« PreviousContinue »
combatant in David, and in Solomon the triumphant and glorious king.
Moreover, Scripture assigns. the same uses to this allegorical style, which were contemplated by the Fathers when they made it subservient to the Disciplina Arcani; viz. those of trying the earnestness and patience of inquirers, discriminating between the proud and the humble, and conveying instruction to believers, and that in the most permanently impressive manner, without the world's sharing in the knowledge. Our Lord's remarks on the design of His own parables, is a sufficient evidence of this intention.
Thus there seemed every encouragement, from the structure of Scripture, from the apparent causes which led to that structure, and from the purposes to which it was actually applied by its Divine Author, to induce the Alexandrians to consider its text as primarily and directly the instrument of an allegorical teaching. And since it sanctions the principle of allegorizing by its own example, they would not consider themselves confined within the limits of the very instances which it supplies, because of the evident spiritual drift of various passages which, nevertheless, it does not interpret spiritually; thus to the narrative contained in the twentysecond chapter of Genesis, few people will deny an evangelical import, though the New Testament itself nowhere assigns it. Yet, on the other hand, granting that a certain liberty of interpretation, beyond the precedent, but according to the spirit of Scripture, be allowable in the Christian teacher, still few people will deny, that some rule is necessary as a safeguard against its abuse, in order to secure the sacred text from being explained away by the heretic, and misquoted and perverted by weak or fanatical minds. Such a safeguard we shall find in bearing cautiously in mind this consideration : viz. that (as a general rule), every passage of Scripture has some one definite and sufficient sense, which was prominently before the mind of the writer, or in the intention of the Blessed Spirit, and to which all other ideas, though they might arise, or be implied, still were subordinate. It is this true meaning of the text, which it is the business of the expositor to unfold. This it is, which every diligent student will think it a great gain to discover; and, though he will not shut his eyes to the indirect and instructive applications of which the text is capable, he never will so reason as to forget that there is one sense peculiarly its own. Sometimes it is easily ascertained, sometimes it can be scarcely conjectured; sometimes it is contained in the literal sense of the words employed, as in the historical parts; sometimes it is the allegorical, as in our Lord's parables ; or sometimes the secondary sense may be more important in after ages than the original, as in the instance of the Jewish ritual; still in all cases (to speak generally) there is but one main primary sense, whether literal or figurative; a regard for which must ever keep us sober and reverent in the employment of those allegorisms, which, nevertheless, our Christian liberty does not altogether forbid.
The protest of Scripture against all careless expositions of its meaning, is strikingly implied in the extreme reserve and caution, with which it unfolds its own typical signification ; for instance, in the Mosaic ritual
no hint was given of its undoubted prophetical character, lest an excuse should be furnished to the Israelitish worshipper for undervaluing its actual commands. So, again, the secondary and distinct meaning of prophecy, is commonly hidden from view by the veil of the literal text, lest its immediate scope should be overlooked ; when that is once fulfilled, the recesses of the sacred language seem to open, and give up the further truths deposited in them. Our Lord, probably, in the prophecy recorded in the Gospels, was not careful (if I may so express myself) that His disciples should distinguish between His final and immediate coming; thinking it a less error that they should consider the last day approaching, than that they should forget their own duties in the contemplation of the future fortunes of the Church. Nay, even types fulfilled, if they be historical, seem sometimes purposely to be left without the sanction of an interpretation, lest we should neglect the instruction still conveyed in the literal narrative. This accounts for the silence observed concerning the evangelical import, to which I have already referred, of the sacrifice of Isaac, which contains a definite and permanent moral lesson, as a matter of fact, however clear may be its further meaning as emblematical of our Lord's sufferings on the cross. In corroboration of this remark, let it be observed, that there seems to have been in the Church a traditionary explanation of these historical types, derived from the Apostles, but kept among the secret doctrines, as being dangerous to the majority of hearers"; and
1 Vide Mosheim, de Reb. Ant. Const. sæc. ii. & 34. Rosenmuller, Hist. Interpr. iii. 2. § 1.
certainly St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, affords us an instance of such a tradition, both as existing and as secret (even though it be shown to be of Jewish origin), when, first checking himself and questioning his brethren’s faith, he communicates, not without hesitation, the evangelical scope of the account of Melchisedec, as introduced into the book of Genesis.
As to the Christian writers of Alexandria, if they erred in their use of the Allegory, their error did not lie in the mere adoption of an instrument which Philo or the Egyptian hierophants had employed (though this is sometimes made the ground of objection), for Scripture itself had taken it out of the hands of such authorities. Nor did their error lie in the mere circumstance of their allegorizing Scripture, where Scripturc gave no direct countenance; as if we might not interpret the sacred word for ourselves, as we interpret the events of life, by the principles which itself supplies. But they erred, whenever and as far as they carried their favourite rule of exposition beyond the spirit of the canon above laid down, so as to obscure the primary meaning of Scripture, and to weaken the force of historical facts and doctrinal declarations; and much more, if at any time they degraded the inspired text to the office of conveying the thoughts of uninspired teachers on subjects not sacred.
And, as it is impossible to draw a precise line between the use and abuse of allegorizing, so it is impossible also to ascertain the exact degree of blame incurred by individual teachers who familiarly indulge in it.' They may be faulty as commentators, yet instructive as devotional writers; and their liberty in interpretation
is to be regulated by the state of mind in which they address themselves to the work, and by their proficiency in the knowledge and practice of Christian duty. So far as men use the language of the Bible (as is often done in poems and works of fiction) as the mere instrument of a cultivated fancy, to make their style attractive or impressive, so far, it is needless to say, they are guilty of a great irreverence towards its Divine Author. On the other hand, it is surely no extravagance to assert that there are minds so gifted and disciplined as to approach the position occupied by the inspired writers, and therefore able to apply their words with a fitness, and entitled to do so with a freedom, which is unintelligible to the dull or heartless criticism of inferior understandings. So far then as the Alexandrian Fathers partook of such a singular gift of grace (and Origen surely bears on him the tokens of some exalted moral dignity), not incited by a capricious and presumptuous imagination, but burning with that vigorous faith, which, seeing God in all things, does and suffers all for His sake, and, while filled with the contemplation of His supreme glory, still discharges each command in the exactness of its real meaning, in the same degree they stand not merely excused, but are placed immeasurably above the multitude of those who find it so easy to censure them.And so much on the Allegory, as the means of observing the Disciplina Arcani.
The same method of interpretation was used for another purpose, which is more open to censure. When