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The religious value of the Old Testament in the light of modern scholarship online

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l^visioQ S>S 1 1 f I




in the Light of
Modern Scholarship



Professor of Biblical Literature in
Dartmouth CoUege


New York


Copyright, 1907,

Published, March, 1907.


For rigorous teachers seized my youth,
And purged its faith, and trimmed its fire,

Showed me the high, white star of Truth,
There bade me gaze, and there aspire.

Stanzas frojn the Grande Chartreiise.


I. The Change of Attitude to the Old Testa-
ment ...... I

II. The Older View of the Religious Value of

the Old Testament .... 7

A. It establishes the existence of God and

the divinity of Christ

B. It gives infallible direction to the


III. Defects of this Older View . ... 15

A. In faihng to apprehend Old Testament


B. In externalizing religion

C. In begetting a trivial conception of God

IV. The Untenability of the Older View . . 23

V. A Modern View of the Religious Value of

the Old Testament .... 29

A. It presents characters supremely worthy

of reverence

B. It records the discovery of our funda-

mental religious truths

C. It is essential to a correct apprehension

of Jesus Christ

VI. Conclusion 79



It is obvious that the attitude of the educated
man to the Bible has undergone nothing less
than a revolution. Instead of the authori-
tative pronouncement of Deity through arbi-
trarily chosen instruments, the Bible is now
regarded as a great body of literature, one part
di£fering from another part in glory. And the
parts have been seen to be of far greater value
than the whole. As the Bible lies before us,
it is a misleading book. Both in the Old and
in the New Testaments, the historical frame-
work is untrustworthy. The ecclesiastical


writers of the Bible are no better historians
and no more free from prejudice — to use
no stronger word — than ecclesiastical writers
generally. It is now clearly understood that
the priestly authors and editors who are re-
sponsible for the final form of the Old Testa-
ment history, from Genesis to Chronicles and
Ezra, thoroughly misconceived its movement
and its meaning. And I think it is gradually
being felt, though not so universally insisted
upon, that the author of the Acts of the Apostles
has reproduced in somewhat less flagrant man-
ner the error of the Old Testament ecclesiastics.
The ecclesiastical writers of the Old Testa-
ment wrote history from the view-point of the
temple ritual and priesthood, and the author
of the Acts was unduly influenced in his choice
of material by the theories of the origin and
unity of the Christian Church, which were
current in his time. The result is unfortu-
nate in two respects. In the first place, the
really vital forces in the history of the Jews
and the great conflicts in the history of the
Apostolic Age are almost totally ignored. Had


it not been for the preservation of the writings
of the prophets and of the letters of Paul, we
should have been utterly unable to understand
the actual historical development of the re-
ligion of Israel and of Christianity. In the sec-
ond place, the writers push much too far back
the establishment of the temple priesthood in
the one case, and of churchly authority in the
other. In the Old Testament this error of
the priestly writers is so marked that even
were there no similar tendencies among the
prophetic school of historians, Wellhausen
would be fairly justified in declaring that here
"we have a religious history that shuts history

It is not too much to say that the theory of
the Chronicler of the Old Testament and of
the historian of the New Testament, so far
from being an accurate guidepost to the his-
torical student, is rather a protecting shell
which has to be broken through to find the
meat. It is just the material which had least
value to these historians and which was pre-
served only through a reverence for the past —


such as the ancient stories of David, tucked in
at the end of Samuel, the strong ringing strophes
of the minor prophets, and the parables of
Jesus, preserved in Mark as examples of spir-
itual mysteries (!) — which constitute for us
the most precious treasures of the Bible. And
so it has come to pass that the attention of men
is being diverted from the Bible as a whole,
that is to say from the Bible as an oracle, to
the separate writings of which it is made up.

But it is plain that the great literary power
of the Bible will be lost to us, unless its religious
power may somehow be retained. The books
of the Bible which make the strongest literary
appeal are precisely those which are epoch-
making in religion. The permanence of their
hterary influence must in the last analysis de-
pend upon the value of their religion. We
may keep the Bible on a remote shelf of our
libraries in any case; its historical interest
and significance assures that; but if we are
to keep it on our study tables, we must believe
in and live upon its religion. Now the por-
tion of our Bible that has seemed to be in the


greatest danger of being put upon the shelf
through the influence of the keen criticism
of recent years is the Old Testament. Not-
withstanding far-reaching discoveries in the
field of New Testament criticism, the supreme
character of Jesus has been more and more
clearly recognized as the great inspiration of
mankind, and the first three gospels as the most
immortal of books. We are dealing, then, with
what in one aspect is the most critical question
in regard to the future of the Bible, if we ask
ourselves if modern research and scholarship
have destroyed or enhanced the religious value
of the Old Testament.

For whether for good or ill, it seems indis-
putable that the large results of modem scholar-
ship have become thoroughly established. In
the more important matters a striking agree-
ment has been reached by the leading bibhcal
scholars of Germany, England, and America.
It would expand this essay into too large a book
to marshal the proof of even the main con-
tentions, of scholars like Wellhausen and Duhm
in Germany, Robertson Smith and Driver in


England, George Moore and Henry Preserved
Smith in our own country. Suffice it to say
that the standpoint of this essay is the stand-
point of these men and of the men they repre-
sent, and that its object is to show that the most
outspoken modem scholarship ministers to our
rehgious needs and to the appreciation of the
supreme religious value of the Old Testament.
I do not mean to say that modern scholarship
has not altered our conception of the religious
value as well as of the historical accuracy of the
Old Testament, — we shall begin the considera-
tion of our subject by pointing out the great
difference of view that it necessitates, — I only
mean to say that the gain far exceeds the ap-
parent loss.



Let me first, then, attempt to set forth the
chief rehgious value of the Old Testament to
the older scholarship and to that scholarship,
not as it has been modified in the last one hun-
dred years, but before biblical criticism changed
its attitude of awe for an attitude of sympathy.*

To the older scholarship the Old Testament
was rehgiously valuable chiefly in two ways:
first, it served as one of the most important
proofs for the existence of God and the divinity
of Jesus Christ, and second, it gave men infal-
lible directions in regard to faith and conduct.
We must consider these two great services in

We cannot follow in detail the proof of the
existence of God which the Old Testament af-

^ Cf. Martineau, " The Rationale of Religious Inquiry,"



forded the fathers, but it was chiefly threefold.
It consisted in the miraculous interventions in
the course of Jewish history, in the revelation of
future events to the Jewish prophets, and in the
early and authoritative proclamation of the per-
fect morality. Some, if not all, of the older
divines and scholars insist that of these three
proofs the first two are of decidedly greater value.
They point out that they are more distinctly
divine, less open to any human admixture, and
that they have a wider appeal. A moral law
impresses only moral people, whereas a miracle
convinces the wicked as well as the good.
And certainly if it can be estabhshed that the
dew fell one night on Gideon's fleece and not
upon the ground, and that the next night it fell on
the ground and not upon the fleece, and if it may
be further proved that it all happened because
Gideon asked God to have it so, the circum-
stance — particularly when supported by many
other similar occurrences — proves the existence
of God much more easily than the dehvery of the
ten commandments to Moses, or certainly more
easily than the content of the commandments.


The only thing requisite is to be sure that
the miracles actually happened. Of this the
older theologians were convinced, because the
infallible Bible said so. And the Bible was
proven to be an infalhble book by the remark-
able fulfilment of its most detailed and most
mysterious prophecies about the future of
Israel and of Israel's foes. Further, over and
over again in this book were to be found —
as in no other with which our fathers were
acquainted — passages of the highest spiritual
quality introduced by the solemn "Thus saith
the Lord." These passages naturally inspired
reverence for the book in which they were
found, and from the earliest time it was the
universal belief that the very accounts of the
miracles themselves were from the mouth of
the Lord, written only at the hand of some
amanuensis. The infallible book proved the
actuality of the miracle, which in turn proved
the existence and the power of God.

The divinity of Christ also was proved, not
by the words of his mouth or the meditations
of his heart, but to a very large extent by the


Old Testament prophecies of his coming.
It was, indeed, always felt that the prophecies
that concerned themselves directly with him
were meagre and hazy, but this very haze was
accounted to be an evidence of that God who
hideth himself and whose ways are not our
ways. A God who could wipe out whole cities
at his word and who could tell Abraham
the exact hour of their destruction could be
mysterious about the sending of his Son if he
so elected. There was enough that was clear
to impress "the fickle and the frail," and enough
that was covered to necessitate and to repay the
theologian. In this latter category the ritual
occupied a prominent place ; in itself it had no
meaning; it was ridiculous to have so many
sacred pages filled with the description of mere
temporary rites; it was the province of the
theologian to prove that they constituted a de-
tailed symbolic prophecy of the atonement on
Calvary. Hence there arose the sacred science
of typology, which supplemented the meagre-
ness of the direct Messianic prophecies. Side
by side herevdth, the theologian followed the


lead of the writers of the gospels in discovering
numerous hidden references to Christ where
a casual reader would not suspect them. This
allegorical interpretation of Scripture ran riot
in the early days of the Church and was in great
favor much more recently than we care to think.
It was supposed to be a special gift of the
Spirit, who thereby enabled his favorites to
find the spiritual significance of seemingly
secular events. Thus was much of the Old
Testament redeemed from its worldliness and
made tributary to the revelation of Christ,
and to the estabhshment of his deity.

But allegorical interpretation is invariably an
interpretation of an oracle. It was, therefore,
but a short step from searching for hidden
references to Christ to searching for hidden
counsel for one's personal life. The historical
sense was completely ignored, — at first on prin-
ciple, at length as a matter of course. The
Bible became a vast storehouse of moral and
spiritual food, equally nutritious for all ages,
and for all circumstances. Many a saint in


perplexity would open his Bible for direction,
and would twist the passage to which he opened
until he found the guidance he sought. And
even where this was not done, the "devotional"
reader would be constantly expecting some
spiritual refreshment to shoot forth from the
ritual of Leviticus or the narratives of the Kings.
Samson's riddle became only one of a vast num-
ber. The Old Testament became an oracle
like the books of the Sibyl or the utterances
from Delphi. Any one of God's children could
hear him speak to him personally, simply by
opening the pages of the Old Testament, or as
it was preferably called, The Word of God.

It would be utterly absurd for descendants
of the Puritans to deny that this conception of
the Old Testament had distinct rehgious value.
It made men certain of the existence of God
and of the divinity of Christ. It kept every-
day life open to the illumination of God's coun-
sel. It held men in the control of God. It
cannot be gainsaid that with the weakening
of this conception, large numbers of men are
losing the encouragement and the consolation


of religion. The old divines were right in
saying that a moral argument appealed only
to moral men. Where a man is devoid of
spiritual insight, it will be much harder to
prove to him the divinity of Jesus from the
supremacy of his character than from a de-
tailed prophecy of his coming, death, and
resurrection, hundreds of years before.

Again, the character of the prophets is a
less direct proof of the existence of God, and,
therefore, of men's accountabihty to him, than
the staying of the sun by Joshua, or of the
processes of a whale's digestion for Jonah. It
would appear that not only perfect love but
imperfect conviction of God casteth out fear of
him. It seems patent that the absolute cer-
tainty of God is passing away from very large
numbers of men. The world of Western civiH-
zation appears to be entering on a curious
epoch. It has been accustomed to irrehgion
in the intellectual circles; now it seems that
irrehgion is rather to have its seat among the
masses. The problem of the immediate past
has been with the educated ; the problem of the


present is with the indifferent, because uncon-
vinced, laboring classes. They could find God
in an infallible church or in an oracular book;
now they " wander from sea to sea," but without
even "seeking the word of the Lord, " — so sure
are they that "they shall not find it." In the
face of this threatening disaster, we are able
to appreciate the religious value of the Old
Testament of the fathers.



Before we turn from the Old Testament
of our fathers to the Old Testament of our
critics, we must in fairness point out three seri-
ous limitations in our fathers' view. First,
the conception of the Old Testament as the
inerrant record of the miraculous and the in-
fallible oracle for all generations prevented men
from apprehending the actual religion of the
authors and heroes of the Old Testament.
Even in the historical books, the search for the
miraculous bhnded men's eyes to the simple
and affecting greatness of a Saul or of a David
and to their crude beliefs and fears. The signifi-
cance of the demand of Elijah for the exclusive
worship of Jehovah, fraught with such untold
consequences, was quite overlooked in favor
of the cruise of oil and the mysterious chariot
and the wonder-working mantle.


This defect is most plainly exhibited in the
estimate of the prophetic books. They were
valued almost exclusively for the predictions
they contained. The figures of the prophets
themselves were but slightly individualized and
their struggles and problems commanded no
sympathy; they were hardly known to exist.
Only in very recent times has it been discovered
that the greatest of the prophets were poets,
and delivered their messages from Jehovah in
lyric poetry of exquisite beauty and of unparal-
leled strength. There was a lamentable igno-
rance of the very portions of Scripture which have
been shown to be of the highest literary power.
And as literature is not only an outcome, but
in large measure an index, of life, we are forced
to suspect that the older theologians had no real
understanding of Old Testament religion. It
was precisely the most vital parts of the book
for which they had no inner sympathy. And
the suspicion is confirmed by the reconstruction
of history which modern criticism has made.
Through it we have discovered that the creators
of the IsraeHtish religion are not so much Abra-


ham and Moses as Amos and Hosea and Jere-
miah and the unknown authors of Deuteronomy
and of some of the later chapters of the Book of

The prevalent opinion among scholars is
that the ten commandments, instead of being
handed to Moses on Sinai, are the crystalliza-
tion of the insight of the great prophets of
Israel. We have found that what gave power
to the strophes of Amos and Hosea was the sense
of declaring to Israel what they perhaps thought
was forgotten, but what was at any rate un-
known, moral and spiritual truth. We have
learned that the religion of the Old Testament,
was neither the religion of the Protestant theo-
logians nor even of the New Testament. It
was in such a constant state of development that
to speak of the rehgion of the Old Testament
as though it were a fixed quantity, is a mislead-
ing use of language. In reality, Hebrew reli-
gion did not become monotheistic until shortly
before the fall of Samaria.

The only glimpses of immortaHty in the Old
Testament come from the two centuries pre-


ceding Christ, and Old Testament religion
never lost its national character. For a long
time its chief representatives sought God ex-
clusively through ritual and the casting of lots,
worshipped him with the help of images and
regarded national exaltation as his highest re-
ward. Hebrew rehgion was raised to its unique
place only through the inner experiences of the
wonderful succession of men, of whose hearts
and hopes and lonely, steadfast faith the theo-
logians of the Reformation had no apprehen-
sion. The first great defect, then, of the older
view is its failure to reahze the reHgion of the
men of the Old Testament, and thereby to
appreciate that our religion was the outcome of
centuries of struggle after God.

This emphasis on miracle and prophecy on
the part of our fathers made also for the exter-
nalization of religion. It is indeed strange to
find emphasis on Israelitish prophecy making
for such a result, but we must remember that
prophecy was regarded by the old theologians
as prediction. This prediction had to do largely
with external events that could easily be verified


by the morally obtuse. The predicters them-
selves, moreover, were chosen without especial
regard to their moral attainment, as was pecul-
iarly evidenced in the case of Balaam. To have
faith in God meant not to appropriate his hoH-
ness but to beheve in his existence and power.
It was the fact rather than the character of God
that was of supreme importance. To beheve on
the Lord Jesus Christ meant, not to understand
what God intended man to be, but rather to be
confident that the worth of Christ's sacrifice
balanced our account with the Almighty. It
was the cross rather than the heart of Jesus
that was the centre of Christianity. With this
external view of God and of Christ, it followed
that eternal life was a mark of duration rather
than of quality. What was acquired by this
intellectual — that is, external — acceptance of
God and Christ was an assurance of pleasurable
existence after death. In some most rigidly
orthodox quarters, rehgion became synony-
mous with belief.

But the most serious rehgious defect in this
method of regarding the Old Testament was the


trivial conception of God that went with it.
God was supposed to have found in an unchang-
ing book a completely adequate medium for
revealing himself to men. He had need of no
further avenue of communication. Spirit had
deposited itself in letters. The Bible was
the surrogate of God. To commune with the
Almighty, let man dig out the hidden meaning of
infalHble words. A God that was to be found
in such fashion was of necessity a trivial God.
The nature of the letters, moreover, in which
God had, as it were, deposited himself, in-
creased the triviality of his character. For, as
we have seen, the only way in which long
stretches of Chronicles and the Song of Songs
and Leviticus could be considered worthy of
being the speech of any God at all was to regard
them as conveyers of a hidden spiritual mean-
ing. Even the older theologians were sure that
for a final and exclusive communication of
God to men, there was too much in the Old
Testament about buying wells and measur-
ing altars and describing meats. Hence it
was generally assumed that these passages


were intended to convey subtle mysteries
of redemption. This assumption not only
relieved the speech of the Almighty from
seeming lapses, but gave him back again
that mystery which he had surrendered to the
clear-cut letters of the Bible, and which men
must needs feel about their God. Thus the
obscurity of his verbal revelation was made to
match the obscurity of Providence, and in a
double sense he was felt to be "a God that
hideth himself." But this human method of
investing Jehovah with mystery only increases
our sense of his inadequacy. He is freed from
insisting on the exact measurements of furni-
ture only by being made a lover of riddles. His
message to men was thought to be more ade-
quately conveyed in plays upon words than in
the mountains and the stars or in the heart
of man.

Revelation was thus regarded as something
quite unnatural and unrelated to the currents
of the inner hfe. Only through artifice could
God reveal himself to his creatures; even his
Son must be accredited by hidden solutions


of prearranged conundrums. No wonder that
for the simple trustful reverence of Jesus there
was substituted the behef on the "mysterious"
dogma of the Trinity. No wonder, further,
that God was supposed, by processes akin to
magic, to reveal to men definite directions of an
arbitrary kind when they found themselves in
trifling perplexities. Aaron was not allowed
to enter the holy of holies oftener than twice a
year ; even the Sibylline books on the Capitoline
were consulted only at explicit command of the
Senate ; the God of the older theology, however,
could always be consulted through the biblical
oracle at all times, for all causes, by all persons.
Superstition easily usurped the place of rever-
ence. The God of an oracle is always to be
preferred to no God at all, yet he is not a God
of order but of confusion, and he is far removed
from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ. The greatest evil of an infallible Bible
is the worship of a trivial God.



But with its good and ill alike, our fathers'
view of the Bible has been found untenable.
It cannot, of course, be said to have been actually
disproved. There is no possibihty of overturn-
ing by proof so subjective a behef as the behef
in the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.
Every contradiction, every false statement,
may be set aside simply by asserting that the
obvious sense of the passage has nothing to do
with the real significance thereof. But it can
be said that, in the light of common sense and
science and comparative religion and historical
criticism, this method of bibhcal interpretation

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Online LibraryAmbrose White VernonThe religious value of the Old Testament in the light of modern scholarship → online text (page 1 of 4)