An interesting address by J. F. Genung to the General Association of Congregational Churches of Massachusetts, Wednesday morning session (May 22), held at Seminary Church, Andover, May 21-23, 1901.
PROF. JOHN FRANKLIN GENUNG, AMHERST.
A scholar’s book our Bible indeed is; a book to study; a book that never shuns and never disappoints study. Such it has been ever since Jesus coming set his people searching the Scriptures for eternal life; such it is proving itself increasingly to be, in the way it responds to our age’s fierce light of scientific research. Its real distinction, however, is deeper than scholarly. The Bible is first of all a folk’s book, a book to live and walk by. It came to the plain people originally; was intended for them and adapted to their capacities. Curious and recondite inquiries may indeed gather round it; but these, after all, are by the way. Its large and vital truths, its weightiest secrets, are for all who can read and hear. The focal point of our interest, therefore, is in the vernacular Bible, the Bible as it comes forth finished, from the workshops of textual inquiry, translation, interpretation, ready to make its appeal to plain men, and in a language — as the old phrase puts it — “understanded of the people.”
All this, so far forth, as we well know, is a purely literary fact; and yet our fathers had as little sense of being controlled by the subtle power of literature as we have of the power of air and light in which we move. To them it would have been a profanation to call the Bible literature; their very idea of inspiration barred out the notion of composing and elaborating implied in that term. Nor was their sense of its contents in the smallest degree that flexible realization which we apply to works of human literature. It was not printed and bound like other books. It was not read like other books. A big leather-bound copy of it was brought forth in solemn mood at family prayers, and one chapter read — as a chapter, not as a living, breathing message; and the solemn mood of reception was accorded impartially to the Beatitudes, the furniture of the Tabernacle, and the catalogue of the Dukes of Edom. All belonged to the inviolable Word of God; and attributed to the perusal of it, if not consciously felt then occult, was a mysterious effect called edification. Only a step beyond such attitude to it, and hardly more superstitious, was the oft-obeyed impulse to open the Bible at random, as the ancients opened their Virgil, as a magic book to tell fortunes by. In the pulpit, too, the Bible was as little like other books as elsewhere. There, with its arbitrary division into numbered chapters and verses, it revealed little of that lighted and shaded continuity which we associate with a book’s line of story or thought; rather it was an assemblage of texts, nuclei of sermons and proofs of theological doctrines, all well-nigh equal in weight, and the lightest of them of such value that a man’s unchangeable destiny beyond death could be deduced from the fact, oracular affirmed by Ecclesiastes, that when a tree falls in one or another direction it stays there. On the realistic side, moreover, in pulpit and pew alike, it is not too much to say the Bible was becoming an impossible book, -in the sense deliberately affirmed by an old theologian, that it was all the more credible for being impossible. Verbal inspiration on the one side, the uncritical acceptance of the miraculous on the other, had combined to create a fairy world of ancient record and history, wherein the laws that we see operative around us are not to be counted on at all. Any knotty event could be untied by the interposition of miracle. Any seeming contradiction could be resolved, or at least dismissed, by the all-covering potency of inspiration. Science, the sense of ordered natural fact. had no business between the covers of that Book, except as the Book granted a reluctant franchise from the tract it had left over. Nay, even reason itself, dubbed rationalism — as we give a dog a bad name in order to hang him. — was sternly crushed under a faith which on its side was hardly distinguishable from sheer credulousness. Thus, in a word, the Bible, in its Authorized Version, dissociated from literary thought and made an absolute unchangeable oracle of God, was becoming to the pious a sublime tyrant whom they must needs follow out of the world, and therefore into another hemisphere of a divided life; while to the worldly it was becoming a fossil, with, for life, merely some vegetable growth of superstition still adhering to it. If we are apprehensive about its vitality in the people’s mind now, still this glance back through a century may do something to reassure us. That absolute reign of the Authorized Version, attractive as in one aspect it was, had another and less toward side.
One tribute, however, we must not neglect to pay; the implication of our review would be only half true without it. The Bible was read in those days, as it is not read now; it was committed to memory by the children, and trodden in by catechizing, as is not done now; and one mental treatment of it prevailed then, the very capacity for which, we are tempted to think, is almost atrophied in these hurried days— I mean pondering, leisurely meditation. We shall have to think a good deal into the newer conditions that now prevail, to offset this.
Of these great age-movements the earlier to make its effect felt on forms and versions of the Bible was the scientific. I do not refer now to those discussions of Genesis and geology, or to those questionings of the supernatural, whereby science so disturbed men’s faith two generations ago; that belongs to the scholarship side, and mine is a folk subject.
I refer rather to the changed attitude engendered in a scientific atmosphere, the increasing sense of concrete fact, of accurate conception, of exact statement, which must needs take increasing possession of the common mind and create new demands. We may, in a word, call it scientific honesty. The commentaries felt it; Scott and Matthew Henry, with their devout embroidery of Scripture, ceased fully to satisfy; some view was needed which should seek first of all just what Scripture said and meant, and abide by that. So commenting, though it became infinitely dryer, kept itself much more scrupulously to book; nor was it long before it reached the type it has since retained, becoming rigidly grammatical, lexical, textual, like the commentaries of Ellicott and Meyer. Nor could scientific conscientiousness stop there. Soon it began to be hinted that in this and that place the text was corrupt; that this or that passage was a later interpolation; that here and there the translation was wrong; that ancient manuscripts had been discovered which compelled changes of rendering and interpretation; that old versions were founded on a different original from ours. Interpreters felt it increasingly necessary to make their own translation of the book on which they were commenting. All these things gradually wrought in the ordinary religious mind a feeling of unrest not unlike what those experience who in an earthquake first realize that even the great planet may tremble from its place. Even the Authorized Version, men discovered, had its imperfections; it was but a version, a translation, after all; and both it and its original must be brought to the tribunal of reckoning. A disquieting discovery to make of so divine and so seeming stable an object. And who could conjecture what shapeless torso would be left when all these wanton demands of alteration were met? If the foundations are destroyed, what will the righteous do?
Still, the thing must be done, audendum tamen ; and it was with the keen interest of all English readers upon them that those sittings in Jerusalem Chamber from which came eventually the Revised Version were carried on. Of this revision the controlling spirit was more scientific than literary; a spirit made faithful and ardent by the claims of the new task, yet made reluctant by the unapproachable excellence of the version they were to change. This shows itself in the Revisers’ avowal of their object, which latter was, as they said, first, “to give to modern readers a faithful representation of the meaning of the original documents”; secondly, to give a revision simply, altered as little as may be in language and idiom, not a new translation. Here speaks, we may say, the voice of an age which, spurred by scientific conscience, will deal honestly with its heritage of divine truth; but as yet it is awake rather to the substance than to the form. So little is the literary form, indeed, a spontaneous thing with the revisers that they will admit no word or idiom in their new version which is not as old as 1611; thus compelling themselves to write with one finger in the dictionary, and in a manufactured idiom two and a half centuries older than their day. It is a praiseworthy tribute of veneration to the Authorized Version, but whether the result can be a limpid current of idiom, welling up as it were unbidden, and with no signs of artificial forcing, is a grave question. A mended article — can it ever be like a new one, or like the old one either?
To call the Revised Version a patchwork, however, would be to do it great injustice. It is a monumental work, faithful, wise both to alter and to retain, and as homogeneous, doubtless, as a revision could well be. It came at a time, too, when revision rather than new translation would best meet the age’s foremost demand, and it fulfilled its primary object. From it the apprehensive common reader could know the worst; could ascertain what residuum was left after all the long rumored claims of text, inclusion, readings and construal had been met. This was much; was, in fact, the one needed forward step. It enabled that folk’s mind in which the scientific spirit of the time was creating a hunger for solid verifiable fact to readjust that body of truth which for centuries had been the world’s most sacred possession. If a halo had gathered round the Authorized Version, making it unapproachable, men would by no means tear away that halo, but now they could be sure it encircled a real thing, a thing that could stand the test that men apply to other things, not a fiction or an idol. This, I think, is the service that the Revised Version preëminently rendered. And it was a great steadying element in the faith of the early eighties, when men, comparing the new with the old, found that the changes were only minutiae after all—that the great essential body of revelation remained intact, unscathed.
Not because the revision is poor; not because it goes too far, or does not go far enough. For all purposes of fact—to keep men from banking on a particular turn of phrase, or leaning on a passage like that about the three holy witnesses—it is adequate. But also as men read it they became aware, through the little jolts it was continually giving to the old flow of idiom, of a subtle truth hitherto unsuspected, namely, that man does not live by facts alone. Away down underneath the stratum where fact controls is a region of hidden sentiments, vital associations, subtle harmonies of imagination, feelings which twine mysteriously round the music of word and phrase; of whose very existence men are hardly cognizant until something comes in to disturb them, and yet which are so potent that the whole life is swayed by them. For centuries the Authorized Version, both by its own noble music and by the way all literature had been imbued with it, had been weaving a veritable spell of this kind about the hearts of men, and they knew not what it meant. We know; it was the power of a consummate work of literature; it was literary power. Here is a book that is more than a version; it has risen far above the wooden shifts of translation from an alien tongue; it divides honors with Shakespeare for the supreme place among the world’s works of literature. Such a book, version though it be, the world cannot let die or be superseded. Its vitality, its spell, is too great. Now it was the ungracious lot of the Revised Version to break the spell. As men read it the old atmosphere was strangely gone; their moulds of vital association were constantly invaded by those little turns of amendment; it was like revising Shakespeare or Milton or Bunyan and taking out the flavor of their personality. And so, having availed themselves of its practical aid, they turned with renewed zest to their King James. The flavor of the home and of the centuries was there, it was like a familiar tune. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new; for he saith, the old is better.
Thus by breaking a certain subtle spell the Revised Version did something to precipitate a deep literary consciousness, or sentiment, which was already gathering head; the second great movement of which I spoke a few minutes ago was beginning to assert itself. Along with the craving for scientific matter-of-fact men were also getting, as other centuries had not done, a sense for ideas, for the imaginative elements, the inner potencies of thought. It was not for nothing that novelists and poets, orators and essayists, had poured out the wealth of their minds for every humblest man to read. A book ceased to be that mysterious thing it once was; its author lived in the next street, and had wife and children and debts as other men had; and somehow his personality so got into his books that in reading them one also got acquainted with him. This very domestication of literature was a potent influence to disintegrate men’s iron-bound views of the Bible. A severe blow the theory of verbal inspiration had already received, when it was seen that the long-accepted form of words must be opened to the chances of revision and even rejection; and now that the common mind was entering into the springs and motives of literary thought, how could that theory maintain itself unchanged? Nay, human hands must have wrought at that Bible, too; it was not a table of stone, an oracle of thunder; it was — what was it but a work of genuinely human literature ? Whatever more it was, this at least could be traced there, with all that it implies. Thus a second spell was broken, the spell by which it was becoming an impossible book; and men are learning to come close to it and talk with it, to walk with its ideas and expressions as with any others, to approach it with the comrade spirit they would accord to any author’s work.
That the Bible is literature, with the forms, the artistry, the hidden vitalities of word and figure and rhythm involved in literature — this, strange to say, is a very recent discovery; and this idea it is which the latest versions and editions are engaged in naturalizing. To do so is a gradual process, for there are many sides to it. The most obvious initial step to it is to print the Bible like another book— to work the text clear of that exceeding fineness of print, those double columns, and that clutter of verse-numbers, italics, and numberless marks of marginal reference. A step toward this result was taken by the Revised Version by dividing into paragraphs instead of verses; though its paragraphs are hardly determined as real literary divisions — they are too long and cumbrous. The Cambridge Paragraph Bible is, I think, better in this regard.
When a new idea like this of the Bible as literature is introduced, it has to go through a certain stage of coltishness before it finds its true pace and place. It is apt to exploit phases of the subject which turn out to be side ideas rather than the main issue. As part illustration of this I must regard Professor Moulton’s Modern Reader’s Bible, which I think were better entitled The Modern Literary Student’s Bible, an edition of the Revised Version in little handy volumes, with the text printed according to its literary forms, prose and poetic. As a commentary on forms it is suggestive and interesting; not always convincing; sometimes, it seems to me, what I may call twiddling. Its main service to the common reader is in helping him realize that the Bible is really a book like other books. But it does not take very far in assuring him he is reading a sonnet, or in arranging the Bible phrases like an inventory. Another aspect of this same literary coltishness, valuable as a commentary rather than as a constant companion, is seen in two versions now in process of publication : The Twentieth Century Testament, and Ferrar Fenton’s New Testament in Modern English; versions in the idiom of the modern novel and business item — as it were a translation into United States. I do not wish to disparage them; they are seriously intended, and especially on such books as St. Paul’s epistles give considerable elucidation. But it seems to me they have conjured up a bogey to fight when they launch their colloquial version in the melancholy conviction, as expressed by Ferrar Fenton, “that unless the Sacred Scriptures were translated afresh into current spoken English, a belief in the Christian Religion as a Faith would perish.” Surely we are not at that pass yet; have we not the Authorized Version, the sweetest, purest English in the world, a Book that has smitten itself into the mind-tissue of the centuries, as the body of Christ is fabled to smite itself into the sacrament? No rattle of colloquialism can permanently replace that, with its associations sacred and esthetic; it is the form of sound words which underlies and survives the commentary.
Here, I think, is where, after our excursions and experiments, we are likely to rest. I am speaking now for the common folk, the rank and file, who must get their Bible from a version. When the question what the Bible means as literature is answered and they have become adjusted to the recognition therein implied, they will still twine their affection round the Book that comes to us from the spacious age of Shakespeare and has been seasoned along with him. To all its quaintnesses and naïve archaisms their deepened sense of literature will easily adapt itself. These others, Revised Versions and new translations, will stand on the shelf for consultation; but the book of the home and heart will continue to be the Authorized Version. Only, I hope to see it in the every-day form and print of other books; to relegate those verse numbers and italics and marginal references to the occasional volume of the shelf. I do not deny that it would cause a pang to see the limber-jacket Bible go; but if along with it that smug, high-buttoned-coat, Sunday suggestion should likewise take itself away, I could survive the loss. My ideal of a Bible to read, as a weekday and workday book, with its idea free to make its way, is most nearly answered in the so-called Eversley Bible, an edition of the Authorized Version in eight convenient volumes, neither bulky or diminutive, printed with fair, open page, the chapter and verse notation omitted, italics wholly banished, paragraphs and punctuation carefully determined, and spoken words in quotation marks. This seems to be almost a symbol of the classic Bible that is to be; that shall be read as a comfort and not as a duty; that shall come into man’s heart not only through the religious sense but through all the channels of taste and beauty and eloquence and imagination, as well as through the instincts of practical sense and sturdy soundness which the nineteenth century has done so much to open.
A Bible so held and so published implies another way of reading, another kind of tenure in the human heart. I dare not say it will be learned so much by rote, or that the literal accuracy of particular phrases will play so large a part as it has since the days of the homoousians and the homoiousians. I dare not count overmuch on such a prevalence of the soaking-in process of meditation as we find in the good old days. Still all that desirable excellence could consist with a mere appreciation of the letter; and when the spirit of the Bible enters at every pore, and such subtle elements as made themselves felt when the jolting of revision disturbed them, there may still be something very vital left there. The version may be written deep in the heart of man, deeper even than word or dogma, just as it has proved itself to be inwoven deeply with history and literature. Let us not gather too gloomy an outlook from the seeming lack of Bible knowledge, or deplore it more than it deserves. The spirit of seventy-six and sixty-one inspired, even to supremest sacrifice, many a man who could not quote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And when today every public measure, every national or neighborhood enterprise, must from every corner of the land encounter a stern plea for the spirit of Christ; when aid and sympathy leap forth unstinted to meet disaster, and schools, asylums, hospitals, parks, libraries are devised for the humble and helpless; when even in far islands wars for humanity, and plans for justice, education and industrial expansion are conceived in veritable missionary spirit; we can forgive much ignorance of the letter, much short-coming in theological doctrine; there is vital Bible there, not a fetich; a version is there that he who runs may read. To make that version more legible, a power that shall take into its swell and sweep the whole man and the whole corporate life, becoming as it were a new Word made flesh — this we may hail as the duty and the glory of the time to come.
Minutes of the Ninety-Ninth Annual Session of the General Association of Congregational Churches of Massachusetts, Boston, MA: Miles and Knight Company, 1901, pp. 90-98