The Bible the Book of Mankind (2) by B.B. Warfield

This is Part 2 of a 3-part article. It was read at the World’s Bible Congress held at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco, California, August 1-4, 1915.

It goes without saying that the diffusion of the Bible throughout the world might be a matter of warfieldlittle moment — scarcely more than an interesting fact in literary history — if, on becoming, above all other books, the book of the peoples, it did not at the same time become everywhere, above all other books, the book of the people. It has already repeatedly been made incidentally plain, however, that the Bible has been everywhere, above everything else, the people’s book. This is the significance, for example, of the particular form in which the Latin Bible came into existence. The Latin Bible was, in its origin, nothing so little as a literary performance. It was simply the Greek Bible transfused by the Latin-speaking people into whose hands it came into their own everyday speech for their own familiar use. So redolent of the soil was it that it was a sad stumbling-block to the cultured. Ex ungue leonem: the world has never known a book so distinctively a people’s book as the Bible has been since its origin. In this sense, Christians have been from the first, above all other people who have lived in the world, the people of a book. The book and the people have been bound so closely together that we hardly know whether it was juster to say that where Christianity has gone there the Bible has gone, or that where the Bible has gone there Christianity has gone. In the first age of the Church, pre-eminently, the Christian and his book were inseparable. The Bible was not so much the book of the Church as the book of the Christian; and from the cradle to the grave every Christian was expected to keep it in his hand and in his heart, to live in and by it. The writings of the Fathers are crowded with exhortations, both formal and incidental, to diligent Bible-reading on the part of all. The reason given is most significant. Those who were taught by others were taught of men; those who took the Bible for their teacher were taught of God. They were “theodidactoi”, God-taught, listening immediately to him speaking in his Word. “The deepest and ultimate reason why every Christian should read the Bible,” — so Harnack expounds the sentiment of the first Christian ages — “lies in this, that, just as everyone should speak to God as often as possible, so also everyone should listen to God as often as possible. Oratio and lectio belong together; so we read in countless passages from the later Fathers, but Cyprian had already said it quite clearly. He wrote to Donatus: ‘Be assiduous in both prayer and reading; in the one you speak to God, in the other God speaks to you.’”

No doubt, it was as possible then as it is now to honor the Bible in appearance rather than in fact. As we may find today great “family Bibles” encumbering the “parlor-tables” of households little interested in their contents, so we read of sumptuous Bibles then, written in gold letters on purple vellum and glittering with gems, which were kept for show rather than for use. But this very practice among the wealthy is a speaking evidence of the value universally placed upon the book. It was the family-book above every other. Husbands and wives read it daily together and Tertullian knows no stronger argument against mixed marriages than that in their case this cherished pleasure must be foregone. The children were introduced to the Bible from the tenderest age. They learned their letters by picking them out from its pages. They were practiced in putting syllables together on the Bible names, the Genealogies in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke supplying (one would think most unpromising) material for this exercise. They formed their first sentences by combining words into Bible phrases. As they clung about their mothers’ necks, we are told, amid the kisses they snatched, they snatched also the music of the Psalms from their lips. Every little girl of seven was expected to have already made a beginning of learning the Psalms by heart; and, as she grew to maturity she should lay up progressively in her heart the words of the Books of Solomon, the Gospels, the Apostles and the Prophets. Little boys, too, traveling through the years, should travel equally through the Sacred Books. We hear again and again of men who knew the whole Bible by heart. There were, for example, the deacon Valens of Jerusalem, and the blind Egyptian, John, of whom Eusebius tells us. “He possessed,” says the historian of the latter, “whole books of the Holy Scripture, not on tables of stone, as the divine Apostle says, nor on skins of beasts, or on paper which moth and time can devour, but — in his heart, so that, as from a rich literary treasure, he could, even as he would, repeat now passages from the Law and the Prophets, now from the historical books, now from the Gospels and Apostolical Epistles.” Memory, however, was not to be solely depended upon; the Bible was not to be studied once for all and then neglected. It must be the Christian man’s constant companion through life. It was to be read continually, read day by day, and year after year; visited unceasingly as a fresh fountain from which to quaff living water. To this extent Christians were the people of a book; and to this extent the book was the people’s book.

There was nothing, however, esoteric in this devotion of the Christians to their Bible. The Bible was not so conceived as the Christians’ book that they desired to keep it to themselves. Rather, reading it themselves thus diligently, they wished everyone else to read it, too. Finding it the source of life for themselves they ardently desired that others also should drink at its inexhaustible fountains. The missionary value of the Bible was well understood. Its translation into other languages, Augustine, for example, looks upon as essentially a missionary act: God had given it originally in Greek only as an ad interim provision — the Greek Bible was merely the central reservoir whence it should flow out in translation to all the world. And nothing was closer to the hearts of Christians than that the heathen among whom they lived should be induced to read the Bible. We are told that “Trypho is the first Jew and Celsus the first Greek whom we know to have read the Gospels.” But this only means that they are the first Jew and the first Greek that we happen to know of, who read the Scriptures and remained unconvinced. How many in the meantime had read and believed! As the same writer reminds us, “Aristides, the earliest of the Apologists, exhorts his heathen readers, after reading his own work, to take into their hands and to read the Holy Scriptures themselves. This appeal to the Holy Scriptures runs through all the Apologies, from the earliest to the latest, and shows that their authors were united in the belief that the regular way to become a convinced Christian was to read the Holy Scriptures. In this way, Justin and Tatian and Theophilus expressly say that they themselves became Christians.” And again, for a little later time: “The Church was ever most anxious that the Bible should be open and accessible even to the heathen; for she had again and again learned by experience that the Bible was her best missionary. The conversions of Hilary and Victorinus in Rome were notable examples; these men had been led to the Church by the Holy Scriptures.” We cannot avoid perceiving that in the first age of Christianity the Bible was, and was understood to be, the seed of the Church.

We do not, however, half appreciate the significance of the position taken by the Bible from the first as the book of the people, until we remind ourselves of some of the difficulties it required to surmount in establishing itself in this position. These first days of the Church were not the days of the printing-press, with its rapid and cheap multiplication of books. Nor were they the days of universal education. We may well wonder where the Bibles came from to be read by the people, and where the people came from able to read the Bibles. The triumph of the Bible over these difficulties — a triumph which has been repeated until it has become a matter of course — marks the introduction of the Bible into the world as easily the greatest event that has ever occurred in the history of the diffusion of literature, and just as easily the most powerful educative force which has ever entered humanity.

We lack materials for tracing in detail the processes by which the requisite supply of Bibles was produced. We can only note with wonder the fact that the miracle was wrought. The publishing trade was highly developed and most efficient, and no doubt it knew how to take advantage of so great a demand. In the fourth century, we see the publishers “taking up” popular Christian books with the most businesslike avidity, and “pushing” them with a vigor which the most energetic modern publisher could scarcely surpass. There has even come down to us from the middle of the fourth century a “list” of a “Bible House,” containing information designed to protect the purchaser from the wiles of too enterprising book-sellers. Pious persons gave themselves to the work of copying the Scriptures and this came to be the chief occupation of ascetics. Good men had Bibles made for them to present to the needy. We are told, for example, of Eusebius’ friend Pamphilus, the great Christian bibliophile of his day, that he kept a store of Bibles by him which he gave to those who desired them; and that “not only to men, but also to women whom he saw to be given to reading.” No doubt, especially in the earliest days of the faith, many zealous believers wrote out the Bible, or parts of it, with their own hands that they might possess copies of their own. Papyrus sheets have come down to us from the early fourth century, painfully traced out in an unpracticed hand, which may be a fragment of such a personally made Bible, though Messrs. Grenfell and Hunt think them rather a schoolboy’s exercise — which would give them almost as much significance.

However the Bibles were supplied, they were supplied; and to this miracle the even greater one was added of the creation of a reading public for them. It is too little to say, as Harnack says, that by the universal zeal for Bible-reading “a powerful stimulus was given to the extension of the art of reading,” and so, in an age of decaying education, the Church “became the great elementary school-mistress of the Greeks and Romans.” The Church not only stayed the downward progress of education and increased the number of readers, but, by its demand that the Bible should be read by all ranks and classes and sexes and ages, introduced the principle of universal education into the world and advanced far toward making it a realized fact. The service of the Bible to the Greek and Roman people — the people as such, the “submerged masses,” as we say — was, therefore, hardly less than that which it rendered to the outlying barbarians, to whom it for the first time gave letters and a written tongue. It made them literate. Thus the Bible became the mother of truly popular education. Has there ever been a greater revolution wrought in the intellectual history of the race?

It is true that the conquest thus begun was not pushed steadily to its end; the ground gained was not even retained without interruption. After a while, a great misfortune befell the Church. It lost its Bible-reading public. Happier in this than the East, the West needed at first but a single version. It made no Punic Bible, nor an Iberian or a Celtic Bible; and the reason was that, bound together in the common use of the Latin tongue, the needs of all the Western peoples were met by the Latin Bible. But hardly had it fully possessed the field than the irruption of the barbarians swept away its literate public. Then began a long period of schism, between the Church and the people; a Latin Church and an ever increasingly non-Latin people. Little was done to close the constantly widening gulf. Rather, new theories, running directly athwart all previous Christian feeling and practice, were invented to justify it. ‘The people could not be trusted with the Scriptures.’ ‘The uncouth speech of the people was incapable of receiving and reproducing their sacred contents.’ ‘The Latin language was holy, and its sounds fell with sacramental effect upon the ear.’ We appropriately call these somber years the Dark Ages.

We are told nowadays, it is true, that there never were any Dark Ages. We rejoice that it is possible to paint them darker than they were. It is very largely a matter of point of sight. Christendom has never known a time, let us thank God for it, when the Bible was out of mind; when its teaching was not widely diffused and was not powerfully operative in the lives of men. There were schools in the Dark Ages, and the Bible was in a very true sense the textbook of these schools. There were libraries — in the capitals, in the universities, in the monasteries — and the Bible was to be had in these libraries. There were scriptoria, and the Bible was diligently copied in these scriptoria. A beginning was made already in the eighth century of translating the Bible into the vernacular languages, and by the end of the Middle Ages it was accessible to Frenchmen and Germans, Englishmen and Bohemians, Spaniards and Italians and Poles in their own tongues. Nearly two hundred manuscripts of the German Bible and almost as many of the English from this later period remain today to attest the wideness of their use. Printing came in the midst of the fifteenth century and W. A. Copinger catalogues a hundred and forty-four editions of the Latin Bible for its first half century; and for the sixteenth century no fewer than four hundred and thirty-eight.

But how many there were to whom all these Bibles were sealed books! How closely confined their use was to a class — the clerics, a few nobles, and in the later Middle Ages the rising middle-class of burghers! At a time when a German monarch almost passed for a cleric because he could read, we may imagine how it stood with the laity. And at a time when Bonaventura vainly applied the test of reading to a candidate for a Bishopric we may cherish doubts even of the mass of the clergy. The libraries of the late Middle Ages were well stocked with Bibles, and they were accessible to the student on very liberal terms; gifts of Bibles were even made to libraries for the express purpose of being loaned to needy students — a striking evidence, this, of the scarcity of Bibles. But we learn from the old catalogues of libraries published by S. Becker, for example, that “a royal foundation like St. Vaudrille, about the year 800, did not possess a complete Bible, and Boniface had to be satisfied with parts.” The manuals of Biblical instruction used in the schools were nearly as bad as they could be: Luther calls them in that language, more vigorous than elegant, in which he was wont to release his indignation, “the nonsensical, good-for-nothing, pernicious monkish books, Catholicon, Graecista, Florista, and such-like asses-dung.” The famous “Mammotrectus” is a fair example. Composed by a Minorite at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century, it held its place in the schools until the end of the sixteenth. When the art of printing came in, such was the demand for it that it passed through at least thirty-four editions in the fifteenth century and was still being printed in 1596. Its author piously represents himself as pouring out the results of his studies as the Magdalen poured out the oil, on the feet of his Master. Employing another Biblical illustration, Sixtus of Sienna, less unctuously but with more descriptive force, declares that “like the poor widow who out of her want cast two pennies into the treasury of the temple, this brother brought to the temple of the Lord, in the poverty of his understanding — all that he had.”

When this was the nature of the provision that was made for the literate, we may fancy the condition of the illiterate, that is to say, of the whole mass of the people. Keep the eye fixed on the literate classes and we may wonder whether the Dark Ages were quite as dark as we have been accustomed to think them. It is true that the Bible lay at the very foundation of the entire social structure of the Middle Ages. It is true that it was everywhere in the background; and that it was working powerfully in the whole life of the times. It is true that it was everywhere accessible to those able to use it. Shift the eye to the masses and a very different picture meets it. No doubt the Bible was not without its influence on the masses, too. But pervasive and powerful as that influence was, it was indirect, by percolation from above. The people had no direct contact with the Bible. It had become an esoteric book of which they knew only by hearsay. Their inability to read cut them off absolutely from all immediate approach to it; and the employment of Latin in the church services deprived them even of the opportunity to hear portions of it in the lessons. A very few even of the literate, indeed, could ever hope to possess Bibles of their own. The size of mediaeval Bibles was immense. They were veritable libraries, deserving literally the current name by which they were known, Bibliotheca, consisting of four or five — in one instance of fourteen — great folio volumes. The cost of the production of these great books was naturally very great, and the price they commanded was prohibitive to any but very wealthy purchasers. If we understand S. Berger’s account rightly, it was in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century a very cheap Bible indeed — such as could only rarely be had — which cost as little as seventy- five dollars of our money; the common price ran up to about three hundred dollars. We know of such values as five to nine hundred dollars being placed on them or actually paid for them, and even such as eighteen hundred to two thousand dollars in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Bibles were left in wills as precious bequests; they were put in pawn for the performance of important services; they were given as security for large debts. “One sees,” remarks Berger, “from these prices, what we otherwise were aware of, that a country priest could not dream of possessing a Bible.” The Bible had become the peculiar property not merely of the literate few, but of the few literate who were rich. The poor man could not have a Bible, and commonly lived and died without ever having seen one. The Bible had become to the people only a tradition.


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