The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
Revision of the Bible
Revision of the Bible.
And so at last after the trifling and tergiversation of half a century and more we are to have a revision of the Bible. The authorised version of above two centuries and a half is at length pronounced defective, and To Biblion—the book of books—is to come out like an old friend with a new face. Interpretation is as it were on its last legs—driven to bay—must either stand fast or succumb. Suggestions that have been hitherto insolently pooh-poohed have now to be respectfully met and fairly answered. But singular enough we notice how the call for revision comes not so much from the multitude, who after the turmoil and religious heartburnings of three generations, care really very little page 288 about the matter,—however willing to make some concession to order and decorum,—but from the very clergy themselves, who can hardly fail seeing how they are daily losing ground in public estimation, and how something more is wanting to constitute a clergyman beside a white tie and a stand-up collar. Hence their struggles to redeem a false step, and by all sorts of petty manoeuvres, such as Synods, Sustentation Acts, and what not, to bring themselves before the public eye. For intolerant as they ever are in carrying a doctrinal point or an uncial reading, they have no armour proof against cold contempt, and the indifference that frets them like a galling blister. And if we now feel small sympathy for that professional nervousness which is shewing itself somewhat ludicrously among the reported reviser's, it is because we feel how little all such are entitled to our regard and reverence who only come forward now because it is their policy so to do, and whose co-operation is notoriously not so much the result of conviction as of a yielding to outward pressure and expediency.
We would advance nothing unfairly or indistinctly. And in pointing to the clergy of the so-called Establishment as the inveterate opponents of any, however the smallest, revision, we need only direct attention to that episcopal influence in the House of Lords that has ever hitherto fallen like some noxious blight on the religious strivings of more earnest souls. And when from time to time a little body of more than ordinarily ardent spirits would respectfully suggest the need of some revision either of Bible or Liturgy, they found that no amount of argument, no weight of reasonable representation, served them in the least, since they were invariably battling against a foregone determination, and assailing a stronghold of class prejudice that force alone could bring to reason. United in close antagonism against all concession, while their squabbles among themselves became a scandal abroad, the clergy have long ceased possessing either the love or reverence of their congregations. One disability after another have they accordingly entailed upon themselves from the earlier period of the eighteenth century when their Convocation was bedusted, like a swarm of fretful insects, in the abolition of the Corporation and Test Acts, in the wresting of Catholic Emancipation, in the Commutation of Tithes Bill, in the more recent dissolution of the Irish Church, in the National Education Bill, and last, though by no means least, while looking nearer home, we behold the withdrawal of all State Aid, together with a fast growing resolution on the part of congregations not only to pay their own pastors at their own discretion, but to appoint them too; and by so doing relieve themselves at once and for all of a fungus-growing episcopacy whose cost is, and has ever been, in a ratio inverse to its use.
But what are these revisers about to do? For ourselves we can scarcely conceive a lectio vexata wherein opinions are likely to page 289 be at all unanimous. The Bible is a very peculiar book. Look at it as a translation from the Hebrew; and in the total absence of any other Hebrew work, it must needs be, so far at it can be, its own interpreter. It is not like one of our standard Classics of Greece or of Home, where the sense of any word or passage of more than ordinary intricacy may be gathered from the use of the like word in kindred and perhaps contemporaneous authors; but criticism comes to a standstill, is lost in the darkness of ambiguous phraseology, and all it can do is to grope about, now giving one meaning, now another, as peculiar and as varied as the features of its expositors. As for the Septuagint version it is only of any value so far as it shews the system of interpretation ruling at the period of the Ptolemies. Its authority is small, beside which hundreds of passages might be culled varying most remarkably from the authorised version; and now and then even verses and whole chapters are left out—as in the books of Joshua and Job—from some cause or other not worth dwelling on. Then, again, as to the Vulgate of Jerome, the authorised version of Scripture in England previous to the Reformation, while confessedly it is the work of a zealous and industrious spirit, yet swarms with such an amount of generally admitted false translations and broad misconceptions, as even the worthy saint's Prologus Galeatus has ever been insufficient to establish. In the old Italic version we have nothing more than a translation of the Greek Septuagint. But even these versions, with all their errors, are less harmful than is a tampering with a text, or foisting in whole epistles in the New Testament, with the insidious object of impressing a tenet or bolstering up a doctrine.
But passing by the testimony of Campbell, who in his first Dissertation on the Gospels remarks on the singular poverty of the Hebrew language,—how the greater portion of its words are equivocal, and in their signification entirely uncertain,—let us quote a letter of the late Dr. Arnold to his friend the Chevalier Bunsen, no contemptible critic in European estimation (Life i., 412.)—"I have been trying to learn Hebrew, but am discouraged by my notions of the uncertainty of the best knowledge hitherto gained about it. do you think it possible to understand Hebrew well, that is as we understand Greek, where the language is more precise and more clear than even our own could be? Conceive the luminous clearness of Demosthenes owing to his perfect use of an almost perfect language, and our complete understanding of it. But the interpretation of the Hebrew Prophets seems to me, judging from the different commentaries, to be almost guess work, and I doubt whether it can ever be otherwise. Then the criticism of the Old Testament—the dates of the several books—their origin, &c., all seems to me undecided, and what Wolf and Niebuhr have done for Greece and Borne seems sadly wanted for Judæa."
When men begin to babble about uncials and the comparative page 290 value of manuscripts—the extraordinary fidelity of a Masoretic text and the veracious character of an Alexandrian version, we may exclaim, perhaps, like Dominie Sampson,—"Prodigious!" while we raise our eyes at such marvels of talent. Still, for all that, they fail to convince us. We want something better than pedantry and book-learning. We long for the expression of such an amount of unanimity in probably very few essentials of faith, as shall not only confirm our own religious views, but equally influence the duty and well-being of others. Without looking for any suspension of nature's operating power assuming, so to say, the character of a miracle, we would, if not too chimerical an idea, aspire after such an agreement in religious sentiment as might from its wholeness powerfully impress us with the idea that the embracing any tenets whatsoever, is, after all said and done, very subservient to our every day duty to one another.
This would seem, however, at present a somewhat Utopian idea. So in the meanwhile our faith is to be handed over like some old and tarnished painting, to be carefully scraped, retouched, varnished and framed. The picture has become so smoked and begrimed by inartistic daubs and injudicious pigments, that it needs an episcopal eye to detect its merits, a diaconal "reunion" to compound the colours, and a select corps of first-rate clerical artists to lay them on. It is true we have not now as we had in the early years of the seventeenth century, a silly Jamie of "no-bishop-no-king" notoriety, to give us the benefit of his deep research, and—as one of his worthy archbishops had it—the advantage of "his divine inspiration and his specially being moved by the finger of God!" But if we have no royal fool, we have plenty of meaner parentage who would as soon concoct a faith as they would mix a salad; and if they hesitated themselves to swallow the ingredients they would have small compunction in palming them on public appetite.
But hearing so much about a textus receptus, and assuming it to be, as we take it, a version that is to command general acceptance, we are anxious to learn what a textus receptus can have to recommend it. What amount of consent shall sanction its approval, what deficiency of uncial, patristic, or other testimony is to determine the true ring of the theological metal, and to stamp it with the hall-mark of this very reverend guild? Or, if opinion runs neck-and-neck, so that no side preponderate, who shall give the casting vote that shall saddle us with a belief in the same manner as we might be subject to a provincial tax? But that parliament now-a-days wholly ignores having anything to do with such an olla podrida, this textus receptus might be promulgated like a state law, when it might at least command some respect and notice; whereas now, under the sole auspices of its proposed collaborateurs, it is likely to be but a very indifferent and unheeded compilation of heaven knows what, to be believed heaven knows how!page 291
As for any concord, or kindly consideration for the feelings of those who religiously differ from them, the past; may safely be taken as a reflex of the future; for the party instincts of this arrogant sect are ever seen to run counter to the educational and other prejudices of those about them. Observe the common every day intercourse of life between the clergyman of a hitherto petted denomination and the nonconformists, whether exhibited on the platform or in the more private gatherings, whether accident shall now and then bring them together, or interests affecting the whole profession shall seem to call for some general expression of opinion. It would appear almost unnecessary to dwell on what so many must have seen—the self-satisfied bearing of him of the Establishment, his soft and smooth exterior brightened with a smile as warm and as cheery as wintry sunshine; the under current of nervous techiness that bristles with self-conceit; the semi-comic terror of committing some solecism either of conduct or of expression that shall lay him open to the remark and ridicule of those about him, and an ill-managed con-tempt of the more expansive ideas and enlarged views he finds gathering round him at every quarter. It is the adventurous, uncalculating, and spontaneous energy of the practical nonconformist that throws his own moral cowardice so unmistakeably into the shade. And he likes it as little now as he ever did. The feeling that existed between these two parties under the reign of the virgin queen is now as rife as ever. It is not one iota diminished. History tells us with undeviating testimony in letters graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock how, when hundreds of ministers were ruthlessly cast out from their homes and launched upon the world maltreated and "destitute, the con-forming clergy devised every means that either craft or malignity could suggest to preclude all hopes of return. Foremost in the persecution of his day was Archbishop Whitgift, not inaptly styled by Hallam "a very gladiator of theological controversy, but whose noted ignorance of, and want of taste in, classic lore is not wholly unexemplified in some of the higher ecclesiastics of our southern hemisphere, but who possibly make up for what they Jack in science and understanding by their full possession of a "consecrated intellect." These, together with their subordinates, are not the men upon whose sleeves we must pin our faith, or whose, revision of the Bible shall leave nothing to wish for. If they have the guile of the serpent they have not the practical wisdom of Balaam's ass, that at least spake once to the purpose, nor can they, like' so many modern Joshuas, hope to stay the passage of that intellectual progress, as the son of Nun, we are told, made sun and moon to stand still in the earlier times of Israel.
But why not leave the Bible altogether alone, when, as we have already remarked, it cannot, with the scant materials we possess, be bettered. It is a very excellent book as it stands, page 292 and deserves a better fate than to be tortured and dislocated by ignorance. What the very first rate biblical criticism of the continent has failed accomplishing, namely, clearing up the many difficulties of scripture exposition, may well be let alone by the shallow literates of the present day, who are really but as pigmies to the earlier giants of criticism. Why not, we repeat it, let the Bible stay as it is. It is one of the few remaining models of our good sound wholesome Saxon. As yet it is sullied by no meretricious ornaments of language, and may well bear its place with Shakspeare, Milton, and the Pilgrim's Progress. Besides, it is more or less associated with the earliest memories of most of us, and its quaint and simple tales, seldom devoid of some instruction or other, scarcely charm us less in maturer years, though we may neither be inclined to view it as a plenarily inspired composition, nor to invest it with those lofty attributes wherewith the injudicious and over-zealous are so wont to encumber it.
Should imprudence, however, and vainglory proceed so far as to induce our would-be revisers to persevere, they should at least bear in mind there is a sentence on record which, of what import soever in the estimation of others, should be (if they are consistent) of no secondary importance in theirs. In the last chapter of Revelation, in fact, the last chapter of the Bible, it is said—"If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life." With this religious, and, apparently to us, crucial dilemma staring them in the face, confirmed as strongly by Deuteronomy as by Revelation, we leave our reverend (we cannot say revered) revisers to flounder on as they best may, wishing them meanwhile more wit, and, may we add, a great deal more honesty.