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HINTS ON THE INTERPRETATION OF THE
The primary principle to which we must adhere, in all interpretations of the sacred volume, being the text taken in its obvious and literal sense, it will follow that the spiritual or figurative, where maintained, must be the exception to this general rule. I shall occupy the present paper with some observations on this second principle, and state the chief reasons for its adoption in particular cases. The third century of the Christian era witnessed a lamentable departure, in some of the most celebrated divines of the Church, from just principles of Biblical Interpretation. It was maintained that every passage of Scripture contained, besides the historical or literal sense, a moral doctrine, and a more hidden and exalted idea, which they denominated the mystical or spiritual sentiment. It was brought into repute, if not first commenced, by him whose name we have mentioned above-Origen, of Alexandria-and arose out of a fond and overweening inclination to engraft certain heathen notions on the Christian scheme. The consequence was, that Scripture was distorted, allegorized, and mystified; and where the three interpretations could not be elicited, which happened in many places, the literal was made to give way, and the moral and mystical were supplied instead.
Now, while such a system must be at once and for ever reprobated by a humble enquirer after truth, it is most true that moral and religious lessons are often intended to be conveyed under literal representations, and figurative and more remote interpretations to stand in the place of the more obvious and plain.
This is as reasonable as the former principle I contended for, when we consider that many of the books are poetical in style, which always abounds in figurative expressions; when we remember that the object of the Christian revelation is to inculcate spiritual truths, and bring out into bold relief moral doctrines—its author God, and its promulgator God and man, mysteriously united.
By a spiritual interpretation of Scripture, then, I would be understood to imply every kind of secondary or indirect sense which is substituted for the direct and literal. This will include under it, consequently, the metaphorical, as where man is said to be grass, (Is. xl.) —that is, figuratively or metaphorically, like it—the allegorical or mystical, as where the servitude of Hagar and Ishmael is said (Gal. iv.) to represent the bondage of the legal dispensation—the parabolical, or moral, as where love to our neighbours is inculcated by the story of a good Samaritan and his compassionate tenderness.
The First and most infallible rule to guide us in expounding a passage spiritually, is obviously the express and explicit announcement of the speaker or writer, that it must be so explained. We find an apposite illustration of this rule in St. John, 6th chapter. Our blessed Lord there uses certain symbolical expressions with reference to himself and the effect of his doctrine, when received into the heart: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
The Jews, following the natural impulse of a carnal spirit, and uninitiated in the spiritual mysteries of Christianity, interpreted this sentence literally: they “strove among themselves, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Christ soon after comments on this error, and declares that it must be explained spiritually: " It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life."*
Here is an express
* I cannot forbear quoting Dr. Hammond's beautiful paraphrase on this verse: “And for the other particular of eating his flesh, he tells them they cannot but know that it is the soul that enliveneth, and not the body; and, agreeably, that it is not the gross, carnal eating of his body of flesh that he could speak of, when he talked of their eating, and his feeding them to life eternal, but certainly a more spiritual divine eating, or feeding on Him which should bring them a durable, eternal life; his words, (see v. 68.) that is, his doctrine, being spiritually fed on by them—that is, being received into their hearts-not only their ears—will quicken them to a spiritual life here, and that shall prove to them an eternal life hereafter. (So St. Chrysostom expounds the flesh, that is, the fleshly hearing
introduced by him who used these symbols, that the letter must be disregarded, and a spiritual signification sought for instead. And yet many bave brought forward this chapter in support of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the bodily presence of Christ in the sacrament.
In other places of the Bible, we shall find the inspired writers glossing over their own or Christ's words in the same manner, which will throw a like restriction over our interpretation, as John ii. 19. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rear it up.” This was mistaken, and misapplied to the Jewish temple; but, says the Evangelist, in a parenthesis, “This spake he of the temple of his body." The living waters also are explained in like manner, which, by the woman of Samaria, had been before misunderstood, and carnally applied. (See John vii. 39. comp. iv. 10, 11.) Enough has, however, been said under this head to guide us in making use of the first rule of spiritual analysis.
But, SECONDLY, we may consider ourselves released from the letter, when we have reason to believe, from the context, the circumstancee of the place, or collateral considerations, that this was the Author's design. In many passages of holy writ, the intention of the writer is often not stated in so many words, when, from its general scope, the circumstances under which it was written, or indirect intimations, there is scarcely any doubt left on the mind that his words were figuratively designed. There, of course, needs more caution and attentive care in following out this rule; but the moral certainty which the mind afterwards arrives at, leaves it almost as comfortably assured of the truth as if it were explicitly stated. And it is commonly acted upon in the instructions of the most elementary teacher of the sacred volume. Take, for instance, the parable of the rich man who laid up goods for many years, but forgot
profits nothing.") See also his annotations on v. 53.—On the New Testament, p. 287.
Some valuable remarks on this chapter will also be found in a dissertation at the end of Dr. Arnold's “Sermons on the Helps and Hindrances of the Christian Life.'
the concerns of his soul. (Luke xii. 16.) There is not one teacher who would not expound it as an illustrative story introduced for the purpose of impressing a moral lesson on the mind : Whence comes this moral certainty as to its spiritual interpretation ? View the circumstances of the occasion on which it was called forth. At the end of one of our Lord's discourses, a man comes to him about a disputed inheritance, and begs that he would interfere with his brother, and secure for him half the estate. This indicated an avaricious and covetous spirit, and accordingly our Saviour having vindicated his character from the erroneous notion of his being a secular Judge or Prince, directs them to the sin which lurks under this desire of wealth : “ Beware of covetousness.
.” The minds of his auditors would now be fully alive to his design of impressing this moral truth on them—this they would see was the leading idea which occupied their Teacher's mind—and if any
illustration were then introduced by him, it would be to engrave this lesson more indelibly on their minds. Here, then, comes the parable—its spiritual or figurative application would instantly strike them; and when Christ added, at the conclusion of it, a second time,
So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God," no doubt would remain-indeed, in this case, we cannot conceive any to have existedwhat his real intention was. We should apply these remarks to other cases, where the design is not so clear as in many of the parables, and which we know the Jews more than once failed to comprehend.
Once again. In the institution of the Lord's Supper, a due consideration of the various parts of this rule leaves no doubt, I think, on the mind, that our Lord intended his words to be taken spiritually: “This is my body,” &c. For had these words been made use of, with reference to material bread, at any other time than the passover, his disciples, after their many conversations with him, would have been inclined to interpret them figuratively. When they saw their Master before their eyes, they would not have thought that he spake literally then and when he instituted it as a commeniorative
event of his one great sacrifice, after it had been offered on the cross, and he himself visibly ascended “up where he was before," they would have felt that his design was spiritual. This feeling would be strengthened, when they remembered that not more than a year ago, when using the same symbolical language, he had expressly forbad a literal interpretation. It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” (John vi.) And we can scarcely conceive, besides this, that had they accepted the phrase literally, they would not have asked some questions indicating their feeling, to be either confirmed or denied by Christ himself.
Consider, again, the circumstances of the event. They had been eating the passover, the sacrifice commemorative of their departure from Egypt; and the Jewish phrases, with reference to this custom, would be well imprinted on their minds. Now, the form of the paschal sacrifice was this: “This is the body of the passover; this is the bread of affliction, which our fathers eat in Egypt;" or
this is the passover :" where “it is evident (as Dr. Hammond remarks on this place) that this was not the identical bread which their fathers eat in Egypt, but only the transcript of it,” representing it. Our Lord, then, might well allude to these terms, and say, “This is my body;" represents that body which is soon to be sacrificed on the cross as your true passover, and the benefits of which death I will seal to every penitent partaker of this commemorative rite. So, likewise, the cup—the custom of the Jews being to pass round after the eating of the paschal lamb, the cup of charity and communion, when our Saviour passed
and said, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” It would be to them as though he said, "This is a federal rite between me and you; a sacrament of that blood of mine, which I shall shortly pour out upon the cross, and by which I will seal to you a new covenant-a promise of pardoning the sins of all that shall return from their sins, and obey me.” There are, of course, other reasons which make this interpretation still more certain; but even the few topics I have mentioned form a cumulative argument in a very high