« PreviousContinue »
To discover truth is the best happiness of an individual ; and to communicate it is the greatest blessing he can bestow upon society. Moral and religious truth can only be obtained from the right interpretation of Scripture : and the most effectual means of eliciting that right interpretation, must be to ascertain its primary, or historical meaning. The books of revelation were given to the world at various times, and upon different occasions. Each book was written for some one especial cause. The all-wise providence of God has not imparted his will, as human legislators are compelled to do, in abstract precepts, arbitrary institutions, or metaphysical distinctions. His Revelation is so constructed, that it is interwoven with the history of the world. It is a collection of facts and inferences-of narratives and doctrines. To understand the latter, we must acquaint ourselves with the former : and then only shall we perceive that it is equally adapted to all ages and nations, so long as human nature remains the same; and so long as hope and fear, and joy and sorrow, and evil and good, and sin and holiness, characterise mankind.
The most general cause of religious error is the neglect of this mode of viewing Scripture. The Old and New Testaments, not only in the present day, but in former ages, have been for the most part considered as large reservoirs of texts, or as well-stored magazines of miscellaneous theological aphorisms ; from which every speculative theorist, and
every inventor of an hypothesis, may discover some plausible arguments to defend his peculiar opinion. No matter how absurd his reasoning ; no matter how inconsistent his notions may be with the analogy of faith, with the testimony of antiquity, or with the context from which a passage is forcibly torn away. His own interpretation shall be to him as the Spirit of God. The light is kindled from within; and though its beams are not borrowed from learning, nor sense, nor sobriety, fancy shall supply the place of an acquaintance with the original tongue, and of the decisions of the commentator, till the Scripture speaks the language of Babel, to its Babylonish consulters.
Seeing the absurdity and unreasonableness of this perversion of Scripture, the Romanist has proceeded to an opposite extreme. He rejects the oracles of God as his only religious guide, and unites with them the traditions of men, to render them useless. He substitutes the priest for the Deity-the leaves of the sibyl, for the pages of truth —the decisions of the ages of darkness, for the well-considered interpretations of the studious and the learned. Avoiding one class of errors, he thus becomes the advocate of others, more dangerous, and more indefensible. By closing the Scriptures to the people, the very possibility of discovering truth is done away. Error, invention, and imposture have at length been combined into one unscriptural system, where religion and liberty are alike sacrificed at the shrine of a predicted apostacy from the spirit and power of Christianity. That superstition must indeed be a curse to mankind, which is so bitterly and so sternly condemned in the Scriptures of the dispensation of mercy and love; and which is represented also as falling into ruin, amidst the curses or the joy of the nations.
Though the evils which have been brought upon the world by the frequent misinterpretation of the Scriptures, where they are, as they ought to be, freely perused, be infinitely less than those which have been occasioned by pro
hibiting their use; their value, as our infallible guides, will become more evident, if we prevent, in any instance, the misapprehension of their sacred contents. This task is the more especial duty of the Clergy, as their authorized interpreters. Every attempt, therefore, whether of a partial or of a general nature, to illustrate the inspired volume, and to enable the people to avoid the two extremes to which I have alluded, ought to be considered as submitted to the approbation of the Christian ministry. Their sanction must decide whether the labours of the theological student are worthy of the favourable reception of their people. Nothing, indeed, which is stamped with the general disapproval of the Protestant Clergy, can deserve the public favour. They are too numerous to be bribed ; too learned to decide erroneously; too wisely liberal to be partial or unjust. Having no false creed to support, no unworthy objects to conceal, no inferior ends to serve, they approve or condemn, from their abundance of knowledge, and the soundest principles of reasoning. Their decisions are neither arbitrary, nor capricious. The public, whom they influence, may not always receive its first bias from their opinions; but its ultimate acquiescence is uniformly founded upon a conviction, that the reasonings which convince their teachers, are satisfactory in their principles, and conclusions. The Romanist priesthood may command the submission of its flocks to the arbitrary decrees of the councils of an infallible Churchthe Protestant priesthood must persuade by argument and learning, or it possesses neither influence nor authority.
Within the last few years the Sacred Volume, under the blessing of Divine Providence, has not only been circulated in a great number of languages, among the most remote nations, but it has also been distributed to an indefinite extent in our native country. The spirit of attachment to the inspired records has even sometimes represented the Sacred Scriptures as the only means of grace. While the Bible alone is justly called the religion of Protestants, it has not been sufficiently considered, that the instructions of a Christian priesthood are no less the means of grace to the Churches of God. The Bible is the map which directs, the Christian Minister must explain its directions: and wherever the Bible is read, a better interpreter of its infinite variety of blessings is generally required, than the devotion, the zeal, the fancy, or the good intentions, of the reader. Much of its invaluable contents may be understood without any other guide, than the desire of the reader to become holy in the presence of God: but as the perversion of the Scriptures is the source of all error, and therefore of much crime, the interpreter is required to prevent that perversion. All sects, all parties, all Churches, are united in asserting this truth. From the Church which acknowledges an infallible head upon earth, to the society which sits in silent homage to the Deity, waiting the descent of a divine influence from above upon its male or female instructors-all confess the necessity of some guide to truth and heaven, besides the perusal of the uncommented text of Scripture. To the teachers, therefore, as well as the disciples of Christianity, I am anxious to submit the attempt to fix the primary meaning of every passage in the Bible, as the best foundation of correct teaching—as the surest preventive of error - the guide to all secondary interpretations—and the solid basis of that undoubted truth which is contained in the Scriptures alone.
As the contents of the Old Testament are miscellaneously arranged, and the respective author of each book was left to his own language, and his own judgment, in the disposition of his writings; we might naturally have expected that the same plan would be adopted also by the writers of the New Testament. The Spirit of God, which so influenced their minds for the common benefit of mankind, that they should relate only truth to the world, did not instruct them in the rounding of periods, or the studied arts of composition: neither were they directed to observe one order of the several