How God Inspired the Bible

Thoughts for the Present Disquiet
J. Paterson Smyth, Kingstown, Ireland, 1892

J. Paterson Smyth (1852-1932) (B.D., Litt.D., LL.D., D.C.L.): Rector of St. George's, Montreal; Late Professor of Pastoral Theology in Dublin University; Author of "How God Inspired the Bible", "How to Read the Bible", "The Story of St. Paul's Life and Letters".


Book I.
The Present Disquiet and its Remedy

Chapter I. Disquiet.

The "Problem of the Day."

The burning question of the day in the so-called "religious world," and indeed in an increasingly large circle without it as well, is that of the true position of the Bible. Many men are everywhere asking, though perhaps not always asking aloud: What of the claims of the Bible, what of its inspiration? How far is it human in its origin? How far is it Divine? How far is it infallible? Is it merely the word of "holy men of old," or is its every utterance literally "the Word of God"?

Never was there more interest, more inquiry, and, I fear I must add, more disquiet amongst thoughtful people with regard to these questions. Men are no longer satisfied with the old answers to them. It is foolishness to talk of the danger and unwisdom of publicly discussing them now. Even if it were right to ignore them, they cannot be ignored. They are no longer questions confined to critics and theologians, or discussed only in abstruse, inaccessible books. Our popular magazines and religious newspapers continually refer to them. The public are freely taken into the confidence of scholars, and taught all, and often more than all, that these scholars know themselves.

At all times such questions have occupied men's minds as they thought about certain problems presented by the Bible. But they have in the main been shirked and put aside as too difficult or too irreverent. That can never be again. There is a freedom and fearlessness about these questions to-day which demands that they shall be answered one way or another. There has come to us a crisis in the history of the Bible, a crisis through which our generation must pass - amid strife and heart-burnings, it may be - amid doubts and fears for the future of religion - but whose results will ultimately be the enthroning of the Bible in a position firmer and more lasting than it has ever held before in the hearts of Christian people.

All such crises are from the hand of God, part of His method of guiding the world's progress. The history of religious thought is but a record of such crises. Whenever a truth has in course of time become encrusted with error, it is by thus shaking and disturbing men's beliefs that the evil is to be remedied. "Yet once more" God is thus shaking the popular notions about the Bible: "And this Word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, .. , that the things cannot be shaken may remain." (Heb. 12:27)

Let us watch this process now that is going on around us. Let us note the various groups that are, some of them unconsciously, working out for the Bible the good purposes of God.

I. The Disquieted Thinker.

Let us first regard the large and rapidly growing class for which primarily this book is being written - the thoughtful religious man who is disquieted about his Bible because he has had to break with traditional view of it, and has not yet been able to find any other. Let us believe, as we are bound to do in the case of every honest thinker, that his rising disquiet and dissatisfaction are but the means through which the God of truth is helping him to higher truth. Let us notice how his attitude toward the Bible is affected by the different phases of thought with which he comes in contact.

(A writer in the London Times of January 7th, 1892, describes them as "this great third party of enormous numbers, and rolling on like a snow-ball;" and another of the 14th says, "I belong to that vast party. I was brought up in the traditional beliefs about the Bible, and I have suffered the exquisite pain of finding my Bible slipping from me.")

"I do not reject or disbelieve the Bible," he says. "Far from it. But my mind is disturbed about it. My faith in it is shaken. I read some expressions of its inspired men that seem to me very far below the standard of Christ. I hear of discrepancies in its history, of contradictions to established decisions of science, of crudeness and imperfection in its early moral teaching, of compiling and editing and revising and re-revising in books that I almost looked on as direct from the finger of God. I still try to cling to it for comfort and help. I feel that, even if these charges be true, it would still remain the most marvellous book in the world. But I am perplexed and disquieted. I hardly know what to believe about it. I have lost that perfect unquestioning confidence which used to be such a comfort in turning to its pages."

II. The Secularist.

"And recently my difficulties have grown sharper and more defined. I know something of the secularist propaganda throughout England. I meet with men who are secularists and infidels, some of them with rancorous bitterness against all religion; but some of them, too, with sad and honest hearts, who seem fearlessly seeking the truth alone. And I notice that their chief difficulties are connected with the Bible. If ever I glance at the weekly accounts of secularist lectures in the large towns of England, if I meet with the common literature of the infidel press, everywhere I find that the Bible forms the chief object of attack. The gibe and the sneer, and sometimes, I must confess, the earnest, powerful argument, are directed against difficulties which seem presented by the Bible. Some of these difficulties are such as have long ago spontaneously presented themselves to my own mind, and I have tried to forget them or leave them unread. I have thought it best to `let sleeping dogs lie.' But they will not lie any longer now. These Bible assailants have roused them with a vengeance. The laugh is raised at the `Christian superstition which believes in the stupendous miracle of the stopping of the universe that Joshua might complete his victory over the Canaanites.' With mocking emphasis are read the `words of the loving God,' `O daughter of Babylon, happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones!'

"I feel myself cringe as I hear such expressions launched with vigour, and earnestness into an audience of working-men who have been taught to regard the Bible just as I have been taught, and as the lecturer himself was taught in his childhood. And I cannot see, at least from their point of view and mine, how such difficulties are to be answered."

III. The Biblical Scholar.

"But another influence, and from a very different quarter, has still more affected my beliefs. I find things subversive of many of my notions about the Bible put forward by men who are no sceptics or scoffers or enemies of religion, but who seem to have reverently and for many years investigated the phenomena of the Bible. They are professors in the universities, bishops and dignitaries in the Church, men of distinguished scholarship, of undoubted piety, of widely differing schools of religious opinion. I gather that they cannot regard the Bible as they did in their childhood, and as it is popularly regarded by thousands of holy men and women to-day. They find more of the human in it, they say, though not, when rightly understood, less of the Divine. They think it has more in common with other books tLan is generally believed, especially in the writings of the Old Testament. They think it quite possible for the ancient auuthoritis to have made crude and incorrect statements in science and history. They point out the lower morality of the Old Testament as compared with the New. They find traces of a much freer literary treatment of the books than is consistent, certainly with my notions of inspiration.

"In the face of all this I feel it almost impossible to hold the notions about the Bible which I have been taught and yet to give up these seems to me to give up the Divine authority of Scripture altogether."

IV. Orthodox Controversialist.

Let us trace a little further this doubter's experience, and see what help in his disquiet he receives from his religious friends. This is usually what we shall find. Some of them are modest, simple Christians who live much in communion with God, regard the Bible as the sacred source of their comfort and strength, and shrink sensitively from the free and often flippant criticism to which nowadays it is so frequently subjected. They regard their friend's disquiet as a temptation of Satan; one that has attempted an entrance into their own hearts at times and troubled them sorely. It is a trial of his faith, they say; he must resolutely turn away his thoughts from such subjects; he must earnestly fight those doubts upon his knees. And though they cannot satisfy him, yet somehow their simple faith brings him comfort and hope. He sees that they are not very logical, but he sees, too, that the Bible has been a great power in their lives; that they are away up on the heights with God in a region where difficulties such as his have scarce power to disquiet; and almost unconsciously to himself his faith is strengthened and helped by theirs.

Others of them are - let me draw from the life, from one of the best specimens I know of those who hold the traditional views of inspiration - thoughtful, clear-minded, godly men, who can read and interest themselves in the main questions about the Bible, but without any perceptible doubt or uneasiness to themselves, partly on account of their placid disposition; partly through their finding so much of the holy and beautiful in Scripture that they never trouble themselves about difficulties at all; partly, too, because through that delightful inconsistency by which so many a man escapes the conclusions of his premises, they can loosely hold the popular views of inspiration and yet pleasantly slip out of the difficulties when they come. But such as these cannot help my disquieted thinker.

Lastly come those satisfied, self-confident men who are "cock-sure" of everything, who never think of holding their judgment in suspense. Some of my readers will recognize the class-men who have never troubled themselves much with real thinking, who have never doubted and never investigated, who consider religion itself bound up with their notions of inspiration, and thus fearfully peril all faith in the Bible. Inspiration, in its Divine largeness and freedom and grandeur, is an idea quite beyond them. Their notion is of a sort of rigid superintendence to guarantee that each little detail of the Bible history be absolutely correct; that its science shall be unassailable in the light of the nineteenth century; that its moral teaching in every period shall be perfect. To attempt to question this is, in their opinion, to endanger the whole foundations of religion. Such men as these are the chief cause of disquiet, and the chief cause of the discredit of the Bible. They pledge God's inspiration, they pledge Christianity itself, to the truth of their own mechanical theories. They give to the infidel his chief victories over religion. They make sad the seeking souls whom God has not made sad; they unconsciously make void the Word of God by their traditions, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.

Such are the classes of helpers which an inquirer most frequently meets amongst his associates in the religious world. Seldom does he discuss these difficulties with his clergy. Seldom does he happen on friends who have themselves fought their way through difficulties such as his and reached the firmer ground where they are safe at rest.

Therefore the disquiet goes on increasing, none the less for being generally subdued and unexpressed. To some it soon ceases to give much concern; to others it is positive torture to the end. Who that knows anything of it can speak lightly of the pain and struggle through which many an earnest man has won his way to the light at last? The writer can look back on his own early difficulties; he has known something since of the difficulties of others. There are still ringing in his ears the recent words of a young student from one of our universities, fast losing hold of his faith in the Bible. "There are hundreds," he said, "of young fellows like me who do not want to lose our grasp of the Bible, but we can no longer view it as we have been taught to do. If there is any way by which we can still hold it and treasure it, do our teachers know it? and if they do, why do they not tell us?"

V. Why is this Disquiet Especially in our Day?

Why has all this questioning about the Bible come especially to us? Partly because of the rapid spread of rationalistic speculation, but chiefly because in our age, more than in any age before, the God of truth is giving to men new revelations of His truth, in history and science and comparative religion, and in the careful study and criticism of the Bible. Such revelations, though they cannot clash with the truth of Scripture rightly understood, yet most certainly can and do clash with many very stubborn notions about it, notions which have grown a popular belief to be regarded as part of the Scipture itself. The fact is, that for some centuries past men have been forcing the Bible into a false position, a position perilous to its authority, unwarranted by its own statements, and, worst of all, in a great measure obscuring the real power and beauty of its teaching. In the fierce light of modern inquiry it is becoming more and more evident that this position cannot be maintained, and simple men growing disquieted, thinking the Bible itself to be in danger, while those who know better are looking forward hopefully, even though in some measure anxiously too. They know that deep-rooted mistakes and misconceptions cannot be removed without pain and perhaps loss; but they know, too, that if the Bible is to be free to accomplish its work in the world, it must at any cost be rescued from its resent false position.

May not this rescue be in a certain degree furthered by the present disquiet? May not the overthrow of some of our cherished beliefs be but a necessary preparation for further teaching? May not scholar and infidel and doubter and believer be working out for the Bible the good purposes of God in widening and clearing our notions of His truth? - "For I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs, And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns." (Tennyson, Locksley Hall).

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