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Understanding The Scriptures by Francis McConnell


The approaches to an understanding of the Scriptures which we suggested in the first chapter are those which have to do merely with intellectual investigation. Any student with normal intelligence can appreciate the methods and results of the critical scrutiny of the biblical documents, but will require something more for an adequate mastery of the scriptural revelations. There is need of sympathetic realization that the Book itself did not in any large degree come out of the exercise of the merely intellectual faculties. In the scriptural revelation we are dealing with a current of life which flowed for centuries through the minds of masses of people. To be sure of insight into the meanings of this revelation there must be an approach to the Bible as a Book of Life in the sense that its teachings came out of life and that they were perennially used to play back into life. Its hold on life to-day can be explained only by the fact that it was thus born out of life, and has its chief significance for the experiences of actual life.

Even the most superficial perusal of the Scriptures shows that they came of practical contact with men and things. There is comparatively little in the entire content of our Sacred Book to suggest the speculations of abstract philosophy. The writers deal with the concrete. They tell of men and of peoples who had to face facts and who achieved comprehensions and convictions through grappling with facts. There is about the Scriptures what some one has called a sort of |out-of-doors-ness.| There is very little hint of withdrawal from the push and pressure of daily living. If the prophets ever withdrew to solitude, they did not retire to closets, but rather to deserts or to mountains. We must not allow our modern familiarity with bookmaking as an affair of library research and tranquil meditation in seclusion to mislead us into thinking that the Christian Bible was wrought out in similar fashion. The Book is full of the tingle and even the roar of the life out of which it was born. Jesus gathered up in a single sentence the process by which the scriptural revelation can be apprehended by man when he said, |He that doeth the will shall know of the truth.| The entire scriptural unfolding is one vast commentary on this utterance of Jesus.

It is impossible for us in this series of studies to attempt any detailed survey of the revealing movement of which our Scriptures are the outcome. It is important, however, that we should see clearly that the revelation came to those who opened themselves to the light in an obedient spirit. While it is not in accord with our modern knowledge of psychology to assort and divide human activities too sharply, it is nevertheless permissible to insist that the biblical revelation was in a sense primarily to the will. As Frederick W. Robertson used to say, obedience is the organ of spiritual knowledge. The first men to whom illuminations came evidently received these gifts out of some purity of intention and moral excellence. These early leaders gathered others around them and set them on the path of determined striving toward a definite goal. As the idea of the seer or the prophet found general acceptance it gradually hardened into law, law meant for scrupulous observance. If a singer felt stirred to write a psalm, he voiced his experiences or his aspirations in the midst of a throbbing world. If a statesman drew a wide survey of God's dealings with the nations of the earth, he did so at some mighty crisis in Israel's relations to Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. When we reach New Testament times we find that even the Gospels seem to have been books struck out of immediate practical urgencies rather than composed tranquilly with a scholar's interest merely in doing a fine piece of professional work. The early Christians were anxious to hold the believers to the strait and narrow way. To do this they repeated often the words of the Lord Jesus. When, however, the older members of the first circles began to fall away, the words were written down, not because some scholar felt moved thus to improve his leisure, but because it was absolutely necessary to preserve the words. Moreover, conflicts were arising between the growing church and the forces of the world round about. Some scriptures were written to supply instruments with which to carry on the warfare. Always the fundamental aim was to keep the people acting according to the teachings which lay at the heart of the Christian system. The object of the biblical revelation was from the beginning just what it is to-day in the hands of Christian believers -- the object of using the Scriptures as an instrument for practicing the Christian spirit into all the phases of life.

We would by no means deny that there are imposing philosophies or, rather, hints toward such philosophies, in the Scriptures, but we insist that these did not come out of a purely philosophizing temper. They came as men tried to put into some form or order the understandings at which they had arrived as they wrestled with the tough facts of a world which they were trying to subject to the rule of their religion. As we have said in the previous chapter, the Scriptures bear scars of all such conflicts. The revelation was knocked into its shape in the rough-and- tumble of an attempt to convert the world. And this is not to claim for the Bible any difference in method of creation from that which obtains in the shaping of any vitally effective piece of literature. The world- shaking conceptions have always been won in profound experience. This chapter is not written with the principles of the modern school of pragmatism as a guide, and yet pragmatism can be so stated as to phrase an essentially Christian doctrine that spiritual ideas result from spiritual practices and are of worth as they prove themselves aids in further experience. Take some of the expressions of Paul. The fundamental fact in Paul's experience was his vision on the Damascus road and his determination to be obedient to that vision. To make his own view of the Christian religion attractive to those whom he was trying to win, it became necessary for him to speak in terms of the Judaism of his time. In fact, he could not have spoken in any other terms, though some of his reasonings seem to us to be remote from actual life. But when he left argument and came back to experience he was most effective. His terribly compelling utterances are those which were born of driving necessity. The theology started with the vision and unfolded in obedience to the vision, |What wilt thou have me to do?| Everywhere upon Paul's epistles there are the marks of practical compulsion. A letter was dispatched to convince stubborn Jews in Galatia or to persuade questioning Gentiles in Rome. Some of the profoundest phrasings of Pauline belief were uttered first as appeals for generous collections to starving saints.

The example of Paul as a receiver and giver of spiritual light is very significant. Even if we should make the largest allowances to the biblical critics who would cut down the number of epistles known to be genuinely Pauline, we would have enough left to make on our minds the impression of enormous personal activity. One passage does, indeed, tell us of a period of months of withdrawal for reflection in Arabia. For the most part, however, Paul's life was spent in ceaselessly going to and fro throughout the Roman empire; even in the days of imprisonment he seems to have been burdened with the administration of churches. It was out of such multifarious activities that the theology of Paul was born, and therein lies its value. No interpretation is likely to bring the separate deliverances into anything like formal, logical consistency. Very likely Paul was of a markedly logical frame of mind, but he did not attempt to rid his message of contradictions in detail. The unity and consistency are found in the fundamental life purpose to get men to accept Jesus Christ as the Chosen of God. If Paul had ever heard that much of his theology might be out-dated with the passage of the years, he would probably have responded that he was perfectly willing that the instrument should be cast aside if it had served its spiritual purpose of bringing men to obedience to the law of God.

It is not intended to make this a book of sermons or exhortations. We must say, however, that in a series of studies on how to understand the Scriptures stress must be laid upon the maxim that the Scriptures can be understood only by those who seek to recognize and obey the spirit of life breathing from the Scriptures. Nothing could be more hopeless than to attempt to get to the heart of Christian truth without attempting to build that truth into life. The formal reasonings of the theologian are no doubt of value, but they throw little light upon the essentials of Christianity except as they deal with data which have been supplied by Christian experience. It would, indeed, be well for any study of the Bible to begin with a recognition of the part played by distinctly scholarly research. We cannot go far, however, until we recognize that sympathy with Christian truth is necessary before we can come upon vital knowledge. And this, after all, is but the way we learn to understand any piece of life-literature. A vast amount of material is at hand in the form of commentaries upon the work of Shakespeare. We know much about the circumstances under which the plays of Shakespeare were written; we know somewhat of the sources from which Shakespeare drew his historical materials; we are familiar with the chronology of the plays; but all this is knowledge about Shakespeare. To know Shakespeare there must be something of a deliberate attempt to surrender sympathetically to the Shakespearean point of view. We get |inside of| any classic work of literature only by this spirit of surrender. The aim of Shakespeare is simply to picture life as he sees it, but even to appreciate the picture men must enter into sympathy with the painter. The Scriptures aim not merely to paint life, but to quicken and reproduce life. How much more, then, is needed a surrender of the will before there can be adequate appreciation of the Scriptures? If the Scriptures are the results primarily of will-activities, how can they finally be mastered except by minds quickened by doing the will revealed in the Scriptures? The book of Christianity must be interpreted by the disciples of Christianity. Judged merely by bookish standards, there is no satisfactory explanation of the power of the Bible. But lift the whole problem out of the realm of books as such! The glimpses into any high truth that are worth while -- how do they come? They come out of experience. Even when they are repeated from one mind to another they become the property of that second mind only as they reproduce themselves in experience. Otherwise the whole transaction is of words, words, words. The Scriptures have to do with deeds, not words.

All this is offensive to the dogmatic reasoner. For him the intellect as such is the organ of religious truth. He insists on speaking of the Scriptures in formally theological terms. That the Scripture writers employed theological terms there can be no doubt, but they did not speak as systematic theologians. And always they brought their theology to the test of actual life. The writer of these lines once knew a student who had read enough of psychology to enable him to reason himself into a belief that he was the only person in existence; that is to say, he declared that he himself was the only one of whose existence he was infallibly certain. Does not all knowledge of an external world come as a report through a sensation aroused by stimulus? If the appropriate stimulus could be kept up an external world might fall away and I would still think it was there. The bell might ring at the door and might be nobody there. And so on and on, through steps familiar enough to the student of philosophy. When a friend made a quick appeal to life with the question: |If you are the only one alive, why do you bring your troubles to me?| the amateur philosopher came to earth with a sense of jar. But the jar is no greater than that when we pass from the plane of dogmatic theology to that of reading the Scriptures for their own sake. The old scholastics said that in God there are three substances, one essence, and two processions. How does this sound as compared with the statement of Jesus that he and his Father are one, and that he would send the Comforter? This is not to decry theology; but is nevertheless to discriminate between theology and scripture.

Some one will object, however, that the scriptural truths take their start in large part from the visions of mystics -- of men who brood long and patiently until they behold realities not otherwise discernible. Some students will urge upon us that such mystic revelations are granted peculiarly to the mystic temperament as such, and they often come regardless of the quality of life that the seers themselves may be living.

There have, indeed, been in all ages of the world temperaments of supernormal or abnormal responsiveness to influences which seem to make little or no impression upon the ordinary mind. In all periods natures of this type have been looked upon as organs of religious revelation. So valuable have abnormal experiences seemed that all manner of expedients have been utilized to beget unusual mental states. A certain tribe of Indians, for example, in the southwest of our country are accustomed at set times to send their religious leaders into the desert to find and partake of a peculiar plant which has an opiate or narcotic effect. In the belief of the Indians this plant opens the door to visions. The visions, as reported by those who have recovered from the influence of the narcotic, are not of any considerable value. Similar attempts have been made by hypnotic experimenters among other peoples, the hypnosis sometimes being self-induced. From some Old Testament passages especially we may well believe that this sort of extraordinary mental condition was sought for in the so-called schools of the prophets in the olden days of Israel. The astonishing peculiarity about the Scriptures, however, is not that there is so much reliance on this trance experience as that there is so little. The Hebrew Scriptures were the expression of a people living in the midst of heathen surroundings; and heathenism always has laid stress upon the virtue of these abnormal experiences. Granting all allowances for mental states induced by eating an opiate, or by whirling like the dervish, or by fasting like the Hindu, the fact remains that in the main, the visions of the writers of our Scriptures came out of attempts to realize in conduct the moral will of God. When we think of the surroundings even of the early church; when we reflect upon the force of suggestion for uncritical minds; when we consider the sway of superstition at all periods during the Hebrew revealing movement, the wonder is that the Scriptures lay such stress as they do upon the type of vision which arises from faithfulness in doing the revealed will.

If we may characterize scriptural mysticism, it seems very much akin to mental abilities which we meet frequently in our ordinary intercourse. Take, for example, the prescience of a skilled business man. Nothing is more inadequate than the rules for success laid down by many a man who has himself succeeded in business. Mastery of his rules will not help another to win business success. The reason is that there comes out of prolonged business practice a keen sense of what is likely to happen in the industrial or financial world. The sharpened wits foresee without being able to assign reasons or grounds for the prophecies. So it is with intellects trained to any superior skill. The Duke of Wellington once remarked that he had spent all his life wondering what was on the other side of the hills in front of him, yet the Duke himself came to marvelous skill in guessing what was on the other side. There is also a variety of scientific mysticism, if such an expression may be permitted. The man long trained to the reading of scientific processes develops a quick insight which runs far ahead of reason or proof. The transcendent scientific discoveries have been glimpsed or, rather, sensed before they so reported themselves that they could be seized by formal proof. Now it is a far cry from business men, generals, and scientists to the mysticism of the Scriptures, but when we see the emphasis which the Scriptures place upon constancy in keeping the law and in acting according to divine commandments, we cannot help feeling that biblical mysticism was and is an awareness developed as the life becomes practiced to the doing of religious duty. Think too of the emphasis placed in the Scriptures upon the consecration of the whole life to the truth as cleansing the heart from evil. All this makes for a power to seize truth beyond that possible to formal and systematic reason. Mysticism of this sort is the very height of spiritual power. The Master's word: |Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,| does not refer to merely negative virtue. It means also the power of soul accumulated in the positive doing of good. It means entrance into the life of quick spiritual awareness through the adjustment of the whole nature to the single moral purpose.

In all promise of revelation the Scriptures insist upon the importance of keeping upon the basis of solid obedience. The finer the instrument is to be, the more massive must be the foundation. Professor Hocking, of Harvard University, has used a remarkable illustration to enforce this very conception. The scientific instrument, he says, which must be kept freest from distracting influences so that it may make the finest registries must rest upon a foundation broad and deep. So the soul that is to catch the finest stirrings of the divine must rest upon the solidest stones of hard work for the moral purposes of the scriptural Kingdom.

Still some one will insist that the Bible is a book built around great crises in human experience; that it is a record of these crises; that the people in whose history the crises occurred were a peculiar people, apparently arbitrarily chosen as a medium for religious world- instruction; that the crises cast sudden bursts of intense light upon the meaning of human life, but that they themselves are far apart from ordinary experience. Here, again, we must insist that the scriptural stress is always upon obedience to what is conceived of as revealed truth. We have already said that Jesus regarded revelation as organic. In everything organic we find instances of quick crisis following long and slow periods of growth. The crisis or the climax of the sudden flowering-out would never be possible were it not for the antecedent growth. The Hebrew nation, developed through workaday righteousness, manifested wonderful power in sudden crises. The inner forces of moral purpose which at times seemed hidden or dead because of the riot of wickedness suddenly blossomed forth in mighty bursts of prophecy; but the all-essential was the long-continued practice of righteousness which made possible the sudden crisis; and this is in keeping with the teachings of most commonplace human experience. The daily struggle prepares for the sharp, quick strain or for the swift unfolding of a new moral purpose. There is nothing more arbitrary in the crises in the scriptural movement than in the ordinary ongoings of our lives. The student who has long been wrestling with a problem finds the solution instantaneously bursting upon him in the midst of untoward circumstances. The most insignificant trifle may finally turn the lock which opens to the glorious revelation after prolonged brooding. The daily practice may make men ready for the shock which leaps upon them altogether unexpected.

We summarize by saying that the essentials of biblical truth came in progressive revelations to men who were putting forth their energies to live up to the largest ideals they could reach; and that they sought these larger ideals for use in their lives. It must be understood in all that we have said about acting the revelation out into life that we do not mean merely the more matter-of-fact activities. It should be noticed that whenever men speak of will-activities they are apt to give the impression that they mean some putting forth of bodily energy. The will to do scriptural righteousness did not manifest itself merely in outside actions. It manifested itself just as thoroughly in bearings and attitudes of the inner spirit; and the appeal was always to the will to hold itself fast in the direction of the highest life, whatever the form of the activity.

After this emphasis upon obedience as the organ of spiritual knowledge some one may ask what provision we are making for infallibility and for inspiration. We can only say that we are dealing with a Book which has come out of concrete life, and that in concrete life not much consideration is given to abstract infallibility. In daily experience the righteous soul becomes increasingly sure of itself. To return for the moment to Paul, we may think of the certainty with which he grasped the thought of the reward which would be his. The time of his departure, or, of his unmooring, was at hand. He was perfectly confident that he was to go on longer voyages of spiritual discovery and exploration. Can we say that this splendid outburst came from devotion to an abstract formula? Did it not, rather, spring from the sources of life within him-sources opened and developed by the experiences through which he passed? The biblical heroes wrought and suffered through living confidence in the forces which were bearing them on and up. They would have answered questions about abstract infallibility with emphatic avowals as to the firmness of their own belief. In other words, they could have relied upon their life itself as its own best witness to itself. They felt alive and ready to go whithersoever life might lead.

And so with inspiration. It is the merest commonplace to repeat that the inspiration of the Scriptures must show itself in their power to inspire those who partake of their life. Does a fresh moral and spiritual air blow through them? Is there in them anything that men can breathe? Anything upon which men can build themselves into moral strength? This is the final test of inspiration. Physical breathing is in itself a mystery, but we know when the air invigorates us. Abstract doctrine of inspiration apart from life and experience is a very stifling affair compared with inspiration conceived of as a breath of life. The scriptural doctrine is that the man who does the will finds himself able to breathe more deeply of the truth of God; and that the very breath itself will satisfy him, and by satisfying him convince him that it is the breath of life.

There is an old story of a student who decided to learn the meaning of a strange religion which was taught and practiced by priests in a far-away corner of India. The student thought to disguise himself, to go close to the doors of the temple and to listen there for what he might overhear of the principles taught by the priests. One day he was detected and captured by the priests and made their slave. He was set to work performing to the utmost the duties for which the temple called. His response was at first rebellious. In the long years that followed the spell of the strange religion was cast upon him. He began to learn not as an outsider, not as one merely studying writings and rituals, but as one enthralled by the system itself. In this old story, inadequate as it is, we have a suggestion of the way in which the biblical revelation lays its spell upon man. The outside study is, indeed, worth much, but the true understanding comes inside the temple to him who carries forward the work of the temple.

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