Page images

the studied rules of the Grecian schools, which made them such masters in the art of speaking, he, as he says himself, 1 Cor. ii. 4, wholly neglected. The reason whereof he gives in the next verse, and in other places. But though politeness of language, delicacy of style, fineness of expression, laboured periods, artificial transitions, and a very methodical ranging of the parts, with such other embellishments as make a discourse enter the mind smoothly, and strike the fancy at first hearing, have little or no place in his style; yet coherence of discourse, and a direct tendency of all the parts of it to the argument in hand, are most eminently to be found in him. This I take to be his character, and doubt not but it will be found to be so upon diligent examination. And in this, if it be so, we have a clue, if we will take the pains to find it, that will conduct us with surety through those seemingly dark places, and imagined intricacies, in which Christians have wandered so far one from another, as to find quite contrary senses.

Whether a superficial reading, accompanied with the common opinion of his invincible obscurity, has kept off some from seeking, in him, the coherence of a discourse, tending with close, strong reasoning to a point; or a seemingly more honourable opinion of one that had been rapt up into the third heaven, as if from a man so warmed and illuminated as he had been, nothing could be expected but flashes of light, and raptures of zeal, hindered others to look for a train of reasoning, proceeding on regular and cogent argumentation, from a man raised above the ordinary pitch of humanity, to a higher and brighter way of illumination; or else, whether others were loth to beat their heads about the tenour and coherence in St. Paul's discourses; which, if found out, possibly might set them at a manifest and irreconcileable difference with their systems; it is certain that, whatever hath been the cause, this way of getting the true sense of St. Paul's epistles seems not to have been much made use of, or at least so thoroughly pursued, as I am apt to think it deserves.

For, granting that he was full stored with the knowledge of the things he treated of; for he had light from



heaven, it was God himself furnished him, and he could not want: allowing also that he had ability to make use of the knowledge had been given him, for the end for which it was given him, viz. the information, conviction, and conversion of others; and accordingly, that he knew how to direct his discourse to the point in hand: we cannot widely mistake the parts of his discourse employed about it, when we have any where found out the point he drives at: wherever we have got a view of his design, and the aim he proposed to himself in writing, we may be sure, that such or such an interpretation does not give us his genuine sense, it being nothing at all to his present purpose. Nay, among various meanings given a text, it fails not to direct us to the best, and very often to assure us of the true. For it is no presumption, when one sees a man arguing for this or that proposition, if he be a sober man, master of reason or common sense, and takes any care of what he says, to pronounce with confidence, in several cases, that he could not talk thus or thus.

I do not yet so magnify this method of studying St. Paul's epistles, as well as other parts of sacred Scripture, as to think it will perfectly clear every hard place, and leave no doubt unresolved. I know, expressions now out of use, opinions of those times not heard of in our days, allusions to customs lost to us, and various circumstances and particularities of the parties, which we cannot come at, &c. must needs continue several passages in the dark, now to us, at this distance, which shone with full light to those they were directed to. But for all that, the study. ing of St. Paul's epistles, in the way I have proposed, will, I humbly conceive, carry us a great length in the right understanding of them, and make us rejoice in the light we receive from those most useful parts of divine revelation, by furnishing us with visible grounds that we are not mistaken, whilst the consistency of the discourse, and the pertinency of it to the design he is upon, vouches it worthy of our great apostle. At least I hope it may be my excuse, for having endeavoured to make St. Paul an interpreter to me of his own epistles.

To this may be added another help, which St. Paul himself affords us, towards the attaining the true meaning contained in his epistles. He that reads him with the attention I propose will easily observe, that as he was full of the doctrine of the Gospel, so it lay all clear and in order, open to his view. When he

When he gave his thoughts utterance upon any point, the matter flowed like a torrent; but it is plain, it was a matter he was perfectly master of: he fully possessed the entire revelation he had received from God; had thoroughly digested it; all the parts were formed together in his mind, into one well-contracted harmonious body. So that he was no way at an uncertainty, nor ever, in the least, at a loss concerning any branch of it. One may see his thoughts were all of a piece in all his epistles, his notions were at all times uniform, and constantly the same, though his expressions very various. In them he seems to take great liberty. This at least is certain, that no one seems less tied up to a form of words. If then, having, by the method before proposed, got into the sense of the several epistles, we will but compare what he says, in the places where he treats of the same subject, we can hardly be mistaken in his sense, nor doubt what it was that he believed and taught, concerning those points of the Christian religion. I known it is not unusual to find a multitude of texts heaped up, for the maintaining of an espoused proposition; but in a sense often so remote from their true meaning, that one can hardly avoid thinking, that those, who so used them, either sought not, or valued not the sense; and were satisfied with the sound, where they could but get that to favour them. But a verbal concordance leads not always to texts of the same meaning ; trusting too much thereto will furnish us but with slight proofs in many cases, and any one may observe, how apt that is to jumble together passages of Scripture, not relating to the same matter, and thereby to disturb and unsettle the true meaning of holy Scripture. I have therefore said, that we should compare together places of Scripture treating of the same point. Thus, indeed, one part of the sacred text could not fail to give light unto another. And since

the providence of God hath so ordered it, that St. Paul has writ a great number of epistles; which, though upon different occasions, and to several purposes, yet all confined within the business of his apostleship, and so contain nothing but points of Christian instruction, amongst which he seldom fails to drop in, and often to enlarge on, the great and distinguishing doctrines of our holy religion; which, if quitting our own infallibility in that analogy of faith, which we have made to ourselves, or have implicity adopted from some other, we would carefully lay together, and diligently compare and study, I am apt to think, would give us St. Paul's system in a clear and indisputable sense; which every one must acknowledge to be a better standard to interpret his meaning by, in any obscure and doubtful parts of his epistles, if any such should still remain, than the system, confession, or articles of any church, or society of Christians, yet known; which, however pretended to be founded on Scripture, are visibly the contrivances of men, fallible both in their opinions and interpretations ; and, as is visible in most of them, made with partial views, and adapted to what the occasions of that time, and the present circumstances they were then in, were thought to require, for the support or justification of themselves. Their philosophy, also, has its part in misleading men from the true sense of the sacred Scripture. He that shall attentively read the Christian writers, after the age of the apostles, will easily find how much the philosophy they were tinctured with influenced them in their understanding of the books of the Old and New Testament. In the ages wherein Platonism prevailed, the converts to Christianity of that school, on all occasions, interpreted holy writ according to the notions they had imbibed from that philosophy. Aristotle's doctrine had the same effect in its turn; and when it degenerated into the peripateticism of the schools, that, too, brought its notions and distinctions into divinity, and affixed them to the terms of the sacred Scripture: And we may see still how, at this day, every one's philosophy regulates every one's interpretation of the word of God. Those who are possessed with the doctrine of

aerial and ethereal vehicles, have thence borrowed an interpretation of the four first verses of 2 Cor. v. without having any ground to think that St. Paul had the least notion of any such vehicle. It is plain, that the teaching of men philosophy was no part of the design of divine revelation ; but that the expressions of Scripture are commonly suited, in those matters, to the vulgar apprehensions and conceptions of the place and people where they were delivered. And, as to the doctrine therein directly taught by the apostles, that tends wholly to the setting up the kingdom of Jesus Christ in this world, and the salvation of men's souls : and in this it is plain their expressions were conformed to the ideas and notions which they had received from revelation, or were consequent from it. We shall, therefore, in vain go about to interpret their words by the notions of our philosophy, and the doctrines of men delivered in our schools. "This is to explain the apostles' meaning by what they never thought of whilst they were writing ; which is not the way to find their sense, in what they delivered, but our own, and to take up, from their writings, not what they left there for us, but what we bring along with us in ourselves. He that would understand St. Paul right, must understand his terms, in the sense he uses them, and not as they are appropriated, by each man's particular philosophy, to conceptions that never entered the mind of the apostle. For example, he that shall bring the philosophy now taught and received, to the explaining of spirit, soul, and body, mentioned 1 Thess. v. 23, will, I fear, hardly reach St. Paul's sense, or represent to himself the notions St. Paul then had in his mind. That is what we should aim at, in reading him, or any other author; and until we, from his words, paint his very ideas and thoughts in our minds, we do not understand him.

In the divisions I have made, I have endeavoured, the best I could, to govern myself by the diversity of matter. But in a writer like St. Paul, it is not so easy always to find precisely where one subject ends, and another begins. He is full of the matter he treats, and

« PreviousContinue »