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Give To SermonIndex : Christian Books : LECTURE XXXVII. EZEKIEL xx. 49.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold


EZEKIEL xx.49.

Then said I, Ah, Lord God I they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?

Nothing is more disheartening, if we must believe it to be true, than the language in which some persons talk of the difficulty of the Scriptures, and the absolute certainty that different men will ever continue to understand them differently. It is not, we are told, with the knowledge of Scripture as with that of outward nature: in the knowledge of nature, discoveries are from time to time made which set error on the one side, and truth on the other, absolutely beyond dispute; there the ground when gained is clearly seen to be so; and as fresh sources of knowledge are continually opening to us, it is not beyond hope that we may in time arrive infinitely near to the enjoyment of truth, -- truth certain in itself, and acknowledged by all unanimously. But with Scripture, it is said, the case is far otherwise; discoveries are not to be expected here, nor does a later generation derive from, its additional experience any greater insight into the things of God than was enjoyed by the generations before it. And when we see that actually the complete Scriptures have been in the world not much less than eighteen hundred years; that within that period no other book has been so much studied; and yet that differences of opinion as to the matters spoken of in it have ever existed, and exist now as much as ever, what reasonable prospect is there, it is asked, of future harmony or of clearer demonstrations of divine truth; and will not the good on these points ever continue to differ from the good, and the wise to differ from the wise?

This language, so discouraging as it is, may be heard from two very opposite parties, so that their agreement may appear to give it the more weight: it is used by men who are indifferent to religious truth, as an excuse for their taking no pains to discover what the truth really is; it is echoed back quite as strongly by another set of persons who wish to magnify the uncertainties of the Scripture in order to recommend more plausibly the guidance of some supposed authoritative interpreter of it. But yet it ought to be at any rate a painful work to any serious mind to be obliged to dwell not only on the obscurities of God's word, but on its perpetual and invincible obscurities; and, though an interpreter may be necessary if we know not the language of those with whom we are conversing, yet how much better would it be that we should ourselves know it: nay, and if we are told that we cannot know it, that our best endeavours will be unable to master it, the suspicion inevitably arises in our minds, that our pretended interpreter may be ignorant of it also; that he is not in truth better acquainted with it than we, but only more presumptuous or more dishonest.

Still a statement may be painful, but at the same time true. There is undoubtedly something in such language as I have been alluding to, which appears to be confirmed by experience. There is no denying the fact, that the Scriptures have been a long time in the world; that they have been very generally and carefully read; and yet that men do differ exceedingly as to religious truth, and these differences do not seem to be tending towards agreement. It seems to me, there fore, desirable that every student of the Scriptures should know, as well as may be, what the exact state of the question is; for if the subject of his studies is really so hopelessly uncertain, it is scarcely possible that his zeal in studying it should not be abated; nay, could we wisely encourage him to bestow his pains on a hopeless labour?

Now, in the very outset, there is this consideration which many of us here are well able to appreciate. We read many books written in dead languages, most of them more ancient than any part of the New Testament, some of them older than several of the books of the Old. We know well enough that these ancient books are not without their difficulties; that time, and thought, and knowledge are required to master them; but still we do not doubt that, with the exception of particular-passages here and there, the true meaning of these books may be discovered with undoubted certainty. We know, too, that this certainty has increased; that interpretations, which, were maintained some years ago, have been set aside by our improved knowledge of the languages and condition of the ancient world, quite as certainly as old errors in physical science have been laid to rest by later discoveries. Farther, our improved knowledge has taught us to distinguish what may be known from what may be probably concluded, and what is probable from what can merely be guessed at. When we come to points of this last sort, to passages which cannot be interpreted or understood, we leave them at once as a blank; but we enjoy no less, and understand with no less certainty, the greatest portions of the book which, contain them. And this experience, with regard to the works of heathen antiquity, makes it a startling proposition at the very outset, when we are told that with the works of Christian antiquity the case is otherwise.

We thus approach the statement as to the hopless difficulty of Scripture, confirmed, as we are told it is, by the actual fact of the great disagreements among Christians, with a well-grounded mistrust of its soundness; we feel sure that there is something in it which is confused or sophistical. And considering the fact which appears to confirm it, I mean the actual differences between Christians and Christians, it soon appears by no means to bear out its supposed conclusion. For the differences between Christians and Christians by no means arise generally from the difficulty of understanding the Scripture aright, but from disagreement as to some other point, quite independent of the interpretation of the Scriptures. For example, the great questions at issue between us and the Roman Catholics turn upon two points, -- Whether there is not another authority, in matters of Christianity, distinct from and equal to the Scriptures, -- and whether certain interpretations of Scripture are not to be received as true, for the sake of the authority of the interpreter. Now, suppose for a moment, that the works of Plato or Aristotle were to us in the place of the Scriptures; and that the question was, whether these works of theirs could be understood with certainty; it would prove nothing against our being able to understand them, if, whilst we look to them alone, another man were to say, that, to his judgment, the works of other philosophers were no less authoritative; or, if he were to insist upon it, that the interpretations given by the scholiasts were always sure to be correct, because the scholiasts were the authorized interpreters of the text. No doubt our philosophical opinions and our practice might differ widely from such a man's; but the difference would prove nothing as to the obscurity of Plato's or Aristotle's text, because another standard had been brought in, distinct from their works, and from the acknowledged principles of interpretation, and thus led unavoidably to a different result.

The same also is the case as to the questions at issue between the Church of England and many of the Dissenters. In these disputes it is notorious that the practice and authority of the church are continually appealed to, or, it may be, considerations of another kind, as to the inherent reasonableness of a doctrine; all which are, again, a distinct matter from the interpretation of Scripture. One of the greatest men of our time has declared, that, in the early part of his life, he did not believe in the divinity of our Lord; but he has stated expressly, that he never for a moment persuaded himself that St. Paul or St. John did not believe it; their language he thought was clear enough, upon the point; but the notion appeared to him so unreasonable in itself, that he disbelieved it in spite of their authority. It is manifest, that, in this case, great as the difference was between this great man's early belief and his later, yet it in no way arose from the obscurity of the Scripture. The language of the Scripture was as clear to him at first as it was afterwards; but in his early life he disbelieved it, while, in his latter life, he embraced it with all his heart and soul.

It must not be denied, however, that we are here arrived at one of the causes which are likely, for a long time, to keep alive a false interpretation of Scripture, and which do not affect our interpretation of heathen writings. For most men, in such a case as I have referred to, when they do not believe the language of the Scripture, but wish to alter it, whether by omission or addition, do not deal so fairly with it as that great man did to whom I have alluded. They have neither his knowledge nor his honesty; a false interpretation is more easily disguised from them, owing to their ignorance, and they let their wishes more readily warp their judgment. Thus, they will not say as he did, |The Scripture clearly says so and so, but I cannot believe it;| they rather say, |This is very unreasonable and shocking, the Scripture cannot mean to say this;| or, |This is very pious and very ancient, the Scripture cannot but sanction this.| And certainly, if men will so deal with it, there remains no certainty of interpretation then. But this is not the way that we deal with other ancient writings; and its unfairness and foolishness, if ever attempted to be practised there, are so palpable as to be ridiculous. No doubt it is difficult to convince men against their will; nevertheless, there is a good hope, that, as sound principles of interpretation are more generally known, they will put to shame a flagrant departure from them; and that those who try to make the Scripture say more or less than it has said, will be gradually driven to confess that Scripture is not their real authority; that their own notions in the one case, and the authority of the Church in the other case, have been the real grounds of their belief, to which they strove to make the Scriptures conform.

Nothing that I have said is, in any degree, meant to countenance the opinions of those who talk of the Bible, -- or rather, our translation of it, -- being its own interpreter; meaning, that if you give a Bible to any one who can read, he will be able to understand it rightly. Even in this extravagance, there is indeed something of a truth. If a man were so to read the Bible, much he would, unquestionably, be able to understand; enough, I well believe, if honestly and devoutly used, to give him, if living in a desert island by himself, the knowledge of salvation. But when we talk of understanding the Bible, so as to be guided by it amidst the infinite varieties of opinion and practice which beset us on every side, it is the wildest folly to talk of it as being, in this sense, its own interpreter. Our comfort is, not that it can be understood without study, but with it; that the same pains which, enable us to understand heathen writings, whose meaning is of infinitely less value to us, will enable us, with God's blessing, to understand the Scriptures also. Neither do I mean, that mere intellectual study would make them clear to the careless or the undevout; but, supposing us to seek honestly to know God's will, and to pray devoutly for his help to guide us to it, then our study is not vain nor uncertain; the mind of the Scriptures may be discovered; we may distinguish plainly between what is clear, and what is not clear; and what is not clear will be found far less in amount, and infinitely less in importance, than what is clear. I do not say, that a true understanding of the Scriptures will settle at once all religious differences; -- manifestly, it cannot; for, although I may understand them well, yet if a man maintains an opinion, or a practice, upon some other authority than theirs, we cannot agree together. Nevertheless, we may be allowed to hope and believe, that in time, if men could be hindered from misinterpreting the Scripture in behalf of their own opinions, their opinions themselves would find fewer supporters; for, as Christianity must come, after all, from our blessed Lord and his apostles, men will shrink from saying that that is no truth of Christianity which Christ and his apostles have clearly taught, or that that is a truth of Christianity, however ancient, and by whatever long line of venerable names supported, which they have as clearly, in our sole authentic records of them, not taught. It is not, therefore, without great and reasonable hope, that we may devote ourselves to the study of the Scriptures; and those habits of study which are cultivated here, and in other places of the same kind, are the best ordinary means of arriving at the truth. We are constantly engaged in extracting the meaning of those who have written in times past, and in a dead language. We do this according to certain rules, acknowledged as universally as the laws of physical science: these rules are developed gradually, -- from the simple grammar which forms our earliest lessons, to the rules of higher criticism, still no less acknowledged, which are understood by those of a more advanced age. And we do this for heathen writings; but the process is exactly the same -- and we continually apply it, also, for that very purpose -- with what is required to interpret the Word of God. After all is done, we shall still, no doubt, find that the Scripture has its parables, its passages which cannot now be understood; but we shall find, also, that by much the larger portion of it may be clearly and certainly known; enough to be, in all points which really concern our faith and practice, a lantern to our feet, and an enlightener to our souls.

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