The Bible and the Nineteenth Century Part 8




Part 8
PART 7Table of ContentsPART 9

The Bible: its morals and religion.

What remains to be said may be classed under morality and religion. We have reserved these topics for the last, because there is no question that the Bible in its entirety is designed chiefly to teach religion, and that in some of its parts its chief design is to teach morality. Hence, if in these matters of morality and religion the Bible standard is not high and royal, even superior to all else found in ancient literature, we may well question its authority, and its claims of having been written and compiled by men who in their work were controlled by supernatural influences.

Comparisons between Bible teachings and
those of other ancient literature.

Comparisons between the Bible and those of other ancient literature, upon the subject of morals, first claim attention. We presume at the outset that no intelligent person will question this statement, that if some of the sayings of the great men of antiquity – such men as Zeno, Aristotle, Quintilian, and even Plato – were put in practice, society would be robbed of its moral safeguards, and be led into speedy and universal mischiefs. Nor can any one doubt, that if the immoralities practiced by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and by the peoples of India and China, and by those dwelling in Western Europe prior to the advent of Christianity – immoralities in some instances authorized by law and recommended by the distinguished teachers of the people – were in our Republic sanctioned by law of by the customs of society, there would be an end to chastity, homes would be robbed of their charms, and our country be no longer fit to live in.

We do not say that all the maxims and teachings of all those distinguished men were of this degrading and dangerous character. There are, in the writings of some of those men, noble sayings that commend themselves to modern thought; some, indeed, which are in every way superior to the teachings of certain noted men who have enjoyed the blessings of the highest recent civilization. Those ancient so-called Pagan hunters after truth found data in their consciousness to which, in many instances, they were faithful: they gleaned some facts from observation, and not a few thoughts from the religious writings of the Israelites both before and after those writings were compiled into the Bible – thoughts which were recast, and have since passed, in more than one instance, for gems of originality in Pagan literature. This is, perhaps, especially true of many of the sayings of Seneca and Epictetus, who, though they may not have seen and conversed with either of the apostles, could not have failed of deriving ethical notions, at least indirectly, from Christian sources. Seneca was Nero’s tutor, and prime minister at the emperor’s court; and Epictetus was a slave of a prominent freedman of the empire. It is, therefore, highly improbable that they were not at times brought under the “word-fall of Christian lips.” But, notwithstanding all these excellences, original and borrowed, ancient writers upon ethical subjects were as a rule, and in a high degree, defective. Indeed, we may safely say, that, if a few of the many false teachings found in the best ancient classical literature had been introduced into the Bible, there would be forever, in questions of moral life and character, an end to its authority.

Unfavorable Criticisms.

We are not unacquainted with a recent claim that has been urged, namely, that the morality of some Pagan countries is, in certain respects, superior to that of Christian countries. Japan, for instance, is referred to as comparing favorably with countries under the sway of Bible morality.

We freely confess that much which has been said upon this subject has truth in it. But this is the counter claim, that if the morals of Japan in certain respects are superior to those, for instance, of England, it will be found that in those very respects Japan is more biblical than England. The Bible, even in these instances, is recognized as the standard authority.

We are aware, too, that now and then a person is found who affirms, out and out, that biblical as well as Pagan morality tends to immorality. This charge is always, or nearly always, based upon the ground that certain corrupt practices are, “with no prudent reticence,” brought to our notice in the Bible.

It is true that the Bible uses great plainness of speech and conceals nothing. The Old Testament does not pretend to be “an idyl of innocence:” it is rather an illustrated demonstration of what the sins of humanity are, and of the direful consequences of sin. Therefore it speaks of men as it finds them. If they have faults, it faithfully describes them. How could its designs be accomplished without doing this? If the instructions of the Bible had been given in the abstract rather than in the concrete, and if all the characters portrayed in the Bible had been represented as spotless; if Abraham had never falsified, if Jacob had never deceived, if David had never sinned, if Solomon had never acted unwisely, and if Peter had not denied his Master; in a word, if Bible men, in a general way, had been represented as having no imperfections – then how much less forcible would be Bible instructions, and how great would be the outcry from the infidel world! It would be forthwith announced that Bible history is a fiction, and not a fact.

This, however, must ever be kept in mind: that the Bible never for an instant, by sentence, word, or intimation, approves any form of immorality recorded on its pages. When the patriarchs transgressed, God in every instance reproved or punished them. “The thing which David did was displeasing to the Lord,” is the entire drift of its rebuke of sin and iniquity.

The rigorous measures enjoined in the Bible against the Canaanites.

We are also aware that it is sometimes argued, in modern times, that the rigorous measures enjoined in the Bible against the people of Canaan, upon the return of the Israelites from Egypt, are in their moral influence harmful; that they “make out God to be a very monster of cruelty;” that, as to this feature, the Old Testament is at war with the New.

In passing judgment upon these matters, one thing must not be overlooked; namely, that God builds for all time – for eternity. Our range of vision, therefore, if we become self-appointed judges, must not be narrow. If our views are not captious, and are as broad as the subject demands, we shall easily discover that the spirit of the Old Testament is not, as some persons seem to think, entirely unlike that of the New. The severest denunciations found in the Bible are from the lips of Christ (Matt. xxiii. 13-33).

We shall also make the discovery, that the Divine method as seen in the Bible is the same as is discovered in providence; and is therefore to be justified upon the ground of necessity in the nature of things, or possibly in view of the attainment of a greater good. There is an old saying, rough but forcible, which reads thus:

“God himself must be strong as well as good, or the Devil will shortly have the upper hand.” The one attribute of good-naturedness can never constitute a God; at least, does not constitute the God whom creation and providence as well as the Bible reveal.

That great law of science, the survival of the fittest, though often misapplied in modern philosophy, is simply an expression of what the Infinite Being is disposed to do, and has been doing through the ages. That law will forever stamp its approval upon the command of Jehovah to Joshua to destroy the unfit, savage, and murderous Canaanites, who, but for their extirpation, would have destroyed the Israelites, to whom, as it appears, had been entrusted the truths upon which is based the religious civilization of the world. The methods resorted to for their destruction needed also to be such as to strike terror to the hearts of all the surrounding tribes.

The point of view occupied by Tennyson when he wrote the following words is the one to be taken while judging of the rigorous measures recommended in the Old Testament –

“‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone,

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.'”

If, therefore, the ways of Providence, in building the “scarped cliff” and the “quarried stone,” care nothing for the species or even the genus, how much less care shall there be for the Amorite and the Hittite when standing in the way of building for the world a universal civilization and religion?

“But,” some one asks, “shall evil be done, that good may come?” Yes, so far as this question is justified in the matter before us. Implacable enemies of righteousness, even at any cost, are to be prevented from carrying out their wicked designs and from hindering progress. It is this principle that leads modern society to build prisons, and put men into them; to erect a gallows, and hang men upon it. Such prevention and death are no evil: they are rather an exalted good and mercy working in behalf of the well-disposed.

Imprecations in the Psalms.

The imprecations in some of the Psalms of David are also said not to breathe the spirit of the Gospel, and to be harmful in their moral influence. No one, unless his range of view is narrow, would pass such a judgment. A careful study of the character of David and of the so-called harsh Psalms will disclose the fact that no instance is vengeance called down upon personal enemies. The imprecations are uttered solely against seditious spirits and public foes. David was forgiving and magnanimous to his personal enemies; no king or commander ever more so. In some instances, he mourned over the death and misfortune of his enemies as if they had been those of a friend. The entire spirit of David’s administration shows, too, that in his war upon the cruel and outlawed Amorites, and in his advice to Solomon as to Shimei and Joab, he was not prompted by personal vindictiveness, but by considerations of public safety.

David’s command to execute Joab.

The case of Joab may be taken as illustrative of this statement. Joab was a nephew of David. He was a bold soldier, and in his successes was the Marlborough of the Jewish empire. But his disposition was thoroughly bad. His spirit of revenge was implacable. He treacherously, and out of pure revenge, assassinated Abner. He also treacherously murdered Amasa. With apparently a friendly whisper upon his lips, he had killed the one of these two men; and the other, while imparting a kiss upon the cheek of his victim at the very moment of assassination. Joab was not only sly and malignant, but he was bold. He was brave, he was defiant. He could almost say with the great politician in the time of Edward II., “I can make and unmake kings.”

Though for the most part obedient in times of war, David foresaw that this wild, ambitious, restless, implacable, and revengeful spirit would be utterly unsafe in times of peas. Upon the ground, therefore, of political expediency, David enjoined upon the young king the arrest and execution of this dangerous man.

The Bible the text-book on moral science.

But aside from the records of the falls and crimes of certain illustrious Bible men – whose chastisements and poignant repentances are likewise recorded – and aside from some of these rigorous measures rendered necessary upon the grounds of political and military necessity, not one word can be spoken against Bible morality. It is the great text-book upon moral science. The profoundest modern moral philosophers never think of deviating from its teaching. Matthew Arnold states the case forcibly –

“Try all the ways to righteousness you can think of, and you will find that no way brings you to it except the way of Jesus…Attempt to do without Israel’s God that makes for righteousness, and you will find out your mistake! . . . Attempt to reach righteousness by any other way except that of Jesus, and you will also find out your mistake! This is a thing that can prove itself if it is so, and it will prove itself because it is so.”

And, too, the uncompromising and solemn manner in which the Bible always enforces its claims of morality is in many respects exceptional in the world’s literature. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. vi. 9,10); and “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Ps. xxiv. 3-5) – are words never heard until spoken and written by Bible men.

Objections to the purity of Bible morality.

At this point, advocates of Bible morality are met by an unexpected cross-fire; that is, a few persons readily admitting that in many respects the character of Bible morality is exceptional, have, upon this very ground, pronounced against it. With Aristotle (who must have spoken in an unguarded moment) they say, “When you can have a good thing, take it;” and with the Spartans they will add, “Be sure you are not found out.” With Quintilian (who also must have spoken in an unguarded moment) they say “Truth, though generally, is not always defended.” With David Hume they reason, that though adultery is condemned in the Bible, it must be practiced if men would obtain the highest advantages of human life. And with Mr. Buckle they reason, that so-called crimes are a part of the fixed course of nature, as really so, though not so apparently, as the ebb and flow of the tides; that certain natural causes, acting upon men as surely as the moon upon the ocean, produce in them certain conditions, from which some particular form of crime is the invariable result; that men are, therefore, not responsible for the crimes they commit. (sounds like a modern justification: I can’t help myself, it’s genetic – DBS).

We cannot, of course, reason much with such foes of morality and chastity: we can only appeal to the common-sense of the great mass of the best people in our best communities, who hold these lax and unscriptural views of morals in utter detestation; and to the world’s history, whose pages are a solemn warning against any departure from the Bible standard of ethical conduct.

Results of an abandonment of Bible morality, as in England and France.

Take, for example, the times following the restoration of Charles II. In the re-action from Puritan austerity, the morals of Christianity were discarded. The results are too well known to justify a full rehearsal. A word only is necessary. “Then,” says the historian, “came those days, never to be recalled without shame; the days of servitude without loyalty, and sensuality without love, of dwarfish talents and gigantic views; the paradise of cold hearts and narrow minds; the golden age of the coward, the bigot, and the slave.”

In France, too, in a re-action against priestcraft, the altars of Christianity were demolished, and Bible morality was despised. The results are well known. Then followed the “carnival of crime” and “reign of terror.”

“We are the only people in the world,” writes a journalist of that time, “who ever attempted to do without religion. But what is already our sad experience? Every tenth day [the sabbath of the infidels] we are astounded by the recital of more crimes and assassinations than were committed formerly in a whole year. At the risk of speaking an obsolete language, and receiving insult for response, we declare that we must cease striving to destroy the remnants of religion, if we desire to prevent the entire dissolution of society.”

Disraeli, after making a broad survey of peoples and countries, reaches a conclusion which is thus stated –

“It will be observed that the decline and disasters in modern communities have generally been relative to their degree of sedition against the Semitic (the Old-Testament) principle. England, notwithstanding her deficient and meager theology, has always remembered Zion. The great trans-Atlantic Republic, the United States of America, is intensely Semitic, and has prospered accordingly.”

Bible morality endorsed even by men in some respects skeptics.

It is in view of a solid array of facts, that even skeptics who are intelligent and not corrupt hail the Bible as the beacon-light of the moral world. No higher words of commendation of the moral purity and superiority of the Bible have been spoken than those which have fallen from the lips of Napoleon, Rosseau, Diderot, Goethe, Huxley, and Theodore Parker. Says Professor Huxley, in an address upon education, “I have always been strongly in favor of secular education, in the sense of education without theology; but I must confess I have been no less seriously perplexed to know by what practical measures the religious feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up, in the present utterly chaotic state of opinion on these matters, without the use of the Bible. The Pagan moralists lack life and color; and even the noble Stoic, Marcus Antoninus, is too high and refined for an ordinary child. Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate: and there still remains in this old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur. By the study of what other book could children be so much humanized? If Bible-reading is not accompanied by constraint and solemnity, I do not believe there is any thing in which children take more pleasure.”

Would not those who object to Bible morality do well carefully to weigh these words, coming from such an impartial witness as Professor Huxley?

The fact is, that, in spite of all the small talk of skeptics, the lustre of Bible morality in the nineteenth century remains undimmed. Far, far above the fogs and mists with which immoral men and women, English free-thinkers, German free-livers, and American free-lovers, have sought to fill the sky, Bible morality stands unrebuked and unchallenged; indeed, it never stood out so perfectly clear, serene and triumphant as at this very day.

Still another important question.

At this point, the substance of the question repeated asked recurs, and is this: How did it chance that Bible-writers who belonged to a “petty, unsuccessful, unamiable people, without politics, without science, without art, without charm,” and who lived in times and among communities which were ruled by immoral precepts and steeped in moral corruptions, produced and preserved a comprehensive code of morals so faultless and universal that it can be practiced by all nations, and upon which modern improvement seems impossible?

Has any explanation yet been given at all comparable with that claimed by the writers themselves, that they were aided, controlled, “borne along,” by an agency supernatural and divine? (Exod. iv. 15, 16; Ezek. iii. 4-10; John xvi. 13-14; Gal. i. 12; Rev. i. 10.)

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