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Scripture. The believer in transubstantiation contends, that we are to understand verbally the declaration; "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you." The sect of the Antinomians would have us take to the letter the words of St. Paul, as rendered in the Common Version; "For to him who worketh not, but believeth on him who justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." And of the believers in the doctrine of Atonement, some contend, that when the Apostle speaks of the church as being "purchased by the blood of Christ," or, as they would have it read, "by the blood of God," we are to regard the blood of the Son as being paid, as it were, to the Father to deliver us from his wrath. All the errors connected with Christianity have appealed for support to such verbal misinterpretations of particular passages. Hence it has been said, that anything may be proved from the Scriptures. And it is true, that if we proceed in so erroneous a method, and neglect every fact and principle which ought to be attended to in the interpretation of language, there is no meaning too false, too absurd, or too ridiculous, to be educed from the words of Scripture, or equally, from those of any popular writing. An experiment may be made upon the passages just quoted in the preceding paragraphs.' pp. 107-109.
From all these examples, it must be clear to every one, that the Scriptures, as well as other writings, suppose some previous acquaintance on the part of the reader, with most of the subjects of which they treat, and that they rely on that understanding and on the habitual exercise of reason, to modify their language, and to make the necessary allowances for latitude of expression. Confiding in these correctives, the writers indulge the same license in the flow of their words, that we are all accustomed so unconsciously to use in our ordinary communications. They give full play, as we do, to their imaginations, their feelings, their desire to produce effect; and they expect us to understand them accordingly. Such is the case, especially when they speak of things of which our senses or our reason is supposed to afford us some clear and permanent ideas. For instance: when the sacred teachers called our Saviour by the term God, they addressed those who saw Christ in the flesh, or who knew him by report as a man, and who would, of course, be in no danger of receiving their words literally, and of taking him to be the invisible Creator, the living Spirit of the universe. When they speak of the wrath, the fury of God, they trust our reason to accommodate
these expressions to the nature of an immutable being, our Father in heaven. When they introduced Christians as knowing all things,' and doing all things,' it was, to apply the observation quoted from Burke, unnecessary to specify the manifest restriction, since the limited extent of human faculties was already well enough understood, and would be kept in view by all concerned, unless they should first be laboriously trained to some contrary and preposterous notion. These remarks are sufficient to show that in order to understand any writing, we must indulge a degree of what some interpreters stigmatize as a priori speculation. If we neglect the natural suggestions of our reason with regard to the subjects spoken of, we take a position which our author did not anticipate, and look through a medium directly calculated to pervert the sense of his words. Mr. Norton has quoted an apposite remark from that unrivalled master of language, Cicero, and has very happily exposed the absurdity of the rules proposed in certain cases by some modern interpreters :
""What law," says Cicero," what decree of the Senate, what ordinance of a magistrate, what treaty or convention, or, to return to private concerns, what testament, what judicial decision, what stipulation, what form of agreement may not be invalidated or disannulled, if we insist on bending the meaning to the words, and neglect the intent, purport, and will of the writer? Truly, our familiar and every-day discourse would have little coherence, if we lay in wait for each other's words. There would be no domestic government, if we allowed our slaves to obey our commands in their verbal meaning, and not in that sense in which the words are to be understood." Cicero. Orat. pro A. Cæcina. § 18.
A late writer, however, to whom I have before adverted, p. 98, Dr. Chalmers, (in the article there mentioned) contends earnestly that the verbal method of interpreting the Scriptures is the true method. "The examination of the Scriptures," he says, "is a pure work of grammatical analysis. It is an unmixed question of language." "We admit of no other instrument than the vocabulary and the lexicon." "The mind or meaning of an author who is translated, is purely a question of language, and should be decided upon no other principles than those of grammar or philology." But this principle "has been most glaringly departed from in the case of the Bible; . . . . . the meaning of its author, instead of being made singly and entirely a question of grammar, has been made a question of metaphy
sics, or a question of sentiment: . . . . . instead of the argument resorted to being, Such must be the rendering from the structure of language, and the import and significancy of its phrases; it has been, Such must be the rendering from the analogy of faith, the reason of the thing, the character of the Divine mind, and the wisdom of all his dispensations." There are Christians "who in addition to the Word of God talk also of the reason of the thing." "Could we only dismiss the uncertain fancies of a daring and presumptuous theology, sit down like a school-boy to his task, and look upon the study of divinity as a mere work of translation, then we should expect the same unanimity among Christians, that we meet with among scholars and literati about the system of Epicurus, or the philosophy of Aristotle."
"The illustration is particularly unhappy, at least so far as regards the philosophy of Aristotle. But I do not insist on this, nor on the looseness and uncertainty of some of the language which I have quoted. The main ideas are sufficiently apparent. We
We are to come to the study of the Scriptures merely with our grammar and lexicon. Having done so, let us consider how we shall proceed. Our lexicon will exhibit to us ten or twenty different meanings, perhaps, of some of the most important words in a sentence. Our grammar, beside teaching us the relations of words to each other, will discover to us the various and often numerous modifications of meaning, which some alteration in the form of a word renders it capable of expressing. If it happen to have an appendix treating of the rhetorical figures, we may also learn something from it concerning the many changes of signification to which words are subjected according to established modes of speech; though our knowledge, if derived merely from this source, may not be extensive. But as yet we are furnished only with objects of choice among a variety of meanings, without anything to decide us how to choose. We have only learnt, and that but very imperfectly, what the words may signify; our business is to learn, what they do signify. Take a sentence, which in different relations may be used to express different meanings with equal propriety — and such sentences are constantly occurring—what assistance will our grammar or lexicon afford to determine in any particular case its actual meaning? Certainly none at all.
'But in the process of interpretation, we are to have recourse to no other instruments. We are expressly enjoined, for instance, to exclude all consideration of the reason of the thing. By this must be meant, that we are not to consider, what may reasonably be said upon any subject; or, in other words, what a reasonable man, with no false opinion, would say concerning it. Let us try then how we shall succeed in interpreting Scrip
ture, after having excluded this and every other extrinsic consideration. St. Luke ascribes these words to our Saviour; "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven." Shall we exclude all consideration of the reason of the thing, and, taking the word, poor, in its most common and obvious sense, understand our Saviour as asserting for a universal truth, that all men destitute of property are blessed? But these words, it will be said, are explained by the parallel passage in St. Matthew. Explained by a parallel passage! We are, then, very soon obliged to have recourse to something beside our grammar and lexicon. But how are they explained by the passage in St. Matthew? "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Without taking any extrinsic consideration into view, but confining ourselves to the mere words before us, in which of the many meanings of the word spirit shall we here understand it? Shall we receive it in a sense, which occurs repeatedly in the New Testament, according to which it denotes the temper and virtues of a Christian, and understand the words as meaning; "Blessed are they who are poor in the temper and virtues of a Christian." But leaving these difficult passages, he who chooses to put out of view the reason of the thing, and all those other circumstances which ought to determine our judgment, may proceed with his grammar and lexicon to the next beatitude of our Saviour, and then to the next; and then he may open at random upon any passage of the New Testament, till he has satisfied himself respecting the practicability of his method.
'If the opinions on which I have remarked were the extravagances of an individual writer alone, so long a notice of them would hardly be justifiable. But the assertions, I cannot say the arguments, of Dr. Chalmers are intended to maintain a system of interpretation in which the false doctrines that have been connected with Christianity have found their main support. It is to be observed, however, that the verbal method of interpretation is, in fact, principally confined to passages brought in proof of those doctrines, and is abandoned in regard to other portions of Scripture, to which its application would produce some unsanctioned error or absurdity.' pp. 110-112.
Here end Mr. Norton's remarks on the ambiguity of language, and the insufficiency of mere verbal criticism to ascertain the meaning of an author. The indispensable importance of allowing free scope to that common sense which a writer always presumes his readers to exercise on things as well as on words, needs no further exemplification. It is true, when he attempts a direct exposition of any given subject, and professes
to impart some new information concerning it, then indeed he is expected to speak with precision in regard to the particular point in view. But, to repeat what we have said on a former occasion, 'We may lay it down as a general rule, that whenever those characteristics and circumstances that appear manifest to our senses are verbally denied in a remark which is itself merely casual, we are expected at all hazards to modify the words by the facts thus previously known. We may rest assured, that whenever it is the intention to contravene the testimony of our senses in such cases, or to oppose the natural convictions of human reason, it will be done, not by an incidental observation which might be mistaken for a trope or hyperbole, but by professed and formal instruction.' 15
We will not conclude without adverting to a certain feeling of discouragement, which the subject, as now illustrated, may at first produce. The language of the Scriptures being so ambiguous, it may be asked, What prospect is there of finding one's way through all its uncertainties, so as to arrive at the real meaning? So many considerations are to be taken into view, so much is left to our own judgment, that this business of interpretation, it may be said, is too complicate for practice, and too conjectural for confidence. Should such a thought oppress the inquirer, he will feel relieved by a second reflection, that as complicate as the case seems when thus developed, it is what we are all familiar with in common reading, and so accustomed to, that we neither observe its intricacy, nor feel its difficulties. It is but an exhibition of the use of language as regards books in general as well as the Bible in particular. If he can understand other popular writings, he can understand the Scriptures, let him but read them as he does other works, making proper allowances, meanwhile, for their age and the peculiar circumstances which occasioned them.
15 Universalist Expositor, vol. I, p. 291.