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Understanding The Scriptures by Francis McConnell

CHAPTER I PRELIMINARY

The problem as to the understanding of the Scriptures is with some no problem at all. All we have to do is to take the narratives at their face meaning. The Book is written in plain English, and all that is necessary for its comprehension is a knowledge of what the words mean. If we have any doubts, we can consult the dictionary. The plain man ought to have no difficulty in understanding the Bible.

Nobody can deny the clearness of the English of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, the plain man does have trouble. How far would the ordinary intelligence have to read from the first chapter of Genesis before finding itself in difficulties? There are accounts of events utterly unlike anything which we see happening in the life around us, events which seem to us to contradict the course of nature's procedure. There are points of view foreign to our way of looking at things. More than that, there seem to be actual contradictions between various portions of the books. And, above all, the way of life marked out in the Book seems to lead off toward mystery. To save our lives we have to lose them. All the precepts of common sense seem set at defiance by some passages of the Book. How can we explain the hold of such a book on the world's life?

When once the problem of the understanding of the Scriptures is raised, various solutions are offered, all of which contribute a measure of help, but most of which do not greatly get us ahead. For example, we are told that the Book is translated literature, and that if we could get back to the original narratives in the original languages, we would find our perplexities vanishing. There is no question that a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew does aid us in an understanding of the Scriptures, but this aid commonly extends only to the meaning of particular words. One who knows enough of Greek or Hebrew to enter sympathetically into the life of which those languages were the expression is prepared to sense the scriptural atmosphere better than one who has not such equipment. Very few Scripture readers, however, are thus qualified to understand Greek and Hebrew. Very few ministers of the gospel are so trained as to be able to pass upon shades of meaning of Greek or Hebrew words against the judgment of those who teach these languages in the schools. With graduation from theological school most ministers put Hebrew to one side; and many pay no further attention to Greek. Even a trained biblical student is very careful not to question the authority of the professional linguistic experts. Apart from sidelights upon the meaning of this or that passage, there is very little that the biblical student can get from Greek or Hebrew which is not available in important translations. We cannot solve the greater difficulties in biblical study by carrying our investigations back to the study of the original languages as such. The fact is that emphasis upon the importance of mastery of Greek and Hebrew for an insight into scriptural meanings rests largely upon a theory of literal inspiration of the biblical narratives. It requires only a cursory reading to see that the narratives in English cannot claim to be strictly inerrant, so that the upholder of inerrancy is driven to the position that the inerrancy is in the documents as originally written. No doctrine of inerrancy, however, can explain away the puzzles which confront us, for example, in the accounts of the creation as given us in the early chapters of Genesis, or throw light upon the possibility of a soul's passing from moral death to life.

Great help is promised us by those who maintain that the modern methods of critical biblical study give us the key to scriptural meanings. There is no doubt that many doors have been opened by critical methods. Now that the flurries of misunderstanding which attended the first application of such methods to biblical study have passed on, we see that some solid results have been gained. In so far as our difficulties arise from questions of authorship and date of writing, the critical methods have brought much relief. Even very orthodox biblicists no longer insist that it is necessary to oppose the teaching that the first five books of the Bible were written at different times and by different men. In fact, there is no reason to quarrel with the theory that many parts of these books are not merely anonymous, but are documents produced by the united effort of narrators and correlators reaching through generations -- the narratives often being transmitted orally from fathers to sons. There is no reason for longer arguing against the claim that the book of Isaiah as it stands in our Scriptures is composed of documents written at widely separated periods. It is permissible even from the standpoint of orthodoxy to assign a late date to the book of Daniel. No harm is wrought when we insist that the book of Mark must have priority in date among the Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke are built in part from Mark as a foundation. It is not dangerous to face the facts which cause the prolonged debate over the authorship of the fourth Gospel. It is not heresy to teach that the dates of the epistles must be rearranged through the findings of modern scholarship. There is not only no danger in a hospitable attitude toward modern scholarship, but many difficulties disappear through adjusting ourselves to present-day methods. If contradictions appear in a document hitherto considered a unit, the contradictions are at least measurably done away with when the document is seen to be a composite report from the points of view of different authors. The critical method has been of immense value in enforcing upon us that the scriptural books were written each with a distinctive intention, apart from the purpose to represent the facts in the method of a newspaper reporter or of a scientific investigator. In a sense many of the more important scriptural documents were of the nature of pamphlets or tracts for the times in which they were written. The author was combating a heresy, or supplementing a previous statement which seemed to him to be inadequate, or seeking to adjust a religious conception to enlarging demands. The biblical writers are commentators on or interpreters of the truth which they conceive to be essential.

Making most generous allowances, however, for the advantages of the critical methods, we must use them with considerable care. Results like those suggested above seem to be well established, but there is always possibility of the critic's becoming a mere specialist with the purely technical point of view. Suppose the critic holds so to the passion for analysis that for him analysis becomes everything. We may then have a single verse cut into three or four pieces, each assigned to a different author, the authors separated by long periods. Even if the older narratives are composite, the process of welding or compression was so thorough that detailed analyses are now out of the question. Apart from its broader contentions, the method of the critical school must be used tentatively and without dogmatism. Moreover, we must always remember that the critical student comes to his task with assumptions which are oftentimes more potent with him from his very blindness to their existence. Assumption in scientific investigation is inevitable. Suppose a critic to be markedly under the influence of some evolutionary hypothesis. Suppose him to believe that the formula which makes progress a movement from the simple to the complex can be traced in detail in the advance of society. He is prepared to believe that in practically every case the simple has preceded the complex. He will forthwith untangle the biblical narrative to get at the ideal evolutionary arrangement, ignoring the truth that except in the most general fashion progress cannot thus be traced. In the actual life of societies the progress, especially of ideas, is often from the complex to the simple. Many evolutionists maintain that movement is now forward, now backward, now diagonal, and now by a |short cut|; but if the evolutionary critic sticks closely to his preconceived formula about progress as always from the simple to the complex, he can lead us astray. Again, almost all great prophetic announcements are ahead of their time. They seem out of place at the date of their first utterance -- interruptions, interjections hard to fit into an orderly historic scheme. Or suppose the critic to be a student of the scientific school which will not allow for the play of any forces excepting as they openly reveal themselves, the school that will not allow for backgrounds of thought or for atmospheres which surround conceptions. Such a student is very apt to maintain, for example, that Paul knew only so much of the life of Jesus as he mentions in the epistles. Such a student cannot assume that Paul ever took anything for granted. We can see at once that a method so professedly exact as this may be dangerously out of touch with the human processes of the life of individuals and of societies. Or suppose still further that the biblical student holds a set of scientific assumptions which are extremely naturalistic; that is to say, suppose that he assumes that nothing has ever happened which in any way departs from the natural order. We have only to remind ourselves that the natural order of a particular time is the order as that time conceives it; but it is manifestly hazardous to limit events in the world of matter to the scientific conceptions of any one day. To take a single illustration, the radical student of the life of Jesus of a generation ago cast out forthwith from the Gospel accounts everything which suggested the miraculous. The conceptions of the order of nature which obtained a generation ago did not allow even for works of healing of the sort recorded in the Gospels. At the present time radical biblical criticism makes considerable allowance for such works. Discovery of the power of mental suggestion and of the influence of mind over body has opened the door to the return of some of the wonders wrought by Jesus to a place among historic facts. This does not mean that the radical student is any more friendly to miracles than before. We are not here raising the question of miracles as such, but we do insist that an assumption as to what the natural order may or may not allow can be fraught with peril in the hands of critical students of the Scriptures. We say again that while, in general, the larger contentions of the biblical school can be looked upon as established beyond reasonable doubt; and while, in general, the methods of the school are productive of good, yet, because of the part that assumption plays in the fashioning of all critical tools, the assumptions must be scrutinized with all possible care. A good practical rule is to read widely from the critics, to accept what they generally agree upon, to hold very loosely anything that seems |striking| or |brilliant.| This is a field in which originality must be discounted. There is so little check upon the imagination.

It is but a step from the consideration of the critical methods in biblical study to that of the historical methods in the broader sense. Many students who are out of patience with the more narrowly critical processes maintain that the broader historical methods are of vast value in biblical discussion. Here, again, we must admit the large measure of justice in the claim. We can see at once that the same reservations must be made as in the case of the critical methods. The assumptions play a determining part. If we are on our guard against any tricks that assumptions may play, we can eagerly expect the historical methods to aid us greatly.

We have come to see that any revelation to be really a revelation must speak in the language of a particular time. But speaking in the language of a particular time implies at the outset very decided limitations. The prophets who arise to proclaim any kind of truth must clothe their ideas in the thought terms of a particular day and can accomplish their aims only as they succeed in leading the spiritual life of their day onward and upward. Such a prophet will accommodate himself to the mental and moral and religious limitations of the time in which he speaks. Only thus can he get a start. It is inevitable, then, that along with the higher truth of his message there will appear the marks of the limitations of the mold in which the message is cast. The prophet must take what materials he finds at hand, and with these materials direct the people to something higher and better. Furthermore, in the successive stages through which the idea grows we must expect to find it affected by all the important factors which in any degree determine its unfolding. The first stage in understanding the Scriptures is to learn what a writer intended to say, what he meant for the people of his day. To do this we must rely upon the methods which we use in any historical investigation. The Christian student of the Scriptures believes that the Bible contains eternal truths for all time, truths which are above time in their spiritual values. Even so, however, the truth must first be written for a particular time and that time the period in which the prophet lived. When the Christian speaks of the Scriptures as containing a revelation for all time, he refers to their essential spiritual value. The best way to make that essential spiritual value effective for the after times is to sink it deep into the consciousness of a particular time. This gives it leverage, or focus for the outworking of its forces. No matter how limited the conceptions in which the spiritual richness first took form, those conceptions can be understood by the students who look back through the ages, while the spiritual value itself shines out with perennial freshness. Paradoxical as it may sound, the truths which are of most value for all time are those which first get themselves most thoroughly into the thought and feeling of some one particular time. Let us look at the opening chapters of Genesis for illustration. The historical student points out to us that the science of the first chapters of Genesis is not peculiar to the Hebrew people, that substantially similar views of the stages through which creation moved are to be found in the literatures of surrounding peoples. A well-known type of student would therefore seek at one stroke to bring the first chapters of Genesis down to the level of the scriptures of the neighbors of the Hebrews. He would then discount all these narratives alike by reference to modern astronomy, geology, and biology. But the difference between the Hebrew account and the other accounts lies in this, that in the Hebrew statement the science of a particular time is made the vehicle of eternally superb moral and spiritual conceptions concerning man and concerning man's relation to the Power that brought him into being. The worth of these conceptions even in that early statement few of us would be inclined to question. Assuming that any man or set of men became in the old days alive to the value of such religious ideas, how could they speak them forth except in the language of their own day? They had to speak in their own tongue, and speaking in that tongue they had to use the thought terms expressed by that tongue. They accepted the science of their day as true, and they utilized that science for the sake of bodying forth the moral and spiritual insights to which they had attained. The inadequacy of early Hebrew science and its likeness to Babylonian and Chaldean science do not invalidate the worth of the spiritual conceptions of Genesis. This ought to be apparent even to the proverbial wayfaring man. The loftiest spiritual utterances are often clad in the poorest scientific draperies. Who would dare deny the worth of the great moral insights of Dante? And who, on the other hand, would insist upon the lasting value of the science in which his deep penetrations are uttered? And so with Milton. Dr. W. F. Warren has shown the nature of the material universe as pictured in Milton's |Paradise Lost.| In passing from heaven to hell one would descend from an upper to a lower region of a sphere, passing through openings at the centers of other concentric spheres on the way down. Nothing more foreign to modern science can be imagined; yet we do not cast aside |Paradise Lost| because of the crudity of its view of the physical system.

Assuming that the biblical prophets were to have any effect whatever, in what language could they speak except that of their own time? Their position was very similar to that of the modern preacher who uses present-day ideas of the physical universe as instruments to proclaim moral and spiritual values. Nobody can claim that modern scientific theories are ultimate, and nobody can deny, on the other hand, that vast good is done in the utilization of these conceptions for high religious purposes.

A minister once sought in a sermon on the marvels of man's constitution to enforce his conceptions by speaking of the instantaneousness with which a message flashed to the brain through the nervous system is heeded and acted upon. He said that the touch of red-hot iron upon a finger-tip makes a disturbance which is instantly reported to the brain for action. A scientific hearer was infinitely disgusted. He said that all such disturbances are acted upon in the spinal cord. He could see no value, therefore, even in the main point of the minister's sermon because of the minister's mistaken conception of nervous processes. I suppose very few of us know whether this scientific objection was well taken or not. Very few of us, however, would reject the entire sermon because of an erroneous illustration; and yet sometimes all the essentials of the Scriptures are discounted because of flaws no more consequential than that suggested in this illustration. The Scriptures aim to declare a certain idea of God, a certain idea of man, and a certain idea of the relations between God and man. Those ideas are clothed in the garments of successive ages. The change in the fashions and adequacy of the garments does not make worthless the living truth which the garments clothe. Jesus himself lived deeply in his own time and spoke his own language and worked through the thought terms which were part of the life of his time. Some biblical readers have been greatly disturbed in recent years by the discovery of the part which so-called apocalyptic thought-forms play in the teaching of Jesus. The fact is that these conceptions were the commonest element in all later Jewish thinking. Jesus could not have lived when he did without making apocalyptic terms the vehicle for his doctrines. We have come to see that the manner of the coming of the kingdom of Jesus is not so important as the character of that kingdom.

Not only must a prophet speak in the language of a definite time, but he must speak to men as he finds them. This being so, we must expect that revelations will in a sense be accommodated to the apprehension of the day of their utterance. The minds of men are in constant movement. If the prophet were to have before him minds altogether at a standstill, he might well despair of accomplishing great results by his message. He would be forced to think of the intelligence of this day as a sort of vessel which he could fill with so much and no more. But whether the prophets have through the ages had any theoretic understanding of human intelligence as an organism or not, they have acted upon the assumption that they were dealing with such organisms. So they have conceived of their truth as a seed cast into the ground, passing through successive stages. Jesus himself spoke of the kingdom of God as moving out of the stage of the blade into that of the ear and finally into that of the full corn in the ear. This illustration is our warrant for insisting that in the enforcing of truth all manner of factors come into play and that the truth passes through successive epochs, some of which may seem to later believers very unpromising and unworthy. The test of the worth of an idea is not so much any opinion as to the unseemliness of the stages through which it has passed as it is the value of the idea when once it has come to ripeness. The test of the grain is its final value for food. The scriptural truths are to be judged by no other test than that of their worth for life.

In the light of the teaching of Jesus himself there is no reason why we should shrink from stating that the revelation of biblical truth is influenced by even the moral limitations of men. Jesus said that an important revelation to man was halted at an imperfect stage because of the hardness of men's hearts. The Mosaic law of divorce was looked upon by Jesus as inadequate. The law represented the best that could be done with hardened hearts. The author of the Practice of Christianity, a book published anonymously some years ago, has shown conclusively how the hardness of men's hearts limits any sort of moral and spiritual revelation. It will be remembered that William James in discussing the openness of minds to truth divided men into the |tough-minded| and the |tender-minded.| James was not thinking of moral distinctions: he was merely emphasizing the fact that tough-minded men require a different order of intellectual approach than do the tender-minded. If we put into tough-mindedness the element of moral hardness and unresponsiveness which the prophet must meet, we can see how such an element would condition and limit the prophet.

Again, Jesus said to his disciples that he had many things to say to them, but that they could not bear them at the time at which he spoke. Some revelations must wait for moral strength on the part of the people to whom they are to come. Suppose, for example, in this year of our Lord 1917, some scientist should discover a method of touching off explosives from a great distance by wireless telegraphy without the need of a specially prepared receiver at the end where the explosion is desired. Suppose it were possible for him simply to press a button and blow up all the ships of the British Navy, or all the stores of munitions in Germany. What would be the first duty of such an inventor? Very likely it would be his immediate duty to keep the secret closely locked in his own mind. If such a discovery were made known to European combatants in their present temper, it is a question what would he left on earth at the end of the next twenty-four hours. With European minds in their present moral and spiritual plight it would not be safe to trust them with any such revelation. And this illustration has significance for more than the physical order of revelation. There are principles for individual and social conduct that may well be put into effect one hundred years from now. Men are not now morally fit to receive some revelations. All of which means that any revealing movement is a progressive movement in that it depends upon not merely the utterances of the revealing mind, but upon the response of the receiving mind. In the play back and forth between giver and receiver all sorts of factors come into power. The study of the interplay of these factors is entirely worthy as an object of Christian research. We may well be thankful for any advance thus far made in such study and we may look for greater advances in the future. For example, the historic students thus far have put in most of their effort laying stress upon similarities between the biblical conceptions and the conceptions of the peoples outside the current of biblical revelation. The work has been of great value. Nevertheless it would seem to be about time for larger emphasis on the differences between the biblical revelations and the conceptions outside.

Still when all is said the mastery of historical methods of study is but preliminary to the real understanding of the Scriptures. If we come close to the revealing movement itself, we find that before we get far into the stream there must be sympathetic responsiveness to biblical teaching. The difficulties in understanding the Scriptures are, as of old, not so much of the intellect as they are of conscience and will -- the difficulties, in a word, that arise from the hardness of men's hearts.

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