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as we have done; whereby they are so chopped and minced, and, as they are now printed, stand so broken. and divided, that not only the common people take the verses usually for distinct aphorisms; but even men of more advanced knowledge, in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the coherence and the light that depends on it. Our minds are so weak and narrow, that they have need of all the helps and assistances that can be procured, to lay before them undisturbedly the thread and coherence of any discourse; by which alone they are truly improved, and led into the genuine sense of the author. When the eye is constantly disturbed in loose sentences, that by their standing and separation appear as so many distinct fragments; the mind will have much ado to take in, and carry on in its memory, an uniform discourse of dependent reasonings; especially having from the cradle been used to wrong impressions concerning them, and constantly accustomed to hear them quoted as distinct sentences, without any limitation or explication of their precise meaning, from the place they stand in, and the relation they bear to what goes before, or follows. These divisions also have given occasion to the reading these epistles by parcels, and in scraps, which has farther confirmed the evil arising from such partitions. And I doubt not but every one will confess it to be a very unlikely way, to come to the understanding of any other letters, to read them piece-meal, a bit to-day, and another scrap to-morrow, and so on by broken intervals; especially if the pause and cessation should be made, as the chapters the apostle's epistles are divided into, do end sometimes in the middle of a discourse, and sometimes in the middle of a sentence. It cannot therefore but be wondered that that should be permitted to be done to holy writ, which would visibly disturb the sense, and hinder the understanding of any other book whatsoever. If Tully's epistles were so printed, and so used, I ask, Whether they would not be much harder to be understood, less easy, and less pleasant to be read, by much, than now they are?
How plain soever this abuse is, and what prejudice soever it does to the understanding of the sacred Scripture,
yet if a Bible was printed as it should be, and as the several parts of it were writ, in continued discourses, where the argument is continued, I doubt not but the several parties would complain of it, as an innovation, and a dangerous change in the publishing those holy books. And indeed, those who are for maintaining their opinions, and the systems of parties, by sound of words, with a neglect of the true sense of Scripture, would have reason to make and foment the outcry. They would most of them be immediately disarmed of their great magazine of artillery, wherewith they defend themselves and fall upon others. If the holy Scripture were but laid before the eyes of Christians, in its connexion and consistency, it would not then be so easy to snatch out a few words, as if they were separate from the rest, to serve a purpose, to which they do not at all belong, and with which they have nothing to do. But as the matter now stands, he that has a mind to it, may at a cheap rate be a notable champion for the truth, that is, for the doctrines of the sect that chance or interest has cast him into. He need but be furnished with verses of sacred Scripture, containing words and expressions that are but flexible (as all general obscure and doubtful ones are), and his system, that has appropriated them to the orthodoxy of his church, makes them immediately strong and irrefragable arguments for his opinion. This is the benefit of loose sentences, and Scripture crumbled into verses, which quickly turn into independent aphorisms. But if the quotation in the verse produced were considered as a part of a continued coherent discourse, and so its sense were limited by the tenor of the context, most of these forward and warm disputants would be quite stripped of those, which they doubt not now to call spiritual weapons; and they would have often nothing to say, that would not show their weakness, and manifestly fly in their faces. I crave leave to set down a saying of the learned and judicious Mr. Selden: "In interpreting the Scripture," says he, "many do as if a man should see one have ten pounds, which he reckoned by, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, meaning four was but four units, and five five units, &c. and that he had in all but ten pounds: the other that sees him, takes not the figures together as he doth, but
picks here and there; and thereupon reports that he had five pounds in one bag, and six pounds in another bag, and nine pounds in another bag, &c. when as, in truth, he has but ten pounds in all. So we pick out a text here and there, to make it serve our turn; whereas if we take it altogether, and consider what went before, and what followed after, we should find it meant no such thing."
I have heard sober Christians very much admire, why ordinary illiterate people, who were professors, that showed a concern for religion, seemed much more conversant in St. Paul's epistles than in the plainer, and (as it seemed to them) much more intelligible parts of the New Testament; they confessed, that, though they read St. Paul's epistles with their best attention, yet they generally found them too hard to be mastered; and they laboured in vain so far to reach the apostle's meaning, all along in the train of what he said, as to read them with that satisfaction that arises from a feeling that we understand and fully comprehend the force and reasoning of an author; and therefore they could not imagine what those saw in them, whose eyes they thought not much better than their own. But the case was plain; these sober inquisitive readers had a mind to see nothing in St. Paul's epistles but just what he meant; whereas those others, of a quicker and gayer sight, could see in them what they pleased. Nothing is more acceptable to fancy than pliant terms, and expressions that are not obstinate; in such it can find its account with delight, and with them be illuminated, orthodox, infallible at pleasure, and in its own way. But where the sense of the author goes visibly in its own train, and the words, receiving a determined sense from their companions and adjacents, will not consent to give countenance and color to what is agreed to be right, and must be supported at any rate, there men of established orthodoxy do not so well find their satisfaction. And perhaps, if it were well examined, it would be no very extravagant paradox to say, that there are fewer that bring their opinions to the sacred Scripture, to be tried by that infallible rule, than bring the sacred Scripture to their opinions, to bend it to them, to make it, as they can, a cover and guard to them. And to this purpose, its being divided
into verses, and brought, as much as may be, into loose and general aphorisms, makes it most useful and serviceable. And in this lies the other great cause of obscurity and perplexedness which has been cast upon St. Paul's epistles from without.
St. Paul's epistles, as they stand translated in our English Bibles, are now, by long and constant use, become a part of the English language, and common phraseology, especially in matters of religion: this every one uses familiarly, and thinks he understands; but it must be observed, that if he has a distinct meaning when he uses those words and phrases, and knows himself what he intends by them, it is always according to the sense of his own system, and the articles, or interpretations, of the society he is engaged in. So that all this knowledge and understanding, which he has in the use of these passages of sacred Scripture, reaches no farther than this, that he knows (and that is very well) what he himself says, but thereby knows nothing at all what St. Paul said in them. The apostle writ not by that man's system, and so his meaning cannot be known by it. This being the ordinary way of understanding the epistles, and every sect being perfectly orthodox in his own judgment; what a great and invincible darkness must this cast upon St. Paul's meaning, to all those of that way, in all those places where his thoughts and sense run counter to what any party has espoused for orthodox; as it must, unavoidably, to all but one of the different systems, in all those passages that any way relate to the points in controversy between them!
This is a mischief, which however frequent, and almost natural, reaches so far, that it would justly make all those who depend upon them wholly diffident of commentators, and let them see how little help was to be expected from them, in relying on them for the true sense of the sacred Scripture, did they not take care to help to cozen themselves, by choosing to use and pin their faith on such expositors as explain the sacred Scripture in favour of those opinions that they beforehand have voted orthodox, and bring to the sacred Scripture, not for trial, but confirmation. Nobody can think that any text of St. Paul's epistles has two contrary meanings; and yet so it must have,
to two different men, who, taking two commentators of different sects for their respective guides into the sense of any one of the epistles, shall build upon their respective expositions. We need go no further for a proof of it than the notes of the two celebrated commentators on the New Testament, Dr. Hammond and Beza, both men of parts and learning, and both thought, by their followers, men mighty in the sacred Scriptures. So that here we see the hopes of great benefit and light, from expositors and commentators, is in a great part abated; and those who have most need of their help can receive but little from them, and can have very little assurance of reaching the apostle's sense, by what they find in them, whilst matters remain in the same state they are in at present. For those who find they need help, and would borrow light from expositors, either consult only those who have the good luck to be thought sound and orthodox, avoiding those of different sentiments from themselves, in the great and approved points of their systems, as dangerous and not fit to be meddled with; or else with indifferency look into the notes of all commentators promiscuously. The first of these take pains only to confirm themselves in the opinions and tenets they have already, which whether it be the way to get the true meaning of what St. Paul delivered, is easy to determine. The others, with much more fairness to themselves, though with reaping little more advantage (unless they have something else to guide them into the apostle's meaning than the comments themselves), seek help on all hands, and refuse not to be taught by any one who offers to enlighten them in any of the dark passages. But here, though they avoid the mischief, which the others fall into, of being confined in their sense, and seeing nothing but that in St. Paul's writings, be it right or wrong; yet they run into as great on the other side, and instead of being confirmed in the meaning that they thought they saw in the text, are distracted with a hundred, suggested by those they advised with; and so, instead of that one sense of the Scipture, which they carried with them to their commentators, return from them with none at all.
This, indeed, seems to make the case desperate for if the comments and expositions of pious and learned men