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him to select, on any occasion, words or phrases inaccurate, or not
clearly and fully expressive of the ideas suggested; so that as Paul
himself says, he explained spiritual things in spiritual words, or in
words taught by the Spirit. We must, therefore, regard these words
as the words of the Spirit. It was God's Spirit speaking to them,
through such words as were natural to them from education and
habit. According to these views, the English, or German, or French
New Testament, is as much the word of the Spirit as the Greek
original, if that original is faithfully translated; but in any other

*Acts IX., xxu., xxiv. +Actsx., xi.


view of inspiration, we liuve not the word of God, nor tlie teachings
of the Spirit, only in the Hebrew and Greek originals of the two

Before we dismisa this subject it may be observed that we find
many things in tliese writings which are quite natural and common,
for which inspiration is neither claimed nor pretended; many speci-
mens of which will occur to the reader, when one is fairly exam-
ined. "Make haste to come to me soon; for Demas having loved the
present world has forsaken me, and is gone into Thessalonica, Cres-
cens into Galatia, and Titus into Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.
Take Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me in
the ministry. But I'ychycus I have sent to Ephesus. The cloak
which I left at Troas with Carpus bring with you, and the books, but
especially the parchments."*

The Apostles, acting under the high authority and commission of
Jesus Christ, and inspired with all divine and supernatural knowl-
edge, exhibited in doctrine, in precepts, ordinances, promises, threat-
enings, and developments of things spiritual, celestial, eternal, are, ia
consequence of these endowments and authority, worthy of all respect
and regard, even when writing upon the most common matters; and
these apparently uninteresting things are to the student of the Liv-
ing Oracles, of great value and of indispensable importance in giving
a full development of the religion of Christianity, in all its con-
descensions and adaptations to the most minute and common concerns
and business of this life.

God has spoken by men, to men, for men. The language of the
Bible is, then, human language. It is, therefore, to be examined by
the same rules which are applicable to the language of any other
book, and to be understood according to the true and proper mean-
ing of the words, in their current acceptation, at the times and in
the places in which they were originally written or translated.

If we have a revelation from God in human language, the words
of that volume must be intelligible by the common usage of language;
they must be precise and determinate in signification, and that sig-
nification must be philologically ascertained — that is, as the words
and sentences of other books are ascertained, by the use of the dic-
tionary and grammar. Were it otherwise, and did men require a
new dictionary and grammar to understand the Book of God — then,
without that divine dictionary and grammar, we could have no rev-
elation from God; for a revelation that needs to be revealed ia no
revelation at all.

Again, if any special rules are to be sought for the interpretation
of the sacred writings, unless these rules have been given in thy

•II. Tim. iv.H-VI.


volume, as a part of tlie revelation, and are of divine authority — •
without such rules, the Book is sealed; and I know of no greater
abuse of language than to call a sealed book a Revelation.

But the fact that God has clothed his communications in human
language, and that he has spoken by men, to men, in their own lan-
guage, is decisive evidence that he is to be understood as one man
conversing with another. Righteousness, or what we sometimes call
honesty, requires this; for unless he first made a special stipulation
when he began to speak, his words were, in all candor, to be taken
at the current value; for he that would contract with a man for any-
thing, stipulating his contract in the currency of the country, without
any explanation, and should afterwards intimate that a Dollar with
him meant only tJiree Franks, would be regarded as a dishonest and
unjust man. And shall we impute to the God of truth and justice
what would blast the reputation of a fellow-citizen at the tribunal of
political justice and public opinion!

As, then, there is no divine dictionary, grammar, or special rules
of interpretation for the Bible, then that Book, to be understood,
must be submitted to the common dictionary, grammar, and rules of
the language in which it was written; and as a living language is
constantly fluctuating, the true and proper meaning of the words
and sentences of the Bible must be learned from the acceptation of
those words and phrases in the times and countries in which it was
written. In all this there is nothing special; for Diodorus, Herodo-
tus, Josephus, Philo, Tacitus, Sallust, etc., and all the writers of all
languages, ages and nations, are translated and understood in the
same manner.

Enthusiasts and fanatics of all ages determine the meaning of
words from that knowledge of things which they imagine them-
selves to possess, rather than from the words of the author: "they
decide by what they suppose he ought to mean, rather than by
what he says."

To adopt any other course, or to apply any other rules, would
necessarily divest the sacred writings of every attribute that belongs
to the idea of revelation. It must never be forgotten in perusing
the Bible, that in the structure of sentences, in the figures of speech,
in the arrangement and use of words, it differs not at all from
other writings; and must, therefore, be understood and interpreted
as they are.

How, then, is the meaning of its words to be acquired? Every
word in the Scripture has some idea attached to it, which we call
its sense, or meaning. But this meaning is not natural, but conven-
tional. It is agreement, usage, or custom, that has constituted a
connection between words and the ideas represented by them, and


this connection between words and ideas has becuinc necessary by

How this originated is not the question bciuru us; ihc ia< i is ail
that now interests us. We are not at liberty to afBx what meaning
we please to words, nor to use them arbitrarily; inasmuch as custom
has affixed, by common consent, a meaning to them.

The meaning ol' words is, therefore, now to be ascertained by
tcslimony ; and that testimony we have collected in those books called
dictionaries, which, by the consent of those who spoke that language
faithl'ully, represent the meaning attached to those terms, or the ideas
of which those words were the signs. "The fact," says Professor
Stuart, "that usage has attached any particular meaning to a word,
like any other historical fact, is to be proved by adequate testimony.
That testimony may be drawn from books in which the word is
employed, or from daily use in conversation. But the fact of a par-
ticular meaning being attached to a word when once established, can
no more be changed or denied than any historical event whatever. Of
course, an arbilrary sense can never with propriety be substituted
for a real one. All men in their daily conversation and writings
attach but one sense to a word at the same time, and in the same
passage, unless they design to speak in enigmas. Of course, it would
be in opposition to the universal custom of language, if more than one
meaning should be attached to any word in Scripture, in such a case"
— that is, in the same passage, and at the same time.

But, although a word has but one meaning at the same time and
in the same passage, it may, at another time and in another passage
have a different meaning: for many words have, by common consent,
more meanings than one. This is what has caused so much ambigu
ity in language, and so much difficulty in ascertaining the meaning
of some sentences and passages in all authors, and in the sacred

Every word, indeed, had but one meaning at first; but to prevent
the multiplication of words to an indefinite extent, and to obviate
the difficulties that would thence arise in the acquisition of the knowl-
edge of a language, words, in process of time, were used to represent
different meanings. A question then arises, IIoiv shall ice o/ira.v?
ascertain the meaning of any particular uordf If it have but one
meaning, testimony or the dictionary decides it at once; but if it have
more meanings than one, the proximate words used in construction
with it, usually called the context, together with the design of the
speaker or writer, must decide its meaning. Usage and the context
will generally decide. If these fail, the design of the speaker and
the parallel passages must be summoned. These are the aids which
the canons of interpretation authorize in such cases.


That there is, generally, perfect certainty in the proper interpre-
tation of a word — that is, in ascertaining or communicating its mean-
ing (for this is what is properly called the act of interpretation), is
felt and acknowledged on all hands. But the foundation, or reason
of this certainty, is a matter which should be evident to all.

Now, unless we are compelled by necessity, arising from the laws
of language, to any particular meaning, there can be no certainty.
Therefore, this compulsion is the very cause of certainty. Philologi-
cal necessity, or that necessity which the common usage of a word,
the context, the design of the writer create, in giving a particular
meaning to a word in a sentence, is the ground of that complete
certainty, which, whether it can or can not explain, everyone feels
in the meaning of the language. And as a very eminent critic has
said, "If any one should deny that the above precepts lead to cer-
tainty, when strictly observed, he would deny the possibility of find-
ing the meaning of language with certainty." These remarks would
be sufficient to guide us in acquiring the meaning of words, if they
had any one class of meanings. But there is the literal and the
topical or figurative meaning of words, which must be distinguished
before we can feel ourselves competent to decide, with perfect cer-
tainty, the true and proper meaning of any composition.

And, first, of the literal meaning of tcords. As has been observed,
every word originally had but one meaning; and this, of course, which
was first, was the natural, or the literal meaning. Some of our
most approved philologists and grammarians define the literal sense
of words to be, "The sense which is so connected with them, that it
is first in order, and is spontaneously presented to the mind, as soon
as the sound of the word is heard." "The literal sense does not
differ," says the celebrated Ernesti, "among the older and valuable
writers, from the sense of the letter." But better defined by Professor
Stuart, of Andover: "The literal sense is the same as the inimitive
or original sense; or, at least, it is equivalent to that sense which
has usurped the place of the original one: for example, the original
sense of the word tragedy has long ceased to be current; and the
literal sense of this word, now, is that which has taken the place of
the original one." Popular writers, in speaking of the sense of words,
are wont to substitute grammatical for literal, as equivalent; because
literal, in its Latin extraction, and grammatical, in its Greek extrac-
tion, exactly represent the same thing. But in a shade differing from
these they use the word historical in reference to the interpretation
of the Scriptures. "Since," says T. H. Home, in his Introduction,
"it is not sufficient to know grammatically the different expressions
employed by writers to interpret ancient works, so it is necessary
that we add historical interpretation to our grammatical or literal


kuowledge. By historical interpretatiou, we are to understand that
we give to the words of the sacred author the sense which they bore
in the age when he lived, and which is agreeable to the degree of
knowledge which he possessed, as well as conformable to the religion
professed by him, and to the sacred and civil rights or customs that
obtained when he flourished."

When, however, we speak of the literal or grammatical sense of a
word, we mean no more than its primitive meaning. And when we
speak of the histurUal meaning of a word, we mean its meaning at
any given time. The figurative meaning of words belongs to
another chapter.

In no book in the world is the literal sense of words the only
sense; and still less in the Bible. But no book in the world, either
among the ancients or the moderns, has been interpreted, quoted, and
applied so licentiously as the Bible. Learned and unlearned have
quoted and applied its words, as if its authors were outlaws and rebels
in the commonwealth of letters. Some of the ancient Jews said that
every letter in a word in the Old Testament had a special meaning,
and the very openings of the mouth to pronounce them was signifi-
cant of something sacred. The rabbinic maxim used to be, and per-
haps still is, "On every point of the Scriptures hang suspended moun-
tains of sense." The Talmud says, "God so gave the law to Moses,
that a thing can be shown to be clean and unclean forty-nine differ-
ent ways." Little more than a century ago, Cocceius, of Leyden,
maintained that "all the possible meanings of a word are to be
united." He raised a considerable party upon this principle.

But an opposite extreme, and quite as dangerous, into which some
have run, is, that "some passages of the Scriptures have no literal
meaning at all." If by this it were understood that some passages
have only a tropical or figurative meaning, it might be admitted
without detriment to our knowledge of the will of Heaven; but as
it is understood by many, a license is taken to allegorize, not only
the historical part of both Testaments, but also the miracles of Moses,
of Christ, and of the Apostles — the paradisaical state, the flood, and
even the precepts and promises of the gospel institution; so that the
whole revelation of God is thrown into the laboratory of every man's
imagination, and the key of knowledge forever taken from the people.
That the words of the sacred writings are taken both literally and
figuratively, as the words of all other books, is now almost universally
concedetl; and that the true sense of the words is the true doctrine
of the Bible, is daily gaining ground amongst the most learned and
skillful interpreters: in one word, that the Bible is not to be Inter-
preted arbitrarily, is the most valuable discovery or concession of
this generation. This, indeed, was confessed by our most distingiiished


reformers. Melancthon said, "The Scripture can not be understood
theologically until it is understood grammatically.'' And Luther
affirmed that "a certain knowledge of Scripture depends only upon a
knowledge of its words."

The various divisions and subdivisions of the sacred Scriptures
into chapters, verses, and members of sentences, are of human author-
ity, and to be regulated as such. Anciently all the books of the sacred
Scriptures were written in one continuous manner — without a break,
a chapter, or a verse. The division into chapters that now universally
obtains in Europe, derived its origin from Cardinal Cairo, who lived
in the twelfth century. The subdivision into verses is of no older
date than the middle of the sixteenth century, and was the invention
of Robert Stevens. Whatever advantage these divisions may have
been in the way of facilitating references, they have so dislocated and
broken to pieces the connection, as not only to have given to the
Scriptures the appearance of a book of proverbs, but have thrown
great difficulties in the way of an easy intelligence of them. The
punctuation, too, being necessarily dependent on these divisions, is far
from accurate; and, taken altogether, it affords a demonstration that
there is no more divinity in the chapters, verses, commas, semicolons,
colons and periods of the inspired writings than there is in the paper
on which they are inscribed, or in the ink by which they are depicted
to our view.

From all of which, facts, the following rule is of essential import-
ance: —

In reading the historical and epistolary parts of the sacred writ-
ings, begin at the beginning and follow the writer in the train of his
own thoughts and reasonings to the end of the subject on which he
writes, irrespective of chapters and verses.

This rule must be observed in all cases when we read for the saka
of understanding any of the sacred books or letters.

It must always be remembered by him who would be a scribe,
well instructed in the kingdom of heaven, that the whole Bible com-
prehends three distinct dispensations of religion, or three different
administrations of mercy to the human race. These are the Patri-
archal, Jewish and Christian ages of the world.

There are three high priesthoods, viz.: that of Melchizedek, that
of Aaron, and that of Jesus the Messiah; and under each of these
there will be found a different economy of things. A knowledge of
the leading peculiarities of each is essential to an accurate knowledge
of any of them and the right interpretation of the Bible.

It is a standing maxim in religion, that, the priesthood being
changed, there is of necessity a change of the law pertaining to
acceptable worship.


After the close of one dispensation, and the commencement of
a new one, no man could be accepted in his approaches to God by the
preceding economy. Moses, nor Aaron, nor the people of the Jews,
after they had departed from Sinai, dare approach God by sacrifice —
as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were wont to do.

The sovereignty and wisdom of God is most conspicuous in these
arrangements. But it is our present duty only to say, that before we
can feel any confidence in our interpretations of any law, command-
ment, or Institution of religion, a previous question must always be
decided — viz.: To uhat dispensation did it belong.'

We shall now conclude this summary view of the principles of
interpretation, by stating in order seven general rules of inter-
pretation of primary importance, deduced from the preceding

Rule I. On opening any book in the sacred Scriptures, consider
first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order,
the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.

II. In examining the contents of any book, as respects precepts,
promises, exhortations, etc., observe who it is that speaks, and under
what dispensation he officiates. Is he a Patriarch, a Jew, or a Chris-
tian? Consider also the persons addressed — their prejudices, char-
acters, and religious relations. Are they Jews or Christians —
believers or unbelievers — approved or disapproved? This rule is
essential to the proper application of every command, promise, threat-
ening, admonition, or exhortation, in Old Testament or New.

III. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised,
taught, etc., the same philological principles, deduced from the nature
of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to
the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the

IV. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony,
must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one sig-
nification; but when words have according to testimony — (i. e.. the
Dictionary) — more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative,
the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning;
for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and par-
allel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of

V. In all tropical language ascertain the point or resemblance, and
judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of

VI. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories, and par-
ables, this rule is supreme. Ascertain the point to be illustrated;
for comparison i.s never to be extended beyond that point — to all the


attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory,
or parable.

VII. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the oracles
of God, the following rule is indispensable: Y/e must come within
the understanding distance.

There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance,
or the hearing distance, beyond which the voice reaches not, and the
ear hears not. To hear another, we must come within that circle
which the voice audibly fills.

Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is
an understanding distance. All beyond that distance can not under-
stand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of
piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and
humility is its circumference.

The wisdom of God is as evident in adapting the light of the Sun
of Righteousness to our spiritual vision, as in adjusting the light of
day to our eyes. The light reaches us without an effort of our own;
but we musi open our eyes; and if our eyes be sound, we enjoy the
natural light of heaven. There is a sound eye in reference to spirit-
ual, as well as in reference to material light. Now, while the philo-
logical principles and rules of interpretation enable many men to
be skillful in biblical criticism, and in the interpretation of words
and sentences, who neither perceive nor admire the things repre-
sented by those words, the sound eye contemplates the things them-
selves, and is ravished with the spiritual and divine scenes which the
Bible unfolds.

The moral soundness of vision consists in having the eyes of the
understanding fixed solely on God himself, his approbation, and
complacent affection for us. It is sometimes called a single eye,
because it looks for one thing supremely. Every one, then, who
opens the book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire, intent
only to know the will of God — to such a person the knowledge of
God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only
such, with the salutary knowledge of things spiritual and divine.

Humility of mind, or what is in effect the same, contempt for all
earth-born pre-eminence, prepares the mind for the reception of this
light, or, what is virtually the same, opens the ears to hear the voico
of God. Amidst the din of all the arguments of the flesh, the world,
and Satan, a person is so deaf that he can not hear the still, small
voice of God's philanthropy. But receding from pride, covetousness,
and false ambition — from the love of the world — and in coming
within that circle, the circumference of which is unfeigned humility,
and the center of which is God himself — the voice of God is dis-
tinctly heard and clearly understood. All within this circle are


taught by God — all without it are under the influence of the wickea
one. "God resisteth the proud, but he giveth grace \o the humble''

He, then, that would interpret the oracles of God to the salvatioa
of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docil-
ity of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, h-i
must sit at the Master's ieet, and listen to the words which fall from
his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a
certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone nevf>r at-
tained, and which the mere critic never felt. a. c, 1846, p. 13.


The darkness of mysticism is fast passing away. The double sense,
or the triple and quadruple sense of Scripture, once so fashionable,
so sacred, amongst the great mass of Protestant and Catholic com-
mentators and sermonizers, is falling much into disrepute amongst
the most learned and pious of this generation. Ine textuary mode
of interpreting, which grew out of the equivocal sense of Scripture,
will soon be confined to the more enthusiastic and weak minds of the
sectaries. Enlightened men of all denominations are fast abandon-
ing the double sense. 1830, page 38.

In 1831 Mr. Campbell wrote, "On the Laws of Interpretation."

Online LibraryAlexander CampbellThe Millennial Harbinger abridged (Volume 1) → online text (page 21 of 70)