« ZurückWeiter »
genius, turn of thought, and mode of expression. Attention to this diversity of composition will enable us to read their works with pleasure and advantage. The knowledge of their personal situation and circumstances will not only sometimes account for their selection of matter, and omission of or expatiating on some topics; but will also explain many particular allusions in their writings, whose force and beauty will thus become more evident.
For instance, the evangelist Mark is generally supposed to have been the companion of the apostle Peter, and thence to have had great advantages for composing a gospel. This will account for his omission of circumstances tending to the honour of Peter, and for enlarging on his faults, particularly his denial of Christ, which is related more minutely by Mark than by any other evangelist.2 In like manner an intimate acquaintance with the life and transactions of Saint Paul will elucidate a variety of passages in his epistles. Witsius in his Meletemata Leidensia, Bishop Pearson in his Annales Paulini, Dr. Macknight's3 and Mr. Bevan's Life of the Apostle Paul,4 Mrs. More's Essay on the Character and Writings of St. Paul, and above all, Mr. Townsend's Harmony of the New Testament (noticed in the concluding page of this volume), will be found of great utility in studying his epistles.
III. A knowledge of the time when the several doctrinal books, particularly the epistles, were written, is useful, both to show the reason and propriety of the instructions therein given, and also to explain why such various instructions were given concerning the same things.
We may instance circumcision and other ceremonies, concerning which the apostle exhorts the Romans to receive the weak, &c. about ceremonies and indifferent things (Rom. xiv. throughout, and xv. 1 -3.): but, when writing to the Galatians and Colossians, he utterly condemns the use of circumcision, &c. (Gal. v. 2—6. Col. ii. 8—23.) The reason of these apparently contradictory commands is, the difference of time when the several epistles were written.
IV. Regard must also be had to the peculiar state of the churches, cities, or persons, to whom particular epistles, especially those of Saint Paul, were addressed; as the knowledge of such state frequently leads to the particular occasion for which such epistle was written.
Although the general design of the whole of Scripture was the instruction of the world, and the edification of the church in every age, still there was an immediate and specific design with regard to every book. This appears particularly obvious in reference to the epistles. With the exception of those properly called catholic or general epistles, and of a few written to individuals, they were addressed to particular societies of Christians, and they were adapted to the exact state of those societies, whether consisting chiefly of Jewish or of Heathen converts; whether recently organised as churches, or in a state of flourishing maturity; whether closely cemented together by the strength of brotherly love, or distracted by the spirit of faction; whether steadfast in adherence to the truth, or inclining to the admission of error. Now, if these considerations were present to the mind of the inspired writer of an epistle, and served to regulate the
1 Gerard's Institutes, p. 118.
2 In Mr. Jones's New and Full Method of settling the Canon (part iii. pp. 7981.), there are several examples of passages in the other Gospels that are honourable to Peter, which are not mentioned in Saint Mark's Gospel.
3 In his Commentary on the Epistles, vol. iv. 4to. or vol. vi. 8vo.
4 Life of the Apostle Paul, as related in Scripture, but in which his epistles are inserted in that part of the history to which they are respectively supposed to bolong, 8vo., 1807.
strain and the topics of his address, it is evident that they must by no means be disregarded by us in our attempts to ascertain the genuine and intended sense." A knowledge therefore, of the state of the particular churches, to which they addressed their epistles, is of the greatest importance, not only to enable us to ascertain the scope of any particular epistle, but also for the purpose of reconciling doctrinal passages which, to a cursory reader, may at first sight appear contradictory.
For instance, the Galatian churches, not long after their members had been converted to the faith of the Gospel, were persuaded by some Judaising teachers that it was absolutely necessary they should be circumcised, and observe the entire law of Moses: hence great dissensions arose among the Galatian Christians. These circumstances led Saint Paul to write his Epistle to them; the design of which was, to prove the Jewish ceremonial law to be no longer obligatory, to convince them of the moral and spiritual nature of the Gospel, and thus to restore mutual good-will among them.
Again, Rom. xiv. 5. and Gal. iv. 10, 11. are apparently contradictory to each other. In the former passage we read -"One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." The latter passage runs thus "Ye observe days, and months, and times and years; I am afraid lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain." Now if we attend to the situation and character of the persons addressed, we shall easily be enabled to solve this seeming difficulty.
The Roman and Galatian churches were composed of both Jews and Gentiles; but they are not addressed promiscuously; neither are they the same description of people who are addressed in both passages. Those who "regarded days," among the Romans, were the converted Jews, who, having from their youth observed them as divine appointments, were with difficulty brought to lay them aside. And as their attachment had its origin in a tender regard to divine authori ty, they were considered as "keeping the day unto the Lord;" and great forbearance was enjoined upon the Gentile converts towards them in that matter. Those, on the other hand, who among the Galatians "observed days, and months, and times," were converted Gentiles, as is manifest from the context, which describes them as having, in their unconverted state, "done service to them which by nature were no gods." (ch. iv. 8.) These being perverted by certain Judaising teachers, were contrary to the apostolic decision (Acts xv.), circumcised, and subjected themselves to the yoke of Jewish ceremonies. Nor was this all; they were led to consider these things as necessary to justification and salvation, which were subversive of the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ. (Acts xv. 1. Gal. v. 4.) These circumstances being considered, the different language of the apostle is perfectly in character. Circumcision, and conformity to the law of Moses, in Jewish converts, was held to be lawful. Even the apostle of the Gentiles himself" to the Jews became a Jew" frequently, if not constantly, conforming to the Jewish laws. And when writing to others, he expresses himself on this wise: "Is any man called, being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called, in uncircumcision? let him not become circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but the keeping of the commandments of God." (1 Cor. vii. 18, 19.) But for Gentiles, who had no such things to allege in their favour, to go off from the liberty granted to them (Acts xv.), and entangle themselves under a yoke of bondage; and not only so, but to make it a term of justification, was sufficient to excite a fear lest the labour which he had bestowed upon them was in vain.2
Braunius,3 Vitringa,4 and Buddeus5 have happily illustrated numerous passages in Saint Paul's Epistles by attending to the circumstances mentioned in the above canon. The state of the apocalyptic churches has also been well described by our
1 Rev. H. F. Burder's Sermon on the Duty and Means of ascertaining the genuine Sense of the Scriptures, p. 19.
3 Selecta Sacra, lib. i.
5 Jo. Francisci Buddei Ecclesia Apostolica, sive de Statu Ecclesiæ Christiane sub Apostolis Commentatio Historica-Dogmatica; quæ et introductionis loco in Epistolas Pauli cæterorumque apostolorum esse queat. Svo. Jene, 1729. Buddeus has briefly treated this important subject with great judgment, and referred to a great variety of useful writers.
2 Fuller's Harmony of Scripture, pp. 44. 46.
4 Observationes Sacræ, lib. iv. cc. 7, 8.
learned countryman Smith,1 by Witsius,2 and especially by Ferdinand Stosch.3 Rambach in his Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans, has elaborately investigated the state of the church at Rome, and applied it to the examination and scope of that epistle.4
V. In order to understand any doctrinal book or passage of Scripture, we must attend to the controversies which were agitated at that time, and to which the sacred writers allude: for a key to the apostolic epistles is not to be sought in the modern controversies that divide Christians, and which were not only unknown, but also were not in existence at that time.
The controversies which were discussed in the age of the apostles, are to be ascertained, partly from their writings, partly from the existing monuments of the primitive Christians, and likewise from some passages in the writings of the Rabbins.
From these it appears that the following were the principal questions then, agitated, viz. What is the true way by which to please God, and thus to obtain eternal life the observance of the Mosaic law, or faith and obedience as held forth in the Gospel? To this question the following was closely allied Whether the observance of the Mosaic ceremonies was so absolutely necessary, that they were to be imposed on the converted Gentiles? The former question is particu larly discussed in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; the latter, in the council held at Jerusalem (Acts xv. 1-31.), and especially in the Epistle to the Galatians.
Another question which was most warmly agitated, related to the calling of the Gentiles, which the Jews could by no means bear, as appears from numerous passages in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles. The apostles therefore found it necessary to assert that point, to confirm it by citing numerous prophecies from the Old Testament relative to the conversion of the Gentiles, and to vindicate it from the objections of the Jews: this has been done by Saint Paul in several chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, as well as in his Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, in which he proves that the Jewish ceremonies were superseded.
There were also some Jewish notions, which were refuted both by our Lord and by his apostles; for instance, that all Jews would certainly be saved. Turretin, to whom we are indebted for this observation, has adduced a passage from the Codex Sanhedrin, which affirmed that every Jew had a portion in the future world, and another from the Talmud, in which it is said that Abraham is sitting near the gates of hell, and does not permit any Israelite, however wicked he may be, to descend into hell.5 In opposition to such traditions as these, Jesus Christ thus solemnly warned them: Not every man that saith unto me, Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. (Matt. vii. 21.) This notion was also opposed at length by Saint Paul. (Rom. xi. 16. et seq.) Once more: it appears from very many passages of the Jewish writers, that the Jews divided the precepts of the law into great and little, and taught that if a man observed one such grand precept, that would suffice to conciliate the favour of God, and would outweigh all his other actions. In opposition to this our Lord solemnly declares, that "whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called (shall be) least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. v. 19.): and Saint James also. "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." (Ja. ii. 10.)
Further, many erroneous tenets were held and promulgated, in the time of the apostles, by persons calling themselves Christians. To these "oppositions of
1 In his "Remarks upon the manners, religion, and government of the Turks, with a survey of the seven churches of Asia." evo, 1678. The remarks had previously been printed in Latin in 1672, and again in an enlarged edition in 1674.
2 Miscellanea Sacra, tom. i. p. 669.
3 Ferdinandi Stosch Syntagma Dissertationum Septem de nominibus totidem Urbium Asiæ ad quos D. Johannes in Apocalypsi Epistolas direxit, 8vo. Guelpherbyti, 1757. A very rare and valuable work. The modern state of the seven Asiatic churches is described by the Rev. H. Lindsay (chaplain to the British Ambassador at the Porte) in the Christian Observer for 1816, vol. xv. pp. 190, 191.
4 Jo. Jac. Rambachii Introductio Historico Theologica in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos, 8vo. Hala, 1727. 5 De Sacr. Script. Interp. p. 316.
science falsely so called" (1 Tim. vi. 20.) there are numerous allusions in the Epistles, where such errors are refuted: for instance, Col. ii. 18. the worshipping of angels; Col. ii. 20, 21. against the pretensions of extraordinary mortifications and abstinence; 1 Cor. viii. and 2 Cor. vi. 16. &c. against idols and eating things offered to them, &c. The beginning of Saint John's Gospel, it is well known, was written to refute the false notions of Cerinthus.
VI. The doctrinal books of Scripture, for instance, the Epistles, are not to be perused in detached portions or sections; but they should be read through at once, with a close attention to the scope and tenor of the discourse, regardless of the divisions into chapters and verses, precisely in the same manner in which we would peruse the letters of Cicero, Pliny, or other antient writers.
This reading should not be cursory or casual, but frequent and diligent; and the Epistles should be repeatedly perused, until we become intimately acquainted with their contents.
Mr. Locke has forcibly illustrated this remark by relating his own practice in studying the Epistles of Saint Paul. After he had found by long experience that the ordinary way of reading a chapter, and then consulting commentators upon difficult passages, failed in leading him to the true sense of the Epistle, he says, "I saw plainly, after I began once to reflect on it, that if any one should now write me a letter as long as Saint Paul's to the Romans, concerning such a matter as that is, in a style as foreign, and expressions as dubious, as his seem to be, if I should divide it into fifteen or sixteen chapters, and read one of them to-day and another to-morrow, &c. it was ten to one that I should never come to a full and clear comprehension of it. The way to understand the mind of him that wrote it, every one would agree, was to read the whole letter through from one end to the other, all at once, to see what was the main subject and tendency of it; or, if it had several parts and purposes in it, not dependent one of another, nor in a subordination to one chief aim and end, to discover what those different matters were, and where the author concluded one and began another; and if there were any necessity of dividing the Epistles into parts, to mark the boundaries of them." In the prosecution of this thought, Mr. Locke concluded it necessary for the understanding of any one of Saint Paul's Epistles to read it all through at one sitting, and to observe, as well as he could, the drift and design of the writer. Successive perusals in a similar way at length gave him a good general view of the apostle's main purpose in writing the Epistle, the chief branches of his discourse, the arguments he used, and the disposition of the whole. This, however, is not to be attained by one or two hasty readings. "It must be repeated again and again, with a close attention to the tenor of the discourse, and a perfect neglect of the divisions into chapters and verses. On the contrary, the safest way is, to sup pose that the epistle has but one business and but one aim; until, by a frequent perusal of it, you are forced to see there are distinct independent matters in it, which will forwardly enough show themselves."1
Want of attention to the general scope and design of the doctrinal parts of Scripture, particularly of the Epistles, has been the source of many and great errors: "for, to pick out a verse or two, and criticise on a word or expression, and ground a doctrine thereon, without considering the main scope of the epistle and the occasion of writing it, is just as if a man should interpret statutes or records by two or three words or expressions in them, without regard to the true occasion upon which they were made, and without any manner of knowledge and insight into the history of the age in which they were written." The absurdity of such a conduct is too obvious to need further exposure.
Having already offered some hints for investigating the scope of a particular book or passage, it only remains to notice that there is this general difference observable between the scope of the Gospels and that of the Epistles, viz. — The former represent the principles of Christianity absolutely, or as they are in themselves; while the latter represent them relatively, that is, as they respect the state of the world at that particular time.
VII. Where any doctrine is to be deduced from the Scriptures, it will be collected better, and with more precision, from those places in
1 Locke on the Epistles of Saint Paul, Preface. (Works, vol. ii. pp. 281, 282.
2 See pp. 552-556. supra.
which it is professedly discussed, than from those in which it is noticed only incidentally, or by way of inference.
For instance, in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, the doctrine of justification by faith is fully treated: and in those to the Ephesians and Colossians, the calling of the Gentiles and the abrogation of the ceremonial law are particularly illustrated. These must therefore be diligently compared together, in order to deduce those doctrines correctly.
VIII. Doctrines peculiar to a certain age are better ascertained from writings belonging to that age, or the times immediately following, than from memorials or writings of a later date.
Thus, the ideas entertained by the patriarchs are better collected from the writings immediately concerning them - the book of Genesis for instance than from books written long afterwards, as the Apostolic Epistles. Not that these are unworthy of credit (of such an insinuation the author trusts he shall be fully acquitted), but because the Apostles deduce inferences from passages of Scripture, according to the manner practised in their own time; which inferences, though truly correct, and every way worthy the assent of Christians, were not known at the time when such passages were first committed to writing.2
IX. Words and phrases, which are of doubtful meaning, must be diligently investigated, and carefully weighed and explained.
This is a general rule applicable to every species of interpretation, but of peculiar importance in the study of the doctrinal parts of Scripture; lest, being misled by the ambiguity of words, we deduce from certain passages of Scripture opinions that would fall to the ground as soon as such ambiguity should be removed. A variety of examples might be adduced in illustration of this remark,3 but we shall confine our attention to the terms faith and mystery.
1. In consequence of not attending to the ambiguity of the word Iris, which in our authorised version is usually translated faith, it has been applied by many divines, wherever it occurs, exclusively to faith in the Messiah, when the context often manifestly requires it to be taken in a different sense: a few examples will illustrate this observation.
Faith or believing, then, denotes, (1.) our assenting to any truth, even to such truths as are known by the evidence of our senses thus in John xx. 29. Thomas, whom the evidence of his senses had convinced of the reality of Christ's resurrection, is said to have believed. (2) A general disposition of the mind to embrace all that we know conce ncerning God, whether by reason or revelation: as in Heb. xi. 6. Without faith it is impossible to please God; which expression is subsequently applied to the existence of God, his goodness and bounty towards his sincere worshippers. (3.) A peculiar assent to a certain revelation; for instance, in Rom. iv. throughout, and in other passages that treat of Abraham's faith, it is manifest that this faith must be referred to the peculiar promises made to Abraham that a son should be born unto him, though he himself was then about a hundred years old, and Sarah, who was ninety, was barren. (4.) An assent given to the revelation made to Moses; as when the children of Israel are said to have believed the Lord and his servant Moses. (Exod. xiv. 31. compared with John v. 45, 46. and ix. 28.) (5.) An assent giren to the revelation made to the prophets; as when King Jehoshaphat says to the Jews (2 Chron. xx. 20.) "Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye pros
1 See pp. 535-541. and pp. 556-562., where various hints are offered for inves tigating the context, and the analogy of faith.
2 Turretin, p. 324.
3 See Parkhurst's Greek Lexicon, voce Eaps, flesh and Bp. Middleton's Doctrine of the Greek Article, pp. 166-170. for an elaborate disquisition on the various ac ceptations of the word vevpa, spirit.