Let me begin by recalling from my first series of lectures some salient points which I must be allowed to presuppose in entering upon my second.
I have argued that the mode of distinguishing between natural and revealed theology which was generally taken for granted when Lord Gifford made his will half a century ago can no longer be maintained. All man's discovery of truth is by the interaction of divine revelation and human reason. If the Christian is to claim that his faith is in some special sense derived from revelation, this must mean that, within the wider area of what is revealed to us through our study of the universe in general, there are certain elements of unique and supreme significance for our understanding of the whole. God does not give this special revelation in words conveying information about matters too high for scrutiny by human reason, forms of words to be accepted in unquestioning faith like official communiqués issued after a secret meeting of heads of governments. He gives it by doing certain particular things in the history of the world and inspiring certain men to see the significance of certain events as acts of God. So far as the logic of the process is concerned, the method by which one man argues from the universe in general to the existence, the esse, of God is the same as that by which another argues from these particular events to His nature, His essentia. Thus all theology which has any truth in it is to that extent both natural and revealed. Christian theology should be thought of at a specific form of natural theology, differentiated by its seeing in certain events particular acts of God of unique and supreme significance for our understanding of everything.
In the remainder of my last year's lectures I was trying to see how far we can go towards an understanding of the universe and of our own lives while confining ourselves to the study of natural theology in general, that is, by reflection upon the nature of the universe in general without taking into account the Christian estimate of the significance of certain events within it. I concluded that we can best make sense of it by thinking of it as a process expressing the will of a Creator to bring into existence a community of finite free persons, and that most light is shed on many of its dark mysteries, on its containing such irrationalities as contingency and evil, by postulating at the heart of His creative will the determination to give His creatures genuine freedom. My aim in this second course of lectures is to expound as best I can the special form of natural theology which is Christian theology, to try to show how the Christian interpretation of certain events in the history of this world fits in with, illuminates and carries further what understanding of the universe and of our lives we have already gained.
In my fourth and fifth lectures last year I have argued that for Christians to attempt to find the unchanging depositum fidei in a form of sound words is to pursue a will-o'-the-wisp, that our proper starting-point is not the apostolic kerygma but that to which the apostolic kerygma bore witness. ‘Christ gave His life; it is for Christians to discern the doctrine.’ I have described the history of human thought as God seeking to make Himself known to man through minds inevitably conditioned by the forms of thought and linguistic usage of their age and culture. This conditioning has to be taken into account in our study of the books of the Bible just as much as in that of the conciliar creeds, the patristic writings, and the works of scholastic and Reformation divines. We have to learn all we can about their authors' ways of thinking and linguistic self-expression in order to discover in what way their insight into truth was coloured by this outlook and to what extent there was miscolouring which needs to be discounted. We ourselves have to think and speak as twentieth-century Western Europeans, in terms of the thought and language of our time and place. As we study the writings of the past the question we have always to be asking is: what must the truth have been and be if men who thought and spoke as they did saw it and spoke of it like that?
It is towards the acceptance of this principle in our study of the Bible that the trend of theology, as I tried to describe it in my opening lecture last year, has been moving. But we have not as yet seen our way through to its full adoption in such a way as to provide us with a positive basis for theological and devotional exposition. A constant subject of discussion among academic theologians is the prevalence of so-called fundamentalism, the fact that among university students, including theological students, many who are most deeply and sincerely Christian nourish their religion on a use of the Bible to which the progress made by scholars in its literary and historical criticism is apparently quite irrelevant. Attempts to meet the situation are made by exponents of what they call biblical theology. These are scholars who are well versed in the critical study of the provenance, date and historical value of the various books of the Bible, who endorse its methods and accept its results, but hold that all such studies are concerned with details in the structure of a book which as a whole exists to set forth in words the truths which for his soul's health a man must accept and believe.
It would be uncharitable to call this biblical theology a policy of appeasement. I would rather describe it as resting in a half-way house towards the radical reconstruction of our way of using the Bible which I believe to be required of us. Its value lies in its reminder that a theology which is wholly concerned with antiquarian research into questions of the historical origin, date and value of documents is only propaedeutic to the study of theology proper. In this it marks an advance on the academic theology of my early youth. But it is not satisfactory as a solution of the problem it raises. It shares with genuine fundamentalism the disadvantage that different exponents of biblical theology proclaim different, and often conflicting, versions of what the Bible is given us to teach. Compare, for example, the biblical theologies of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Anders Nygren and Lionel Thornton. The claim to let the Bible interpret itself turns out on examination to rest upon what I have called the method of eclectic quotation, the choice of certain passages to control the interpretation of the rest.
How are we to decide between differing rival biblical theologies? The only possible way is by submitting them to the arbitrament of our reason, laying them alongside, looking at them together, and asking which best fits in to make sense with all our experience of life. What I now want to argue is that we shall make no real progress so long as, in seeking for the right interpretation of the Bible, we think of it as a self-consistent manual of doctrinal information. The problem we have to face is extremely complicated. I am profoundly conscious of it as one to which I have as yet found no completely satisfactory solution. All I can do is to make some suggestions about the road I believe we should follow in the search for one.
Let me first try to explain what I mean by the complicated nature of the problem. There are three distinct factors to be reckoned with.
1. We have inherited from our ancestors a mystique about the Bible as though in itself and of itself it were possessed of a certain sacrosanctity. This may be symbolized by the fact that from my upbringing as a child I still feel uncomfortable when I see other books put down on top of a Bible. In those days this mystique manifested itself in the generally accepted idea that somehow or other there was a religious value in the sheer fact of knowing the contents of the Bible: to a large extent this provided the substance of so-called religious education.
Christopher stared at her. He was not prepared for a religious aspect in Miss Mullen's remarkable young cousin.
‘Do you teach in Sunday Schools?’ He tried to keep the incredulity out of his voice, but Francie caught the tone.
‘You're very polite! I suppose you think I know nothing at all, but I can tell you I could say down all the judges of Israel or the journeyings of St. Paul this minute, and that's more than you could do!’
‘By Jove, it is!’ answered Christopher.1
From Sunday Schools to universities. Until after I left Oxford for New York in 1925 it was still necessary for candidates for the degree of B. A. to pass the ‘Examination in Holy Scripture’, commonly known as ‘Divvers’. All that was required of them was to show knowledge of the contents of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John and the Acts of the Apostles: they were not to be asked questions which would involve their use of commentaries or discussion of the significance of what they read in the text. I remember an occasion when I was one of the examiners. We had asked for a comparison of the raising of Jairus' daughter in St. Matthew with that of Lazarus in St. John. A candidate whose paper as a whole showed her to be a girl of deep Christian piety, quite unaware of the possible implications of her answer, wrote: ‘In the case of Lazarus, who belonged to a poor family in the country, our Lord delayed three days and went at His ease. In the case of the daughter of Jairus, who was a wealthy and influential ruler of the Jews in the city, He lost no time and went at once.’ Every detail correct, and therefore full marks.
We have long ago ceased to be satisfied with this kind of ‘religious education’. We have passed through the arid period in which we sought to nourish the soul by discussing questions of origin, authorship, date and significance as sources for historical reconstruction. When we come to think about it, we see that this period also was governed by the same Bible mystique; we may have substituted historical study of the biblical material for sheer knowledge of the biblical text, but in both cases what made it ‘religious’ education was the fact that its subject-matter was the Bible. We have passed through the arid stage of historical study to the realization that if education is to be in truth religious education it must be education in the saving truths of God's revelation of Himself to man. But we still tend to think of the Bible as in itself and of itself the original source from which we are to quarry these truths, as a manual in which they are set forth in words for our acceptance.
The late Professor J. A. Smith used to tell a story of a Scottish village in which there was a division in the Kirk on account of ‘they wearifu' rabbits’. All held themselves bound by the decree in Acts xv which prohibits eating meat with the blood in it, but whereas a laxer party would allow one, when buying a rabbit, to accept the salesman's word for it that it had been shot and not snared, the stricter party insisted that each must investigate and verify the matter for himself before the animal could be eaten. We may laugh at this story, and dismiss it as of no importance for serious theology: it is absurd, ludicrously absurd, to lay such stress on a single text, and that text one clause in a decree only directly relevant to the circumstances of its own time. But what is there in this that is different in principle from the assumption of many serious theologians that we are to be bound by the teaching of this or that passage in Holy Writ? In an earlier lecture I have referred to Dr. R. S. Franks' selection for this purpose of St. Peter's sermons in the early chapters of Acts.2 In a recent book by Dr. Ernest Best3 it seems to be taken for granted passim that when we have discovered precisely what St. Paul meant by the words he used, this must be determinative for our theology. An even clearer instance of the persistence of the Bible mystique is the following passage from a pamphlet written by the late official lecturer of the Church of England Central Council for Moral Welfare:
In Genesis i God is described as ‘making man in our image’. In v. 2 this is clarified: ‘Male and female created he them, and he called them Adam (Man).’ There is set out the fact that the basic sociological unit of humanity is not that man and that woman but the man-woman nexus. Thus we are confronted with a relational unit as the foundation element in the structure of human society.4
In this quotation it is clearly implied that for a particular point in connection with the Christian doctrine of man the foundation on which all else is to be built is to be secured by asking what ‘the Bible says’.
We are all of us under the influence of this mystique. Both as theologians and as preachers, both in the lecture-room and in the pulpit, we feel we have solid ground under our feet, and can commend what we have to say to our hearers, if we can quote some biblical passage as the underlying substance of our teaching of doctrine or words of exhortation. I am not at the moment concerned to assert that this is wrong, or that we should abandon the practice. I am calling attention to its prevalence as one of the factors in our present situation, pointing out that it comes to us as an inheritance from an age when our fathers could take biblical statements on trust in a manner which is impossible for us, and suggesting that we need to examine ourselves and our habits with a view to making sure that we know what we are doing.
2. A second factor in the situation is the unfortunate fact that in the history of Christianity reliance on biblical authority has been productive of evil as well as of good. As an Englishman profoundly ignorant of Scottish history, I have no right to express any opinion about the rights and wrongs of the seventeenth-century struggles in this country. But no one can read Scott's Old Mortality without being convinced that many horrible deeds sprang from reliance on biblical authority. There is evidence that at an earlier date the torturers of the Inquisition believed themselves to be acting in obedience to such texts as ‘Compel them to come in’, and that to-day some devout members of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa hold themselves bound to direct their racial policy in accordance with God's curse on the children of Ham.5 Before we can accept the Bible as the ultimate source of authority for belief and practice we must take into account the empirical fact of its power for evil as well as for good.
3. Nevertheless, we have also to take into account the fact that the Bible produces good as well as evil. In it men find not only words that bring them comfort, help and encouragement from God, but also the revelation of God in Christ which comes home to them as saving truth. Some two years ago Mr. Wilfred Pickles, in a broadcast given from some institution for the blind, was heard to ask one of those round him what gave him the greatest abhorrence. The blind man replied: ‘The thought of children being brought up without being taught the Christian faith.’ He went on to say that every day he and his wife opened the Bible at random at three places, and never failed to receive help and guidance. This kind of testimony could be multiplied indefinitely from the experience of those who regularly read their Bibles in the course of their devotion; and the two words ‘at random’ are not, in fact, as superstitious as they may sound at first hearing. For those of us who are clergy of the Church of England our daily portions are prescribed by the Prayer Book lectionary, and what we shall find each morning and evening is as much something ‘given’ as if we opened the book ‘at random’.
To this testimony of Christian believers, of whom it may be said that they find in the Bible what they are looking for, must be added the testimony of missionaries from overseas. There is no gainsaying the evidence which tells of non-Christian men and women who have been moved to Christian faith through reading of God's righteousness and love as set forth in the Old and New Testaments.
A book with a mystique that still has power over us in spite of having lost its foundations, a book which empirical evidence shows to have power both for evil and for good. These are factors to be taken into account as we try to find a way of thinking about and reading the Bible which shall inhibit its power for evil and secure its power for good on more trustworthy foundations. The task is further complicated by the fact that our foundations must provide for both the theological and the devotional use of the Bible. It might be comparatively easy to provide for the former without the latter, to say no more, for example, than that, if we accept the Bible as bearing witness to God's redemptive activity in history and His education of His people in knowledge of Himself culminating in His revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, we have enough on which to build our dogmatic theology. But this would be of little use to those who are not theologians and whose need is to be able to turn to the Bible for the nourishment of their spiritual life. In recent years I have become acutely conscious of this problem. For a quarter of a century, as successively a member of two Cathedral chapters, I have taken part in daily public worship according to the Prayer Book of the Church of England. Over and over again, as I have myself read, or have heard others read, the portions of Scripture appointed for the day, I have found myself asking: ‘What on earth can we—I, the professional theologian, and these fellow-worshippers in the congregation who have no such pretensions—what can we be expected to draw from these passages for the sustenance of our souls?’
This, it seems to me, is the problem as it confronts us to-day. Whether in the present state of our knowledge it is possible to arrive at a satisfactory solution, I do not know. I offer what follows as a contribution towards that end, in the hope that discovery of its inadequacies may stimulate others to more successful attempts.
To begin with I suggest that we should give up thinking and speaking about the Bible as though in itself or of itself it were the ultimate source of authority for any doctrinal statement in matters of faith or morals. As one who has been a professional teacher of theology for forty-three years I now publicly declare my hope that no pupil of mine will ever be guilty of using the expression: ‘The Bible says…’ Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when that expression is used, it means that the speaker has found some passage which he quotes as authority for the position he is maintaining, regardless of the fact that those who disagree with him may find others which support their views. In the hundredth case its use may be more deserving of respect: it may be based on a study of the Bible as a whole, and the words may be intended to mean that what is being said is in accordance with what Dr. S. C. Carpenter has called the ‘Bible view of life’. Even so the phrase is misleading, and its use is to be discouraged.
It is misleading because it implies the ascription to the Bible of an ultimate authority which cannot rightly be credited to anything within this created universe. More than once in my last year's course of lectures I had to urge our acceptance of the kind of revelation which requires us to be content with walking by faith and not by sight.6 I have argued that false ideas of revelation spring from inattention to this condition of our earthly pilgrimage, from demanding of our Creator that He shall give us the kind of revelation which will relieve us of this necessity. From the roots of this thorn or thistle tree come many fruits which men mistake for grapes or figs but which are really poisonous berries. Among them is the notion that somewhere within creation is to be found a source of ultimate authority which in truth is only to be found in the living God Himself.
This notion appears in different forms in different traditions of Christian thought. The largest single body of Christians seeks to invest the Bishop of Rome, as Vicar of Christ, with this kind of authority. Elsewhere in Christendom there is in some circles a tendency to set the Bible and the Church in opposition, as though they were rival authorities, between which a man must choose, to one or other of which he must pledge his allegiance. On the one hand it is insisted that the Church is founded on the Bible; it derives its title to be the Church from the Bible in much the same way that a municipality or a college may derive its claim to its possessions or its authority from some title-deeds, charters or statutes. Carried to its logical conclusion, this leads to a fundamentalist type of biblical theology; its reductio ad absurdum may be seen in some publications of the British Israelites, where the Bible shares with the Great Pyramid in having the same kind of ultimate authority that a lawyer ascribes to an Act of Parliament. On the other hand it is asserted that the Church is prior to the Bible. The Bible, it is said, is written from faith to faith, and the faith from which it is written is that of the Church. The Church of the Old Testament produced the books of the Old Testament and determined its canon; the New Israel took this over from the Old as part of its inheritance and added to it the canon of the New Testament. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the Church was the author of the Bible, and is therefore its authoritative interpreter. To be rightly understood the Bible must be read in the light of the traditions of the Church. The nemesis of this point of view is a tendency to seek to solve every question that may arise by reference to precedents in the past, forgetting that the maxim quod ubique, quod semper, quod ah omnibus must include reference to the insights of piety and scholarship in the present and the future. This mention of the insights of piety and scholarship remind us of yet more rival claims, of modernists who pin their faith on the researches of scholars and of pietists who invest with absolute authority the so-called ‘inner light’.
I have maintained in last year's course of lectures that nowhere within creation is there to be found any attempted statement of truth which is not coloured, and possibly miscoloured, by the outlook of its authors. Those who seek to set up as rival ultimate authorities the words of the Bible, the judgments of the Pope, the decrees of Church Councils or the utterances of saints or scholars, all agree in arguing from the same false premise. In the course of the last half-century we have seen theologians rescued from the thought that when we say ‘God’ we mean simply the immanent spirit of the evolutionary process. He is the Creator to whose will that process owes its existence, in whose sustaining, redeeming and fostering care lies its hope of perfection. It is a poor thing to have emancipated our conception of God from constriction by so-called laws of nature only to re-enslave Him in our minds to the written word, the ecclesiastical institution or the private judgments of human beings, be they saints or scholars. We must think of Him as standing behind them and working through them all, using their tensions and conflicts in order that by their interaction He may lead us onward into fuller knowledge of Himself and conformity to His will. It is by these tensions and conflicts that He keeps our minds alive and growing. It is not His will that once and for all we should settle the general question of priority between the Bible, the Church and the inner light, and then put it comfortably out of our minds. His purpose in creation is not to surround Himself in heaven with the type of functionary whose mind can only be held together by red tape. He has so arranged things that the question we have always to ask, and have to ask over and over again as times and circumstances change, is this: On this occasion, in respect of the issue now before us, where is for us here and now the word of God? Is it to be found in the prima facie meaning of the text of Scripture, in the tradition of the Church, in the conscience of contemporary piety, or in the judgment of current scholarship?7
Our present concern is with the Bible, and for the moment we may ignore the Church, the Pope, the saints and the scholars. What difference will it make in our approach to the Bible if we think of it, not as having ultimate authority in and of itself, but as being an organ through which the living God may reveal Himself to us? It will be necessary to consider separately what this will mean for the theological and for the devotional use of the Bible. And we must ask whether it is enough to say ‘an organ’; should we not say ‘the organ’?
Much that I have said in earlier lectures has prepared the way for considering the theological question, and provides the answer to the issue between ‘an organ’ and ‘the organ’.8 I have maintained that Christian faith springs from the recognition in Jesus Christ of God at work in His creation and that this comes to us from His disciples who, with minds conditioned by their spiritual ancestry, saw in Him the fulfilment of God's promises given to His people through the prophets of the Old Testament. Their insight, and that of the prophets before them, is not to be regarded as some kind of unique miraculous mental endowment. It is of the same order as the flair for diagnosis which distinguishes one doctor from another, as the gifts of insight which are given to some men and not to others in all the arts and sciences. We who accept their testimony do so because, when we understand what they are trying to say, it fits in so as to make sense with what else we think we know of our life in this universe.
Next there is the fact that whether we are dealing with the disciples of Christ, with the prophets of the Old Testament, or with any other characters in or writers of Holy Scripture, whatever they said or did or wrote is conditioned and coloured by the fact that they were men who saw with the eyes, thought with the thought-forms, and spoke or wrote in the linguistic usage of their age and culture. If we are rightly to understand the books of the Bible we need all the help that scholarly research can give us towards discovering how its authors and characters felt, thought, and expressed themselves. This is preliminary to our asking what is for us the vital question: What must the truth have been and be if men who thought and spoke as they did put it like that?
For, thirdly, the real object of our study is not what this or that other human being thought or said, but what God has been seeking to reveal of Himself through the medium of their minds. Seeing Jesus Christ through the eyes of the disciples, recognizing in Him the Messiah who revolutionized the conception of messiahship, Christians came to see that He could not have been and done what they were convinced He had been and done if He had been anything less than God incarnate. The depositum fidei is not to be found in any form of words, but in the acknowledgment of what God has done in the history of this world. ‘Christ gave His life; it is for Christians to discern the doctrine.’
For us Christians the revelation of God in Christ is the climax of the biblical revelation. It provides for what was to follow and throws light on what had gone before. It provides for what was to follow in that the whole subsequent history of Christian theology is the history of Christians trying to think out its implications in the thought-forms of their various times and places. We shall be concerned with this in later lectures. We have now to ask how far the light it sheds on what went before will help us towards deciding how to think about the Bible.
The history of human thought is the history of God seeking to make Himself known to us through human minds conditioned by their outlook, seeking to reveal Himself in the nature of the universe in general, and with supreme significance in the series of events which have their climax in the figure of Jesus Christ. On this hypothesis there will be an interaction between our studies of the Old and of the New Testament. What evidence we have for knowing anything about Christ comes to us from the New Testament, and comes through the minds of Jews conditioned by their standing in traditions of thought for which our evidence comes from the Old Testament. Jesus Christ was ‘born of the Jews’: we can only grow in understanding His mind and the mind of His disciples by learning to understand the Jewish outlook at the beginning of our era. In this sense the study of the Old Testament is a necessary preliminary to the study of the New. But since the ultimate aim of our study is to learn what God is seeking to reveal to us of Himself, there is a sense in which the reverse is the case. It is only by the light of the revelation of God in Christ that we can sift the true from the false in the ideas of God which were held by men, Jews as well as Gentiles, before His coming. In this sense the study of the New Testament is a necessary preliminary to the understanding of the Old.
How, then, are we to proceed? First there must come what arc traditionally called lower and higher criticism, attempts to secure the true text of what was originally written and to determine the date, authorship and relation to one another of the various documents. Building on this foundation we must next aim at exegesis, that is, at grasping as accurately as possible what at the time the writings meant in the minds of their authors and of those who read or heard them. Then, and only then, are we ready for the vital question: What must be the truth which has been striving to make itself known to us through the minds of these men and their writings?
While still at the stage of exegesis we can be learning what ideas of God and His activity, of the nature of the universe and of men, were held by the biblical writers at different times and in different circumstances in the history of Israel and the early days of the Christian Church. But if we are to compare them with a view to determining their relative truth and adequacy, we need a standard of comparison. So far as the Bible is concerned, this is provided by the revelation of God in Christ. But to say this is to bring back into our consideration the forward-looking aspect of that revelation. The only understanding of the revelation of God in Christ which we can use as a standard of comparison is that which comes to us as Western European theologians of the twentieth century, thinking and speaking as men of our own age and culture as we look back over the intervening centuries of Christian thought and seek to grasp its implications.
Once again we are driven back to faith in the living God as the link between past, present and future. He has been seeking to make Himself known through the events of Israel's history and His incarnation in Christ, through the insights of prophets and apostles, of scholars and saints. Still He is seeking to make Himself known through our minds, as we study their testimony to what He has done in the past and scan the world of to-day for evidence of what He is doing now. We dare to put down what we think we see because we believe that through our successors in the future He will lead men on to sift the false from the true.
In the chapter entitled ‘The Time of the Church’ in his Royal Priesthood9 Professor Torrance says of the story of the healing of the paralytic in St. Mark ii and parallels:
The account clearly intends us to see the theological significance of the fact that forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the body belong together as two parts of a whole.… The Marcan narrative, written for the use of the Church, intends us in the light of the two moments, the moment of forgiveness and the moment of miraculous healing, to see also the relation between the moment of the crucifixion of Jesus and the moment of His resurrection, the time of the Gospel of the Cross and the time of the resurrection of the body.
The supernatural life of Christ flows into the Church giving it a new relation to space and time as we know them in our fallen world. To describe that Paul uses the words oikodome and auxesis where he thinks of the flow of the Church's new life as against the stream of decay and of the structure of the Church as erected downwards from the coping stone (Eph. ii. 20 f.; iv. 15 f.; Col. ii. 19).
Similarly in The Dominion of Christ10 Dr. Thornton prefaces his exposition of New Testament theology with phrases like ‘the apostolic writers have no doubt’. I personally doubt whether the ideas attributed to the evangelists and St. Paul in these books ever entered their minds, and ‘the narrative intends us to see’ is the same kind of improper mode of expression as ‘The Bible says’.
If Torrance and Thornton are right in their theological understanding of the Scriptures, it would be more in keeping with God's method of revelation to say that in this twentieth century the Holy Spirit, who inspired the biblical writers to put down what they saw in the terms of their own thought and language, has now inspired these scholars to open our eyes to points hitherto unnoticed by human minds. If they are not, it will be for others, now or later, to produce more convincing expositions.
For theology the Bible is an organ of divine revelation in that it is the record of God educating our spiritual ancestors in knowledge of Himself. It should be noted that to say this is not to say that in the Old Testament we can trace a steady chronological advance in apprehension of truth and correction of error. In the days of my youth this view was popular among those who wished to commend the Bible as a manual of so-called ‘progressive revelation’. But further study of the documents has shown that it is impossible to establish any such correlation between their dates and their insights—which is what we should expect, for in no field of study does human knowledge progress by steady chronological advance. The revelatory value of passages in Old Testament documents is not to be judged by whether they occur in earlier or later documents, but by their consistency with the revelation of God in Christ.
Even so, so long as what we are looking for is a manual of information about the nature of God, the Bible for us can never pass on from being an organ to being the organ of revelation. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that in the Bible there is teaching about the nature of God and His will for man to which no parallel can be found elsewhere. One remembers with what sense of shock Major Yeats Brown discovered in sacred writings from India teaching which he had been brought up to believe to be uniquely revealed in the Bible.11
It seems to me that the only ground on which we can claim uniqueness for the biblical revelation is that to which I called attention in my fourth and fifth lectures last year. If we can believe that in the series of events which make up the history of Israel, culminating in the coming of Christ and issuing in the life of the Christian Church, God was actively at work within His creation, rescuing it from its infection by evil by a mighty act of deliverance, wrought out once for all and of universal significance, then we can speak of the Bible as the organ of divine revelation because it is the book through which we learn of this that God has done. The emphasis must be on the word ‘done’. The evidence for these events comes to us through the minds of men whose account of them, and reflections upon them, were coloured by their outlook. When we have discounted this, asking our perennial question: ‘what must the truth have been, if they saw it like that?’, can we agree about the meaning of the whole story, that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’? If so, then their thoughts and our thoughts may approximate in varying degrees to an understanding of what is implied by what God has done. That He has done it is the standing truth, the depositum fidei to which the Bible bears witness.
I speak as one who believes that we can accept the Bible as in this sense containing the depositum fidei of genuine revelation. As I have said more than once, this is something that I cannot prove. If I wish to commend the belief to others, all I can do is try to explain what I see and how I see it in the hope that they may be led to see it too. This is what I shall be attempting in the rest of this course of lectures. But first I must finish what I have to say about the way in which we can read the Bible.
The hypothesis these lectures attempt to expound is as follows. God reveals Himself in the universe of His creation, and within that creation in a special series of historical events. In both cases what He gives is material for study which we have to try to understand with such minds as we have got. He does not provide us with ready-made statements of what we are to believe, but inspires certain men with gifts of insight through which they are able to make advances in understanding and open the eyes of others to see what they have seen. This is part and parcel of His method of creating free finite persons, and is the means by which progress is made in every department of human activity, in the arts and the sciences, in all the spread of civilization. Among those so gifted were the prophets and apostles who saw God at work in the history of Israel and the Person of Jesus Christ. Through their writings our eyes are opened to see what they saw. But we see it through the eyes of men whom to-day the living God is inspiring to disentangle what He was seeking to reveal from possible miscolouring due to their ways of seeing, thinking and speaking. We are only interested in what they thought and said and wrote in so far as through it we can grasp what to-day He is seeking to reveal to us through their minds.
Christian theology is the study of certain things that God has done in the history of this world for which the primary source of evidence is the Bible. There are many beliefs about God which Christians share with the adherents of other faiths, such as that He is one, is the Creator of the universe, is good. Specifically Christian doctrines are those derived from the acceptance of Jesus Christ as God incarnate rescuing His creation from its infection by evil. Christian theology is not the exposition of statements taken on trust because they are what ‘the Bible says’; it is the working out of the implications of certain acts of God to which the Bible bears witness.
So much for the Bible as it is to be read for the study of theology. Whether what I have said can be maintained must be judged by the use to be made of it in the lectures to follow. Now I must say something about the more difficult question of what may be called the devotional use of the Bible.
This question is difficult enough if we are only to think of the devotional use of the Bible by the scholarly theologian. The difficulty is increased when we take into account, as we must do, the needs of others as well.
Let us first consider the professional theologian. I may as well put what I have to say in the first person, for I am speaking of what is for me a practical problem which I am trying to see my way through. Now that I have come to the conclusion that for the purposes of theological study I must read the Bible in the way that I have been describing, how am I to look for spiritual nourishment in the passages that I read, or hear others read, in the course of Morning and Evening Prayer in our Cathedral church?
It seems to me that I must start from the fundamental principle that God Himself is the active source of all revelation. I am not listening to hear what the Bible says, but what God is seeking to say to me through its words. God is the one and only God there is, the Creator of the universe. He is the Creator whose method and purpose in creation, whose concern for our growth in true freedom we were learning about last year. He is the God whom we believe to have been incarnate in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day and for ever. This is how I must try to think of Him who is seeking to speak to me through the words that are being read.
Let us suppose that I am meditating while the choir is singing the twentieth psalm. I have learned from the commentaries that in all probability this was originally meant to express thoughts appropriate to a ceremony in which a king was offering sacrifice to God before going out to battle. The king brings and offers the materials for the sacrifice. The priest takes them, and in the first five verses invokes God's blessing on the king in the coming fight. Then as the fire consumes the offering, the king bursts into a paean of confident anticipation of success through God's blessing on his arms. When I have thus put the psalm in its historical setting, and remember how I have learned from Plato that God is not to be bribed by offerings to grant earthly favours, and how the whole gospel story confirms this teaching, what is there of spiritual nourishment to be drawn from this psalm?
Or, again, suppose what is being read is the story of Samuel hewing Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal, in 1 Samuel xv. In the story as told, Saul's sparing of Agag is clearly meant to be regarded as sinful and Samuel's savagery as doing God's work. Can I really agree with the writer in this? Should I not rather hear the authentic voice of God in the words of Elisha to the King of Israel in 2 Kings vi. 22: ‘Thou shalt not smite them. Wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow?’
This second passage is the easier to deal with. If God be the God of righteousness, the fundamental act of faith for man is to do what he honestly believes to be right and trust God to support him in it.12 He may be mistaken about what is right and what is wrong. He may need further education in learning what kinds of things God does and does not like objectively to have done. But the condition of receiving further light is fidelity to the light he already has: we must not judge Samuel by standards illuminated by nearly two thousand years of Christian faith. If the choice before him, as he saw it, was between loyalty and disloyalty to God, he was right to obey what we must regard as his erring conscience. We learn to acknowledge the paradox that if a man does what he honestly believes to be right God will approve his doing the kind of thing that God does not like to see done.
So much, perhaps, we may see for ourselves. But in the seeing of it it makes a real difference if we think of ourselves as in communion with the God revealed to us in Christ, looking back with Him over His education of our spiritual ancestors. He takes us to share in the memory of His delight at seeing one of His people come so far in understanding and seeking to do His will; He reminds us of how we should be thankful for the fuller light that He has given us since those days, and that still His fundamental demand upon us is that we should seek to be equally sincere in trying to do what we honestly believe to be His will.
So too with the twentieth psalm. We may not be able to be confident that our earthly aims are also God's (‘nevertheless, not my will but thine be done’); we may have learned that we must not seek to win God's favour by gifts. But we can share in God's rejoicing at the sight of any earthly ruler acknowledging that he exercises his authority as himself subject to God. Only so long as this is so can earthly rulers be taught to grow in understanding how God and His will are to be thought of and sought: a lesson of which the world is in need to-day as much as ever. We are reminded that for all of us, whether or no we are rulers of others, acknowledgment of responsibility to God is another fundamental requirement of Christian living, parallel to Samuel's obedience to his conscience.
It may be objected that to read the Bible in this way is not really to be reading it at all. Instead of listening to what it has to say to us, submitting our minds to its authority, we shall be reading back into it meanings that spring from our own minds. There is, of course, danger of this. We must be constantly on our guard against it. But the true safeguard is to put our trust in the living God of to-day, submitting ourselves to His guidance so that what we find in the Bible may not be a reflection of our own subjective ideas, but what He opens our eyes to see. Here the Bible comes back into its own. For whether or no our minds are truly guided by the testimonium Spiritus sancti internum will depend on how far we think of the God whom we trust to guide us as the God made known to us through the theological study of the biblical revelation of which I have just been speaking. How this may work out will, I hope, become clear as my theme develops. What I am now doing is taking my stand on three principles: that the only ultimate source of authority is God Himself; that the Bible is at best the most significant organ of His self-revelation; and that what I said last year about the pursuit of objectivity, in the second and fifth lectures of Part I, is relevant to our study of it.
There remains the question whether this way of reading the Bible can be of any help to the Christian who is not a theologian. I do not for a moment wish to deny that God does at times speak through the Bible to men and women who read it without any theological preparation. As I have already said, the evidence of missionaries to this effect is incontrovertible. But most of us do not approach the Bible with minds so unprepared. Our Christian faith does not first come to us by our coming across the Bible and reading it on our own. Faith in God and in His revelation of Himself in Christ are things which we take over from the Christian community, and we turn to the Bible expecting to find what we have been encouraged to look for. If at present the average Christian believer would not be likely to approach the Bible along the lines I have suggested, if he would be inclined to say that to ask him to do so is asking something beyond his powers, the answer may be that this is because the church as a whole has not yet adopted this as the normal and natural way of looking for God's revelation and brought him up to look for it in this way. In the whole body of the Church the task of the theologians is to seek to set forward our understanding of the mysteries of our faith. If their studies lead them to conclusions with implications for practice, they must themselves try to live by them and commend them to others. Then it is for parochial clergy and ministers and religious teachers to pass them on to their flocks and pupils. I do not despair of the time coming when to learn the Christian faith will be to learn of the God revealed to us in Christ in such a way that the simplest Christian will go to the Bible expecting to hear God speak to him in the way that I have been trying to describe.
Somerville and Ross: The Real Charlotte (World's Classics Edition), p. 195.
Vol. I, p. 86.
E. Best: One Body in Christ (London, 1955).
Hugh C. Warner: The Theological Issues of Contraception (London, 1953).
‘Differences divided the conference into three groups: (a) those who believed in a righteous separation in the Church based on the Scriptures; (b) those who practised such separation for expediency; (c) those who were convinced that separation in the Church was wrong and stood condemned according to Scripture. Resolution unanimously passed: This conference places on record its gratitude to God for the one common ground which we possess in Holy Writ.’ From the report of a conference of church leaders held in Pretoria in November, 1953. Geneva: Ecumenical Press Service, Jan. 15th, 1954, p. 10.
Vol. I, Part 1, iv, v.
In these last two paragraphs I have been largely reproducing part of a lecture on Biblical Theology and the Sovereignty of God given at Wesley House, Cambridge, in 1946 and published by the Cambridge University Press in 1947.
See especially Vol. I, Part 1, iv, v.
Edinburgh, 1955, pp. 47, 49.
London, 1952, e.g., p. 4.
See F. C. Yeats-Brown: Bengal Lancer (London, 1930).
Vol. I, pp. 106 ff. and 145 ff.