Lecture 3. On the Structure of the Bible, antecedently considered

{142} ENOUGH perhaps has now been said by way of opening the subject before us. The state of the case I conceive to be as I have said. The structure of Scripture is such, so irregular and immethodical, that either we must hold that the Gospel doctrine or message is not contained in Scripture (and if so, either that there is no message at all given, or that it is given elsewhere, external to Scripture), or, as the alternative, we must hold that it is but indirectly and covertly recorded there, that is, under the surface. Moreover, since the great bulk of professing Christians in this country, whatever their particular denomination may be, do consider, agreeably with the English Church, that there are doctrines revealed (though they differ among themselves as to what), and next that they are in Scripture, they must undergo, and resign themselves to an inconvenience which certainly does attach to our Church, and, as they often suppose, to it alone, that of having to infer from Scripture, to prove circuitously, to argue at disadvantage, to leave difficulties unsolved, and to appear to the world weak or fanciful reasoners. They must leave off criticising our proof of our doctrines, because they are not stronger in respect to proof themselves. No matter whether they {143} are Lutherans or Calvinists, Wesleyans or Independents, they have to wind their way through obstacles, in and out, avoiding some things and catching at others, like men making their way in a wood, or over broken ground.

If they believe in consubstantiation with Luther, or in the absolute predestination of individuals, with Calvin, they have very few texts to produce which, in argument, will appear even specious. And still more plainly have these religionists strong texts actually against them, whatever be their sect or persuasion. If they be Lutherans, they have to encounter St. James's declaration, that "by works a man is justified, and not by faith only;" [James ii. 24.] if Calvinists, God's solemn declaration, that "as He liveth, He willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should live;" if a Wesleyan, St. Paul's precept to "obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves;" [Heb. xiii. 7.] if Independents, the same Apostle's declaration concerning the Church's being "the pillar and ground of the Truth;" if Zuinglians, they have to explain how Baptism is not really and in fact connected with regeneration, considering it is always connected with it in Scripture; if Friends, why they allow women to speak in their assemblies, contrary to St. Paul's plain prohibition; if Erastians, why they forget our Saviour's plain declaration, that His kingdom is not of this world; if maintainers of the ordinary secular Christianity, what they make of the woe denounced against riches, and the praise bestowed on celibacy. Hence, none of these sects and persuasions has any right to ask the question of which they are so fond, "Where in the Bible are the Church doctrines to be found? Where in Scripture, for instance, is Apostolical Succession, {144} or the Christian Priesthood, or the power of Absolution?" This is with them a favourite mode of dealing with us; and I in return ask them, Where are we told that the Bible contains all that is necessary to salvation? Where are we told that the New Testament is inspired? Where are we told that justification is by faith only? Where are we told that every individual who is elected is saved? Where are we told that we may leave the Church, if we think its ministers do not preach the Gospel? or, Where are we told that we may make ministers for ourselves?

All Protestants, then, in this country,—Churchmen, Presbyterians, Baptists, Arminians, Calvinists, Lutherans, Friends, Independents, Wesleyans, Unitarians,—and whatever other sect claims the Protestant name, all who consider the Bible as the one standard of faith, and much more if they think it the standard of morals and discipline too, are more or less in this difficulty,—the more so, the larger they consider the contents of Revelation to be, and the less, the scantier they consider them; but they cannot escape from the difficulty altogether, except by falling back into utter scepticism and latitudinarianism, or, on the other hand, by going on to Rome. Nor does it rid them of their difficulties, as I have said more than once, to allege, that all points that are beyond clear Scripture proof are the mere peculiarities of each sect; so that if all Protestants were to agree to put out of sight their respective peculiarities, they would then have a Creed set forth distinctly, clearly, and adequately, in Scripture. For take that single instance, which I have referred to in a former Lecture, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Is this to be considered as a mere peculiarity or no? Apparently a peculiarity; for on the one hand it is not held by all Protestants, and next, it {145} is not brought out in form in Scripture. First, the word Trinity is not in Scripture. Next I ask, How many of the verses of the Athanasian Creed are distinctly set down in Scripture? and further, take particular portions of the doctrine, viz., that Christ is co-eternal with the Father, that the Holy Ghost is God, or that the Holy Ghost proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and consider the kind of texts and the modes of using them, by which the proof is built up. Yet is there a more sacred, a more vital doctrine in the circle of the articles of faith than that of the Holy Trinity? Let no one then take refuge and comfort in the idea that he will be what is commonly called an orthodox Protestant,—I mean, that he will be just this and no more; that he will admit the doctrine of the Trinity, but not that of the Apostolic Succession,—of the Atonement, but not of the Eucharist,—of the influences of grace, but not of Baptism. This is an impossible position: it is shutting one eye, and looking with the other. Shut both or open both. Deny that there is any necessary doctrine in Scripture, or consent to infer indirectly from Scripture what you at present disbelieve.

2.

The whole argument, however, depends of course on the certainty of the fact assumed, viz., that Scripture is unsystematic and uncertain in its communications to the extent to which I have supposed it to be. To this point, therefore, I shall, in the Lectures which follow, direct attention. Here, however, I shall confine myself to a brief argument with a view of showing that under the circumstances the fact must be so. I observe, then, as follows:—

In what way inspiration is compatible with that personal {146} agency on the part of its instruments, which the composition of the Bible evidences, we know not; but if anything is certain, it is this,—that, though the Bible is inspired, and therefore, in one sense, written by God, yet very large portions of it, if not far the greater part of it, are written in as free and unconstrained a manner, and (apparently) with as little apparent consciousness of a supernatural dictation or restraint, on the part of His earthly instruments, as if He had had no share in the work. As God rules the will, yet the will is free,—as He rules the course of the world, yet men conduct it,—so He has inspired the Bible, yet men have written it. Whatever else is true about it, this is true, that we may speak of the history or the mode of its composition, as truly as of that of other books; we may speak of its writers having an object in view, being influenced by circumstances, being anxious, taking pains, purposely omitting or introducing matters, leaving things incomplete, or supplying what others had so left. Though the Bible be inspired, it has all such characteristics as might attach to a book uninspired,—the characteristics of dialect and style, the distinct effects of times and places, youth and age, of moral and intellectual character; and I insist on this, lest in what I am going to say, I seem to forget (what I do not forget), that in spite of its human form, it has in it the Spirit and the Mind of God.

I observe, then, that Scripture is not one book; it is a great number of writings, of various persons, living at different times, put together into one, and assuming its existing form as if casually and by accident. It is as if you were to seize the papers or correspondence of leading men in any school of philosophy or science, which were never designed for publication, and bring them out in one volume. You would find probably in the collection {147} so resulting many papers begun and not finished; some parts systematic and didactic, but the greater part made up of hints or of notices which assume first principles instead of asserting them, or of discussions upon particular points which happened to require their attention. I say the doctrines, the first principles, the rules, the objects of the school, would be taken for granted, alluded to, implied, not directly stated. You would have some trouble to get at them; you would have many repetitions, many hiatuses, many things which looked like contradictions; you would have to work your way through heterogeneous materials, and, after your best efforts, there would be much hopelessly obscure; and, on the other hand, you might look in vain in such a casual collection for some particular opinions which the writers were known nevertheless to have held, nay to have insisted on.

Such, I conceive, with limitations presently to be noticed, is the structure of the Bible. Parts, indeed, are more regular than others; parts of the Pentateuch form a regular history. The book of Job is a regular narrative; some Prophecies are regular, one or two Epistles; but even these portions are for the most part incorporated in or with writings which are not regular in their form or complete; and we never can be sure beforehand what we shall find in them, or what we shall not find. They are the writings of men who had already been introduced into a knowledge of the unseen world and the society of Angels, and who reported what they had seen and heard; and they are full of allusions to a system, a course of things, which was ever before their minds, which they felt both too awful and too familiar to them to be described minutely, which we do not know, and which these allusions, such as they are, but partially {148} disclose to us. Try to make out the history of Rome from the extant letters of some of its great politicians, and from the fragments of ancient annals, histories, laws, inscriptions, and medals, and you will have something like the state of the case, viewed antecedently, as regards the structure of the Bible, and the task of deducing the true system of religion from it.

This being, as I conceive, really the state of the case in substance, I own it seems to me, judging antecedently, very improbable indeed, that it should contain the whole of the Revealed Word of God. I own that in my own mind, at first sight, I am naturally led to look not only there, but elsewhere, for notices of sacred truth; and I consider that they who say that the Bible does contain the whole Revelation (as I do say myself), that they and I, that we, have what is called the onus probandi, the burden and duty of proving the point, on our side. Till we prove that Scripture does contain the whole Revealed Truth, it is natural, from its prima facie appearance, to suppose that it does not. Why, for instance, should a certain number of letters, more or less private, written by St. Paul and others to particular persons or bodies, contain the whole of what the Holy Spirit taught them? We do not look into Scripture for a complete history of the secular matters which it mentions; why should we look for a complete account of religious truth? You will say that its writers wrote in order to communicate religious truth; true, but not all religious truth: that is the point. They did not sit down with a design to commit to paper all they had to say on the whole subject, all they could say about the Gospel, "the whole counsel of God"; but they either wrote to correct some particular error of a particular time or place, or to "stir up the pure minds" of their {149} brethren, or in answer to questions, or to give direction for conduct, or on indifferent matters. For instance, St. Luke says he wrote his Gospel that Christians might know "the certainty of the things in which they had been instructed." Does this imply he told all that was to be told? Anyhow he did not; for the other Evangelists add to his narrative. It is then far from being a self-evident truth that Scripture must contain all the revealed counsel of God; rather, the probability at first sight lies the other way.

Nevertheless, at least as regards matters of faith, it does (as we in common with all Protestants hold) contain all that is necessary for salvation; it has been overruled to do so by Him who inspired it. By parallel acts of power, He both secretly inspired the books, and secretly formed them into a perfect rule or canon. I shall not prove what we all admit, but I state it, to prevent misapprehension. If asked how we know this to be the case, I answer, that the early Church thought so, and the early Church must have known. And, if this answer does not please the inquirer, he may look out for a better as he can. I know of no other. I require no other. For our own Church it is enough, as the Homilies show. It is enough that Scripture has been overruled to contain the whole Christian faith, and that the early Church so taught, though the form of Scripture at first sight might lead to an opposite conclusion. And this being once proved, we see in this state of things an analogy to God's providence in other cases. How confused is the course of the world, yet it is the working out of a moral system, and is overruled in every point by God's will! Or, take the structure of the earth; mankind are placed in fertile and good dwelling-places, with hills and valleys, springs and fruitful fields, with metals {150} and marbles, and coal, and other minerals, with seas and forests; yet this beautiful and fully-furnished surface is the result of (humanly speaking) a series of accidents, of gradual influences and sudden convulsions, of a long history of change and chance.

3.

Yet while we admit, or rather maintain, that the Bible is the one standard of faith, there is no reason why we should suppose the overruling hand of God to go further than we are told that it has gone. That He has overruled matters so far as to make the apparently casual writings of the Apostles a complete canon of saving faith, is no reason why He should have given them a systematic structure, or a didactic form, or a completeness in their subject-matter. So far as we have no positive proof that the Bible is more than at first sight it seems to be, so far the antecedent probability, which I have been insisting on, tells against its being more. Both the history of its composition and its internal structure are opposed to the notion of its being a complete depository of the Divine Will, unless the early Church says that it is. Now the early Church does not tell us this. It does not seem to have considered that a complete code of morals, or of Church government, or of rites, or of discipline, is in Scripture; and therefore so far the original improbability remains in force. Again, this antecedent improbability tells, even in the case of the doctrines of faith, as far as this, viz., it reconciles us to the necessity of gaining them only indirectly from Scripture, for it is a near thing (if I may so speak) that they are in Scripture at all; the wonder is, that they are all there; humanly judging, they would not be there but for divine interposition; and, therefore, since they are there by a sort of accident, {151} it is not strange they are there only in an implicit shape, and only indirectly producible thence. Providence effects His greatest ends by apparent accidents. As in respect to this earth, we do not find minerals or plants arranged within it as in a cabinet—as we do not find the materials for building laid out in order, stone, timber, and iron—as metal is found in ore, and timber on the tree,—so we must not be surprised, but think it great gain, if we find revealed doctrines scattered about high and low in Scripture, in places expected and unexpected. It could not be otherwise, the same circumstances being supposed. Supposing fire, water, and certain chemical and electrical agents in free operation, the earth's precious contents could not be found arranged in order and in the light of day without a miracle; and so without a miracle (which we are nowhere told to expect) we could not possibly find in Scripture all sacred truths in their place, each set forth clearly and fully, with its suitable prominence, its varied bearings, its developed meaning, supposing Scripture to be, what it is, the work of various independent minds in various times and places, and under various circumstances. And so much on what might reasonably be expected from the nature of the case.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.