what right do we use these old terms? Once more let us look frankly at the facts. Let any man come to these writings with an open mind, an eager desire to know the living God and the way of life: what will he find? Much that will not mean anything to him, some that will even repel him, as we have seen; but as he reads psalms and prophets, the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament, something more than human will come to him.
(1) He will gain a vision of God, the sense of one who is high and holy and yet who is intimately present in his world, who is righteousness and truth and yet who compasses in his love the least of his creatures and goes out in mercy to the most evil of men. God is never made real by argument. Religion is caught rather than taught. He will not find here a book of theory, but one of life: by the faith of these men, by their deep experience of God, by the passion of their lives, his own heart will be stirred. It will be more than an idea of God: the reality of God will confront him. The God who spoke to them will speak to him, and he too will say, "I saw the Lord high and lifted up."
(2) He will gain a new vision of life, of what life means, what it may become, what it must be. Human life will seem to him, in the light of this God, no longer something poor and mean and hopeless, but something high and sacred, for it has come from God and it belongs to him. He will see the high purpose of each man's life and of humanity. Above all, he will discover a new kind of life, the only kind, life according to the spirit of this God. Olive Schreiner tells how as a little girl in her South African home she first read the Gospels. Her mind opened up, she caught the picture of life as it appears in the Sermon on the Mount, and in her new enthusiasm she rushed in to her mother and cried: "Oh, Mummy, look what I've found: isn't it lovely? Now we can all live like this." The wood where Count Tolstoy was buried, so his son tells us, was one where his
brother Nicholas used to play as a child and where he once "buried a little stick on which he had written a secret talisman that would make all people happy. It was the one word—Love." All this he will find here.
(3) He will find himself here. "In the volume of the book it is written of me." "What other book like this," writes Sabatier, "can awaken dumb or sleeping consciences, reveal the secret needs of the soul, sharpen the thorn of sin and press its cruel point upon us, tear away our delusions, humiliate our pride, and disturb our false serenity? What sudden lightnings it shoots into the abysses of our hearts! What searchings of conscience are like those which we make by this light!" But every man is two men, the man that is and the man that is to be; and this second man is revealed here also— "all we have willed, or hoped, or dreamed of good," and more— the man that God wants us to be.
(4) And he will find here a book of power. That, after all, is our deepest need in religion. "All the high maxims have been uttered," remarked Pascal once; "now we have only to obey them"—and there's the rub. But we may confidently say: He who will search out what is highest in this book, who will live with it so that it has a real chance at his mind and heart and imagination, and who will give himself in obedience when the Highest here speaks to him, he will find here the power of a new life.
Here then is why we call this the book of God: it is the story of how God spoke to men in the past; by it he speaks to men today; through it he still works as a life-giving and life-changing power.
III. THEORIES OLD AND NEW
The fact of the Bible is one thing, its moral and spiritual significance, its historical and literary forms; the theories about the Bible are another matter. Our fathers knew that God was in this history and that God spoke to them through these words; that was fact. But the scholars were not so happy in their theories. The main difficulty was in not understanding how God worked in his world. They thought of God as above his world. God's word when he spoke to men they conceived as something coming from without, as when a man speaks to his fellow. Revelation meant to them so many doctrines or commandments handed down, or so many words dictated to a writer. In a word they made revelation intellectual in content, external and mechanical in method. At both points they missed the historical and vital and spiritual.
What the Bible actually shows us, and what our experience reveals to us, is something quite different. Life comes first, ideas and words follow, whether you think of God's side or man's. Religion in Life is the happily chosen name of a great journal, for religion is life. God comes to men first not as a Voice but as a Presence. Israel finds him in her history, and the prophets tell her what this history means, what God is doing, what he is saying through these triumphs and defeats. It is just so in the New Testament. The Christian religion did not begin with words from God which were put into a book; it began with God's presence, his deeds, his power. "God was in Christ," Paul says. "The Word became flesh" John writes, "and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth." The first words of this Gospel might well be translated, as Goethe has it in his Faust: "In the beginning was the deed." It was so after the death of Christ; a new life stirred this company of disciples, a new power of faith and love made different men of them and drove them forth to high deeds. To some among them it was given, by a Spirit greater than themselves, to understand what all this meant, to see God in it all; and so they wrote these letters and Gospels that make up the New Testament. But the life came first, and the writings came out of the life.
Of course these men were no more infallible in their ideas than they were perfect in life. Peter and Paul differed vigorously and with feeling. Paul thought, quite like the men of his time, that a woman should be subject to her husband, should keep silent in the church, and have her head covered. We do not follow him there. We see he was mistaken in thinking that the Lord would return in a few years in visible form to establish his kingdom on earth. When Paul wrote to his little churches here and there to settle their quarrels and inspire their faith, he surely had not the faintest idea that centuries later theologians would be building up their theories on this phrase or that sentence in his letters. But Paul did know that God had come to men in Jesus Christ and had revealed to them what he was and what they might become; and he set that forth in no uncertain terms. He remains for us, as he was for them, a great preacher of this message, and through his words this same living God comes to us.
Men have declared that the Bible was inspired. Inspiration means the presence and working of the Spirit of God. Strictly speaking, not the writings were inspired but the writers. But greater and more important, and prior to all writing, was God's deed and presence, his movement in Israel's history, in the heart of prophet and psalmist, in Jesus and his followers. These writings grew out of this redemptive movement of God and were a part of it, written by men who saw what it all meant; and the same stream of divine life and light comes to us today through them and through the fellowship of the church.
IV. How SHALL WE USE THE BIBLE?
What special place and authority, then, do these writings have? We shall do no service to the truth if we declare that only in the Bible is there light, that elsewhere all is darkness, that only in Israel did God come to men, that in all other peoples and all other faiths we have only man's vain search for God. To say this would be to be untrue to the Bible itself and to the revelation of God in Christ. Can we have so narrow a vision of God as to think that he concerned himself only with one little people among the teeming millions, and only for one brief span of years in the long ages? Or can we be so Pharisaic as to suppose that only in our limited succession have there been minds to grasp and hearts to respond to God? Paul had a larger vision when he spoke of a God who had not left himself without a witness; and eight hundred years earlier the prophets wrote of one who was the God of all peoples, who had not only brought Israel from Egypt but the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir, who anointed Cyrus as he had David before him. The God of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God who has sought out every nation and waited at the door of every heart. And we rejoice in all the light that can be found in other faiths, for there is only one truth and all truth is of God.
And yet we must face certain simple facts. God waits at the door, he does not break in. Here was a people whose passion was God, as the passion of other peoples lay in war or wisdom or letters or art or trade. Here was a line of men, the prophets, whose devotion to righteousness and whose vision of God have made them the teachers of the nations through the ages. Within a single generation in this little land we find no less than four of these great names: Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah. But above all, it is through these writings that we know Jesus Christ. He is their center and he makes them unique. A few years ago H. G. Wells suggested that humanity urgently needed a new Bible. He pointed out that once our Western world was united because it had a common Bible and owned its authority; but now east and west formed one world and the God of the Bible commanded neither west nor east. That is true, but where on humanity's horizon is there a faith, a vision of God, or an ideal of life for men or nations that can for a moment challenge what is found here? There will never be peace or justice in the world till men own one common God, but it will not come through a new Bible.
But another question rises; is not the authority of the Bible gone if we cannot say of every word that it is the word of God? Why should we follow it, or how shall we know what to accept?
There are two kinds of authority. One is external, compulsive. It does not ask for understanding or conviction, but simply submission. The other is inner, moral, spiritual; it asks obedience, but the obedience must root in conviction and come as free choice. The former belongs to subjects, the latter to sons. Free men know only one kind of authority— that of truth and right. For the Christian that means God, for God is righteousness and truth. The final authority for our faith is God, and God alone. The Bible is authority for us only in so far as it brings God, only so far as through the Spirit of God it wakens conviction in our hearts. Mohammedanism, Mormonism, and Christian Science are book religions. Christianity is the religion of the living God as we know him in Jesus Christ; it has a book, but it is not a book religion. The Bible does have authority. It has wielded that year after year. Men have hearkened to it for this one reason, because it has convinced men of its truth and brought God to men.
And this suggests how we shall use the Bible and what we shall follow. (1) There is a Spirit that guides men into the truth. Ask for that guidance, read with an open mind, follow with an obedient will. You will have questions here and there, but the highway of faith and life will stretch plain before you. (2) The Bible has a center toward which the old tends, from which the new flows—Jesus Christ. Bring all else to that test, make him supreme. (3) But of one thing make sure: read it, use it. Live in its atmosphere. Let its great words become your familiar friends. It can stand question, criticism, opposition, everything but neglect.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
FOR FURTHER READING