Preachers’ Methods (4)

By J.W. McGarvey

In addition to Biblical works of the kind just mentioned, the preacher should also study works on the Evidences of Christianity. It is no reproach to a man of little education and poor opportunities for study, that he believes in the divine authority of the Bible, not because he has made a special study of its evidences, but because he has been educated to this belief. The value of faith is determined, not by the source whence it is obtained, but by the effect which it has on our lives. Of the preacher, however, more than to his is rightly expected. He should know for his own sake, and in order that he may teach it to others and defend it when attacked, the line of evidence which supports our faith.

The exhaustive study of evidences is a lifetime work. The books on the subject are numbered by the hundred. Some of the questions involved are exceedingly intricate, requiring much learning and research for their solution; new questions are constantly arising, and the line of defense, as a consequence, is ever changing. Only the few who are possessed of learning, leisure, and libraries, can explore the entire field. But there is, and from the nature of the case there must be, a fixed line of positive evidence on which the faith has always rested, and on which it must continue to rest to the end of time. With this every preacher should endeavor to make himself familiar; and he will find that, in the main, it is simple and very direct.

It is better, when practicable, to begin the investigation of questions in dispute with some fact admitted by all parties, so that all may start from common ground. This rule would suggest as the very first question in a course of study in Evidences, the inquiry whether the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, which we now have in hand, as all parties to the controversy know, have been so preserved from the date of their composition as to be substantially the same that they were originally. If it cannot be made to appear that they are, the investigation need not go any farther; for what is the use of spending time to prove the divine origin of an ancient book if no reliable copy of it has been preserved to us? The study, then, of the state of the Greek and Hebrew text, by the aid of works on Biblical Criticism, is the first task before the student of Evidences. But though first in logical order, it is the last in the order of actual development. Biblical Criticism cannot yet be called a completed science; for, while it has almost completed its task on the New Testament, it has done comparatively little on the Old. Still, enough has been done to assure the student that in the whole New Testament, with well defined exceptions of brief passages and single words on which we can place our ringers, we have the very words and syllables which were penned by the inspired writers. The number of those yet doubtful is rapidly diminishing under the hands of the critics, and none of them leaves doubtful any matter of doctrine or duty. The best works to study on this subject, taken in the order in which I name them, are the History of the Printed Text by Tregelles, Scrivener’s Introduction to the Critical Study of the New Testament, and the Appendix to Westcott & Hort’s Edition of the Greek Testament.

Having satisfied ourselves that the New Testament books have come down to us without material change, we must next inquire when and by whom these books were written. Were they written by the authors to whom they are commonly accredited, or are they spurious compositions of a later date? It is idle to inquire into the inspiration of the authors until we know who the authors were. On this subject, commonly known under the title of the Canon of the New Testament, the preacher will find much valuable information in the introductions to the various books in his Commentaries, and he will find similar information in his Bible Dictionary. After mastering these he is prepared to study appreciatively Westcott’s work on the Canon, the most masterly work on the subject now extant in the English language. He will find, also, nearer home, in Prof. Fisher’s Supernatural Origin of the Bible, and Ezra Abbott’s small work on the Genuineness of the Gospel of John, some special arguments of very great value.

Having traced the New Testament books to their reputed authors, we next inquire what evidence these books furnish, apart from their claim to inspiration, in favor of the divinity of Christ. This depends upon their authenticity. If their statement in matters of fact are reliable, including what they say of the miraculous, then, whatever may be the qualifications of the writers in other particulars, the claims of our Redeemer are established, and the Christian religion is proved to be of divine origin and authority. This question is treated here and there, in connection with particular passages, throughout all the good Commentaries, and there are several most excellent works devoted entirely to its discussion. Of these I may mention, as among the most valuable, Blunt’s Coincidences Paley’s Horae Paulinae, and Rawlinson’s Historical Evidences.

But when we have proved that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, our task is not yet completed. However true the claims of Jesus, and however truly and authoritatively he spoke, unless we have a reliable account of his teaching, we know not how to avail ourselves of the blessings which it offered to the world. Moreover, a very large part of the teaching found in the New Testament came not from him, but from the pens of his disciples, and unless they possessed some qualification for speaking with authority in matters spiritual and eternal, we are thrown back at least upon our own fallible judgment to decide what is right and true. This makes it necessary that we next inquire whether or not these writers were inspired, and to what extent their inspiration guarded them against error. If when writing they were miraculously inspired of God, then all that they have written is infallibly true; if not, then every man is left to judge for himself when they speak the truth and when they do not.

While almost any work on the general subject of evidences that you make take up, and every valuable Commentary, contains proofs of some kind is conceded to them even by many extreme rationalists, I am not able to name a work which, in my judgment, contains a thoroughly satisfactory discussion of the nature and extent of inspiration. It is purely a Biblical question, to be determined by statements of the Scriptures themselves. As a brief outline of a course of study on the subject, I recommend that we inquire first of all, what Jesus promised his disciples in the way of inspiration. Examine these promises with the utmost care so as to determine with the greatest possible precision what they mean. Secondly, let us examine with equal care what the Apostles claim to have realized in fulfillment of these promises. Thirdly, consider the bearing of all facts recorded which tend in any way to modify the promises and the statements concerning their fulfillment, and let these have due weight in forming our final conclusions. In this way alone, it seems to me, can an adequate theory of inspiration be evolved, and in this way every man of fair scholarship and sound judgment can safely prosecute the inquiry. I commend it to my brethren in the ministry as one of the most important inquiries which can in this age engage their attention. There is no other question on which the minds of preachers are now more unsettled, and there is none on which it is more important that we have settled convictions. If a man fall into doubt concerning the inspiration of the sacred writers, though his faith may appear to live, it is dead – it is rotten at the core.

At the close of this series of inquiries, the student of evidences is ready to gather up and appreciate a multitude of collateral and of independent arguments which are scattered through the books on the subject, and he is also ready to enter upon the consideration of all objections and of all arguments on the other side which he shall not have encountered already. In regard to the latter, I have a suggestion to submit, which may be dignified by the title of a rule to govern our readings in evidences. Never read an attack on the Bible at a given point until the Bible at the point of attack is understood, and its evidences known. Of course, you may stumble upon some attack, or you may look into a work, or listen to a lecture, for the purpose of ascertaining what attack is made. But when a book is within your reach which you know contains an attack on a particular part of the Bible or on a particular line of its evidence, never read that book until you have made yourself acquainted with that which it attacks. This is but a maxim of common sense, and its observance is necessary to fairness. It is enforced in courts of justice and in all properly conducted discussions. The evidence which the plaintiff can furnish in support of his claims is always heard before that of the defendant who attacks his claim; and in criminal cases, the only reason why the accuser is heard first, is because he claims that a crime has been committed by the defendant, and the evidence in support of his claim must be first heard. In public discussions, no one hears the negative until after he has heard the affirmative. If you listen to unfriendly representations of a person before you are acquainted with him, you may be prejudiced against one whom you would otherwise highly esteem; and if you hear unfavorable statements concerning a book which you have never read, you can scarcely do justice to it when you read it. So it is with the Bible. Thousands of unbelievers owe their unbelief to the fact that they have listened to the negative in the discussion concerning its claims, before they have heard and understood the affirmative. No grosser injustice could they have perpetrated against their own minds or the Bible.

Before leaving this general division of my subject, I must add a suggestion in regard to the reading of general literature. It has been truly said that there is no department of knowledge which the preacher cannot make subservient to his high calling; yet there is a limit to the possibilities of acquisition, and he who limits his efforts at acquisition to that which will do him the best service is the one who studies most wisely. As a rule, an earnest preacher’s knowledge of general literature is confined chiefly to what he acquires before he enters fully upon his life work; for after this, literature belonging to his special department is so urgent in its demands and so enormous in quantity, that if he does it justice it will absorb, all of his time. Still, there are hours of relaxation in, which a brief excursion into neighboring fields is refreshing to the student and from it he will usually bring back some valuable spoils.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 7, pp. 201, 217
April 5, 1984