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Understanding The Scriptures by Francis McConnell

CHAPTER IV THE BOOK OF GOD

We have remarked upon some points of view from which the student must start in order to reach a sound understanding of the Scriptures. It is time for us to ask ourselves, however, as to the dominant notes of the Scriptures which make the Book so dynamic. The purpose of this chapter is to show that the essentials of the Book are, after all, its teachings about God. The Bible is the Book of God. Due chiefly to the ideas about God are its uniqueness and its force.

Before advancing to the consideration of the Bible as a book about God it will be well for us to glance for a moment at other grounds on which supremacy for the Scriptures is sometimes claimed. There are those who maintain that the value of the Bible lies in the wealth of information which it gives us concerning the first days of the world's life. The Bible helps us to regard sympathetically the view of the universe by the ancient Hebrews. It is a repository of knowledge as to early science and philosophy. Now, all this is true, but relatively unimportant. Had it not been for the religious teachings of which the old-time view of the world was the vehicle, that vehicle itself would long since have been forgotten. Only archaeologists are to-day greatly interested in ancient theories of the world as such.

There are, again, those who avow that the Bible deserves all praise because of the literary excellence of its style. There are, indeed, sublime passages to be forever cherished as entitled by their very sublimity of expression to permanent place in the world's literature. All this we most gladly admit. Oratory like that of the book of Isaiah, some of the sentences of the patriarchs, passages from the Psalms or from the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the thirteenth chapter of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, are sure of permanency in literature no matter what may be anyone's opinion of their religious content. Nobility of conception is very apt to tend toward nobility of phrase. The expression may be admired for its own apart from the substance; but to say that the Bible holds its throne as the Book of books simply because of the superiority of its artistic form is woefully aside from the mark. Lamentable as it may be, masses of men do not rank artistic literary skill as highly as they ought. While a lofty idea is not likely to make its full impression until wrought into lofty beauty by a master of style, the worth must nevertheless inhere in the substance rather than in the form if the statement is to make lasting effect upon the passing generations. Moreover, it is very easy to overemphasize the literary excellence of the Scriptures. There are scores of passages which, as we say, |go through one,| but this marvelous effectiveness is quite as likely to belodged in the idea itself and in the associations which that idea arouses as in the form of the passage. In some instances the literary mold in the Authorized Version is such as to hinder rather than to help; so that the prophet who seeks to add to the force of the idea breaks the mold for literary recasting.

Still another may declare that the Scriptures are valuable because they abound in hints which make for practical success -- shrewd moral maxims which aid all classes of men in avoiding pitfalls, axioms for daily conduct which ought to be accepted by everybody, even by those who care not for the religion of the Bible. All this, again, is true, but hardly sufficient to explain the grip of the Bible on mankind. So far as the more conventional morality goes, men are likely to be ruled by the sentiment of the community in which they move. They adapt themselves to the demands of the situation at a particular time rather than to a set of precepts.

Still others maintain that the human ideal itself which we sketched in a previous chapter is the determining factor in giving the Bible power. The greatest study of mankind is man. The erection of such an ideal as that of the Scriptures for man cannot fail to secure for the Book mighty power through all the ages. And yet it must be replied that if we take the Bible merely as portraying a human ideal without reference to the idea of God involved in the same process of revelation, we cut asunder two things which properly belong together. We must not forget that in the history of Israel the prophets grasped at every new insight concerning human character as at the same time a new insight concerning the character of God. Attributing a profoundly moral trait to God made it of more consequence forthwith for man, and thus the conceptions of man and God went along together reenforcing each the other. To separate the ideal of God from the ideal of man leaves everything at loose ends for the human ideal. It is true that there are individuals here and there of intense intelligence and of immense wealth of moral endowment who do not seem to require any ideal of God to sustain and strengthen their ideal of man; but for the most of us the ideal of man cannot grow to any considerable size without growth of our notion as to the character of God. What man is now depends somewhat on our thought of where man came from, and what his place in the universe essentially is. One of our deepest yearnings is to know whether our exalted belief about man has any validity before the larger ranges of the activity of the universe itself. It is very common, for example, for those who go forth to social tasks with a passion for humanity to lose that passion if they do not keep alive a passion for God. Disappointment with some phases of human nature itself and despair over the failures of men are apt to be so trying that the passion for humanity dies down unless familiarity with actual human life is reenforced by communion with an ideal which reaches up toward the Divine. We would ourselves insist that the loftiest human ideal in all literature is that of the Scriptures, but we must insist also that this ideal lacks driving force if it does not keep back of it the biblical doctrine of God.

From the very outset the Hebrew Scriptures deal with God. |In the beginning God,| at the end God, and God at every step of the journey from the beginning to the end. There are other scriptures besides the Hebrew Scriptures that deal with God, but the kind of God set before us in the Hebrew revelation gives the Bible its supreme merit.

Since we often hear that there are other sources for the idea of God than the Scriptures, it may be well for us to appraise the contributions from some of those sources before we look at the kind of God drawn for us in the biblical writings. After allowing as high excellence as is possible to the theologies obtained outside the Scriptures, the moral and spiritual superiority of the scriptural ideal shines forth unmistakably.

Many a scientist tells us that we do not further need the biblical idea of God in view of the vast suggestions concerning the Divine which science places before us. The world in which we live has broadened immeasurably since the days of the Hebrew prophets and seers. The idea of God, broadening to correspond, has to expand so overwhelmingly that we ought no longer pay heed to the imaginations of the biblical writers. Large numbers of scientists to-day avow themselves devout theists. Materialism is decidedly out of fashion, and agnosticism is less in vogue than a decade or two ago. The reverent scientist affirms that he believes in a God whose omniscience keeps track of every particle of matter in a universe whose spaces are measured by billions of miles, a God whose omnipresence implies the interlacing of forces whose sweep and fineness seen through the telescope and microscope astonish us. Moreover, the modern doctrine of evolution shows us that the entire material system is moving on and up from lower to higher forms. |It doth not yet appear what we shall be,| but we shall clearly be something great and glorious.

Now, far be it from us to belittle the splendor of this scientific vision. Modern scientific searchers are, indeed, finding innumerable illustrations of the greatness of God. There is every reason why the scientific investigator should rejoice in a calling which enables him to think God's thoughts after him; but when a scientist will have it that his belief in God arises only from his technical investigations, we must declare our suspicion that he is employing his findings to confirm a faith already held, though that faith may be part of his unconscious spiritual possessions. Many times the scientist is determined that the scientific discoveries shall look in theistic directions just to satisfy the imperious though unconscious demands of his own soul. Some scientists are theists just because they are bound to be so, for the close contemplation of the entire situation in the material realm does not make for any adequate theistic verdict. It is hard indeed to believe that the nice adjustments of matter and force occur without the governance of a supervising intelligence. There are too many facts which suggest skill to make it easy to believe that the natural world is just the outcome of a fortuitous concourse of atoms. Science itself very likely establishes a presumption in favor of a governing mind, but the deeper question is as to the character of that mind. Is it a moral mind? At this point the hopeful evolutionist will break out that the progress is so definitely from lower to higher that no one ought to doubt the benevolence of the Power moving upward through all things. Evolution is, indeed, full of promises to one who already trusts in the goodness of God; but the progress from lower to higher is not always unmistakable. Often the survival of the fittest is just a survival of those fittest to survive, and not the survival of those who ought to survive. There are too many things which survive which ought to be killed off. Simple good can give way to complex evil without at all violating the requirements of the evolutionistic formula. But even if we concede all that the scientist claims for his conception of God; if we grant that terms like |omnipresence| and |omniscience| and |progress| clothe themselves with new force in the Copernican and Newtonian and Darwinian terminology, we must nevertheless insist that none of this rises to the moral height of the biblical teaching. Nor are we willing to admit that the biblical doctrine is to be discounted because it grew up amid small theories of the material universe. The old Hebrew views of the physical system, outdated as they are now, are nevertheless full of sublimity on their own account. But even if they were infinitesimal as compared with the vast stretches of modern scientific measurements, the moral grandeur of the idea of God of which they were the framework stands forth unmistakably. We must not permit the quantitative bigness of modern scientific notions to obscure the qualitative fineness of the biblical ideal of God. Modern philosophy comes also and announces that it has a better God than that of the Scriptures. The most imposing modern philosophical systems are those which proclaim some form of idealism. The gist of the idealistic argument always is that the world itself is nothing apart from thought; that thought-relationships rule in and through all things; that there are no things-in-themselves; that there can be no hard-and-fast stuff standing apart from God. Things must come within the range of thought or go out of existence. There is no alternative. Now, thought implies a thinker, and this implication carries us at once to God. Here, again, we have no desire to question the cogency of the argument. We are ready to admit that this is the strongest theistic argument that has thus far been built. To be sure, there are some questions that inevitably suggest themselves: What is the thinker? Is it impersonal thought, as some have maintained? Is it just the sum of all forms of consciousness -- our consciousnesses being organs or phases of the Supreme Consciousness? Or is the thinker strictly personal, carrying on a thought-world by the power of his will and calling into existence finite thinkers in his own image? Assuming that the world is the expression of the thought of a Personal Thinker who acts in the forces of nature and creates men in his own image, the further question arises as to the character of that Thinker. While returning the heartiest thanks to the idealist for his argument -- full as it is of aid for the Christian system -- we have to protest that the argument does not lift us to the full height of the ideal of God inculcated in the Scriptures. And if this is true of the majestic systems of idealism, how much more is it true of the other and less convincing systems which are just now having their day! We have already spoken of pragmatism as possessing validity as a method, but pragmatism can hardly cherish pretension of being itself a system of religious philosophy.

Some very strenuous searchers after divine treasures have professed to discover value in various non-Christian religions. They have patiently studied the great Indian world-views, for example, which are admittedly the most important religious creations outside of Christianity. These students come back to us with fragments of doctrines, gems of ethical wisdom, traces of sublimity from the Indian sacred books. It would be foolhardy not to receive any genuine treasures, no matter what the mine from which they have been quarried. We are all eager to admit the immeasurable possibilities of the Oriental type of thinking for the development of Christianity, but Oriental systems thus far have been chiefly significant as indicating what stupendous religious powers can do when they are off the track. The Indian systems of religion have run loose in India. As a result, nowhere in the world has religion been taken more seriously and more sincerely than by the Indian peoples. It is simply impossible to bring the charge against the Indian races that they have not made the most of their religion. The final indictment to be passed upon the Indian systems is that while the Indian peoples have made the most of those systems, the systems have made least of the Indian peoples; and this because of the defects in the conception of the Divine itself. It is doubtful whether the Indian could call his highest gods personal. If he declares them personal, he can hardly make them moral in the full sense; that is to say, in the sense of exerting their force on the world in favor of justice and righteousness and love.

Now, it is just in the quality of moral force that the God of the Scriptures shows his superiority. The entire revealing process can be looked upon as one long story of the moralization of the idea of God. Let it be granted that the biblical idea was at the beginning marked by the naive and the crude. Personally, we have never been able to see the pertinency of the reasonings which make the Hebrew Jehovah as imperfect as some students would have us believe. Nevertheless, for the sake of the argument we will admit limitations in the early Hebrew conception of God. Even with such concession, however, the outstanding characteristics of that God were from the beginning moral. Suppose that Jehovah was at the beginning just a tribal Deity. The difference between Jehovah and other tribal deities was that the commandments which were conceived of as coming from him looked in the direction of increasing moral life for the people, and these moral demands upon the chosen people were conceived of as arising out of the nature of Jehovah himself. To be sure, the early narratives employ expressions like |the jealousy of God,| but even a slightly sympathetic reading of the Scriptures indicates that the jealousy was directed against whatever would harm human life. In the mighty pictures of the patriarchs the heroes speak to their God as if the same moral obligations rested upon God as upon themselves. There is nothing finer in the Old Testament than Abraham's challenge, |Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?|

We are not specially interested in the growth of the ideas as to the power of God, though we repeat that it is difficult for us to believe that the early Hebrews thought of their Deity as so narrowly limited in power as some modern students seek to prove. The conception of the might of Jehovah grew through the centuries and followed upon the extension of the knowledge of the Hebrews about the world in which they lived. If tomorrow morning some revolutionary astronomical discovery should convince us that the solar system is much vaster than we have ever imagined, the theist would, of course, extend the thought of the sway of God to all that solar system. If there were some method of becoming aware that the bodies of the entire astronomical system are millions of times more numerous than scientists ever have dreamed, the theist would, of course, maintain that the righteous purpose of his God reaches to all of these bodies. The growth of the Hebrew idea was somewhat parallel to this. Even when the Hebrew thought of the outside peoples as having gods of their own; he believed that as soon as his God came into conflict with the other gods, he would shatter them with his might. By the time the first chapters of Genesis were written the Hebrew conceived of God as creator of all things, and thereafter the growth of the belief in the power of God kept pace with the enlarging view of the world.

We repeat that we are not much concerned with the growth of the idea of the power of God. We are, however, interested in the manifest teaching or direct implication of the Scriptures that from the beginning the Hebrews thought of God as under obligation to use his power for moral ends. What the moral ends were depended upon the growth of the moral ideal. At the very beginning it was believed that since God had chosen the people of Israel to be his people, he must fight their battles for them. It is from this point of view that we must deal with the early idea of God as a God of battles. God was wielding his force for a moral purpose. Moreover, if God had chosen a people to be the channel through which he was to reveal himself to the world, he must be very patient with that people. How sublime is the Old Testament belief in the patience of God toward Israel! To use the phrase of our later days, God accommodated himself to the progress which the people could make. When the prophets called upon the people to walk with God, they implied a willingness on God's part to walk with the people. If they must lengthen their stride, he must shorten his; he must bear with them in their inadequate notions; he must judge their efforts by the direction in which they were tending rather than by any achievement in itself.

It is from the point of view of their growing apprehension of God as moral that we can best understand the ferocity of the Israelite toward the so-called heathen peoples. The boasting of the Israelites over the slaughter of outsiders must be understood from the faith in the moral destiny which the prophets conceived the God of Israel to hold in store for his people. The reason assigned for cruelties and warfares upon heathen peoples was the abominations practiced by those peoples. Of course it is possible for a student obsessed with the modern doctrine of the economic determinism of history to say that we have in the story of the Hebrew development just the play of economic forces with moral aims assigned as their formal justification. Assuming that the narratives of the conquest of Canaan are true, what the Hebrews desired -- these economists tell us -- was the milk and the honey. They made their so-called advance in obedience to God an excuse for taking possession of the milk and the honey. Now, he would be blind indeed who would deny that economic values do play their part in wars of conquest; he would be foolish who would deny that wars always do justify themselves by appealing to lofty religious motives, but nevertheless the impact of the Hebrew history upon the life of the world has been a moral impact, due to the belief of the Hebrews that they were instruments in the hands of a moral God. If we could behold the abominations in heathenism upon which the old prophets looked, we would sympathize quite readily with an impulse which might seem to call for outright destruction. A friend of mine, a man of the most sensitive Christian feeling, once stood on the banks of the Ganges and watched people by the hundreds and thousands going through religious ceremonials, some of which were defiling and others silly. In the midst of the reeking vileness of one scene in particular he said that he felt for the moment an impulse like that of the old prophets to cry out for the destruction of the entire mass. The situation seemed so dreadful and so hopeless! All this passed in an instant to the loftier feeling of compassion, but the stirring of the more primitive impulse was really moral in its foundation. In any case, the old Hebrew notion was of a God who would put a growing moral ideal in the first place.

It is not necessary for us to attempt to trace the steps of the growth of the moral ideal for God. As we have said, that ideal kept pace with the growth of the ideal for man. We must call attention, however, to the fact that the growth of the ideal was in the direction of increasing emphasis upon the responsibilities that go with power. The Hebrew may not have definitely phrased the responsibility, but he nevertheless shows his increasing realization of the obligations resting upon God. When we reach the later prophets we discern that his moral obligation upon God himself becomes more and more a determining factor. There appear glimpses of belief that God must not only fight for his people, but that he must suffer in their sufferings. It is of little consequence for our present purpose whether the suffering servant of Jehovah of the later Israelitish Scriptures is a group of persons or an individual. The implication is that the suffering is a revelation of Jehovah himself. Moreover, there appears a widening stream of emphasis on the tenderness of God's care for his people. The Hebrew writers comparatively early broke away from the thought of God as merely philanthropically inclined toward Israel. They did not think of him as bestowing gifts which were without cost to himself. They show him as deeply involved in the life of the nation and as caring for his people with an infinite compassion. This enlarging revelation was made clear to the people through the utterances of prophets, the decrees of lawgivers, the songs of psalmists, the interpretations of historians, and the warnings of statesmen. Slowly and surely, moreover, the people attained grasp on the doctrine that the greatest revelation of God is the revelation in human character itself. They began to look forward to the coming of one who would in himself embody the noblest and best in the divine life, who would gather up in himself all the ideals and purposes toward which the law and the prophets had looked. New Testament revelation as such we leave to the later chapters, but we have come far enough, we think, to warrant us in saying that only he can understand the Scriptures who sees that the chief fact about the Scriptures is the emphasis on the moral nature of God. Other Scriptures besides that of the Hebrews -- we might say scientific, philosophical, extra-Christian Scriptures -- have stood for the existence of God; but none have stood for the existence of such a God as the God of the Bible. The salient feature of the Bible is its thought of God.

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