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ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE.
ACTs viii.-30. “ Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said,
How can I, except some man should guide me?".
ALTHOUGH men of learning are best qualified for the critical interpretation of difficult texts, the unlearned have ample means of satisfying themselves, with respect to the leading doctrines of the Gospel. No candid and intelligent person needs an interpreter, to explain the general scope and tenor of our Saviour's discourses. While he confines himself to the words of our Lord himself, he will find little difficulty. But the question, to which I mean chiefly to confine myself, at present, relates to controverted doctrines. Here, if you were asked, “ Understand
read?” you might well reply, “How can we, except some man guide us?”. And then the question recurs, Who shall guide us? What director shall we look
to, in controversy? To whom shall we apply, when learned men and whole churches differ? How shall the people decide, when their teachers and other learned divines disagree? This is an interesting question at all times; and never more so, than at present, when religious controversy is so much the vogue.
Perhaps, the shortest answer that can be given, is, “Let them alone."* Let them differ, and do you adhere only to those points, in which they agree. All Christians must necessarily coincide in opinion, upon many important truths. We may, I believe, safely say, that they concur in every doctrine, which can justly be called fundamental. Their agreement on these, while they differ on other points, is a strong reason for em·bracing them: their difference upon subordinate doctrines must excite a suspicion, that they may not be true; and a belief, that they are not essential. So that, if there be any tenet, upon which you have not the means of attaining to a rational belief, you had better leave it among polemics and controversialists, till they agree among themselves; and, in the inean time, addict yourselves to those practical, edifying, and well established principles, in which they concur. This is the safest general rule that I can give you: but it
* Matt. xv. 14.
may be proper to descend to those particular cases, which are not included under it. It may be quite sufficient for persons of little ability, and less learning; but something further may be required by those, who feel, that they are capable of judging for themselves, and are not content to acquiesce in those simple elements.
For such persons it is a good rule, to interpret scripture by scripture. Make it its own interpreter; and adopt it as your guide. This is good advice, but requires some modification and limitation. It evidently demands a considerable share of knowledge and understanding, to apply it to good purpose. When you compare two passages of scripture, it may not be easy to see, how far they coincide, where they differ, and how they may be reconciled. This may call for a nice critical discrimination, and also a competent knowledge of the original language. In many cases, the resemblance between different texts may be only apparent, and the difference may arise from such delicate shades of meaning, as may escape the notice of persons of no small learning and sagacity. When questions of this nature, verbal, grammatical or critical, arise, I can by no means recommend this as a safe rule, except for inquiring and candid men; for there may be a decided contrariety or agreement between two texts in the original, which may not be perceptible in the translation; and the terms
in both may admit of some latitude in their sig. nification.
For example, our Lord is frequently said to have received worship during his ministry. This might seem a sufficient warrant for us to worship him. But, though the Greek term sometimes signifies adoration, it more frequently implies respect or obeisance.* The word prevent is uniformly employed in the Bible, in its original sense, to anticipate ; thus: “When he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Peter? &c.”+ and “We who are alive, shall not prevent them that are asleep."| Damnation is synonimous with condemnation; but this may be either temporal or eternal; and the word was used in the former sense, when the Bible was translated. Devil and demon are expressed by two words in the Greek, which are both translated devil; and devil, in Greek, has two very different senses. Atonement, also, had two significations, reconciliation and expiation, when the Bible was translated, and is now confined to one of them.
“ Care must therefore be taken, not to bring passages together, merely by the sound; nor to suppose, that texts relate to the same subject, or contain the same sentiment, merely because the same expressions are used in them.” “It is particularly absurd, and of perni
* Luke xiv. 10. + Matt. xvii. 25. * 1. Thess. iv. 15.
cious consequence, to deduce articles of faith from metaphorical expressions."* But there is another rule, which may
be very serviceable even to those, who read the Bible in a translation. You may explain what is obscure by what is plain, not only by expounding similar phrases, according to the meaning they bear in different texts; but, more generally, by interpreting places hard to be understood, agreeably to the general tenor, and evident meaning of the sacred writers.
“This is called the analogy of faith. When this is clearly ascertained, it forms a rule, by which obscure or ambiguous texts may be expounded. But you must beware of substituting, in its place, your own preconceived opinions, and wresting particular passages, to make them conform to these. No doctrine can belong to the analogy of faith, which is founded on a single text; for every important article of faith is, no doubt, delivered in more places than one. The tenor of Scripture should be ascertained by a number of passages, expressed in terms clear, not doubtful; plain, not obscure; proper, not figurative. Texts, which professedly treat of a particular principle of religion, should be preferred to such as treat of it incidentally, or by allu
* Gerard's Institutes.