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great individuals, adopting in turn opposite views of the method of
Scripture interpretation, and even holding them inconsistently at llie
same time. The Church of Rome, the very mother of spiritual mystifi-
cation, declaring the sense of Scripture manifold and obscure, and
denying to the laity both the ability and the right to interpret it,
nevertheless insists, when it suits her purpose, that the Scripture
means exactly what it says, and appeals confidently to this very prin-
ciple when endeavoring to substantiate the doctrine of transubstan-
tiation by the declaration of Christ: "This is my body." The great
Luther, too, so conversant with language, and so just in general in
his views of divine truth, seems to have been influenced by the same
principle, when, in his celebrated conference with the Swiss Reformers,
he wrote with a piece of chalk upon the velvet cover of the table at
which they were seated: "Hoc est couris MKr>r." "Christ has said,"
exclaimed he, "this is my body. Let them show me that a body Is
not a* body. I reject reason, common sense, carnal arguments and
mathematical proofs. God is above mathematics. We have the word


of God; we must adore it and perform it." And not content with con-
tinually pointing with his finger to the words which lie had written,
he closes the discussion by seizing the velvet cover, pulling it off the
table and holding it up in front of Zuingle and Ecolampadius, "See,
said he, "see! This is our text; you have not driven us from it, as
you boasted, and we care for no other pi'oofs." Such is the influence
in some cases of interested motives; and in others, of those impulses
by which, as by oscillatory movements, the human mind is carried
from one extreme to another.

We have, in our own times, abundant illustration of the unlicensed
use of the right of private judgment, and of great perversions of that
favorite saying: "The Scriptures mean what they say." The truth
is, the great majority appear to mistake the meaning of this saying
itself, and to be unacquainted with its origin and proper application.
They suppose it to be an absolute expression — a fixed law of inter-
pretation; when it is merely a counter-assertion, a relative principle
subordinate to the forms and laws of language. No one could commit
a greater absurdity than to apply this as an absolute or literal rule in
the interpretation of any book or author, human or divine; and it is
important that so contracted a view should give place to a more
enlarged knowledge of the subject, and to a proper acquaintance with
the true principles of Biblical interpretation.

Alarmed at the rapid flood of innovation, and as yet ignorant of the
great distinction between faith and opinion, and of the great truth
that unity is quite compatible with diversity, the Protestant leaders
endeavored to curtail the privileges which were at first so willingly

In the present effort to recover the ground thus tamely surrendered
to ambitious prelates, we, of course, seek to give conspicuity to the
original Protestant doctrine, that all men may discuss and unanimously
interpret the meaning of the inspired volume; and it is in opposition
to the doctrine of the clergy, to wit, that the Scripture has a secret
spiritual sense discoverable by them alone, that the saying, "The Scrip-
ture means what it says," has been introduced and employed. It was
never intended as a literal rule of interpretation, but simply as a
counter-assertion, equivalent to a denial of the proposition that the
sense of Scripture is manifold, and that the true spiritual meaning is
occult and discoverable only by those who are divinely called for the
purpose of expounding it to the people.

And as to the sense of Scripture, because it is asserted that "it
means what it says," it does not follow that every one who has learned
to spell, is qualified to decide dogmatically either what it says or what
It means. Alas! how many uninstructed and unlicensed, save by an
overweening self-complacency, have assumed the character and office

the: millennial harbinger abridged. 195

of public teachers, and by their distorted views of divine trutli, and
absolute ignorance of the true principles of the present attempt at
reformation, have created unnecessary opposition and brought discredit
upon the cause in which they had been ostensibly enrolled I

It is with slow, but we trust with sure steps, that Truth follows a
path marked with desolation, to bring order out of confusion, and, like
genial Spring, to evolve both grateful flowers and precious fruits from
amidst the storms of a Winter of contention. It is by the word of
God alone, rightly "divided;" rightly interpreted; rightly practiced,
that the peace and harmony of the religious world can be secured.
This word alone can cast out the demons of discord, and restore Chris-
tendom to a right mind. It is then that all true disciples will be found
sitting at the feet of Jesus.

In a certain point of view it may be said, indeed, that all the great
controverted points which have, for so many ages, agitated Christen-
dom, are mere questions of Scripture interpretation. The Romanist
appeals to the word of God: so does the Protestant. Nay, each party
of Protestants contends that it alone has discovered the true meaning
of the divine communications to men. A difference of sentiment as
to the import of the single word "baptism," has had the effect of sep-
arating the whole Christian community into great divisions. There is,
indeed, scarcely a party, great or small, that we shall not find, upon
examination, to be based ultimately upon a few biblical criticisms.
The very distinctions or characteristics which belong to the present
effort at reformation, may thus be resolved finally into proper defini-
tions of a few Scriptural terms — such as Law, Gospel, Testimony,
Faith, Regeneration, Salvation.

It was by the words of Satan that the human mind was first
deceived; and it is by the words of God, that it is disabused of error.
As language was the medium through which the ruin of man was
effected, it is also made, with great propriety, the medium of his

On the part of the Scriptures, no condition is needed but a correct
version. We need read no fallacies in the word of God. It is against
ourselves we must be upon our guard. We have to watch against our
own imperfections in knowledge and capacity; our own prejudices
and preconceptions; our own proneness to hasty and erroneous con-
clusions; our own unfitness for a proper reception of truth. The word
of God, being inspired, is, of course, infallible as its Author. He who
"can not lie" dictated it, and it can not deceive us. He who knows all
things imparts therein a wisdom which can never mislead us. We
may rely upon it, therefore, with the most implicit confidence.

Amidst the controversies respecting the perspicuity of this sacred
volume, to which 1 have adverted, men seem to have lost sight of the


obvious truth, that thia quality is always relative. A treatise upon
any subject, which, to an intelligent mind, or one familiar with the
subject, would be perfectly clear, would be incomprehensible to another
not possessed of the same capacity or knowledge. A matter, which
seems obscure upon slight and partial consideration, becomes perfectly
evident when maturely examined. The degree of attention has, indeed,
in all cases, much to do with the proper understanding of the objects
both of sense and thought; and, in deciding upon the perspicuity of
any work, we must duly consider the nature of the subject which it
presents, and whether it demands a greater degree of attention than
the subject itself requires and deserves. And as there are some sub-
jects which address themselves to the reason or the fancy, while others
have a special relation to the affections, we must also consider whether
the proper kind of attention has been bestowed. He who considers,
with cold philosophical abstraction, a subject which demands the warm-
est emotions of the heart, will be as far from comprehending it
truly, as he who wildly speculates upon a matter requiring the most
vigorous intellectual analysis, will be from the discovery of the truth
he seeks.

The perspicuity of the Scriptures, then, may scarcely be made with
propriety a matter of discussion. Being the dictates of inspiration,
they are necessarily perfect in this as in every other respect.

Perspicuity, then, as said before, is a relative quality, and is to be
regarded in a twofold point of view: 1st, as respects the power to
impart knowledge; and 2dly, as it regards the ability to receive it.
These are correlative and dependent upon each other. It matters
not that a treatise have the utmost possible clearness which the sub-
ject admits, if there be not sufficient capacity, or knowledge, or atten-
tion on the part of its student. However brilliant the light of heaven,
it may not penetrate eyes that are closed; however distinct and clear
the truths the Bible utters, they will fail to enter into ears that are
dull of hearing; however interesting and attractive the objects it
presents for acceptance, they can find no admission into hearts already
full of grossness and corruption. Hence it is that our Lord so often
closes an important lesson of instruction with the singular but expres-
sive injunction, "He that has ears to hear, let him hear." The good
word of the kingdom, too, is represented as seed sown upon various
kinds of ground — on the beaten pathway where it did not enter; upon
stony places where it had not sufficient depth of earth; among thorns
by which its growth was hindered, or upon the good soil in whicn
it flourished and brought forth abundant fruit. These different kinds
of ground represent different classes of hearers, and as it is manifestly
no defect in the vegetative power of the seed sown that occasions sucn
various results, but differences in the soil on which it falls, so it is


owing to no deficiency in the word oi" (Jod, that all do not understand
and receive it, but to the obtuseness and obduracy, the corruption and
pride of the human heart itself.

Instead, then, of vainly endeavoring to make the Scriptures plainer,
our efforts should be directed rather to the removal of the obstacles
which prevent them from speaking to the consciences of men. Chris-
tians may be co-workers with the Lord and agents of the divine provi-
dence in breaking up the stony ground or the trodden paths of obdu-
racy, and in extirpating the rank weeds of depravity and vice. It is
thus the skillful husbandman addresses his labors to the amelioration
of the soil he cultivates, nor does ue ever dream of adding any vege-
tative power to the seed he sows, but seeks to secure an abundant
harvest by preparing and opening the coil for its reception.

It has not been my design, in these papers, to enter upon the con-
sideration of the rules to be observed in translating the Scriptures
from the original tongues.

It has been shown, I trust, that the state of mind of those to whom
the Scripture is addressed, is a matter of the utmost importance; and
that if the heart be not in a suitable condition, the proper impressions
can not be made upon it. To this cause alone is evidently referred,
in the parable of "The Sower," any failure or deficiency that may
appear in the results designed to be accomplished by the word of God.
Just as the sun's rays fall in vain upon the eyes of the blind, so
does the light of truth fail to penetrate into the soul that is unfitted lo
receive it. The perspicuity of the Scriptures, then, is necessarily rela-
tive, as we have before stated, depending quite as much upon the
attention and disposition of the reader, as upon the intrinsic perfec-
tion of the oracles themselves. But their light is necessarily trans-
mitted through the medium of human language, in order that it may
depict upon the human heart the bright image of the divine perfec-
tions. This medium must be so pure that no ray of the celestial light
shall be intercepted; or, in other words, we must have a true ver-
sion, in which the divine communications are fully delivered; but it
is no less necessary that the mind should be ready to receive the truth,
and that this should dwell long enough upon the heart to produce its
pioper impression. There can never be any imperfection in this
impression, unless from some defect in the medium of communication,
or in the heart itself on which the impression is to be made. If no
defect exist in these, the heavenly light will truly reveal God to the
human soul; and not only so, but will also reveal man to himself, and
with such unerring truthfulness portray his real character, that no one
can mistake the resemblance. It will not be here as in a miniature
drawn by human art, which misrepresents; is seldom accurate, and
almost invariably flatters; hut rather as in the Daguerreotype which


forms, by means of the light of day, a perfect image upon the polished
plate fitted to receive it. The Bible, indeed, is the Daguerreotype
KOR THE SOUL. Through it the spiritual light of heaven passes, and
imprints upon the heart a faithful representation of the character.
Like the Daguerreotype, however, it, too, may fail by a mistranslation
or perversion of its language, which, like the lens of the former, is the
medium through which the light passes — or by an insensibility or
corruption of the heart, which is as the plate on which the image is
portrayed. What care, then, should be taken that this celestial light,
itself, so pure and perfect, should be transmitted through a pure
medium, and received into a heart well prepared for its reception!

Ernesti says: "It has frequently been asserted, that in the inter-
pretation of Scripture, we should proceed in the same manner that
we would do in regard to any other book of antiquity. To a certain
extent, this position may be regarded as just, and many of the observa-
tions contained in the following pages are founded on it; but as the
Bible contains subjects, which, of all others, are calculated to affect
the heart, and it is generally admitted, that in proportion as the heart
is interested in any inquiry, a corresponding degree of influence will
be exerted on the processes of investigation; it is evident, that respect
must be had to the moral state of the affections, if we would arrive
at just and accurate views of divine truth.

"The high and exclusive claims of Scripture, too, give them an
elevation of character, which commands peculiar attention and respect.
Till the mind be satisfied on the subject of these claims, it may be
conceded to an inquirer, to class the sacred writings with other works,
pretending to a heavenly origin, though, even then, he could not be
justified in treating their contents with levity and indifference of
mind; but no sooner are their inspiration and paramount authority
admitted, than, according to the natural constitution of the human
mind, he is constrained to place himself under the influence of a prin-
ciple, which will lead him to bow with humble submission to their
holy dictates, and to seek in all things to receive and practice what-
ever is presented to him, as the will of the great Author of revelation.
"If he be imbued with the spirit of the Bible, and his affections be
in unison with its dictates, nothing will be more natural and easy
than the acquisition of correct ideas respecting its contents; whereas,
i.f his views, feelings and inclinations are at variance with its require-
ments, he will infallibly, though perhaps unwittingly, endeavor to
pervert the language in which these requirements are recorded, in
order to bring them into accordance with his wishes, or the standard
of his preconceived opinions.

"S 1. The primary moral qualification, therefore, of all who would
successfully interpret the Scriptures, is vital and practical godliness —


that 'godliness,' 'which is profitable to all things' — 'the fear of the
Lord,' which 'is the beginning of wisdom.' While it is the righteous
determination of heaven, that 'none of the wicked shall understand;'
we are taught by Him, who is truth itself, that all who conduct their
inquiries under the influcnco of a predisposition to conform to the will
of God, shall not be left without instruction; 'if any one is willing
to do his will, he shall know concerning the doctrine' (John vii. 17).
'What man is he that feareth Uie Lord? Him shall he teach in the
way that he shall choose' (Ps. xxv. 12).

"S2. Unreserved suh7nission to the authority of divvie revelation.
The language of him who interprets Scripture, should ever be in har-
mony with that of Samuel: 'Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.
All favorite ideas, popular hypotheses, hereditary or self-cogitated
systems and opinions, must be laid prostrate at the feet of the Bible,
which must be 'received not as the word of men; but as it is in
truth, the word of God.' 'To the law and the testimony' all our
decisions must be brought. If they differ from them, 'it is because
there is no light in them.' A divine revelation might naturally be
expected to teach truths untaught by reason; and it is equally natural
to expect, that our limited capacities should not be able to comprehend
fully the modes, circumstances, and relations of these truths which
reason could not teach, and which are known only by revelation, any
more than of many physical and moral truths connected with our
world, known without revelation.

"§3. An humble and teachable disposition of mind. As few things
are more hostile to the pursuit of truth, in general, than self-conceit
and pride of intellect, so there is no temper so offensive to the great
Author of religious truth, as a proud and self-sufficient disposition:
"Though the I^rd be high, yet hath he respect to the lowly; but the
proud he knoweth afar off. Every one that is proud in heart, is an
abomination to the Lord. God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace
to the humble. The meek will he guide in judgment, and the weak
will he teach his way' (Ps. cxxxviii. 6; Prov. xvi. 5; L Pet. v. 5;
Ps. xxv. 9). Hence, both in che general defense of Christianity, and
in the successful interpretation of its essential doctrines, none have
more signally distinguished themselves than they who, to a grasp of
intellect above their fellows, have united the profoundest reverence
and humility in exploring the depths of heavenly wisdom.

"S4. A decided attachment to divine truth, springing from a percep-
tion of its intrinsic beauty and excellence. That spirit of indifference
which some would recommend as favorable to the discovery of truth,
is perfectly incompatible with all just ideas of the nature and impor-
tance of divine revelation. The truths it discloses are so transcen-
dently excellent, and bear so directly on our best and dearest interest.


that whenever discovered in their native light, they must win the
heart, and decide the choice. Accordingly, those who derive no sav-
ing benefit from the gospel, are said to receive not the love of the
TRUTH. (II. Thess. ii. 10.) The more the true glory of the revealed
system is perceived, the more will the mind be imbued with the spirit,
and the influence which this imbuement will exert in leading to full
and consistent views of that system, can not fail to be signally bene-

"§5. Persevering diligence in the use of every proper means for dis-
covering 'the mind of the Spirit.' "While it is of prime importance
for the interpreter of Scripture to form a just estimate of his natural
faculties, and never to attribute supremacy to his own understand-
ing, or the judgment of any mere man, or body of men, it is obviously
his duty to apply those faculties in the use of the various means with
which he is furnished for understanding the Scriptures. Subject to
those restrictions, which a sense of the supreme authority of the ora-
cles of God, and the natural darkness of the mind can not but inspire,
human reason and science may, without hesitation, be allowed their
full share in the interpretation of those oracles. Though incompetent
themselves to the discovery of spiritual knowledge, yet, when discov-
ered, they are competent to discern, to examine, to compare, to illus-
trate, and to confirm it by means similar to those which, in every
other pursuit, lead most certainly to improvement and perfection.
Not only must the interpreter render himself familiar with the con-
tents of the sacred volume, by a constant and unremitting reading;
but he must spare no pains in finding out, and appropriating
to his use, all the accessory means by which his acquaintance with
it may be facilitated and advanced: endeavoring to make himself mas-
ter of every subject in any way connected with the work in which
he is engaged; and guarding against every temptation to precipita-
tion and rashness in drawing conclusions on matters of such."

'Incessant and earnest prayer for divine illumination,^' to which
he appends the following remarks: "While it is freely admitted that
no such extraordinary teaching, as was enjoyed in the age of inspira-
tion, can warrantably be expected in the present day, it is neverthe-
less undeniable that the Scriptures instruct us to believe in the en-
lightening influences of the Holy Spirit. (I. John ii. 20, 27.) This
aid consists in a special, internal and efficient operation of that divine
agent, and is no less distinct from the prophetic and apostolic im-
pulse, than it is from that mere natural assistance by which we dis-
cover common truths, and succeed in our ordinary undertakings. It
is granted in answer to prayer, accompanied by the exercise of humble
dependence on God, and a due use of all the ordinary means of im-
provement. 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth


to all men liberally, and upbraideth not: and it shall he c^ivkn iiisi'
(Jas. i. 5).

"All eminent interpreters of Scripture have asserted the neces-
sity and utility of prayer. One of the qualifications which Wickliffe
considered to be indispensably requisite in him who interprets the
word of God, he expresses in the following striking terms: 'He should


MAUY Tt,vciiER.' To the same effect is the testimony of the great Dr.
Owen: 'For a man solemnly to undertake the interpretation of any
portion of Scripture without invocation of God, to be taught and in-
structed by his Spirit, is a high provocation of him; nor shall I ex
pect the discovery of truth from any one who thus proudly engages
in a work so much above his ability. But this is the sheet anchor
of a faithful expositor in all difficulties: nor can he without this be
satisfied that he hath attained the mind of the Spirit in any divine
revelation. When all other helps fail, as they frequently do, this wul
afford him the best relief. The labors of former expositors are of
excellent use; but they are far from having discovered the depths of
this vein of wisdom; nor will the best of our endeavors prescribe lim-
its to our successors: and the reason why the generality go in the
same track, except in some excursions of curiosity, is not giving them-
selves up to the Holy Spirit in the diligent performance of their duty.'
And Ernesti himself, whom none will accuse of fanaticism, scruples
not to assert that 'men truly pious, and desirous of knowing the truth,
are assisted by the influence of the Holy Spirit in their researches,
specially in those things that pertain to faith and practice.' "

Dr. Richardson protests against the formation of any theory as to
how the Holy Spirit aids— the fact is sufficient.


In discussing the general subject of Scripture interpretation, we
have contemplated, in certain points of view, the two opposing theories
respecting the perspicuity and intelligibility of the Bible. In order
to keep these theories clearly before the mind, we will here briefly
state them.

The one is, that the Scriptures possess in themselves an absolute
and necessary power to make themselves understood, wholly irrespec-
tive of the state or character of the mind to which they are presented.
In this view, no preparation of mind or heart is supposed at all neces-
sary to the reception of the truths of revelation. All minds are, at all

Online LibraryAlexander CampbellThe Millennial Harbinger abridged (Volume 1) → online text (page 25 of 70)