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T HE inquiry proposed in this chapter is most important. The Bible being the word of God, for what purpose was it given?
Consider, what, as to religious truth, is, and ever has been, the state of mankind without the Bible.
"When Adam died, Methuselah was about 200 years old; when Methuselah died, Shem was nearly 100; when Shem died, Abraham was about 140: so that a tradition need pass only through two hands from Adam to Abraham: and yet, within this period, the tradition of the one true God was in a manner extinguished, and the world was generally lapsed into polytheism and idolatry."
Such is the remark of Bishop Newton on the tendency of mankind to corrupt religion, if they have no written revelation: and the same tendency has been found in all the subsequent history of the world.
On a review of what mankind have ever been, when ignorant of that religion which the Bible teaches, we find two remarkable facts.
Firstly. Their very worship has made them more wicked.
The heathen deities being infamous for the most enormous crimes, their worship consisted frequently in the vilest and most shameful rites. What were called the most holy mysteries, both of Ceres and Bacchus, were full of lewdness; so that, as Dr. Robertson remarks, the more any man honoured such gods, the worse he was himself; and the oftener he served them, the more wicked he became. See Eph. 4:17-19; 1 Pet. 4:3.
The dark places of the earth were full of the habitations of cruelty (Psa. 74:20) as well as licentiousness: almost all heathen nations throughout the world offered human sacrifices, - a custom which neither the Greeks nor the Romans, learned and refined as they were, ever abolished in the countries which they conquered.
Secondly. Civilisation (in the absence of true religion) has opposed no check to idolatry; thus forcibly illustrating the remark of the Apostle, that the "world by wisdom knew not God." 1 Cor. 1:21.
The earliest form of idolatry was probably the worship of the heavenly bodies: but in the progress of society, there was nothing too vile and foolish to be worshipped as a god, by some one or other of the heathen nations.
The Egyptians, whose learning was proverbial, and who were in many respects equal, if not superior to us in arts and sciences (as appears from the ruins yet left of their grandeur), worshipped bulls, crocodiles, cats, apes, frogs, beetles, serpents. In an extreme famine they chose to eat one another, rather than feed on their imagined deities. The most magnificent temples were erected to their god, the bull Apis. When he died, the whole nation went into mourning. Thus, as Rollin remarks, to show what man is when left to himself, God permitted that very nation, which had carried human wisdom to its greatest height, to be the theatre in which the most ridiculous and absurd idolatry was acted.
Mitford observes that even Greece, in its early history, had a religion far less degenerate than when it was more civilised. It was from polished Egypt that Greece, when in an uncivilised state, principally learned the absurdities of polytheism. Athens, the most polished city of Greece, the most distinguished for arts and learning, was the most given to idolatry.
The first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans very accurately describes what are men's views of God, and what is their own character, when they have lost the knowledge of true religion. (See particularly vv.23, 29-32.) That chapter was written nearly 2000 years ago; yet so much is human nature the same in every age, that it presents to us a faithful picture of the present state of mankind when placed in the same circumstances.
It thus appears that where God has not revealed his will to mankind, they are ignorant on these two points: they areignorant of God ; and they areignorant of themselves.
1. They have no just views of the nature and attributes of God. "History," as is remarked by Edwards, "gives no instance of any nation turning from Atheism, or idolatry, to the knowledge and adoration of the one true God, without the assistance of Revelation; the Africans, the Tartars, and the ingenious Chinese, have had time enough, one would think, to find out the true and right idea of God; and yet, after 4000 years' improvements, and the full exercise of reason, they have at this day got no further in their progress towards true religion than to worship stocks, stones, and 'devils' (1 Cor. 10:20; 1 John 5:19)."
All nations that have not been, directly or indirectly, taught by the Bible, are idolatrous: and in proportion as its circulation has been checked, men have shown a tendency to return to idolatry, as abundantly appears from the history of the Christian Church during the ninth and two following centuries, and from the present state of those Churches where the circulation of the Scriptures is checked.
After such a view of man's ignorance of God when they have been left without the Bible, it is scarcely necessary to add:-
2.That mankind, without the Bible, are also grossly ignorant of themselves ; they have no just views of their own character and condition.
Facts everywhere illustrate the truth that, in proportion to men's ignorance of the religion taught in the Bible, they "become vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts are darkened" (Rom. 1:21). Yet, so far from being aware of their folly, they "profess themselves wise" (Rom. 1:22); they are proud, and boasters, while without understanding; and they glory in their shame. (See Isa. 44:9-20; Acts 17:18.)
Such being, and ever having been, the state of mankind wherever they have been ignorant of those truths which the Bible records, we may believe that God gave us a written Revelation, in order to teach us the knowledge both of Himself and of our own character and condition; and to show us what He is, and what we are.
But we must go a step further, and ask, What is the amount of this knowledge of God and of ourselves, which we derive from the Holy Scriptures?
God gave us the Bible that we might know his holiness, and our own unholiness.
He gave it us also that we might know his mercy, and the remedy of sin. It is said by Bishop Butler, that "the world being in a state of apostasy and wickedness, and consequently of ruin, a Divine Person, the Messiah, took upon Himself the office of Mediator, in order to the recovery of the world."
Now it is from the Holy Scriptures that we learn both the necessity for this mediation, and the terms on which it was accepted by the Father. Gen. 2:17; 3:16-19; Rom. 5:1-21; 3:21-26.
In another passage the same author says, that "Christianity contains a revelation of a particular dispensation of Providence, carried on by the Son and Holy Spirit for the recovery and salvation of mankind, who are represented in Scripture as in a state of ruin." And again, "The Son and Spirit have each his proper office in that great dispensation of Providence, the redemption of the world: the one, our Mediator; the other, our Sanctifier."
These are the great truths revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. 1 John 5:11,12; Eph. 2:18.
In one word, then, the purpose for which God gave us the Bible was to "make us wise unto salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15). (1.) It shows us the necessity for salvation; (2.) It explains the nature of that salvation; and, (3.) It becomes, as the instrument of the Spirit, "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes" (Rom. 1:16). See also John 17:17; Eph. 6:17; 1 Pet. 1:23.
That this is the great purpose of the New Testament, may appear too obvious to require illustration; but that this is the general design of the Old Testament also, may be shown from its first few pages.
Thehistorical part of the Old Testament gives neither a history of the world, nor a history of the Jews, but such a selection from both as Infinite Wisdom saw to be best adapted to make mankind "wise unto salvation." 2 Tim. 3:15; Rom. 15:4.
It begins with an account of God's creating the world, and of his forming man in his own image. This account was published at a time when nearly all mankind, except the Jews, were given up to idolatry, and when the Jews themselves were in the greatest danger of falling into it (Ezek. 20; Exod. 32; Num. 14:4; 25:2). The account of the creation is therefore to be considered, as Bishop Butler has remarked, as an assertion, on the part of the One Great Moral Governor of the world, that it is his world; and that, when it came from his hands, it was very good.
But this account of the creation, scarcely occupying more than one chapter, is evidently introductory to its main object, the announcement of man's fall, and the discovery of the means by which alone he could berestored to God's favour.
In what immediately follows, many hundred years of man's history are rapidly passed over, and only so much is given as illustrates the awful effects of the fall. Hence the account of Cain, and of the rapid progress of wickedness generally throughout the world; till, by the deluge, God proclaimed to mankind, what Adam's sentence had failed to teach, how deeply man had fallen under the displeasure of his Maker: in order that, seeing how he rushed into sin, and involved himself in destruction, we might learn how much he needed a Redeemer to restore him to the Divine favour, and aSanctifier to renew him unto holiness.
In the midst, however, of the darkness of this scene, such a selection of facts is made, as faintly indeed, but really, holds out the prospect of man's recovery. Before the deluge, this is seen in the great promise to Adam (Gen. 3:15), and in its effect on his descendants Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, and Noah. They lived by faith in that promise; they "called upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 4:26); they "walked with him" (Gen. 5:24); and through the merits of the Lamb, whose death was prefigured to them by animal sacrifice, they found grace in his sight (Gen. 6:8; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8). They did not strive against him (Gen. 6:3), but, being led by the Holy Spirit, they were renewed in heart by him; and thus they may be considered as the first-fruits of redemption.
We are told of the re-peopling of the world by Noah and his sons; and then of the building of the tower of Babel (another terrible instance of the perverseness of man). After this, the general history of mankind is abandoned, and only so far glanced at as it bears on the history of a particular person, Abraham, and of particular branches of his family, through whom the Saviour was in the fulness of time to come; and even of Abraham and his family, only so much is recorded as bears on the one great purpose of man's salvation.
Again: a part of the Old Testament isprophetic, but its prophecies tend to the same great purpose, of making us "wise unto salvation."
Again: a part of the Old Testament, as the Book of Psalms, isdevotional ; but then its devotion is adapted to the recovery of a fallen being: it is calculated to make us "wise unto salvation," by teaching us how, as sinners, we may address God with suitable feelings and suitable language. In this book the infinitely great and glorious God is presented to us as we ought to think of Him when we would pray to Him, or praise Him; the joys and sorrows of those sincerely struggling against sin are displayed to us; while at the same time it constantly directs us to Christ, and shows us our need of that Divine help which it is the great work of the Holy Spirit to impart. Psalm 51:10,12; 143:10.
The same general remarks apply to what may be called themoral or preceptive parts of the Old Testament, where the duties we owe to God and each other are enforced - for instance, the Ten Commandments.
These rules, applied to our conduct, show the necessity of redemption by Christ. In the law of God we have a reflection of His attributes; and by a comparison of ourselves with that law, we may see our own character (Rom. 7:7): so that the Law may thus become our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), and to make us to feel the need of His Spirit.
As the Psalms are a heavenly guide to our intercourse with God, so are the Proverbs to our intercourse with men. The book of Job exhibits the afflictions of life; Ecclesiastes the vanity of its enjoyments. And the practical effect of them all is, to teach us, that, "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ" (Tit. 2:12,13).
Taking then this general view of the purpose of God in giving the Bible, we may consider that in its historical, its prophetical, its devotional, and its moral parts, God had one uniform object: viz. to "make us wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15): and it is important that this view should be deeply impressed upon our minds, if we wish either to inform ourselves or to instruct others in the knowledge of its truths. It is the key to all its treasures.