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Reverend and Dear Sir,
I have recently perused a Sermon, delivered by you at the ordination of the Rev. J. Sparks, in Baltimore, with no small degree of interest. The subjects of which it trcats, must be regarded as highly important by every intelligent man, who is a serious inquirer after revealed truth. And if the views which you have disclosed will stand the test of examination, and shall appear to be those which the word of God maintains, or which it will justify, it certainly will be the duty of every friend to Christianity, to embrace and promote them.
It is proper, no doubt, that every one who reads and reflects upon your Sermon, should do it without prejudice or party views. Unless I am deceived as to the state of my own feelings, I have endeavoured impartially to weigh the arguments and examine the reasonings, which it presents, with a wish to know and believe the truth. I dare not Aatter myself, indeed, that I have perfectly succeeded in doing this; for every man who is acquainted with his own heart, will find reason to believe, that he often has been, and may be again deceived by it. But, as I am not conscious of party feelings, on the present occasion, will you permit me, without apology, to lay before you my thoughts in regard to three topics of your discourse, that stand in close connexion with each other, and are among the principal points, in regard to which I feel myself compelled to dissent from your opinions ?
The points to which I refer are; The principles of interpreting Scripture ; The unity of God; and, The divinity and humanity of the Saviour. I limit myself to these three, because it would require more time and labour than I can possibly spare at present, and more health than I enjoy, to express in writing my views of all the statements of doctrines, which
have made. I might adduce another reason for confining myself within these limits. If the principles of reasoning which you adopt, and the results which
you deduce from them, in regard to some of the points on which I am about to remark, are untenable, or incorrect, the consequence of this must extend itself essentially, to some of the remaining and most important topics, which you have discussed in your Sermon.
The general principles of interpreting Scripture, you describe in the following manner.
We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's successive revelations to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of his will by Jesus Christ. "Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception. We do not, however, attach equal importance to all the books in this collection. Our religion, we believe, lies chiefly in the New Testament. The dispensation of Moses, compared with that of Jesus, we consider as in perfect, earthly, obscure, adapted to the childhood of the human race, a preparation for a nobler system, and chiefly useful now as serving to confirm and illustrate the Christian Scriptures. Jesus Christ is the only master of Christians, and what, ever he taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his inspired apostles, we regard as of divine authority, and profess to make the rule of our lives.
• This authority which we give to the Scriptures, is a reason, we conceive, fur studying them with peculiar care, and for inquiring anxiously into the principles of interpretation, by which their true meaning may be ascertained. The principles adopted by the class of Christians, in whose name I speak, need to be explained, because they are often misunderstood. We are particularly accused of make ing an unwarrantable use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture. We are said to exalt reason above revelation, to prefer our own wise dom to God's. Loose and undefined charges of this kind are circu. lated so freely, and with such injurious intentions, that we thiok it due to our selves, and to the cause of truth, to express our views, with sone particularity.
“Our leading priociple in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same inanner, as that of other books. We believe that God, when he condescends to speak and write, submits, if we may so say, to the established rules of speak. ing and writing. How else would the Scriptures avail us more than ir communicated in an unknown toogue ?
“ Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; or their true import is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, you well know, admits various interpretations, and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the gubject which is discussed, according to the purposes, feeldogs, circumstances and principles of the writer, and according to
the genius and idioms of the language which he uses. These are ac knowledged principles in the interpretation of human writings; and a man whose words we should explain without reference to these principles, would reproach us justly with a triminal want of can. dour, and an intention of obscuring or distorting his meaning.
"Were the Bible written in a language and style of its own, did it consist of words, which adunit but a single sense, and of sentences wholly detatched from each other, there would be no place for the principles vow laid down. We could not reason about it, as about other writings. But such a book would be of little worth; and per. haps, of all books, the Scriptures correspond least to this description.
* The word of God bears the stamp of the same hand, which we see in his works. It has infinite connexions and dependencies. Every proposition is linked with others, and is to be compared with others, that its full and precise import may be understood. Nothing stands alone. The New Testament is built on the Old. The Christian dispensation is a continuation of the Jewish, the completion of a rast scheme of providence, requiring great extent of view in the reader. Still more, the Bible treats of subjects on which we receive ideas from other sources besides itself; such so hjects as the nature, passions, relations, and duties of nuan; and it expects us to restrain and modify its language by the known truths, wbich observation and experience furnish on these topicks.
“ We prosess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to the remarks now made on its infinite connexious, we may observe, that its style no where affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demands more continual exercise of judgment. We find too, that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, io modes of think. ing, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of wbich we are constantly io danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application. We find, too, that some of these books are strongly marked by the genius and character of their respective writers, that the Holy Spirit did not so guide the apostles as lo suspend the peculiarities of their minds, and that a koowledge of their feelings, and of the influences under which they were placed, is one of the preparations for understanding their writings. With these views of the bible; we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the pature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, bis true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaioing what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.
65 Need I descend to particulars to prove that the Scriptures de.
mand the exercise of reason ? Take, for example, the style in which they generally speak of God, and observe how habitually they apply to hire human passions and organs. Recollect the declarations of Christ, that he came not to send peace, but a sword; that unless we eat his flesh, and drink bis blood, we have no life in us ; that we must hate father and mother ; pluck out the right eye; and a vast number of passages equally bold and unlimited. Recollect the unqualified manner in which it is said of christians that they possess all things, know all things, and can do all things. Recollect the verbal contradiction between Paul and James, and the apparent clashing of some parts of Paul's writings, with the general doctrines and end of Christianity: I might extend the enumeration indefinitely, and who does not see, that we must limit all these passages hy the known attributes of God, of Jesus Christ, and of human nature, and by the cir. cumstances under which they were written, so as to give the language a quite different import from what it would require, had it been applied to different beings, or used in different connexions.
“ Enough has been said to show in what sense we make use of rea.. son in interpreting Scripture. From a variety of possible interpreta. tions, we select that which accords with the nature of the subject, and the state of the writer, with the connexion of the passage, with the general strain of Scripture, with the known character and will of God, and with the obvious & acknowleged laws of nature. In other words, we believe that God never contradicts, in one part of. Scripture, what he teaches in another, & never contradicts, in revelation, what he teaches in his works and providence. And we, tlærefore, distrust every interpretation, which, after deliberate attention, seems repugpant to any established truth. We reason about the bible precisely as civilians do about the constitution under which we live ; who, you know, are accustomed to limit one provision of that venerable iostru. ment by others, and to fix the precise import of its parts by io quiring into its general spirit, into the intentions of its authors, and into the prevalent feelings, impressions, and circumstances of the time when it was framed. Without these principles of interpretation, we frank. ly acknowledge, that we cannot defend the divine authority of the Scriptures.. Deny us this latitude, and we must abandon this book to its enemies."
To a great part of these principles, I give my cheerful and most cordial assent. They are the principles which I apply to the explanation of the Scriptures, from day to day, in my private studies and in my public labours. They are the principles, by which I am led to embrace the opinions that I have espoused; and by which, so far as I am able, 1 expect to defend these opinions, whenever called in duty to do it.
While I thus give my cordial approbation, to most of the above extract from your Sermon, will you indulge me in
expressing a wish, that the rank and value of the Old Tess tament, in the Christian's library, had been described in somewhat different terms ? I do most fully accord with the idea, that the gospel, or the New Testament, is more perfect than the Mosaic law, or than the Old Testament. On what other ground, can the assertions of Paul in 2 Cor. iii, in Heb. viii, and in other places, be believed or justified ? The gospel gives a clearer view than the Jewish Scriptures, of our duty and of our destiny; of the objects of our hopes and fears; of the character of God and the
of salvation. I agree fully, that whatever in the Old Testament respects the Jews, simply as Jews; e.g. their ritual, their food, their dress, their civil polity, their government -in a word, whatever from its nature was national and local ; is not binding upon us under the Christian dispensation.
I am well satisfied too, that the character of God and the duty of men were, in many respects, less clearly revealed under the ancient dispensation, than they now are. 6 The law was given by Moses ;” but “no man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten who dwelleth in the bosom of the Father, he hath revealed him ;" i. e. it was reserved for Christ to make a full display of the divine character; no man, no prophet who preceded him, ever had such knowledge of God, as enabled him to do it. I am aware that many
Christians do not seem to understand this passage ; and with well meaning but mistaken views, undertake to deduce the character and designs of God, as fully and as clearly from the Old Testament as from the New.
I must believe, too, that the duties of Christians are, in most respects, more fully and definitely taught in the Gospel than in the Old Testament; and I cannot approve of that method of reasoning, which deduces our duties principally from texts in the Old Testament, that sometimes are less clear, when the New Testament presents the same subjects.in such characters of light, that he who runneth
But when you say, “ Jesus Christ is the only master of Christians, and whatever he taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his inspired apostles, we regard as of divine authority, and profess to make the rule of our lives;” does not this naturally imply that we are absolved from ob