The Bible Today
by C. H. Dodd
Chapter 2: The Approach to the Bible
The Church, we have seen, offers the Bible, in both testaments, as the authoritative record of a divine revelation in history. The Old Testament was accepted as such from the very first. Indeed, one can hardly speak of the Church as ‘accepting’ the Old Testament. The Old Testament was there, and the Church grew up in dependence upon it. Gradually the writings of the New Testament came to be placed upon an equal footing of authority, and in the end the whole corpus of writings was acknowledged as ‘Holy Scripture’.
This recognition did not in early times carry with it any objection to free and candid criticism of the writings of the Old and New Testaments. It seems necessary to say this because it is often supposed that biblical criticism is an invention of the ‘Age of Reason’, to be hailed as an example of our superior enlightenment or reprobated as an act of irreverence according to taste. But this is a mistake. The foundations of biblical criticism were laid in the first four centuries of the Christian era. A most comprehensive and thorough critical edition of the text of the Old Testament was produced in the third century by that very great Christian scholar, Origen of Caesarea. There was a considerable amount of critical discussion upon such questions as the authorship of various writings, and their relative value, upon contradictions in the Old Testament and divergences among the four Gospels. Such discussion was informed by the excellent principles and methods of Greek scholarship. To take one instance, there is preserved an admirable piece of biblical criticism from the middle of the third century by Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria. He reviews the evidence for the authorship of the book of Revelation. He challenges the generally accepted view that it was written by the Apostle John. He argues from a comparison with the Fourth Gospel that the two writings could not have come from the same pen. His arguments have never been effectively answered and, although his view did not prevail in antiquity, modern critical scholarship almost unanimously supports his conclusion.
More important still is the freedom of interpretation which we find in these early biblical students. Such freedom was indispensable when the Jewish canon was taken over by the Church. From the beginning it was assumed that the Old ‘Testament was in part abrogated by the Gospel. Just how far abrogation went was matter for discussion. Since some people wanted to throw the Old Testament overboard, the question needed careful treatment. It could be approached only through a scholarly consideration and comparison of a great variety of texts, and a sustained attempt to ascertain their true meaning.
It was assumed that the Old Testament as a whole needed interpreting in the light of the new teachings of Christianity. To the task of re-interpretation the leaders of Christian thought gave diligent attention. In dealing with the problem, they made free use of an allegorical method of interpretation, which was a legacy from ancient Greek scholarship. A familiar example of this method is to be found in the chapter-headings provided in older editions of our Authorised Version for the Song of Solomon. The book appears to be a sequence of love-lyrics. The chapter-headings, following a long tradition, interpret them with reference to the mystical loves of Christ and the Church. That is rather an extreme example.
The allegorical method however, within its proper limits, is by no means without justification or legitimate use. There are unquestionably parts of the Bible where the real meaning intended by the author is not the plain literal sense of the words, and where an unintelligent insistence upon the literal sense stands in the way of a true understanding.
There is a clear case in the Book of Jonah. The famous ‘whale’, or rather sea-monster (Jonah I. 17.), is no zoological specimen. The ancient monster of chaos, the dragon of darkness, was a familiar figure in several mythologies of the ancient world, and the story how a god or hero was swallowed by the monster but made his victorious escape, was widely known, and carried a well-recognized symbolic meaning. When the Gospel according to Matthew uses the story of Jonah as a symbol of resurrection from the dead, (Matthew xii. 40.) it is not very far from the original intention of the myth. It seems probable that the author of the Book of Jonah applied it to the resurrection of the Israelite nation after its submergence by the Babylonian conquest. In any case, we are dealing here with symbolism, and a recognition of this fact might have saved much embarrassment.
This is not the only case of the kind. The element of symbolism is deeply embedded in the structure of biblical thought. It pervades the poetical language of the prophets, and enters into the parables of the Gospels. Again, religious ritual is inherently symbolical wherever it occurs, and not least in the Bible. The prophets, too, were accustomed to perform actions having about them something of the solemnity of ritual, with the intention that they should symbolize truths which they wished to enunciate. (E.g. Jeremiah xix. 1-2, 10-13 (the prophet smashes an earthenware jar to symbolize the completeness of the destruction awaiting Jerusalem), xxvii. 2 [he wears a yoke to symbolize the ‘subjugation’ of the peoples]; Ezekiel iv. 1-- 3 [the prophet makes a model of a besieged city with a tile and an iron pan to symbolize the siege of Jerusalem]. In such cases the symbolism is on the surface. A similar symbolic intention may well provide the key to some rather puzzling stories.) It would clearly be a mistake to tie down such writers to the bare literal sense of their words in every case.
There is a further point. Any great event which stirs the imagination gathers about it an ‘aura’ of emotional significance which translates it into a symbol, and the symbol may grow in meaning with the process of time. Most nations have such symbolic events in their tradition. Think, for example, of the place held in our own tradition by such an event as the signing of Magna Carta, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. In like manner the emancipation, or ‘redemption’, of Israel from Egyptian servitude by the crossing of the Red Sea came to stand as a symbol, first, of God’s providence over His people, and then of the ‘redemption’ of mankind in a far deeper sense. (See, e.g., Deuteronomy vii. 8; Psalm cxxx. 8; I Peter i. 18).
There is therefore a sound basis for the use of the allegorical method in interpreting the Scriptures. Although it too easily gets out of hand, yet the contrary error of a bald and prosaic literalism may easily miss the full meaning. In the biblical exegesis of the early Church the method had a real value. It gave freedom from the tyranny of already antiquated forms of thought; freedom from the necessity of accepting at their face value, as part of a divine revelation, puerile and sometimes revolting survivals from primitive times. It gave an opening, of which some of the finest minds took full advantage, for a genuinely imaginative treatment of the Bible; and the role of imagination in the apprehension of religious truth should never be under-estimated, though imagination should not be allowed to decline into fantasy.
But while all this is true, it is also true that the over-free use of allegory has a flattening and blunting effect. It is fatally easy to escape the full impact of a difficult passage by giving it a non-natural meaning. Anything can stand for anything else, and nothing has any sharp outline.
It is a good rule that in trying to understand the Bible one should not have recourse to a figurative or allegorical explanation of any passage (outside those poetical and prophetical compositions which obviously have a symbolic intention) without first settling conclusions with the straightforward meaning, even if it seems offensive; for the offence may set up that tension in the mind through which we often reach the truth. (For an example, see pp. 28-29).
It seemed worth while saying this, because in these last years there has been a renewed interest in these half-forgotten methods of biblical interpretation. It is to be welcomed so far as it frees the study of the Bible, and especially of the Old Testament, from an arid historical literalism; but it has grave dangers, dangers which were certainly not altogether avoided by the allegorists of the early and mediaeval Church, and of which their modern followers should be aware.
However that may be, the sustained labours of generations of early biblical scholars gradually established certain broad controlling principles of interpretation; and these ultimately crystallized into a general schema, by which the study of the Bible was henceforth to be directed. It rested upon a true, if in some respects limited, understanding of the two testaments in their historical relations. At any rate it emerged out of the Bible itself, and was not imposed upon it.
In this schema, the Old Testament appears as a series of prophecies and ‘types’ which are ‘fulfilled’ in the New Testament. Not only the words of the prophets, but also the actions that make up Old Testament history, foreshadow the action as well as the thought of the New Testament. This twofold structure of history -- prophecy and fulfilment, type and anti-type -- is rounded off at the beginning by the story of the Creation and Fall of man, and at the end by the Last Judgment; but the central and decisive place is held by that which is central in the New Testament: the proclamation of the coming of Christ -- His birth, life, death and resurrection -- as the controlling fact of all history, whether before or after, from which the meaning of it all is to be understood.
This schema provided a framework for Christian thought and devotion all through the Middle Ages. It shaped the pattern of the Church’s services for the Christian Year, with their lessons from the Old and New Testaments, and their liturgical Gospels and Epistles. It is illustrated in the religious art of the period, notably in the stained glass which once adorned the windows of our parish churches. Where the original arrangement of glass can still be seen complete (as, for example, at Fairford in the Cotswolds), you walk up the nave with prophets on your left, uttering their predictions of things to come, and apostles and evangelists on your right, announcing the fulfilment. You thus approach the east end of the church, where the whole Gospel drama is illustrated scene by scene, from the Annunciation of the birth of Christ to His Ascension. Then you turn about, to be confronted by the great west window, with its flaming picture of Doomsday.
How far the Bible was familiar to the laity -- or to the ordinary parish priest, for that matter -- during the Middle Ages, is a question upon which mediaeval historians appear to differ; but it is safe to say that what knowledge of the Bible there was lay within the schema, which gave the key to its understanding. Broadly speaking, it is probably true to say that the Church was more concerned to communicate the schema to the laity than the Bible itself; but in doing so it ensured that whatever of the biblical material became available, either by direct reading, or through liturgy and offices, through sermons, hymns or pictures, was seen in a well-defined perspective.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a movement set in for popularizing the Scriptures. In this country, it produced the first complete English translation of the Bible, which was directly inspired by the teaching of John Wycliffe. His contention was that the laity, being God’s vassals, should be able to instruct themselves in His law (every private in the army of the Lord, so to speak, should have access to King’s Regulations). This movement paved the way for the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The restoration of the Bible to the laity was a major plank in the reformers’ platform. If, as the Church had always taught, the Bible contained God’s revelation to man, every man (they urged) ought to be able to read it for himself, and not to be dependent upon what might reach him by indirect channels.
In thus opening the entire Canon of Scripture to the free study of the laity, the reformers did not intend to abandon the ancient framework within which it was to be understood. They themselves were well-instructed in the traditional schema, and it controlled the biblical theology of Calvin, for example, not less than that of mediaeval theologians. But in placing the Bible at the disposal of the uninstructed they took a fateful step. It could now be read, and was widely read, ‘without note or comment’, without the guidance which had been supplied by tradition. To allow and encourage this was inevitably to admit the right of private judgement in interpreting it. In the course of controversy the reformers were led to go further than they had intended at first, and to claim for the whole Bible indiscriminately, in and by itself, exposed as it now was to the possible vagaries of private interpretation, an absolute authority displacing that of the Catholic Church. The Church of Rome replied by an increased rigidity in its control of Bible-reading. The cleavage which ensued had unfortunate results.
In the Churches of the Reformation the immediate result was, undeniably, an outburst of religious spontaneity such as marks periods of expansion and revival, comparable with prophetic movements in the early Church and in the history of
the Old Testament. The enthusiasm with which the Bible was read, and its sublime utterances greeted, by those to whom they came for the first time in their own tongue, as something entirely fresh, set free spiritual energy in creative ways. Parts of the Bible which under the rigidity of the traditional schema had lost vital interest now seemed to disclose unsuspected wealth of meaning to awakened and liberated minds.
But there was another side to it. The claim that the Bible could be read, just as it stood, without the guidance of tradition, and with equal authority attaching to all its parts, exposed it to the dangers of a chaotic individualism. Where there was no longer any common standard or perspective, the line was not easily drawn between a just freedom of responsible judgement and the play of arbitrary preference. It was this state of affairs that evoked the satirical epigram,
Hic liber est in quo quaerit sua dogmata quisque;
Invenit et pariter dogmata quisque sua.
(This is the book where everyone seeks his own proper opinion; This is the book where still everyone finds what he seeks.)
It is impossible to question the immense stimulus, spiritual and intellectual, which a large part of Christendom received from the opening up of the Bible at the Reformation. But it is equally impossible to deny that the reformed communions and sects were exposed to the risk of its less favourable results. On the one hand the maxim, ‘The Bible and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants’, was construed in a way which demanded that equal and absolute authority should be accorded to every part of the Old and New Testaments indiscriminately, since it was all ‘verbally inspired’. No doubt sensible people always found ways of evading the more obviously absurd consequences of such a view; but it went far to hinder a just understanding of the Bible in its integrity. On the other hand, the demand for unqualified freedom of interpretation opened the way to limitless aberrations. An extreme example is to be found in the exploitation of the more obscure ‘apocalyptic’ writings’ such as the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the book of Revelation in the New, which became the licensed playground of every crank. Short of such extremes, however, an irresponsible use of freedom, especially in the interests of controversy, often led to loss of a just perspective and distorted the proportions of the biblical picture.
Then came the revival of biblical criticism, and the modern period began. Some years ago, before the Four Years’ War, a daily paper initiated a ‘silly season’ correspondence on the subject, ‘Should parsons criticize the Bible?’ To this Punch replied by posing the question, ‘Should railway porters criticize Bradshaw?’ Apparently Mr Punch’s young men associated the term ‘criticism’ with the idea of censure or fault-finding, which the word does often imply, as used colloquially. It is probable that some prejudice against biblical criticism has been aroused among religious persons by this half-conscious association of ideas. But it is hardly necessary to say that a biblical ‘critic ‘is not one who sets himself above the Bible and points out its defects. Biblical criticism means nothing but applying to the biblical documents the rational or scientific methods of scholarship which are applied in other fields of study.
As we have seen, the great theologians of the early Church practised biblical criticism. Much of the information that has come down to us by tradition about the authorship, place and date of biblical writings, about differences of text and translation, and the like, is the outcome of intelligent critical discussion which took place between the first century and the fourth. After that the discussion was virtually closed down for some centuries. The problems were assumed to be solved, and authority guaranteed the solutions.
Critical scholarship came back to Western Europe with the revival of classical studies at the Renaissance. The new learning penetrated slowly into our field. It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that biblical criticism made its most serious advances.
It is usual to speak of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ criticism. The terms are singularly infelicitous, but they have established themselves in usage. ‘Lower criticism’ attempts to restore the original text of a book, when it has been subject to variation in the course of transmission. With books which, like those of the Bible, were transmitted in manuscript for many centuries, the possibilities of variation are very great, and the work of textual criticism (as it is better called) is correspondingly serious. ‘Higher criticism’ discusses such questions as those of date, authorship, relation to other documents; it compares documents with one another, notes divergences or contradictions, and attempts to determine between them. It is with ‘higher’ criticism that we are here mainly concerned.
It is characteristic of modern biblical criticism that it employs the historical method. This means that questions of chronology bulk largely. This may seem a dull business. What indeed could be duller than ‘dates’? But to get the documents into the right order is the first step towards studying them intelligently as records of an historical process; and as we have seen, that is what the Bible is. In fact it is not too much to say that biblical criticism met the post-Reformation confusion, in which the unity once imposed by the traditional schema had been largely lost, by imposing upon the Bible a new unity, that of an ascertained chronological succession of events and of movements of thought.
I may illustrate this point from a neighbouring field of study. I have been reading a little book recently published under the title The Three Ages, by Dr Glyn Daniel. It describes the beginning of the scientific study of pre-historic man. In 1816 a Danish antiquarian named Thomsen was appointed curator of the newly formed National Museum at Copenhagen. His first task was to arrange his collection of antiquities. To bring some order into the mass of pre-historic remains which lay about in confusion, he sorted them out on the basis of the materials used for weapons and implements -- stone, bronze and iron. It then occurred to him that this was not a mere classification for convenience, but represented a chronological sequence -- Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. Subsequent excavation proved that the three ages were historical facts, and the foundation was laid upon which our modern knowledge of early man has been built. The historical critics perform a somewhat similar service to biblical study.
Anyone can see that the Old and New Testaments contain a mass of disparate material, often perplexing in its variety. Criticism not only sorts it out, but arranges it in a chronological order and establishes relations between the various parts. It does this, not by guess work, and certainly not by indulging personal preference or caprice, but by employing scientific methods of observation, analysis, hypothesis and verification, which are well tested in other fields of study. It is a rational and scientific discipline, and its findings are true or untrue according to the evidence in each particular case. If such findings are often tentative or uncertain, it is because of the nature of the subject-matter, and such uncertainty does not discredit the method. The results may be challenged on this point or that: it is a matter of evidence and of the competence of the person who is dealing with it. As a special branch of study it aims at being objective, rational, scientific. Its methods may in future be improved, its presuppositions revised, but it stands firm as a self-justifying part of the reasonable search for knowledge, and its abandonment would be a ‘flight from reason’.
The nineteenth-century critics, however, worked, like all of us, under the influence of the intellectual climate of their time. It was the time when the newly enunciated theory of evolution was becoming dominant over the whole field of the natural sciences, and seemed to many minds to have provided, at last, a universal key to knowledge of the world and of man. Like other historians, the historical critics of the Bible made it their aim to interpret the course of human history on the analogy of biological evolution. The reconstruction of the biblical history which they produced is now commonly called the ‘liberal’ view -- though the term ‘liberal’ is here used in a sense originally German rather than English, and should not be made a stick to beat those who are ‘liberal’ in a different sense. It is not the result of a purely objective analysis of the documents. It presupposes a particular theory about the nature of history, and the evidence of the documents is interpreted in subordination to that theory. Looking back, we can see that this presupposition has often given a distorting bias to the work of the critics. In other fields of historical investigation (and notably in pre-history) it now appears that the earlier evolutionary reconstructions were over-simplified’; and so is the ‘liberal’, evolutionary reconstruction of the biblical history.
What is more important, the earlier critics did less than justice to the fact that the Bible has its own doctrine about the nature of history, which deserves to be understood and appreciated in itself. What the biblical view of history is, we shall have to enquire later. For the present we note that the association of biblical criticism with the ‘liberal’ interpretation of biblical history is accidental, and needs to be re-examined.
We have in fact moved during recent years into a new period of biblical study, which may be described as ‘post-liberal’: not however ‘post-critical’. The critical method is not antiquated, even though some of the earlier critical views must be revised. If we are bound to criticize the great critics of the last century, we are also bound to confess that where we have gone beyond them it is by standing on their shoulders. It is a testimony to the scientific integrity of the critical school that by applying its own methods more strictly it was led to discard many of the presuppositions upon which it formerly relied, and to arrive at what I believe to be a juster estimate of the material with which it deals. Be suspicious of any suggestion. that we can afford to by-pass criticism. The way of advance lies through and not round the critical problem.
Granted, however, that biblical criticism is a legitimate, and even a useful, branch of scientific study, is it important for the general reader, who has no particular interest in matters of archaeology or ancient history? It is quite true that it has accumulated, like any other special science, a vast and complex mass of detail which does not greatly matter to anyone but the specialist. I should be sorry to suggest that the only way to an understanding of the Bible lies through the latest refinements of critical scholarship. But the problems with which criticism is concerned are problems that face any reader who wishes to understand the Scriptures, and the critical method, as a means of approach to the Scriptures, is acutely relevant to any serious study of the Bible as a religious book.
To begin with, since the Bible comes to us (as we have seen) as a revelation of divine truth in the form of a history of events, the principle of succession in time is essential to it. Revelation is not what the cinema trade (I believe) calls a ‘still’; it is a moving picture. It is a drama. Or if you will, it is a musical symphony. The film, the drama, the symphony, conveys its meaning and value by movement. The movement is essential to it, even though in the end movement is transcended in a unity of apprehension. So with the Bible. The movement of events is the instrument through which truth is conveyed -- the movement of events, and the movement of thought; for the movement of thought also is history, and the writing of the Book of Job or the Epistle to the Romans is an event, and part of the succession of events through which the unity of revelation is given. Consequently the correct placing of documents in an historical series is a part of the study of revelation.
It is only by grasping this fact that we arrive at a satisfying answer to the problem presented by the crudities and imperfections of certain parts of the Bible. These crudities and imperfections play their part in the process of revelation, in the act of being transcended by something higher. Let us take an example.
Any humane mind is revolted by the accounts of atrocities recorded to have been committed by the Israelites during the conquest of Palestine, and recorded without any expression of disapproval. ‘Go and smite Amalek... and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ (Read the story in I Samuel xv. It is the more pointed because obedience to this revoking command is taken as a test of loyalty to God, and Saul’s faint leaning to mercy is unsparingly condemned.) When such injunctions have been taken at their face value, they have had disastrous effects upon the moral judgements, and the actions, of Christian people; as when Cromwell’s devout troopers massacred the ‘idolatrous’ Irish Catholics of Drogheda (just as centuries earlier, the pious Simon de Montfort exterminated the Albigensian heretics). In the main tradition of Christian teaching the Amalekites are taken to be a symbol for the ‘spiritual hosts of wickedness’ with which we are to contend d outrance. Upon this assumption the whole story becomes not only innocuous, but edifying. But the prophet who gave that bloodthirsty command, and the writer who recorded it, were not thinking of spiritual adversaries. They honestly thought that the ruthless extermination of that unfortunate border tribe was well-pleasing to God. We may say that such ruthlessness was, at that primitive stage, inseparable from the stern discipline by which the clans of Israel were separated from their neighbours and made ready to bear witness to an exclusive loyalty to one God, unique in the ancient world. But before that witness could become effective the whole idea of a divinely sanctioned brutality had to be purged from the system. The distance travelled between Samuel’s ‘Go and utterly destroy those sinners the Amalekites!’ and the Gospel precept, ‘Love your enemies ‘, (Matthew v. 44) is the measure of the way we have to travel, following the movement of the biblical history, (We may note one particular milestone on the way. About 840 BC. Jehu, incited by the prophet Elisha, rebelled against King Joram. The rebellion was successful. Jehu treacherously massacred the entire royal family at their residence of Jeareel, as well as vast numbers of their adherents, whom the prophet regarded as idolators. Jehu was confident that he was winning merit. ‘Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord’, he called out as he drove to the scene of the massacre [II Kings ix-x]. A century later another prophet, Hosea [i. 4], bitterly condemns the ‘blood-bath of Jezreel’. The change of attitude is associated with a new conception of the character of God.) in discerning the will of God. The Gospel precept challenges, not simply our unreasoning and unworthy hatreds, but those hatreds which we feel, as did the early Israelites, we ought to cherish (‘Do I not hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee? . . . . I hate them with perfect hatred’[Psalm cxxxix, 21-22]). If at this moment the shoe pinches hard, then we are experiencing the tension through which truth becomes our own possession.
Thus we may face the scandal and offence which some parts of the Bible offer to the mind, without timidly attempting to explain them away. Indeed, whether or not they present this kind of difficulty) we can afford to give full weight to the plain, original meaning of the documents. The writer may speak for himself, and say to us exactly what he meant to say to his first readers. We require no crude attempts to ‘modernize’ his words. We listen to him with the humility which will not interrupt him in order to square what he says with what we think he ought to have said. We shall allow him to give his own answers to his own questions, and not insist that he must always be answering ours. The true meaning of any positive statement depends on the question to which it is the answer. One service that the historical approach to the Bible can render is to make us aware of the questions that lay before the writers, so that we understand their answers before we apply them to our own problems.
For example, the first chapter in the Bible, which gives an account of the creation of the world, caused much searching of heart to an earlier generation of readers, just because the question was wrongly put. At that time people were much exercised by the new researches into the origin of species and kindred problems. They assumed that the first chapter of Genesis gave the biblical answer to the same questions as those which occupied modern biologists and geologists, an answer not acceptable to the scientific mind. But in fact the author of that chapter was not concerned with the scientific problem of the origin of species. Critical analysis helps to put the matter in the right perspective.
It shows that the first chapter of Genesis is a relatively late composition. We have in the second chapter an earlier, and cruder, Hebrew story of creation. The account in the first chapter was written after the prophets had done their great work towards a purer and more spiritual religion. At that time there were many stories of creation current among the Israelites and their neighbours, relics of a ruder age. The Babylonians, for example, among whom the Jews lived in exile, told (with much picturesque detail) how the Creator-god had fought and overcome the monster of chaos, cut her in halves, and made heaven of one half and earth of the other. There is reason to believe that a rather similar story once had a vogue among the Israelites themselves. How could a Creator so conceived be offered the spiritual worship which the prophets had taught? For that matter, what are we to say about the story in the second chapter of Genesis -- how God made a clay model of a man and brought it to life by breathing on it? We may read it, in the light of a long-established allegorical tradition, as a parable of deeper truths; but to the Jews of the fifth century BC, who took it at its face value, the Hebrew story, though not grotesque like the Babylonian, was too ingenuous and childlike to command the ‘reverence and godly fear’ which belongs to all high religion. This, then, was the question which faced religious teachers of the time: How may we speak of the mystery of the Creator’s relation to His world, so as to do justice to the majesty and transcendence of the one God, and to evoke the reverent worship which is His due?
Now read what one of them has written:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was waste and void;
And darkness was upon the face of the deep;
And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, ‘Let there be light!’
And there was light.
So the story proceeds, in a vein of pure imagination, stripped of all puerile fancies, to evoke the idea of a God who ‘spake and it was done’. His word, the utterance of a thinking Mind and a deliberate Will, illuminates the dark abyss of nothingness, and calls into being things that are not.
This is the intention of the creation-story of Genesis i. The question before its author lay not in the field of scientific matter of fact, but in the field of religious truth. His answer will give us no help towards solving the problems of physics and biology, but if we ask the deeper and more fundamental questions about the nature of God and His relation to man and the world, then his answer has permanent relevance. His idea of the creative Word, in fact, holds a commanding position in the history of thought,’ and, in its developed form, it has become central to the philosophy of the Christian religion.
This will serve to illustrate the point that a critical and historical approach to the biblical writings puts us in the way of understanding their meaning more precisely, because we allow the writers to speak for themselves, giving their own answers to their own questions. These questions will not always be those that are occupying our minds at the moment. Very often the best service that our reading can do us is to raise prior questions, questions which need to be asked and answered before we can profitably consider the immediate problems, private or public, practical or theoretical, upon which we should wish to get light. Nothing is more certain than that an intelligent reading of the Bible does bring effective guidance in the most urgent and actual present problems; but to get it we must submit ourselves to the discipline of listening to words that were not intended for us at all.
We have seen that at one period a rigid scheme of interpretation tended to blanket the direct impact of the Bible upon the mind; and at another period the license of private interpretation threatened to befog it in a cloud of individual predilections. The critical method finds its way between the horns of the dilemma. It rejects restraint from without upon liberty of interpretation, and at the same time excludes an arbitrary or capricious use of liberty by accepting the intrinsic control of the historical movement within the Bible itself.
In what follows our approach to the Bible will be critical and historical.