Header image  
    home - documents- biblical studies
The Religious Value of The Bible

in: H.B.Swete,
Cambridge Biblical Essays, Londin 1909. 543-556


   The Essays of this volume have dealt hitherto with questions which arise out of the literary use of the Bible. The Old and New Testament have been approached form the side of criticism, grammar, interpretation, archalaeology, history, and theology. All these lines of investigation lie open to the Biblical student, and all are necessary to a complete knowledge of his great subject. The Bible is a literature, to be examined by the ordinary methods of literary study; a library in which are stored more than sixty ancient books, the product of many centuries, and distinguished by great diversities of matter, style, and thought. But, as more than one Essayist has pointed out, it is something greater than this; it is a library of sacred books, and it aims at an end which lies outside and above the range of literary studies. Sacrae litterae possunt instruere ad salutem; omnis scriptura diuinitus inspirata utilis est ad erudiendum in iustititia. It may be said that the ultimate purpose of the Bible is not one of ‘the Biblical question of the day’; it concerns all ages alike. But it is impossible to dismiss a volume of Biblical Essays without some attempt to estimate that which gives to the Bible its chief significance — its value as a guide for the religious life of men. Moreover from one point of view the subject is of special interest at the present moment.

It is not surprising that those who realize the religious worth for the Bible should betray nervousness at the rapid advance of a fearless and to some extent destructive Biblical criticism. Without doubt there is grave risk both for the critic himself and for the half taught masses whom his results /544/ will eventually reach. In England since the Reformation the Bible has been not merely the religious guide but the religion of the people. Its authority has been undisputed; in all matters of which it treats it has been regarded as infallible. This belief has been sincere, but unreasoning, and held for the most part without intelligence or discrimination. But such a faith in the Bible must go down before the march of knowledge, and its fall cannot be contemplated without apprehension. Already the religious use of the Bible is on the decline among us. If the popular belief in the authority of the Bible should be lost, the time may come when the book itself will cease to hold its place in the scanty library of the cottage, and the people will no longer demand or even permit its retention in State-supported schools. This is a danger which those who value the Bible as a religious guide may well fear, and must, if they can, avert. But they cannot hope to do so by a faithless endeavour to arrest the progress of critical enquiry; their aim must rather be to place the claim of the Bible upon an basis from which no legitimate criticism can cast it down.

For the moment there cannot but be a great shaking of faith in the inviolability of Scripture, and even an abandonment by many of their shaken belief. But the disquietude and loss which accompany an intellectual shock may serve a good end; they may call attention to the things that cannot be shaken and must remain. Chief among these, in the present case, is the conviction, common to all who are capable of forming a judgement, that the Bible possesses an unique religious value. This value is found in no wise to depend upon the estimates which critics may form of its historical accuracy. The early narratives of Genesis may be more or less mythical, and yet be the vehicle of religious teaching of a high order. The Fourth Gospel may, in the presentation of its subject, be coloured more or less deeply by the thought of an unknown disciple of the third generation, and yet be a revelation of truth which the consciousness of Christendom endorses as Divine. To what lengths criticism may go or how many of its results may endure the test of /545/ time, we do not know; but we may be confident that the critic has not been born, nor will be, who can take from the Bible its power of ministering to the religious needs of all sorts and conditions of men.

It is this singular capacity for imparting religious edification that resides in the Bible, and to the same extent in no other book, which gives a true unity to the two Canons and their very diverse contents. A dim sense of this lies in the seeming freak which in mediaeval Latin converted the plural Biblia into a singular, — ‘the books’ into ‘the Book’. Men had come to feel that the two Old and New Testaments were one in their general purpose; that Law and Psalms and Prophets, Gospels and Acts, Epistles and Apocalypse, the product of a thousand years and written in circumstances widely diverse, are inspired by the common aim of creating or developing the religious life.

Religion may be defined as the recognition on man's part of the bond which unites him to God. Hoc uinculo pietatis obstricti Deo et religati sumus, unde ipsa religio nomen accepit. <note 1> Whatever may be thought of this etymology, the definition is sound in the main. Biblical language has no exact counterpart to religio, for neither εὐσέβεια nor θεοςέβεια, λατρεία nor θρησκεία answers to its fundamental conception. The true Biblical equivalent is ‘faith’, and this — the word or the idea — recurs with a remarkable persistency in both Testaments. The quick eye of St Paul discovered it in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets;<note 2> the anonymous writer to the Hebrews traces the working of this principle in the lives of all the Old Testament saints, from Abel to the heroes and heroines of the Maccabean revolt; these all had witness borne to them through their faith. The New Testament carries on the record of the triumph of faith. In the Gospels and Epistles the reader of the Old Testament finds himself in a new world; the temporary elements in the religion of Israel are vanishing away; the Jahveh of the Old Testament is now ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’; One /546/ has arisen whose ‘I say unto you’ supersedes that which was ‘said to the ancients’; a national religion is giving place to a Catholic Church. Yet the New Testament insists on the same principle of spiritual life as the Old; the religious attitude of the founder of the Hebrew people is identified with that which animates the disciples of the Christ; they who are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. It is on this insistence upon a common principle lying at the root of all that is best in human life that we base the claim of the Bible to possess a supreme religious worth. It teaches not an religion so much as Religion, the habit of soul which alone gives value to religious acts or beliefs; the bond by which human life links itself to the Life of God, and finds there its strength and joy.

And it teaches this in a concrete form. The Bible does not define ‘faith’— even Hebrews 11,1 is scarcely an exception <note 3> - but exhibits it in action. It does not command faith in express terms, but recommends it by example. The men and women, or if you please so to regard them, the characters, whether historical of symbolical, of the Old Testament, live as though they saw the Invisible. That they do not in other things always rise above the level of their times, that they are occasionally disfigured by insincerity or cruelty or sensuality, does not lessen the wonder of their faith but rather serves as a foil to set it off. Being what they were, living when they did, they were on the whole victorious over the evil of the world; their faith in God saved them from the worst things. That is the lesson of every good life depicted in the Hebrew Bible, and it is an lesson of surpassing value for all ages.

The religious experience of the Hebrew people culminates in the Psalmists and Prophets. It has been maintained in a preceding Essay that the laborious ingenuity of the modern scholar has failed to establish a connexion between particular Psalms and events in the history of Isreal to which they had been supposed to refer. This conclusion is at first sight disappointing. The Psalter suffered loss in the eyes of many when they learnt that the Davidic authorship of the book /547/ could no longer be maintained. It may seem to others to be shorn of a yet greater charm if it can be shewn that there is no solid ground for regarding this Psalm or that as the child of some national crisis, such as a great catastrophe or a great victory. Yet the essential glory of the Psalter is not dimmed by either of these losses. It will continue to be the noblest monument in the world of a manifold religious experience. It tells us the inner history of human lives which, whether in the far off days of King David or in the Greek or the Maccabean age, poured out their confession of sin or their tale of sorrow or their tribute of praise into the ear of God. There are indeed verses in the Psalter, and even one or two entire Psalms, which cannot be altogether appropriated by Christian men without doing violence either to the plain meaning of the words or to the mind of Christ; even the Gloria Patri, with which the Church endorses each Psalm and claims it for her service, has not altogether reconciled the Christian conscience to the imprecations of Ps. 18 and Ps. 109. But these are exceptions, and they enhance our sense of the tenderness and trustfulness, the self-abasement and the spiritual force of the rest. In the devotions of the Old Testament saints, as in their lives, the religious principle is seen to triumph on the whole over the faults of the individual or of his age. It is a remarkable tribute to the Psalter as a manual of devotions that the Church has from the first made this ‘Prayer-book of the Second Temple’ the backbone of her daily offices, a position from which no collection of Christian hymns is likely over to dislodge it.

Of the moral and religious importance of the Old Testament Prophets our own age is fully cognizant. A flood of light has been thrown upon the prophetic books; their sources, the personality of their writers, the occasions which drew them forth have been investigated by the labour of many scholars with the best results. Moreover the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy has undergone a revolution. That which satisfied our fathers scarcely any educated man to-day, to whatever school of religious thought he may belong. In England, happily, there has been no marked /548/ break with the past: the transition from the old to the new has been made under the guidance of scholars so reverent and conservative of essentials as Robertson Smith, A.B. Davidson, G.A. Smith, Dean Kirkpatrick, and Professor Driver, and it has been made with general consent. Those who can remember the Old Testament teaching of fifty or sixty years ago, will recognize how great the change has been. Yet our sense of the religious worth of the Hebrew Prophets has been left undisturbed; indeed, in two directions it has been greatly strengthened. We have come to look to them for guidance in reference to the social questions which are pressing for an answer; and they are helping us to apply our religious principles to the conduct of commercial and national life. Something perhaps has been lost in the way of spiritual edification to abandonment of older methods of exegesis, but the loss has been more than outweighed by the gain. The transference of the momentum of prophecy from prediction to instruction in righteousness has called attention to the value which the Prophets of Israel have for an age whose moral perplexities grow with the increase of knowledge and material prosperity.

The New Testament has no Book of Psalms, and but one prophecy, and that of an Apocalyptic type. There are traces indeed in the Christian Canon of the beginning of a hymnody, which might in time have grown into a new Psalter; and of the creation of an order of Prophets, whose inspired preaching might have formed a second Dodecapropheton. But the fifty years within which the books of the New Testament were written did not suffice for the growth of such collections. While the Hebrew Scriptures represent the evolution during many centuries of the religious beliefs and habits of a chosen people, the Greek Scriptures are the record of the origins of a world-wide and world-long society. Thus the New Testament fulfils a purpose which differs to some extent from that of the Old Testament, and their contents differ accordingly. Yet its aim is as distinctly and as uniformly religious. Indeed it may be said to develop the religious spirit of the Hebrew writers. The insistence with which it dwells upon the most /549/ spiritual ideas of the Prophets and Psalmists, the doctrines of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Fatherhood of God, and the new sense which it imparts of a spiritual Presence not limited to a prophetic order but abiding in the whole Christian society and in the hearth of each disciple, have made fellowship with God the normal condition of life; the spirit of the new faith is well expressed by St Paul's paradox, ‘I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me’; ‘to me to live is Christ’. Hence there is a true sense in which it may be maintained that the New Testament is even more unreservedly religious than the Old. Certainly a book such as Esther, where the Divine Name is not once mentioned, could not have found a place in the Apostolic writings. If the Song of Songs has commended itself to the Christian Church, it has found acceptance by the help of the mystical interpretation which has seen in it allegory of the Divine Love.

One Figure dominates the New Testament. St Mark and St John are not more full of Him than is St Paul. In the Apocalypse He is central both on earth and in heaven; the Royal Priest in the midst of the golden lamps, the Lamb that was slain alive again in the midst of the Throne. The Epistle of James makes scanty mention of His Name, but when He is named, it is as the Lord of the Church and the Glory of God. <note 4> The Acts of the Apostles is not, as might have been expected, a glorification of the Apostles, but rather of the Master who wrought by their hands. Everywhere, in Gospels and Acts, in Epistles and Revelation, the same Person meets us. And Jesus Christ is for all Christians not only the ‘Mystery of godliness’ but its supreme example. No life ever was so entirely identified with religion as the life of Christ. In Him the uinculum which unites man to God and which is the essence of religion was not for a moment broken or weakened. ‘My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me’; ‘I do always the things that are pleasing to Him’; ‘I and the Father are one’. Here is a realization of religion of which the lives of the Saints are but /550/ a broken echo. If it be objected that these words were put into the mouth of the Lord by the author of the Fourth Gospel, the answer is not far to seek. The synoptic Christ lives as the Johannine Christ claims that He lives. It is the Synoptic Christ who at the age of twelve must needs be in His Father's house; who at the Baptism was conscious of a Divine Voice that said: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I an well pleased’; who on the eve of the Passion prayed, ‘Not what I will but what thou wilt’, and on the Cross still cried ‘My God’. Words and actions with Him were of one piece, and both proclaim Him to be the Pattern of the religious life.

The Gospels exhibit this Pattern, and it is this which gives them a religious value that even in the Bible itself is unique. No criticism, whether of the sources of the Gospels or of their historical details, can greatly affect their value in this respect. It is independent of our acceptance of the miracles. That it can even survive an abandonment of the Catholic Doctrine of the Person of Christ, or a refusal to analyse the impression which the Gospels convey upon that subject may be seen from the earlier lectures of Adolf Harnack's What is Christianity? No more enthusiastic appreciation of the religious value of the Gospel life of Jesus can be found than in that remarkable book, which is nevertheless written from the standpoint of a Christology that can satisfy no Catholic Christian. One passage, often quoted, must be quoted yet once again here, for it sums up the teaching of the life of Christ from a point of view closely cognate to our subject: ’He lived in religion, and it was breath to Him in the fear of God; His whole life, all His thoughts and feelings were absorbed in the relation to God, and yet He did not talk like an enthusiast or a fanatic, who sees only one red-hot spot, and so is blind to the world and all that it contains. He spoke His message and looked at the world with a fresh and clear eye for the life, great and small, that surrounded Him … He is possessed of a quiet, uniform, collected demeanour, with everything directed to one goal … The sphere in which He lived, above the earth and its concerns, did not destroy His interest in it; /551/ no! He brought everything in it into relation with the God whom He knew’. <note 5>

The inner life of unbroken intercourse with the Father is only hinted at here, but no words could be better to set forth that which ought to be the effect of such a life on the whole attitude of the outward man. It is only at rare intervals that the Gospels lift the veil of the sanctuary in which the soul of Jesus lived with God. The Twelve themselves were only admitted to the ante-chamber, and this not on all occasions; there were seasons when He withdrew into solitude for some agony of prayer. ‘Pray to thy Father who is in secret’ is the moral of such withdrawals. But they are the exception and not the rule, and that they are so disposes of the fancy which at some epochs has seized the Church that the cloister or the cell is needful for the perfecting of the religious life. Our Pattern in religion did not shun the world, but claimed it for God, and sought to hallow it with a sense of the Divine Presence. Herein lies the special value of our Lord's example for the religious guidance of men. A ‘religious’ in the mediaeval sense might have founded a world-wide Order, but His life could not have been the model on which all lives are to be framed.

Not less valuable to religion than the Gospel picture of our Lord's life is the Gospel record of His teaching. That record has come to us through processes of oral tradition and documentary compilation which leave us in doubt whether we have any instance an exact reproduction of the Teacher's words. Even if we could reconstruct ‘Q,’ or be sure that we have in St Mark a faithful interpretation of St Peter's reminiscences, we should have not reached the ipsissima uerba of Jesus. It is almost always possible to press the minuter details of the teaching too far; we may be insisting on the form which a disciple has given to the sayings of the Lord rather than on His own words. But the supreme importance of the teaching does not lie in the details, and no deductions which can reasonably be made on this score will affect its value as a whole. /552/

The crowds that hung upon our Lord's teaching were struck, so the Gospels tell us, by its note of ‘authority.’ It was not like the teaching of their religious guides, which rested on the dicta of the Rabbis; it was firsthand, independent, reaching back to the fountain-head of religious truth. It came fresh from the Source; it came with a strength of conviction which dared to set aside ancient tradition and even the letter of the Law. Yet it did not create new ideas so much as recover and transfigure the old; it did not destroy, but fulfilled; it seized on the spirit of the earlier revelation, and drew it into a clearer light. The principles of the new teaching were in fact the eternal principles which underlie all religion, and had been proclaimed in the Law. They recommended themselves at once to the consciences of men, and compelled assent. This note of authority is heard throughout the teaching of Jesus as it is echoed in the Gospels. Men were and still are constrained to listen to it; magna est ueritas et praeualet. No other discourse that ever was delivered has been so powerful a moral lever in human life as the Sermon on the Mount.

With authority the teaching of Jesus united simplicity, directness, picturesqueness, sympathy, and indeed all the qualities which appeal most strongly to the human heart. But His simplest words are profound, and will often seem to elude our most strenuous effort to grasp their full meaning. We see a part, but are conscious that there is more behind it, of which we can only catch glimpses, or which we cannot bring into line with our own range of spiritual thought. The sayings of our Lord convey more or less to each man according to his power of apprehending truth, which will vary with his intellectual and spiritual capacities. The parables may be to one man merely charming pictures of natural processes or of Eastern life, while to another they are inexhaustible stores of teaching, adapting themselves to the circumstances of his own age or his own life.

Yet the field of the Gospel teaching is limited. This fact is realized by St John, who assigns a cause for it. ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now’. /553/ ‘These things I have spoken unto you in proverbs’. The teaching of the Ministry was veiled, and it was incomplete; to have said more or to have said it more plainly would have been to overtask the strength of the disciples and to strain their faculties to breaking point. But imperfect as the teaching is, it strikes the great notes which are dominant in the Gospel of the Kingdom as it was afterwards taught by the Spirit; and the motif of the whole is to be heard everywhere, from the Sermon and the Parables to the great discourses of the Fourth Gospel. There is a special value in the prominence which is thus given to fundamental truths; if there are those who are disposed to attach excessive importance to the elaboration of Christian doctrine at a later time, the voice of Jesus in the Gospels warns them against mistaking superstructure for foundation, and emphasizes afresh truths of such superlative importance as the Fatherhood of God, the claims of Christ upon the service of man, the inwardness of the religious life. Every age needs to have its attention called to these great principles, and they are enshrined for ever in the Synoptic record of our Lord's teaching.

The relation of our Lord's teaching to the teaching of St Paul has formed the subject of an Essay in this volume, and may be dismissed here in a few words. If St Paul's own testimony may be admitted, he was the interpreter of the Great Master who lived and spoke in him <note 6>. The Teacher who in the Gospels speaks in the flesh, speaks in Paul by the Spirit; the παροιμίαι of the Gospels are succeeded by the παρρησία of the Epistles. If this is a true account of the relation of Paulinism to the Gospel preached by our Lord, there can be neither antagonism nor rivalry between the earlier and the later teaching. The Gospel of Paul is, on this shewing, fundamentally one with ‘the Gospel in the Gospels’; but it is the original Gospel expounded by the Spirit of Jesus through the mind and heart of his greatest Apostle. The same may be said of other New Testament /554/ writers who carry Christian teaching beyond the point reached in the Synoptic Gospels. But it is only St Paul who claims to have a Gospel which is peculiarly his own, and has been independently communicated to him. What, it may be asked, is the religious value of this Pauline Gospel, this re-interpretation by the Spirit of the Gospel of Christ, as distinguished from the Gospel in its original form?

The question is too large to be answered in a few sentences. But as we consider it, one point in the answer comes prominently into sight. The Synoptic Christ speaks little of Himself: His relation to the Father, and the purpose of His life, His death, His resurrection, are seldom even outlined in the first three Gospels. It was reserved for the Spirit to ‘glorify’ Him by a fuller revelation of His work and His Person, and for St Paul to be the first and in some ways the chief exponent of the meaning of Christ. Beginning with the redemptive character of the Cross and the vitalizing power of the Resurrection, this Apostle grasps as he proceeds the idea of a pre-existent Christ, who is in the form of God, the Image of the Invisible, the Firstborn of Creation, the sphere in which the creative energy of God was exercised; who, in the fullness of the time, was made man and now as man exalted to universal lordship and power. And from the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ he feels his way to the conception of a Catholic Church, of which the exalted Christ is Head and in which the Spirit of Christ lives and works. In this great scheme of thing the religion of the personal life is not forgotten; the emancipation effected by the Cross must be claimed by the individual through faith and baptism; each member of Christ must receive the spirit of adoption and maintain the conflict of the spirit with the flesh, if he would partake of the final glory of the Messianic Kingdom. Though St Paul is far indeed from desiring to create a systematic theology, he has brought into a vital unity the elements of Christian truth, by linking them on to his conception of a divine-human, glorified Christ. As his missionary work laid the foundations of an universal Church, so his writings supply a basis for an universal religion by exhibiting /555/ our Lord as a Person worthy of the trust, the love, the devotion, and the imitation of mankind.

Of the vitality of St Paul's religious teaching the history of the Church offers some striking proofs. It was St Paul who perhaps more than all other Biblical writers inspired the eloquence of Chrysostom. Augustine owed to St Paul his conversion and a great part of his theology. Neglected or misunderstood by the mediaeval Church, the Pauline writings were rediscovered at the revival of learning. It was with Colet's lectures at Oxford on the Epistles of St Paul that new methods of Biblical study began in England. Both in England and on the continent the Reformers of the sixteenth century found their chief support in the Pauline theology. In our own age St Paul again forms a center of interest only second to the Gospels themselves. The aims and methods of the modern student of the Apostle may differ from those of the Renaissance and the Reformation not less widely than theirs differed from the mediaeval type of exegesis; but the interest aroused by contact with St Paul is as fresh now as in the days of Colet and Erasmus, Luther and Calvin. This is partly due no doubt to his strong and fascinating personality, and partly also to the intellectual problems raised by his writings. But the religious spirit which is paramount in St Paul cannot fail to make itself felt as often as the Church returns to his Epistles with any earnest purpose, and the service which is thus rendered to religion is beyond calculation. Nor is it possible to conceive of the religious influence of these writings exhausting itself finally. As long as the world lasts men will turn, especially at certain crucial moments, to St Paul for guidance or inspiration and not be disappointed of their quest.

St John — the name is used here to signify the author or authors of the Johannine writings — is scarcely of less importance for the religious life than St Paul. To some minds and at some epochs he is of more. ‘I will make bold to say’, writes Origen at the beginning of his great commentary on the Fourth Gospel, ‘that as the Gospels are the firstfruits of the Scriptures, so the Gospel according to St John is the /556/ firstfruits of the Gospels’ <note 7>. The Johannine Gospel appeals with especial power to minds which approach Christianity from the standpoint of philosophy or of mysticism. This merit has been set forth in one of the preceding Essays, and there is no need to dwell upon it here. But it may be added that the Gospel according to St John, while it has always had a singular attraction for the cultivated intellect, is also above all other books in the New Testament the chosen guide of the unlearned, the poor, and the suffering members of the Church. No parish pries is ignorant of its power to give hope and courage to the dullest or most depressed of his flock; only the Psalms and some of the chapters of the second Isaiah can compete with it here. It is surely a remarkable tribute to the genius or the inspiration of a religious writer to say that he can command the attention at once of the philosopher and the peasant, the intellectually strong and the intellectually feeble. This can hardly be said of St Paul, but it is true of St John. Even the Apocalypse, full as it is of unsolved problems, has a fascination for the uneducated, and its visions of the unseen life have cheered thousands of such men and women in the last extremity.

The religious worth of the Bible is proved by the experience of the religious life. Biblical studies carry men to the threshold of the sanctuary, but he who would enter and explore it needs other guides-prayer, faith, the mind of Christ. Spiritualis iudicat omnia. But the ‘spiritual man’ shews little wisdom if he refuses the aid of the Biblical student in that examination of the letter of Scripture which is preliminary to any fruitful and discriminating use of its spirit. He would be still more unwise if the disturbance of his preconceptions by critical processes should lead him to relinquish in any measure his sense of the value of the Bible as a Divine guide of human life.

Note 1: Lactantius, de div.inst. 8,23.

Note 2: Gal. 3,6 (Gen. 15,6); 2 Cor. 4,13 (Ps. 116,10); Rom. 1,17 (Hab. 2,4)..

Note 3: See B.F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews. The Greek Text with Notes and Essys, London: Macmillan 1889, ad loc.

Note 4: Jas. 1,1; 2,1

Note 5: A.Harnack, What is Christianity? Sixteen lectures delivered in the University of Berlin during the winter term, 1899-1900, London: Williams & Norgate London, 1901,34ff (Translated into English by Thomas Baily Saunders)

Note 6: 2 Cor. 13,3

Note 7: Origenes, in Ioann. t. 1,4 (6)