On Some Hindrances to the Interpretation of Scripture.


1882 4 The Bible is the only book that is not allowed to tell its own tale. No theories are too absurd, no doctrines too outrageous to plead the authority of its sacred pages. Given a preconceived notion, no matter how originated, perhaps through some unhappy warp of the mind, perhaps only the misunderstood tenet of another, and then to the Bible for authority and sanction. We need hardly say that the wrong consists not in regarding God's word as the sole and divine standard, but in perverting its words in order to build up false theories. If this were confined to fanatics and visionaries, it might be a waste of time to call attention to it. But it is peculiar to no ecclesiastical sect, to no class of persons. Some of the most lamentable illustrations of this deplorable evil might be found in people in other respects sober enough and not without reputation for piety. And on the other hand Christians less zealous, at least apparently, may be free from such vagaries in a general way through mistrust of themselves or merely commonsense, which in the absence of spiritual discernment may perhaps exert a salutary negative influence.

Still it would be rash and unfounded in fact to pronounce any position or any one wholly free from this snare, oven the most enlightened, as it would certainly be invidious to give instances of such a general danger. We have, in truth, each one's peculiar infirmities, and not the less because we may be able at the same time to see very clearly the failures of our neighbours. In sacred things, as in secular, men's minds tend to run in grooves, and the deeper their own rut, the less good they are fain to see in the tracks of other people. To use a less homely illustration, their infirm vision can see little else than that on which they are directly gazing. Thus it is that, when occupied with the interpretation of scripture, they leave out of consideration any special circumstances of time and place, people addressed, etc.; though one would think the rashness of such a procedure carried its own refutation. It is obvious that any book may be made to say anything when quoted with indifference to context. In natural things we would recommend the advantage of a cautious and reflective mind. But in divine matters, such as the right dividing of scripture, spiritual judgment is essential. It is the Spirit that searches the deep things of God. And the infallible securer of the Spirit's guidance is an eye single to Christ with self-judgment and humble prayer. But are we always sure that prayer precedes our conclusions? Does it not sometimes merely follow (if its aid be sought at all), and is not humility so ethereal that "it is gone if it but look upon itself," as has been well said?

Sound intellectual habits, though (as we have hinted above) they may be salutary as a check, will not do us any positive good in the things of God — it is no question now of communicating to others, of which shortly — but they may at least lead us to pause, and will be good servants, if only servants. They may enable us to see the untenability, perhaps the grotesque untenability, of other people's opinions, and of our own too sometimes, though these indeed we sometimes cherish with unhappy fondness, just because our own rut is so deep. Of course it is natural and in one sense it is right that we should hold our religious convictions firmly, because in fact we do not hold them as mere opinions, but believe that, in very deed, we have the mind of Christ. If they are merely our opinions, the sooner we drop them, the better. But let us be very sure that we have the right interpretation, or at least a right interpretation, as scripture is many-sided. Nor with looking to God is this such a difficult matter. We have, true Christians have, the mind of Christ, and the wayfaring man though a fool may read. He may have no exquisitely keen perceptions, no delicately balanced judgment, and yet he may know God's mind about him if he only be simple enough. So may even a little child. Indeed the confiding nature of a child is the very attitude that becomes us in God's presence, and in searching His word. Thus shall we have the truth positively. We shall not halt in sad despairing scepticism, afraid to hold anything at all, because we see the woeful delusions of others before our eyes, delusions born of rash assumption, and due necessarily to insubjection of heart. For is it not a fact that views are held arrived at by no spiritual discernment, but through some flaw of reasoning, some mental peculiarity, perhaps because some favourite teacher holds them, or simply because such is our pleasure? Then, of course, when the position is challenged, some text has to do duty.

It must nevertheless be borne in mind, that this handling of the Bible, to which we call attention, and to which, as we all know, no other book is subjected, is due to the fact that it is the Bible, and thus indirectly a homage. It is God's word, that word which He has "magnified above all his name." The infidel who would subject it to his puny criticism, and the well-meaning Christian who tries to bolster up his delusive theories by sheltering them beneath its august sanction, alike pay it tribute, though that of the sceptic be involuntary. But even he feels its power. As one has said, "Men do not fight against straws, but against a sword whose edge is keen and felt." The Christian man, who through insubjection to the Spirit of God theorises on scripture, of course does not mean to fight against it. But he has not done with himself, he has still some confidence in his own powers, and if he be not kept back by natural modesty or natural scepticism, he will propound rare theories. We may acknowledge the paramount authority of God's word, but, we repeat, without humble dependence we may drift into any unknown sea of error. In the extreme case it is "wresting scripture to our own destruction."

We have not been concerned so much with the exposition of the Bible for the edification of others. This is undoubtedly a different matter. The "several ability," which is certainly not necessary to our having the "mind of Christ," and feeding on the word for ourselves, still less in any devotion and meditation, is used by God in the function of ministry. To suppose it otherwise is to run in the teeth of facts, and savours of religious fanaticism. As radicalism is never so rampant as among the inexperienced who obey its promptings with characteristic fervour, it is also never so repulsive as in the things of God, on the principle of optimi corruptio pessima. Nay, ministry is a distinct gift, and the man who can enjoy the truth for himself is not necessarily able to expound it to others. Such are generally endowed with natural clearness of perception, as well as breadth of mind, and soundness of judgment. But such need, in even greater measure, that humility and prayerfulness, without which the most brilliant natural abilities are worse than useless.

In fine, men are apt to err in two antagonistic ways, the sceptical and the fanatical. For the latter this paper is specially intended. To the former the inadequacy of mere human cleverness needs specially to be presented. But, unless we beware of both evils, pride of intellect and fanatical ignorance, we shall garner but little grain, in the whirl of barren chaff to which only we can liken the thoughts of men on the word of God. X.