A Guide to Understanding the Bible

by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most eminent and often controversial of the preachers of the first half of the twentieth century.

Published by Harper & Brothers.in many editions in the 1930s. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


(ENTIRE BOOK) A clear and helpful explanation of the development of key ideas within the Old and New Testament including the idea of God, man, right and wrong, suffering, paryer and immortality.


  • Introduction

    Biblical scholarship of the last half of the 19th century has made it possible to arrange the texts in approximate chronological order as well as develop broad chronological outlines. This book is not written by a technical scholar and not written for technical scholars but for the general public.

  • Chapter 1: The Idea of God

    From the beginnings of the Bible to the end, the advance in the idea of God was extreme: Beginning with a territorial deity who loved his clansmen and hated the remainder of mankind, it ends with a great multitude out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, worshiping one universal Father; beginning with a god who walked in the garden in the cool of the day, it ends with the God whom "no man hath seen…at any time."

  • Chapter 2: The Idea of Man

    The Old Testament starts with social solidarity so complete that the individual has practically no rights, and achieves at last profound insight into the meaning, worth, and possibility of personal life. The New Testament starts with personalities as in themselves supremely valuable, and conceives the "beloved community" in terms of their free cooperation and the social hope of the kingdom of God the crowning evidence of their faith and loyalty.

  • Chapter 3: The Idea of Right and Wrong

    There were three main limitations on early Hebrew morals: the field of ethical obligation was tribally constricted; within the tribal circle certain classes were denied full personal rights; and the nature of moral conduct was interpreted in such external terms of custom and ritual as to make small demand on internal insight and quality. The progress made, therefore, in the later stages of the Old Testament, in the inter-Testamental period, and in the New Testament, may be interpreted as the overpassing of these three inadequacies. The thought expressed here is adverse to those who claim apocalypticism as the real creator of the new Testament’s ethic.

  • Chapter 4: The Idea of Suffering

    All concepts of suffering found in the Old Testament are also found in the New Testament. Both saw that some human pain and torment are punitive, that some trouble is disciplinary was taken for granted, that in one way or another the cosmic process should not in the end be ethically unsatisfactory, that the whole experience of suffering remained mysterious, but that the climactic element in the New Testament’s contribution to the understanding of suffering is to be found in its treatment of vicarious self-sacrifice.

  • Chapter 5: The Idea of Fellowship with God

    The idea of the fellowship with God (prayer) development from the unapproachableness to the immediate accessibility of God, and from magical and ceremonial conditions of divine fellowship to the moral fitness of a sincere soul, represents one of the most permanently valuable contributions of Hebrew-Christian religion.

  • Chapter 6: The Idea of Immortality

    In the Old Testament even the references to life after death are few; in the New Testament from the beginning the reader is in an atmosphere of radiant hope concerning life eternal. Considered as a whole, the development of ideas in the Bible concerning the future life represents one of the most notable and influential unfoldings of thought in history.

  • Approximate Chronology of the Old Testament Writings
  • Approximate Chronology of the New Testament Writings