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Is the Bible Infallible?

Jabez T. Sunderland

American Unitarian Association Tract #160

The 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."

That 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 religious creed.

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.

Thus we 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.

If one 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.

Concerning 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.

Why, then, should men, when they approach the Bible, adopt this canon of judgment, the folly of which they see instantly when applied to anything else?

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."

Says the 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."

Says Dr. 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?

How many 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 taken place.

Well, 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.

How many 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."

Now 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?

As a 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"!

One of 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 doctrine arise?

I 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.

We think 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."

We think 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 Jesus.

It is 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."

There 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.

(1) One 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.

First, 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.

Dean Trench pens truer Bible when he writes: —

"I say to thee, Do thou repeat

To the first man thou mayest meet

In lane, highway, or open street,

That he and we and all men move

Under a canopy of love,—

Blessing, not cursing, rules above."

By the 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.

Further, 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.

But even 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.

(2) 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.

First, 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.

But, 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.

(3) But 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 in righteousness."

The 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.

But even 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 the Bible.

So much, 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.

Paul 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?

Jesus 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.

No, the 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.

It 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 without meaning.

If the 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.

The 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 like infallibility?[1]

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.

The Jews 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.

Almost 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.

Paul, 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 Paul's Epistles.

It was 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 of Acts.

Not less 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.

Thus it 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.[2]

These 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.

The 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?

I ought 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 twelfth verse.

Thus we 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?

But it 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.[3]

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.

It 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. (28—41), where the leader of the Israelites is commanded of God to murder inoifending women and helpless babes.[4]

Now, 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 away"?

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."

Is it 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.

But we 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 of God.

Why 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?[5]

Grant, 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.[6]

Go still 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.

If we 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.

Second, 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.

Thus we 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.[7]

Not very 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.

Now why 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 of denying.

Our 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.

But what 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.

This is 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 religious.

No, the 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 mankind.

That 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 intelligence.

The old 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.



[1] For a more extended treatment of this subject, see the author's book, "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth and Character," chaps, iv. to xiv.

[2] On the origin of the Old and New Testament Canons see the author's "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chaps, xv. and xvi.

[3] On the errors and contradictions found in the scriptures, see "The Bible : Its Origin, Growth," etc., chaps, xx. and xxi. 

[4] See "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., pp. 237-246.

[5] See "The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chap. vii. 

[6] See " The Bible: Its Origin, Growth," etc., chap. viii. t Ibid., chaps, xix. and xxi.

[7] 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™