Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Book of Promise

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Book of Promise

By Lyman Abbott (1835–1922)

[Born in Roxbury, Mass., 1835. Died in New York, N. Y., 1922. In Aid of Faith. 1886.]

THE BIBLE is not a book, but a library; perhaps I should rather say a literature. It is composed of sixty-six different books, written by between forty and fifty different authors; written centuries apart, in different languages, to different peoples, for different purposes, in different literary forms. It is the selected literature of fifteen centuries; it includes law, history, poetry, fiction, biography, and philosophy. It is to be read as a literature, interpreted as a literature, judged as a literature. One may therefore reject a book from this collection of literature and yet believe in the literature. It is not like a painting, which either is or is not the work of one master; it is a gallery of paintings, in which some works may be originals and others copies. To believe in the Bible is one thing, to believe in the canonicity of every book in the Bible is a very different thing. Luther believed in the Bible, though he rejected the Epistle of James, and Dr. Adam Clarke believed in the Bible, though he rejected Solomon’s Song.

But although the Bible is not a book, yet this literature possesses a unity other than that given to it by binder’s boards. It is not a mere aggregation of books. A common spirit animates, a common character belongs to it. If it were not so, it would never have borne the semblance of a book for so many years and in so many minds. These literary remains of fifteen centuries of Jewish history were not collected together by an ecclesiastical council, nor by one authorized editor. Indeed, no one knows how either the collection of Old Testament books or that of the New Testament books was made. Each collection may almost be said to have made itself. The books came together by a process of natural affinity. There was, there is, something in common in the books of law and poetry, of history and fiction, of biography and philosophy, which unites them; there is in this literature a principle of attraction, of cohesion, which is moral, not mechanical or ecclesiastical. The writings of Moses, of Isaiah, of David, of Paul, of the unknown author of the books of Kings and of the unknown author of the book of Hebrews, have certain characteristics in common, a certain spirit which unifies them in one book. I have said that the Bible is not a book, but a literature; I will now say that this literature is a book: not merely because its various writings are bound together in one volume, but because they are animated with one and the same life. It is this life which makes the literature sacred, and the sacredness of the different parts of this literature is exactly proportioned to the measure of this life which they respectively contain. It is least in such a chapter as the 21st chapter of Joshua; it is greatest in such a chapter as the 103d Psalm.

Following this line of thought a little further, I think we can see, if we reflect a little, that the characteristic which unites all this literature in one homogeneous book is promise. It is all a literature of promise. Promise is the golden thread which binds all these books together in one common book. This is the natural affinity which selected and combined in one library these literary remains of fifteen centuries. The Bible is, at least it claims to be, the promise of God to his children, whereby He bestows upon them what otherwise they never could have possessed, for want of knowledge that it was theirs to possess.

This claim is indicated in the titles Old Testament and New Testament. A testament is a covenant or agreement. The Bible is composed of two covenants or agreements, by which God confers upon man that of which otherwise he would know nothing. It is the will and testament by which a Father bequeaths an inheritance to his children. This claim is indicated by its structure. Its first five books are books of law; but all its commandments are commandments with promise, and to every one is attached the condition, If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land. This characteristic of the law is emphasized in the closing chapter of Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that thou and thy seed may live.” Its historical books are not the record of great national achievements; they are not the story of the building and the life of a nation; they are the record of God’s fulfilment of his promises to the people of promise and of their failure to fulfil their promises, and of the disastrous results in their national life. The poetical books are also prophetical books, for Hebrew poetry is prophecy; the song of the prophet, whether he is an Isaiah mounting like the lark above the storm into the clear sunlight above, or a Jeremiah singing like the nightingale a song in the night, is always a song of promise.

The life of Christ is the story of the beginning of the fulfilment of promises which had cheered the faithful in the darkest hours of Judea’s apostasy and ruin; the letters of Paul are the unfolding of that fulfilment in spiritual experience, ever pointing to a richer and yet richer fulfilment in the ever increasing crescendo movement of the future; and the literature of promise ends with an apocalyptic vision of the perfecting but never perfected fulfilment in the latter days. If we turn from the structure to the contents of this literature, this promise character is even more apparent. The Bible is like a symphony, weaving endless variations around one simple theme, which, obscure at first, grows stronger and clearer, until finally the whole orchestra takes it up in one magnificent choral, conquering all obstacles and breaking through all hidings. Abraham is beckoned out of the land of idolatry by the finger of promise; Joseph is cheered in danger and in prison by the memory of a dream of promise; Moses is called by promise from his herding in the wilderness to lead a nation of promise out of bondage into a promised land; Joshua is called to his captaincy with reiterated promises; Gideon is inspired for his campaigning by repeated promises; David is sustained in the cave of Adullam, and strengthened in the palace in Jerusalem by promise; from Isaiah to Malachi the note of promise, before broken and fragmentary, sounds without a pause; the shepherds are brought to the Christ by an angelic message of promise; he begins his ministry by a sermon at Nazareth, which is a promise of glad tidings to the poor, and ends it in his ascension with a promise of his return; Paul lives on promise as on manna heaven-descended, declaring, in the midst of great tribulations, “We are saved by hope; for what a man seeth why doth he yet hope for?” and John closes the canon with a book whose glory is like the glory of a setting sun, which promises a clear to-morrow.