Saturday, January 13, 2018

H.P. Liddon on the Timeless Nature of Scripture

“Some instruction, no doubt, is to be gathered from the literature of every people; the products of the human mind, in all its phases, and in circumstances the most unpromising, have generally something to tell us. But, on the other hand, there is a great deal in the wisest uninspired literatures that cannot properly be described as permanently or universally instructive; much in that of ancient Greece; much in that of our own country. And therefore, when an Apostle says of a great collection of books of various characters, and on various subjects —embodying the legislation, history, poetry, morals, of a small Eastern people —that whatsoever was contained in them had been set down for the instruction of men of another and a wider faith, living in a later age, and, by implication, for the instruction of all human beings, —this is certainly, when we think of it, an astonishing assertion. Clearly, if the Apostle is to be believed, these books cannot be like any other similar collection of national laws, records, poems, proverbs; there must be in them some quality or qualities which warrant this lofty estimate. 

“Then we may observe that, as books rise in the scale of excellence, whatever their authorship or outward form, they tend towards exhibiting a permanence and universality of interest; they rise above the local and personal accidents of their production, and discover qualities which address themselves to the mind and heart of the human race. 

This is, as we all know, the case to a great extent with Shakespeare. The ascendancy of his genius is entirely independent of the circumstances of his life, of which we know scarcely anything, and of the dramatic form into which he threw his ideas. He has been read, re-read, commented on, discussed, by nine generations of Englishmen; his phrases have passed into the language, so that we constantly quote him without knowing it; his authority as an analyst and exponent of human nature has steadily grown with the advancing years. Nay, despite the eminently English form of his writings, German critics have claimed him as, by reason of the wealth of his thought, a virtual fellow-countryman; and even the peoples of the Latin races, who would have greater difficulty in understanding him, have not been slow to offer him the homage of their sympathy and admiration. 

“And yet, by what an interval is Shakespeare parted from the books of the Hebrew Scriptures His grand dramatic creations, we feel, after all are only the workmanship of a shrewd human observer, with the limitations of a human point of view, and with that restricted moral authority which is all that the highest human genius can claim. But here is a Book which provides for human nature as a whole and which makes this provision with an insight and comprehensiveness that does not belong to the capacity of the most gifted men. Could any merely human authors have stood the test which the Old Testament has stood? Think what it has been to the Jewish people throughout the tragic vicissitudes of their wonderful history. Think what it has been to Christendom. For nineteen centuries it has formed the larger part of the religious handbook of the Christian Church; it has shaped Christian hopes; it has largely governed Christian legislation; it has supplied the language for Christian prayer and praise. The noblest and saintliest souls in Christendom have one after another fed their souls on it, or even on fragments of it; taking a verse, and shutting the spiritual ear to everything else, and in virtue of the concentrated intensity with which they have thus sought, for days, and weeks, and months, and years, to penetrate the inmost secrets of this or that fragment of its consecrated language, rising to heroic heights of effort and endurance. Throughout the Christian centuries the Old Testament has been worked like a mine, which is as far from being exhausted today as in the Apostolic age. Well might the old Hebrew poet cry, 'I am as glad of Thy Word as one that findeth great spoils.' 'The Law of the Lord is an undefiled Law, converting the soul the testimony of the Lord is sure, and giveth wisdom unto the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, and rejoice the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey, and the honeycomb.'

“Even those parts of the Old Testament which seem least promising at first sight have some instruction to give us, if we will only look out for it. Those genealogies which occur in historical books sometimes remind us of the awful responsibility which attaches to the trans mission, with the gift of physical life, of a type of character, which we have ourselves formed or modified, to another, perhaps a distant generation or sometimes they suggest the care with which all that bore on the human ancestry of our Lord was preserved in the records of the people of revelation. Those accounts, too, of fierce war and indiscriminate slaughter, such as the extermination of the Canaanites, pourtray the vigour and thoroughness with which we should endeavour to extirpate sins that may long have settled in our hearts. Those minute ritual directions of the Law, which might at first sight read like the rubrics of a system that had for ever passed away, should, as they might, bring before us first one and then another aspect of that to which they pointed the redeeming work of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

H.P. Liddon, The Worth of the Old Testament, A sermon preached Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 1889)

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