|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 41, October 5 to October 11 2008|
John Owen (1616-1683). No outline of Owen's life can give an adequate impression of the stature and importance to which he attained in his own day. He was summoned to preach before Parliament on several occasions, most notably on the day after the execution of Charles I. During the Civil War, Owen's merit was recognized by General Fairfax, then by Cromwell who took him as Chaplain to Ireland and Scotland. He was adviser to Cromwell, especially though not exclusively on ecclesiastical affairs, but fell from the Protector's favour after opposing the move to make him King. In 1658 he was one of the most influential members of the Savoy Conference of ministers of Independent persuasion. After the Ejection he enjoyed some influence with Charles II who occasionally gave him money to distribute to impoverished ejected ministers. All in all, he was, with Richard Baxter, the most eminent Dissenter of his time.
THE SECOND sort of means I call disciplinarian, as consisting in the due use and improvement of common arts and sciences, applied unto and made use of in the study of the Scriptures. And these are things which have no moral good in themselves, but being indifferent in their own nature, their end, with the manner of their management thereunto, is the only measure and standard of their worth and value. Hence it is that in the application of them unto the interpretation of the Scripture, they may be used aright and in a due manner, and they maybe abused to the great disadvantage of those who use them; and accordingly it bath fallen out. In the first way they receive a blessing from the Spirit of God, who alone prospereth every good and honest endeavour in any kind; and in the latter they are efficacious to seduce men unto a trust in their own understandings, which in other things is foolish, and in these things pernicious.
1. That which of this sort I prefer, in the first place, is the knowledge of and skill in the languages wherein the Scripture was originally written; for the very words of them therein were peculiarly from the Holy Ghost, which gives them to be, words of truth, and the Scripture itself to be, a right, or upright, or perfect writing, Eccles. xii. 10. The Scriptures of the Old Testament were given unto the church whilst it was entirely confined unto one nation, Ps. cxlvii. 19, 20. Thence they were all written in that language, which was common among, and peculiar unto, that nation. And this language, as the people itself, was called Hebrew, from Eber the son of Salah, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, their most eminent progenitor, Gen. x. 21-24; for being the one original tongue of mankind, it remained in some part of his family, who probably joined not in the great apostasy of the world from God, nor was concerned in their dispersion at the building of Babel, which ensued thereon. The derivation of that name from another original is a fruit of curiosity and vain conjecture, as I have elsewhere demonstrated.
In process of time that people were carried into captivity out of their own land, and were thereby forced to learn and use a language somewhat different from their own; another absolutely it was not, yet so far did it differ from it that those who knew and spoke the one commonly could not understand the other, 2 Kings xviii. 26. This was, Dan. i. 4, "The language of the Chaldeans," which Daniel and others learned. But, by the people's long continuance in that country, it became common to them all. After this some parts of the books of the Scripture, as of Daniel and Ezra, were written in that language, as also one verse in the prophecy of Jeremiah, when they were ready to be carried thither, in which he instructs the people how to reproach the idols of the nations in their own language, Jer. x. 11. The design of God was, that his word should be always read and used in that language which was commonly understood by them unto whom he granted the privilege thereof; nor could any of the ends of his wisdom and goodness in that merciful grant be otherwise attained.
The prodigious conceit of keeping the Scripture, which is the foundation-rule and guide of the whole church, the spiritual food and means of life unto all the members of it, by the church, or those who pretend themselves intrusted with the power and rights of it, in a language unknown unto the community of the people, had not then befallen the minds of men, no more than it hath yet any countenance given unto it by the authority of God or reason of mankind. And, indeed, the advancement and defence of this imagination is one of those things which sets me at liberty from being influenced by the authority of any sort of men in matters of religion; for what will not their confidence undertake to vent, and their sophistical ability give countenance unto or wrangle about, which their interest requires and calls for at their hands, who can openly plead and contend for the truth of such an absurd and irrational assertion, as is contrary to all that we know of God and his will, and to all that we understand of ourselves or our duty with respect thereunto?
When the New Testament was to be written, the church was to be diffused throughout the world amongst people of all tongues and languages under heaven; yet there was a necessity that it should be written in some one certain language, wherein the sacred truth of it might, as in original records, be safely laid up and deposited. It was left by the Holy Ghost as pa?a?n?n, ?a?n pa?a?ata?n?n, "a good and sacred depositum" unto the ministry of the church, to be kept inviolate, 1 Tim. vi. 20; 2 Tim. i. 14. And it was disposed into writing in one certain language; whereon the preservation of it in purity was committed to the ministry of all ages, not absolutely, but under his care and inspection. From this one language God had ordained that it should be derived, by the care of the ministry, unto the knowledge and use of all nations and people; and this was represented by the miraculous gift of tongues communicated by the Holy Ghost unto the first-designed publishers of the gospel. In this case it pleased the wisdom of the Holy Ghost to make use of the Greek language, wherein he writ the whole New Testament originally; for the report, that the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews were first written in Hebrew, is altogether groundless, and I have elsewhere disproved it.
Now, this language at that season, through all sorts of advantages, was diffused throughout the world, especially in those parts of it where God had designed to fix the first and principal station of the church. For the eastern parts of the world, it was long before carried into them, and its use imposed on them by the Macedonian arms and laws, with the establishment of the Grecian empire for sundry ages among them. And some while before, in the western parts of the world, the same language was greatly inquired into and generally received, on account of the wisdom and learning which was treasured up therein, in the writings of poets, philosophers, and historians, which had newly received a peculiar advancement.
For two things fell out in the providence of God about that season, which greatly conduced unto the furtherance of the gospel. The Jews were wholly possessed of whatever was true in religion, and which lay in a direct subserviency unto the gospel itself. This they gloried in and boasted of, as a privilege which they enjoyed above all the world. The Grecians, on the other hand, were possessed of skill and wisdom in all arts and sciences, with the products of philosophical inquiries, and elegancy of speech in expressing the conceptions of their minds; and this they gloried in and boasted of above all other people in the world. Now, both these nations being dispossessed of their empire, sovereignty, and liberty at home, by the Romans, multitudes of them made it their business to disperse themselves in the world, and to seek, as it were, a new empire; the one to its religion, and the other to its language, arts, and sciences. Of both sorts, with their design, the Roman writers in those days do take notice, and greatly complain. And these privileges being boasted of and rested in, proved equally prejudicial to both nations, as to the reception of the gospel, as our apostle disputes at large, 1 Cor. i., ii. But through the wisdom of God, disposing and ordering all things unto his own glory, the design and actings of them both became an effectual means to facilitate the propagation of the gospel; for the Jews having planted synagogues in most nations and principal cities in the Roman empire, they had both leavened multitudes of people with some knowledge of the true God, which prepared the way of the gospel, as also they had gathered fixed assemblies, which the preachers of the gospel constantly took the advantage of to enter upon their work and to begin the declaration of their message. The Grecians, on the other hand, had so universally diffused the knowledge of their language as that the use of that one tongue alone was sufficient to instruct all sorts of people throughout the world in the knowledge of the truth; for the gift of tongues was only to be a "sign unto unbelievers," 1 Cor. xiv. 22, and not a means of preaching the gospel constantly in a language which he understood not who spake.
In this language, therefore, as the most common, diffusive, and generally-understood in the world, did God order that the books of the New Testament should be written. From thence, by translations and expositions, was it to be derived into other tongues and languages; for the design of God was still the same, — that his word should be declared unto the church in a language which it understood. Hence is that peculiar distribution of the nations of the world into Jews, Greeks, Barbarians, and Scythians, Col iii. 11, not accommodated unto the use of those terms in Grecian writers, unto whom the Jews were no less barbarians than the Scythians themselves; but as the Scriptures of the Old Testament were peculiarly given unto the Jews, so were those of the New unto the Greeks,—that is, those who made use of their language, — from whence it was deduced unto all other nations, called Barbarians and Scythians.
It must be acknowledged that the Scripture, as written in these languages, is accompanied with many and great advantages:
(1.) In them peculiarly is it ??afn ?eóp?e?st?? a "writing by divine inspiration," 2 Tim. iii. 16; and, the " book of writing of the Lord," Isa xxxiv. 16; with a singular privilege above all translations. Hence the very words themselves, as therein used and placed, are sacred, consecrated by God unto that holy use. The sacred sense, indeed, of the words and expressions is the internum formale sacrum, or that wherein the holiness of the Scripture doth consist; but the writing itself in the original languages, in the words chosen and used by the Holy Ghost, is the externum formale of the holy Scripture, and is materially sacred.It is the sense, therefore, of the Scripture which principally and for its own sake we inquire after and into; that divine sense which, as Justin Martyr speaks, is ?pe? ???ov, ?pe? ????, ?aì ?pe? p?sa? ?ata?n?i?, absolutely "above our natural reason, understanding, and comprehension." In the words we are concerned with respect there-unto, as by the wisdom of the Holy Ghost they are designed as the written signs thereof.
The words of the Scripture being given thus immediately from God, every apex, tittle, or iota in the whole is considerable, as that which is an effect of divine wisdom, and therefore filled with sacred truth, according to their place and measure. Hence they are all under the especial care of God, according to that promise of our Saviour, Matt. v. 18, "Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law." That our Saviour doth here intend the writing of the Scriptures then in use in the church, and assure the protection of God unto the least letter, vowel, or point of it, I have proved elsewhere; and himself in due time will reprove the profane boldness of them who, without evidence or sufficient proof, without that respect and reverence which is due unto the interest, care, providence, and faithfulness of God in this matter, do assert manifold changes to have been made in the original writings of the Scripture. 1
But, as I said, divine senses and singular mysteries may be couched in the use and disposal of a letter; and this God himself hath manifested, as in sundry other instances, so in the change of the names of Abram and Sarai, wherein the addition or alteration of one letter carried along with it a mysterious signification for the use of the church in all ages. In translations nothing of that nature can be observed; and hence a due consideration of the very accents in the original of the Old Testament, as distinctive or conjunctive, is a singular advantage in the investigation of the sense of particular places and sentences.
(3.) There is in the originals of the Scripture a peculiar emphasis of words and expressions, and in them an especial energy, to intimate and insinuate the sense of the Holy Ghost unto the minds of men, which cannot be traduced into other languages by translations, so as to obtain the same power and efficacy. Now, this is not absolutely from the nature of the original languages themselves, especially not of the Greek, whose principal advantages and excellencies, in copiousness and elegancy, are little used in the New Testament, but from a secret impression of divine wisdom and efficacy accompanying the immediate delivery of the mind of God in them. There is, therefore, no small advantage hence to be obtained in the interpretation of the Scripture: for when we have received an impression on our minds of the sense and intention of the Holy Ghost in any particular place, we shall seek for meet words to express it by, wherein consists the whole work of Scripture exposition, so far as I have any acquaintance with it, — "Interpretis officium est, non quid ipse velit, sed quid sentiat ille quem interpretatur, exponere," Hieron. Apol. adv. Rufin.; — for when the mind is really affected with the discovery of truth itself, it will be guided and directed in the declaration of it unto others.
(4.) The whole course of speech, especially in the New Testament, is accommodated unto the nature, use, and propriety of that language, as expressed in other authors who wrote therein, and had a perfect understanding of it. From them, therefore, is the proper use and sense of the words, phrases, and expressions in the New Testament much to be learned. This no man can make a judgment of in a due manner but he that is skilled in that language, as used and delivered by them. Not that I think a commentary on the New Testament may be collected out of Eustathius, Hesychius, Phavorinus, Julius Pollux, and other glossaries, from whose grammaticisms and vocabularies some do countenance themselves in curious and bold conjectures, nor from the likeness of expression in classic authors. This only I say, that it is of singular advantage, in the interpretation of the Scripture, that a man be well acquainted with the original languages, and be able to examine the use and signification of words, phrases, and expressions as they are applied and declared in other authors. And even to the understanding of the Greek of the New Testament it is necessary that a man have an acquaintance with the Hebrew of the Old; for although I do not judge that there are such a number of Hebraisms in it, — in a supposed discovery whereof consists no small part of some men's critical observations, — yet I readily grant that there is such a cognation and alliance in and between the senses of the one and the other as that a due comparing of their expressions doth mutually contribute light and perspicuity unto them.
By these things great advantage may be obtained unto the right understanding of the sense of the Scripture, or the mind of the Holy Ghost therein; for there is no other sense in it than what is contained in the words whereof materially it doth consist, though really that sense itself be such as our minds cannot receive without the especial divine assistance before pleaded. And in the interpretation of the mind of any one, it is necessary that the words he speaks or writes be rightly understood; and this we cannot do immediately unless we understand the language wherein he speaks, as also the idiotisms of that language, with the common use and intention of its phraseology and expressions. And if we do not hereby come unto a perfect comprehension of the sense intended, because many other things are required thereunto, yet a hinderance is removed, without which we cannot do so; occasions of manifold mistakes are taken away, and the cabinet is as it were unlocked wherein the jewel of truth lies hid, which with a lawful diligent search may be found. And what perplexities, mistakes, and errors, the ignorance of these original languages hath cast many expositors into, both of old and of late, especially among those who pertinaciously adhere unto one translation, and that none of the best, might be manifested by instances undeniable, and these without number. Such is that of the gloss on Titus iii. 10, "Hæreticum hominem de vita," which adds, as its exposition, "tolle." And those among ourselves who are less skilled in this knowledge are to be advised that they would be careful not to adventure on any singular exposition of the Scriptures, or any text in them, upon the credit of any one or all translations they can make use of, seeing persons of greater name and worth than to be mentioned unto their disreputation have miscarried upon the same account. A reverential subjection of mind, and diligent attendance unto the analogy of faith, are their best preservative in this matter; and I fear not to add, that a superficial knowledge in these tongues, which many aim at, is of little use unless it be to make men adventurous in betraying their own ignorance. But the sense and substance of the Scripture being contained entirely in every good translation (amongst which that in use among ourselves is excellent, though capable of great improvements), men may, by the use of the means before directed unto, and under the conduct of the teaching of the Spirit of God in them, usefully and rightly expound the Scripture in general unto the edification of others; whereof many instances may be given amongst ancient and modern expositors.
This skill and knowledge, therefore, is of great use unto them who are called unto the interpretation of the Scripture; and the church of God hath had no small advantage by the endeavours of men learned herein, who have exercised it in the exposition of the words and phraseology of the Scriptures, as compared with their use in other authors. But yet, as was before observed, this skill, and the exercise of it in the way mentioned, is no duty in itself, nor enjoined unto any for its own sake, but only hath a goodness in it with respect unto a certain end. Wherefore, it is in its own nature indifferent, and in its utmost improvement capable of abuse, and such in late days it hath fallen under unto a great extremity; for the study of the original languages, and the exercise of skill in them in the interpretation of the Scripture, hath been of great reputation, and that deservedly. Hence multitudes of learned men have engaged themselves in that work and study, and the number of annotations and comments on the Scripture, consisting principally in critical observations, as they are called, have been greatly increased; and they are utter strangers unto these things who will not allow that many of them are of singular use. But withal this skill and faculty, where it hath been unaccompanied with that humility, sobriety, reverence of the Author of the Scripture, and respect unto the analogy of faith, which ought to bear sway in the minds of all men who undertake to expound the oracles of God, may be, and hath been, greatly abused, unto the hurt of its owners and disadvantage of the church. For,
[1.] By some it hath been turned into the fuel of pride, and a noisome elation of mind; yea, experience shows that this kind of knowledge, where it is supposed signal, is of all others the most apt to puff up and swell the vain minds of men, unless it be where it is alloyed with a singular modesty of nature, or the mind itself be sufficiently corrected and changed by grace. Hence the expressions of pride and self-conceit which some have broken forth into on an imagination of their skill and faculty in criticising on the Scriptures have been ridiculous and impious. The Holy Ghost usually teacheth not such persons, neither should I expect to learn much from them relating unto the truth as it is in Jesus. But yet the stones they dig may be made use of by a skilful builder.
[2.] In many it hath been accompanied with a noxious, profane curiosity. Every tittle and apex shall give them occasion for fruitless conjectures, as vain, for the most part, as those of the cabalistical Jews. And this humour hath filled us with needless and futilous observations; which, beyond an ostentation of the learning of their authors (indeed, the utmost end whereunto they are designed), are of no use nor consideration. But this is not all: some men from hence have been prompted unto a boldness in adventuring to corrupt the text itself, or the plain sense of it; for what else is done when men, for an ostentation of their skill, will produce quotations out of learned authors to illustrate or expound sayings in the Scripture, wherein there seems to be some kind of compliance in words and sounds, when their senses are adverse and contrary? Amongst a thousand instances which might be given to exemplify this folly and confidence, we need take that one alone of him who, to explain or illustrate that saying of Hezekiah, "Good is the word of the LORD which thou hest spoken, for there shall be peace and truth in my days," Isa. xxxix. 8, subjoins,'?µ?? ?a?ó?t?? ?aîa µiX?nt? p??í so comparing that holy man's submission and satisfaction in the peace of the church and truth with the blasphemous imprecation of an impious wretch for confusion on the world when once he should be got out of it. And such notable sayings are many of our late critics farced withal.
And the confidence of some hath fallen into greater excesses, and hath swelled over these bounds also. To countenance their conjectures and self-pleasing imaginations, from whence they expect no small reputation for skill and learning, they fall in upon the text itself. And, indeed, we are come into an age wherein many seem to judge that they can neither sufficiently value themselves, nor obtain an estimation in the world, without some bold sallies of curiosity or novelty into the vitals of religion, with reflection of contempt and scorn on all that are otherwise minded, as persons incapable of comprehending their attainments. Hence it is that amongst ourselves we have scarce any thing left unattacked in the doctrine of the reformed churches and of that in England, as in former days. Neither shall he be with many esteemed a man either of parts, learning, or judgment, who hath not some new curious opinion or speculation, differing from what hath been formerly commonly taught and received, although the universality of these renowned notions among us are but corrupt emanations from Socinianism or Arminianism on the one hand, or from Popery on the other.
But it is men of another sort, and in truth of another manner of learning, than the present corrupters of the doctrines of the gospel (who, so far as I can perceive, trouble not themselves about the Scripture much one way or another), that we treat about. They are such as, in the exercise of the skill and ability under consideration, do fall in upon the Scripture itself, to make way for the advancement of their own conjectures, — whereof ten thousand are not of the least importance compared with the duty and necessity of preserving the sacred text inviolate, and the just and due persuasion that so it hath been preserved; for, first, they command the vowels and accents of the Hebrew text out of their way, as things wherein they are not concerned, when the use of them in any one page of the Scripture is incomparably of more worth and use than all that they are or ever will be of in the church of God. And this is done on slight conjectures. And if this suffice not to make way for their designs, then letters and words themselves must be corrected, upon an unprovable supposition that the original text hath been changed or corrupted. And the boldness of some herein is grown intolerable, so that it is as likely means for the introduction and promotion of atheism as any engine the devil hath set on work in these days, wherein he is so openly engaged in that design.
There are also sundry other ways whereby this great help unto the understanding and interpretation of the Scripture may be and hath been abused; those mentioned may suffice as instances confirming our observations. Wherefore, as substantial knowledge and skill in the originals is useful, and indeed necessary, unto him that is called unto the exposition of the Scripture, so in the use and exercise of it sundry things ought to be well considered by them who are furnished therewithal: as, — 1st. That the thing itself is no grace, nor any peculiar gift of the Holy Ghost, but a mere fruit of diligence upon a common furniture with natural abilities; and nothing of this nature is in sacred things to be rested on or much trusted unto. 2dly. That the exercise of this skill in and about the Scripture is not in itself, as such, an especial or immediate duty. Were it so, there would be especial grace promised to fill it up and quicken it; for all gospel duties are animated by grace in their due performance, — that is, those who do so perform them have especial assistance in their so doing. But it is reduced unto the general head of duty with respect unto the end aimed at. Wherefore, idly. The blessing of God on our endeavours, succeeding and prospering of them, as in other natural and civil occasions of life, is all that we expect herein from the Holy Spirit. And, 4thly. Sundry other things are required of us, if we hope for this blessing on just grounds. It may be some ignorant persons are so fond as to imagine that if they could understand the original languages, they must of necessity understand the sense of the Scripture; and there is nothing more frequent than for some, who either truly or falsely pretend a skill in them, to bear themselves high against those who perhaps are really more acquainted with the mind of the Holy Ghost in the word than themselves, as though all things were plain and obvious unto them, others knowing nothing but by them or such as they are. But this is but one means of many that is useful to this purpose, and that such as, if it be alone, is of little or no use at all. It is fervent prayer, humility, lowliness of mind, godly fear and reverence of the word, and subjection of conscience unto the authority of every tittle of it, a constant attendance unto the analogy of faith, with due dependence on the Spirit of God for supplies of light and grace, which must make this or any other means of the same nature effectual.
2. An acquaintance with the history and geography of the world and with chronology, I reckon also among disciplinarian aids in the interpretation of the Scripture; for as time is divided into what is past and what is to come, so there are sundry things in the Scripture which, in all seasons, relate thereunto: for, — (1.) God hath therein given us an account of the course and order of all things from the foundation of the world. And this he did for sundry important reasons, as incident with the general end of the Scripture; for hereby hath he secured the testimony that he hath given to his being, power, and providence, by the creation and rule of all things. The evidences in them given thereunto are those which are principally attacked by atheists. And although they do sufficiently manifest and evince their own testimony unto the common reason of mankind, yet sundry things relating unto them are so involved in darkness and inextricable circumstances as that, if all their concernments had not been plainly declared in the Scripture, the wisest of men had been at a great loss about them; and so were they always who wanted the light and advantage hereof. But here, as he hath plainly declared the original emanation of all things from his eternal power, so hath he testified unto his constant rule over all in all times, places, ages, and seasons, by instances incontrollable. Therein hath he treasured up all sorts of examples, with such impressions of his goodness, patience, power, wisdom, holiness, and righteousness upon them, as proclaim his almighty and righteous government of the whole universe; and in the whole he hath delivered unto us such a tract and series of the ages of the world from its beginning as atheism hath no tolerable pretence, from tradition, testimony, or the evidence of things themselves, to break in upon. Whatever is objected against the beginning of all things, and the course of their continuance in the world, delivered unto us in the Scripture, which is secured not only by the authority of divine revelation, but also by a universal evidence of all circumstances, is fond and ridiculous. I speak of the account given us in general, sufficient unto its own ends, and not of any men's deductions and applications of it unto minute portions of time, which probably it was not designed unto. It is sufficient unto its end that its account, in general, which confounds all atheistical presumptions, is not to be impeached. And although the authority of the Scripture is not to be pleaded immediately against atheists, yet the matter and reason of it is, which from its own evidence renders all contrary pretensions contemptible.
(2.) God hath hereby given an account of the beginning, progress, trials, faith, obedience, and whole proceedings of the church, in the pursuit of the first promise, unto the actual exhibition of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Hereunto were all things in a tendency for four thousand years. It is a glorious prospect we have therein, to see the call and foundation of the church in the first promise given unto our common parents; what additions of light and knowledge he granted unto it successively by new revelations and promises; how he gradually adorned it with gifts, privileges, and ordinances; what ways and means he used to preserve it in faith, purity, and obedience; how he chastened, tried, punished, and delivered it; how he dealt with the nations of the world with respect unto it, raising them up for its affliction, and destroying them for their cruelty and oppression of it; what were the ways of wicked and sinful men amongst them or in it, and what the graces and fruits of his saints; how by his power he retrieved it out of various calamities, and preserved it against all opposition unto its appointed season; — all which, with innumerable other effects of divine wisdom and grace, are blessedly represented unto us therein.
Now, besides that spiritual wisdom and insight into the great design of God in Christ, which is required unto a right understanding in these things as they were types of better things to come and examples of gospel mysteries, there is a skill and understanding in the records and monuments of time, the geographical respect of one nation unto another, the periods and revolutions of seasons and ages, required to apprehend them aright in their first literal instance and intention. And besides what is thus historically related in the Scripture, there are prophecies also of things to come in the church and amongst the nations of the world, which are great evidences of its own divinity and supporting arguments of our faith; but without some good apprehension of the distinction of times, seasons, and places, no man can rightly judge of their accomplishment.
Secondly, there are, in particular, prophecies in the Old Testament which reach unto the times of the gospel, upon the truth whereof the whole Scripture doth depend. Such are those concerning the calling of the Gentiles, the rejection and recovery of the Jews, the erection of the glorious kingdom of Christ in the world, with the oppositions that should be made unto it. And to these many are added in the New Testament itself, as Matt. xxiv., xxv., 2 Thess. ii. 1-12, 1 Tim. iv. 1-3, 2 Tim. iii. 1-5, iv. 3, 4; but especially in the whole book of the Revelation, wherein the state of the church and of the world is foretold unto the consummation of all things. And how can any man arrive unto a tolerable acquaintance with the accomplishment of these prophecies as to what is already past, or have a distinct grounded expectation of the fulfilling of what remains foretold, without a prospect into the state of things in the world, the revolutions of times past, with what fell out in them, which are the things spoken of? Those who treat of them without it do but feign chimeras to themselves, as men in the dark are apt to do, or corrupt the word of God, by turning it into senseless and fulsome allegories. And those, on the other side, by whom these things are wholly neglected do despise the wisdom and care of God towards the church, and disregard a blessed means of our faith and consolation.
Some things of this nature, especially such as relate unto chronological computations, I acknowledge are attended with great and apparently inextricable difficulties; but the skill and knowledge mentioned will guide humble and modest inquirers into so sufficient a satisfaction in general, and as unto all things which are really useful, that they shall have no temptation to question the verity of what in particular they cannot assoil. And it is an intolerable pride and folly, when we are guided and satisfied infallibly in a thousand things which we know no otherwise, to question the authority of the whole because we cannot comprehend one or two particulars, which, perhaps, were never intended to be reduced unto our measure. Besides, as the investigation of these things is attended with difficulties, so the ignorance of them or mistakes about them, whilst the minds of men are free from pertinacy and a spirit of contention, are of no great disadvantage, for they have very little influence on our faith and obedience, any otherwise than that we call not into question what is revealed; and it is most probable that the Scripture never intended to give us such minute chronological determinations as some would deduce their computations unto, and that because not necessary. Hence we see that some who have laboured therein unto a prodigy of industry and learning, although they have made some useful discoveries, yet have never been able to give such evidence unto their computations as that others would acquiesce in them, but by all their endeavours have administered occasion of new strife and contention about things, it may be, of no great importance to be known or determined. And, in general, men have run into two extremes in these things; for some pretend to frame an exact computation and consent of times from the Scripture alone, without any regard unto the records, monuments, histories, and signatures of times in the world. Wherever these appear in opposition or contradiction unto the chain and links of time which they have framed to themselves (as they suppose from the Scripture), they reject, them as matters of no consideration; and it were well if they could do this unto satisfaction. But how evidently they have failed herein, — as; for instance, in the computation of Daniel's weeks, wherein they will allow but four hundred and ninety years from the first of Cyrus unto the death of our Saviour, contrary to the common consent of mankind about things that fell out, and their continuance between those seasons, taking up five hundred and sixty-two years, — is manifest unto all. The Scripture, indeed, is to be made the only sacred standard and measure of things, in its proper sense and understanding, nor is any thing to be esteemed of which riseth up in contradiction thereunto; but as a due consideration of foreign testimonies and monuments doth oft-times give great light unto what is more generally or obscurely expressed in the Scripture, so where the Scripture in these things, with such allowances as it everywhere declares itself to admit of, may be interpreted in a fair compliance with uncontrolled foreign testimonies, that interpretation is to be embraced. The question is not, therefore, whether we shall regulate the computation of times by the Scripture, or by the histories and marks of time in the world; but whether, when the sense of the Scripture is obscure in those things, and its determination only general, so as to be equally capable of various senses, that is not to be preferred which agrees with the undoubted monuments of times in the nations of the world, all other things being alike? For instance, the angel Gabriel acquaints Daniel that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and rebuild Jerusalem unto Messiah the prince and his cutting off, should be seventy weeks (to speak only of the whole number in general), — that is, four hundred and ninety years. Now, there were sundry commandments given or decrees made by the kings of Persia, who are intended, to this purpose. Of these two were the most famous, the one granted by Cyrus in the first year of his empire; Ezra i.1-4; the other by Artaxerxes in the seventh year of his reign, chap. vii. 11-26. Between the first of these and the death of Christ there must be allowed five hundred and sixty-two years, unless you will offer violence unto all monuments, records, and circumstances of times in the world. It is, therefore, safer to interpret the general words of the angel of the latter decree or commandment, whose circumstances also make it more probable to be intended, wherein the space of time mentioned falls in exactly with other approved histories and records. Neither would I disallow another computation, which, contending for the first decree of Cyrus to be the beginning of the time mentioned, and allowing the whole space from thence to be really five hundred and sixty-two years, affirms that the Scripture excludes the consideration of the years supernumerary to the four hundred and ninety, because of the interruptions which at several seasons were put upon the people in the accomplishment of the things foretold for so many years, which some suppose to be signified by the distribution of the whole number of seventy weeks into seven, sixty-two, and one, each of which fractions hath its proper work belonging unto it; for this computation offers no violence either to sacred or unquestionable human authority.
But, on the other extreme, some there are who, observing the difficulties in these accounts, as expressed in the Scripture from the beginning, having framed another series of things to themselves openly diverse from that exhibited therein, and raked together from other authors some things giving countenance unto their conjectures, do profanely make bold to break in upon the original text, accusing it of imperfection or corruption, which they will rectify by their fine inventions and by the aid of a translation known to be mistaken in a thousand places, and in some justly suspected of wilful depravation. But this presumptuous confidence is nothing but an emanation from that flood of atheism which is breaking in on the world in these declining ages of it.
3. The third aid or assistance of this kind is a skill in the ways and methods of reasoning, which are supposed to be common unto the Scriptures with other writings; and this, as it is an art, or an artificial faculty, like those other means before mentioned, is capable of a right improvement or of being abused. An ability to judge of the sense of propositions, how one thing depends on another, bow it is deduced from it, follows upon it, or is proved by it; what is the design of him that writes or speaks in any discourse or reasoning; how it is proposed, confirmed, illustrated, — is necessary unto any rational consideration to be exercised about whatever is so proposed unto us. And when the minds of men are confirmed in a good habit of judgment by the rules of the art of reasoning about the ordinary ways and methods of it, it is of great advantage in the investigation of the sense of any writer, even of the Scripture itself; and those ordinarily who shall undertake the interpretation of any series of Scripture discourses without some ability in this science will find themselves oftentimes entangled and at a loss, when by virtue of it they might be at liberty and free. And many of the rules which are commonly given about the interpretation of the Scripture, — as, namely, that the scope of the author in the place is duly to be considered, as also things antecedent and consequent to the place and words to be interpreted, and the like, — are but directions for the due use of this skill or faculty.
But this also must be admitted with its limitations; for whatever perfection there seems to be in our art of reasoning, it is to be subject to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost in the Scripture. His way of reasoning is always his own, sometimes sublime and heavenly, so as not to be reduced unto the common rules of our arts and sciences, without a derogation from its instructive, convictive, and persuasive efficacy. For us to frame unto ourselves rules of ratiocination, or to have our minds embondaged unto those of other men's invention and observation, if we think thereon absolutely to reduce all the reasonings in the Scripture unto them, we may fall into a presumptuous mistake. In the consideration of all the effects of infinite wisdom, there must be an allowance for the deficiency of our comprehension; when humble subjection of conscience, and the captivating of our understandings to the obedience of faith, is the best means of learning what is proposed unto us. And there is nothing more contemptible than the arrogancy of such persons as think, by the shallow measures and short lines of their own weak, dark, imperfect reasoning, to fathom the depths of Scripture senses.
Again; what sense soever any man supposeth or judgeth this or that particular place of Scripture to yield and give out to the best of his rational intelligence is immediately to give place unto the analogy of faith, — that is, the Scripture's own declaration of its sense in other places to another purpose, or contrary thereunto. The want of attending unto men's duty herein, with a mixture of pride and pertinacy, is the occasion of most errors and noxious opinions in the world; for when some have taken up a private interpretation of any place of Scripture, if, before they have thoroughly imbibed and vented it, they do not submit their conception, although they seem to be greatly satisfied in it and full of it, unto the authority of the Scripture in the declaration of its own mind in other places, there is but small hope of their recovery. And this is that pride which is the source and original of heresy, — namely, when men will prefer their seemingly wise and rational conceptions of the sense of particular places before the analogy of faith.
Moreover, there is a pernicious mistake that some are fallen into about these things They suppose that, taking in the help of skill in the original languages for the understanding of the words and their use, whether proper or figurative, there is nothing more necessary to the understanding and interpretation of the Scripture but only the sedulous and diligent use of our own reason, in the ordinary way, and according to the common rules of the art of ratiocination; "for what more can be required," say they, "or what more can men make use of? By these means alone do we come to understand the meaning of any other writer, and therefore also of the Scripture. Neither can we, nor doth God require that we should, receive or believe any thing but according to our own reason and understanding." But these things, though in themselves they are, some of them, partly true, yet as they are used unto the end mentioned, they are perniciously false; for, — (1.) It greatly unbecometh any Christian once to suppose that there is need of no other assistance, nor the use of any other means for the interpretation of the oracles of God, or to come unto the understanding of the hidden wisdom of God in the mystery of the gospel, than is to the understanding or interpretation of the writings of men, which are the product of a finite, limited, and weak ability. Were it not for some secret persuasion that the Scripture indeed is not, what it pretends to be, the word of the living God, or that it doth not indeed express the highest effect of his wisdom and deepest counsel of his will, it could not be that men should give way to such foolish imaginations. The principal matter of the Scripture is mysterious, and the mysteries of it are laid up therein by God himself, and that in a way inimitable by the skill or wisdom of men. When we speak of and express the same things according unto our measure of comprehension, wherein, from its agreement with the Scripture, what we say is materially divine, yet our words are not so, nor is there the same respect to the things themselves as the expressions of the Scripture have, which are formally divine. And can we ourselves trace these paths of wisdom without his especial guidance and assistance? — it is highly atheistical once to fancy it. (2.) We treat of such an interpretation of the Scripture as is real, and is accompanied with an understanding of the things proposed and expressed, and not merely of the notional sense of propositions and expressions; for we speak of such an interpretation of the Scripture as is a sanctified means of our illumination, nor any other doth either the Scripture require or God regard. That to give in this unto us, notwithstanding the use and advantage of all outward helps and means, is the peculiar work of the Spirit of God, hath been before demonstrated. It is true, we can receive nothing, reject nothing, as to what is true or false, nor conceive the sense of any thing, but by our own reasons and understandings. But the inquiry herein is, what supernatural aid and assistance our minds and natural reasons stand in need of to enable them to receive and understand aright things spiritual and supernatural. And if it be true that no more is required unto the due understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures but the exercise of our own reasons, in and by the helps mentioned, — namely, skill in the original languages, the art of ratiocination, and the like, which are exposed unto all in common, according to the measure of their natural abilities and diligence, — then is the sense of the Scripture, that is, the mind of God and Christ therein, equally discernible, or to be attained unto, by all sorts of men, good and bad, holy and profane, believers and unbelievers, those who obey the word and those who despise it; which is contrary to all the promises of God and to innumerable other testimonies of Scripture.
1. These statements are founded on those views respecting the functions and tendency of biblical criticism in which, by universal admission, Owen, in common with most theologians of his age, altogether erred. We need not consider his opinions on the subject under the incidental reference to them above. He refers to his writings in controversy with Brian Walton; for which see vol. xvi. of his Works. His argument proceeds on the supposition that, by a continuous miracle, extending over ages, every point and letter of Scripture have been indubitably preserved as they came from the inspired penmen. But it is a necessary condition of the argument, that what he alleges or assumes respecting the miraculous preservation of all the letters and words of Scripture should be true. If it be not true, and if there be really higher evidence for the peculiar claims of the Word in the fact that, with the common liabilities of all manuscripts to corruption, it exists in such accuracy and perfection, greater reverence is shown to it in critical efforts to weed out all remaining errata by the collation of manuscripts, than by slothful acquiescence in the text, without any attempt to ascertain on what authority it must be received as the actual text of inspiration. — ED.
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