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How the Student ought to set about the Examination of the Scriptures.....
Directions for forming an Abstract of the Doctrine of Holy Writ. IN
my last discourse I purposed to show, that if it was our chief aim, in spiritual matters, to be fed with the sincere milk of the word, to be instructed in the unadulterated doctrine of Christ, we must have recourse to the fountain itself, the sacred scriptures, and begin our studies there. If, on the contrary, like the Pharisees in our Saviour's time, we place unbounded confidence in our several rabbies, the founders of sects and builders of systems; if we are desirous of seeing only with their eyes, that is, in other words, if we are more solicitous to be their followers than the followers of Christ, and think ourselves safer under their guidance, though acknowledged to be merely human and fallible, than under that of the infallible spirit of truth; if this, I say, be our principal purpose, we ought doubtless to pursue the contrary method, and make it our first care to be thoroughly instructed in the traditionary dogmas, glosses, comments of that particular champion under whose banners we choose to enlist ourselves, and by whose name we are carnal and mean enough to glory in being distinguished. And after we have sufficient:
ly imbibed all his sublimated theories and subtile ratiocinations, we may venture safely on the study of scripture; we are in no danger of being disturbed by it. Sufficient care will have been taken to prevent our receiving any light from that quarter, that shall serve to undeceive us, and we are as secure as any Pharisee whatever, that if the word of God should contradict our traditions, the former shall give place to the latter, and be rendered of no effect. I believe there are few, who will in so many words avow this to be their plan. But that it is, in fact, the plan of by far the greater number in every region of the christian world, the effect but too plainly demonstrates. It is wonderful, that the consequences of this method in fixing people unalterably in the opinions good or bad which were first infused into them, and in making them view every thing in that light only which will favour their own prepossessions, have not opened the eyes of mankind as to its impropriety. Can that method be esteemed a good one, which all the world sees, or may see, if they will, is equally adapted to promote truth or error, sense or nonsense ; which makes a man to the full as tenacious of positions the most absurd, as of those that, are most reasonable, and serves to pervert the only rule, acknowledged by all sides to be unerring, into a mere engine for giving authority to the visions and theories of any dogmatist, who has gotten the first possession of our heads ? Is it not in consequence of this, that those of other denominations are astonished to find, that we cannot discover their principles in scripture, and that we are just as much astonished to find, that. they cannot there discover ours?
But I am aware of one objection, my doctrine is ex. posed to, which must at least be owned to be specious. If so many men of distinguished learning and abilities have failed in the attempt of explaining scripture, and forming systems of the christian revelation, how can I (may our young student argue) who, in comparison of these, must acknowledge myself to be both illiterate and weak, hope to succeed in reaching the sense of holy writ, and forming to myself a digest of its doctrine ? That many such, as are now mentioned, have failed in the attempt, is manifest from this, the innumerable systems and commentaries extant, which in many things flatly contradict one another, whilst each author supports his own side with great appearance of subtlety and display of erudition. Were this objection to be admitted in all its force, I know not by what kind of logic any person could conclude from it, that it were better to choose without examining, than to examine before we choose. The latter may be right, the former must be wrong That men of
great literary fame have failed, can never be a good reason for trusting implicitly to such.
But I insist upon it, that when examined to the bottom, there will not be found so much in the objection, as is supposed. The usefulness of some branches of learning for the more perfect understanding of scripture is indeed undeniable. Is it because the doctrine of revelation is abstruse and metaphysical, and there. fore not to be apprehended by any, who have not been accustomed to the most profound and abstract researches? By no means. The character, which holy writ gives of its own doctrine, is the very reverse of this. It is
and plain, such as “ enlighteneth the
eyes and maketh wise the simple.” The institution to be given by the Messiah, is represented by the prophets, as “ a highway so patent that the way-faring men though fools should not mistake it,” and as an intimation written in so large and legible a character “that he who runs may read.” And Paul, in order to signify to us, that there was nothing of difficult investigation in this doctrine, and that the knowledge of it was easily attainable by those who were willing to hear and learn it from the apostles of Christ, says concerning it, “ The righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise. Say not in thine heart who shall ascend into heaven (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart; that is, the word of faith which we preach.” And indeed the apostle doth in this, but apply to the new dispensation the same character of plainness and perspicuity, which Moses had formerly affirmed of the old. “ This commandment,” said he, “which I command thee, this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldst
say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldst say,
Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it? But the word is very nigh untò thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” Nor indeed would it be one jot less absurd, to suppose, that in order to attain this divine instruction we should be under the necessity of diving into the depths of human systems, rummaging the re
cesses of voluminous commentators, or exploring the fine spun speculations of idle theorists, than that we should be obliged to scale the heavens or to cross the
It is not therefore on account of any thing ab-struse or difficult in the matter itself, that learning is of importance ; nor is it for the acquisition of the most essential truths, which are ever the most perspicuous. But its importance to the theologian ariseth from these two considerations ; first, that he may be qualified for the defence of religion against the assaults, to which, either in whole or in part, it is exposed from its adver. saries; secondly, that he may become more and more a proficient in the sacred style and idiom, and be thereby enabled to enter with greater quickness into all the sentiments of the inspired writers. The languages of holy writ are now dead languages. Learning of one kind is necessary to attain an acquaintance with them, and consequently with those things which they contain, however perspicuously expressed. In the infant state of the church, miraculous gifts, especially the gift of tongues, and that of prophecy, superseded the necessity of human learning altogether. Now that these are withdrawn, we cannot hope to be perfectly acquainted with the mind of the spirit, till by the use of the ordinary means, which God hath put in our power and requires us to employ, we come to understand the language which he speaks. And, as hath been observed already, the history and criticism, which we have recommended, are nothing else, but the natural aids towards such a proficiency in the sacred tongues. This however is a species of knowledge, which it requires no extraordinary genius or talents to enable us to attain. Common sense, time, and appli