« PreviousContinue »
currency on religious subjects, though very much altered in their signification.
§ 7. The sixth and last difficulty, and perhaps the greatest of all, arises from this, that our opinions on religious subjects are commonly formed, not in. deed before we read the Scriptures, but before we have examined them. The ordinary consequence is, that men afterwards do not search the sacred oracles in order to find out the truth, but in order to find what may authorize their own opinions. Nor is it, indeed, otherwise to be accounted for, that the several partizans of such an endless variety of adverse sects (although men who, on other subjects, appear neither weak nor unfair, in their researches) should all, with so much confidence, maintain that the dictates of holy writ are perfectly decisive, in support of their favourite dogmas, and in opposition to those of every antagonist. Nor is there, in the whole history of mankind, a clearer demonstration than this, of the amazing power of prejudice and prepossession.
It may be said, that interest often warps men's judgment, and gives them a bias towards that side of a question in which they find their account ; nay, it may even be urged further that, in cases in which it has no influence on the head, it may seduce the heart, and excite strenuous combatants in defence of a system which they themselves do not believe. I acknowledge that these suppositions are not of things impossible. Actual instances may be found of both.
But, for the honour of human nature, I would wish to think that those of the second class now mentioned, are far from being numerous. But, whatever be in this, we certainly have, in cases wherein interest is entirely out of the question, nay, wherein it ap. pears evidently on the opposite side, irrefragable proofs of the power of prepossession, insomuch that one would almost imagine that, in matters of opinion, as in matters of property, a right were constituted, merely by preoccupancy. This serves also to account, in part, for the great diversity of sentiments in regard to the sense of Scripture, witlrout recurring to the common plea of the Romanists, its obscurity and ambiguity.
§ 8. Thus the principal difficulties to be encountered in the study of Biblical criticism are six, arising, Ist, from the singularity of Jewish customs; 2dly, from the poverty (as appears) of their native language ; 3dly, from the fewness of the books extant in it ; 4thly, from the symbolical style of the prophets ; 5thly, from the excessive influence which a previous acquaintance with translations may have occasioned ; and, 6thly, from prepossessions, in what way soever acquired, in regard to religious tenets.
DISSERTATION THE THIRD.
OF THE STYLE OF THE SCRIPTURE HISTORY, PARTICULARLY THE GOSPELS. ITS PERSPICUITY DEFENDED AGAINST THE OBJECTIONS OF FATHER SIMON.
From what has been evinced in the preceding discourse, it will, not improbably, be concluded that the style of holy writ, both of the New Testament, and of the Old, of the historical books, as well as of the prophetical, and the argumentative, must be generally obscure, and often ambiguous. So much, and with so great plausibility and acuteness, has been written, by some learned men, in proving this point, that were a person, before he ever read the Scriptures, either in the original, or in a translation, to consider every topic they have employed, and to observe how much, in regard to the truth of such topics, is admitted by those who cannot entirely acquiesce in the conclusion, he would infallibly despair of reaping any instruction, that could be depended on, from the study of the Bible; and would be almost tempted to pronounce it altogether unprofitable.
What can exceed the declarations, to this purpose, of the celebrated Father Simon, a very emi
nent critic, and probably the greatest oriental scholar of his age ? “ We ought,” says he 48, " to regard it “as unquestionable, that the greater part of the He" brew words are equivocal, and that their significa. “ tion is entirely uncertain. For this reason, when " a translator employs in his version the interpreta« tion which he thinks the best, he cannot say abso“ lutely that that interpretation expresses truly what “is contained in the original. There is always “ ground to doubt whether the sense which he gives “ to the Hebrew words be the true sense, because “there are other meanings which are equally proba“ble.” Again", “ They (the Protestants] do not
consider that even the most learned Jews doubt “ almost every where concerning the proper signifi“cation of the Hebrew words, and that the Hebrew * lexicons composed by them, commonly contain
48 Hist, Crit. du V. T. liv. iii. ch. ii. On doit supposer comme une chose constante, que la plus part des mots Hebreux sont equivoques, et que leur signification est entierement incer. taine. C'est pourquoi lors qu’un traducteur employe. dans sa version l'interpretation qu'il juge la meilleure, on ne peut pas dire absolument, que cette interpretation exprime au vrai ce qui est contenu dans l'original. Il y a toujours lieu de douter, si le sens qu'on donne aux mots Hebreux est le veritable, puis qu'il y en a d'autres qui ont autant de probabilité.
49 Hist. Crit. du V. T. liv. iii. ch. iv. Ils n'ont pas pris garde, que même les plus scavans Juifs doutent presque par tout de la signification propre des mots Hebreux, et que les dic. tionaires qu'ils ont composés de la langue Hebraique no contiennent le plus souvent que de conjectures incertaines.
« nothing but uncertain conjectures.” Now, if matters were really as here represented, there could be no question that the study of Scripture would be mere loss of time, and that, whatever might be affirmed of the ages of the ancient prophets, it could not be said at present, that there is any revelation extant of what preceded the times of the Apostles. For a revelation which contains nothing but matter of doubt and conjecture, and from which I cannot raise even a probable opinion that is not counterbalanced by opinions equally probable, is no revelation at all. How defective, on this hypothesis, the New Testament would be, which every where presupposes the knowledge and belief of the Old ; and, in many places, how inexplicable without that knowledge, it is needless to mention.
§ 2. It would not be easy to account for exaggerations so extravagant, in an author so judicious, and commonly so moderate, but by observing that his immediate aim, whereof he never loses sight, throughout his whole elaborate performance, is to establish TRADITION, as the foundation of all the knowledge necessary for the faith and practice of a Christian.. Scripture, doubtless, has its difficulties; but we know at least what, and where it is. As for tradition, what it is, how it is to be sought, and where it is to be found, it has never yet been in the power of any man to explain, to the satisfaction of a reasonable inquirer. We are already in possession of the former, if we can but expound it. We cannot say so