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Helps ecclesiastical in the interpretation of the Scripture.
Thirdly, There are means and helps for the interpretation of the Scripture which I call ecclesiastical. Those I intend which we are supplied withal by the ministry of the church in all ages. And they may be referred unto three heads, under which their usefulness to this purpose is pleaded: as, — 1. Catholic or universal tradition; 2. Consent of the fathers; 3. The endeavours of any persons holy and learned who have gone before us in the investigation of the truth, and expressed their minds in writing, for the edification of others, whether of old or of late. These things belong unto the ministry of the church, and so far as they do so are sanctified ordinances for the communication of the mind of God unto us.
1. It is pleaded by some that the Scripture is to be interpreted according to catholic tradition, and no otherwise. And I do acknowledge that we should be inexpressibly obliged to them who would give us an interpretation of the whole Scripture, or of any book in the Scripture, or of any one passage in the Scripture, relating unto things of mere supernatural revelation, according unto that rule, or by the guidance and direction of it. But I fear no such tradition can be evidenced, unless it be of things manifest in the light of nature, whose universal preservation is an effect of the unavoidable reason of mankind, and not of any ecclesiastical tradition. Moreover, the Scripture itself is testified unto unanimously and uninterruptedly by all Christians to be the word of God; and hereby are all divine truths conveyed down from their original and delivered 227unto us. But a collateral tradition of any one truth or doctrine besides, from Christ and the apostles, cannot be proved; and if it could be so, it would be no means of the interpretation of the Scripture but only objectively, as one place of Scripture interprets another, — that is, it would belong unto the analogy of faith, contrary to which, or in opposition whereunto, no place ought to be interpreted. To pretend this, therefore, to be the rule of the interpretation of Scripture actively, as though thereby we could certainly learn the meaning of it, in part or in whole, is fond. Nor, whatever some do boast of, can any man living prove his interpretation of any one place to be dictated by or to be suitable unto universal tradition, any otherwise but as he can prove it to be agreeable to the Scripture itself; unless we shall acknowledge, without proof, that what is the mind and sense of some men who call themselves “The church” at present was the mind of Christ and his apostles, and of all true believers since, and that infallibly it is so. But this pretence hath been abundantly and sufficiently disproved, though nothing seems to be so to the minds of men fortified against all evidences of truth by invincible prejudices.
2. The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest so to do. No man of ingenuity who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence; for it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely; in the latter they really differ, and that frequently. Those who seem most earnestly to press this dogma upon us are those of the church of Rome; and yet it is hard to find one learned man among them who hath undertaken to expound or write commentaries on the Scripture, but on all occasions he gives us the different senses, expositions, and interpretations of the fathers, of the same places and texts, and that where any difficulty occurs in a manner perpetually. But the pretence of the authoritative determination of the fathers in points of religion hath been so disproved, and the vanity of it so fully discovered, as that it is altogether needless farther to insist upon it. And those who would seem to have found out a middle way, between their determining authority on the one hand, and the efficacy of their reasons, with a due veneration of their piety and ability (which all sober men allow), on the other, do but trifle, and speak words whose sense neither themselves nor any others do understand.
2283. We say, therefore, that the sole use of ecclesiastical means in the interpretation of the Scripture is in the due consideration and improvement of that light, knowledge, and understanding in, and those gifts for the declaration of, the mind of God in the Scripture, which he hath granted unto and furnished them withal who have gone before us in the ministry and work of the gospel; for as God in an especial manner, in all ages, took care that the doctrine of the gospel should be preached viva voce, to the present edification of the body of the church, so likewise, almost from the beginning of its propagation in the world, presently after the decease of the apostles and that whole divinely-inspired society of preachers and writers, he stirred up and enabled sundry persons to declare by writing what their apprehensions were, and what understanding God had given them in and about the sense of the Scripture. Of those who designedly wrote comments and expositions on any part of the Scripture, Origen was the first, whose fooleries and mistakes, occasioned by the prepossession of his mind with platonical philosophy, confidence of his own great abilities (which, indeed, were singular and admirable), with the curiosity of a speculative mind, discouraged not others from endeavouring with more sobriety and better success to write entire expositions on some parts of the Scripture: such among the Greeks were Chrysostom, Theodoret, Aretine, Oecumenius, Theophylact; and among the Latins, Jerome, Ambrose, Austin, and others. These have been followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages. Especially since the Reformation hath the work been carried on with general success, and to the great advantage of the church; yet hath it not proceeded so far but that the best, most useful, and profitable labour in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavour the contribution of farther light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof.
Now, all these are singular helps and advantages unto the right understanding of the Scripture; of the same kind of advantage, as to that single end of light and knowledge, which preaching of the word is, used with sobriety, judgment, and a due examination of all by the text itself. [As] for the exposition of the fathers, as it is a ridiculous imagination, and that which would oblige us to the belief of contradictions and open mistakes, for any man to authenticate them so far as to bind us up unto an assent unto their conceptions and dictates because they are theirs; so they will not be despised by any but such as have not been conversant in them. And it is easy to discern from them all, by the diversity of their gifts, ways, and designs, in the exposition of Scripture, that the Holy Spirit divided unto them as he pleased; which as it should make us reverence his presence with them, and assistance of them, 229so it calls for the freedom of our own judgments to be exercised about their conceptions. And [as] for those of latter days, though the names of the principal and most eminent of them, as Bucer, Calvin, Martyr, Beza, are now condemned and despised by many, mostly by those who never once seriously attempted the exposition of any one chapter in the whole Scripture, yet those who firmly design to grow in the knowledge of God and of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, both do and always will bless God for the assistance he gave them in their great and holy works, and in the benefit which they receive by their labours. These are the outward means and advantages which are requisite, and to be used as any one’s calling, opportunity, ability, and work do require, as helps to attain a fight understanding of the mind of God in the Scripture. Now, concerning them all I shall only say, that the Spirit of God makes them useful and prosperous according to the counsel of his own will. Some are prone in the use of them to lean unto their own understandings, and consequently to wander in and after the imaginations of their own minds, corrupting the word of God, and endeavouring to pervert his right ways thereby. Others he leaves in the shell of the text, to exercise their skill about words, phrases, and expressions, without leading them into the spiritual sense of the word, which is its life and power. In some he blesseth them to the full and proper end; but not unless they are in a compliance with the spiritual means and duties before insisted on.
From what hath been discoursed concerning the work of the Spirit of God in revealing unto believers the mind of God in the Scriptures, or the sense of that revelation made of it therein, two things will seem to follow, — First, That those who have not that assistance granted to them, or that work of his wrought in them, cannot understand or apprehend the truth or doctrine of faith and obedience therein revealed; for if that work of the Spirit be necessary thereunto, which they are not made partakers of, how can they come to any knowledge or understanding therein? Secondly, That those who are so influenced and guided must understand the whole Scripture aright, and be freed from all mistakes in their conceptions about the mind of God; — both which are contrary to the experience of all men in all ages, seeing many persons visibly destitute of any saving work of the Holy Ghost upon their minds, as is evident in that no renovation of them or reformation of life doth ensue thereon, have yet attained a great acquaintance with the truth as it is revealed in the word, and many who are truly enlightened and sanctified by him do yet fall into sundry errors and mistakes, which the differences and divisions among themselves do openly proclaim; and the Scripture itself supposeth that there may be diversity of judgment 230about spiritual things among those who are really sanctified and believers.
A brief answer unto both these exceptions will lead this discourse unto its close. I say, therefore, to the first:— 1. That there are in the declaration of the mind of God in the Scriptures sundry things that are common unto other writings, both as to the matter of them and the manner of their delivery. Such are the stories of times past therein recorded, the computation of times, the use of words, phrases of speech, figurative and proper, artificial connections of discourse, various sorts of arguments, and the like; all which persons may come to the understanding of, and be able to make a right judgment concerning, without any especial assistance of the Holy Spirit, the things about which they are conversant being the proper object of the reasonable faculties of the mind, provided there be a common blessing on their endeavours and exercise. 2. The main doctrines of truth declared in the Scripture are proposed in such distinct, plain enunciations, in propositions accommodated unto the understandings of rational men, that persons who, in the use of disciplinary and ecclesiastical helps, attend unto the study of them without prejudice, or prepossession with false notions and opinions, with freedom from the bias of carnal and secular interests and advantages, and from the leaven of tradition, may learn, know, and understand the sense, meaning, and truth of the doctrines so proposed and declared unto them, without any especial work of saving illumination on their minds. The propositions of truth in the Scripture; — I mean those which are necessary unto the great ends of the Scripture, — are so plain and evident in themselves, that it is the fault and sin of all men endued with rational abilities if they perceive them not, and assent not unto them upon the evidence of their truth, or of the mind of God in those places of Scripture wherein they are declared; which is the substance of what we plead concerning the perspicuity of the Scripture against the Papists. 3. Considering the natural vanity of the mind of man, its proneness to error and false imaginations, the weakness of judgment wherewith it is in all things accompanied, whatever it attains in the knowledge of truth is to be ascribed unto the guidance of the Spirit of God, although not working in it or upon it by a communication of saving light and grace; for, 4. The knowledge of truth thus to be attained is not that illumination which we are inquiring after, nor doth it produce those effects of renewing the mind, and transforming it into the image of the things known, with the fruits of holy obedience, which are inseparable from saving illumination.
In answer unto the second pretended consequence of what we have discoursed, I say, — 1. That the promise of the Spirit, and the 231communication of him accordingly, to teach, instruct, guide, and lead us into truth, is suited unto that great end for which God hath made the revelation of himself in his word, — namely, that we might live unto him here according to his will, and be brought unto the enjoyment of him hereafter unto his glory. 2. That unto this end it is not necessary that we should understand the direct sense and meaning of every single text, place, or passage in the Scripture, nor yet that we should obtain the knowledge of every thing revealed therein. It sufficeth, in answer to the promise and design of the work of the Holy Ghost, that the knowledge of all truth necessary to be known unto that end be communicated unto us, and that we have so far a right understanding of the sense of the Scripture as to learn that truth by the use of the means appointed unto that end. 3. We are not hereby absolutely secured from particular errors and mistakes, no more than we are from all actual sins by the work of the Spirit on our wills; that of both kinds, whilst we live in this world, being only in a tendency towards perfection. There is no faculty of our souls that is absolutely and perfectly renewed in this life. But as the wills of believers are so far renewed and changed by grace as to preserve them from such sins as are inconsistent with a holy life according to the tenor of the covenant, which yet leaves a possibility of many infirmities and actual sins; so their minds are so far renewed as to know and assent to all truths necessary to our life of obedience and a right understanding of the Scripture wherein they are revealed, which yet may be consistent with many mistakes, errors, and false apprehensions, unto our great damage and disadvantage. But withal this must be added, that, such are the teachings of the Spirit of God as to all divine truths whatever, both in the objective revelation of them in the word, and in the assistance he gives us by his light and grace to perceive and understand the mind and whole counsel of God in that revelation, it is not without our own guilt, as well as from our own weakness, that we fall into errors and misapprehensions about any Scripture proposals that concern our duty to God. And if all that believe would freely forego all prejudices or preconceived opinions, and cast off all impressions from worldly considerations and secular advantages, giving themselves up humbly and entirely to the teaching of God in the ways of his own appointment, some whereof have been before insisted on, we might “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” Eph. iv. 13. And these things may suffice to illustrate the work of the Holy Ghost in our illumination, with respect unto the external objective cause thereof, or the holy Scripture itself.
232There is yet another work of the Holy Ghost with respect unto the Scripture, which although it fall not directly under the present consideration of the ways and means of saving illumination, yet the whole of what we have discoursed is so resolved into it, in the order of an external cause, as that it may justly claim a remembrance in this place; and this is, his watchful care over the written word, in preserving it from destruction and corruption, from the first writing of it unto this very day.
That it hath been under the especial care of God, not only the event of its entire preservation, considering the opposition it hath been exposed unto, but also the testimony of our Saviour as to the books of the Old Testament, than which those of the New are certainly of no less esteem or use, do sufficiently evince: Matt. v. 18, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.” That by the law the whole writings of the Old Testament are intended, the context doth declare. And what he affirms, that it shall not by any means pass away, — that is, be abolished or corrupted, — that he taketh on himself to preserve and secure. Two things the Scripture in itself is subject unto:— 1. Destruction or abolition, as unto the whole or any necessary part thereof. 2. Corruption of the writing, by changes, alterations, and falsifications of the copies of it. And by both of these it hath been attempted, and that both before and since the time of the promulgation of the gospel, the stories whereof are known; and yet is it come safe off from all, not only without ruin, but without wound or blemish. For any one to suppose that this hath been done by chance, or by the care of men alone, without the especial watchful providence and powerful actings of the Spirit of God, in the pursuit of the promise of Christ that it should not fail, — which expressed a care that God had taken on himself to make good from the beginning, — is not only to neglect the consideration of the nature of all human affairs, with the revolutions that they are subject unto, and the deceit and violence wherewith the Scriptures have been attacked, with the insufficiency of the powers and diligence employed for their preservation, but also to countenance the atheistical notion that God hath no especial regard to his word and worship in the world. Indeed, for a man to think and profess that the Scripture is the word of God, given unto men for the ends which itself declares, and of that use which it must be of in being so, and not believe that God hath always taken and doth take especial care of its preservation, and that in its purity and integrity, beyond the ordinary ways of his providence in the rule of all other things, is to be sottish and foolish, and to entertain thoughts of God, his goodness, wisdom, and power, infinitely unworthy of him and them. There have of late been some opinions concerning the integrity and purity of the Scriptures invented and 233maintained, that, I conceive, take off from the reverence of that relation which the Scripture hath, in its integrity and purity, unto the care and glory of God. Hence it is by some maintained that some books written by divine inspiration, and given out unto the church as part of its canon, or rule of faith and obedience, are utterly lost and perished; that the law and Scripture of the Old Testament before the captivity were written, though in the Hebrew tongue (which, they say, was not originally the language of Abraham, derived from Eber, but of the posterity of Ham in Canaan), yet not in the letters or characters which are now in use, but in those which a few wicked idolaters called Samaritans did use and possess, being left unto them by Ezra, and new characters invented by him, or borrowed from the Chaldeans for the use of the church; that the vowels and accents, whereby alone the true reading and sense of it is preserved, are a late invention of some Masoretical rabbins; and that the original text is in many places corrupted, so as that it may and ought to be corrected by translations, especially that of the LXX.; with sundry other such imaginations, which they countenance with uncertain conjectures and fabulous stories. And I cannot but wonder how some seem to take shelter unto their opinions, especially that of preferring the translation of the LXX. unto the original Hebrew text, or, as they fondly speak, “the present copy of it,” in the church of England, whose publicly authorized and excellent translation takes no more notice of, nor hath any more regard unto that translation, when it differs from the Hebrew, as it doth in a thousand places, than if it had never been in the world. And as no translations are in common use in the whole world but what were immediately traduced out of the Hebrew original, excepting only some part of the vulgar Latin, so I verily believe that those very Christians who contend for a preference to be given unto that of the LXX., now they have got their ends, or at least attempted them, in procuring a reputation of learning, skill, and cunning, by their writings about it, would not dare to advise a translation out of that to be made and composed for the use of that church which they adhere unto, be it what it will, to the rejection and exclusion of that taken out of the original: and to have two recommended unto common use, so discrepant as they would be found to be, would certainly be of more disadvantage to the church than by all their endeavours otherwise they can compensate. Yea, I am apt to think that they will not be very urgent for an alteration to be made in the church’s translation in those particular instances wherein they hope they have won themselves much reputation in proving the mistakes of the Hebrew, and manifesting how it may be rectified by the translation of the LXX.; for whatever thoughts may be in their minds concerning their 234learned disputes, I doubt not but they have more reverence of God and his word than to break in upon it with such a kind of violence, on any pretence whatsoever. As, therefore, the integrity and purity of the Scripture in the original languages may be proved and defended against all opposition, with whatever belongs thereunto, so we must ascribe their preservation to the watchful care and powerful operation of the Spirit of God absolutely securing them throughout all generations.
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