Toward Understanding the Bible by Georgia Harkness
Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1954. Copyright, 1952, 1954, by Georgia Harkness. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: The Bible as the Word of God
Why Read the Bible?
To some readers of this little manual on Bible study the question, "Why read the Bible?" may seem wholly superfluous. Of course one ought to read the Bible because it is the word of God and a nourisher of the Christian life! For others, to whom the Bible may be a time-honored but nevertheless largely mysterious book, the question has more significance. Let us begin then by looking at some reasons why the Bible, in spite of the mass of printed matter that comes pouring from the presses, is still the most important book in existence and why reading it is one of the most important things that any person today can do.
The Bible in Our Culture
In the first place, the whole of our Western culture is saturated with the Bible. It appears in the most commonplace matters of daily speech. When some calamity is narrowly averted, I escape "with the skin of my teeth." (Job 19:20) When a person loves somebody or something very much, he or she or it is "the apple of his eye." (Deut.32:10) When one man admires another, the second is "a man after his own heart." (I Sam. 13:14) We take the morning paper and try to read in the events of the day "the signs of the times." (Matt. 16:3) We press an electric button in our homes and have heat or light "in the twinkling of an eye." (1 Cor. 15:52) Much that we do in our homes and in our churches and communities is "a labor of love." (I Thess. 1:3 R.S.V.) Nevertheless, sometimes we work for "filthy lucre." (I Tim. 3:2)
There are persons all around us who are "the salt of the earth." (Matt. 5:13) There are others whose main philosophy of life appears to be "to eat, and to drink, and to be merry." (Eccles. 8:15) Occasionally there are those we are tempted to call "whited sepulchres." (Matt. 23:37) In many of life’s decisions we are "at the parting of the way." (Ezek. 21:21) In such crises people are sometimes "at their wit’s end," (Ps. 107:27) so they would like to "take the wings of the morning" (Ps. 139:9) and escape from it all.
In the crisis among the nations the deepest desire of mankind is "on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14) We long for the day when "men shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruninghooks," (Isa. 2:4) and with economic security and contentment, every man may be able to "sit under his vine and under his fig tree." (Mic. 4:4)
Even in the writing of a book one cannot escape these everpresent biblical injunctions. For if the person who writes is to have readers he must make what he says so clear that "he may run that readeth it." (Hab. 2:2) And as books are still written and published on what seems an endless number of subjects, the reader is reminded that "of making of many books there is no end." (Eccles 12:12)
But it is not alone in our daily speech that the influence of the Bible is reflected; the greatest of our art, music, and literature is filled with it. One cannot walk through any of the famous art galleries of Europe without finding "an endless line of splendor" in biblical themes. Too many Americans fail to appreciate such art because they do not have a background of biblical knowledge to understand what is being portrayed. Again, the music of the ages which sings its way into our souls, whether it be Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a Gregorian chant, or a Negro spiritual, is saturated with the words and the message of the Bible. Not all the great books have had a biblical basis, but many of them have. Without the Bible we should not have Dante and Chaucer, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Browning’s Saul and Samson Agonistes, or the deep spiritual notes that appear in the works of such writers as William Blake, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Emerson, and Whittier. Shakespeare makes many allusions to the Bible. The addresses of Abraham Lincoln, who as a boy had the Bible as one of the few books accessible to him, are filled with its great overtones.
In the twentieth century, though we are more biblically illiterate than in any previous day, the Bible still makes its impact upon our literature. Its influence appears in best sellers that deal specifically with biblical themes such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers; Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary; Lloyd Douglas’ The Robe and The Big Fisherman; Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt and The Herdsman. Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told has brought a fresh awareness of the Bible to many readers of daily newspapers. Less directly Bible centered, but with biblical titles and themes with which the Bible is concerned, are such books as Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. In spite of an appalling ignorance of the Bible in our time, it continues to be the world’s best seller. Well over a million copies of the complete Bible, and millions of portions of it in more than one thousand languages and dialects into which it has been translated, are printed every year.
The extent to which the Bible is imbedded in our artistic and literary heritage would, even if no other factor were present, make a knowledge of the Bible imperative and highlight the cultural loss resulting from its exclusion from the public schools. It is indeed unfortunate that many students who are expected to get some knowledge of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and of Shakespeare’s plays have no acquaintance with a classic far greater and more influential than any of these. But beyond its literary significance there is still another element, of greater importance. This is the effect that it has had upon the moral and spiritual ideas of the Western world.
The most priceless political heritage of the Western world, for which now both blood and treasure are being poured out lavishly, is democracy. Democracy has its roots in the concept of the worth of every individual before God. This in turn mainly takes its rise from the New Testament. To go back no further than to the events that led to the founding of the American Republic, it was the Bible which nourished the Puritan revolt in England in the seventeenth century. It was the Bible and its message which brought large numbers of our founding fathers to this country and led them to establish an educational system "to foil the wiles of Satan" almost as soon as they had set foot upon American soil. It was the Bible which undergirded them to endure the hardships of the early days and to press westward to open up the frontier. It was the Bible which led to the establishment of free public schools and, through the Church, to a large number of church-related colleges. It has continued through the years to undergird not only sound learning but also sound morality. While obviously not all our political leaders have been churchmen or students of the Bible, its words and its spirit breathe through the great political utterances of our heritage from Washington and Jefferson through Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln and to the "four freedoms" of Franklin D. Roosevelt. One can scarcely be a good patriot, to say nothing of a good Christian, without acquaintance with this fountainhead of so much that is good in American life.
The Bible as Literature
Not only is the Bible ingrained in our literary, political, and social heritage; it is itself great literature and a great record of social and political events. About this we shall say more in later chapters when we trace the outlines of the world of the Bible and the way in which it came to be written. It should, however, be noted here that it is a whole library in itself. The word "Bible" is derived from the Greek biblion, a papyrus roll on which books were written, and the Bible consists of sixty-six books. However, throughout the sixty-six runs the continuous theme of man’s encounter with God, giving it a unity not found in most libraries.
Here in the Bible is history, not always accurate in its details, for as one may expect, where there are several accounts of the same event or when the story was written down many years after the event occurred, occasionally inconsistencies crept in. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating history of the life and thought of a great people over a period of twelve hundred years of decisive human events. It is the record of God’s progressive revelation of himself to these people through ever-changing and often painful situations. This history consists, for the most part, of narratives within which are to be found sharply delineated character sketches. But it is enlivened also by wonderfully imaginative folklore, riddles, oracles, and fables.
The Bible is not all history; it contains also great poetry. Some of this poetry was written to celebrate great events, for example, the very early "Song of Miriam" (Exod. 15:1-18) and the "Song of Deborah" (Judg. 5) in the Old Testament, which were victorious war chants, and the "Magnificat" (Luke 1: 46-55) of Mary in the New Testament uttered when she learned that she was to be the mother of Jesus. We have great devotional hymns in the Book of Psalms. There is stirring nature poetry in certain psalms that acclaim God’s creation and vivid description of God’s mighty acts in the Book of Job.(Job 38-41) Other strains of poetry have great searching depths of promise and of duty, such as the servant songs of the Book of Isaiah.(Cf. Isa. 42,49,52,53) There is infinite sadness in the dirge of Lamentations and some parts of Jeremiah; there is fiery invective joined with a sense of righteousness and of hope in the words of Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa. History, poetry, and preaching meet in the voices of the prophets, whose utterances because of their ethical insights and spiritual discernment are to be classed among the greatest words in the Bible.
Poetry merges with philosophy in the Book of Job, which dramatically probes the problem of evil and comes out, not with a solution, but with spiritual mastery through recognition of the power of the Almighty. The Book of Proverbs consists of homely adages then current, and many of them, because of their shrewdness, are current still. The Book of Ecclesiastes, influenced by Greek thought in the later period of Israel’s history, has a strongly Epicurean strain which is out of step with the main emphases in the Bible, but it contains some descriptive passages of haunting loveliness.(As for example, Eccles. 3:1-11 and 12:1-7)
The Bible has gripping short stories, such as the beautiful account of Ruth’s fidelity and the dramatic story of Queen Esther. Jesus was a master of the storytelling art, and his parables pack more meaning into an incident than any other stories ever told. There are lighter notes also in the Bible. Jonah is an allegory with a deep meaning. The Song of Solomon is a charming love lyric, perhaps a collection of songs used at weddings.
In the New Testament the type of literature is quite different from most of what precedes it. Here the prevailing structure is narrative with important sayings interspersed in the story, as in the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. Here are to be found both sermons and biography. A large part of the New Testament consists of letters to the churches. They were written before anything else in the New Testament and are by far the most important letters ever written. From them we learn a great deal, not only about the Christian faith, but also about Paul, who wrote most of them, and about conditions in the early Church. Then the Bible comes to a close with a cryptic but highly dramatic book --the Book of Revelation. It was born out of persecution, and promises defeat to the enemies of Christ but a new heaven and a new earth to the faithful. In these recent years when Christians have again had to go through "dungeon, fire, and sword" for their faith, the meaning of this apocalyptic (or vision) literature has come alive to many.
The Bible as Social History
Even if one were only interested in the Bible as a record of social change he can find social history here also. It begins with its setting in a primitive nomadic society not unlike that of the Bedouins of today. As the Hebrews entered and conquered Canaan they were not only settling down to a more stable agricultural society but also doing what most conquerors do when they can -- exterminating, enslaving, or exiling the former occupants of the land. We see them pass through a period of political and social anarchy when "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:35) until the monarchy was established to ensure greater stability. It rises to power and brilliance under David, only to go down again under the extravagant display and extortion of his unwise son Solomon. We see it split apart into two kingdoms, and then they go down to defeat before the armies of the east, first the Northern and then the Southern Kingdom. We see Palestine the buffer state over which trample the armies of Egypt and Assyria as each of these powerful neighbors strives to intimidate it or to use it for her own ends.
Israel lost her independence in 586 B.C. and went into exile but gained a stronger faith through the voices of her prophets. Many of the people returned a half century later, and the nation remained in unstable equilibrium until the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. Persecution under the overlord Antiochus Epiphanes, which forms the framework of the Book of Daniel with its lions’ den and fiery furnace, led to the outbreak of the Maccabean rebellion. After fierce fighting Israel regained her freedom, but only for a brief period, for she was annexed by Rome in Pompey’s eastward march of 63 B.C. The events in the New Testament took place while Israel was a vassal of the Roman Empire. With the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70, Israel as a nation collapsed. However, the history of the struggles and victories of the people, in their encounters with their enemies, and still more in their encounters with God, lives today and is immortal.
Two strains run through the Bible, both important to the sociologist or historian who wants to know how people react to circumstances and why they react as they do. One of these is the concept of a chosen people, an elect nation bound in a particular way to their God, obligated by a covenant to obey Jehovah and sustained by the hope that if they were faithful, he would guide them, strengthen them, deliver them from their enemies. Much of the Old Testament centers in the attempts of the Hebrews to live up to the requirements of this covenant, their apostasies, God’s judgments upon them, his promise of a Messiah to deliver them even in spite of their sins. In the New Testament this idea of an elect nation broadens out to take in all men as sons of the one Father, and the promise of the Messiah is fulfilled in the redeeming work of Christ.
But this particular strand of what is sometimes called "holy history" is not, of course, all that is to be looked for. The people of the Bible, like any other people, wanted economic security and national prestige, got jealous of foreign groups and often of each other, connived for political or economic or personal advantage. Their acts were sometimes astute and sometimes foolish. They had some leaders who were wise and magnanimous but many who were stupid and ruthless. They loved and hated; they married and raised families, often with bickering among the children. Polygamy was common in the period covered by the early Old Testament, but had passed out of practice by the New Testament era. Not a little racial tension is evident, including manifestations of anti-Semitism such as persist to our own day. All this is fascinating material to one who is interested in human motives and group reactions to changing circumstances.
One must go to the Bible, therefore, if he wishes to understand the backgrounds of our Hebrew-Christian tradition. The Western world as we have it today did not come out of a vacuum. While it received from Greek and Roman sources an important stream of influence which the Bible scarcely touches, it also rests on foundations in which both the events and the religious convictions recorded in the Bible have a very large place. To be ignorant of the Bible is to have a blind spot to much that any educated, as well as any religious, person ought to have acquaintance with as part of his very being.
The Bible as God’s Word
We have seen that the Bible is a very human book, in the sense that it deals throughout with the experiences of people and with the widest possible range of these experiences. The Bible is not a textbook on science, for it was written many centuries before the modern scientific method and the vast accumulation of facts we call scientific knowledge had been dreamed of. But with this important exception, the Bible contains reflections of every human interest -- not only religion, but also history, philosophy, poetry, drama, great addresses, stories, letters, law-making, the struggles of war, the pursuits of peace. Even rather dry "vital statistics" in the form of long genealogies (for the Hebrews had a great interest in family backgrounds), census records, military rosters, and other matters which today have only an antiquarian interest, such as the dimensions of Noah’s ark or Solomon’s temple, appear in it. In short, though there are great gaps we wish had been filled in, such as the events of the childhood and youth of Jesus, the Bible contains every sort of thing which the people were interested in and thought important enough to write down. And to an amazing degree, its themes are the things we are interested in today.
What Is "The Word Of God" ?
But though the Bible is a very human book, it is also a divine book. By common consent the Church for centuries has called it the Word of God. The Bible does not call itself that, for it reserves this term for the message or revelation of God spoken to the prophets and apostles, while in the New Testament the word is "the Word made flesh" to dwell among us as the incarnate Lord. In the Old Testament, for example, we are told that Samuel asked Saul to hear the word of God before he anointed him king, and that the word of God came to Nathan to tell David not to build the temple he had projected. There is no suggestion here of the use of Scripture, for the Bible was itself only in the process of being created.
In the Gospel of John we have the most forthright and vivid use of the term, for its author, who was probably a Gentile Christian familiar with the Greek idea of the Logos,(The word Logos which holds a central place in Stoic philosophy, can be translated Word but this does not do justice to its full meaning. No single term in English is its exact equivalent. Logos means an immanent, creative world force, a principle of reason and order that pervades all things and binds them together in a concrete unity. It is sometimes rendered World-Reason or World-Soul or World-Spirit. Christian thought in identifying Logos with Christ gave it a more personal meaning than it had in Greek thought.) begins his writing with the great affirmation, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This majestic passage comes to a climax in the fourteenth verse, "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." (A.R.V.)
Even though the Bible does not call itself the Word of God, it is a legitimate metaphor for us to use, provided it is rightly understood. The word of God means "God speaking," God declaring himself, God making known to his hearers his will and way. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews caught its meaning with great accuracy when he opened his letter with the words:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. . . . He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.(Heb. 1:1-3, A.R.V.)
This is to say that the same God who spoke through the prophets has spoken with greater clarity, vividness, and power through his Son. God’s Word, then, means God’s self-disclosure.
Applied to the Bible, this conception of the Word as God’s self-disclosure affords great assurance but also interposes a very necessary caution. Let us see, therefore, what we must do -- and must not do -- if the Bible is to be the Word of God to us.
How To Hear The Word
In the first place, it is essential that one’s mind and spirit be alert to hear what God says. When a woman tries to call her family to meals and they are so bent on their own pursuits that they do not come, or tries to correct a child who pays no attention, or talks into the telephone to discover suddenly that she has been cut off or that the other party has hung up the receiver, she is not really speaking to anyone. Try as best she may, if there is no response she is not disclosing anything to anybody but simply talking into the air. This baffling experience, which everybody has now and then, can perhaps suggest how God yearns to communicate far more important messages than any of us ever have to give, but is unable to do so except to receptive persons.
From the human point of view, such unreceptiveness automatically cuts off the possibility that the Bible can be the Word of God to us. It can be studied with the best of critical scholarship, such as we all need in order to understand it most fully. Historical criticism is quite compatible with warm appreciation, and to be a biblical critic does not imply anything adverse any more than it does to be a music critic or literary critic, who would be useless unless he had the capacity for appreciating what is good in his field. But unless the Bible is read in faith, which means not in naive credulity but in personal responsiveness, it falls short of being the Word of God to the reader.
This points up the necessity of taking to the Bible a teachable mind. This means using the best available tools of scholarship and being willing if necessary to give up cherished former ideas if new truth appears. God cannot speak to closed or biased minds. If, for example, we have been in the habit of thinking of God’s total creation of the world as occurring in six days of twenty-four hours each and we learn that the creation stories in Genesis are a prescientific attempt to present great religious truth rather than accurate geology or biology, we fail to hear God speak if we refuse to change our minds.
But to hear God speak requires, even more necessarily, a devout mind. The Bible’s supreme message of God’s love for sinners and his eagerness to give new life and power to the repentant one who responds to the Father’s love, breaks through all bonds to reach any who will hear and heed it. It is significant that from the second century to the nineteenth, when modern historical scholarship became current, theories about the Bible were held which no competent historian now accepts, such as that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) including the description of his own death. Yet during all this time, and particularly after the Protestant Reformation had drawn the focus away from the Church to the Bible as the channel of God’s self-disclosure, people kept on being nourished by it and led by it to Christlike lives. This is to say -- not that biblical scholarship and the correction of errors can be unimportant but rather -- that the one indispensable thing, if the Bible is to be the Word of God, is a receptive attitude of spirit and responsiveness of will.
We ought therefore to read the Bible critically, analytically, and with as full an understanding as we can get of its historical setting, its types of literature, the conditions under which it was written, and the motives that prompted its characters in living and its authors in writing it. Some suggestion of this we shall give in outline form in the next chapters, though for any full understanding we ought to consult larger books. But while doing this, as a lifetime practice, we ought to read the Bible devotionally, accompanying it with prayer, waiting before it in quietness and with self-examination to see what God is Saying to us through it. Unless we do this we are likely, on the one hand, to fall into a barren and sterile pedantry as we try to dissect it, or on the other to become dogmatic and intolerant toward those who have interpretations differing from our own.
However, it is not enough simply to read the Bible receptively, for we may err in what we receive from it. People in full sincerity have sometimes picked verses here and there, thought that they read in them the utterance of God, and have tried to justify their own impulses to slander or slaughter their fellow men. For example, take the phrase, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord," in Romans 12:19. This has been used more than once to justify wreaking vengeance on one’s enemies who, because they are God’s enemies, must be put down by God’s servants. Taken in its context -- with "Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath" preceding, and "Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink" immediately following -- it is evident that the exact opposite is intended. An even more dangerously perverted passage is in the first verse of the very next chapter: "The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." This has been used to justify not only a theory of the divine right of kings, but acquiescence in Naziism and other diabolical forms of political tyranny.
This makes it apparent that we must have some standard for interpreting the Bible, rejecting false renderings or unworthy concepts as not being the voice of God and accepting true ones. This is a big problem, to which in a sense this whole book is devoted. Two principles only we shall stress at this point. One has already been stated that we must get all the historical and literary light we can on the passage to decide what it meant to the original writer, why he said it, whether it expresses permanent truth or only a passing phase of his or his people’s experience. There are a good many pronouncements in the Bible, like Paul’s injunctions to women not to pray to God with their heads uncovered(I Cor. 11:13) and to keep silence in the churches,(I Cor. 14:34) which had reasonable foundation in those times, but not any longer. It would have been unfortunate for the Christian Corinthian women to have been confused with the blatant hetairai, the street-walkers of loose morals, but it is equally unfortunate when such injunctions are appealed to today to curtail the religious expression or leadership of devoted Christian women. Although in Semitic folklore there seemed nothing inappropriate in supposing that the first woman was made from Adam’s rib,(Gen. 2:21) we are not obligated to take the story literally.
There is a principle that goes deeper than the best historical and literary criticism and which, though it never can be applied inflexibly, is our truest index. Said Paul to the Philippians, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . . .(Phil. 2:5) Though we can never hope fully either to imitate Christ in our living or to think as he thought, the more steadfastly we live with his personality, letting his spirit capture us, the more assurance we can have in our ethical judgments. The fact that a statement is found in the Bible does not make it true. What makes it true is that it comes from God, and our best knowledge of whether or not it is of God is whether it accords with the life, the words, the mind of Christ. Remember, the Word of God means "God speaking," and while we do not have in the gospel record the answers to all our questions, the Christian believes that the Word of God comes to man most fully, clearly, unequivocally, in Jesus Christ.
The examples cited above may be used again in illustration. Why do we question that Paul was inspired of God when he wrote, "Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man" (I Cor. 11:9, R.S.V.); yet respond with full assurance when we find the same writer saying, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28 R.S.V.) ? The reason is that Jesus treated men and women equally as children of God and persons of supreme worth. One could hardly imagine his saying that women are created for men and not men for women, for he seems rather to say that we are all created to love and serve one another. In spite of the fact that Karl Barth in the Commission on the Life and Work of Women at the Amsterdam Conference attempted to put the relation of women to the work of the Church on the theological basis of Adam’s rib and Ephesians 5:23 ("For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church"[R.S.V.]), most of us still believe that Paul comes nearest to the mind of Christ in Galatians 3:28.
Is The Bible Inspired?
Until now we have made little reference to a word that is likely to set off controversy wherever it is spoken, the inspiration of the Bible. The reason it is so often a matter of dispute is that people differ in what they mean when they use the word, and since deep emotions are tied in with the conviction that the Bible is inspired, to doubt the kind of inspiration one believes in is apt to seem like rejecting the Bible outright or making it no different from any other book. The reason we have avoided the term is not to dodge the issue, for it is a very important one, but rather to lay groundwork for trying to answer the question.
An idea which was long held, and is still held by some, is that God spoke directly through the Holy Spirit to each writer of the Bible in such a manner that the author wrote down with perfect accuracy exactly what God told him to write. This idea, which in spite of giving a place to the Holy Spirit, is based on divine dictation, is called verbal inspiration. It holds that the Bible is at every point infallible. On this assumption one may open it anywhere, and whatever he finds must be "gospel truth."
This view leads to a very high reverence for the Bible, and some great Christians have held it. However, it leads also to other results that are not so good. One has to gloss over the crude ethics that one finds mixed in with great moral ideals, not only in such matters as we have cited from Paul but still more in the Old Testament where God is at times represented as helping and even directing his people to steal and kill, the Ten Commandments to the contrary. It raises problems about the nature of God himself, who is not uniformly represented as the righteous, loving God of Christian faith, but sometimes as peevish, jealous, and changeable. Even if one overlooks such matters as these -- and there is a tendency to overlook them by looking only at the parts of the Bible that fit better with the idea of an infallible book -- there is still the matter of inconsistencies and internal self-contradictions which appear at many points. Much effort has been put forth to try to reconcile such inconsistencies, but some of them remain irreconcilable.
We shall later have occasion to note numerous illustrations of such problems as were mentioned in the preceding paragraph. We shall stop now for only one illustration. What does the Bible say about man and his destiny? Go to the Book of Ecclesiastes and you read:
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast; for all is vanity(Eccles. 3:19).
But go to the majestic words of Paul in the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians and you find:
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
There is just no way of reconciling these two statements. Which is right? The fact that one has comforted and lifted many generations of Christians with a great hope, while probably not many readers of this book knew that the other was in the Bible, gives answer as to which of them is truly inspired. But if even in this one instance -- to say nothing of various others which might be cited -- two passages flatly contradict each other, they cannot both be the infallible voice of God.
Are we to say, then, that the Bible is not inspired? By no means. Rather, we shall have to get a different idea of what is meant by inspiration. The word inspiration means "in-breathing." The Bible is inspired in the sense that the in-breathing of the divine appears on every page. It is the record of the spiritual experience of a people who over the twelve centuries spanned by its writing were guided, supported, chastened, forgiven, delivered, redeemed by God. Its great theme is salvation, and centering about this theme it has a marvelous unity in spite of its discrepancies in detail. The human deficiencies, as well as the great insights, of the men who wrote it are there, but what is more important, we see God there and hear him speak through the writer’s words. In the Bible we have "heavenly treasure" even though it is in "earthen vessels." What we need to do in order to grasp its meaning is to give full recognition to both elements, and the divine message will shine through with greater richness and power if we understand something of the channels of human fallibility mixed with high insights through which the message comes.
If what has been said is true, we need not be afraid to study the Bible with open eyes. Indeed, we shall need to have our eyes open very wide to catch even a small portion of its rich treasury of meaning. We shall try, therefore, in the next chapter to put ourselves as well as we can into the world in which the Bible came into being.
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