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far from judging thus of commentaries in general, any more than of systems. But neither are proper for the beginner, whose object it is impartially to search out the mind of the spirit, and not to imbibe the scheme of any dogmatist. Almost every commentator hath his favourite system, which occupies his imagination, biasses his understanding, and more or less tinges all his comments. The only assistances, which I would recommend, are those in which there can be no tendency to warp your judgment. It is the serious and frequent reading of the divine oracles, accompanied with fervent prayer; it is the comparing of scripture with scripture; it is the diligent study of the languages in which they are written ; it is the knowledge of those histories and antiquities to which they allude. These indeed will not tell
you are to judge of every passage, and so much the better. God hath given you judgment, and requires you to exercise it. “ And why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right ?" If sufficient light is brought to you, and if you have eyes wherewith to see, will ye not take the trouble to use them, and observe what is before you ; must you be told every thing as though you were blind or in utter darkness? The helps therefore, which I recommend, are such as pronounce nothing concerning the import of holy writ, but. only increase the light by means of which the sense may be discovered. The student I would have in a great measure to be self-taught, a well conducted attempt at which, is, in my opinion, the true way of preparing himself for being taught of God. Whoever thinks that this method will not do, ought openly and honestly to disclaim the principle, that “the scriptures
are able to make the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Such a one on the contrary hath in effect, whatever he may imagine, abandoned the protestant doctrine of the perspicuity and absolute sufficiency of scripture. He hath not entirely purged out the old leaven, but retains a hankering after some human and unerring interpreter. If he differs with Rome, it is not really about the needfulness of the office, but about the person or persons who shall fill it.
Let us consider a little the consequences of the other method, which indeed is by far the most common, not only with papists but even with protestants of all denominations, and which I would call beginning our theological studies where they should end, with systems and commentaries. To what other cause can we justly impute it, that so much of implicit faith, so much of unrelenting bigotry, and so many divisions prevail in the christian world, especially among the pastors themselves, those who ought to be the foremost in propagating more liberal sentiments of the Gospel of Christ ? The young student new come from college, where he was taken up with other matters, enters on the study of theology quite raw and unexperienced. He is told, if a protestant, that the whole of his religion is contained in the Bible ; and even, if a Romanist, he is informed that the scriptures are in. spired and consequently true, and that they contain many at least of the christian doctrines. The foundation is laid by some favourite system of the party to which he belongs, which is warmly recommended by him who has the direction of his studies. When that is done, he is desirous to commence the study of holy
writ. He begins, and as may be naturally expected, being quite a stranger to the character of the nation, to whom the sacred writers belonged and of whom they write, knowing nothing of their polity, laws, customs, manners, ceremonies, to which there are so fre. quent allusions, and having but a smattering of the sacred languages, and nothing of the idiom, he is often puzzled to find out the sense. If his former reading do him no prejudice, it is well ; much good is not to be expected from it. Impatient to get rid of his perplexity, and to know every thing as he proceeds, some expositor must be consulted. An expositor will be got that shall corroborate the effect produced by the system. If the place of his residence be Rome, one interpreter is put into his hands; if it happen to be Moscow, another; if Oxford, a third ; if London, a fourth ; and if Geneva, very probably one who differs in his sentiments from all the four. Having no criterion of his own, whereby he can form a judgment of the justness of their interpretation, and having an unbounded trust in the wisdom of his tutor, and the penetration of the authors he has recommended, he easily adopts in every thing their explications and solutions. His vacant mind, like what the lawyers call a derelictum, is claimed in property by the first occupant. That author, and others of the same party, commonly keep possession ever after. To the standard set up by them, every passage in scripture must by all the arts of distorting, mutilating, torturing be made conformable, and by the same standard all other authors and interpreters must be pronounced good or bad, orthodox or heretical. This is the true origin of bigotry, and that bitterness of spirit with which it is invariably accompanied. I do not deny, that there are other causes, secular views for instance which co-operate with those prepossessions and prejudices in supporting such a variety of opinions among christians. But I affirm, that it is chiefly imputable to this preposterous method of imbibing opinions implicitly, before we are capable to form a judgment. For when we have no principles of critical knowledge, we have no rule by which to choose, but must be at the mercy of the first interpreter who falls in our way. And of the tenets, which he has dictated, we soon come to think ourselves bound, in honour and conscience, to be the zealous defenders ever after.
But what would you have us to do? Must we give up with all systems, commentaries, paraphrases, and the like? I say not so, entirely, though I by no means think the regular study of them ought to be begun with. When we have made some progress in the scriptural science, we may consult them occasionally, we have then provided ourselves in some principles, by which we may examine them. And let us not confine ourselves to those of one side only, but freely consult those of every side. This we must do, if we would constitute scripture the umpire in the contro. versy, and not bring it to be tried at the bar of some system maker or commentator. The young student ought habitually to remember, that every man is fallible in judgment, as well as in conduct, and that no man can any more pretend to an exemption from error, than to an immunity from sin. And in this respect, as well as in others, we may well apply the admonition of the psalmist. “Trust not in princes, even chief men, as the word imports in point of erudition as well as
wuthority, “nor in the sons of men. It is better to trust in the Lord, than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord, than to put confidence in princes.” When a Romanist tells me, “ The method you recommend is extremely dangerous; the scriptures are even in the most important articles obscure and ambiguous; you are therefore in the most imminent danger of being misled by them, unless you are first provided in a sound and approved guide ;” when, I say, a person of the Romish communion addresseth himself to me in this manner, however much I differ from him in judgment, truth compels me to acknowledge, that he speaks in character and maintains a perfect consistency with the avowed principles of his sect. But when a protestant holds the same language, I must pronounce him the most inconsistent creature upon earth. He deserts all those principles, of the perspicuity and sufficiency of scripture in things essential to salvation, and of the right of private judgment, which served as the great foundation of his dissent from Rome. The confidence, which Rome requires that you should put in the dictates of a church, which she believes, or professes to believe, to be infallible, this man, much more absurdly, requires you to put in those men of whom he owns, that they had no more security against error than you have yourself.
But in reading the scripture, when difficulties occur, what are we to do, or what can we do better, than immediately recur to some eminent interpreter ? Perhaps the answer I am going to give, will appear astonishing, as I know it is unusual. If you are not able with the strictest attention and reflection to solve the difficulty yourself, do not make it a rule to seek an immediate