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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 chuse, 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? 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 controversy, 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 authority, nor in the sons of
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 ambigu
ous; 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 cornmunion 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. testant 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 when a pro
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 solution of it from some other quarter. Have patience, and as you grow acquainted with the scope of the whole by frequent and attentive reading, you will daily find fewer difficulties; they will vanish of themselves. The more perspicuous parts will insensibly reflect a light on the more obscure. If you had the helps to be obtained from history, geography, the knowledge of the manners and polity of the people, which in effect are perfectly coincident with the study of the language, and which may be all comprehended in these two sources, sacred history and biblical philology, you will be daily fitter, as I said before, for being interpreters for yourselves. And I will take upon me to say, that if this method were universally pursued, and all temporal interests were out of the question, the differences in opinion about the sense of scripture would be inconsiderable. In that case, there would not be one controversy among the disciples of Jesus, where at present there are fifty. And there would be no such thing as classing ourselves under different leaders, which has been so long the disgrace of the christian name. We can read the rebuke which Paul gives to the Corinthians, for distinguishing themselves thus in the true spirit of sectarism, one saying “ I am of Paul, another I
am of Apollos, a third I am of Cephas," and we remain insensible all the while, that the rebuke strikes much more severely against us, than it did against them. Has not this been universally the method in the christian world for many ages? I am an adherent of the Roman pontiff, says one, and I of the patriarch of Constantinople, says another. And among protestants one says, I am of Luther, another I am of Calvin, a third I am of Arminius. Ay, but were not some of these, men of the most respectable characters? None is more ready to acknowledge it. But were not Paul and Peter and Apollos, the apostles and first ministers of Christ, also men of the most respectable characters? Yet with what warmth and indignation, do we see one of themselves disclaiming a distinction, which he accounts injurious to the honour of his master, and subversive of his cause. But to proceed. The disciple in each sect is first instructed in the principles or system of their respective leader, and afterwards, with the assistance of what they call an orthodox commentator, that is, a zealous partisan of the sect, he is sent to the study of scripture. The first object is manifestly to make him of the party, the second to make him a christian, or compounding both views together, to make him just such a christian, and so far only, as is compatible with the principles of the party. The effect sufficiently demonstrates the absurdity of the method. All of them almost, without exception, of the most opposite sects and most discordant principles, when thus prepared, find without difficulty their several systems supported in scripture, and every other system but their own condemned. How unsafe
then must it be to trust in men! When we thus implicitly follow a guide before inquiry, if we should even happen to be in the right, it is, with regard to us, a matter purely accidental. No protestant dares advance the same thing with regard to searching the scriptures, because in doing this we obey the express command of Him, whose authority, in profession at least, all protestants hold to be more venerable, than even that of the founders of their several sects.
But when is it then, that you would think it proper to recur to systems and commentators?
The answer is plain. After you have acquired such an insight into the spirit and sentiments of sacred writ, that you are capable of forming some judgment of the conformity or contrariety of the doctrine of these authors to that infallible standard. With the examination of such human compositions, the studies of the theologian ought, in my judgment, to be concluded, and not begun. The disciple of the son of God ought, above all men, to be able with regard to merely human teachers, to apply to himself the words of the poet,
Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri. I shall even suppose, that we could put an interpreter into your hands, who would always guide you right, and this is more than any man, that does not claim infallibility, can pretend to do. Yet even in that case, I am not satisfied, that this would be the best method for the young student to take, in order to arrive at the understanding of the scriptures. To learn, seems, with many, to imply no more than a bare exercise of memory. To read,