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Understanding The Scriptures by Francis McConnell

CHAPTER III THE BOOK OF HUMANITY

We have seen that the understanding of the Scriptures presupposes at least a sympathy with the rule of life contained in the Scriptures, and implies for its largest results a practical surrender to that rule of life. He that doeth the will revealed in the Scriptures cometh to a knowledge of the truth revealed in the Scriptures. We must next note that an understanding of the Bible cannot advance far until it realizes the emphasis on the human values set before us in the scriptural books. We are to approach the distinctively religious teachings of the Bible somewhat later. It is now in order to call attention to the truth that the biblical movement is throughout the ages in the direction of increasing regard for the distinctively human. The human ideal is not so much absolutely stated as imposed in laws, in prophecies, in the policies of statesmen, in the types of ideal erected on high before the chosen people as worthy of supreme regard. And the place of the human ideal in the Bible helps determine the place of the Bible in human life. Mankind makes much of the Book because the Book makes much of mankind.

There is much obscurity about the beginnings of the laws of the Hebrews. One characteristic of those laws, however, is evident from a very early date -- the regard for human life as such and the aim to make human existence increasingly worth while. It is a common quality of primitive religions that they are apt to lay stress on merely ceremonial cleansings, for example. The ceremony is gone through for the sake of pleasing a deity. There are abundant indications of this same purpose in the ceremonies of the early Hebrews, but there is even more abundant indication that the ceremonies were aimed at a good result for the worshiper himself. It is impossible to read through the Mosaic requirements concerning bodily cleanliness, the sanitary arrangements of the camps, the regulations for cooking the food, and the instructions for dealing with disease without feeling that there is a wide difference between such requirements and merely formal ceremonials. The Mosaic sanitary law aimed at the good of the people. It sought to make men clean and decent and human. So it was also in many of the rules governing the daily work, the regulations as to the use of land, the prohibitions of usury, the relations of servants and masters -- all these had back of them the driving force of an enlarging human ideal. The trend was away from everything unhuman and inhuman. It is not necessary for us to remark upon the outbursts of the prophets against those who would put property interests above human interests. It is a matter of commonplace that the call of the prophets was for larger devotion to a genuinely human ideal: that the fires of their wrath burned most fiercely against old-time monopolists who joined land to land till there was |no place,| and against old-time corrupters of the law who sold the needy for a pair of shoes.

Not only did the emphasis on the human ideal show in laws, but in the training up of types of life which should in themselves embody and illustrate the conceptions of the biblical leaders. At the heart of the Christian religion is incarnation, or divine revelation through the human organism. We are told that this incarnation came in the fullness of time. The passage seems to refer not merely to the rounding out of historic periods, but also to the fashioning of an ideal of human character, and at least a partial realization of that ideal in Hebrew heroes. If the final ideal was to stand incarnate before men, there must be approximations to that ideal before the crowning incarnation could be appreciated. We look upon the character of Jesus as the complete embodiment of human excellencies. Such a revelation, however, would have been futile if there had not previously been glimpses of and anticipations of the ideal in the lives of those who were forerunners of Jesus. The Scriptures teach, or at least imply, that the life of a good man is in itself a transcendent value.

And yet it is perfectly clear that while the Scriptures exalt the individual, they do not mean to wall individuals off in impenetrable circles by themselves. It is true that the individual is the end toward which the scriptural redemption and glorification aims, but individuals find their own best selves not in isolation but in union with their fellows -- a union of mutual cooperation and service, a union so close that the persons thus related come to be looked upon as a veritable Body of Christ, making together by their impact upon the world the same sort of revelation that the living Christ made in the days of his early life. The ideals as to the supremacy of human values are realized, according to the Scriptures, not in any separateness of individual existence, but in a closeness of social interdependence. So true is this that it is hardly possible to see how one can make much of the scriptural movement without immersing himself in the stream of human life with highest regard for the values of that life.

It has been insisted from the beginning that the Christian consciousness is the only adequate interpretation of the Scriptures. By Christian consciousness is meant not the consciousness of the body of believers who are together trying to serve Christ. The interpretation of the individual becomes final only as it is accepted by the mass of the believers. Something of worth-while thought is conceived of as going out from the life of every believer. The utterance of the seer is not conceived of as complete until even he who sits in the seat of the unlearned has said |Amen.| The pronouncements which do not evoke this wide human response fall by the wayside. For example, how was the canon of the New Testament shaped? Was there a determination on the part of individual leaders that such and such books should be included in the volume of Scriptures? Very likely there was at the last such deliberate selection, but before the final decision there must have been the practice of the congregations which amounted in the end to the choice or rejection of sacred books. Very likely the New Testament Scriptures were collected by a process of trying out the reading of Epistles and Gospels and exhortations before the congregations. As passages met or failed to meet the human needs, there was call for the repeated reading of some works and no call for the rereading of others. In use some documents proved their sacredness and other documents fell aside into disuse. Before the concluding deliberate choice was this selection in use by the believers themselves; and the selection turned round the question as to whether or not the documents helped people. If each member of the body of believers is entitled to interpret biblical literature, interpretation becomes a composite and diversified activity. There is little warrant in the Scriptures for the notion that the biblical revelation is to level men to any sort of sameness. There are diversities of endowments and varieties of expression; but the united judgment of the body of believers is the supreme authority in interpreting the scriptural revelation. This is what we mean by saying that the church is to interpret the Scriptures. We mean that no matter how brilliant or interesting the utterances of any individual may be, they are not of great value until they have received in some fashion the sanction of the main mass of believers. It is the function of the spokesmen of the church to gather up into distinct expression what may have been vaguely, but nevertheless really, in the thought or half- thought of the people. Gladstone once said that it is the business of the orator to send back upon his audience in showers what comes up to him from the audience in mist or clouds; so it is with the voice of a biblical truth through any medium of interpretation. The spokesman compresses or condenses into speech what has been dimly in the consciousness of the people. Even in days less democratic than ours this was abundantly true. It is the fashion to denounce some of the councils of the old church which shaped the creeds. It is often said that these creedal councils were moved by considerations of low-grade expediency. The councils, however, knew what the people were thinking of, and managed to get the popular thought into expression measurably satisfactory to the people themselves.

In this doctrine of the church as interpreter of scriptural truth we can be sure that the emphasis will remain on the elements which make for enlarging human life if the church keeps true to the spirit of the Bible itself. The aspirations of humanity, the longings of masses of men, find utterance in the great popular spiritual demands all the more effectively because such demands override and nullify the insistence of an individualistic point of view which might easily become selfish. We have said that this democratic interpretation is final so long as it keeps itself in line with the biblical purpose. There are some dangers, however, against which we must be on our guard. First is the danger of identifying the church with those who actually belong to an organization. When we think of the church we have in mind not merely formal organizations, but all men who are really working in the spirit of the biblical ideals. There are many persons who really act according to the biblical revelation without technically uniting with a church. It may be that such persons do not accept the intellectual puttings of biblical doctrine, but that they nevertheless live in the spirit of that doctrine. It might be conceivably possible that a church organization would stand for an interpretation of truth which would be rejected by the general good sense of a larger community. In such a case the larger community would be the interpreter. Another danger in an interpreting body is that of traditionalism. The native conservatism of many minds stands against innovation. If, however, the innovation is in the direction of enlarging human life, it will in the end win its way. A third danger is that of institutionalism, where the organization as such becomes an end in itself without regard to the human interests involved. The Master's fiercest condemnations were for those who put any institution before the fulfillment of the human ideals. In the parable of the good Samaritan it is noteworthy that it was the priest and the Levite who passed by on the other side. It is hard to resist the feeling that the Master implied that the priest and Levite had been institutionalized into a lack of humanity. Making allowance now for all these dangers against which believers must guard, the chances are that interpretation of a book so human as the Scriptures is not final until it has received the real, though not necessarily formal, sanction of the body of believers.

So thoroughly does the biblical revelation turn around the supremacy of the distinctively human values that we must insist that anything which would run counter to these values is alien to the spirit of the revelation, and, therefore, to comprehension of that revelation. We do not wish to be extreme, but it is hard to see how, in our day, for example, any who fail to put human rights in the first place can really master the scriptural revelation. We have spoken of the Master's rebukes of any form of institutionalism which stands in the way of human rights. Institutions at best are instruments; they exist merely for the purpose of bringing men to larger life; but these institutions sometimes get petrified into custom and become glorified by long practice, and even made sacred by adherents who look upon them as ends in themselves. Then there is no recourse except to break the institutions in the name of larger human life. If we could put ourselves back in the times of Jesus and feel something of the sacredness with which the Jews regarded the Sabbath, we would know the tremendous force of the Master's daring when he declared that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. The Master was also insistent upon the priority of human rights as over against property rights. It is perfectly true that Jesus did not encourage any propaganda for social reform. It is a mistake to try to read any form of modern Socialism into his teaching. Socialism is the theory of a particular time. Many of its outstanding features will no doubt one day be adopted; and the world will then move forward toward something else. Very likely three centuries from the present date the well-advanced communities of the world will be living under systems which will make Socialism itself look like the most hopeless and reactionary conservatism. The scriptural revelation, however, has not to do with the details of any particular scheme. It aims, rather, at the setting on high of the human ideal, an ideal which will, if given a chance, work itself out into the concrete forms best suited to each age, and which will not have exhausted its vitality when all that is good in the programs of our particular day shall have been incorporated into social practice.

But let us linger for a moment around the blighting effect of placing property rights in front of human rights. If anyone at this juncture becomes nervous and insists that we are likely to introduce the new- fangled notions of the present day into a discussion where they are out of place, let us remind such a one that the danger of putting the material before the spiritual has always been the chief stumbling stone in the path of the biblical revelation. It may be too much to say with the old version that the love of money is the root of all evil, but the Scriptures place the sin of greed in the forefront among the evils that block the revealing process. Jesus said, |It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.| With God a morally miraculous redemption is entirely possible; but Jesus declares that there is no need of our trying to minimize the power of the present world to blind us to visions of the spiritual world. For many forms of wrongdoing the Master had a willingness to make allowances; for the sin of placing material desires above human welfare he had unsparing condemnation. In the day of Jesus the world had an opportunity such as it never had before confronted to learn spiritual truth. What manner of opposition was it which prevented that truth from running its full course? Largely the opposition of money interests. The Pharisees had need to keep alliance with the temporal powers. It is not without significance that Jesus was betrayed for money. It is not without significance too that Jesus's picture of the Judgment Scene concerns itself largely with the rewards for those who discharge the tasks of simple human kindness. It means much to find Jesus hinting at an unpardonable sin on the part of those who call deeds of human relief works of Beelzebub. It is certainly food for reflection that the fiercest condemnations in his parables are for those who miss the human duties in their regard for the possessions of this world. We repeat that we would not be extreme, but when we see the disregard of human life in modern industrialism; when we behold the attempts of property interests to get control of all channels for the shaping of public opinion; when we see rent, interest, and dividends more highly rated than men, women, and children, we cannot help feeling that the deeper penetration into the Scriptures cannot arrive except through an emphasis upon fundamental human rights so mighty that all institutional creations of industrialism or ecclesiasticism shall be put into the secondary place and strictly kept there. This is not railing against wealth. It is simply calling attention to the fact that the man who possesses the wealth-tool cannot be allowed to use it or even to brandish it in such fashion as to endanger the unfolding of human ideals. It is only through the enforcing of these ideals that the Scriptures can be adequately apprehended. Until a social kingdom of God comes on earth the light of revelation cannot shine in its full brightness. Any social preacher of larger human rights is working for the dawn of a new day of biblical understanding.

Some one will ask, however, why we single out one type of evil as especially thwarting the understanding of a biblical revelation. Why not speak of the evils of appetite and of envy and jealousy? The answer is that such evils, devastating as they are toward the spiritual faculties, are so definitely personalized in individuals that their nature is quickly recognized. The difference is that under present organization the evils of materialism are preeminently social. There is everywhere the heartiest condemnation for the man who personally is conspicuously greedy. A social evil can manifest itself in outstanding startlingness in a single person, but the plain fact is that under modern industrial organization we are all caught in the same snare. We are all tarred with the same stick. Great as is the improvement of our present system over anything that has preceded it, nevertheless the distribution of this world's goods is so unequal that we walk in the presence of injustice on every hand. The poor man often does not receive the product of his own work. Large material prizes go to men who toil not. Now no one in particular is to blame for this social plight. Nobody has yet arisen to show us the way out. We cannot act except as we all act together; and it is doubtful even if one nation could act alone. If, however, we should all recognize the evils of the present system, if we should condemn the wrongs of that system instead of trying to justify them, we would be on much better spiritual ground, for the attempts to justify the system lead to uneasy consciences, and to the searing of those consciences, and to the softening down of harsh truths, and finally to an inability to see things as they are. Though we have come far along the path toward industrial justice, there is still very much in the system under which we live that makes for an inability to understand some of the most elementary phrasings of Christian truth. The only way out is to see the system as it is and to take such steps forward as can be taken now. Only thus can we keep our souls saved, and only thus also can we follow the flashes from above.

Jesus preached the highest ideal for individual righteousness. Men are to strive to be perfect even as the Father in heaven is perfect. But the perfection is to show itself in social impartiality in the use of material opportunities. God sendeth the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the evil and the good. How many Christians of the present day could be safely intrusted with the distribution of rainfall and sunshine? Those of us who dwell in lands that must be irrigated know that the type of Christianity that can be trusted to deal fairly with our irrigation system is somewhat unusual.

We take the injustices of the present social order too much as a matter of course. We ought to see them as making against humanity, and therefore against the scriptural revelation. When these injustices culminate in a war like the present, the only safety is thought that deals honestly with the inhumanity of the war. Granted that war in self- defense is justifiable, we keep ourselves open to divine revelations only as we refuse to glorify the inhuman. Only that nation can succeed in war and remain open to revelation from above which recognizes the inhumanity of war and refuses to glorify it.

Closely related to the blight of the spirit of this present world is the failure to perceive the need of missionary spirit for a full grasp of scriptural truth. Though the Bible was given to a peculiar people, self- centered and exclusive, it nevertheless abounds in suggestions that its content can be appreciated the full only by those whose sympathies run out to men at the very ends of the earth. In the eyes of the Scriptures a human being is a human being anywhere. The differences between men are as nothing compared to the likenesses. Every revelation must begin somewhere and must attack its problems in proper sequence, one after the other; but mere priority of approach does not mean that one problem is inherently more important than another. Leaders among the Jews early tried to impress this upon the Jewish mind. Considered in its historical setting, the book of Jonah is one of the most spiritually daring books ever written. Jonah stands as a type of Jew who would not admit anything of worth in human beings outside of Judaism. Rather than carry the word of the Lord to Nineveh he would leave his country and go to Tarshish; rather than turn back and resume the journey to Nineveh, he would consent to be cast overboard in a storm. Forced at last to deliver his message, he announced it with the grim satisfaction of expecting to see Nineveh destroyed. And the final text of the book is that Jonah must learn not merely to proclaim his message to the Ninevites, but to proclaim his message with sympathy and genuine human interest. The Jews were a long time learning the lesson, but not longer than other peoples have been. Just because of the human interest involved, the missionary impulse is necessary to a spiritual seizure of the biblical revelation.

It is important that we keep the missionary motive on the right basis. It is true that the Scriptures will never be adequately appropriated until all kindreds and peoples and tongues bring their contributions. Some phases of the truth the Oriental mind must seize before the Occidental mind can be brought to appreciate them. When the final revelation comes it will be adapted to the understanding of any kindred under heaven. It is worth while to spread the Christian revelation for the sake of the return which the Christianized peoples will one day bring to our studies of the truth. But the better motive is deeper than this -- the passion for human beings as human beings. Any human being is entitled to any truth which another human being can reveal to him.

The approach must be the human approach. We must speedily get away from the Jonah-like conceptions of the biblical revelation as intended particularly for any one nation. One great danger from the present war is the loss by the religious nations involved of the ordinary New Testament point of view. Many of the fighting nations have lapsed back into the pre-Jonah era. But the present war aside, the thought of supreme truth as intended chiefly for a particular race or nation, leads to a patronizing, condescending bearing toward other peoples which thwarts the finer spiritual achievements. The contacts between the so-called higher and so-called lower nations in military, diplomatic, and commercial relations have thus far for the most part been abominable. Too often missionary effort itself has based itself on these same assumptions of racial superiority. A people may indeed receive blessings from the Scriptures in whatever spirit they are bestowed, but damage is wrought in the souls of the bestowers by the attitude of superiority. The only genuinely biblical approach is one of respect -- respect for the peoples as peoples, respect which will have regard for their growing independence in spiritual development, respect which will not force upon them particularistic interpretations of the universal Scriptures.

Now, all of this may seem like a long distance from a treatment of understanding of the Scriptures in the ordinary sense. It would not have been worth while, however, to discuss this problem merely from the point of view of exegesis or professional commentary. The essentials about the Scriptures are their relations to life, their views of human beings and teachings concerning the forces of the spiritual kingdom. We shall proceed in the other chapters to speak of God, of the revelation of God in Christ, and of the spirit of Christ as revealed in his cross. Before we enter upon that study we must again remind ourselves that only life in harmony with the point of view of the Scriptures and only an interest in the same human problems that engross the attention of spiritual writers can avail us for vital interpretation of the teachings concerning the Divine, or make intelligible to us the hold of the Scriptures on the life of the world. The Bible is conceived in a spirit of respect for men. Only those who enter into that same spirit can hope to make much of the biblical revelation.

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