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Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that
needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.—2 Tim. ii. 15.
If we can suppose a Revelation ever to have been made for the instruction of man, we must of necessity suppose it to have been such as would be suited to his capacities and wants. Man, characterised as he now is, must eventually be regulated both in his thoughts and his actions by the decisions of his reason : and this, independent of other considerations, must have continued his sole instructor; but, upon supposing some positive law to have been revealed from above, that which was once his only instructor, would now become his monitor, his counsellor, his guide; not for the purpose, indeed, of assuming a sovereign and uncontrollable sway over him, but of suggesting from the declarations of such superior law, what he ought to choose and to adopt as good, and what, on the other hand, he ought to reject and abhor as evil. This is, perhaps, indisputable.
We may now suppose, therefore, that man is, in addition to his reasoning faculties, in possession also of a law capable of affording the instruction of which he once stood in need : and, for the sake of divesting our question of all the difficulties possible, we will suppose this law to have been delivered in terms the most easy, and to have been illustrated by examples the most familiar; for such truly ought a law to be which has been intended to be available to all.—And we make no hesitation in affirming, that of this character our Revelation, or the word of truth mentioned in our text, really is.
It may now be supposed (what indeed has been supposed by some), that a document of this kind could never be misunderstood ; and, that such would be its plainness, that he who ran might read; and generally, that the less effort there were made for the discovery of its intentions, the less human learning were exerted for its interpretation, the more likely should we be to arrive at its exact import. This, I say, may be supposed, and actually has been supposed by many. The circumstances, however, connected with this question, will abundantly assure us, that it is nevertheless not the fact. Learned men have, indeed, mistaken the declarations of the Scriptures times innumerable, and do still mistake them ; but then, ignorant men are subject to the same infelicity, and to a much greater degree: not to dwell on the facility of their being practised upon by the artful and designing, who may happen to be more learned than themselves. It is not, however, to the learning of the Learned that their liability to error is to be attributed; but, on the contrary, to their ignorance. Men may possess a very considerable quantity of information scientific and literary, and yet be destitute of that which is necessary to qualify them to become good interpreters of the Scripture. They may be skilled, for example, in the languages, sciences, literature, and antiquities, of almost every people of both ancient and modern times, and still be quite ignorant of those which properly belong to our Scriptures. Furnished with these, they may set up for interpreters of this book; and, the great probability will be, that with all this costly and splendid apparatus, they will entirely fail; because, in this case, they may, and most probably will, apply canons of criticism to a species of literature with which they have not the most distant connection ; and the consequence may be, that conclusions will be arrived at the most distant imaginable from the intentions of the sacred writers. In this case, the learned and the unlearned will be nearly on a par: the one will be in the possession of means the most likely to lead him astray; and the other, destitute of every thing upon which any reliance can reason
ably be placed, will not only be exposed to every “ wind of doctrine," but will probably become the dupe of his own imaginations.
That much, and essential, difference of opinion has existed on the context of the Scriptures, there can be no doubt. The fact is too notorious to admit of contradiction ; and it will not, perhaps, be too much here to affirm, that ignorance must have been the real cause of this. To arrive at a perfect knowledge of every particular found in our Scripture, such, for example, as its geography, chronology, botany, mineralogy, agriculture, and the like, is perhaps both impossible and unnecessary. This may be most cordially granted. There are, however, other particulars, some involving important doctrines, and others connected with its prophetical declarations,* which are legitimate subjects of inquiry, and which certainly are capable of receiving much additional light. It may, moreover, be a question, Whether much extraneous and unnecessary matter has not been forced upon the context of Scripture ; and, Whether men have not, under every form of church government, been professing to believe much which may or may not be true, but which is not to be found in the Bible ; and this I am disposed to believe is the fact. It is not, however, my intention generally to accuse Christians of holding erroneous notions. I will most cordially allow, that all are conscientiously holding the truth, to the best of their knowledge ; but I do doubt, whether many are not holding much more, and others much less, than the truth as it is in Jesus; and whether, in the absence of real knowledge, much that is technical and obscure has not been had recourse to. My reasons for this will presently appear.
Taking it for granted then, that additional, not new, knowledge can never be unacceptable to the true believer, and especially in these days, when so much that seems but
* The Interpretation of Prophecy will be considered at some length in the Second Dissertation of this work.
ill-grounded, to say the least of it, is so constantly and so confidently proposed, we may now proceed to inquire more particularly, in what way the declarations of our text can be applied with the greatest prospect of success.
The admonition is : “ Study to shew thyself approved unto God," and so on; manifestly inculcating the necessity of human endeavour, in order, as it goes on to say, that the person thus addressed, namely Timothy, might shew himself “ APPROVED unto God:” and this in the effort of studying as a minister of Christ, truly and rightly to interpret the word of truth. In this case, then, as in the general concerns of life, human endeavour is plainly and positively demanded ; not for the purpose, indeed, of bringing about the unhallowed event of exalting itself into any thing like an independent agent, but that the purposes of God himself might be effected, that his word may have free course and be glorified, and that the person so doing may eventually receive his approbation.—We shall now proceed to consider these questions in the order here observed.
To begin with the first : “ Study,” it is said, “ to shew thyself.... a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.” This studying or effort we may notice in two points of view. First, as it regards the dispositions of the mind; for in these one part of the effort must lie : and secondly, as it respects those efforts of the intellectual faculties, which the terms of our text absolutely demand.
With regard, then, to the dispositions which ought to be evinced in prosecuting the study here recommended, we may affirm, that they cannot be too subdued, reverential, and dependent. A revelation from above is indeed a matter which ought not lightly to be dealt with. The word of God is a deposit too sacred to be carelessly approached, much less to be made the text-book upon which to propose theory after theory, either for the mere purpose of amusing ourselves, raising our reputation, or in any way administering to popular vanity. Nor, on the other hand, ought it to be
neglected or treated, as it sometimes is, with an inattention which leaves both the minister and his flock very much at liberty to follow their own devices, and actually to profess paganism, under the sacred name and title of Christianity. That both these dispositions have occasionally been witnessed in the Church of Christ, facts which cannot be disputed will afford the amplest proof. In the one case, the human mind, which is ever on the alert to discover some stimulant to raise either its feelings or its importance, has, without due caution and due information, occasionally committed the sin of adding to the word of truth; while, on the other, an acquiescence in the common notions of morality, or an indifference as to what may or may not be of inspired origin and authority, has also sunk the minister of Christ into the advocate of a cold and vigourless expediency, which has eventually left both himself and his hearers without hope, and without God in the world.
The next disposition, which ought carefully to be cultivated, is an ardent and inflexible love of truth. Whatever may be said of the reverence due to early notions, of established creeds, or those floating and varying opinions which may be termed the politics of religion, one thing is certain : Unless the teacher himself feel the truth and importance of what he has to inculcate, there can be no probability that his hearers ever will. And, it may be further affirmed, that unless he be in earnest in the pursuit of truth for himself, there is but too much reason to believe that he will never find it to any considerable or saving extent. Religious truth, it ought to be carefully remembered, does not consist in the receiving of a few, or of many, justly constructed propositions, which may either be taken up or laid down as the caprice of the moment may suggest; but, in receiving and reducing to practice and to experience those precepts and promises, which have been delivered both for the guidance of the mind and the regulation of the affections. It is not only for truths valuable and authoritative which we are here to