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pearance of learning, or the excellency of speech. Commentators, in fact, are witnesses, not judges: their authority is merely human, and does not surpass the sphere of human belief. But we should not read, exclusively, commentators of a particular school, to which we are perhaps attached, and to whose opinions we subscribe; and though the writings of those who inculcate erroneous doctrines are to be received with the greatest suspicion, yet they are not to be altogether disregarded, as they sometimes contain valuable and important hints for the elucidation of difficult passages of Scripture. That he may not be misunderstood, the author will explain himself by a single example. The variety of erroneous theological notions, asserted in different publications by the late Dr. Priestley, has justly excited suspicions in the minds of all, who cherish a regard for what they conscientiously believe to be the peculiar doctrines of the Christian dispensation; so that any theological or expository writings, bearing his name, are by them received with caution, and subjected to the most rigorous examination. His "Notes on all the Books of Scripture" are, nevertheless, well worthy of being consulted: for "though the doctor keeps his own creed (Unitarianism) continually in view, especially when considering those texts which other religious people adduce in favour of theirs, yet his work contains many invaluable notes and observations, particularly on the philosophy, natural history, geography, and chronology of the Scriptures: and to these subjects few men in Europe were better qualified to do justice."2
3. The best commentators and interpreters only are to be read.
So numerous are the commentaries at present extant on the sacred writings, that to notice them all would require a distinct volume. Not to mention the magnitude of their cost, the labour and fatigue of turning over and examining such a multitude of massy volumes, is sufficient to deter any one from the study of them and must necessarily prevent an ingenuous student from deriving any real advantage. For the perplexity of mind, arising from so great a variety of conflicting opinions, will either disgust him altogether with sacred studies, or he will so bewilder himself, that he will not be able to determine which to follow or embrace.
Although the more antient commentators and expositors did not possess those peculiar facilities for interpreting the Scriptures, with which we are now happily favoured, yet they are not to be altogether despised by those, who may have leisure and opportunity to consult them, for the purpose of tracing the time when, and the authors by whom, particular expositions of certain passages were first introduced. The more antient interpreters, being cocval or nearly so with the sacred writers, and also living in the neighbouring countries, are thus rendered good evidence, for the received sense of certain words in their day. Hence the Jews frequently throw much light on the meaning of Hebrew words and usages, as may be seen in the extracts from their writings which are to be found in all the larger commentaries: and in like manner the Greek fathers, the value of whose labours it has been the fashion unduly to depreciate, are excellent evidence for the meaning attached to Greek words, particularly in controversies relating to the deity of Jesus Christ, the reality and efficacy of his atonement, &c. And since there are some expositions of very important passages, in which all or nearly all expositors, both antient and modern, are agreed, these have a high claim to our attention.3
Of the more modern commentators, the best only must be selected, whom we may consult as guides: And those may be considered as the best commentators, who are most deeply furnished with the requisite critical skill; who most diligently investigate the literal sense, and do not attempt to establish a mystical sense until the literal sense is most clearly ascertained; who do not servilely copy the remarks of preceding commentators, but, while they avail themselves of every help for the interpretation of the Scriptures, elicit what appears to be the true meaning, and support it by such clear and cogent arguments, and state it with such perspicuity, as convinces the reader's judgment. To these acquirements, it is scarcely necessary to add, that deep, yet sober piety and uprightness are indispensably necessary to a commentator on Holy Writ.
On the subject of commentaries, it is an excellent advice of Ernesti's,4 that we shall find considerable advantage in making memoranda of the more difficult pas
1 C. D. Beckii Monogrammata Hermeneutices Librorum Novi Testamenti, pars i. pp. 174, 175.
Dr. A. Clarke, General Preface to vol. i. of his Commentary on the Bible, p. xi. 3 Bauer, Herm. Sacr. p. 304. Turretin de Interp. Sac. Scrip. p. 333. 4 Institutio Interpretis Novi Testamenti, pars jii. cap. ix. § 44. p. 306. VOL. II
sages of the sacred writings, which have been variously explained by expositors, as well as of such passages as are particularly worthy of note, but concerning which our own researches, or those of others, have failed in procuring satisfactory information. Thus, whenever any new commentary falls into our hands, we can in a short time ascertain whether it contains any thing intrinsically new or valuable, or that may lead us to ascertain the genuine sense of a passage. By consulting commentators and expositors in this manner, we shall be able to distinguish ideas of things from ideas of sounds; and, thus becoming habituated to thei investigation and consideration of the sacred writings, we shall, under divine teaching, be enabled to understand the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures.
4. Where it does not appear that either antient or modern interpreters had more knowledge than ourselves respecting particular passages; and where they offer only conjectures, —in such cases their expositions ought to be subjected to a strict examination. If their reasons are then found to be valid, we should give our assent to them: but, on the contrary, if they prove to be false, improbable, and insufficient, they must be altogether rejected.
5. Lastly, as there are some commentaries, which are either wholly compiled from the previous labours of others, or contain observations extracted from their writings, if any thing appear confused or perplexed in such commentaries, the original sources whence they were compiled must be referred to, and diligently consulted.
Having stated and illustrated, in the preceding chapters, the different senses of the sacred writings, and the various subsidiary means by which to ascertain those senses, it remains that we show in what manner the sense, when discovered, is to be communicated, expounded, and applied. The consideration of this topic will lead us to notice the interpretation of the Historical, Mystical, Prophetical, Typical, Doctrinal, and Moral parts of the Bible, as well as of the Promises and Threatenings contained in the Scriptures, together with that Practical Application of them to the heart and conscience of the reader, without which all knowledge will be in vain. If, indeed, the previous investigation of the sense of Scripture be undertaken with those moral and devout qualifications which have been stated in the preceding volume, it is scarcely possible that we can fail to understand the meaning of the word of God.
1 See Vol. I. pp. 510-512.
ON THE HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURES.
1. Historical Interpretation defined. - Rules for the Historical Interpretation of the Scriptures.-II. On the Interpretation of Scripture-Miracles.
I. THE Bible being a collection of writings executed at different and distant times, partly historical, partly didactic, and partly prophetic, but throughout revealing the will of God to man, it is generally admitted that it ought not to be contemplated as one book. But since it not sufficient to know grammatically the different expressions employed by writers, in order to interpret antient works, so it is necessary that we add Historical Interpretation to our grammatical or literal knowledge. By historical interpretation we are to understand, that we give to the words of the sacred author that sense which they bore in the age when he lived, and which is agreeable to the degree of knowledge he possessed, as well as conformable to the religion professed by him, and to the sacred and civil rites or customs that obtained in the age when he flourished. In investigating the historical interpretation of the Scriptures, the following hints may be found useful.
1. The Books of the Old and New Testament, are, each, to be frequently and carefully read, and the subjects therein treated are to be compared together, in order that we may ascertain the meaning of what the authors thought and wrote.
They, who wish to attain an accurate knowledge of the philosophical notions of Plato, Aristotle, or any other of the ancient Grecian sages, will not consult the later Platonic writers, or the scholastic authors who depended wholly on the authority of Aristotle, and whose knowledge of his works was frequently very im perfect, but will rather peruse the writings of the philosophers themselves: - in like manner, the books of the Old and New Testament are to be constantly and carefully perused and weighed by him, who is sincerely desirous to obtain a correct knowledge of their important contents. For, while we collate the expressions of each writer, we shall be enabled to harmonise those passages which treat on the same topics; and may reasonably hope to discover their true sense. Some foreign biblical critics, however, (who, in their zeal to accommodate the immutable truths of Scripture to the standard of the present age, would divest the Christian dispention of its most important doctrines,) have asserted that, in the interpretation of the Old Testament, all reference to the New Testament is to be excluded. But, unless we consult the latter, there are passages in the Old Testament, whose meaning cannot be fully apprehended. To mention only one instance, out of many that might be adduced:-In Gen. i. 26, 27. God is said to have created man after his own image: this passage (which, it should be recollected, describes man in his primeval state of spotless innocence, before he became corrupted by the fall,) the divines in question affirm, must be interpreted according to the crude and imperfect notions entertained by the antient heathen nations concerning the Deity But, if we avail ourselves of the information communicated in the New Testament (as we are fully warranted to do by the example of Christ and his inspired apostles,) we shall be enabled to form a correct notion of the divine image intended by the sacred historian: viz. that it consisted in righteousness, true holiness, and knowledge. See Eph. iv. 24. and Col. iii. 10.
1 How crude, imperfect, and erroneous these views of the Heathens were respecting the Almighty, has been shown at great length by various eminent advocates for the truth of the divine origin of Revelation; but no one has discussed it more elaborately than Dr. Leland, in his “ Advantage and Necessity of the Christian Revelation, as shown from the state of Religion in the Heathen World." 1768. 8vo. Reprinted at Glasgow in 1819, in 2 vols. A compendious notice of the heathen notions respecting the Deity is given in Vol. I. pp. 4–8.
2. It is also indispensable that we lay aside, in many instances, that more accurate knowledge which we possess, of natural things, in order that we may fully enter into the meaning of different parts of the sacred writings.
The antient Hebrews being altogether ignorant of, or imperfectly acquainted with, many things, the nature of which is now fully explored and well known, it were absurd to apply our more perfect knowledge to the explanation of things which are related according to the limited degrees of knowledge they possessed. Hence it is not necessary that we should attempt to illustrate the Mosaic account of the creation according to the Copernican system of the universe, which the experiments of philosophers have shown to be the true one. As the Scriptures were composed with the express design of making the divine will known to man, the sacred authors might, and did, make use of popular expressions and forms of speech, then in use among the persons or people whom they addressed; the philosophical truth of which they neither affirmed nor denied.1
3. The historical interpretation of the Scriptures will, further, be essentially promoted by an acquaintance with the history of such antient nations or people, as did not possess a higher degree of cultivation than the Hebrews or Jews.
A judicious comparison of the notions that obtained among antient, and comparatively uncultivated nations, with those entertained by the Hebrews or Jews, will, from their similitude, enable us to enter more fully into the meaning of the sacred writers. Thus many pleasing illustrations of patriarchal life and manners may be obtained by comparing the writings of Homer and Hesiod with the accounts given by Moses. The Iliad, for instance, illustrates Abraham's manner of dividing the sacrifice.2 The patriarchal hospitality is similar to that described in the Odyssey. How early a belief in the ministry of angels obtained among the heathen nations, is evident from comparing the account of Hesiod4 with that of Moses;5 and it furnishes an additional proof to the many others, which have been collected by learned men, to show that all the knowledge of the antients was traditionally derived, though with innumerable corruptions, from the Hebrews.
4. In order, however, that we may correctly explain the manners, customs, or practices, referred to by the sacred writers at different times, it is necessary that we should investigate the laws, opinions, and principles of those nations among whom the Hebrews resided for a long time, or with whom they held a close intercourse, and from whom it is probable they received some of them.
From the long residence of the Hebrews in Egypt, it has been conjectured by some learned men that they derived by far the greater part of their institutions from the Egyptians: but this hypothesis appears untenable, to its full extent, the Israelites being separated from the Egyptians by their pastoral habits, which rendered them abominable in the eyes of the latter. At the same time, from their having passed four hundred years in that country, it is not unlikely that they derived some things from their oppressors. A few instances will elucidate this remark.
Under the Jewish theocracy, the judges are represented as holy persons, and as sitting in the place of Jehovah.6 The Egyptians regarded their sovereigns in this light. Hence Michaelis, to whom we are indebted for this fact, conjectures that the Israelites, just on their exit from Egypt, called their rulers gods, not only in poetry, but also in the common language of their laws, (see Exod. xxi. 6.)
1 On this subject, the reader may compare Vol. I. Appendix No. III. Sect. VIII. pp. 590-597.
2 Homeri Ilias, lib. i. v. 460, 461. compared with Gen. xv. 9, 10.
3 Gen. xviii. 6-8. compared with the Odyssey, lib. xiv. v. 71–76. 419–430. 4 Opera et Dies, lib. i. v. 130-126.
5 Gen. xxxii. 1, 2.
6 Deut. i. 17. and xix. 17.
7 Diodorus Siculus, lib. i. c. 90. "From this cause" (viz. gratitude to benefactors,
where the word judges is, in the original Hebrew, gods. agriculture was the basis of the whole Mosaic polity: and it was probably from the Egyptians that the Jewish legislator borrowed the principle, on which his polity was thus founded: though indeed we find, that the state of the antient Romans was accidentally established on a similar plan.2 The priests, and especially the Levites, united the profession of ministers of religion with that of literati among the Jews, in the same manner as the Egyptian priests had partitioned literature among themselves, so that their institution was wholly Egyptian in its origin.3 And, to mention no further instances of this kind, the molten calf which the Israelites required of Aaron, seems to have an exact resemblance of the celebrated Egyptian god Apis, who was worshipped under the form of an ox.4
At a subsequent period, during their captivity, some of the Jews appear to have imbibed the absurd notion of the Persians, that there were two supreme beings, an evil and a good one, representing light and darkness; and that, according to the ascendancy of one or other of these, good and happiness prevailed among men, or evil and misery abounded. Such at least was the absurd opinion held by the person to whom Isaiah addressed his prophecy (ch. xlv.) and which he refutes in the most significant and pointed manner.5
One illustration more will serve to exemplify the rule above given. In our Saviour's time the learning of the Greeks was cultivated by the Jews, who adopted the peculiar tenets of some of their most eminent philosophers. The Pharisees, it was well known, believed the immortality of the soul: but it appears from Josephus, that their notion of such immortality was the Pythagorean metempsychosis. From the Pharisees this tenet was generally received by the Jewish people; and, notwithstanding the benefit derived from hearing the discourses and conversations of our Lord, it appears to have been held by some of his disciples.
5. We should carefully distinguish between what the Scripture itself says, and what is only said in the Scripture.
The Bible is not to be contemplated as an oration from God to man, or as a body of laws, similar to our English Statute-Book, in which the legislature speaks to the people throughout: but it is to be regarded as a collection of compositions of very different sorts, and written at very distant times; and in these books, although their authors were divinely inspired, many other persons are introduced besides the penmen, who have faithfully set down the sayings and actions they record. This distinction of the excellent Mr. Boyle, if duly applied, will enable us to silence some of their malicious cavils, who accuse the Scriptures of teaching vice by the ungodly sayings and examples, that are occasionally to be met with
among whom they reckoned such animals as were peculiarly useful to the country, and held them sacred) "the Egyptians seem so to reverence their kings, and humbly to address them as if they were gods. They even believe that it is not without the peculiar care of Providence that they arrive at supreme power; and that those, who have the will and the power to perform deeds of the greatest beneficence, are partakers of the divine nature."
1 Michaelis's Commentaries on the Laws of Moses, vol. i. p. 192. 2 Ibid. vol. i. p. 222.
4 Schumacher, De Cultu Animalium inter Ægyptios et Judæos Commentatio, pp. 40-47. Our learned countryman, Spencer, in his work De Legibus Hebræorum, and Michaelis, in his Commentaries, above cited, have shown, in many additional examples, the striking resemblance between the institutions of the Israelites and those of the Egyptians.
5 Vitringa, and Lowth, on Isaiah xiv. 7.
6 Josephus, De Bello Judaico, lib. ii. c. 8. § 14. and Antiq. lib. xviii. c. 1. § 3. The Pharisees held that every soul was immortal, but that only the souls of the righteous transmigrate into other bodies, while the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. At first sight, this account appears to contradict the statement of Saint Paul (Acts xxiv. 15.): but the repugnancy is easily obviated, when it is considered that Josephus is speaking of the Pharisees only, but the apostle of the Jews in general, and of himself in particular.
7 Considerations on the Style of Scripture, (Works, vol. ii. p. 260.) Consid. 2.
3 Ibid. vol. i. p. 255.