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Is the Bible
Jabez T. Sunderland
American Unitarian Association Tract #160
popular mind is full of the idea that, as regards the Bible, the
alternative is, "all or none": we must either accept the
volume entire, as in every part "a perfect and infallible
revelation from God," or else "throw it all away."
such an alternative seems to any to be strange or unreasonable, does
not alter the fact that it is in the public mind. The great majority
of the people hold it as firmly as any other article of their
No class of persons is more severely lashed from many pulpits, and by a large part of the religious press, than those advanced biblical scholars and critics who, as the charge is, "cut the Bible to pieces." Says Dr. Talmage: "The Bible is either all true or all false." Mr. Spurgeon declared the same. Mr. Moody went so far as to affirm that "unless every word and every syllable, from Genesis to Revelation, is true, we have no Bible, and we may as well gather together what we have been calling our Bibles and make a bonfire of them, and build a monument heaven-high to Voltaire and Paine." Prominent denominations continue to depose able, scholarly, devout, and honored men from their ministry for denying the doctrine of Bible infallibility; and nearly all orthodox denominations maintain the doctrine as a prominent part of their creeds.
see that the question before us is not a light or a far-off matter. It
is intensely living; it is everywhere pressing upon public attention.
It is one of the subjects that thinking young men and women are making
earnest inquiry about, for most of them have been taught from their
childhood that to admit the possibility of mistake in the Bible is to
invalidate and destroy the book. We may well, then, attempt to give it
a careful and candid examination.
has not been educated to accept the alternative concerning the Bible
of "all or
nothing," the first thing that is likely to strike him when he
meets it is its strangeness, its utter unlikeness to what men say about anything else.
everything else we discriminate, discern, use judgment. The mind that
can see nothing but the two opposite extremes of a matter that can discern no gradations between we set down as a
defective mind. If one studies the sun, he does not begin by forming a
theory that it is either all bright or else all dark; and when the
telescope reveals to him the fact that there are dark spots upon a
face otherwise bright, he does not say, No, I will not have it so: to
admit the existence of any spots will destroy the sun.
When a man is about to travel through a strange country, he does not decide beforehand that it is either all fertile or all barren, and then go through it with his eyes closed to everything that is contrary to his preconception.
When a man undertakes the study of Shakespeare, or Dante, or Plato, or Homer, he does not say, I shall "accept all or throw all away." He sees that such a resolve would be folly.
then, should men, when they approach the Bible, adopt this canon of
judgment, the folly of which they see instantly when applied to
As a fact, the broadest and most intelligent minds do not accept any such view.
Let us see what a few leading scholars and religious teachers say.
Says Professor Ladd, of Yale: "No course is so wise, safe, and really loyal to the Bible as that which admits, without hesitation, the possibility of historical errors in the sacred writings, and then proceeds without disturbance of faith and in the spirit of fairness to determine to what extent such errors actually exist."
Says Professor C. H. Toy, of Harvard: "Great harm has been done by the indiscriminate defence of crude biblical statements and ideas, historical inaccuracies, discrepancies, and imperfect scientific and ethical ideas."
Says Archdeacon Farrar, of the Church of England: "The limitations of human language and the disabilities of human infirmity were not miraculously removed from those who were chosen as the channels of divine revelation."
distinguished English biblical scholar, Dr. Samuel Davidson:
"Inspiration properly belongs to persons, not to books. The
authors of the different works contained in the collection called the
Bible of most of whom we know little or nothing, sometimes not even
the name were men of various intelligence and endowments.
Possessing unequal gifts, their productions are of unequal value. As
infallibility belongs to God alone, none of them was infallible in
what he said or wrote. Each wrote according to his light and the
purpose he had in view. Contradictions, inconsistencies, errors both
intellectual and moral, are observable in their writings."
R. Heber Newton, the eminent Broad Church Episcopal clergyman of New
York: "Our sacred books are not superhuman but human works,
natural and not extra-natural in their origin; for most part by no
means certainly the productions of the authors to whom they have been
assigned traditionally, and very certainly of considerably later date
than that thus assigned to many of them; the historical works,
assuredly, as they now stand, the result of several hands and many re-editings;
all of them manifesting the limitations of ordinary literature in
their reasonings, their historical references, and their
interpretation of earlier sacred writings."
Says Professor Briggs: "So far as I can see, there are errors in the scriptures that no one has been able to explain away. ... If such errors destroy the authority of the Bible, it is already destroyed for historians. Men cannot shut their eyes to truth and fact. But on what authority do these theologians drive men from the Bible by this theory of inerrancy? The Bible itself nowhere makes this claim. ... It is a ghost of modern evangelicalism to frighten children."
Now shall we accuse these eminent Christian scholars of attempting to destroy the Bible? Indeed is there any reason for believing that their love for it is any less real than that of Mr. Moody, Mr. Spurgeon, Mr. Talmage, the prosecutors of Dr. Briggs, and the rest, who tell us that every word within its covers is from God, and that we must either accept it all or reject it all?
of us know the story of the great biblical critic, Ernest Renan, how
in his young manhood he came to leave Catholicism? He was a student in
the famous Roman Catholic theological seminary of St. Sulpice, in
Paris. The career opening before him in the Church was a most
promising one. But as he went forward with his careful studies of the
Bible, he found to his surprise that it is "no more exempt,"
to use his own words, "than any other ancient book, from
contradictions, inadvertencies, and errors." He discovered in it
unmistakable evidences of fable and legend, and other traces of purely
human composition. He found proofs, not to be gainsaid, that Moses did
not write the Pentateuch. The last part of the book of Isaiah he saw
must be ascribed to a different hand from that which produced the
first part. He came upon "irreconcilable divergencies between the
synoptists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Fourth Gospel, and
between the synoptists compared with one another." Especially was
he disturbed by the evidences which modern critics had brought to
light that the book of Daniel, so called, could not have been written
by Daniel, or at the time of the exile, as the Roman Catholic Church
taught, but really was a composite structure, apocryphal in its
character, and dating as late as the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, in
the year 169 or 170 before Christ, that is to
say after some of the events which it was supposed to predict had
with all this new light regarding the nature of the Bible, what could
the young student at St. Sulpice do? Ought he to have thrown the book
away, since he could not any longer accept it all? But that would have
been as dishonest, nay as impossible, as to accept all; for large
parts of it he found to be reliable. Its devotional poetry was the
finest in the world; its morals and religion were of inestimable
value, and were independent of the theory of Bible infallibility; and
Jesus was the one character in history for whom he felt the
profoundest love and reverence. His course soon became plain. He must
leave the Church where mental freedom was denied him, and take an
independent position where he would be at liberty to follow the light
of truth. This is the way the world came to have its Renan, the
independent Bible scholar.
of us know the still more interesting and impressive story of Bishop
Colenso, of the Church of England? Colenso was a learned, devout, and
trusted clergyman of that Church, the author of books on mathematics
and other subjects which brought him much fame. Having been appointed
Bishop of Natal, in South Africa, he undertook among other labors the
translation of the Bible into the language of the Zulus. While he was
at work translating the stories of Genesis, he had the question of
Bible infallibility forced upon his attention as it had never been.
Previously he had taken the infallibility theory for granted.
Occasionally he had felt some of its difficulties, but had put them
aside. But now it was forced upon him in a way that allowed him no
escape. The story is best told in his own language. He says:
"While translating the story of the flood, I had a simple-minded
but intelligent native, one with the docility of a child, but with the reasoning powers
of mature age, look up and ask: Is all that true ? Do you really
believe that all this happened thus, that all the beasts, and birds,
and creeping things upon the earth, large and small, from hot
countries and cold, came thus by pairs, and entered the ark with Noah?
And did Noah gather food for them all, for the
beasts and birds of prey, as well as the rest?"
Says the Bishop: "My heart answered in the words of the prophet, 'Shall a man speak lies in the name of the Lord?' I dared not do so. My own knowledge of some branches of science, of geology in particular, had been much increased since I left England; and I now knew for certain, on geological grounds, a fact of which I had only had misgivings before, namely, that a universal deluge, such as the Bible manifestly speaks of, could not possibly have taken place in the way described in the book of Genesis, not to mention other difficulties which the story contains. . . . Knowing this, I felt that I dared not, as a servant of the God of truth, urge my brother man to believe, as a historical narrative, that which I did not myself believe, and which I knew to be untrue."
under these circumstances what ought Bishop Colenso to have done?
Should he have told that earnest Zulu, who trusted him, to throw the
Bible all away? And then should he have thrown it all away himself,
because he could not accept the legend of a universal deluge as a
historic fact? Or ought he to have exercised reason and judgment in
the matter, as he would have done in other things?
candid and honest man, he adopted the latter course, and as a result
gave up the old theory of Bible infallibility, which he saw had no
basis of truth, and adopted a view in harmony with the facts: a view
which makes the inspiration of the past not a fetter upon men's souls
today, but a liberator and a quickener; a view which teaches that the
Bible is a great and precious light shining on man's path, but that
God is greater than any possible Bible, and that the real foundations
of religion are in God and the soul of man, and therefore cannot be
overthrown by the mere discovery of the fallibility of texts, inside
the Bible or out.
In the face of such experiences as these of the devout and noble-minded Bishop of Natal, how shallow seems the view that would identify the foundations of religion with a book; and especially how shallow seems that conception of a great and many-sided literature like the Bible that would apply to it the cheap and senseless rule, "all or none,""accept the whole or reject the whole"!
the most difficult of all things to account for is the fact that, with
the Bible itself before men's eyes, so that they need only look to see
its imperfections, the doctrine that it is an infallible book, with no
imperfections, could ever have come into men's belief. How did the
suppose it is generally taken for granted that the Bible itself claims
to be infallible. But this is a mistake. There is much in it that
negatives such a claim. The biblical writers turn us in upon
ourselves, bidding us to "prove all things,'' casting out the
evil and retaining the good. Jesus says, "Why of yourselves judge
ye not what is right?" Both the Old Testament and the New abound
in appeals from external authorities of all kinds, to the reason, the
hearts, the consciences of men. The imperfections of the various Bible
characters even some
that are most distinguished and honored are freely pointed out.
of David as one of the inspired writers of the Old Testament. Yet
David's sins are portrayed as many and black. Plainly the prophet
Nathan had no idea of David's infallibility when he confronted him
with a, foul murder which he had committed, and declared to him
sternly, "Thou art the man."
of Peter as one of the inspired writers of the New Testament. But it
is clear that Matthew did not regard him as infallible when he wrote
the record of Peter's denying three times that he was a disciple of
plain, too, that Paul did not know of any such infallibility when he
wrote of Peter on one occasion, "I withstood him face to face,
because he was to be blamed."
are several passages of scripture which are often quoted as proving
that the Bible claims to be infallible. But I think a moment of
careful looking at each shows that they prove nothing of the kind.
is that terrible passage (terrible is not too strong a word) found at
the end of the Apocalypse or Revelation, the last book in our New
Testament. This is the passage: "I testify unto every man that
heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add
unto them, God shall add unto him the plagues which are written in
this book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the book
of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life,
and out of the holy city, which are written in this book." About
this passage several things are to be said.
the intelligence, heart and conscience of man cannot permanently
accept any such curse as a part of a true revelation of God. The
Church of England is getting ashamed of the curses of its Athanasian
Creed, and its best men are trying to get them laid aside as unworthy
of anything calling itself Christianity. The curses or imprecations in
the Psalms the world has outgrown; we now see that they sprung from
the imperfect moral development of the age which produced them, and
that it was a mistake ever to have thought them the word of God.
Precisely the same is true of this curse by which the writer of the
book of Revelation thinks to prevent anybody from making any changes
in his book.
Trench pens truer Bible when he writes:
say to thee, Do thou repeat
the first man thou mayest meet
lane, highway, or open street,
he and we and all men move
a canopy of love,
Blessing, not cursing, rules above."
very fact that it is a curse this Apocalypse passage condemns
itself, and compels its own rejection as the utterance not of God, but
of a very imperfect man.
the book of Revelation, which contains the passage, is one of the most
doubtful and disputed of all the books of the Bible as to its
canonicity or right to be in the Bible. Many of the Christian Fathers
and of the early churches rejected it. Some councils refused to accept
it. Even the Council of Laodicea (363), which is affirmed by some to
have settled the canon, cast the book out. In all the Christian ages
it has been a question among scholars whether it has any right in the
New Testament. Luther was decidedly of the opinion that it has not, so
was Zwingle. Even Calvin denounced it as unintelligible, and forbade
his pastors at Geneva from all attempts at interpreting it. We see,
then, how little weight ought to attach to an utterance, especially to
a curse, found in this writing.
if we attach weight to the passage, and believe that God really will
curse any who add or subtract from "the words of the prophecy of
this book," the "this book" refers not to the Bible,
as some seem to suppose, or even to the New Testament, but
only to the single book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse
itself. The New Testament did not exist at that time. Only a part
of its books had been written, and those that were written had not
been gathered together into one collection. To get the New Testament
in any such form as we have it, the world had to wait more than
a century longer.
Another scripture passage often quoted to prove that the Bible claims
to be infallible, is that found in Second Peter: "Holy men of God
spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." Of this text two
things are to be said.
it is found in one of the most questionable of the New Testament
books, many authorities having always regarded the Second Epistle of
Peter as ungenuine. Professor Hilgenfeld says: "The composition
of this Epistle by the apostle Peter is out of the question. We must
look [for its date] to the second half of the second century. It is
not till the third century that we find the first trace of any
knowledge of this Epistle; and even as late as the beginning of the
fifth century the majority rejected it." So much, then, as to the
right of the passage to a place in the New Testament at all.
further, even if we admit the passage to be true scripture, it does
not prove the infallibility of the Bible or of the men who speak to us
through the Bible. Go into a meeting of Quakers or Friends, and you
find all waiting for the moving or prompting of the Holy Ghost before
they speak. Indeed, not only among the Quakers, but in all Christian
churches holy men today claim to speak as moved by the Holy Ghost. But
they do not for this reason profess to be infallible.
the passage that is oftenest quoted as proof that the Bible claims to
be infallible is found in 2 Tim. iii. 16. In our common version it
reads : "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is
profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction
first thing to be pointed out regarding this text is the same that has
had to be pointed to in the case of each of the others: It is found in
one of the unauthentic and in every way most questionable books of the
New Testament. The book stands in our common English Bible with the
heading: "The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to
Timothy"; and it begins with the words, " Paul, an apostle
of Jesus Christ, to Timothy, my dearly beloved son." But scholars
believe this to be unreliable. Professor Pfleiderer says of the
Epistle: "The tradition of its Pauline origin may be traced back
as far as the second century, a.d.,
but may nevertheless be proved by adequate historical evidence
to be erroneous." He thinks the second century is the true date
of the Epistle. But this is more than a generation after Paul's death.
Davidson, expressing not only his own view, but that of many other
scholars, says, "We rest in the conclusion that the author was a
Pauline Christian who lived in Rome in the first part of the second
century." This, then, is the first thing to be borne in mind in
considering the passage before us: it is at least very questionable
whether it came from Paul, or any apostle, and therefore whether it
has any proper claim to a place in the New Testament.
if we should concede it to be a genuine utterance of Paul, it does not
teach the infallibility of the Bible. It has long been held by the
best scholars that the passage as it stands in our common version is a
mistranslation of the original Greek. And now if we turn to the
Revised New Testament, we shall find that even so conservative men as
the authors of this revision discard the old translation as incorrect,
and give us this instead: "Every scripture inspired of God is
also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction," etc., an utterance which nobody doubts,
and which cannot possibly be used as proof that "the Bible is
infallible. Of course every scripture that is inspired of
God is profitable, whether it be found in the New Testament or
the Old, or even if it comes to us through wholly other channels than
then, for the passages which are most often quoted as proofs that the
Bible claims to be an infallible book. The truth is, as already
stated, that it claims nothing of the kind. On the contrary, various
things in it go to show that some of its most important writers and
teachers understood that it was not infallible.
teaches over and over, and with the greatest emphasis, that the whole
Old Testament sacrificial law and ceremonial system were imperfect and
have been abolished. Even the "Ten Commandments" of Moses,
which we should regard as sacred if any part of the Old Testament is,
he calls "the ministration of death written and engraven on
stones," which is superseded by the law of Christ, written
"not on tables of stone, but on fleshly tables of the
heart." Could Paul have written in that way if he had regarded
the Old Testament as infallible?
goes nearly or quite as far as Paul in breaking in pieces the
infallibility idea. In his Sermon on the Mount, referring to various
teachings in the Old Testament, he declares, "It hath been said
by them of old time" so and so, "but I say unto you "
it is so and so, different, even the very opposite in important respects from
what the Old Testament teaches.
doctrine of Bible infallibility does not come from the Bible itself.
The old Testament knows nothing of it; the new Testament contradicts
it. Nor is this all: the early Christian Church knew nothing of it. In
the rigid form in which it has been taught by modern Protestants, it
was unknown until the time of the German Reformation. The Roman
Catholic Church has never taught it; Rome locates her infallibility in
her Church, not in the Bible. The theologians of the Protestant
Reformation, finding themselves confronted by the declared
infallibility of the Romish Church, in self-defence set up a counter
infallibility in the Bible. But they had no more ground for theirs
than Rome had for hers; that is to say, there was no ground for
either. Indeed the earlier and greater reformers did not
hold to Bible infallibility at all. Some of the strongest utterances
against it that we have from any source, come from Luther.
requires only a very slight examination of the way in which the Bible
came into existence, and of the manner in which it has come, down to
us, to see that any claim of infallibility for it can be only words
Bible were a single book, the case would be different. But it is not:
it is a collection of sixty-six books,
representing different lands, different languages, different ages,
some of them a thousand years apart, different degrees of
civilization, different conditions of life, different stages of
religious development, and made up of legend, myth, history,
biography, laws, predictions, proverbs, poetry in various forms, ecclesiastical rituals, didactic
teachings, indeed almost every known form of literature. It is a
collection of what survives, or of the best of what survives, of the
many-sided literature of the Jewish people for a thousand years,
literature which came into existence in the same natural ways
in which literature always arises, and which bears exactly the same
marks of the ages and the men and the circumstances that produced it,
that literature always bears.
authorship of the majority of these Writings is unknown, as would
naturally be the case. There is great uncertainty about the dates of
many. Some are collections made nobody knows by whom, as the book
of Psalms, which is the Jewish hymn-book; and the book of Proverbs,
which is a collection of pithy sayings current among the people. Many
of the books are compilations; some are compilations of compilations,
as the Pentateuch, and one or two of the Gospels. Does all this look
Consider the manner in which the Canon was formed; that is, the way in which it was decided what books should be regarded as true scripture and what should not. The whole process was a most uncertain and haphazard affair.
assigned different degrees of value and authority to the books of the
Old Testament; and some which we rank highest, as the Psalms, they
ranked lowest, and hardly thought of them as sacred scripture at all.
The Old Testament Canon was never really closed. Some books were left
out whose moral and religious value is much higher than that of some
which are in. The Roman Catholic Old Testament contains fourteen more
books than does the Old Testament of Protestants.
equally haphazard was the formation of the New Testament Canon.
Probably few if any of the New Testament books were written with any
idea on the part of the writers that they would ever become Bible.
They were written simply to meet certain needs. For a long time such
information as was conveyed to the people about Jesus was given by
persons who remembered him and the things he had said. But as the
generation that heard him passed away, the need began to be felt for
written memorials of him. Hence one and another wrote down what he
remembered. Out of these fragmentary memoranda came our Gospels.
when he had established churches in various cities distant from each
other, naturally wrote them letters for their instruction and
guidance. Naturally, these letters, or the more important of them,
would be preserved, and to some extent would be copied and sent to
other churches for their reading. Such was the origin and early use of
natural, too, that some historic account should be written of the
labors, travels and sufferings of the other chief apostles in planting
the seed of the New Christianity. Such an account we have in the book
natural was it that sooner or later efforts should be made to collect
together these precious memorials of the beloved master, and these
prized records and epistles of the first apostles of the new faith,
and that the collections made should be much prized. This was just
what happened. But of course the collections did not all agree. And as
the churches were far apart, with little communication between them,
and as printing was unknown, and as great numbers of spurious gospels,
and writings falsely purporting to be the work of apostles, came into
existence, and as the age was uncritical, it is not strange that much
uncertainty arose as to what writings were authentic, or that into the
best collections some found their way that were not genuine.
The New Testament Canon, as well as the Old, was never really settled at all. It was a matter of dispute all through the history of the ancient Church. The Church Fathers differed among themselves as to what books ought to be in; and the councils that voted upon the matter came to conflicting decisions.
happens that we have in our New Testament today, side by side with
books that are genuine and certainly from the hands of apostles, other
books claiming to be apostolic, which our best scholars are
practically a unit in declaring cannot have come from apostles or even
from writers living in the apostolic age.
facts alone, as to how the books of the Bible were written and
gathered together, surely are enough to show the utter baselessness of
the doctrine of scripture infallibility. Yet these facts are only a
few out of the long array that passes before us as soon as we open our
eyes and really begin to look into the matter.
Hebrew language at the time when the Old Testament books came into
existence, and for some centuries after, was not capable of becoming
the medium of an infallible revelation. That language was written in
consonant outline only: its vowels are all later additions. It is easy
to see that infallibility could not have been secured through such an
imperfect written vehicle.
Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. Thus his words required translating into Greek before they found a place in the Gospels; and to reach us in English they must be translated again. Are we to suppose that God has miraculously guarded these translations against possible error?
to speak of the great uncertainty that attaches to the transmission of
literature by the process of hand-copying. All the books of the Bible
were transmitted in this way for many centuries in
the case of some of the Old Testament books, for more than fifteen
centuries. Think how great was the liability for interpolations and
errors of copyists to creep in. The variations in such ancient
manuscripts as we possess reach the enormous number of hundreds of
thousands. Most of these variations, of course, are comparatively
trivial; but some of them are very important. For example, that
passage in the First Epistle of John about the "three heavenly
witnesses," which has been regarded as the strongest bulwark of
the doctrine of the Trinity, is not found in the oldest manuscripts,
and the Revised Version omits it. In the two oldest manuscripts the
last twelve verses, of the Gospel of Mark are wanting. So, too, most
of the ancient manuscripts omit in the Gospel of John all from the
seventh chapter and fifty-second verse to the eighth chapter and
see that the task of getting an infallible Bible is one beset with
difficulties that are simply mountainous. Indeed, to get such a Bible
requires not only that every book, chapter, verse and word of all this
vast and varied mass of literature should have been infallibly
written, but also that it should have been infallibly preserved for
centuries, infallibly copied by all the tens of thousands of scribes
who have had to do with it, infallibly gathered into a canon,
infallibly translated, and infallibly handed down to our day.
And even with all this, it can practically amount to nothing unless we are given also an infallible interpreter. If a dozen of us interpret a text of scripture in a dozen different ways, as is not uncommon, what good is there in the claim that the book from which it comes is infallible? Or if the Christian world is divided into two or three hundred sects, as in fact it is, all understanding the Bible differently, what does it avail for each to hold a so-called infallible Bible in its hand?
is in the errors, contradictions, and imperfect moral
teachings of the Bible, that we see most clearly of all that the
theory of the infallibility of the book is utterly without foundation.
There is no use trying to evade it; the Bible contains errors of many kinds.
It contains incredible stories, as for example those of the talking serpent, the speaking ass, and Jonah living three days in the fish.
It contains historic inaccuracies, as the statement in Luke that the governor of Syria at the time of the birth of Jesus was Cyrenius (Quirinus), when in fact it was Quintus Sentius Saturninus.
contains contradictions, as when in connection with David's numbering
of Israel we are told in one place that it was the devil and in
another that it was the Lord that tempted him to do the numbering.
It contains exaggerations, as when the statement is made that Jeroboam, the king of only about one-half of little Palestine (the whole of Palestine was smaller than New Hampshire) went into a certain battle with 800,000 picked men, and of that number lost 500,000, a number twice as large as the combined armies of North and South at the battle of Gettysburg.
It contains contradictions of science, as when we are told of the sun standing still for some hours; of a universal flood; and of the creation of the world in six days.
It contains cruel, unjust and immoral teachings, as in the imprecatory Psalms (cix. and cxxxvii.); the injunction to establish slavery (Lev. xxv. 44-46); the permission to sell bad meat to strangers (Deut. xiv. 21); and the command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
It contains morally degrading representations of God, as in Exodus (vii. 13 and xi. 10), where we are told that God hardened Pharaoh's heart that he should not let the children of Israel go, and then punished him severely for not letting them go; and in Joshua x. (2841), where the leader of the Israelites is commanded of God to murder inoifending women and helpless babes.
what are we to say to all these various and overwhelming proofs that
the Bible is not an infallible book? It does no good to say they do
not exist. They do exist. They confront us, and we cannot escape them.
Standing face to face with these evidences, can any man who cares at
all for the Bible propose the alternative, "All or nothing:
accept the whole volume as from God and infallible, or throw it all
It is hardly possible to conceive of a proposition more absurd or more dangerous to the Bible. It makes us realize with painful force the truth of the saying that there are no such enemies of any cause or institution as its shortsighted "friends."
not high time an appeal were being made, loud and long, to thoughtful
and honest people everywhere, to rise above all this strange unwisdom,
this folly of speech, this intemperance of claim, and begin treating
the Bible with the same honesty, candor and intelligence with which
they treat other books? Does our duty to the Bible require us to lie
for it? or to make pretences about it which intelligent inquiry shows
are not true? or to shut our eyes against facts? Are we afraid of
truth? Shame on such scepticism! Let us have no fear lest the Bible
cannot endure the light. If it cannot stand without being bolstered up
with make-believes, it ought to fall.
need have no fear of its falling if we let the honest truth appear. It
has too solid worth for that. It is not an infallible book, but it is
a great book. And never did its real greatness so plainly appear as
since the higher criticism of our day has begun to dispel the cloud of
imaginary supernaturalism and fictitious inerrancy that has so long
wrapped it about, and to reveal it to us as what it really is, the
richest and highest creation of the religious life of man that has
come down to us out of the great past, a book at once human and divine, as man is both human and
divine; God's book, because so profoundly man's book ; and because
man's book, therefore reflecting on the one side man's weakness, and
on the other his strength; on the one hand his ignorances, mistakes,
failures, sins, and on the other hand his knowledge, growing larger
with the advancing ages, his deepening insight, his rising ethical and
spiritual ideals, his battles with his lower self, his longings, his
heroisms, his faith now weak and fitful, now triumphing over sense and
time and death, and laying hold of the very omnipotence and eternity
should we fear to know or to speak the truth regarding such a book?
Grant that in the light of the Higher Criticism we see the Bible to
contain a large element of legend, as it certainly does, what of that?
The same scholarship shows that it contains a still larger element of
reliable and very valuable history. And the legends themselves become
of great value as soon as we confess them to be legend, and give up
the foolish task of trying to make history out of them. Then why not
accept both for exactly what they are?
too, that the Bible contains mistakes, historical, statistical,
scientific, and others, as we have seen. What of that? When we
remember the great size of the book, or in other words the great
extent and variety of the literature that makes up the book, the long
time it covers, and especially the early and uncritical age of the
world from which much of it comes, the real wonder is, not that it
contains mistakes, but that it does not contain more.
Grant, as we are compelled to grant, that there are predictions in the Bible that have never come to pass, and some which in the nature of the case never can come to pass. Shall this blind our eyes to the fact that prediction is not the largest or most important element of the prophetical literature of the Old Testament? Wipe away all prediction that even suggests a miraculous character, and the moral and religious teachings of this literature remain practically undisturbed. The truth is, the Old Testament prophets as a class are among the most sincere and heroic reformers the world has ever seen; and, in spite of the failure of many of their predictions, much that they have written has passed into the permanent moral and religious life of the world.
further, and grant, as we mustt that there are in the Bible
imperfect moral teachings, savage war
songs; brutal imprecations against foes (so different from Jesus'
"Love your enemies, bless and curse not"); selfish proverbs;
sceptical, pessimistic and materialistic philosophizings arid maxims
of life; representations of God as cruel, vindictive, jealous,
deceitful, unjust, a being almost infinitely removed in character
from the righteous and loving Heavenly Father of Jesus. Must we throw
away the Bible on account of these? Yes, if these represent the whole
Bible, or even its prevailing teachings. But every student knows that
they do not.
are intelligent and honest, when we come to the imperfections of the
Bible, we shall do two things.
First, we shall accept the facts, whatever they are, denying nothing and suppressing nothing that is true.
we shall seek and find our explanation of these imperfections partly
in the fact that the volume is not a single book, but a vast and
miscellaneous literature, and partly in the still more significant
fact that it is a record of the life and thought of a people during a
thousand years of growth, progress, evolution, from barbarism up
to high civilization; from intellectual, social and moral conditions
scarcely above those of the cruel and degraded polytheistic nations
around them, up to the ethics of the Golden Rule and the religion of
the Lord's Prayer. Of course a literature that is the truthful outcome
of such an evolution must contain views of nature that are
unscientific, records of events wanting sometimes in historical
accuracy, morals low as well as high, and views of God unworthy as
well as worthy.
are no longer surprised or troubled by the imperfections we find in
the Bible. We see that it would not be truthful if it did not contain
just such imperfections.
Instead of saying that the moral and religious teachings found in such books as Joshua and Judges and Samuel are infallible truth and wisdom, and such therefore as we ought to shape our lives by today, we must say, No, they came from a half-civilized age and people; they represent the moral child-stage of the Hebrew race; they are conceptions which even the Jewish people themselves outgrew, passing on from them up to the higher and truer conceptions of the later prophets, of the better Psalms, and finally of Paul and Jesus. So that instead of our being bound to accept them, we are bound not to accept them; the Bible itself teaches something higher and better.
long before the death of Phillips Brooks I had an opportunity to hear
a sermon from that great preacher in Trinity Church, Boston, where he
had so long ministered. He took for his text one of the terrible
imprecations found in the Psalms, and went forward in the name of
truth and of religion to tell us, without the slightest hesitation,
that the Psalmist's prayer for curses and evil to fall upon his
enemies was not to be regarded as from God, it was simply the imperfect and mistaken utterance of a man who
lived in a darker age than ours, whose thought of God had advanced
only to that point; but the growth of the world since, and especially
the influence of Christianity, have carried us forward to where we see
that the old conception was crude and imperfect and must be laid
aside. We must be guided by those writers of the Old Testament who
show the greatest clearness of moral and spiritual vision, and
especially by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament, not by the
men of less moral elevation and insight. In other words, we must
discriminate. The Bible has its precious truths; but it has also its
errors and imperfections. Hence we must carry to it the same open eyes
and discerning judgment that we do to everything else in life.
did Dr. Brooks say this? He said it because he was obliged to say it
as an honest man. It was what not only his own studies, but the
scholarship of the world, compelled him to say; and what erelong no
man who values his reputation for candor and intelligence will think
conservative friends seem often to insist on the alternative "all
or none" with the purpose of compelling persons to accept the
Bible in its entirety who otherwise would not. They know that few are
willing to throw it all away; so then, if they can convince the people
that there is no alternative but that of rejecting it all or accepting
it all, of course many will be driven to accept it all. It is a sort
of coercive process.
are its results? They are melancholy enough. It tends to make
hypocrites; under this pressure, many will profess to believe all who
do not and cannot.
It tends to kill thought and inquiry, and to make men narrow bigots; for the only way men who have once opened their eyes to the imperfections of the Bible can ever again accept it all as truth, is to intellectually stultify themselves.
It tends to produce utter rejecters of the Bible and religion. Many, too honest to pretend to believe what they cannot believe, take the preachers and religious teachers at their word, and say: "Very well, if it is accept all or reject all, then we reject all. Think, we will; reason, we will; if the Bible and religion require us to fetter our intellects and believe black is white, we prefer to turn our backs upon the whole thing, and go with Mr. Ingersoll." And that is largely the reason why the followers of Mr. Ingersoll are numbered by the tens and hundreds of thousands. This foolish, this baseless, this wicked alternative, urged by short-sighted and ignorant preachers and others, drives men into unbelief and rejection of all religion. And nothing can ever bring them back but rational views of the Bible and religion, such as are urged in this paper. These can do it, are doing it.
the immensely important work given to the independent, fearless,
truth-loving scholars, and to the liberal churches, of our age to do, to preserve reverence for the Bible and for religion in the
thousands of thinking people of the land whom the dogma of Bible
infallibility, especially this dogma in its most short-sighted form of
"The Bible, all or none," has pushed far off toward
permanent infidelity and indifference, if not hostility, to everything
Bible is not all true; but neither is it all false. It cannot be all
accepted, unless one is willing to shut his eyes, push aside the
scholarship of the world, and trample on his own reason and
intelligence. But much of it can be accepted, ought to be accepted,
must be accepted, unless we are willing to violate every principle of
correct literary and moral judgment, and deeply injure ourselves and
moral and spiritual element in the Bible, which grows ever brighter
and brighter in the Old Testament, and which shines with such splendor
in the New, especially in Jesus, is its own evidence. Nobody can
gainsay it; nobody wants to gainsay it. It commends itself, and
forever must commend itself, to the best judgment and conscience of
mankind. The simple truth is, there are two Bibles. One is the old and
outgrown Bible of tradition, credulity and ignorance. The other is the
new, fresh, living, imperishable Bible of inquiry, scholarship and
Bible of a darker past, which fettered reason and hindered progress the Bible of declared verbal infallibility, of miracles and
marvels and supernaturalisms literally believed, of crude morals and
low views of God accepted without question is dead, and ought to
be buried. The science, the criticism, the free inquiry, the growing
intelligence, the rising ethical standards of our time, have slain it.
It cannot be again brought to life. And it is fortunate alike for
civilization and for religion that it cannot.
But in place of it a new Bible is appearing, a new Bible which is in every way nobler than the old; which is literature, not dogma; which is as natural as Homer and as fresh as the unspoiled human heart; in which incredible stories are softened into legend; in which impossible history is transformed into myth and poetry; in which all low morals and unworthy views of God are seen to be simply the imperfect conception of an early time, a new Bible which reveals in a way that finds no parallel in history or literature the growing ethical sense, the rising spiritual ideals, the ever deepening God-consciousness, the marvellous, the providential, the thousand-year-long religious evolution, of an extraordinary people. This new Bible which is the old interpreted in the light of a larger intelligence, and born into the higher life of the spirit will never die, and can never lose its power among men.
 For a more extended treatment of this subject, see the author's book, "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth and Character," chaps, iv. to xiv.
 On the origin of the Old and New Testament Canons see the author's "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chaps, xv. and xvi.
the errors and contradictions found in the scriptures, see
"The Bible : Its Origin, Growth," etc., chaps, xx. and
 See "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., pp. 237-246.
"The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chap. vii.
 See " The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chap. viii. t Ibid., chaps, xix. and xxi.
 On the progress or evolution of religious ideas in the Old Testament, see "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chap, xix.
© 2005 American Unitarian Conference