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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The New Testament
Critical Introduction by Frederic William Farrar (1831–1903)
 
Its Literary Grandeur

THERE may possibly be some who think that the Bible has nothing to do with literature, and that it is almost a profanation to regard the New Testament on its literary side. Certainly this would be a correct view if we pretended to judge of our sacred books simply from their literary aspect. Wordsworth professed boundless contempt for the man who could peer and botanize upon his mother’s grave; and we should be guilty of a similar callousness if we were capable of approaching the most sacred utterances in the world exclusively or mainly in the attitude of literary critics. But the case is widely altered when our sole object is to find, and to point out, fresh glories and perfectness even in the human form into which the divinest of all lessons are set before us. It is something to observe the glories of the wheels and wings of the Divine chariot, though they only move as the Spirit moves them. 1  1
  And when we thus approach the subject “with meek heart and due reverence,” there will be real gain in calling attention to the supremacy of the New Testament even in the points of comparison which it offers to purely human writings. For after all, the Divine Word is here also present among us in human form and vesture; and the highest thoughts of man would never be so penetrating and diffusive if they were not enshrined in the noblest types of expression. It was one of the wisest sayings of the Rabbis that “The Law speaks to us in the tongue of the Sons of Men.” Something would be lacking to any revelation which proved itself, even in outward expression, inferior to other human writings. The object of language is indeed primarily to express thought; and if this be done effectually, style is a secondary consideration. But words are necessary as the vehicle of thought; and we should have lost much if, in spite of the animating spirit, the wheels were cumbrous, and the wings feeble and broken. Two books may express essentially the same convictions, and yet the one may be found dull and repellent, while the other, by its passionate force or its intrinsic grace and finish, may win rapturous attention. Great orators—C. J. Fox, for instance—have sometimes repeated with incomparable effect the very arguments which they borrowed exclusively from previous speakers who—though with them the materials were original—produced no effect whatever. The force of this consideration was keenly felt by Father Faber, when he became a Romanist, and had to give up our Authorized Version for the Vulgate and the Douai Bible.
          “Who will not say,” he asks, “that the uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible is not one of the great strongholds of heresy in this country? It lives on the ear like a music which can never be forgotten—like the sound of church bells which the convert hardly knows how he can forego. Its felicities often seem to be almost things rather than mere words. It is part of the national mind and the anchor of national seriousness. The power of all the griefs and trials of man is hidden beneath its words. In the length and breadth of the land there is not a Protestant, with one spark of seriousness about him, whose spiritual biography is not in his Saxon Bible.”
  2
  Now, it is an additional proof that the spirit of man, which speaks to us through the pages of the New Testament, is indeed also the Spirit of the Lord, and that the breath and pure effluence of the Almighty gave inspiration to its writers, if we can show that the same consummate qualities are found in its modes of utterance as in its essential messages.  3
  It might be supposed that the literary glory of the New Testament is at once bedimmed by the fact that the dialect in which it is written is not the perfect Greek of Thucydides and Plato, but a form of Greek known as “Hellenistic”; that is, Greek spoken by foreigners who acquired it as a secondary language. Hellenistic Greek is a somewhat decadent form of the old classic language; and it was universal as a lingua franca, especially round the Mediterranean coasts. It is not unmixed with Hebraisms; a certain disintegration is perceivable in its grammatical forms; it has lost much of its old synthetic terseness; it has not all the exquisite nicety and perfection of the best Attic. Nevertheless one dialect may be less ideally perfect than another, and yet may be available for purposes of the loftiest eloquence. The Latin, for instance, of Tertullian and St. Augustine is, in many respects, inferior as a language to that of Cicero: yet the treatises of Tertullian glow with a hidden fire of eloquent passion, which has caused them to be compared to the dark lustre of ebony; and the exquisite antitheses and images of St. Augustine linger in the memory more powerfully than the most impassioned appeals of Tully. Since they had to express new conceptions and ideas, the Apostles gain rather than lose by their possession of a type of speech, which, though showing signs of deterioration, had been rendered plastic for the reception of fresh impressions. The seething ferment of the new wine could no longer be contained in old bottles, however perfect their external finish.  4
  In reading the New Testament we have, as in the Old, the wealth and blessing of variety. We have not the monotonous work of one mind, as in the Zend-Avesta, the Qu’ran, or the Analects of Confucius. The New Testament writers differed widely from each other. The Evangelists, even from the days of St. Irenæus, were compared to “the fourfold-visaged four” of Ezekiel’s cherubic chariot: they were one, yet diverse; and though all moved alike under the impulse of the Lord of Life, each has his separate semblance and characteristics. St. Matthew, the Galilean publican, sets before us the fulfilled Messianic Ideal of Olden Prophecy. St. Mark, an inhabitant of Jerusalem, the “son” and “interpreter” of St. Peter, is intense, rapid, concise, and reveals the energetic touches which could only have come from the Chief Apostle. St. Luke, probably of Gentile birth, and varied experience, softens his whole picture with the sweetness and tenderness—the love for the poor, the fondness for childhood, the passion of humanity, combined with a certain ascetic austerity—which have earned for his Gospel, even from the French skeptic, the title of “the most beautiful book in the world.” St. John stamps on every verse the inimitable individuality of one who was at once the Son of Thunder and the Apostle of Love; and while he soars heavenward as on the pinions of a great eagle, “reflecting the sunlight from every varying plume,” he yet recalls the dove who is “covered with silver wings and her feathers like gold.” From each Evangelist we derive details of inestimable preciousness; yet only from the combination of the four can we obtain the perfect picture which portrays the all-comprehensive and Divine Humanity of the Son of Man and the Son of God.  5
  When we pass to the remainder of the New Testament, it is no small gain to us that it mainly consists of epistles. No form of literature was better calculated, in the Divine economy, to give full sway to the personal element,—the confidentialness, the yearning emotion, the spontaneity, the touches of simple, familiar, informal reality, which enable us to feel that we are in closest contact with the sacred writers. The unchecked individuality of utterance which marks an epistle renders it impossible for us to regard the Apostolic writers as abstractions; it enables us, as it were, to lay our hands upon their breasts, and to feel the very beating of their hearts. We are won by the sense that we are listening to the teaching of friends, not to vague voices in the air. The intensity, for instance, the exquisite sensitiveness, the biographical digressions, the pathetic experiences, the dauntless courage, the yearning for sympathy, the flashes of emotion which we constantly find in Paul the man, induce us all the more readily to consider the logic and listen to the arguments of Paul the thinker, the controversialist, the converted Rabbi, the former Pharisee, the Preacher of the Gospel. We are charmed at once by the manly naturalness of St. Peter and the uncompromising moral forthrightness of St. James. The “brief quivering sentences” of St. John become more individualistic as they are addressed to friends and converts; and in the letters of the other writers we feel that we are not studying dull compendiums of theology, but “the outpourings of the heart, and the burning messages of prophecy,” even when they are uttered by fishermen and publicans—by peasants originally unlettered and untrained in scholastic lore—as with the “stammering lips of infancy.” And so at last we come to the Apocalypse of St. John; which, though probably one of the earliest of the Christian writings in date, now shuts up the whole sixty-six books of Revelation, and the acts of their “stately drama” (as Milton calls it), “with the sevenfold chorus of Hallelujahs and harping symphonies.” And the Apocalypse illustrates in a remarkable manner the fact to which I have already called attention,—that the loftiest ranges of human eloquence are not incompatible with the use of inferior dialects; for the language of the Apocalypse exhibits the very worst Greek in the whole New Testament,—the most uncouth, the most deeply dyed with Hebraisms, and in some instances even the most glaringly ungrammatical,—and yet many of its paragraphs are of matchless power and beauty. I once heard the late Lord Tennyson dwell on the tremendous impression which we derive from the words—“And again they said Hallelujah: and her smoke riseth up for ever and ever.” It may be doubted whether any passage in our greatest writers can equal the magic and haunting charm of the last chapter of Revelation, with its lovely opening words:—
          “And he shewed me a pure river of Water of Life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the Tree were for the healing of the nations.”
  6
  It is to this element of variety that the New Testament—considered for the present only in its outward form—owes something of its universal efficacy. It has everything for some minds, and something for every mind. The human individuality of the writers was not extinguished, but only elevated, inspired, intensified, by the inspiration which dilated their ordinary faculties. We have to do with the writings of men as widely diverse as passionate enthusiasts and calm reasoners; unlearned fishermen and Alexandrian theologians; philosophers who deduced truth from argument, and mystics who saw by intuition; prophets who were enlightened by direct inspiration, and practical men who learnt by long experience the truths of God. Touched by one or other of these many fingers, so variously skillful, our hearts cannot but respond. If St. Paul be too difficult for us, we have the practical plainness of St. Peter and the uncompromising ethics of St. James. If St. John soar into an empyrean too spiritual for our incapacity, we can rejoice in the simple sweetness of St. Luke.  7
  But what gives fresh force and charm to this marked variety is, that these diverse minds are nevertheless dominated by an overpowering unity. They revolve like planets around the attracting force of one central Sun. Though they are many, they are yet, in a higher sense, one in Christ; and they all might use the words which the poet puts into the mouth of St. Paul:—
  “Yea, through life, death, through sorrow and through sinning,
    Christ shall suffice me, for he hath sufficed;
Christ is the end, for Christ was the beginning,
    Christ the beginning, for the end is Christ.”
  8
  When we consider what Christ the Lord of Glory was in his “kenosis,” 2—in the “exinanition” of his Eternal Power, when he humiliated himself to become man,—does it add no additional force to the argument that this Son of Man was in very truth the Son of God, if we consider the all-penetrative, all-diffusive, all-comprehensive perfectness of his words? He said himself, “The words which I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.” Even the officers sent to arrest him in the Temple were so overawed by his majestic and thrilling utterance as to return with nothing accomplished, and to bear to the sacerdotal conspirators of the Sanhedrin the unwilling testimony, “Never man spake like this man.” I am not now dwelling on the Divine originality of his revelations, but on the matchless beauty which lies in their unparalleled compression and simplicity. There is no phenomenon so striking in all the literature of all the world. I will not take, by way of specimen, those last discourses to his loved ones on the night he was betrayed, “so rarely mixed,” as Jeremy Taylor says, “of sorrows and joys, and studded with mysteries as with emeralds”; but I will take two brief and familiar specimens of his everyday discourse. One is from the Sermon on the Mount. “Consider the lilies of the field how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothed the grass of the field which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”  9
  Is there a passage like this in all the previous literature of the whole human race? Observe the unwonted sympathy with the loveliness of the outer world which it conveys. That sympathy was but very little and very vaguely felt, even by the refined intellects of exquisite Athens. There is but one brief description of scenery in all the ‘Dialogues’ of Plato. It is at the beginning of the ‘Phædrus’; and it sounded so odd to the youth to whom Socrates addressed it as to provoke an expression of amused surprise. 3 It was Christ who first taught us to find in the beauty even of little and unnoticed things a sacrament of goodness, and to read in the flowers a letter of the very autograph of the love towards us of our Father in Heaven. Yet in what few and simple words, in what concrete and homely images, is this instruction—which was to be so prolific hereafter for the happiness of the world—set forth! and how full of far-reaching and perpetual comfort is the loving tenderness of God’s Fatherhood here demonstrated for our unending consolation!
  “O purblind race of miserable men!
How many among us, at this very hour,
Do forge a lifelong trouble for ourselves
By taking true for false, and false for true,
Here in the dubious twilight of the world
Groping—how many, till at last we reach
That other where we know as we are known!”
But the consolation which Christ here imparted was to support us in this world also, by showing that the invisible things of God are—to quote St. Paul’s striking paradox—clearly seen in the things that do appear, apart from the hopes of what death may have in store.
  10
  As one other specimen of this supremacy of Christ’s words, even regarded in their outward aspect, take the parable of the Prodigal Son. It forms part of the most beautiful chapter of “the most beautiful book in the world.” It may well be called the flower and pearl of parables, and the Evangelium in Evangelio. It occupies less than a page; it may be read aloud in four minutes: yet can we adduce from all the literature of all the world any passage so brief—or indeed any passage at all—which has exercised one fraction of the eternal influence of this? Dante and John Bunyan have touched thousands of human souls; but this parable has been precious to millions of every age and every tongue, who never so much as heard of the ‘Divina Commedia’ or the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ The works of fiction in the world can be counted by tens of thousands: which of them all has ever produced the minim of an impression so intense and so worldwide as this brief parable? On this subject it is worth while to adduce the opinions of three of the most popular and eminent writers of fiction in our own generation.  11
  Charles Reade was an earnest and constant student of Scripture. Accustomed to study and exhibit character in his novels, he gave it as his deliberate judgment that no ordinary, no uninspired human skill or genius could rival the marvelous brevity, the “swift fresco strokes” with which again and again Scripture, as it were undesignedly and unconsciously, with only a word or two, makes the characters of men stand out vividly before us, and live in our memory so that we might almost seem to have seen and known them. Not even in Shakespeare do we find so marvelous a power. And yet in other writers this graphic skill—this endeavor [Greek]—is a main object, whereas in Scripture it is entirely secondary, and so to speak, accidental.  12
  Similarly Robert Louis Stevenson, speaking of the matchless verve and insight displayed in the delineation of characters in the Bible,—a point respecting which a novelist can give an instructed judgment,—says:—
          “Written in the East, these characters live for ever in the West; written in one province, they pervade the world; penned in rude times, they are prized more and more as civilization advances; a product of antiquity, they come home to the ‘business and bosoms’ of men, women, and children in modern days. Then is it any exaggeration to say that ‘the characters of Scripture are a marvel of the mind’?”
  13
  Once more, Mr. Hall Caine says, in McClure’s Magazine:—
          “I think that I know my Bible as few literary men know it. There is no book in the world like it; and the finest novels ever written fall far short in interest of any one of the stories it tells. Whatever strong situations I have in my books are not of my creation, but are taken from the Bible. ‘The Deemster’ is the story of the Prodigal Son. ‘The Bondman’ is the story of Esau and Jacob. ‘The Scapegoat’ is the story of Eli and his sons, but with Samuel as a little girl; and ‘The Manxman’ is the story of David and Uriah.”
  14
  I should like to give some further instances of the power of words as illustrated in the Bible.  15
  If there be one lesson on which all our great poets and thinkers most insist in modern days, it is, that upon “self-mastery, self-knowledge, self-control” depends all the dignity of life. It is in effect Plato’s old lesson of the tripartite nature of man, as consisting of a Man, a Lion, and a Many-headed Monster: in which synthesis the Man, who represents the Reason and the Conscience, must sit supreme in tranquil empire over the subjugated Lion, who represents the passions of Wrath and Pride,—passions to be controlled and made to subserve noble uses, but not to be destroyed; the Monster, which represents the concupiscence of the flesh, must be crushed into completest subjection. Is not the essence of this world-famous allegory compressed into the single verse of the Psalmist, as it is represented in glorious sculpture on the west front of the Cathedral of Amiens,—“Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under thy feet”? Now take all the high instruction upon this subject contained in Ovid’s—
  “Video meliora proboque,
Deteriora sequor;”
(I see the better way, and I approve it,
Yet I pursue the worse;)
and in Dante’s—
  “I crown and mitre thee over thyself;”
and in Shakespeare’s—
  “I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial;”
and in Fletcher’s—
  “Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man
Commands all life, all influence, all fate;”
and in Milton’s—
  “Converse with heavenly habitants
Begins to cast a beam on the outward shape,
The unpolluted temple of the mind,
And turns it by degrees to the soul’s essence,
Till all be made immortal;”
and in Sir Henry Wotton’s—
  “This man is free from servile bonds
  Of hope to rise or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands,
  And having nothing, yet hath all;”
and in Wordsworth’s—
  “This is the happy warrior; this is he
Whom every man in arms would wish to be;”
and in Matthew Arnold’s—
  “Resolve to be thyself, and know that he
Who finds himself loses his misery;”
and in Clough’s—
  “Seek, seeker, in thyself, and thou shalt find
In the stones bread, and life in the blank mind;”
and in Christina Rossetti’s—
  “God, harden me against myself,—
This traitor with pathetic voice
That craves for ease, and rest, and joys;”
and in many more which might be quoted: and I venture to assert that the inmost quintessence of all this Divine philosophy is expressed—and is even expressed with a new and deeper element of thought absolutely and unapproachably original—in a single word of Christ our Lord,—“In your endurance ye shall acquire your souls.” 4 In our version the word is rendered “possess”; but it connotes something more than “self-possession,”—namely, self-acquisition. It teaches us that to be we must become; and we cannot become “lords of ourselves”—except indeed as “a heritage of woe”—without our own strenuous endeavors. Here, in one word, lies the secret of all noble life. That which is essentially eternal within us—the inmost reality of our beings—is not given to us with our being, but has to be attained and achieved by us. And here it is worth while to observe how very often even the early copyists and translators of the New Testament miss its essential point. If ever they venture to interfere between the sacred writer and his readers they invariably deface and vulgarize; because, without adequate understanding, they endeavor to interpret or to amend. Take but one specimen. In Hebrews x. 34 we read in our Authorized Version, “Ye took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and enduring substance.” Now, if that was the correct reading of the original, it would convey the very true but very ordinary topic of consolation that heaven would redress the uneven balances of earth. But it is almost certain that “in yourselves” is the correction of an unapprehensive scribe for “yourselves” ([Greek]); and that “in heaven” is an explanatory gloss added by those who were unable to understand that the real consolation offered to the Hebrews is not a distant expectation, but the fact that here and now they possessed something—even “themselves”—which far outweighed any treasure of which they had been despoiled, and that they were
              “Richer possessing such a jewel
Than twenty seas, though all their sands were pearl,
Their waters crystal, and their rocks pure gold.”
  16
  When Dean Stanley visited Heinrich von Ewald, a little Greek Testament lay on the table, and it accidentally fell on the ground. Ewald picked it up, and as he laid it on the table, exclaimed with indescribable enthusiasm, “In this little book is contained all the best wisdom of the world.” Was he not right? Take the five classics of Confucius, the ‘Vedas,’ the ‘Tripitaka,’ the whole collection of the ‘Sacred Books of the East,’ the ‘Dialogues’ of Plato, the ‘Ethics’ of Aristotle, the moral treatises of Cicero, the ‘Enchiridion’ of Epictetus, the letters of Seneca to Lucilius, the ‘Thoughts’ of Marcus Aurelius, the Qu’ran of Mahommed—all that represents the very crown and flower of Pagan morality; then turn to Christian literature, and cull every noble thought you can find in the Fathers, in the Schoolmen, in the Mystics, in the ‘Imitatio Christi,’ in the Puritan divines, in Tauler and John Bunyan, in Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, Sanderson, or Butler, in the ‘Whole Duty of Man,’ and the writings of the early Evangelicals: and while in all pagan and some Christian books you may find imperfect and even pernicious elements, you will not find, either before or after Christ, one single fruitful rule or principle of morals (to say nothing of the deepest truths of religion), for which we could not quote deeper reasons and a more powerful enforcement from the brief pages of the New Testament alone. Does not this undoubted fact,—as well as the universal adaptability of the Book to all classes and conditions of men in every age, in every clime, of every nationality, at every period of life, in every stage of culture or ignorance,—does it not show, apart from all else that might be said about it, the supreme and unapproachable literary force and grandeur of the New Testament? No one has expressed this truth more strikingly than the American poet J. G. Whittier:—
  We search the world for truth: we cull
The good, the pure, the beautiful,
From graven stone and written scroll,
From all old flower-fields of the soul;
And, weary seekers of the best,
We come back laden from our quest,
To find that all the sages said
Is in the Book our mothers read.”
  17
  And indeed it is a most memorable proof of that Indwelling Presence of the Spirit of the Almighty in human souls which we call Inspiration, that, owing to the supreme literary force and beauty of the New Testament, we find direct traces of its influence on the pages of all the best poets,—who are the loveliest as well as the deepest teachers of moral wisdom. Read them—whether, like Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Cowper, Tennyson, Browning, they speak no word that does not make for righteousness; or whether, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Burns, Byron, they had learnt by bitter experience of evil that good is best, and that unfaithfulness—
  “Hardens all within
And petrifies the feeling”:
and you will find, alike from the poems of the sinners in their shame and penitence, and of the saints whose singing robes were white and their garlands of heaven’s own amaranth, that, apart from what they learnt from the Apostles and Evangelists, they would have but little of what is supremely good and noble left. “Bring me the book,” said Sir Walter Scott, as he lay upon his death-bed. “What book?” asked his son-in-law, Lockhart. “The book—the Bible,” answered Sir Walter: “there is but one.”
  18
  Let us put this assertion of the supreme sufficiency of Scripture to a partial test. In this age, which shows so many symptoms of greed, of struggle, of unbelief, of retrograde religious teaching, there are three lofty souls to whom we turn most often, and to whom we specially look up as to “moral light-houses in a dark and stormy sea,”—Dante, Shakespeare, Milton. How deep is the influence of the New Testament on each of them! How impossible it would have been that its books should have exercised this influence without the perfectness of their literary form!  19
  Dante himself practically explains to us that the true meaning of his ‘Divina Commedia’ is “Man as liable to the Reward or Punishment of Eternal Law;—Man according as, by the freedom of his will, he is of good or ill desert.” Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, the ‘Divine Comedy’ is nothing more nor less than the life history of a human soul, redeemed from sin and error, from lust and worldliness, and restored to the right path by the reason and the grace which enable it to see the things that are, and to see them as they are. The three great divisions of the poem might be called,—not ‘Hell,’ ‘Purgatory,’ ‘Paradise,’ but ‘Guilt,’ ‘Repentance,’ ‘Regenerate Beatitude.’ Hell is simply self without God; Penitence is the soul’s return to God; Heaven is self lost in God: and the three cantos do but expand and enforce these three texts:—
          “The end of those things is Death.”
  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
  “This is life eternal,—to know thee, the only God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
  20
  Let us next take Milton. He has left us in no doubt as to the sources of his own inspiration. His ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’ are of course avowedly his comments on the Fall and the Redemption; but in his ‘Comus’ he teaches the lesson, which he has also expressed in such matchless prose, that “if the love of God, as a fire to be kept alive upon the altar of our hearts, be the first principle of all Godly and virtuous actions in men, the pious and just honoring of ourselves is the second, and the fountain-head whence every laudable and worthy enterprise issues forth.” The inmost meaning of ‘Comus’ lies in the lines—
  “He that hath light within his own clear breast
May sit in the centre and enjoy bright day;
But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts
Benighted walks under the midday sun:
Himself is his own dungeon.”
What is this high teaching but “If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness”? and “I am tied and bound with the chain of my sins”? Or take Milton’s last and most intensely characteristic poem, the ‘Samson Agonistes.’ Its meaning is summed up in the last lines:—
  “All is best; though we oft doubt
  What the unsearchable dispose
Or highest wisdom brings about,
  And ever best found in the close.”
Could Milton have arrived at this lofty and all-consoling truth if he had never read the words “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter”?
  21
  And now turn to Shakespeare. One commentator says of him, “It has been remarked that Shakespeare was habitually conversant with the Bible.” And another that “he had deeply imbibed the Scriptures.” The late Bishop Wordsworth of St. Andrews showed in an interesting volume that Shakespeare was not uninfluenced by the grammar, by noticeable words and noticeable forms of speech, with which the English Bible had made him familiar; that he is full of allusions to the historical facts and characters of the Bible; and that his religious principles and sentiments on almost all the chief subjects of human concern, moral no less than spiritual,—and indeed the dominant spirit of his poetry,—were derived from the volume of Holy Writ, against the abuse and the wrong use of which he has yet uttered such strong and wholesome warnings. Shakespeare was one of the few who “saw life steadily and saw it whole.” Goethe rightly said of him that “his plays are much more than poems. The reader seems to have before him the books of fate, against which is beating the tempest of eager life so as to drive the leaves backward and forward with violence.” Yet what did Shakespeare know which he had not learnt from the New Testament? Take but two instances. Does not ‘King Lear,’ that tragedy of tragedies, set forth the absolute triumph of a faith and love which burns bright even amid apparently irremediable failure; and is not this the lesson set forth already, even more supremely, in the Epistles, in the Apocalypse, above all in the Gospel narratives? Is it not the lesson of the cross of Christ himself? Can even Shakespeare’s genius do more than set in new light the truth that all must be well with those who are obedient to, and are supported by, the Eternal Laws? Or take the tragedy of ‘Macbeth,’ which sets before us in such lurid illumination the horror of an avenging conscience. What is it but the concrete presentment of the eternal tragedy of the guilty soul? It is—like the stories of Adam and Eve, of Balaam, of Achan, of David, of Judas—the picture of crime through all its stages: temptation; glamour; the spasm of guilty act, the agony of awakenment; the haunting of shame; the permanence of sorrow; last of all, retributive catastrophe and unutterable despair. And yet may we not say, with simplest truthfulness, that in the New Testament alone do we find the ultimate solution, the sovereign and revealing utterance respecting those fundamental convictions which Dante and Shakespeare and Milton can but illustrate by throwing upon them the illuminating splendor of their heaven-bestowed genius and insight? Is it not proved, therefore, that we find the New Testament still inestimably precious when we consider it only in its literary aspect?  22
  I will conclude with one swift glance at the natural order of the books of the New Covenant.  23
  In St. Matthew we have the Gospel of the Jew and of the Past,—the setting forth of the Messiah of olden prophecy; in St. Mark the Gospel for the Roman, the Gospel of the Present; in St. Luke the Gospel for the Greek, the Gospel of the Future; in St. John the Gospel in its most spiritual aspect, the Gospel for Eternity;—and the Past, the Present, the Future, the Eternal, are all summed up in Christ.  24
  In the Acts we have the book of beginnings, the story of the foundation of the Church; the earliest and best of all ecclesiastical histories. Then follow twenty-one most precious Epistles of great Apostles, each marked by its special topic. The two to the Thessalonians turn mainly on the near Second Advent of Christ. The first to the Corinthians is on Christian Unity in faith, and worship, and life; the second is mainly the Apostle’s Apologia pro vita sua. The Epistles to the Galatians promulgate the indefeasible rights of Liberty; that to the Romans sets forth, among other topics, the true meaning of justification by faith; that to the Philippians shows us the glory of love and exultations, burning bright amid apparently overwhelming defeat and calamity; that to the Colossians turns chiefly on the subject of Christ as all in all; that to the Ephesians is the Epistle of the Ascension, the Epistle of “the Heavenlies”—the Epistle of Christ in the midst of the ideal, eternal, universal Church; that to Philemon is the earliest charter of emancipation to the slave; the first Epistle to Timothy, and that to Titus, constitute the best Pastor’s Manual; the second to Timothy, amid its affectionate counsels, exhibits the completeness of the Christian’s victory in the apparent defeat of lonely death. The powerful and interesting, but anonymous, Epistle to the Hebrews sets forth Christ as the end and fulfillment of the law,—the Eternal and all-sufficient Savior. St. James writes the sternly passionate letter of Christian morality; St. Peter’s is the Epistle of Hope, St. John’s of Love. Finally the radiant and impassioned imagery and visions of the Apocalypse, though they come among the earliest in time, form the fitting literary conclusion of this Book of Books—the last gem of this Urim and Thummim upon that Ephod of Humanity “whereon should be inscribed the one word God.” Could we possess a more priceless treasure? “What problem do these books leave unexamined? what depth unfathomed? what height unscaled? what consolation unadministered? what heart untouched? what conscience unreproved?” May we not say with our Translators of 1611: “If we be ignorant, the Scriptures will instruct us; if out of the way, they will bring us home; if out of order, they will reform us; if in heaviness, comfort us; if dull, quicken us; if cold, inflame us. Tolle, lege; tolle, lege—Take and read! take and read!”
  “For many books I care not; and my store
Might now suffice me though I had no more
Than God’s Two Testaments, and then withal
That mighty volume which ‘the world’ we call.”
  25
 
Note 1. Ezek. i. 20. This chapter was called by the Jews “the chariot” (chagigah); cf. xi. 2. [back]
Note 2. Phil. ii. 5–7: [Hebrew, Greek] [back]
Note 3. Baron Humboldt in his ‘Cosmos’ shows at length that the “romantic” love of the beauties of nature is quite a modern phenomenon in the world’s literature. [back]
Note 4. [Greek].—Luke xxi. 19. [back]
 
 
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