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Beliefs That Count 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 The Graded Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: We Believe in the Bible


The Scriptures are the record of God’s progressive revelation of Himself through inspired men, and the story of His righteous purpose in history to bring mankind to final perfection in Christ. The Bible contains all that God requires for salvation and is the sufficient rule of both faith and conduct. It has withstood all efforts to destroy it, it has survived the scientific study of its pages, and by its enduring truth it has confounded its critics and stands today more historically credible and more spiritually indispensable than ever before. It is God’s eternal Word to every generation.

How Can We Know ?

As was indicated in chapter two, there is in modern man a deep-seated hunger to know what he can believe about God and God’s ways with the world. Man gropes about in the dark seeking ground to stand on.

With some this outreach takes the form of a new interest in the Bible. This is not true of all persons and is probably not true of the majority of those in the churches, to say nothing of those outside. Yet enough persons want to know what they can believe about the Bible and its message about God that biblical movies are often major box-office successes, and any television dramatization of biblical scenes usually secures good viewing. This is not to suggest that such portrayals have spiritual interest only, for often sex themes and other devices to catch attention are woven into such productions. But that a biblical groundwork should be presented at all is tacit evidence that the public is concerned.

Regardless of these facts, however, there is a vast amount of biblical illiteracy abroad in the land. This is due in a large part to our idea of the separation of church and state. This concept has kept instruction in the world’s greatest literary masterpiece and its most influential body of literature out of the public schools and hence out of the primary channel for the transmission of our cultural heritage. It is also due to the facts that church schools have not been as good as they should have been and that neither the church nor the home has taught the Bible to a degree that is at all comparable with its importance. Even where it has been taught, the full sweep and depth of its meaning has often been lost and perversions of its truth introduced. A good example of this situation is found in some conservative churches where great emphasis is placed upon quoting and memorizing verses regardless of their contexts.

Yet the time is ripe for a discovery -- or a rediscovery -- of the great message of the Bible. Theology today is mainly biblical theology. Christian education in the church schools is doing a better job than ever in the past, and great numbers of adult minds are open and eager to learn what the Bible has to say. Therefore we ask, What does it say?

The Bible as a Record of Revelation

The scriptures are the record of God’s progressive revelation of Himself through inspired men, and the story of His righteous purpose in history to bring mankind to final perfection in Christ.

The first observation that we make concerning this statement is that it does not claim that the Bible itself is an infallible revelation. It is the record of revelation. It is the story told in many forms of writing and by men of many centuries concerning the way in which God moved in the affairs of men and led Them onward to the full expression of his purpose in his Son. It was written by inspired men, but this does not mean that God inspired them in any mechanical or automatic fashion such as that of dictating, word for word, what they should write. They lived as children of their times, not perfectly wise or perfectly good, and not able fully to divest themselves of ideas that were prevalent in their day. Examples of this fact can be found in references to the legitimacy of polygamy in the Old Testament and of slavery in both Old and New Testaments. Yet in spite of these limitations the writers of the Bible had some most remarkable insights concerning the nature of God and how he was seeking to bring his erring children to fuller obedience to his holy will.

Inspiration means "inbreathing." The Bible certainly contains the breath of God within it, even though it comes to us through fallible human channels. We need to read it in the mood of the familiar hymn:

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do. (By Edwin Hatch)

When we do this, the Bible becomes for us the Word of God --"God’s eternal Word to every generation."

Whether we should call the Bible the record of God’s progressive revelation depends on the meaning we put into the word "progressive." This term has somewhat gone out of vogue in theological circles today because it suggests a steady evolutionary advance. There were, in fact, many ups and downs in Israel’s discernment of the nature and purpose of God, and the New Testament is not all of one steadily advancing upward trend. Nevertheless, if we take the term "progressive" to mean only that God disclosed himself to men in relation to their world as fast but no faster than they were able to grasp his purposes and their meanings, the term is appropriate enough. It was "in the fullness of time," not immediately upon creation or in the early stages of Old Testament history, that the highest disclosure in Christ with the establishment of his Church to perpetuate the gospel was given. What we have in the Bible is the record of this upward climb to fuller discernment of God’s supreme purpose in history.

The Bible as Basis of Faith and Conduct

The Bible contains all that God requires for salvation and is the sufficient rule of both faith and conduct.

In a sense the above statement is profoundly true. Yet we must be careful not to misunderstand it or to oversimplify it. To do so is to contradict the very idea it aims to present to us.

What God requires above all else for salvation is our acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, our repentance for sin, our moral obedience to his call, and our willingness to try to love God and our neighbor with the full dedication of our lives. This is all in the Bible, for the New Testament repeatedly sets forth this message. For this reason we can say that the Bible "contains all that God requires for salvation."

Yet trouble enters when we quote verses here and there and put meanings on them which are not supported either by the total message of Jesus or by the facts of our own experience. For example, Jesus said to the rich young ruler, "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Mark 10:21.) This does not mean that we must literally sell all that we have and distribute it to the poor, thus becoming penniless in order to be followers of Jesus. Nor is this command irrelevant in a possession-centered world! It is between these two interpretations that we must find our duty in our day.

This illustrates also how to take the statement that the Bible is "the sufficient rule of both faith and conduct." It gives us the basis on which both Christian faith and Christian practice must be grounded. This foundation is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, of which we have knowledge through the Bible. On what we find in the Bible all the great truths of the Christian faith are grounded. This is where we gain our knowledge of God as Creator and Ruler of the world; our concept of him as loving Judge and Redeemer of men; our belief that Jesus Christ is his Son and our Lord and Savior; and the idea that the Holy Spirit is our ever-present Guide and divine Companion.

Yet these are truths with a profound and vital meaning for faith and conduct. They are not rules. The Bible as a whole -- including even the words recorded as spoken by Jesus -- gives us little in the way of rules. To try to make specific rules out of eternal principles is to distort the Bible’s message. Even the Ten Commandments, given in the setting of early Hebrew society but still relevant today, have to be applied in the light of contemporary circumstances. When we look at such great New Testament passages as the Sermon on the Mount or the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, we get the general impact, but we find that we still must make the application. To literalize such passages as "Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you" (Matthew 5 :42) and to make these injunctions a rule for all time would soon not only impoverish us but would disrupt society. Paul states well our aim: "Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2 :5.) In doing this we will find the foundation of both faith and practice.

To give one more example, we may ask, What does the Bible say about prayer? It enjoins throughout its scope the worship of God and the approach to God in prayer. Indeed, some of the greatest devotional poetry of all time is found in the Hebrew psalms. The mission and ministry of Jesus were undergirded by prayer; and Jesus not only taught his followers what they should pray for, but he set before them the supreme example. What, then, do we make of such words as these: "Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will" (Mark 11:23-24)

Again and again persons have prayed with deep faith for the removal of mountains of ill health or other trouble and the request has not been granted. Are we to say that lack of faith was the only barrier? Apparently this was not the case with Paul, whose thorn in the flesh was not removed in response to prayer (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Instead of pinning our faith to particular verses and possibly having it crash because of unfulfilled expectations, we might better find our total support where Jesus found it -- in the loving care of the Father and in trust of God’s presence even in the midst of trouble.

The illustrations cited show the dangers in "proof-texting," which is a very common misuse of the Bible. Yet we must emphasize that the Bible in its deeper meanings is relevant to every human situation and gives us all we need as the foundation for living. Although we must guard against supposing that the Bible gives all the answers, we must not forget that the kind of God, the nature of Christ, and the way of living which the Bible sets forth is what the world needs most, today and always. Because of this fact we can confidently say that the Bible is "God’s eternal Word to every generation."

The Bible and its Critics

It has withstood all efforts to destroy it; it has survived the scientific study of its pages, and by its enduring truth it has confounded its critics and stands today more historically credible and more spiritually indispensable than ever before. It is God’s eternal Word to every generation.

Another topic we should discuss is the meaning of biblical criticism. This is an ambiguous term with a number of meanings. Failure to see this fact has caused much misunderstanding and sometimes even hard feelings and unchristian attacks that could have been avoided by better understanding.

One use of the word "criticism" is its ordinary meaning -- fault-finding, picking flaws, and harsh judgment with which is often joined the barbs of ridicule. When we criticize another person, a television program, or a book, or when we criticize how one dresses, does his work, or drives a car, we usually pass an adverse judgment. Doing this is such an ever-present tendency of human nature that Jesus felt impelled to say in the Sermon on the Mount, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (Matthew 7:1-2.)

The Bible has sometimes been criticized in this same sense. To critics of this type its stories sound like quaint old myths that are rather interesting vestiges of a primitive society but of no particular significance. To them the Bible seems to be full of miracle stories which have much to say that cannot be fitted into a scientific way of looking at things. Those who think that the only knowledge worth anything is scientific knowledge are quite apt to dismiss the Bible as irrelevant and untrue. It is against such a form of criticism that the biblical statement quoted above rightly protests.

But adverse criticism is not the only type of criticism or the only proper use of the word. A music critic, a drama critic, or a book reviewer who is asked to give a critique of a recent, important work is expected to be an expert in his field. He will not demonstrate his wisdom by passing only negative judgments. To do this on great productions would show not expert knowledge but simply a sour or cynical spirit that would soon disqualify him for his task. Instead, he must bring all the resources of his own knowledge to whatever he is criticizing, explore the deeper meanings that the general public might overlook, and pass as fair a judgment as possible. In short, he must be an interpreter rather than a fault-finder.

It is this kind of criticism in which most biblical scholars have been engaged in the past century. Because of their work we understand the Bible better and see deeper and richer meanings in it than would have been possible without their work. They have brought to the Bible linguistic, historical, and scientific knowledge. Furthermore, these scholars have usually been persons of deep faith whose love for God and for the Bible have led them to their tasks. Their services, which have been of incalculable value in opening up the message of the Bible to a world that but dimly grasped it or that rejected it as archaic, should be deeply appreciated.

One type of such criticism has been called textual, because it aims to get back to the most authentic original form of the text, digging through the accretions and changes that came with copying and recopying. Since all of the Bible was written many centuries before printing was invented and because in no instance do we have the original as it was written first-hand by its author, the work of the textual critic is very important. It is closely related to the importance of the best possible translation. For example, the Revised Standard Version gives a great advantage in clarity and accuracy over the King James Version of 1611, though some persons still prefer the King James because of its familiarity and beauty.

A second type is historical (sometimes called higher) criticism, which aims to provide a better understanding of the message of the Bible by viewing its different books from the standpoint of the period when they were written and the social setting, historical circumstances, and climate of thought in those times. With this is usually joined also a study of the kind of literary form that is used and of the purpose of the author. This is needed because the Bible is not one book but a library of sixty-six books. Not all of it is history, for it also contains poetry, philosophy, folklore, genealogy, law codes, sermons, letters, and much else that must be viewed in the light of what its authors in those times were trying to say through these varied literary forms. Such a study leads to what has been stated earlier in this chapter -- that the Bible is not in every word an infallible revelation of God, but that it is a record made through human instruments of the way in which God was teaching, guiding, rebuking, sustaining, and ever seeking to redeem and save his people.

For example, the Bible was written in a pre-scientific age and was never intended to serve as a book of science. Accordingly, it is futile to try to find a scientific account of creation in the great prose poem with which the Book of Genesis opens. Yet this does not set aside the tremendous spiritual truth expressed in the words "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Wrestle as we may with the problem of pain in God’s world, there is still a meaning in the refrain of that story, "And God saw that it was good," which neither philosophy nor science can set aside.

Textual and historical criticism meet in a special kind of literary study called form criticism. Many of the books of the Bible, including the Synoptic Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke, from which much of our knowledge of the words and deeds of Jesus is derived -- are compilations from earlier manuscripts and fragments. These were apparently put together following certain patterns; and form criticism, which is a highly technical study, attempts to sort these out. At the beginning of this kind of study some feared that our faith in Jesus might be challenged. On the contrary, however, we understand him better than before.

In recent years there have been important archeological discoveries in Palestine. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and later has been an event of the first magnitude. On the whole they corroborate rather than contradict the history given in the Bible. But more important than historical accuracy is the way in which the timeless and eternal spiritual truths of the Bible speak to us today.

The Bible gives us a world with God in it, through it, and above it. It gives us Christ to show us God and teach us the way of love. It gives us the Spirit of God in the living Christ ever near to bless, to comfort, and to strengthen us. It shows us how we ought to live during our years on earth and promises us an eternal home with God. It offers forgiveness of sin and victory over pain, sin, and death. It is therefore the most important book in the world. It is contemporary because it is timeless. When we read the Bible not merely with credulous but with receptive minds and hearts, God speaks to us through it. Indeed, "it is God’s eternal Word to every generation."

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