William Rainey Harper.

Religion and the higher life; talks to students online

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that reformation, one of the most remarkable in
history, the reformation under Josiah. My point


is that an unused Bible, an unstudied Bible, is not
helpful. It is also true that a mere knowledge of
the contents of the Bible is insufficient. I know
men who can repeat entire chapters and even books
of the Bible, not to speak of verses, whose lives and
thought, so far as one can judge, remain wholly
uninfluenced by the knowledge. There is likewise
a certain scholastic knowledge which, so far as the
religious life is concerned, avails little or nothing.
You will not misunderstand me. The most accu-
rate and extensive learning is needed in connection
with the archaeological, exegetical, and theological
examination of biblical material. But this may
exist and yet render but an indifferent service to the
man whose heart calls for consolation, whose soul
needs lifting up from the depths of misery and
wretchedness. It is therefore the Bible studied,
not the unused Bible, that is the subject of our theme ;
and the Bible studied with special reference to the
religious life, not to archaeology, nor exegesis, nor
even theology.

The fact is that the exercise which we call study
is in itself a good religious discipline. It produces
accuracy of thought, and this is only another phrase
for truth; it creates a desire for knowledge, and all
knowledge rightly considered leads to God. This
exercise of study, when it is taken up seriously and
honestly in connection with the sacred books that
form our Bible, is the highest function of the human


mind, and the function which produces the largest
and most valuable fruitage. For, if we regard the
matter closely, we perceive that Bible study is the
act of furnishing nourishment to the seed of divine
life which exists in the individual soul; or, if we use
the other figure, it is the force which keeps alive the
spark of divine life, increasing its brilliancy and
constantly adding to its power.

Let us consider this thought from three points
of view.

First, the spiritual life within us stands as much
in need of nourishment, of assistance in its growth,
as do the physical and the intellectual life. We may
not say that the religious or spiritual life will take
care of itself, because it is divine. God has given
us bodies and minds, but they are so constituted
that they will starve and die, if not fed; the same
law holds good in the religious life.

Second, everything which contributes toward
the legitimate development of the inner religious
life will deepen and enrich one's personal experience
in all of its phases, the outward as well as the inner.

Third, of all agencies which may serve as sources
of help in the training and strengthening of the
religious life, the Bible, when studied, is the most
helpful, and, in a word, is indispensable. I shall
ask your attention in what follows to this third
proposition, omitting further reference to the first
and second.


Looking at the matter externally, and, as before,
from the point of view of worship, or the cultivation
of the devotional spirit, no literature, not even those
of Christian nations and of modern times, contains
such helps to prayer and praise and holy communion
with the spirit in and around us as do the pages of
the Bible. We realize that for most of us the ritual
of ancient Israel has been supplanted by the simpler
ceremonial of New Testament times. But we do
well to remember that the old ritual, as it stands in
Holy Writ, was one used largely by Jesus himself; that
this ritual, complex and mysterious as it may now
seem to be, was, at one time, the honest and sincere
expression of the relationship of man to God and
of God to man, on the part of a people rightly called
holy, because they had been the agency chosen by
God himself for the revelation of himself to all
humanity. This ceremonial, expressing the reli-
gious life, which was the divinely authorized pre-
cursor of the Christ, must contain rich food for those
who, like all the people of those times, have not yet
reached in their religious growth the higher things
of Christianity. Even believers require different
kinds of food; some may be ready for the strong
meat of the gospel; while for others a better diet
will be found in the milk of an earlier stage of develop-
ment. I make bold to say that even today children
and many adults will be better nourished if they
take their food in the order in which God has seen


fit to give it to man; namely, first "the blade, then
the ear, then the full corn in the ear."

Furthermore, as a manual of prayer and praise
the old Hebrew Psalter still stands unsurpassed.
It is the highest and purest expression known to
man of the soul's communion with God. It has
for nearly twenty-five centuries served as the mouth-
piece of untold millions of God's saints, and is
destined, so far as we can see, to continue thus to
serve a suffering humanity for all time. Its adapta-
tion to human needs has been well summarized in
the following utterance:

What is there necessary for man to know which the Psalms
are not able to teach? They are to beginners an easy and
familiar introduction a mighty augmentation of all virtue
and knowledge in such as are entered before a strong con-
firmation to the most perfect among others. Heroical magna-
nimity, exquisite justice, grave moderation, exact wisdom,
repentance unfeigned, unwearied patience, the mysteries of
God, the sufferings of Christ, the terrors of wrath, the com-
forts of grace, the works of Providence over this world, and
the promised joys of that world which is to come, all good
necessarily to be either known, or done, or had, this one
celestial fountain yieldeth. Let there be any grief or disease
incident unto the soul of man, any wound or sickness named,
for which there is not in this treasure-house a present com-
fortable remedy at all times ready to be found. 1

The same thought has been finely expressed by
another writer:

He only who knows the number of the waves of the ocean,

and the abundance of tears in the human eye; He who sees

1 HOOKER, Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, chap, xxxvii, sec. 2.


the sighs of the heart before they are uttered, and who hears
them still when they are hurled into silence He alone can
tell how many holy emotions, how many heavenly vibrations,
have been produced and will ever be produced in the souls
of men by the reverberation of these marvelous strains, of
these predestinated hymns, read, meditated, sung in every hour
of day and night, in every winding of the vale of tears. The
Psalter of David is like a mystic harp, hung on the walls of
the true Zion. Under the breath of the Spirit of God it sends
forth its infinite varieties of devotion, which, rolling on from
echo to echo, from soul to soul, awakens in each a separate
note, mingling in that one prolonged voice of thankfulness
and penitence, praise and prayers.

These quotations point to another fact of a
practical character. The study of the Bible, when
properly presented, is inspirational; for the intel-
ligent acceptance and appropriation of its mater-
ials, incorporated into creeds, has moved and
controlled the greatest spirits of nineteen centuries,
and through them the civilized world. No great
man has wrought among his fellows, no nation has
made history, except under the influence and inspira-
tion of these books we call the Bible. Space permits
here no illustration; still we may recall how the
Roman empire passed into Christian hands, and
the great movements since the Reformation, the
War of Independence, and even the French Revolu-
tion. This Bible of ours has been the incentive;
the truth gathered from its pages, even when mingled
with the false error of human interpretation, has
been the basis of the world's most helpful, most


efficient, and most startling forward steps through
all these ages. And it has happened thus because
this truth has entered into religious life and experi-
ence. If it has affected the life of men in days gone
by, if it is affecting their lives today, you may well
believe that you, as well as they, may receive inspira-
tion and direction; that the study of the Bible will
lift you to a higher plane of usefulness to your fellow-

Still again, in this matter of life as men see it I
mean standard of life, conduct where else, pray,
than in the Bible is there to be found more vivid
presentation of life as it should be lived, or of life
as it should not be lived ? Where else is there given
more pathetic illustration of the consequences of
sin than in the story of David; or more definite
presentation of the rewards of righteousness ?

One may study history outside of the Bible and
fail to find anywhere a commingling in any true
proportions of the various elements which make up
the religious life. Sin has made such headway
in the world that apparently no instance can be
found of a well-rounded religious life perfect in
every particular. We look in vain for a nation that
has produced or expressed this ideal religious life.
We look in vain for an association or organization
of any kind that has furnished the world an experi-
ence that might be accepted as the true type. Indi-
vidual men have approached this ideal more nearly


than nations or organizations. But the men who
have reached the highest place in this effort of trans-
cendent interest to all humanity have, after all,
exhibited characteristics of weakness and evidences
of innate sinfulness which have made it clear that
humanity in itself may not attain this supreme

Does it follow, then, that the world has seen no
perfect example of this life? In order that the
world might have such perfect illustration of it,
an illustration which all men might see and study,
and by which humanity might be lifted to a still
higher plane than that which it had reached through
the divine help already furnished in other ways,
Jesus Christ was born, and therefore he lived and
taught and died. His attitude of reverence and
homage toward God, in its simplicity and sublimity,
in its prayerful dependence, and in its irrepressible
aspiration, was the perfect presentation of the true
worship, in itself, and in its relation to the other
factors which constitute the religious experience.
His teaching concerning God as Father of the world,
of humanity as a single, closely related family, every
member of which had responsibility for every other
member, his teaching of the kingdom of heaven,
and the ideal social life in which justice and peace
shall reign, constitute a creed from which nothing
may be subtracted; while the making of additions
to it, as history has shown, leads surely to confusion


and controversy. His life, in the perfection of its
purity, in the pathos of its self-sacrifice, in the lofti-
ness of its unselfish achievement, has furnished the
world principles which underlie and control all
right li ving. In proportion, therefore, as the worship
of nations, or of organizations, or of individuals,
is as sincere and honest as that of Jesus Christ; in
proportion as their belief is as broad and deep and
true as was his belief; in proportion as their life is
as pure and self-sacrificing and lofty as was his life
in just such proportion will nation, or organization,
or individual give illustration of the true religious

Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that
a man of earnest religious temperament might be
able to find elsewhere than in the Bible the material
which would serve him fairly well for purposes of
devotion, for basis of belief, and for standards of
ethical life. What shall be said in reference to the
material which will serve his purpose in the realm
of his inner religious life the experience of the
consciousness of sin and the longing for righteous-
ness; the experience of a sense of fellowship with
God, and appreciation of receiving God's help in
time of trouble; the experience of love for God and
love for man ? Can the best material for the nour-
ishment of spiritual life be found elsewhere than in
the Sacred Scriptures ?

Let me stop here to answer a point sometimes


made against the necessity of Bible study. It is
said, with apparent plausibility, that, in one form
or another, our modern literature contains all of
the biblical element really needed for the nourish-
ment of the divine life in man; that in the lines of
poetry and the discussions of philosophy, in the
treatises on ethics and the pages of history, one may
find a really excellent substitute for the prophecies
of Isaiah and his disciples, the utterances of the
sages, the ethical narratives of the Old and New
Testaments, the letters and discourses of the apostles
and their co-workers. Two replies may be made:
first, the very fact alleged shows all the more clearly
the power of the Scriptures, for if they possessed
not a special power and value given from on high,
their influence could not have permeated as it has
all modern literature; but, beyond this, it is to be
noted, the source of the wonderful influence thus
exerted is conceded by all to have been and to be the
Bible. In these days, if never before, we are expected
to go to the original sources for our information.
The one source, the only source, as well as the original
source, for help of the kind here considered is the
Bible. My friends, do not waste your time and
strength in the effort to find this most precious
material in a diluted form, when you can so easily
obtain it pure; and remember that the dilution of a
pure article is often only another term for adultera-
tion. It is not an uninteresting piece of work to


follow this or that author in his effort to reproduce
the truth of the biblical writings according to his
own fancy; but it is a far more profitable thing to
study the biblical writings themselves writings so
strong and so helpful, and so necessary to man's
true life that even in their adulterated form they
have been found most valuable. I have a feeling
of profound pity for that minister of the gospel who
finds it necessary to place side by side with his text
or as a substitute for it, a quotation, however excel-
lent, from a secular writer.

Lack of time forbids me to consider separately
the three great ideas which constitute the controlling
thought of the inner spiritual life. Indeed, in what
has already been said I have largely anticipated
what I might say at this point. No one can deny
that in our Old and New Testament Scriptures we
find the fullest and clearest presentation of the char-
acter of God. We may interpret this revelation in
one way or in another; but whatever way we adopt,
the fact remains that the material to be interpreted
is biblical material. If God is himself the ultimate
source of all religious experience, it may surely be
predicated that the richest and fullest experience will
come, can come, to those only who best know him
as he has made himself known; to those only who
by such knowledge are in closest touch with him.
In the olden days the prophet Hosea repeated
pathetically the bitter complaint: "My people are


destroyed for lack of knowledge" (4:6); "they do
not know Jehovah" (5:4). In these modern days
men are even more foolish and go awhoring after
every absurd notion which the human mind can
invent. In very truth, they do not know the God
of the Scriptures; and why not? Because they
have not studied his character as it is revealed in
the Word, and in the flesh; or because they have
studied it, alas, through glasses so dimmed with
human error that the true light has been shut out.

This is true, likewise, of the two great corollaries
of the teaching concerning God that of sin, and that
of man's relation to man. No man, good or bad,
has ever lived whose picture has not been painted
in Holy Writ. You cannot read many chapters
before clearly to your eyes your own portrait appears.
There is no sin so damnable, no virtue so exalted,
that it has not found full illustration in these sacred
narratives. You will find nowhere else so clearly
presented your own religious needs, your short-
comings. You will find no writings which, by their
insistence upon ethical ideals, appeal so strongly
to your conscience. You will find nowhere else
so definite a placing of responsibility for sin upon
the individual. If you read sympathetically the
words of an Old Testament prophet, or of a New
Testament apostle, you will, in spite of yourself,
wonder at the deep and overwhelming sense of sin
which he exhibits. In other words, your own con-


viction of sin will be so deepened as to bring you by
reaction into that state in which you may assume
the right relation to your Maker. No other litera-
ture will produce this effect, unless it be a literature
so saturated with biblical truth as in itself to repro-
duce the biblical thought.

Think, too, of the educative element in the records
of the lives of great leaders, now following the right
path, now turned aside; at one time crowned with
all the favor of a loving God, at another punished
with all the severity which characterizes an impartial
judge. I have already spoken of the unique life
pictured to us the life of Jesus. This is the climax
of the whole; all else might perhaps be dispensed
with, so long as this remained ; and yet all else forms
the background on which this picture rests.

Let me then repeat: The study of the Bible is
to be thought of as the eating of food food not for
the body or the mind, but for the soul. One may
at times find nourishment for his soul elsewhere
in diluted form. If it is desired pure and at first
hand, the Bible is the one source of supply. This
work of Bible study is indispensable, if one's religious
life is to be strong and sturdy and alert, and if it is
to be at all equal to the demands made upon it in
this world of struggle and temptation.

I desire to state in conclusion certain propositions
which seem to me to grow out of this discussion
and which belong to it.


In your study of the Bible do not expect to find
all portions of it equally helpful to you in your
Christian life. The Bible is for universal use.
If every part of it were of equal value to you, how
narrow and provincial and even valueless it would
be for many others of your fellow-men! Its truth
is so presented that children may go to it with satis-
faction; the deepest thinker also may find that of
which he stands in need. This is the Bible's greatest
worth. Every stage of individual and national
religious development is provided for. The art in
all this, that which makes it possible, is something
far beyond human understanding. We cannot
fail to see that it is so, however futile our attempt
may be to explain how it is so. We know quite well
why it is so; for otherwise it would not be what it is
universal, the only collection of writings which
may seriously claim to be universal.

In your study of this collection do not lose sight
of the large amount of history in its content; and
keep in mind that every utterance of prophet, law-
giver, and sage, of disciple, apostle, and teacher,
has an historical basis; that is, it grew out of some
historical situation intended in the divine providence
to serve as the occasion of the utterance and as its
basis. An important historical event happens
among us in these days the assassination of a presi-
dent, the rumor of war, the centennial of the birth
of a city and the teachers and preachers seize this


as the basis for lessons in religious instruction. A
certain condition of things exists in this or that
country, a great awakening is needed, and from
every pulpit there comes the word of exhortation
and demand. Just so in ancient times. And if
by the study of sacred history we are able to dis-
cover the event or circumstance, the situation or
occasion, of a prophecy or a letter, whether it be
the approach of an invading army or the corrupt
condition of one of the churches of New Testament
tunes, a new light is shed upon the words; they take
on a new significance; they live, as they did not live
before. Too much cannot be said in favor of the
effort thus to connect the sacred words with the
sacred history which furnished their occasion. And
then, we may not forget that, after all, the events
were the principal thing. For example, the suffering
and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are his-
tory; that is, they are facts. Now, suppose no gospel
story of them had ever been written, would they
have altogether lost their historical value? And,
as such, would not the divine purpose sought for
in them have been accomplished? Is it not true,
then, that the historical fact back of the record is
the thing on which we must build our faith, the solid
rock on which we may take our stand ?

Some of us in our Bible study are troubled with
the so-called difficulties. I am afraid that the number
of such persons is too small. To be thus troubled


indicates two things: that one has actually been
engaged in study; and take my word for it no
student ever worked in any subject who did not
find difficulties. It shows also that the man is
honest. There is much that I should like to suggest
on this phase of our subject; for I have had very
sad and bitter experiences of my own along this line.
I wish, however, to make a single suggestion: Do
not, for the sake of all that you hold sacred, allow
the existence of intellectual difficulties to interfere
with the progress of your practical religious life.
Many men think that unless all their intellectual
problems are settled it is impossible to live a truly
religious life. A more mistaken notion never
entered a man's head. If you are a thinking man,
you will always have difficulties; new ones will
probably come forward even more rapidly than old
ones are settled. Be not too greatly disturbed by
these difficulties. If you are not yet a Christian,
do not put off becoming one until they disappear
Such a time will never come. Go forward in Chris-
tian work and service, follow the paths pointed out
to you so clearly in Sacred Scripture, and let the
difficulties be settled as your Christian faith grows
stronger and your Christian character becomes more
firmly established.

I cannot bring myself to forego just here a quota-
tion from one of the greatest of modern Bible students,
the late Professor Davidson, of Edinburgh. It is


found in his Commentary on Job, in the chapter
containing Jehovah's answer out of the storm:

It is God who now speaks to Job; and in his teaching of
men he never moves in the region of the mere understanding,
but always in that of the religious life. He may remove per-
plexities regarding his providence and ways from men's
minds: He does not do so, however, by the immediate com-
munication of intellectual light; but rather by flushing all the
channels of thought and life with a deeper sense of himself.
Under the flow of this fuller sense of God, perplexities dis-
appear, just as rocks that raise an angry surf when the tide is
low are covered and unknown when it is full.

It goes almost without saying that if your religious
life is based upon a study of the Scriptures, it will
be largely shaped by the way in which you handle
these Scriptures. There is no error of the human
mind or heart which has not supported itself by the
use of Scripture; for instance, here polygamy, there
slavery; here spiritualism, there I might mention
twenty abnormal, absurd religious developments
which flourish in the very heart of our strongest and
most intelligent centers. The origin of all these
is false interpretation, failure to see aright the thought
intended to be conveyed by the sacred writer, and
an ignorance of God so great as to allow it to be
thought that such absurdities are pleasing to him
and represent aright his truth to men. The responsi-
bility, therefore, of interpretation is very great so
great that in certain divisions of the Christian church
it is a privilege denied the ordinary Christian and

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Online LibraryWilliam Rainey HarperReligion and the higher life; talks to students → online text (page 10 of 11)