Part 3 The Eternal Issues

Chapter 15.

The Authority and Use of Scripture

Hitherto we have been considering the arguments of only a section, although a large and important section, of those whose views we are examining. We are now to look at the final issues of life or death eternal. And here there are two classes of objectors to the common views: those commonly called "annihilationists" on the one side, but who prefer for their views the designation of "conditional immortality"; and those who on the other side advocate the doctrine of the possible or actual salvation of all men, after whatever ages it may be of purificatory suffering.

Of necessity our examination of these opposing statements will lead us in very different directions: they unite only in maintaining the doctrine to which is generally given the Scripture title of the "restitution of all things," and in certain ethical arguments against the ordinary views. The stronghold of the first class of writers they believe to be in the texts which speak of immortality, and of eternal life as the portion of the saved, and of death and destruction in various forms of expression as that of the unsaved. The stronghold of the latter, so far as they take Scripture as their ground of argument, is found, as they believe, in the texts which speak of the reconciliation of all things, and in the expressions for "eternal" being not really equivalent to "everlasting." As, however, we desire to take up not merely the arguments of those who differ from us, but to show the Scriptural view from Scripture itself, and as the full bearing of its statements needs to be considered, and not mere selected and isolated texts, the consideration of these will necessarily render it the only satisfactory course to meet the various arguments from whatever source as incidental to the examination of the Scripture doctrine itself. This only I believe will suffice him for whom Scripture has its due place and authority, as what alone can decide in a matter of this kind. The truth will thus be continually before us, and our souls be kept in the presence of Him who has given it, rather than in the presence of human thoughts and questionings, which can be but this after all.

I do not shrink from the ethical inquiry. But for this we must have first of all the distinct statement of the doctrine before us, and then also Scripture itself must test the ethics as all else.

It will be worth while then in the first place to consider the authority of Scripture in this subject of so immense importance to us, and which involves not only our views of the eternal destiny of men, but of the character of God Himself. And the question of its authority embraces another, of what is authoritative: is it the text, the "letter" of the word, if you will, or is it what some call the "Scriptures of God in their broad outlines" in contrast to this? To which of these is the appeal to be? Are we after all only likely more to lose our way by any minute examination of the words of Revelation? Is the danger in too close a scrutiny or too little?

For it has been asserted by a recent, but very well-known writer* that, because "we are in the dispensation of the Holy Spirit" — "our guide is the Scriptures of God in their broad outlines; the revelation of God in its glorious unity; — the books of God in their eternal simplicity, read by the illumination of that Spirit of Christ which dwelleth in us, except we be reprobates. Our guide is not, and never shall be what the Scriptures call 'the letter that killeth;' — the tyrannous realism of ambiguous metaphors, the asserted infallibility of isolated words." It is true he tells us he is "quite content that texts should decide" this question; but then it is only "if except as an anachronism, we mean nothing when we say, 'I believe in the Holy Ghost'; if we prefer our sleepy shibboleths and dead traditions to the living promise 'I will dwell in them and walk in them,'" so that at that rate we shall consult them at manifest disadvantage, and with little hope it should seem of any satisfactory result.

{* Canon Farrar Sermons on "Eternal Hope," Serm. 3.}

There is some little difficulty in meeting objections which from their nature tend to deprive us of the very authority by which alone we can decide them. For if we should remind Canon Farrar that the apostle tells us that the things he spoke were not in "the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth," and that it seems strange to make the Holy Ghost to be in conflict with His own "words," — he might answer us that we were doing now the very thing he objected to, and settling the matter by an appeal to isolated "texts."

The only encouragement to such an appeal seems to be in this, that he himself so appeals. He himself believes in the promise, "I will dwell in them, and walk in them," and cannot include this among the "sleepy shibboleths and dead traditions" of which he speaks. Moreover he believes at least that "the letter killeth." Therefore, it should seem that we might examine his own proof texts, and see how far, if indeed he base it upon these, they justify his position.

Now it is the same apostle who vouches for his very "words" being taught him by the Holy Ghost, who tells us that "the letter killeth"; and if we would not have that in the worst sense an isolated text, a phrase wrenched from its context and applied hap-hazard as we please, we must inquire a little what its context is. We shall find the words then in his second epistle to the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 3:6); and with the verse preceding it runs thus: —

"Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God, who also path made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."

If we look back to the verses going before, we shall find that he has been contrasting the writing on "tables of stone" with the writing of the Spirit of the living God "in fleshy tables of the heart." If we go on to the verses following, we shall find him speaking of the former as "the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones," given to the children of Israel by Moses, and of the latter again, in contrast, as "the ministration of the Spirit." And in the next verse again he styles the one "the ministration of condemnation," the other "the ministration of righteousness." We need not follow him further.

Upon the face of this then, the apostle in "the letter" that "killeth" is speaking of the "ministration of death," and that as what was written upon the "tables of stone," the law and nothing else. It is this that he is contrasting with the "new testament," or gospel, as "the ministration of righteousness" and life by the Spirit. The law, the letter, killed: was designed by its manifestation of what God required from man to give him the sentence of death in himself. "When the commandment came," says the apostle, speaking of its proved effect, "sin revived, and I died" (Rom. 7:9). The gospel on the other hand "ministered righteousness" — provided, not required it, and so was life to souls, not death. In the one "the letter" of a mere commandment "killed." In the other the power of the Spirit wrought, giving life. Paul was a minister of the "New Testament," not the Old, "not of letter, but of Spirit."

But then, I fear me, Canon Farrar cannot be acquitted of the grossest violation of his own precept. He is in reality using "isolated words," words isolated from their context and applied to establish principles with which they have not the remotest connection. He uses them to put in opposition the words which the Holy Ghost taught and the Holy Ghost who taught them; and to substitute for adherence to the inspired text a sort of mystic, living guidance, which renounces the Scriptures as having any mere verbal accuracy to be adhered to — "the asserted infallibility of isolated words" — and replaces this with "the Scriptures of God in their broad outlines," not to be too narrowly defined; "the revelation of God in its glorious unity," untroubled by the discordance of "isolated texts"; practically, anything that we may please to call the teaching of the Spirit and the word, not to be critically tested even by that word by which the Spirit teaches.

On the other hand, we have been taught that "hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error," not by any assurance of our own hearts, as having the fulfilment of the promise, "I will dwell in them and walk in them," — true and blessed as that promise is, — but as "hearing" or "not hearing" the men inspired of God to give us Scripture (1 John 4:6). We have learnt by the conduct of the Bereans to "search the Scriptures daily" whether these things are so. And from the apostle of the Gentiles that the "very words" he gives us, isolated or not, are words taught of the Holy Ghost Himself.

Canon Farrar does indeed allow us to "decide by texts alone," but it is only if we prefer "sleepy shibboleths and dead traditions" to the living guidance of the Spirit Himself. Is the word of God a "dead tradition"? I will gladly believe rather that he cannot mean this. But then his words do wrong to his meaning, and we have no guide to the latter. I quote from the appendix to his book another statement of his views, possibly more calm and deliberate than that from the sermon in the body of it:

"I care but little in any controversy for the stress laid upon one or two isolated and dubious texts out of the sacred literature of fifteen hundred years. They may be torn from their context; they may be distorted; they may be misinterpreted; they may be irrelevant; they may be misunderstood; they may — as the prophets, and the apostles, and our blessed Lord Himself distinctly intimated — they may reflect the ignorance of a dark age, or the fragment of an imperfect revelation; they may be a bare concession to imperfection or a low stepping-stone to progress. What the Bible teaches as a whole; what the Bibles also teach as a whole — for History and Conscience, and Nature and Experience, these too are sacred books, that, and that only, is the immutable law of God."

Thus it is very plain what Dr. Farrar means by refusing the "infallibility of isolated words." For him there are many Bibles, all fallible alike, and he himself is of these fallible Bibles the only apparently infallible interpreter. History is such a Bible, written where and how, out of all the contradictory tomes to which every day is giving fresh birth, he does not say. Conscience is another, though it teach men to bow down to stocks or stones, or snakes and crocodiles; conscience, which made Saul kill God's saints to do Him service. Nature is still another, with, perchance, a Huxley or a Darwin as its chronicler and expounder. Experience, which proved to the Jews of Jeremiah's day, that while they burnt incense to the queen of heaven, they "had plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil." All these are Bibles, upon whose imperfect and contradictory utterances the mind of man is to sit in judgment — to decide what it can receive and what reject; and the blessed word of God is to take its place among these, and man is to say which of its utterances is the "reflection of the ignorance of a dark age," and which "a bare concession to imperfection," and which "a low stepping-stone to progress."

We may thank Dr. Farrar for his candor. It is certainly well to know what Scripture is for him, and how far "texts" are likely to decide the matter in question. Where he finds that prophets and apostles, nay, the Lord Himself, sanction his view of the matter, it would be hard to say. There is certainly abundance of proof of the very opposite, and in the mouth of one who professes such unbounded confidence in the "illumination of the Spirit of Christ," it seems a strange assertion that thus the Spirit of truth must have taught error, or at least have used such feeble and imperfect means of communicating truth, that He could not prevent its being mixed up with error. We refuse this teaching altogether. We on the authority of Scripture itself believe that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We believe in a really divine revelation given to us by One who cannot lie, and who does not for bread give us a stone, nor put darkness for light, or light for darkness. We would obediently "search" these Scriptures, conscious indeed of our own weakness and ignorance in doing so, but sincerely trusting Him, who assures us that "he that will do God's will shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God" (John 7:17).

Dr. Farrar speaks of "the tyrannous realism of ambiguous metaphors," of course, the metaphors of Scripture. And it is an objection which we have met before, and shall meet at every step as we now proceed, that the texts that are used in this controversy are largely of this nature. Now the ambiguity of the metaphors can only be tested by the examination of the passages in question: the fact of their being largely metaphorical admits of no doubt. Mr. Minton puts this triumphantly in his published "Way Everlasting." "Suppose," says he to the person he is addressing, "we agreed to wave everything on either side, of a purely figurative character, whether parables, metaphors or visions, together with passages admitted to be of doubtful meaning on other ground than that connected with the issue between us, and to abide by the plain prose statements that form the staple of Scripture testimony on the subject — where would you be? Simply nowhere. You would be out of court."

Mr. Minton's triumph is hardly so well assured; yet doubtless he has some apparent reason for what he says. The pictorial representations, if I may so say, of the eternal state are those naturally in which we find the most vivid images of eternal judgment; and these are precisely the passages which he and such as he have most difficulty in reconciling with their various theories. The book of Revelation especially, the prophetic panorama of things to come, gives them especial trouble. The eternal torment spoken of there Mr. Minton candidly confesses his inability to explain in any way quite satisfactory to his own mind.* But the "highly figurative" character of these visions is the constant plea, and they can refuse upon this ground what they cannot explain. To maintain the authority of texts like these, is just to assert that "tyrannous realism of ambiguous metaphors" against which Canon Farrar utters his protest. Yet the book has, as few have, its inspired title, and that title is "the Revelation of Jesus Christ." It is as if the complaints of obscurity and ambiguity had already reached the Divine ears from out the unborn future, and He had provided for them with the assurance of its being a revelation, a true unfolding of "things to come to pass." I would ask them to mark this, that it is here they find their greatest difficulty, in what Christ calls His "Revelation."**

{*Way Everlasting, 4th ed., p. 60.

**For Mr. Dobney these are the "hieroglyphs of Patmos." Mr. Cox would exclude from the decision of this question not only "Revelation," but the parables of the Lord, and all the Old Testament (Salvator Mundi, ch. 2).}

The figurative character is confessed, but it is only what is found wherever eternal things are pictured to us. There seems no other way of their being set before us indeed, than by figures taken from the things around and we may be sure that He who speaks to us in them has taken not the most obscure and doubtful way to show them to us. "We see through a glass, darkly," says the apostle. The last phrase is literally "in an enigma" (1 Cor. 13:12, marg.). Thus it is the Scripture way to use enigmas to describe what otherwise it may well be impossible for a man to utter (2 Cor. 12:4).

Yet though it was of old the complaint as to the prophets that they "spake parables" (Ezek. 20:49), it is nevertheless expected of disciples at least, that they should understand them. "Know ye not this parable?" asked the Lord once of the twelve, "and how then will ye know all parables?" (Mark 4:13). Surely our shame it is to be akin to those who seeing do not perceive, and hearing do not understand. The Lord does not trifle with us, does not invite us to see what He forbids us to understand.* And there we must pause for the present. The visions themselves will come before us at another time.

{*As to the doubtfulness of the interpretation of the parables, Mr. Cox asks of Matt. 13:33, and Luke 15:4: "Would it not be quite easy to interpret these weighty and emphatic phrases as signifying that the whole mass of mankind is to be leavened and quickened by the truth of Christ, and that the great Bishop of our souls will never cease from his quest of any poor lost sinner until he find him and restore him to the fold?" No doubt it is "easy," if we assume the meaning of symbols as we please, and this has been largely done; but the "three measures of meal" refer to the meat-offering with which no leaven was to be mixed (Lev. 2:11), and cannot mean "the whole mass of mankind," any more than the "leaven" can ever be interpreted as good according to Scripture usage (Comp. Matt. 16:6, 11, 12; Mark 8:15; 1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:9).

Again, the "lost" sheep is the "sinner that repenteth," and Christ does find all such. As to the prodigal figuring the return of a soul from hell (the far country), it is unworthy trifling, which stamps the character of the man who uses it. Think of a sinner going away from God to enjoy himself in hell!}