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By E. P. Barrows, Professor of Biblical Literature in the Western Reserve College.
“ All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profit- kan jongen maar able for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in der Vera righteousness ; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly b furnished unto all good works.” These are the words of an elegan aged apostle, addressed to a youthful minister of Christ. The general truth which they assert is, that the holy Scriptures, og given by inspiration of God, constitute a perfect rule for their direction of the christian teacher in all circumstances ; and that his perfection as a teacher consists in a perfect understanding of their principles, doctrines, and precepts. From the rich treasury of God's word, he is to furnish himself with sound doctrine for the illumination of the minds of those over whom the Holy Spirit has made him overseer ; from its bright and glorious ko principles, he is to convince men of sin, and put to silence gainsayers ; from its precepts, he is to reclaim offenders, rectify, what is amiss in the church, and train up her members to holiness and usefulness. If the Scriptures of the Old Testament merited the high eulogium of the apostle, how much more the sacred canon as we now possess it, complete in all its parts, containing not only the writings of “ Moses and the prophets," but also the words of Christ and his apostles! Of this it may be said with emphasis, that the man of God who fully understands the truths which it embodies, and how to apply these truths skilfully to the wants of his people, is “ perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" pertaining to his office.
The grand business, therefore, of every one who aspires to the work of the christian ministry, is to learn what truths the Scriptures contain, and how to apply these truths to the understandings and consciences of men. The former is accomplished by study ; the latter, mainly by practice. Both are indispensably necessary to constitute an efficient minister of the gospel ; “ a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The present occasion, however, leads us
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to consider more particularly that branch of ministerial qualification which consists in a thorough acquaintance with God's word.
In pursuing this subject we shall inquire, first : What is involved in a thorough knowledge of Scripture ? and, secondly : How can this knowledge be most effectually diffused throughout the christian ministry ?
I. What does a thorough knowledge of Scripture involve ?
1. It involves a thorough acquaintance with the original languages of the sacred volume. This proposition, few, if any, will be inclined to dispute. We have a most excellent translation of the Scriptures into our vernacular tongue. For this inestimable boon we bless the God of our fathers. The sound learning and judgment of its authors, their freedom from a sectarian spirit, their scrupulous fidelity, and the majestic simplicity of their style are worthy of all praise. This translation we have ever been ready to defend against the cavils and inuendoes of superficial smatterers in sacred literature, and have felt that those sects, or fragments of sects, who find it in the way of their favorite dogmas, have a bad cause to maintain. Still, it is but a translation, and no translation, however perfect, can fully express all the delicate shades of meaning and connections of thought that belong to the original. Moreover, since its execution, biblical science has enjoyed the advantage of more than two centuries of investigation and research, in the progress of which much additional light has been elicited. In some few cases (not involving any fundamental doctrine or precept) it is generally admitted that the translators have erred ; in more still, the sense which they have expressed is one of two or more, either of which may be the true meaning of the original.
Their “ various readings' show that they themselves often hesitated as to the manner in which a particular word or phrase should be rendered. With all due deference, therefore, to these venerable men, we maintain that it is the duty of the man of God, to consult the original oracles of divine truth, and to judge for himself of their meaning. This was the doctrine of our pilgrim ancestors ; it has ever been the doctrine of their descendants to the present day; and we mean to hand it down in its purity to our posterity.
2. A thorough knowledge of Scripture involves an acquaintance with the geography, and antiquities of ancient Palestine, and of the surrounding nations with whose history that of the
children of Israel is connected. The eager demand for this species of knowledge among the conductors of Sabbath schools, Bible classes, and others who desire to qualify themselves for the work of expounding the word of God to the rising generation, (a demand which has called forth some of the noblest intellectual efforts of the age,) is a commentary on its value which all can read and understand. Without the light which it affords, no one can clearly apprehend the force of the numerous allusions to the location and relative position of the cities and civil divisions of Palestine, and of the surrounding nations ; to their natural scenery, climate, and productions ; and to the manners and customs of society ; which crowd almost every page of inspiration. Who, for example, can intelligently read the narrative of the apostle Paul's journies and labors, without an acquaintance with the natural and civil geography of the regions over which he travelled ? Who, that does not understand the posture in which the ancients were accustomed to take their meals, can comprehend how “a certain woman" could stand at our Saviour's feet “ behind him," while he was “at meat in the Pharisee's house,” could wash his feet with her tears, wipe them with the hairs of her head, kiss them, and anoint them with ointment ? Who can fully understand the parable of the ten virgins without a knowledge of oriental nuptial ceremonies ? The above are a few obvious examples, selected from among many hundreds equally striking. Nor must the biblical student limit himself to the geography and antiquities of the Jews. In the course of their eventful history, the people of God were brought into contact with all the great monarchies of the ancient world, and from the geography and antiquities of all these are illustrations of Scripture to be sought. In the New Testament, more especially, Jewish, Grecian, and Roman geography and archaeology are all blended together, and are all indispensable to a full elucidation of the sacred page.
3. A thorough knowledge of Scripture involves an enlarged acquaintance with ancient history. We have remarked above that God in his providence brought his ancient people successively into contact with all the great monarchies of the earth. Let it be remembered that this was not for a day, or a month, or a year, but for long periods of time ; not when these monarchies were in their infancy, but when they were in their prime of glory and strength. It seems ever to have been Jehovah's plan to place his chosen people in the very heart of the
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civilized world, a conspicuous object of attention to all the surrounding nations. To the north and east, they had the great Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires ; to the south, Egypt ; to the west, Greece and Rome. Thus, while God kept them constantly surrounded by the instruments of his pleasure, he made them, in turn, a spectacle to the world, whether in victory or defeat, whether exalted by his favor above their enemies, or sunk by his frown beneath their iron yoke. Hence the history of ancient Israel becomes the leading element in the history of mankind before the Messiah's advent, even as the history of the christian church is the leading element since that era. Take away this element from the annals of antiquity, and they are left, like the primeval chaos, “ without form and void, and darkness is upon the face of the deep." Restore it, and all becomes order, harmony, and unity of design. We see one empire springing into existence at the fiat of Jehovah, that it may be the instrument in his hand of accomplishing some deep and glorious purpose respecting his church, and then sinking into its original nothing, to make room for another, destined, in like manner, to subserve the interests of Zion. It is no exaggeration to say that the record of God's dealings with his church is the key to the universal history of mankind ; and that her destinies are the hinge upon which the destinies of all nations have ever turned. Viewed in this light, how important does profane history become! Isolated from sacred history, it is but a barren and disgusting detail of human passions and crimes ; but studied in connection with it, every page is luminous with instruction. What is it but a part and parcel of God's stupendous plan of subjecting all nations to the reign of the Messiah ?
Profane history, moreover, is the key of prophecy. How many predictions were uttered by the ancient prophets whose fulfilment is nowhere recorded in the Bible ! Many of these related to periods prior to the advent of Christ ; others have been accomplished since that day; others, again, are yet future; but the interpretation of all is to be sought from the page of uninspired history.
4. A thorough knowledge of Scripture involves an acquaintance with the internal history of the ancient world, that is, with its moral, religious, and political condition. The Mosaic economy was designed to be introductory to a nobler dispensation. Its perfection (the Holy Ghost being judge) was not absolute, like the perfection of the Gospel, but relative, as a means to secure a further end, having reference to the existing circumstances of mankind. Whoever, therefore, would judge correctly of its provisions, must understand both the final end which it proposed to accomplish, the means which it selected for securing this end, and the adaptation of these means to the condition of the world. Many captious objections, for example, which have been urged against the policy which it prescribed with reference to the surrounding idolatrous nations, might have been spared, had their authors well understood the bearing of this policy upon the great end of this dispensation, which was to establish upon an immovable basis the doctrine of Jehovah's unity and infinite perfections, in opposition to the polytheism and image-worship that then prevailed throughout the world, that thus the way might be prepared for the introduction of the christian dispensation. The same remarks are, to a great extent, applicable to the New Testament. Without an acquaintance with the moral, religious, and political condition of the world at the period of our Saviour's advent, we cannot fully enter into the meaning of many passages which occur in the writings of the evangelists and apostles. For want of this knowledge, many a sincere inquirer after truth has felt himself greatly embarrassed and perplexed in the commencement of his investigations. But, as his acquaintance with the internal history of the ancient world has gradually increased, his difficulties one after another have vanished; light has succeeded to darkness, and order to confusion.
5. A thorough knowledge of Scripture involves an acquaintance with the laws of human language. For the Bible, though containing a revelation from God, is expressed in the ordinary language of common life, and is to be interpreted accordingly.
Whatever advantages we may imagine that we can secure to the cause of truth (or what we esteem the cause of truth) by deviating from the well established principles of interpretation which are employed in ascertaining the meaning of all other written documents, we shall find to our cost that, like the apocalyptic book, they are only sweet at the first taste. For one argument on the side of truth which can be thus wrested from Scripture, ten can, by the same method, be gained in behalf of error. How many forced constructions of the most simple passages of God's word would a rigid adherence to the laws of interpretion have prevented !--and how much angry logomachy!