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viction; and, secondly, that whereas we cannot divest ourselves of our prepossessions, till we see reason sufficient, to prove them erroneous; I do not mean, by what I have said, that we should abdicate our anti-scriptural opinions, before we have read the Scriptures, and perceived them condemned therein ; but that we should so hold them at bay, as to give them no vote in the interpretation of Scripture, nor a licence to stay longer with us, than the sacred oracles appear to patronise them; I mean also, that we should be as clear sighted, and as ready to give them up for the infinitely better dictates of Scripture, as we are to distingush a guinea from a shilling, and to exchange the latter, though long kept, for the former, which we never saw before. In this instance, and all others relating to our worldly interest, sense and reason operate freely; and why should they not rather shew their power over us in matters of religion, for which sense and reason were given us ? But some men keep their religious prepossessions, like pocket-pieces, which they will neither use, nor part with, for truths of ten thousand times the value.
The other disposition of mind requisite, in order to a profitable perusal of the Scriptures, is diligence; without which, little benefit is to be expected, either by those who search them with an eye to controversy, or those who do it only with a view to reformation of manners.
To the first, I must beg leave to observe, that the word of God is too intelligible, as to fundamentals, to need more than an ordinary capacity, and a moderate degree of attention, provided the reader is blessed with an humble and candid turn of mind. In matters less necessary, it is not always so plain. Now, whereas both lie together in one book, and are often closely connected, the wrong-headed reader, instead of viewing these latter by the light reflected on them from the former, is too apt to fix his attention on the darker and less essential passages; and, through the obscurity arising from thence, hath but a dim perception of such as are in themselves more clear; or else absurdly confounds both together ? from whence it frequently happens, that he either heretically degrades an essential, or schismatically contends about an extra-essential, of religion. But neither of these, nor both together, occasion half the diffi
culties in searching the Scriptures, that the prejudices of mankind do, who, reading under a bias, magnify the real obscurities, and raise up others where there are none; for, to support a favourite opinion, which they can no more surrender than a distempered limb, they are obliged to darken the plain passage, which makes against it, and wrest a number of others, in order that they may oppose that sense of it which they do not like. Hence infinite volumes of contradictory commentaries and tracts, as well on fundamentals, as other points, which have rendered the controversial study of the Scriptures one of the most perplexed and difficult branches of learning. Now, as there is no convincing a man by Scripture, till you have refuted his exposition of Scripture, it is easy to see what a compass must be taken, to enforce conviction, and sometimes even to come at satisfaction, on any one disputed point, if we are to take the judgments of other men in our way. To disembarrass ourselves or others, even by the help of Scripture, so artfully expounded by various sects, and, on the strength of those expositions, so plausibly alleged, for opposite purposes, in books, where it lies intermixed with the infinite subtleties of those who quote it, is indeed no easy task. Unhappily there is not one of us whose mind is not charged with more or less of this medley, and so tinctured with it, that, in reading the word of God, we can hardly separate his meaning from that which hath been tacked to it, for some time, in our heads. It is owing to this, that a passage, plain in itself as the light, being viewed through the coloured spectacles of this or that exposition, perhaps of two or three expositions at once, looks dark, confused, or opposite in its sense to other passages, concerning which we have hitherto had no doubt. It is very remarkable, that when we read a chapter or two in the Bible, we generally find them plain and intelligible enough; but if we, immediately afterward, consider them in a commentary, we are surprised to find them all turned into riddles. Every verse requires a paraphrase; and it is odds it does not escape an annotation beside, where it is often made to speak what the writer never intended; because he was of no particular sect, but a Christian, who only set down what God dictated. These and the like freedoms taken with Scripture, make great diligence and application necessary in him who studies it as a controvertist.
But that the candid, the diligent, and learned searcher of the Scriptures may give himself as fair an opportunity as possible to find out its real sense, let us now in the last place, suggest the rules, by which his inquiries ought to be regulated.
If his mind is humbly conscious of its own inability to instruct itself, deeply penetrated with awe and veneration for the book of God, and candidly disposed to surrender its prepossessions to the dictates of divine wisdom; having left hiinself nothing but his pure reason to be applied to the sacred writings; it will be worth his while to hear what the true use of that faculty is in this application.
Nothing seems to be worse understood, nor more disputed, than this very important point. Some men tell us. it is impious to use our reason, when God is speaking to us, and would have us keep back our faculties from interfering with the dictates of an omniscient Instructor. Others give their reason a kind of check over the word of God, and, when they seem to clash, endeavour to bend the Scriptures to a meaning more agreeable to what they call reason, than that which appears to be its obvious sense, as if their reason were the safer guide of the two.
The first are guilty of an error against the nature God hath given them; it being impossible for any man to be convinced, that through the inlets of knowledge, and the rational faculties, which God hath endued him with by nature. And the second are guilty of as gross an error; because God is wiser than man. Solomon, rightly understood, seems to have ruled the point: he says, 'Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not to thine own understanding. This, as indeed right reason does, sets the judgment of God above our own.
But does it exclude the use of reason? No; it only, bids reason yield to the infinitely superior wisdom of God, when that is known to have dictated somewhat, which reason, left to itself, would have ruled the contrary way, on a certainty that God cannot err, and that the reason of any particular man may. This, however, leaves reason its proper province in religious matters untouched; which consists precisely in finding out the true and real meaning of the divine dictates, howsoever notified, and teaching the mind to acquiesce in that with as full conviction, when it contradicts, as when it coincides with, the deductions of our own judment. The dictates of God, and right reason, can never be contrary. Whenever God says one thing, and the reason of any man another, reason must have erred. Be the maxims of any man what they will, he can have no maxim so much to be depended on, as that God is true in all he says; nor form any conclusion so certain, as that we are firmly to believe what God tells us, though ever so seemingly or really contrary to other points formerly received as truths.
But here it is to be observed, that before reason yields up its judgment to any proposition, as asserted by God, it must first have more certainty, that it was so asserted, and that it understands the true sense and meaning of that proposition, than it hath, that the other proposition, which it yields, is true; for when it hath less, it must give up the Scriptures. There is no middle way, no warping the sense of a book, which we take to be the work of God. The office of reason therefore, in respect to a revelation once admitted, is by no means that of an informant, but of an expositor. Scripture, if we are fully satisfied it is the word of God, must dictate absolutely to our understandings, and not our understandings in any measure, to Scripture. If we are sensible of our own insufficiency, and determined to follow the Scriptures, we must read them with the utmost resignation to what they set forth, so far as we, on a fair exposition, understand it. Our preconceptions are not to intrude, nor shelter themselves, right or wrong, under the authority of revelation. Neither are we so to bring its determinations, and our interfering judgments, together, as to beget a sort of middle or spurious principles, which, like monsters, must carry the features of parents, that have no resemblance to each other.
In reading other books for information, we take their meaning by the words, as they lie. Why should we not deal in the same manner by the book of God? Is he the only author who knew not how to express himself ? Or may we arbitrarily put what interpretation we please on his words? In perusing other books, we are, in a greater or less degree, always knowing readers, and take the liberty, as such, to dissent from our author, as often as we think he dissents from reason and truth. But, in reading the book of God, we read on the supposition of total ignorance in ourselves, of unerring wisdom in the writer, and of great depth often in the matter. You that read the book of God to gratify an impertinent curiosity, or to pick out proofs for your own opinions, or with any tincture of a reserve, or an appeal to your own previous judgment, know, that you are a poor despicable mortal, equally ignorant and vain. You are blind, but you do not know it ; wicked, but you do not feel it. On both accounts, there are men of moderate capacities, who are fit to be your teachers; and yet you set up to be the teacher of God.
If we are thoroughly convinced God is the author of the Bible, we must conclude there are no impertinent nor useless notices communicated to us therein, nor any obscurity in things necessary. What then is left for our reason to do? but to judge reverently and candidly of its sense, and to submit to that without reserve. The truth is, it must oftener happen, that our simple apprehension is requisite, than our reason, to find the meaning of God, which, for the most part, is too plain to need or admit a disquisition. When the private opinions of any man happen to differ with the express
words of Scripture, if he hath common sense or modesty, it will be easy for him to see which ought to give way; for if his opinions are right, then the Scriptures are not the word of God; and if they are not his word, then, infinitely good and gracious as he is, he hath not yet afforded us the means of true religion. He who, by proceeding on a contrary maxim, is led first into a counterfeit Christianity of his own invention, and then into Deism, may consider this, and afterward judge for himself, whether, on his principles, he hath not yet a farther step to make.
There are other rules whereby the ingenuous controvertist, whose understanding is thus divested of prejudices, and confined to its proper office, may direct himself in the study of the holy Scriptures.
In the first place, as he ought to be a competent master of the original languages, so it is necessary, above all things,