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A Doubter's Doubts About Science and Religion 11: How To Read The Bible

By Robert Anderson


      THE preceding chapter opened by quoting words spoken by the most eminent of living scientists: this chapter shall be prefaced by quoting a man of the highest eminence in another sphere - the greatest philologist of our time. The following is an extract from a letter written in one of the later years of his life by Prof. Max Muller of Oxford :-

      "How shall I describe to you what I found in the New Testament! I had not read it for many years and was prejudiced against it. The light which struck Paul with blindness on his way to Damascus was not more strange than that which fell on me when I suddenly discovered the fulfilment of all hopes. . . . If this is not Divine I understand nothing at all. In all my studies of the ancient times I have always felt the want of something, and it was not until I knew our Lord that all was clear to me."

      Testimonies of this kind--and they might be multiplied indefinitely - have no effect upon the aggressive infidel. But they cannot fail to influence honest and earnest men who are willing to deal fairly with the Scriptures.

      And here another testimony of a wholly different kind will be opportune. Among the many learned and brilliant assailants of the Bible whom Germany has produced, no name ranks higher than that of Ferdinand Christian Baur, the leader of the "Tubingen School" of critics, by whom the New Testament was rejected "as a tissue of deceptions and forgeries." Among living exponents of the so-called " Higher Criticism" Germany possesses no greater authority than the Principal of Berlin University. But the result of Baur's labours Dr. Harnack dismisses as "an episode" which had better be forgotten; and as the outcome of his own investigations, he declares, "The oldest literature of the Church, in all main points and in most details, from the point of view of literary criticism, is genuine and trust-worthy."

      The importance of this testimony can scarcely be exaggerated. For Dr. Harnack is as uncompromising a rationalist as was Baur himself. And when this great scholar and critic, reviewing Baur's conclusions, vouches for the genuineness and trustworthiness of the New Testament writings, the most sceptical of men may rest assured that we possess reliable records of the ministry of Christ and His Apostles.

      And now may we not appeal to any who are really honest doubters to face this matter with an open mind? To such we would say, begin your Bible study, not with Genesis or Jonah, but with the historical books of the New Testament. Max Muller's study of them, in spite of his avowed prejudice, convinced him that Christianity was Divine, and you may expect to reach the same conclusion.

      And when you come upon difficulties and seeming contradictions, pass them by. They will possibly appear to you in a different light when you come back to them afterwards with a more educated mind. It is always so in the study of Nature, and it is not strange that it should be so in the sphere of revelation. And as you read the Gospel narratives keep in view the purpose with which "these things were written," namely "that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, ye might have life through His name." They deal, therefore, with issues the most important and solemn that can possibly occupy the thoughts of men. For they reveal the secret of peace, and even of joy, in a world that is full of doubt and sadness and sorrow and pain and sin and death. That evil is a mere fantasy, and sin but a defect of character or purpose - this is the dream of fools. These things are terribly real. And if it be not true that "the Son of God is come "-if Christianity be a delusion or a fraud - we must resign ourselves to the " deepening gloom " of life in this world unrelieved by any hope beyond it.

      And what is the alternative? What if Christianity be true? The answer shall be given by one whose testimony will command universal respect and confidence, the late Earl Cairns, three times Lord High Chancellor of England, and the greatest Chancellor perhaps of modern times. The following words were spoken by him to a company of working men, that included agnostics and infidels who deprecated any reference to "religion" on the occasion :-

      "As I am a stranger among you I do not know that I have any right to intrude my opinions. All I can do is to tell you how this question affects me personally. If I could take you to my home you would think it a luxurious one, and the food on my table is abundant. You would say with all this I ought to be a happy man. I am indeed a happy man, but I do not think my furniture and food have much to do with it. Every day I rise with a sweet consciousness that God loves me and cares for me. He has pardoned all my sins for Christ's sake, and I look forward to the future with no dread. And His Spirit reveals to me that all this peace is only the beginning of joy which is to last throughout eternity. Suppose it were possible for someone to convince me that this happiness was altogether a delusion on my part, my home would give me little repose, and food would often remain upon the table untasted. I should wake in the morning with the feeling that it was scarcely worth while to get up, so little would there be to live for; all would be so dark to me."

      "What is it about?" is a legitimate question to ask when a book is placed in our hands. And an intelligent answer to that question, as we open the Bible, will save us from many a prejudice and many an error. It is strange that any one can be deceived by the figment that the Old Testament is the history of the human race. Except for a brief preface of eleven chapters, its burden is unmistakably the history of that people "of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came." It has, indeed, an esoteric meaning, for its hidden purpose is to foretell, and lead up to, that supreme event. But this shall be dealt with in the sequel.

      This clew to the true character and vital unity of the Bible will guard us against another popular error. "To us there is but one God," the Apostle writes; but most people have two - the God of Nature and providence, and the God of revelation. And a great many Christians have three; for with them the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New. This error is largely due to a false conception of the place held by the Jew in the previous dispensation; and as the result of it the semi-infidel "Christian literature" of the day uses language about Israel's Jehovah which I will not pollute the page by reproducing here. It represents Him as callously devoting the mass of men to destruction, and having no care or thought save for one specially favoured race. This betrays extraordinary ignorance of Scripture.

      The Bible begins by recording the Creation and the Fall, the apostasy of the sinful race, and world judgment of the Flood, and the post-diluvial apostasy of Babylon. And then follows the call of Abraham. The religion of Babylon was a systematised perversion of Divine truth. Its "Bible " travestied both the primeval revelation of which the opening chapters of Genesis contain the authentic record and the sacrificial cult by which God sought to teach mankind that death was the penalty of sin. The earlier apostasy had been wiped out by the Flood, but God had in mercy promised that that judgment would never be repeated.' And the truth and value of that promise were displayed in the call of Abraham and the segregation of the covenant people. The Divine purpose was thus to guard the truth from corruption, and to establish a centre from which it might enlighten the world.

      Among the many advantages enjoyed by the favoured people, the greatest was "that unto them were committed the oracles of God." When the owner of some famous vineyard establishes an agency in London or New York, his object in doing so is not to hinder the public from procuring his wines, but to ensure that what is sold as his shall be genuine and pure. And agency, as distinguished from monopoly, illustrates the position which in the old dispensation was Divinely accorded to the Jew.

      In days before books were within reach of all, the knowledge of literature and the arts was kept alive in certain great seats of learning, and in like manner it was intended that the light of Divine truth should be kept burning in Jerusalem, and that the Temple of Zion should be "a house of prayer for all nations." But just as the Christian Church of this dispensation has failed, so the "Jewish Church" was false to its trust. And as the result the God of the New Testament is blasphemed by infidels, and the Jehovah of the Old Testament is blasphemed by Christian Professors of theology.

      Errors of another kind prevail, which we need to guard against. Here is a typical one. Israel was a theocracy, and therefore the Divine code included, not merely "the moral law," but enactments of various kinds relating to social and commercial life, sanitation, and crime. If all Scripture be "God-breathed," we may be assured that all is "profitable" ; but yet we must use it with intelligent discrimination.(Footnote - In writing on crime I have given grounds for believing that if the two main features of the Mosaic code were accepted in our criminal law the reform would lead to a ~substantial and immediate decrease of crime.)

      "Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected." But we do not on that account feed our babies on beef and potatoes. Some people do so, indeed; and they are not more unintelligent than the Christians who ply their children with these ordinances of the Mosaic code, when they ought to be giving them "the sincere milk of the Word." A somewhat similar abuse of Scripture is denounced in the Sermon on the Mount. People imagine that love is the abrogation of law, but Scripture teaches that it is the "fulfilling" of it. Therefore it was that to "the Beatitudes" the Lord immediately added words to guard against the error, which half of Christendom has adopted, of supposing that His purpose was to set aside, or in some way to disparage, the law. But the law had two aspects. Christianity itself knows no higher standard of duty than love to God and one's neighbour; and, this was expressly, declared to be the esoteric teaching of the Mosaic law. In this aspect of it the law proclaimed what a man ought to be: in its lower aspect it prohibited what men ought not to do. But in this its lower form "the law was not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient." And yet "the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees" consisted in non-violation of the "Thou shalt not's" of the penal code of the theocracy. But that was not the righteousness of those who desired to be sons of the Father in heaven, nor would it give entrance into the Kingdom. Theirs was a far different standard of life than mere discharge of their responsibilities as citizens of the Commonwealth.'

      Error is altogether human and may be detected by the use of our natural faculties. Hence our Lord's indignant rebuke addressed to the Pharisees, " How is it that even of yourselves ye do not judge what is right?" Lord Kelvin's dictum therefore is apt and useful: "Do not be afraid of being free thinkers." But a caution is needed here. While common sense may save us from much of the error and nonsense by which the language of the Bible is perverted or obscured, our natural faculties will not not avail to reveal to us its deeper teaching. For Divine truth is spiritually discerned, and there-fore spiritual intelligence is needed for the apprehension of it. And there are difficulties in the Bible which even spiritual intelligence will fail to solve, difficulties which seem nearly as insoluble and distressing as are God's providential dealings with His people in their life on earth.'

      But such difficulties cannot shake the faith of those who have learned to trace the golden threads of type and promise and prophecy, which are spread through all the sacred writings, giving proof of their unity and testifying to their Divine authorship. "These are they which testify of Me" was the Lord's description of the Hebrew Scriptures. And in His post-resurrection ministry, we are told, "beginning at Moses, and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself." On this Dean Alford writes: "I take the words to mean something very different from mere prophetical passages. The whole scriptures are a testimony to Him: the whole history of the chosen people, with its types, and its law, and its prophecies, is a showing forth of Him : and it was here the whole that He laid before them."

      And these golden threads unite the later with the earlier Scriptures. Indeed, the Gospels belong as much to the Old Testament as to the New. For the Christ of the Gospels is "the son of David, the son of Abraham." And the ministry there recorded is that of the Jews' Messiah. It is not till we come to the Epistles that we are confronted by the new and startling fact that Divine Scriptures are addressed to Gentiles. And the Acts of the Apostles explains the change. Because they rejected the Messiah, the covenant people are themselves rejected. Their position as the Divine agents upon earth is determined, and the Gospel now goes out unfettered to the world.

      The unbelief of infidels is seldom as unintelligent as that of professing Christians."Back to Christ" is the shibboleth of a school that seeks to set one part of Scripture against another, and to disparage the ministry of Paul. But unless Christ was to come back in person, the new and special revelation consequent upon the great dispensational change involved in setting aside the earthly people must needs have been made the ministry of human lips and pen; and Divine sovereignty made choice of the Apostle of the Gentiles. And to disparage the Apostle Paul, or the revelation entrusted to him, is not to get back to Christ, but to put ourselves back into the position which the Gentiles occupied in the days of His earthly ministry

      The intelligent student of Scripture will find ever-increasing proofs of what Pusey aptly calls its "hidden harmony." "Not harsh and crabbed, as dull fools suppose" is the poet's, vindication of "divine philosophy"; and with still fuller meaning and deeper truth may these words be used of the Divine Book.

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