The Bible the Book of Mankind (3) by B.B. Warfield

This is Part 3 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.

 The vernacular versions, whether of the Scriptures or of the church-offices, which were from time to time attempted or executed throughout the Middle Ages, were not intended for the “people” but for the imperfectly educated among the “religious.” They were often, indeed, meant particularly for the use of nuns, who, as women, had not received a Latin training. As the author of a late warfieldfourteenth or early fifteenth century metrical version of the “Rule of St. Benet” quite simply explains:

 “Monks and else all learned men In Latin may it lightly ken,

And wit thereby how they shall work To serve” God and holy kirk.

But to women to make it couth (known)

That learn no Latin in their youth,

In English it is ordered here So that they may it lightly lere.”


And it was only with great hesitation that even “the religious” were put in possession of vernacular versions. There was the fear that they might misuse them. They might, for example, ease the penances which were imposed on them, by saying the Psalms or Matins which they were required to repeat, in English, say, instead of in Latin. The author of the fifteenth century Chastisyng of Goddes Children” warns his readers that when “a man’s confessor giveth him in penance to say his Psalter without any other words, and he go forth and say it in English and not in Latin, as it was ordained, this man, I ween, doth not his penance.” There was the graver danger that, the English being substituted for the Latin, the sacramental effect which was held to attach to the mere hearing of the Latin words should be lost. The author of the fifteenth-century Miroure of our Ladye counsels his readers to use his Englishing only as interpretative of the Latin. The English might be kept before the eye at “Mattyns,” and the “minde fed therewith,” as the Latin sounded on the ear, the listener thus “going forth with the reader clause by clause.” But it is added: “This looking on the English while the Latin is read, is to be understood of them that have said their matins or read their legend before. For else I would not counsel them to leave the hearing of the Latin for entendaunce of the English.” The hearing of the un-understood Latin was more beneficial than the “feeding of the mind” with the English! Behind all this lay a profound reverence for the Latin language itself as a sacred language, begotten of its long employment in the Church services; and an equal reverence for the Latin Bible as sharing the inspiration of the Hebrew and Greek: coupled with contempt for the vernacular speech as essentially vulgar and incapable of serving worthily as the vehicle of divine truth. Even in the Constitution prefixed by Sixtus V. to his unfortunate edition of the Vulgate, 1590, we hear of the eternal God giving his Word to his Church in the three chief languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The matter is put quite plainly by the author of the tractate on the “Chastisyng of Goddes Children,” which has already been alluded to. “Many men reproveth to hear the Psalter or Matins or the Gospel in English, or the Bible, because they may not be translated into no vulgar word by the word as it standeth without great circumlocution after the feeling of the first writers which translated that into Latin by the teaching of the Holy Ghost.” Here the Latin Bible is conceived as inspired, and as establishing a standard for the expression of divine truth for all time. It was an article of current faith that it passed the wit of man “for to show in any manner vulgar the terms of divinity.” This is argued at length in the decree of Archbishop Berthold of Mainz (1485-6) repressing the making of unauthorized versions in German. “It ought to be allowed,” he reasons, “that the indigence of our idiom is wholly inadequate, and that it would be necessary that they” — the translators — “should invent unknown words out of their own heads; or, if they made use of old ones, should corrupt the sense of the truth, so that we fear a great peril with regard to the sacred books. For who will give to the rude and unlearned man, and to the female sex, into whose hands copies of the sacred books might fall, to draw out the true sense? “… These last words uncover, however, the most deeply lying reason why vernacular versions of Scripture were only hesitatingly put forward. It was feared that they might fall into the hands of the people, and it was profoundly believed that the people could not be trusted with them. The Scriptures were decidedly not for “lewed men.” On this the Church authorities were even violently insistent, and they were prepared to go all lengths to prevent them from falling into the hands of “lewed men.” The author of the pre-Wyckliffite English version published by Miss Paues — a version made at the request and for the use of an inmate of some religious house — does his work with a clear understanding that he was incurring personal peril by doing it. “Brother,” he writes, “I know well that I am held by Christ’s law to perform thine asking; but, nevertheless, we be now so far fallen away from Christ’s law, that if I would answer to thine askings, I must in case undergo the death.” It was the head and front of Wycliffe’s offending that, as Henry Knighton put it, he made the gospel vulgar, casting the pearl of the gospel before swine, and so turned “the jewel of the clerics” into “the sport of the lay people.” Geiler of Kaisersberg (fifteenth century) expresses in an epigram the whole mediaeval conception, when he declared that we should no more put the Scriptures into the hands of the people than we should put the knife into the hands of children to cut their own bread: they will infallibly injure themselves with it.

The Bible was, thus, as far as possible from being the book of the people in the Middle Ages. What was characteristic of the Middle Ages was precisely that the people had lost their Bible. Efforts were made, to be sure, as the night passed on toward the dawn, to recover it; efforts which were more or less completely blocked. There was the movement associated with the name of Peter Waldo, which, beginning in the southeast of France, spread southward to Italy and northward into Germany. There was another movement originating in northern France, and extending into Flanders and Holland and beyond. There was the Wyckliffite movement in England, which was transported into Bohemia. Some odd phenomena attended these movements. The Waldensian was simply stamped out as far as it could be stamped out. The German was winked at until it almost ceased to appear illicit. In England the people were uncompromisingly denied the vernacular Bible; but it so far supplanted the Latin Bible in the hands of the clergy and the great that, as Henry Bradshaw has shown, the Latin Bible almost ceased to be copied in fifteenth century England — a fact strangely misinterpreted by Cardinal Gasquet. It is a sad history, but it ran its course. And, after awhile, the Reformation came and the people got back their Bible. For precisely what the Reformation means from this point of view is the recovery of the Bible for the people. And with the recovery of the Bible for the people there was recovered also for them the power of reading the Bible. The same history was repeated in every Protestant land which was wrought out fifteen hundred years before, when the Bible was first put into the hands of the people. The people’s Bible proved itself afresh the greatest force making for popular education ever introduced into the world. Wherever the people’s Bible went there popular education went. The people became again a reading people, and the Bible vindicated to itself anew the title of the people’s book.

Let us not underestimate what this carries with it. It is not merely that under pressure of the necessity of reading the Bible the people have learned to read, incalculably great as this benefit is. It is also that the Bible, being read, has brought an immense educative force to bear upon the people. It would be impossible to overstate the part the Bible has thus played in the education of the world. Lessing’s famous representation of revelation as the divine education of the human race has had its realization in an unintended sense in the work which the Bible has accomplished as the great school-book of humanity. Children learning their “letters” from the Biblical page — this has been a widespread custom from the earliest Christian ages — are but symbols of the millions upon millions to whom the Bible has been their first text-book in letters, in civilization, in morals, as well as in religion. Think of the degraded peoples to whom the Bible, a gift of Christian love, has brought their sole intimate knowledge of conditions of human existence superior to their own savagery. Think of old, inferior civilizations — China, India — to which the Bible has brought the elevating contact with a higher moral and spiritual culture which was needed to enable them to rise above themselves. We do not need to go to these lower civilizations. Think of the untold multitudes in even the most cultured lands to whom these vivid pages alone have brought the vision of a life far removed from the humdrum routine of their village streets, bridging the gulf of ages and alien custom and opening an outlook into a different world. The elevating and expanding effect of the reading of the Bible upon backward peoples and isolated communities is above computation. The cultural influence of the Bible is not exhausted, however, in such effects. What does German letters owe to the Bible? it has been asked. And the answer returned is, It owes to the Bible its very existence. That he might give to the Germanic peoples a Bible Ulfila gave them an alphabet and written speech in the fourth century. And in regiving the German people a Bible Luther gave them a common literary vehicle in the sixteenth century. “The German language,” remarks Ernst von Dobschiitz, “is moulded by this Bible. … In Luther’s time the dialects still prevailed. … It is unquestionably due to Luther’s Bible that the Germans have one language for all literary purposes.” If so much must be allowed to the Bible of a single people, what shall we say of the Bible of a whole civilization, like the Latin Bible? Its impress upon the speech of the whole Western world is ineffaceable. Of course no really historical understanding of the modern Romance languages can be obtained without reckoning with it. It has colored the modes of expression in the German stock also. Far beyond supplying to Western speech a series of vocables, however, it has stamped upon the Western mind a conceptual language which has determined its whole spiritual physiognomy. This conceptual language has penetrated the entirety of Western culture, and thus the Latin Bible has wrought powerfully toward the unification of the Western world into a cultural whole. We approach here the greatest achievement of the Bible as the people’s book. Because it is preeminently the book of the people, it is the greatest unifying force in the world, binding all the peoples together as the people of the book. Consider how the Bible, as it becomes the book of people after people, assimilates the peoples to one another in modes of expression, thought, conception, feeling, until they are virtually moulded into one people, of common mind and heart. The Bible comes to a new people; this alien book — how alien it is to those who first come to know it! — is first received, then assimilated, and in the end, having become its heart’s treasure, assimilates it to itself. Wherever a new language is thus trained to speak the things of God, a new tongue has been created to train in turn all who speak it in “the language of Canaan.” A new people, whatever its outward forms of speech, has learned the language of heaven. Each hears the same mighty things of God in his own tongue. Thus a new common humanity has grown up throughout the world. The process is the same everywhere. First the Bible is put into a new language, precisely to the end that a new people shall learn to think and feel as Christians should think and feel. Then, having learned to think and feel as Christians should, this new people learns also to speak as Christians should. Thus, in the end, a common language in all that goes to make the inner essence of language, girdles the world. If you find yourself, says Martin Kaehler, in a foreign land, weary with the effort to understand its strange speech, go into the Church and listen to the sermon and the prayers, and see how readily they slip into your consciousness. You are listening to the mother speech of the Book! However different the mere forms of speech may be, one essential language is employed by all who are grounded in the book. “The Bible capable of translation into every tongue, and already translated into the language of every stock and of every family of peoples, has actually proved its formative power over the higher speech of ideas of a humanity destined for unity.” This book, the book of the peoples and the book of the people, is necessarily the book of humanity. In and through it, humanity realizes its unity as a spiritual entity, one in speech, one in thought, one in its entire spiritual life.

Let it be observed that what is affirmed is not merely that any book which is widely read will tend to bind its readers together in a spiritual unity, and that the Bible, being the most widely read of books, both among the peoples and among the people, naturally exerts the greatest of unifying influences among books. It is affirmed that the Bible has shown itself in history, and is daily showing itself more and more, to possess a power which is unique, and which, when all is said, is most arresting, to stamp upon its readers a single spiritual physiognomy. So impressive is this fact that Martin Kaehler, for example — with a reference to whose fruitful characterization of the Bible as the book of mankind we began, and from whose instructive development of that theme we have never wandered very far — observing the unifying influence of the Bible on the world of men is impelled to discover in it a proof of its divinity. Side by side with the effect of the Bible on the heart of the individual who finds in it his inspiration to a holy life, there must be recognized its effect on the hearts of the peoples, fashioning them into one spiritual type. Nay, says Kaehler, side by side with the testimony of the Holy Spirit borne in the heart of the individual that this book is from God, is the testimony of history to the Bible, borne in the heart of humanity, that a book filled with such regenerating power for the race is from God. For there is, history itself being witness, a truly regenerating power in the Bible. And it is because, wherever it goes it creates a new humanity — a humanity informed by a new spirit and filled with a new life — that it is the great unifying power which it is.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s