THE INFALLIBILITY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE.
I THINK it right to explain at the outset of my lecture,
that I do not intend to traverse the whole field of inquiry which the question
of the inspiration of Scripture opens up. The principles and rules according to
which the canon of Scripture should be settled, and the genuineness and
authenticity of its several books should be ascertained, I cannot even notice.
Nor do I touch upon such topics as the methods of verifying and correcting, by
the collation of manuscripts, the original inspired text; or the use and value
of translations. All these points may have a bearing on the question, and must
be embraced in any full discussion of it. But they do not enter into its
essential merits. I must add that I do not mean even to attempt anything like
the leading of proof, external or internal in behalf of the plenary inspiration
or infallibility of the Bible. All that I propose to myself in a lecture like
this, is to try my hand at an adjustment, or what may contribute to an
adjustment, of the state of the question; to bring out what it is that the
advocates of this doctrine really hold, and to bring out also the
qualifications and conditions under which they hold it. Much is gained if I
succeed in clearing up our position, and contribute any help towards the
extrication of it from the confusion in which irrelevant discussions of matters
altogether beside the point have, as one is sometimes tempted to think, almost
hopelessly involved it.
According to the plan and method of my present investigation, I do not care much about any definition of terms. Such definition of terms would be indispensable, if I were about to enter into the whole subject methodieally and comprehensively; but, so far as my present object is concerned, I hope to be able to accomplish it without the aid of rigid formal and scholastic technicality. I am content to understand by revelation whatever God has to say to man, whether man might have discovered it for himself or not; and as to inspiration, I care for no admission or acknowledgment of it which does not imply infallibility. I intend, indeed, rather to avoid the use of this word inspiration; not because I consider it unsuitable - it is the right word - but because it has been, I fear I must say disingenuously, perverted from its recognised meaning, as expressive of that divine superintendence of the process of revelation which secures infallibly the truth and accuracy of what is revealed, and made to signify the mere elevation, more or less, of human, and, therefore fallible, capacity or faculty.
Briefly I intend, first, to offer two preliminary remarks in explanation of what, as I understand it, is meant when the infallibility of the Bible is asserted; and then to indicate some of the conditions - four of them - under which that assertion of the infallibiity of the Bible is made.
First, then, I have to offer two preliminary remarks in explanation of what is meant when the infallibility of the Bible is asserted. The first has respect to the nature, the second to the extent, of the infallibifity claimed.
1. By the infallibility of the Bible, I simply mean that it is the infallible record of an infallible revelation. The infallibiity is purely and simply objective. It is the attribute of the revelation and of the record, viewed altogether apart from the interpretation which each may receive, and the impression which it may make, in the subjective mind with which it comes in contact. The revelation, as given by God, is infallible; it may not be so, as apprehended by men. The record of it, as prompted or superintended by God, is infallible; it may not be so, as read by us.
It may seem unnecessary to advert to so plain and obvious a distinction. But those who are familiar with certain recent modes of reasoning on inspiration, are aware that not a little pains has beentaken, by mixing up and confounding things which differ, to wrap the whole subject of revelation, and the record of revelation, in a sort of dim and doubtful mist.
Thus, as to revelation, the divine influence under which Moses spoke when he gave the law; Isaiah, when he described beforehand the sufferings of Christ; Paul, when he taught the doctrine of grace, is represented as differing from the divine influence under which a good and gifted man speaks now, when he discourses on the law, on Christ, on grace; not generically, or in kind, but in amount, or quantity, or degree. Hence it has been inferred that, however much their insight into these matters may have been clearer, higher, more intuitive, more far-reaching in all directions - above, beneath, behind, before - than that of others who have had less of the co-operation of the Spirit, it cannot amount to absolute and complete certainty. It may be far more trustworthy and satisfying but it is not infallible.
So, also, as to the record of revelation, the Apostle John writing his Masters life, enjoys a larger measure of divine influence and guidance than an ordinary biographer recording the sayings and doings of a pious friend. But it is an influence and guidance of the same nature. It enabled "the disciple whom Jesus loved" better to understand the divine subject of his memoir, to enter with, deeper sympathy into his Masters mind and heart, and. therefore to give a better and more vivid picture of him, as well as a more exact transcript of his teaching, than he could otherwise have done. Still, even John might fail - to grasp the whole bearings, the full and exact significancy, of the story which he had to tell; and so, in the telling of it, he may have come short of the truth, or unawares, occasionally, misrepresented it.
Now, the fallacy of all this seems to lie in not distinguishing the position of one through whom a revelation is given, or by whom it is recorded, from the position of an ordinary person attending to the revelation, or reading the record. The question is not, Was Isaiah's knowledge of the message which he had to deliver full and infallible? but, did God see to it, and make sure, that by means of Isaiahs instrumentality the message should be fully and infallibly communicated to those to whom he ministered? It is not, Was there in the prophet himself infallibility? but, Was there infallibillity in his prophetic teaching? So far as concerns his own understanding of what God commissioned him to reveal, he might be in the same position with any other member of the Church - more enlightened, certainly, but not necessarily infallible. God is the revealer - not Isaiah. The infallibility, therefore, lies in the disclosure or discovery which God causes the prophet to make - not in the insight of the prophet himself. This is the view suggested by the Apostle Peter : - " Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us, they did minister the things which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into" (1 Peter i. 10 - i 2).
Take also the record of a revelation; and, to simplify the matter, let it again be the Evangelist John, writing down one of the discourses of the Lord Jesus, in which it will be admitted, that when Jesus delivered it, there was an infallible revelation. As regards his own apprehension and hold of the discourse, John in writing it may be regarded as similarly situated with us in reading it ; - with immensely greater advantages no doubt for taking it all accurately in, but still, in that personal point of view, not necessarily infallible - not fully and infallibly enlightened. And yet the in.fallibiity of the record which he pens may be secured by the immediate oversight of the infallible Spirit.
2. Such being the nature of the infallibility claimed, - let us now consider its extent.
All that is in Scripture is not revelation. To a large extent the Bible is a record of human affairs - the sayings and doings of men, not always a record of divine doctrine, or of communications from God. Is it infallible, when it narrates the wars of kings, and inserts the genealogies of tribes and families ; - as strictly so as when it reports an immediate oracle of Heaven, or embodies the religious teaching of prophets and apostles?
To determine this point, in so far as the necessity of the case may be allowed to bear upon it, let the actual plan and method of the revelation which the Bible records be briefly considered. How, in point of fact, has it pleased God to reveal his will to man?
I can imagine his doing so in a form and manner that would admit of easy extrication from the events of history and the actions of men. All that he intended to say to the human race - the whole instruction which he wished to give them verbally by direct discovery from Himself apart from what they might otherwise gather from his works and ways - might have been comprised in one single communication, made all at once, and once for all, to one competent person, or simultaneously to a select number, associated for the purpose. That one communication might have been complete in itself, embracing, whatever information and direction God meant in this way to afford for the guidance of mankind in all ages.
Let us suppose the original parents of the race to have been in possession of this one communication - to have got such an authentic revelation - clearly and unequivocally certified to their own minds to be no discovery of theirs, but a direct communication of God - his very word spoken in their ears. Let us further suppose that they made, or received, a record of this communication, and that the document has come down in tolerable preservation to the present day. On this supposition it is quite conceivable that books similar to those of which the Bible is composed might be written from age to age; breaking up the one original and complete revelation into its constituent parts and elements; applying these, in orderly or miscellaneous detail, to the several exigencies of history, - whether the history of the entire race, or that of particular family or nations, or individuals ; - and showing the different uses made of them, "at sundry times and in divers manners," by the leading minds of successive generations. The primeval divine communication might thus as it were, be reproduced bit by bit in the writings of men prompted, under the ordinary divine influence vouchsafed to holy men, to illustrate and unfold its various bearings, at manifold points of contact, on the progress of human society, the conditions of human life, and the experiences of the human heart. There might be books of history, legislation, poetry, devotion, and in a sense, also, prophecy; didactic treatises, familiar letters, songs, proverbs, parables ; - all based upon the old revelation, pervaded by its spirit, drawing out its principles into their practical issues, and so interspersed with its very words and phrases, its sentences and paragraphs, that what existed at the beginning as a complete divine whole might all be found, in the form of detached portions and scattered fragments, in the body of human literature thus gathering and growing up around it.
I say human literature - for the literature might be merely human; and so long as the original revelation, in its original record, was within reach, and might be consulted, there would be little or no difficulty in disentangling the divine from the human. Even in that case, however, the value and usefulness of the books, as books written to connect the divine ideal with the realities of the actual world, would be comparatively small, if the writers of them were not infallibly guided, and were consequently liable to err. And supposing the document itself, in which the revelation is recorded as a whole, to be lost, after the body of literature is held to be complete, - in which the whole of it exists, indeed, but exists dispersed, and mixed with other matter, - what then? We have the revelation still. But who shall tell us what it is? Or how may we find out what it is? For we have it only as subjected to merely human handling; broken up and spread through a vast variety of writings known to be more or less merely human; itself, indeed, continuing infallible as before; to be found, however, only in the compositions of men, confessedly fallible; found there, moreover, without marks of quotation, or any definite or distinct signs of discrimination of any sort between what is of God and what is theirs. And the better the books fulfil the end for which I have supposed them to be written - the more thoroughly their authors succeed in making their several compositions, of whatever kind, the living practical embodiments and expressions of revealed truth; in which it is variously acted out in harmonious accordance with its own various parts and phases; so much the greater will be the difficulty of extricating and disentangling the divine ore from its human bed. In fact, this difficulty might be so great as to drive one to the alternative of either abandoning the idea of an infallible revelation altogether, or accepting as infallible the books themselves in which alone, upon the hypothesis in question, the infallible revelation is now contained.
This is the very alternative forced upon us, with reference to the volume, or collection of writings, which we call the Bible. Have we in it an infallible divine revelation at all? Can we have such a revelation, divine and infallible, unless the character or attribute of infallibility belongs in the fullest sense to the record in which it is contained - unless the Giver of the revelation guarantees the accuracy of what the recorders of the revelation write? Can the infallible word of God be in the Bible, unless the Bible itself is the infallible Word of God?
The manner in which the authoritative will of God has been actually communicated or revealed to men, is very much the reverse, or converse, of that in which I have been supposing it to be communicated; and the contrast may be of use in guiding our inquiries and remarks under such heads as the following, touching the conditions und which the infallibility of the Bible is asserted : -
I. Revelation was to be gradual and progressive; not immediate and at once complete.
II. It was to be practical and pointed; springing out of the exigencies, and framed for the occasions of ordinary human life and experience, from day to day, and from age to age; plastic, therefore, in ite susceptibility of adaptation to human modes of thought and feeling; not rigidly stereotyped in a divine mould of absolute perfection.
III. It was to be natural and free not stiff and formal.
IV. It was, nevertheless, to be throughout limited and restricted; not ranging over all the field of possible knowledge, but embracing only what concerns the moral government of God and the salvation of man. Under such conditions as these, let us assume an infallible revelation to be given, and an infallible record of it to be framed; and let us ask if that record would not present very much the appearance which the Bible, as we now have it, presents? Let us look at the Bible as a book composed under these conditions; and let us see if they do not, on the one hand, indicate the direction in which evidence of its inspiration and infallibility may be sought, and, on the other hand, suggest the source from whence a probable solution of most of the difficulties of this subject may be derived. The first two of these conditions may be said to attach chiefly to the divine element in the composition of the Bible; the last two to the human.
I. What God had to communicate by revelation to manwas to be communicated, not all at once, but as it were piecemeal; gradually and progressively.
Now, in the first place, this consideration suggests a very strong reason why God should from the beginning, and all along, superintend most closely and minutely the committing of his communications to writing, so as to secure even the verbal accuracy of the record.
I am aware that this is a mode of reasoning about God in the use of which there is need of the greatest caution. To infer that God must have taken a certain course with reference to any matter, merely because to our judgment it seems the only course suitable to the circumstances of the case, is not often either reverential or safe. In the present instance, however, I cannot but think that the presumption is peculiarly strong.
He who sees the end from the beginning, and before whom all truth lies open, employs me, an ignorant and fallible man, to put on record, not the whole of what he means to say, but only a small, a very small part of it. He knows the relation of that part to the whole; but I do not He can judge how the part can be so put that it shall be found ultimately to fit into the whole; but I cannot. Is it credible that he will leave it to me, writing a history, or a poem, or a letter, to bring in the portion of revelation which I have got from him just as I think fit, and choose my own way of introducing and expressing it, without satisfying himself that it is treated entirely according to his own mind? You would not, as a merchant, trust a clerk, unacquainted with all the interests of your vast business, to send a message for you about someone of them, having bearings, which you understand and he cannot, upon the business as a whole. You would ask to see the document before it was despatched, and you would correct its very hmguage.
Again, secondly, the fact of the divine communications which the Bible has to record being partial, and in a sense, fragmentary in their character, may prepare us to expect a good deal of difficulty in harmoniously adjusting and combining them. At all events, it ought to be an argument for much more modesty in dealing with the Scriptures than is sometimes shown.
An author, especially a voluminous author, is placed at a great disadvantage when his views and sentiments on any important truth have to be gathered from a great variety of miscellaneous writings, composed long ago, and spread over a long series of years. Even with the most honest desire to ascertain his real mind, and do him full justice, you are often greatly at a loss and at fault. You cannot explain how he was led to speak in this particular way at one time, and in that other particular way at another time. You do not wish, however, to magnify apparent anomalies and inconsistencies. You have a firm persuasion that the great man whose works you are studying knew what he was about when he wrote them, and had fixed opinions to advocate, and a well-digested system to maintain. You examine patiently, and judge candidly. And if you do find passages really difficult, in which he seems to express himself on any question, or to have himself acted in any emergency, in a way that somewhat jars with his statements elsewhere and his conduct atother times, you are not surprised. You call to mind that you are ignorant of many particulars of local, temporary, personal, or relative significance which may have influenced him on such occasions, and which, if known, would show that there was only a just and wise adaptation to the necessities of the case; involving no change, or compromise, or concession. And as you esteem highly the author and his writings, you readily acquiesce even in a solution merely conjectural, if it offers anything approaching to a satisfactory vindication of his consistency. Such a mode of procedure is reasonable and fair. It is common sense. It is bare justice.
Now, the divine communications which the Bible professes to record extend, with large intervals, over centuries. Surely, in all fairness, the Bible which records them ought to be treated and judged in the manner which I have been attempting to describe.
This is probably what the Apostle Peter means in that remarkable passage, in which he unequivocally asserts the divine authorship of the prophetic books, or of the Scriptures generally, and assigns it as the reason of a general rule or canon of exposition: "No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Ho]y Ghost" (2 Peter i. 20, 21). He is proving that the hope of the Lords coming in power and glory is no "cunningly devised fable." He first insists on the fact of the Transfiguration. Even in the midst of his hunuiliation our Lords glory was beheld. "We," James, John, and I, "were eye-witnesses of his majesty." We actually saw him as he is to be seen at his Second Advent. This, of itself, affords a strong presumption in favour of what we teach, when "we make known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." But "the word of prophecy" is a still "surer" evidence: clearer, more explicit, and more direct. To that word - to the Scriptures containing it - the apostle refers his readers for proof of the doctrine which he is teaching. And, in doing so, he gives them a strong caution. They are to "know this first" - I they are to keep it in view as a primary and capital: principle of interpretation - that "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation."
The maxim thus announced has been variously explained; but, taken in connection with the reason assigned for it, I apprehend its meaning to be somewhat to the following effect. If the Scripture were a collection of separate and independent treatises, composed by different authors, then each treatise might be expected to contain within itself the means and materials of its own interpretation. We would count it enough, in that case, to let each writer explain himself. We would give him the benefit of collating or comparing the passages in his own book fitted to qualify or throw light on one another; but we would not consider it necessary to travel beyond what, he himself had written, to ride the marches, as it were,. or adjust the terms of agreement, between him and the: other authors whose works happened to be bound up 1w the same volume. But the Bible is not such a miscellanyt;. Properly speaking, it has but one author - the Holy Ghost throughout.
All the books in it are of his composition. He is responsible for them all And that being so, he is entitled to the same measure of justice at our hands which an ordinary writer may claim. We are to take his writings as a whole, and interpret them by the help of one another; by allowing them to shed light on one another; sometimes, perhaps, to limit and restrict one anothers meaning, and at other times greatly to enhance and enlarge it. This is the correct view of the Bible as the Word of God. It is the work of one author; and of an author, let it he remembered, whose object it is not to declare his whole mind and will at once, but to let it come out only very gradually, in a sort of fragmentary way, bit by bit, in detached portions. He purposely at first, and for a long time, restrains himself; and of necessity leaves many things, especially in his earlier communications, unexplained. It ought not, therefore, to be matter of surprise to us, nor ought it to be felt as impeaching the infallibility of the Bible, when we find the dealings of God with men in the days of old, as the Bible records them, to be in some particulars such as, at this distance of time, we cannot have cleared up to our entire satisfaction. It was impossible for him, consistently with the plan of a progressive revelation, to make known always all the reasons of his procedure. Even with the clearer and fuller discoveries of the later revelation, as a key to the earlier, we may be sometimes unable to ascertain these reasons now.
In contemplating some of those sterner aspects of the character of God which the earlier revelation exhibits, or those rigorous severities in his providence which it narrates, we may be apt to wonder if this is the same being whose love shines so conspicuously in the face of Jesus Christ. But when we candidly consider the nature of the case, compelling, if I may so speak, this glorious being, for a long season, to hide himself and his doings behind a cloud only partially dispelled, we see that we may well be expected to acquiesce in explanations not at all points free from doubt ; - and for the rest be silent. Nay, more, we begin to suspect that we may perhaps err seriously, if we dwell only on what appears to be the milder view of the great Father presented to us in his Son, and to ask if, before all is over, and this very dispensation of grace has run its course, there may not be things seen and done on the earth that will but too terribly identify him whom men will persist in misrepresenting as the vengeful God of the Old Testament with him whom, to their cost, they may find that they have been equally misrepresenting as the all-indulgent and all-merciful God of the New.
II. It was the design of God that the revelation of his will to man should be, not theoretical and ideal, but practical, and, as it were, business-like, arising out of the circumstances, and adapted to the events and exigencies, of human history and human life. Whatever God revealed at any time of his mind and will, he revealed, as we say, pro re nata, for the occasion. What was revealed, therefore, took to a considerable extent, more or less, the form and mould of the occasion. Even apart from this consideration, independently of the occasion, the agency employed, being human agency, necessarily affects the substance as well as the form and manner of the revelation.
I suppose that truth, absolutely pure and perfect, can dwell only in the divine mind. To lodge it in the mind of a creature, exactly as it is in the mind of the Creator, may very probably be an impossibility.
It is said, indeed, that in the future state, "we shall know even as we are known." That, however, may not literally mean that our human knowledge is then to be completely assimilated to the divine knowledge, and made absolutely equal to it. It is rather intended to mark strongly the contrast, in this respect, between that future state and the present, in which "we know in part, and prophesy in part." In this life at all events, as is clear from that statement of the apostle, revelation, even when fullest and clearest, does not transfer truth identical and entire from the divine mind to the human; it does not give perfect, but only partial knowledge.
Now it is a true maxim, that "whatever is received, is received according to the capacity of the receiver." This maxim applies to a divine communication as well as to other things. Hence it may be freely admitted that gospel truth - the truth as it is in Jesus - even when communicated directly and immediately - to the inspired apostles for instance - was not to them, absolutely and perfectly, what it is to God. Even they "knew in part, and they prophesied in part."
Nay, more: it may be granted that it was not to any one of them exactly what it was to any other of them that no two of them saw it in exactly the same light themselves, or could present it in exactly the same light to others.
They were men of like passions with ourselves. They had their several idiosyncrasies; their individual peculiarities of thought and feeling; their distinctive temperaments and tastes. He must be either very blind or very bigoted, who refuses to admit that Paul, and James, and Peter, and John, had each his own conception of the revealed way of life and duty; and that, in writing their apostolic letters, they taught it each according to his own conception of it. Had it been otherwise, the New Testament would have been a very dull book; and what is worse, the mind of God would have been far less fully and adequately conveyed to us than as we have it now; unless, indeed, the writers were to be mere machines. It is the fact of our having the truth of the gospel presented to us by different men, looking at it from different standpoints, and conceiving of it somewhat differently from one another that enables us to obtain something better, at any rate, than a merely one-sided view of that great mystery of godliness, which yet, until our earthly house of this tabernacle is dissolved, we can know only in part.
But now, admitting and thankfully rejoicing in this fact, I urge it as what to my mind is one of the strongest of all arguments for the full and infallible inspiration of the apostolic writings. I cannot bring myself to believe that when God meant to reveal his will to me, to you, to all, in a matter, not of life and death merely, but of life and death for eternity; when he was about to communicate, as from himself, and on his own authority, the knowledge of the one only way of salvation; and when, for that purpose, he engaged the minds and pens of men, who, being men, could at the very best know it themselves only in part ; - and who, moreover, being men of different habits and dispositions, could not but view it and present it differently from one another - I say I cannot bring myself to believe that he left these men to write without a superintendence and unerring oversight that would secure the literal and verbal accuracy of every sentence they composed; its being literally and verbally what he would have it to be; literally and verbally correct and true. I will not do my God so great wrong as to imagine that he could so act. I may have to admit that there are difficulties in connection with these precious remains, which I have not, in this remote age and country, the means of solving. But I for one will be no maker of difficulties; no eager finder of them; nor will I make too much of them when they force themselves upon me. I will not refuse a probable, or even.a possible, explanation of them, merely because it does not clear up and make all certain.
And most assuredly, even in a desperate case, I shall consider it infinitely more probable that there is some mistake on my part, some error in my way of looking at the matter; that the puzzle I am in is owing to my distance from the writers; that a few simple words from them would at once remove it ; - and wifi remove it when I meet them in a better world ; - than that either they should have undertaken, or God should have permitted them, to handle, as his authorised ambassadors, and the authoritative teachers of his Church in all ages, the deep things of his righteousness and peace, in any other words than those which his own Holy Spirit sanctioned and approved.
Returning now to the point on hand, I observe that not only must we take into account the human agency employed, as modifying the revelation of which the Bible is the record, but we must allow also for the human occasions to which it was adapted. Divine truth, as taught in Scripture, resembles mixed, rather than pure, mathematics. It is not like the abstract science of number or extension, but rather like the science of number or extension practically applied, in the mechanical arts, or in the transactions of business. In the Bible we have not merely God speaking from heaven, and man listening on earth; we have God, as it were, coming down to the earth, mixing himself up with its affairs, taking part in the ordinary ongoings of the worlds history, turning the sayings and doings of men to account for the purpose of conveying the instruction which he wishes to impart.
Hence there is need of continual discrimination, that we may ascertain the true value and bearing of Scriptural statements as expressive of the divine mind and will.
With ordinary candour, the task of exercising the necessary discrimination is not really difficult. But it is easy, if one is so inclined, to create embarrassment; to confound the earthly occasion with the heavenly lesson; and to take exception to some things in the divine procedure which may appear to be inconsistent with the highest ideal of pure truth and perfect holiness, when in all fairness allowance ought to be made for the constraining force of circumstances. We must regard God, in those dealings of his with men which Scripture records, as in some sense laid under a restraint. It is no part of his purpose to coerce the human will, or to disturb and disarrange the ordinary laws which regulate the incidents of human life, and the progress of human society. There must be, on his part, a certain measure of accommodation. He cannot in his Word, any more than in his providence, have things precisely such, and so put, as the standard of absolute perfection would require. In legislating, for instance, for ancient Israel, it was not possible to have the ordinance of marriage, the usages of war, the rights of captives, the relation of master and servant, - and other similar matters affecting domestic order and the public weal, - regulated exactly as absolutely strict principle demands.
If it had been the plan of God to reveal his will by infallibly directing Plato in the framing of his idea of a perfect republic, or our own Philip Sidney in composing his "Arcadia," - there would have been none of the apparent anomalies which it delights the sceptic to detect, and which it sometimes vexes the devout reader to find, in the Mosaic writings, and in the books of Kings.
Even when the New Testament revelation was given, some things which it might have been expected that our Lord and his apostles would have regulated according to the perfect law of liberty, were left, as it would seem, undetermined. Evils were to be allowed to work themselves out, as it were, gradually in the course of time, through the growing Christian enlightenment of mankind; and the spirit of the gospel, as its influence was to be felt from age to age in every department of human experience, was naturally and spontaneously to effect salutary and blessed reforms, which it would have frustrated the very purpose for which the gospel was given to enact by formal statute, or enjoin in positive command. The disappearance of polygamy - the elevation of the female sex - the abolition of personal slavery in European Christendom - and other similar improvements in modern society, are instances in point.
In short, as regards both the teaching of truth and the enforcing of duty, the principle on which divine revelation has been given, "at sundry times and in divers manners," is very much the principle on which the Great Teacher himself acted in his personal ministry, when "he spake to the people in parables as they were able to bear it." And it is upon that principle, therefore, that the record of the revelation ought in all fairness to be interpreted and criticised.
If this common justice is done to it, not a few of the objections urged in certain quarters against its infallibility will be found to be altogether groundless. Nay, more, I am persuaded that if due regard be had to the consideration now stated, the presumption in favour of the infallibility of Scripture will appear to be very strong. I cannot see how otherwise we have any guarantee for the accuracy of a revelation, depending for the right understanding of it on a knowledge of the circumstances in which its separate and successive portions were communicated, unless we have these circumstances reported to us under an unerring oversight. And, I have no doubt that, were a comprehensive survey taken of all the various intimations of the mind of God contained in Scripture, viewed in the light of the historical and circumstantial occasions by which they were suggested, and to which they were accommodated, a singularly cogent, cumulative body of proof might be built up. It is, in fact, impossible to account for the wonderful harmony and consistency pervading the whole of the divine volume, - as the record of a revelation of God, growing out of, and growing into, the progress of the race of man, - on any other supposition than that the Spirit of God has so superintended the entire book throughout, as to insure, from the highest discoveries of heaven in it, down to the meanest details of earth, the infallible correctness of all its contents.
III. Revelation was to be natural and free, not stiff and formal. Those by whom it was to be given were to speak and write freely. It seems somehow to be imagined by some that men infallibly directed by the Holy Spirit, and conscious or assured of their being so, must feel themselves under the pressure of a strong restraint, obliged to pick their steps, if I may so say, with extreme nicety and delicacy; to be very scrupulous and fastidious in telling what they have to tell; carrying their anxiety about the rigid accuracy of everything they say to a pitch of punctiliousness that, in an ordinary speaker or writer, would be held to be either mere affectation, or ridiculous precision and pedantry. I apprehend that we might expect the very opposite effect to be produced on their modes of thought and expression. I can see no reason why the Holy Spirit, if he has any communication to make, should not use the same latitude that the most truthful of mankind allows himself to use, when minute exactness is not necessary, and is not pretended; as, for instance, when he thinks it quite enough to state a sum of years, or of people, in round numbers; or when he reports the speech of a friend, or of an orator, whose precise words he does not profess to give. Nay more, I can well believe that a man writing under the assurance of divine guidance, might be even less careful in matters of that sort than he would otherwise consider himself obliged to be; and might take liberties in dealing with certain subjects, which, if left to himself, he would not have considered it warrantable to take.
Let me illustrate what I mean by a very simple example, in a very trifling matter ; - and then endeavour to show how the idea or principle which I have indicated may be applied to things of greater consequence.
I find Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, in his anxiety to meet the subdivisions among them - their taking sides, "I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ " - asking, with some indignation, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul ?" And then he adds, in his eager and anxious haste to disclaim his having ever given them any occasion for imagining that they should attach themselves to him, as if he had baptized them in his own name, - that he had not been in the practice of ordinarily baptizing them at all, and that it was now matter to him of high satisfaction that he had not: "I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; lest any should say that I baptized in mine own name." Now this was a mistake; and I can fancy the amanuensis or scribe who wrote to Pauls dictation, stopping short to tell him so, and to refresh his memory; or else Paul recollects himself; for he goes on to say: "And I baptized also the house of Stephanas." Then, as if he felt that there might still be some omission, but that it was unnecessary to be more particular and precise, he adds: "Besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me, not to baptize, but to preach the gospel."
I give this as a slight illustration of the freedom with which an inspired apostle might write; that freedom being all the greater, in consequence of his, being quite sure that in some way or other the accuracy of what he wrote would be sufficiently secured by the Divine Spirit, under whose infallible superintendence he knew himself to be writing. Now, the consideration thus suggested may go far to explain not a few things that have been regarded as difficulties and objections in the way of the infallibility of Scripture. I shall mention only two. The one is, - the variations in the evangelical narratives; the other is, - the manner in which the Old Testament is quoted and referred to in the New. 1. As to the first, let me make a supposition. Our blessed Lord, during his lifetime, or after his resurrection and before he went to heaven, might have desired four of his followers, who had been always with him in his ministry, to write down, separately and independently, what they could remember, and what they considered most worthy of being remembered, of his sayings and doings; and then to bring their several narratives to him, that he might revise and correct them. The knowledge that what they wrote was to be submitted to their Masters eye, would be a stimulus to all of them to do their best. But would it not also give them great boldness and freedom in executing their task? They would not feel themselves hampered by the constant fear of not giving verbatim every sentence of a discourse, and not stating every minute particular about a miracle; nor would they be haunted by the apprehension that their failing to do so might give rise to apparent discrepancies in their biographies. They would have little scruple in following very much each the bent of his own mind, as to the selection of materials, the order of their arrangement, and the language employed in recording them. There would be a free play and exercise of their faculties and feelings. Theirs would be the "pens of ready writers."
And now, they put their manuscripts into their Masters hands. What will be his treatment of them? Will be insist on reducing them to a tame uniformity? Will he be for retrenching here, enlarging there; overcrowding the canvas with details in one place; cutting out graphic incidents, graphically told, in another; altering and amending words and phrases, until the agreement becomes so close and complete as to defy the most captious fault-finder? Surely not. He will not thus give the appearance of collusion to what he designs to be distinct and independent testimonies. He will leave the memoirs in the freedom and freshness of their original spontaneous simplicity; only taking care that there is nothing in. them for which he would not be willing himself to stand voucher. He prefers their easy and artless reminiscences to an absolutely perfect history, as giving really a truer and more life-like representation of himself. He suffers them to go forth under his sanction, although he quite well foresees that the different ways in which they tell the story of his life may give rise to questions that could only be solved by a fuller and more exact narrative than any one of all the four professes to be.
Now the case, thus put as a supposition, is virtually the case as in point of fact it actually is. Historians and biographers, enjoying the infallible guidance of the Divine Spirit, and knowing that they enjoyed it, would be sure to write in the free and natural way which I have described. The Spirit acting, if I may so speak, in the interest of Christ, and consulting for his glory, would exercise his superintendence, just as I have imagined Christ himself to conduct his revision. And the result, as might easily be shown in detail, would be the very phenomena which the Scriptural narratives, as we now have them, present.
2. The manner in. which the Old Testament is quoted and referred to in the New, may also be explained, I think, at least partly, upon the same principle. This is a wide subject - far too wide to be discussed fully in this form. A very few hints regarding it must suffice for the present.
My notion is, that the apostles and evangelists may have been led to use more freedom than they would otherwise have ventured to use, in dealing with the Old Testament Scriptures, and connecting them with the New Dispensation, by the very fact of their being under infallible guidance. Nor is it difficult to see a good reason for this. The whole of the Old Testament has a prospective reference to the gospel. Its historical details, its typical institutions, its devotional pieces, its maxims of wisdom, its prophetic intimations - all point to Christ and the kingdom of Christ. Of necessity, however, all these foreshadowings of more substantial good things to come, are expressed in language less clear than what might and would naturally be employed when the good things had actually come. And let it be borne in mind, that the New Testament writers, when they quote or refer to the language of the Old, are not merely citing it in proof of what they teach. They are authoritatively interpreting it and applying it; drawing out its full meaning as it is developed by the later revelation. In these circumstances, their very consciousness, or assurance, of an infallible divine superintendence being exerted over them, might make theth feel that they were warranted in exercising a large measure of discretion. Being under such a superintendence, they are not, like ordinary teachers, subject to the Scriptures which they handle. In an important sense they are masters of them: entitled to put their own sense and meaning on the statements and contents of these Scriptures; and entitled consequently, in large measure, to take their own way of making that sense and meaning clear.
When, therefore, a passage of Old Testament Scripture assumes in their hands a different import and bearing from what, as it stands in its original place, it seems to have, the presumption is, that the apparent difference arises from the limit which, by the very necessity of the case, was put upon the clearness of Old Testament discoveries ; - that the apostle understands the prophet better than the prophet could understand himself, and expresses the meaning of the passage better than the prophet himself in the circumstances, could express it. The same consideration may account generally for the free manner in which the authors of the New Testament cite the words of the Old. They do not study always literal and verbal accuracy. They interpret while they quote. They have respect to the use and application which they are making of the words, rather than to the mere workthemselves; giving the true evangelical sense, if not the very terms in which originally that sense may have been more or less imperfectly conveyed.
All this seems to be capable of a reasonable and satisfactory explanation, on the supposition of an infallible divine guidance being incessantly exercised over what the apostles and evangelists wrote. I confess, however, that on any other supposition I consider it to be inexplicable. I can scarcely reconcile it, I would almost say with fair dealing. At all events, I cannot reconcile it with that reverence for the very letter of their sacred books which was a peculiar characteristic of Jewish writers of old, and that sense of responsibility for even verbal correctness which men in their position must have owned. I am persuaded that the New Testament teachers felt themselves at liberty to deal with the 0ld Testament as freely as they did, solely because they were - and because they knew that they were, - under the control and superintendence of the Spirit of Truth, would not suffer them to err.
There are other circumstances connected with the use of the Old Testament in the New, which must be taken into account, if we would do full justice to the argument. I allude to certain Oriental and Jewish modes of thought and ways of looking at things, which differ much from the mental habits of Western and modern nations. They were not so analytical and discriminating as we are; not by any means so abstract; but rather prone to view objects in the concrete, and to group together as one person or thing. what, when closely examined, may found to resolve itself into several. But this, and other considerations bearing on the present topic, I must pass over.
IV. The fourth condition under which I assumed the outset the divine revelation to be given, and record of it to be framed, is, that the revelation was to be limited and restricted; not ranging over the whole field of possible knowledge in. science or in history; but embracing only what concerns the moral government of God and the salvation of men.
Here, it is important to understand what the problem is which occasions difficulty.
What is it that the Divine Being, according to the plan which he proposes to himself; has, I ask with reverence, to do? He intends to reveal his will, not in an abstract form of ideal heavenly perfection, but in connection with earths changes and the affairs of men. Of necessity, therefore, the revelation must not only touch the confines, but enter and occupy the domains, of scientific truth and secular history. But God did not mean to make either those whom he employed as his agents in giving the revelation, or the people to whom they gave it, wiser or better informed on these subjects, than they would have been without a revelation - except only in so far as it might be necessary for spiritual and moral ends. Hence, when the facts of science or of history come up, as it were, in the course of the giving of the revelation, and are to be dealt with or referred to, - this must be done in such a way as, on the one hand, not to anticipate the discoveries, or supersede the researches, which from age to age men are to make and institute for themselves, in the exercise of their natural faculties; and yet, on the other hand, not to be inconsistent with them. Very plainly this is a problem which the Divine Mind alone can meet and grapple with. To say nothing that shall tell men what God means that they should find out for themselves; and yet, to say nothing that shall be at variance with what they do ultimately find out for themselves; who can reconcile these opposite terms of this condition under which revelation is to be given, but God only?
And how, let me ask, may it be expected that the reconciliation shall become clear and certain to men? At first, of course, there is no difficulty. The revelation is given, and the record of it is written, in accordance with the amount of information and the state of opinion at the time. The inspired Word is abreast of the science and literature of the age, but not in advance of it and by, the progress of inquiry brings out new information, and gives rise to new opinions on those subjects which men have been left to investigate for themselves. The new information, and the new opinions, clash and come into collision with the method of interpreting Scripture hitherto in use, and the current notions which has been supposed to sanction. Alarm is felt, as if the very foundations of revealed truth were shaken. The sun must move round the earth. Galileo dies, asserting with his latest breath, that it is the earth that moves round the sun. "It moves! it moves " cries the martyr in the cause of science ; - a martyr also, as it turns out, in the cause of revelation too.
This is the second stage in the advance of man towards the right apprehension of the plan and method of revelation of God. It is a natural and inevitable stage. And we are not to judge too severely, either on the hand the students of nature, who may have been tempted in this stage, to raise reluctant doubts as to the scientific accuracy of revelation; or on the other hand the students of revelation, who may have been led by these doubts being raised to show an unworthy jealousy and fear of the free study of nature.
But a better understanding comes. It is found, on closer study, that while the Bible does not teach the new doctrines of science, which it could not do consistently with its general design, yet it does not teach the opposite, or the reverse of them. And that is all that can be reasonably asked. Not only so. When that is made clear, it furnishes a most striking and irrefragable proof of the infallibility of the Bible; its having been composed under the eye and hand of an infallible Mind, knowing all things from the beginning, and taking care that whatever of truth is revealed and written down, from time to time, partially and incompletely, to meet the successive exigencies of human sin, and suffering, and sorrow, and salvation, shall be, on the one hand, adapted to the existing state of knowledge at the time; and, on the other hand, consistent with all that ever can be known. The Bible has hitherto stood this test. The Bible alone can stand it. All other pretended revelations teach, as an essential part of themselves, positively false cosmogonies, false deluges, impossible miracles. In contrast, the Bible stands alone.
I may be allowed here to refer to a remark made some years ago in conversation by the lamented Hugh Miller, (Editor of the "Edinburgh Witness" and a devout Christian) which at the time impressed me much, and which I have never forgotten. It was to this effect. The geological discoveries as to the earths existence and history before the Adamic creation are consistent with a probable, possible, interpretation of Genesis: not indeed with a interpretation that would naturally have occurred to a reader before these discoveries were made - that would have been to forestall the discoveries by revelation; but still with an interpretation of which the inspired words are fairly susceptible. The Confession and catechisms of the Westminster divines, on the other hand, in treating of the subject of the creation, use language that could not in any way be harmonised with the teachings science. Of course this.is not wonderful. These learned men, being uninspired, could not make provision for state of knowledge not yet reached. They gave the judgment on questions actually before them, and cannot be considered authoritative on a point which was then then raised. But the argument which the contrast between them and the sacred writer suggests is very striking. There is reserve on the part of Moses. The inspiring and superintending Spirit does not give him scientific information in advance of his age. But care is take that, writing according to the scientific views of his age he shall say nothing that is to be found ultimately is compatible or irreconcilable - in the judgment of any candid mind, duly considering the conditions of the problem - with what the advancing march of inquiry is to go on unfolding to the end of time.
I have done, as I best could, what I proposed to do. I have not only not exhausted the subject; I have scarcely even touched its arguments. I have endeavoured sirnply to state the question; to lay down the conditions under which it might be assumed beforehand, that the Bible, as the infallible record of an infallible revelation, would be written; and to suggest some of the features which the Bible, written under these conditions, might be expected to exhibit.
Suffer one closing word. There is a very vulgar outcry in certain learned quarters against bibliolatry. Some of our learned Grecians positively cannot keep their temper, when they have to speak of a believer in an infallible Bible. And lesser scholars chime in. For it looks like manliness to put an infallible Bible in the same category with an infallible Church or an infallible Pope - to turn the tables upon biblical Protestants, and taunt them with their submission to an infallible Book, as if that were equivalent to their kissing the toe of an infallible priest.
With all deference to our iconoclastic friends, there is some little difference between these two attitudes. To stand erect in the presence of my God and Father in heaven, and with his Book in my hand and in my heart - the Book which he has caused to be written, and written infallibly, for my learning - to confer and commune directly with himself about its contents, asking him to open it up to me, and to open my eyes that I may behold wonders out of it; and, on the faith of the wonders I behold in it, to pour forth my inmost soul before him, unbosoming all my grief, confessing all my sin, accepting all his mercy alone- myself alone with him alone ; - to settle and seal, upon this authentic record of his will, a holy covenant of peace ; - who dare say - what Grecian pedant, what shallow sceptic - that transaction like that on my part with my God - so close, so direct, so personal, so confidential - proceeding throughout on his speaking to me in this infallible Bible and my speaking to him in reliance on its infallibility, has anything at all in common with the blind, implicit trust which allows a man - a mere man, though be clothed in scarlet, and wear a triple crown, and have backing of solemn conclaves and councils - to set Book aside ; - and himself come in between me and the God of my salvation, asking me to receive the law his mouth, and let him negotiate for me the relation which I am to stand to Heaven? If I can dispense with guidance out of myself altogether - if while willing to receive hints from all quarters, I am prepared to say that I need not, and that I will not, take authoritative instructions from any - then away equally with an infallible Bible and an infallible Pope. But, if conscious my own ignorance and insuificiency, my guilt and insufficiency, I long for good news from heaven to meet my case, shall I take the good news at second-hand from the mouth a poor mortal like myself? Or shall I thankfully welcome, embrace, study, meditate on, and pray over the Book, the blessed Book, in which my heavenly Father himself has taken care to have the message of his grace in his Son unerringly recorded, - the Book which he also promised, by his Holy Spirit, to open up to sufficiently for my everlasting salvation, to his own eternal glory?
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