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Heart of the Gospel:
The Bible and the Bahá'í Faith

by George Townshend

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Chapter 2

HISTORY AS SPIRITUAL EVOLUTION

The history of the whole human race, of all its tribes and nations and languages, from the beginning to the end, is — declares the Bible — one story.

But it is not one simply because the earth is one home, or simply because there is one root human race, or because the incidents of all history tend to a common consummation: nor for any reasons such as these alone. World-history is a single story for yet another and a far deeper kind of reason. World history has a single theme, and it is controlled throughout by a single divine thought. All things that occur — whatever be their date and where ever be the scene — are in some way related to that theme; and on the nature of their relation depends their value or their lack of value, their being constructive or destructive, progressive or retrogressive.

World-history at its core and in its essence is the story of the spiritual evolution of mankind. From this all other activities of man proceed and round it all other activities revolve. The Bible makes the tracing of this evolution its.own special subject and writes world-history from this and from no other point of view. It sketches the spiritual development of the human race from its earliest infancy to the time of its maturity and represents this movement as being the main and central current of advancing civilisation and of all human progress. The life of humanity may be regarded in other aspects; world-history may be written


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from other points of view. The Bible itself is in a measure a general history, deals with many social and institutional changes, records the economic and political growth of the Hebrews, and is a storehouse of information on ancient customs and modes of life. But it treats these matters as incidental, as forming the environment or being the expression of the major theme of spiritual expansion and advance, and it asserts that this treatment answers to the real truth of things and preserves the just proportions of the world as God made it. Man's spiritual evolution is the true business and meaning of his existence; on their connection with this all other matters depend for the reality of their value. Any picture of human life which does not preserve this perspective but represents something else (such as wealth or conquest or reputation or pleasure or comfort or culture) as having in itself an independent importance is based on a misunderstanding and bears witness to untruth.

The Bible contains no word for evolution; yet evolution is its subject from beginning to end. The theme of evolution supplies the plot of the story, giving to it direction and purpose. It not only imparts to the long narrative continuity, massiveness and a sublime simplicity, but also reveals the intellectual coherence and order which are present in the unfolding of the grand redemptive design of God.

All men everywhere fall within the scope of this vast evolutionary movement: no one is left outside at any time anywhere. All men are alike and of like worth in that they are sprung from one root-race, are of one spiritual origin, and are held inescapably within this world-wide spiritual process. All the events of history, however


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multifarious, are when taken together items in a plot of universal spiritual development which, however complex in appearance, is in its inmost essence and its purpose utterly simple.

Devotees of literalism may proclaim the defects they have found in the Bible, and warn us that it has for us today no value as history or as philosophy or even perhaps — throughout great lengths of it — as religion. Yet the spiritual mind will in humility seek instruction from those inspired seers of old, will wonder at their strong faith, at the glory of their vision, at the depth and height of that understanding of the ways and the wisdom of God which by sheer spiritual power they attained. If we can divine their secret, if we can interpret our modern knowledge in terms of the Bible, what hidden wisdom may not be revealed to us, what victory and dominion may not be within our reach!

To read the Bible as a single work, using one part to supplement or to illumine the meaning of another, is to perceive that it sets forth creation as a continuous process of evolution which works up through the material realm to the spiritual and which moves forward without break or cessation or any stated end.

All that is hereafter to appear is in the beginning present to the thought of the Eternal Creator, and in that sense creation is carried through immediately to its completion by the fiat of the word of God. But all that is, and is to come, is not made manifest in this actual realm at once. At first, it is hidden. 'Hidden that it may be revealed', as the Lord Christ said. It is involved in the first act of creation; for with God there is no incompleteness: it is mysteriously folded away, as a tree with its branches, leaves and


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fruit is folded within the seed from which it is to spring. At the foundation of the world all that the future contains already exists before God on the timeless plane of eternity. His full purpose in every detail is at the beginning defined, through however.many degrees of slow development God may will it to unfold its length on this lower level of time wherein man dwells.

Evolution is — in the Bible — a mode of creation chosen by God, and it is not shown as ever reaching a final end. It was in movement through all the period when the Bible was being written and when the narrative of the Bible was being enacted: it is in movement now. The grand denouement of the Bible, the Descent of the City of Peace, does not bring it to a close; but opens a new and more glorious chapter of civilisation before mankind. By slow degrees God moulds simple matter into complex forms, and by slow degrees he grants to man the privilege of self knowledge and the power which flows from it. The spiritual evolution of man is the main topic and interest of the Bible. But the narrative does not open with this topic, nor yet with man himself. It tells of the antecedents of man, and of the preparation that was made for him before he appeared upon the earth in person. It tells of the material world and of the lower kingdoms, animal, vegetable, mineral, of the sun and the moon and the stars, of Original Chaos and Old Night out of which Kosmos was formed. It tells how the natural world was brought into being step by step, stage after stage, by successive commands of the Creator and through a regular and ordered process. Age after age through unnumbered millenniums the


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Creative Will working in the immensities of space brought at last into being this earth, and with an unwearied, unhurrying patience wrought matter into form after form, each form more complex, more expressive than the last, till at length there was evolved the form of man.

To man, God gave dominion over the earth and all that it contained, 'over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth'. He was to subdue the earth and to establish his conquest over nature.

For man was the last and consummate work of creation. He was the foreseen goal and end for which the heavens and the earth had been made and to which the whole process of evolution had led up. So perfect was his form, the last and finest flower of evolution, that God could breathe into it as into no lower form a breath of His own being. He could make it a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. In it might dwell one like unto God Himself, endowed with the fullness of the divine perfections.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. . . . And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Gen. 1 and 2.)

God therefore needed to go no further in His work of moulding simple matter into structures. He did not


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need to make any spiritual mirror to reflect more perfectly the image of His beauty. Evolution had achieved its purpose, and God laid by His task.

But in the same moment He assumed another task. He rested from one labour to enter on another yet more exalted and wonderful. For if in the birth of man upon the earth material evolution ends, in that same birth spiritual evolution begins.

At this point the Bible takes up its main subject. All that had been accomplished by the Creator before was preliminary; and the Scripture summarised it in two pages — but twelve hundred pages are not enough to tell of the work which God began when He rested from the creation of the material world.

Henceforth God deals with man and with none other. The waters and the grass and the trees and the fowl and the whales and the cattle no longer play the most prominent part in the narrative. They sink for ever into the background. They become the environment of man and no more. God does not now give commands to the firmament nor to the waters, nor bestow His blessings on the fishes and the fowls, bidding them be fruitful and multiply. His command and His blessings henceforth are for mankind. But man is not regarded as akin to the lower animals. He is immeasurably superior to them. He is altogether apart and distinct from them and that which makes him thus distinct is the subject of scriptural history. Man is a spirit. It is spirit which distinguishes him from an animal and constitutes his manhood. He is in touch with spiritual forces. He inhabits a spiritual realm. Any evolution or destiny that awaits him is in its nature spiritual.

Connected on his animal side with that material world


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through which he has come into being, he is in Scripture not less closely connected with the spiritual world wherein God dwells. When the name of man is first mentioned in the Bible this twofold nature is affirmed, and it is assumed throughout the rest of Scripture. Often it is expressly stated, as in Eccles. 12:7, Then,' says the Preacher speaking of man's death, 'shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God Who gave it.' "The spirit is willing,' said Christ, 'but the flesh is weak.'

Creation in every phase is in Scripture an act of the spirit of God — 'the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.' (Gen. 1:2.) 'Thou sendest forth thy spirit they are created. . .' (Ps. 114:30.) 'Then saith the Lord God. . . he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein.' (Isa. 62:5.)

But man, because of his unique spiritual status, has a special kind of dependence upon that spiritual power. In times of stress and crisis or for any supreme achievement, whether the need be spiritual or merely physical, a human being who is a true servant of God will receive special aid from on high. The Spirit of the Lord will help the faithful in battle. It was not in his own strength that David slew Goliath, nor that Gideon delivered the Israelites from the Midianites — 'the spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon. . .' (Judges 6:34.) It is the spirit of the Lord which inspires the prophet: 'the Lord God, and his spirit, hath sent me,' says Isaiah (Isa. 48:16); and Ezekiel likewise says, 'The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord. . .' (Ezek. 37:1); St. Paul (1 Cor. 2:10 ff.)


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states that it is through spiritual communion with the Spirit of God that the believer is enabled to discern and understand spiritual things which cannot be understood by the natural man.

But this is not to say that primitive man in his original condition is in a spiritual sense a complete and finished product. Though he is made in the image of his Maker, though he is inspired by the Spirit of God and is pronounced by God to be very good: he is with not less definiteness and emphasis shown as being in fact very bad. 'Ye then being evil,' said Christ of mankind, assuming human wickedness as a thing for granted.

Scripture throughout bears witness to the manifold infirmities and imperfections of men. Adam and Eve both sinned. Their eldest son murdered his brother. Of the days of Noah it is written that 'God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.' (Gen. 6:5-6.)

Though the Bible never modifies its original statement that man is made in the image of God, yet almost every book contains the record of sin and utters laments over its prevalence.

Over against everything that is fair and true and noble stands that which is base and false and cruel. 'The conflict between good and evil rages incessantly; the issue seems always uncertain. Again and again the hosts of darkness triumph. The fierceness of the struggle does not lessen with the passage of centuries. To the end, sin does not relax its grip on men's hearts. Secular literature can hardly contain


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a more terrible indictment of the depravity of human nature than that written by St. Paul in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans.

Men may be made in the image of God, yet (as the Bible presents it) the history of the tribes and peoples and nations of the world, of the Hebrews and the Gentiles, reflects at no time the order and harmony and the happiness of a divine world. It is a tale of turmoil and vicissitude, of struggle and trouble, of sorrow and loneliness and penitence, of bitter shame, and hopes lost and hearts broken.

Men dream of heaven and peace, they long for a better order of things than that which they have made. Prophetic promises of a great felicity, of a sure deliverance from the fears of life, and from its discords and its wrongs and its despairs, buoy up the fainting hearts of the generations and grow with the passing centuries more full and clear. But no nation ever walks with a whole heart in the ways of God or in the sunshine of His presence; by the multitudes happiness is only seen if at all in faint and far-off glimpses; the joys of heaven and the sweetness of divine love are the privilege of a few rare, outstanding souls. After two thousand years of specially vouchsafed training the children of Abraham commit the most heinous of all the crimes recorded in the Bible and bring down upon their heads the most awful of all punishments. At the close of the whole narrative, the everlasting promise of a new heaven and a new earth, of the subjugation of evil and the world-wide reign of truth and justice, remains still a distant prospect, deferred beyond the end of the Christian Era and only to be fulfilled when the power of the Father reinforces that of Christ returned in glory.


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But the spiritual eye perceives that in spite of appearances, Evil throughout the Bible history never can meet Good on its own ground. Evil stands on a lower level; it lacks the reach and the substantiality of the power of the Good. For all its display of force and for all the suffering it causes, it is not in reality positive. It is in the nature of a shadow which, however deep its darkness, is only a shadow, dependent for its existence on the absence of light. The darkness cannot go forth and challenge the day. The glory of heaven is never stained by the glooms of hell; God's dominion is never challenged. The final defeat of Evil, which from very early days is promised to man, is assured from the foundation of the world by the very constitution of things. A happy ending to the history of man is from the beginning assured by the might of the One Sovereign Will who brought all things into existence.

The postponement of the triumph of virtue and of the Descent of the New Jerusalem is not due to any lack of power on God's part, nor to any arbitrary fiat. The seeming delay is a necessary part of the creational process. Evil does not intrude itself upon the divine scheme from some outside source; it falls within the divine scheme. From the first, it is foreseen and aforedoomed. It represents an original lack, a shortcoming, which man has to rise out of and to outgrow. The long postponement of humanity's happiness is, for all the sorrow it entails, recognised by the spiritual mind to be a bounty of the All Merciful flowing from His love and His care for His creatures.

Man's upward movement out of spiritual incompleteness has its parallel and antetype in the story of the gradual


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creation of the world in the six days. Until material evolution reached its climax in the birth of man, imperfection reigned everywhere over land and sea. Fishes existed and ferns, and reptiles and birds, and the like; but there was as yet no form capable of registering the higher spiritual impulses; the purpose for which creation had been undertaken was unattained and undiscernible; and it was not until long ages after the body of man appeared, that the meaning of the process at last became evident and material evolution achieved a perfect result.

The period of world history covered by the Bible corresponds to the five and a half days in the creation story before the appearance of man. As there was then everywhere on the planet material imperfection and incompleteness, and nothing else; so likewise has there been spiritual imperfection and incompleteness on the planet from the time of Adam onward. Shortcomings, errors, ignorances, sins have been rife and have played their evil part at every stage of man's journey. The goal, the end, the purpose of man's spiritual creation has not yet taken visible shape and the hour is not come for God a second time to rest from His labours.

But humanity is not at a standstill. Humanity is on the move. As in distant ages material evolution swept forward in ordered triumph till at length it achieved its crowning work in man, so thereafter has spiritual evolution been sweeping irresistibly forward all the world over to achieve its purpose of developing a regenerate race of men who shall indeed be as children of God.

Man from the beginning is made in the likeness of God and his essential manhood never changes. But this likeness at first is rudimentary. It is no more than an embryo.


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Only as the tree with its spreading boughs and its leaves is to be found in the seed from which it springs, is God's image to be found in the heart of the natural man. That heavenly image, before it can realise itself, needs to unfold and grow, and man's own will is assigned its share, in that task of development. Not until that growth of the inward spiritual life is complete and until the fullness of its power has been reached, is man worthy of the name of man. 'The New Testament, to emphasise the two moments of crisis in the spiritual growth of man, uses the striking figure of a twofold birth. Man is created as on the Sixth Day, the fine flower of material evolution endowed already with divine potentialities. He is born the natural man. When his latent powers are developed and he becomes equipped for a larger life, he enters the higher realm of the divine world - - he is born anew, becomes a new creature, the spiritual man. The human race passes through a development analogous to that of the individual. It is born in one state; and before it can come to its own it must be born again into another state. It is created in a condition of spiritual weakness and imperfection, and it must pass toilsomely through many stages of development before it can know its powers and achieve its destiny. The New Jerusalem is the figure under which the Second Birth of humanity is spoken of. A great part of the Apocalypse tells of the dreadful period of world-travail that precedes that birth. And those glorious passages which close our Bible, unparalleled for ecstasy and beauty in all our literature, are an effort to depict the exaltation and the wonder and the rapture and the joy and the everlasting blessedness that await the


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nations and the peoples of the earth when through the gates of spiritual attainment they enter into the presence of their Father and of the Lamb.

World-history has no other denouement than this of the final Self-Revelation of God to His creatures. All events lead up to this and find their meaning in this, and apart from this they have no abiding value and lead to no abiding result. This is — so teaches the Bible — the supreme originating thought involved in creation, and it informs the whole creational process throughout.


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