John Wilson.

Unitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches online

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demands a great amount of erudition and labor, the unlearned reader of the
Scriptures will, of course, have, in most cases of difficulty, to confide in



BIBLICAL INTEEPRETATION. ' 221

the results arrived at by men who have devoted their talents and then- lives
to sacred criticism ; his confidence in then- decisions being the stronger in
proportion to the unanimity and acknowledged skill with which they have
been made by critics of various and opposite denominations. It is conso-
latory to reflect, that, however desirable it may be to possess the records
of divine revelation in a state approximating to that in which they were left
by their respective writers, the essential truths of rehgion and of Chris-
tianity are not seriously afiected by the corruptions of tlie original text, or
by the difierent and numerous translations of the Bible which have been
published.

§ 2. IXTEKPKETATION.

[1] When different reasons for the meaning of a word oppose
each other, greater weight ought to be given to grammatical than to
dogmatical reasons ; because a proposition may be strictly true which
is not contained in the words of the text. — J. A. Ernesti : Principles
of Biblical Interpretation, vol. i. p. 37.

[2] The more an interpreter changes places altogether wth his
author, in respect to his mode of thiiildng and his sentiments, the
happier will he be in discovering and expressing the sense of his
words. Hence it follows, — 1. That every good mterpreter should
lay aside for the time his own system, in order to study without pre-
judice the system of his author. 2. That he endeavor to guard, with
all possible precaution, against transferring into ancient writings any
modern opinions or dogmas, M'hether theological or philosophical. —
G. F. Seiler : Biblical Hermeneutics, § 40.

These rules will receive illustration from the judicious remarks of
Baden Powell (Connection of Natural and Divine Truth, p. 248): " When
a commentator of tlie present day sets about to put a particular interpreta-
tion on a passage in an ancient author, he may, upon an examination of the
critical sense of the words, and the construction of the sentence, make out
a meaning which to him is plausible, and in itself consistent. But there is
another question entirely distinct from this, too often quite overlooked, but
essentially important to a true interpretation; %'iz., whether it is probable,
from concurrent circumstances, that this was the sense, in point of fact,
actually intended by the author. It is one thing to make out such a sense
as, to our apprehension, the words may bear; quite another, to infer that
this was the sens a really in the mind of the "writer."

[3] Ascertain the usus loquendi, or notion affixed to a word by
the persons in general by whom the language either is now or form.erly
was spoken, and especially in the particular connection in which such
notion is affixed. The meaning of a word used by any -uTiter is tlie

19*



222 BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION.

meaning affixed to it by those for •whom he immediately WTote ; for
there is a kind of natm^al compact between those who ^v^Tite and those
who speak a language, by which they are mutually bound to use words
in a certain sense. — T. Hartwell Horne : Introduction, voL L
page 325.

In the application of this rule, the following remark by Dr. Seiler
(Biblical Hermeneutics, § 261, 5) should be carefully attended to: "That is
not always the true sense of the sajnngs of Jesus and of the writings of the
apostles, which the Jews, by reason of their pi-ejudices, attached to them;
but that which they should have attached to them, from a consideration of
the scope of the speakers and writers, John iii. 5-16 ; vi. 60, et seq. ,• viii.
51-57."

[4] As ever}'^ (correct) wTiter is accustomed to use his words in
one and the same sense in treating of the same subject, so, in inter-
preting the books of the New Testament, a difficult passage of an
eA^angelist or apostle is best explained by a comparison of parallel
passages in his o^^^l Amtings. The meaning of Paul's phraseology, for
instance, is to be determined by a comparison with his own Epistles,
and that of John by a comparison with his. — G. F. Seiler : Biblical
Hermeneutics, § 252, 1.

The qualifying word " correct " is inserted probably by Seller's editor,
Dr. Wright.

In applying this rule, the reader may be assisted by the following
remarks of Archbishop Whately (Sermons on Various Subjects, p. 296):
" It is an unsafe practice so to dwell on the interpretation of any particular
word occurring in Scripture, as to imply that each term must have, like
one of the technical terms of any science, exactly the same meaning in
every passage where it is employed. It is not an uncommon plan, and it is
a very dangerous one, to lay down precise definitions of the meaning of
each of the principal words used in Scripture, and then to interpret every
sentence in which they occur according to those definitions. The works
of the sacred writers are popular, not scientific. They did not intend to
confine themselves, like the author of any philosophical system, to some
strict technical sense of each word, but expressed their meaning, in each
passage, in such language as seemed, on each occasion, best fitted to con-
vey it."

[5] "Where a word has several significations in common use, that
must be selected which best suits the j^assage in question, and which
is consistent with p.n author's known character, sentiments, and situa-
tion, and the knowai circumstances under which he wrote. -— THOMAS
Hartwell Horne : Introduction, vol. i. p. 325.



BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION. 223

Or, as expressed more briefly by Dr. G. J. Planck (Introduction to
Sacred Philology, p. 147): "In interpreting a writing, constant reference
should be had to the character, views, and known principles of the writer
from whom it originates." For this I'ule he assigns the following reason, —
" that a man of understanding will not readily act in opposition to his own
design; will not, in general, easily contradict himself; will not, without
some evident cause, alter his opinions."

[6] Wherever any doctrine is manifest, either from the whole
tenor of di\'ine revelation or from its scope, it must not be weakened
or set aside by a few obscure passages. — T. Hartwell Horne :
Tntrodudion, vol. i. p. 343.

This rule is frequently neglected; but no one will theoretically deny its
validity. Dr. J. P. Smith (Scripture Testimony to the Messiah, vol. i. p. 57)
well remarks, that " it is contrary to all just rules of evidence, and to the
conduct of the best and wisest part of mankind, in relation to innumerable
cases, philosophical, moral, and political, to violate or renounce great prin-
ciples, which have been sufficiently established by prior proofs, because
minor difficulties arise of which we are not able to find a solution."

[7] General terms are used sometimes in their whole extent, and
sometimes in a restricted sense ; and whether they are to be under-
stood in the one way or in the other must depend upon the scope,
subject-matter, context, and parallel passages. — T. BLartwell Horne :
Introduction, vol. i. p. 325.

Dr. Gerard (Institutes, § 844) illustrates his rule, which is the same as
that just quoted, by a great number of examples. Christians of all deno-
minations will admit its justness and importance; but probably few apply
it without sometimes being influenced by dogmatical prepossessions.

[8] Before we conclude upon the sense of a text, so as to prove
any thing by it, we must be sm'e that such sense is not repugnant to
natm-al reason. — T. Hartwell Horne : Introduction, vol i. p. 326.

In p. 394, the same writer justly observes, that " articles of revelation
may be above our reason ; but no doctrine which comes from God can be
irrational, or contrary to those moral truths which are clearly perceived by
the mind of man."

Dr. Robert South (Animadversions on Sherlock's Vindication, p. 133)
says : " Wliatsoever is a truth in natural reason cannot be contradicted by
any other truth declared by revelation, since it is impossible for any one
truth to contradict another."

To the same purpose might be quoted a host of other writers ; but, though
few would venture to deny the truth of the principle here laid down, there
are many who seem to act very inconsistently in its application



224 BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION.

In our endeavors, however, to arrive at the true sense of any passage ir.
Scripture, it would be prejudging the matter to take for gi-anted that that
sense^cannot be repugnant to reason; for, though the supernatural revela-
tions which ai-e contained in the sacred books never can contradict the
judgments formed by a right use of the intellectual powers, there is no evi-
dence for the dogma that all portions of Scripture were given by infallible
inspiration. Our sole object should therefore be merely to ascertain the
meaning of a sacred author, without assuming the foregone conclusion that
it is impossible for him to err, to express a doctrine contrary to reason, or
to be inconsistent with the views of such other writers as have had better
opportunities of ari-iving at the truth, either by natural or supernatural
means. If, after an investigation pursued in no spirit of reckless scepticism,
but with a manly freedom blended with caution and docility, a passage
should be found manifestly opposed to the highest and best conceptions of
our minds, we may, from the known character and sentiments of the author
in whpse compositions it appears, have some grounds, even without the
authority of any extant manuscript, for believing the text of that passage
to be corrupt or interpolated; but, if fiiithful to the duty of using aright
the natural gifts bestowed on us by Heaven, we cannot accept, as a decla-
ration of the divine will, the doctrine which it expresses.

Suppose, for mstance, that a man has been led, by the united voices of
reason and revelation, — by the light of nature and the whole spirit of Chris
tianity, — to believe that it is the design of the Creator and Father of the
human race to bring each and all of his children into the fold of the Saviour,
through such trials and sufferings as are best adapted to purify and exalt
their nature; and suppose, too, he find some passages in the Bible uneqni-
vocally declaring or implying the doctrine of unmitigated torture to multi-
tudes throughout eternity, — he must not bend or distort the language so as
to make it speak his own sentiments, though, according to the supposition,
these are founded on a solid basis. AVe say, " unequivocally declaring or
implying; ", for, if the passages be merely ambiguous or obscure, they can-
not justly be regarded as erroneous; or, if highlj^ figurative, they may fail
to give the precise doctrinal views of the Avriter; but they are not neces-
sarily opposed to reason, and may admit an interpretation which is both
rational and consistent with the writer's opinions as clearly expressed in
other places of his compositions.

In this sentiment, that no proposition, repugnant to reason, though it
were found in books containing God's revealed will, is entitled to credence,
we are supported, more or less, by the authority of eminent Trinitarians
Thus S. T. CoLEEiDGE, In Literary Remains (Works, vol. v. pp. 193-4), says*
" If we are quite certain that any writing pretending to divine origin con
tains gross contradictions to demonstrable truths in eoclem genere, or com
mands that outrage the clearest principles of right and wrong, then'we may
be equally certain that the pretence is a blasphemous falsehood; inasmuch
as the compatibility of a document with the conclusions of self-evident
reason, and with the laws of conscience, is a condition d priori of any evi-
dence adequate to the proof of its having been revealed by God."



BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION. 225

Thus, also, Dr. South, in pp. 133-4 of his Animadversions on Sherloclc's
Vindication, asks the Dean " whether it be a proposition true in natural
reason, that God is one infinite mind or spirit;" and says, that, if this be
granted, the doctrine that God is three infinite minds or spirits cannot be
proved true from revelation, " since the certain truth of the fii'st proposition
supposed and admitted must needs dispi'ove the truth of that revelation
T/hich pretends to establish the second. ... If it be certainly true from
reason that God is one infinite mind or spirit, no revelation can or ought to
be pleaded that he is three distinct infinite minds or spirits."

We do not, however, believe that, as to the nature and character of the
Divine Being, there are any contradictions to reason found in the New
Testament. We have no doubt that the evangelists and apostles all agree
in recognizing the strict Oneness of God, — the essential and unqualified
Supremacy of the heavenly Father; a doctrine as rational as it is sublime.
But if, on the otlier hand, the dogma of a Trinity in Unity were certainly
taught by any of the sacred writers, we should feel, that, however repulsive
it might seem to reason and common sense, Ave had no right, as interpreters,
to carry our own notions into Scripture, and to rationalize its absurdities.

[9] No doctrine can belong to the analogy of faith vvhich is founded
on a single text ; for every essential principle of religion is delivered
in more than one place. — Dr. Gilbert Gebard : Institutes, § 503.

T. H. HoPvNE (i. 343), having defined the analogy of faith to be " the con
stant and perpetual harmony of Scripture in the fundamental points of faith
and practice," lays down the same canon as that given by Dr. Gerard.

Bishop Hampden (in Bampton Lectures, p. 55) says emphatically that
" there must be, in fact, a repeated revelation to authorize us to assert that
this or that conclusion represents to us some truth concerning God."

S. F. N. MoRUS, in his Treatise on the Style of the New Testament
(Biblical Repository, vol. i. p. 430), makes the following sensible remarks
on this rule of interpretation: " The analogy of faith and doctrine is con-
tained in the principal maxims and precepts of religion clearly taught.
This is, as I understand it, a summary of all religious doctrine ; for if such
evident propositions as that God is one, that he created the world, that he
governs all things, that he reforms us by his truth, and that there is a future
state of rewards and punishments, be collected, they will constitute a sum-
maiy of religion; and this constitutes the standard according to which
every thing must be interpreted, so that all shall harmonize. It is wrong to
make this analogy consist in the doctrines approved by any one sect, as the
Lutherans, Calvinists, or Papists ; for then there would be many analogies :
each sect would hold up its own religious system as the standard. The
system of no sect can ever become the law of interpretation; for this refers
to the plain and evident testimony of Scripture. Nor does the analogy of
doctrine consist in the system of any particular person; for these systems
are disposed in order, and the doctrine explained in a manner merely to suit
the authors. Such systems cannot be made a rule of interpretation "



226 BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION.



GENERAL REMARKS.



Could they who dogmatize on sacred subjects peremptorily, be
persuaded to examine them carefully, we might soon bring to an issue
those mihappy disputes about the doctrines of Christianity, v/hich,
though started perhaps with honest intentions, have yet been carried
on with a most unchristian temper. . . . By examination I do not
mean the rapid effusion of scriptm-al phi-ases, which it is far easier to
accumulate than to connect ; which those who display most ostenta-
tiously do not always explain most intelKgibly ; and in the repetition
of which it is possible for the understanduig to slumber, while the
memory is exercised, and the fancy captivated. But, in the investiga-
tion of doctrmes on which eternity is suspended, it is necessary to
trace every word through its significations, whether primary or sub-
ordinate, common or aj^propriate ; to analyze every sentence into its
component parts ; to mark the comiection of those parts to each other,
and the relation of the whole to preceding or subsequent passages ; to
account for local and temporary circumstances; to bear in mmd on
what occasion any doctrine is introduced, and to what persons it is
addressed ; to determine ambiguous texts by such as are more defi-
nite, — the obscure by such as are plain ; to support general doctrines
by particular proofs, not with the hcentiousness of arbitrary assump-
tion, but the calmness and precision of elaborate induction ; not to be
staggered by accidental difficulties, the solution of which progressive
knowledge or persevering industr}' may supply ; never to be seduced
by indirect or partial expressions into a desertion of those leading,
indisputable truths on which revelation is known to hinge. — Dr.
Samuel Parr : Sermoyis on Faith and Morals ; in Works, vol. vi.
pp. 616-17.



The principles of interpreting Scripture wliich we have quoted are taken
from writers of eminent merit belonging to the orthodox body, and will
probably be regarded by all Pi"otestants, worthy of the name, as substan-
tially correct, whatever notions they may hold respecting the inspiration of
the Bible, and the canonicity of its various books. Their bearing on the
great question at issue between Trinitarians, and the believers in the simple
oneness of the Divine Being, will often be noticed in the succeeding volumes
of this work. In attempting to apply them, may both writer and reader be
pervaded by a single-minded desire to ascertain the truth !



227



CHAPTER lY.

CHRISTIANITY INTELLIGIBLE, RATIONAL, AND PRACTICAL.



SECT. I. — THE TEACHINGS OF THE SAVIOUE DISTINGUISHED FOR
THEIR CLEARNESS AND SIMPLICITY.

All the doctrine which Christ taught and gave
Was clear as heaven from whence it came.

GEoaSE Hjirbeet.

In many of the quotations introduced into the preceding chapter, the duty
of tasking, to the utmost extent, the faculties of the human understand-
ing in the study and interpretation of Holy Scripture, is strongly urged
on the attention of Christians; and rules and directions are given for the
purpose of facilitating inquiry, of guarding against eiTor, and of leading to
the possession of truth. All this implies, that the Bible is not to be regarded
as a volume which " he who runneth may read," — which one may hastily
or passively peruse, and at the same time perfectly understand ; but as a
collection of sacred books, for the due appreciation of which, and for tho
comprehension of its various and important contents, our intellectual powers
and our moral affections should alike be devoted. Indeed, apart from the
value of the facts it records, or the principles it develops, no book requires
more assiduous and patient study to understand than the Bible ; for there is
■ none perhaps which as a whole is so hard, difficult, or obscure.

The documents of which it consists are very ancient, some of them the
oldest of extant compositions. They were written in languages or in dialects
which have long ceased to be spoken, and with which the best educated men
are but imperfectly familiar. They abound in allusions to customs, man-
ners, opinions, and modes of thought, which are very different from thoso
which prevail at the present day in Western Europe and in the New World.
They have been more or less corrupted in their passage to our times. Thej
have been transferred into innumerable versions, all differing one from
another in a vast variety of particulars. They have been commented ok
by fathers, by schoolmen, by priests, and by critics ; by adherents of thv
Romish, Greek, and Protestant churches; by Athanasians and Arians.
Sabellians and Socinians, Lutherans and Calvinists; by fanatics, ranters,
rationalists, and transcendentalists ; and, widely as these disagree in opinion,



228 DnricuLTiES oj^' the bible.

they have lent to each and aU of them such real or apparent support as hath
sufficed to satisfy the consciences and the minds of them all. However
some Protestants, in their zeal against Popery, may affect to controvert the^
fact, a book from which such a variety of conflicting opinions as those held
by these sectaries has been professedly taken, must be difficult to under-
stand. It would be idle to deny it. Even persons who are classed under
the same category' have elicited, from tlie Bible, dogmas which are far from
being the same. Neither the philosophers who have found in the Scriptures
the truths of astronomy and geology, or of moral and mental science ; nor the
mystics, with their doctrine of a double sense, their correspondences, their
spiritual influences, their reveries, and their dreams, are at one in their
respective interpretations of the contents of the Bible. The first cliapter
of Genesis, so simple in phraseology and so sublime in conception, will, i^
we judge of the future from the past, never be so explained as to meet the
unanimous consent of astronomers, geologists, and theologians. The precise
boundary between the myths and the histories of the Hebrews has not yet
been ascertained, and perhaps never will be. The prophecies of the Jewish
bards, obscure to those who uttered them, have not been rendered altogether
clear by the light of facts accomplished; and a portion of doubt and mys-
tery may still hang over them. No Harmony has harmonized, or probably
ever will harmonize, the discrepancies existing in the divine and truthful
Gospels. The proem to John's beautiful narrative of the Saviour, for the
comprehension of which such vast stores of ancient learning have been in
countless modes ransacked ami displayed, and from which have been de-
rived opinions the most varieil in hue and texture, may never find a solution
which will be altogether satisfactory to the scholar and the Christian. The
Epistles of Paul — "in which are some things hard to be understood, which
they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as the}' do also the other Scrip-
tures, lanto their own destruction " — have been made to speak the strangest,
the most uncouth and contradictor}^ dogmas; and the man is yet to come
who will give such a representation of the apostle's views as will settle
the controversies which have so hjng afflicted the church. The contents
of the Apocalypse, which have so often batfled the prying ingenuity of good
and wise men, may be fully revealed to the human mind only when " time
shall be no more."

Some of these, or similar difficulties and obscurities, may, as we have
intimated, remain for ever on the pages of the Bible ; but there are others
which have undoubtedly arisen more from the prepossessions and the pas-
sions of interpreters than from any imperfection in the book itself; and it
may reasonably be anticipated that a reduction of their number will be
gradually effected by the labors of ingenuous and liberal-minded men.

But, even now, the Bible is not, throughout its various portions, a book
only of dark and intricate passages leading to no certain conclusion. It
abounds in naiTatives, whose beautiful simplicity and tender pathos are
grateful to the ear of childhood; in pictures of divine hei'oism and disin-
terestedness which arrest the eye of youth; in songs of pmity and piety
which lift to higher realms the common mind of manhood; in words of



SIMPLICITY 0? OUR LOP.D-S TEACHmGS. 229

comfort and consolation Tvhich impart heavenly strength and holy trust to
the heart of feebleness and age.

The Bible is a difficult book; or, rather, it is a collection of books,
portions of which are very dark and doubtful in their import, if not erro-
neous in some of their statements. But it contains various revelations of
the Supreme "Wisdom and Infinite Goodness; and all revelations must, to
those for whom they were intended, be, fi"om their very nature, resplendent
with light, and impart it to the organ of moral and intellectual vision if in a
normal or undiseased state. Clouds and darkness may seem to us, in some
measure, to brood over the communications of God to the antediluvians
and the patriarchs, — for these were personal or family revelations; or over
such as were vouchsafed to the Jews through Moses and the prophets, — for
these were national ; though many of them speak, in characters the most
perspicuous, of the pure spirituality, the impartial justice, and universal
government of the one Jehovah.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ — including in the term not only the



Online LibraryJohn WilsonUnitarian principles confirmed by Trinitarian testimonies : being selections from the works of eminent theologians belonging to orthodox churches → online text (page 25 of 55)