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Church. They are, speaking generally, excellent evidences of facts. Even the later of them may perhaps be implicitly relied on, as to the existence of any particular contemporary ecclesiastical practice which they record. But it is always open to discussion in their case, whether the practice is not an innovation, or a departure from the customs of the church at its first institution. They are also not always regarded as the best expounders of Scripture. Some however of these ancient dignitaries were contemporary with the Apostles. There are books extant which claim to be the works, either original or translated, of five writers of their age, the claims of most of which are generally undisputed; and they are the works of men who were acquaintances and friends, pupils and converts, of one or other of the Apostles. Now it is evident, that the works of men thus happily distinguished both by the age in which they lived, and the opportunities of intercourse which they enjoyed with the inspired men, are not liable to the same objections as later writers, either as to the soundness of their doctrines, or their testimony to apostolic customs. Whatever ordinances or practices they relate as existing in their time, cannot be imagined innovations on the original system; and whatever interpretation they give of Scripture, must be entitled to at least a very respectful consideration. In reflecting on the human liability to err in the interpretation of the Scriptures, and on the greater facility of understanding a well-written production of mere human genius, we should naturally be sensible of what advantage it would have been to have enjoyed, like the first Christians, the oral instruction of the Apostles, or of one of those persons who were united with them in habits of intimacy. This advantage, however, it is not for us to possess. But there is another which approaches it in value, and the next most desirable assistance that can be conceived would be the plain and intelligible writings of uninspired men who received immediate apostolic instruction. We are instinctively, as it were, impressed with an idea of the essential service which the writings of such persons might render to our inquiries after scriptural truth. Now this is exactly the kind of assistance which the writings of at least three reputed authors in the apostolic age afford.
Reason, then, and the writings of the apostolic fathers, appear to be eminently useful in our investigation of divine truth. Nor is it possible to conceive any other extrinsic means of interpreting Scripture at all comparable in authority to these. Independently of the means of internal criticism of Scripture, among which I include the ordinary assistance of the Spirit, there are no imaginable aids to its right interpretation but the light of nature and human testimony. And of all those men who have borne evidence to the truth of Scripture, to its signification, or to the customs and intentions of the most enlightened followers of our Lord, who would, without the greatest caution, presume to set his own opinions in opposition to the genuine productions of a friend and a disciple of an apostle? So fully do dissenters appear to recognize the force of these arguments, that one of their “standard” writers, in attempting to prove
" that every lay Christian has a right to choose his own pastor," appeals to no authority but reason, Scripture, and the undoubted practice of the primitive church, except that by which he is equally unsupported the general acknowledgment of all the learned of our own communion. (Towgood, p. 87.)
Let us imagine then, that the sense of Scripture has been investigated by a diligent and careful examination of its contents, and ascertained, as it is thought, with exactness; the inquirer is at liberty to consult reason upon the matter under consideration, if it be one where reason is at all competent to decide, and also the apostolic fathers, for any evidence which they may supply. And these are the consequences to be deduced from applying to their authority :First, with regard to reason : as God has referred his intelligible dealings with mankind to our reason and judgment for approbation, if it is argued by any disputant, that God has ordained any particular system according to his interpretation of Scripture, and if our reason teaches us that it is contrary to itself that such should be the divine intention; then its seeming unreasonable is a strong ground for believing that such disputant has erred in his view of Scripture on that particular subject; or if the position for which he contends is opposed to the opinions and assertions of all or any of the apostolic fathers, a more or less violent discredit is cast on its correctness. And if both reason and the apostolic fathers appear to agree in condemning the conclusion attempted to be drawn from Scripture, they are sufficient proof of its fallacy, should there be any probable mode of understanding Scripture on the point in question, which is not opposed by these separate criterions. And, on the contrary, if a wise
and careful examination of Scripture leads to any conclusion which is supported by both the auxiliaries to scriptural interpretation which we have named, then the concurrence of all these three authorities is a combination of evidence which rises almost as high as evidence can possibly go, and is irresistible.
This last inference is that on which we shall ground the principal arguments of the following discussion.
It is our design in this chapter to inquire into the duty of Christians being united in the knowledge of the truth, or in the right understanding of the word of God, as a guide to immortality in charity or love, and in society and to ascertain the degree of importance to be attached to its observance. We will take these subjects separately in the order that has been stated.
I. No fact can be more indisputable among professing Christians, than that one of the chief objects of every believer in revelation is to attain a correct knowledge of its doctrinal truths; that though the understanding of the word of God is not of itself sufficient to ensure a man's salvation, yet that it is impossible to render due obedience to the Scripture without a due knowledge of its contents; that the more erroneous our views of the divine word, the more imperfect must be our conformity to its dictates ; and that it is necessary to acquire a right apprehension of its saving doctrines, before we can perform as we ought our duties to Him who revealed them; and that it is therefore a duty, inasmuch as obedience is a duty.