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passages. Hence it has been said, that anything may be proved from the Scriptures. And it is true, that, if we proceed in so erroneous a method, and neglect every fact and principle which ought to be attended to in the interpretation of language, there is no meaning too false, too absurd, or too ridiculous, to be educed from the words of Scripture, or, equally, from those of any popular writing. An experiment may be made upon the passages just quoted in the preceding paragraphs.*
* "Quæ lex, quod senatus-consultum, quod magistratus edictum, quod fœdus, aut pactio, quod (ut ad privatas res redeam) testamentum, quæ judicia, aut stipulationes, aut pacti et conventi formula non infirmari, aut convelli potest, si ad verba rem deflectere velimus; consilium autem corum, qui scripserunt, et rationem, et auctoritatem relinquamus? Sermo mehercule et familiaris et quotidianus non cohærebit, si verba inter nos aucupabimur. Denique imperium domesticum nullum erit, si servulis hoc nostris concesserimus, ut ad verba nobis obediant; non ad id, quod ex verbis intelligi possit, obtemperent."
"What law, what decree of the Senate, what ordinance of a magistrate, what treaty or convention, or, to return to private concerns, what testament, what judicial decision, what stipulation, what form of agreement, may not be invalidated or annulled, if we insist on bending the meaning to the words, and neglect the intent, purport, and will of the writer? Truly, our familiar and every-day discourse would have little coherence, if we lay in wait for each other's words. There would be no domestic government, if we allowed our slaves to obey our commands in their verbal meaning, and not in that sense in which the words are to be understood."
Cicero, Orat. pro A. Cæcinâ, § 18. A late writer, however, to whom I have before adverted, p. 147, Dr. Chalmers (in the article there mentioned), contends earnestly that the verbal method of interpreting the Scriptures is the true method. "The examination of the Scriptures," he says, “is a pure work of grammatical analysis., It is an unmixed question of language." "We admit of no other instrument than the vocabulary and the lexi
It is in the verbal manner spoken of, that the passages brought to prove the Trinitarian doctrines have been interpreted. But in order to withdraw the propositions thus resulting, from the jurisdiction of reason, they have been called incomprehensible mysteries. A certain obscurity has thus been thrown over the subject, by which some minds are perplexed. I will now, therefore, attempt to show, what, I think, may be shown clearly, that no proposition can be incomprehensible from the nature of
con." "The mind and meaning of the author who is translated is purely a question of language, and should be decided upon no other principles than those of grammar or philology." But this principle "has been most glaringly departed from in the case of the Bible; ..... the meaning of its author, instead of being made singly and entirely a question of grammar, has been made a question of metaphysics, or a question of sentiment: . . . . . instead of the argument resorted to being, Such must be the rendering, from the structure of language, and the import and significancy of its phrases; it has been, Such must be the rendering, from the analogy of the faith, the reason of the thing, the character of the Divine mind, and the wisdom of all his dispensations." There are Christians "who in addition to the word of God talk also of the reason of the thing." "Could we only dismiss the uncertain fancies of a daring and presumptuous theology, sit down like a school-boy to his task, and look upon the study of divinity as a mere work of translation, then we would expect the same unanimity among Christians, that we meet with among scholars and literati about the system of Epicurus, or philosophy of Aristotle."
The illustration is particularly unhappy, at least so far as regards the philosophy of Aristotle. But I do not insist on this, nor on the looseness and uncertainty of some of the language which I have quoted. The main ideas are sufficiently apparent. We are to come to the study of the Scriptures merely with our grammar and lexicon. Having done so, let us consider how we shall proceed. Our lexicon will exhibit to us ten or twenty different meanings, perhaps, of some of the most important words in a sentence. Our grammar, beside
the ideas expressed; that there can be no meaning conveyed in words, which is not perfectly intelligible, I do not say by this or that individual, but by the human understanding.
Words are only human instruments for the expression of human ideas; and it is impossible that they should express anything else. The meaning of words is that idea or aggregate of ideas which men have associated with certain
teaching us the relations of words to each other, will discover to us the various and often numerous modifications of meaning, which some alteration in the form of a word renders it capable of expressing. If it happen to have an appendix treating of the rhetorical figures, we may also learn something from it concerning the many changes of signification to which words are subjected according to established modes of speech; though our knowledge, if derived merely from this source, may not be extensive. But as yet we are furnished only with objects of choice among a variety of meanings, without anything to decide us how to choose. We have only learned, and that but very imperfectly, what the words may signify; our business is to learn what they do signify. Take a sentence, which in different relations may be used to express different meanings with equal propriety, and such sentences are constantly occurring, what assistance will our grammar or lexicon afford, to determine in any particular case its actual meaning? Certainly none at all.
But in the process of interpretation, we are to have recourse to no other instruments. We are expressly enjoined, for instance, to exclude all consideration of the reason of the thing. By this must be meant, that we are not to consider what may reasonably be said upon any subject; or, in other words, what a reasonable man, with no false opinions, would say concerning it. Let us try, then, how we shall succeed in interpreting Scripture, after having excluded this and every other extrinsic consideration. St. Luke ascribes these words to our Saviour: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Shall we exclude all consideration of the reason of the thing, and, taking the word poor in its most common and obvious sense, understand our Saviour as asserting for a universal truth, that
sounds or letters. They have no other meaning than what is given them by men; and this meaning must be always such as the human understanding is capable of conceiving; for we can associate with sounds or letters no idea or aggregate of ideas which we have not. Ideas, therefore, with which the human understanding is conversant, are all that can be expressed by words. If an angel have faculties of a different
all men destitute of property are blessed? But these words, it will be said, are explained by the parallel passage in St. Matthew. Explained by a parallel passage! We are, then, very soon obliged to have recourse to something beside our grammar and lexicon. But how are they explained by the passage in St. Matthew? "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Without taking any extrinsic consideration into view, but confining ourselves to the mere words before us, in which of the many meanings of the word spirit shall we here understand it? Shall we receive it in a sense which occurs repeatedly in the New Testament, according to which it denotes the temper and virtues of a Christian, and understand the words as meaning: "Blessed are they who are poor in the temper and virtues of a Christian"? But leaving these difficult passages, he who chooses to put out of view the reason of the thing, and all those other circumstances which ought to determine our judgment, may proceed with his grammar and lexicon to the next beatitude of our Saviour, and then to the next; and then he may open at random upon any passage of the New Testament, till he has satisfied himself respecting the practicability of his method.
If the opinions on which I have remarked were the extravagances of an individual writer alone, so long a notice of them would hardly be justifiable. But the assertions, I cannot say the arguments, of Dr. Chalmers, are intended to maintain a system of interpretation in which the false doctrines that have been connected with Christianity have found their main support. It is to be observed, however, that the verbal method of interpretation is, in fact, principally confined to passages brought in proof of those doctrines, and is abandoned in regard to other portions of Scripture, to which its application would produce some unsanctioned error or absurdity.
nature from those which we possess, he can make no use of our language to convey to our minds the results of their exercise. If any being have more senses than we have, he can find no words of ours to express to us his new perceptions. It being impossible, therefore, that words should be employed to denote anything but human ideas; whenever they have a meaning, this meaning, though liable to be mistaken, must in its own nature be capable of being fully understood.
To talk of an incomprehensible meaning, if we use the word "incomprehensible" in a strict sense, is to employ terms which in themselves express an absurdity. It is the same sort of language, as if we were to speak of an invisible illumination. The meaning of a sentence is the ideas which it is adapted to convey to the mind of him who reads or hears it. But if it be capable of conveying any ideas, that is, if it have any meaning, it is merely stating the same fact in other terms, to say that those ideas are capable of being received and understood.
No one, indeed, will deny, that there are many truths incomprehensible by us; which are above reason, or, in other words, which are wholly out of the grasp of our present faculties. But these truths cannot be expressed in human language. Nor, while our faculties remain what they are, can they be in any way revealed to us. To re
veal is to make known. But what cannot be comprehended cannot be made known, and therefore cannot be revealed.