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sight, could see in them what they pleased. Nothing is more acceptable to fancy than pliant terms, and expressions that are not obstinate; in such it can find its account with delight, and with them be illuminated, • orthodox, infallible at pleasure, and in its own way. But where the sense of the author goes visibly in its own train, and the words, receiving a determined sense from their companions and adjacents, will not consent to give countenance and colour to what is agreed to be right, and must be supported at any rate, there men of established orthodoxy do not so well find their satisfaction. And perhaps, if it were well examined, it would be no very extravagant paradox to say, that there are fewer that bring their opinions to the sacred Scripture, to be tried by that infallible rule, than bring the sacred Scripture to their opinions, to bend it to them, to make it, as they can, a cover and guard to them. And to this purpose, its being divided into verses, and brought, as much as may be, into loose and general aphorisms, makes it most useful and serviceable. And in this lies the other great cause of obscurity and perplexedness which has been cast upon St. Paul's epistles from without.
St. Paul's epistles, as they stand translated in our English Bibles, are now, by long and constant use, become a part of the English language, and common phraseology, especially in matters of religion: this every one uses familiarly, and thinks he understands; but it must be observed, that if he has a distinct meaning when he uses those words and phrases, and knows himself what he intends by them, it is always according to the sense of his own system, and the articles, or interpretations, of the society he is engaged in. So that all this knowledge and understanding, which he has in the use of these passages of sacred Scripture, reaches no farther than this, that he knows (and that is very well) what he himself says, but thereby knows nothing at all what St. Paul said in them. The apostle writ not by that man's system, and so his meaning cannot be known by it. This being the ordinary way of understanding the epistles, and every sect being perfectly orthodox in
his own judgment; what a great and invincible darkness must this cast upon St. Paul's meaning, to all those of that way, in all those places where his thoughts and sense run counter to what any party has espoused for orthodox; as it must, unavoidably, to all but one of the different systems, in all those passages that any way relate to the points in controversy between them!
This is a mischief, which however frequent, and almost natural, reaches so far, that it would justly make all those who depend upon them wholly diffident of commentators, and let them see how little help was to be expected from them, in relying on them for the true sense of the sacred Scripture, did they not take care to help to cozen themselves, by choosing to use and pin their faith on such expositors as explain the sacred Scripture in favour of those opinions that they beforehand have voted orthodox, and bring to the sacred Scripture, not for trial, but confirmation. Nobody can think that any text of St. Paul's epistles has two contrary meanings; and yet so it must have, to two different men, who taking two commentators of different sects for their respective guides into the sense of any one of the epistles, shall build upon their respective expositions. We need go no further for a proof of it than the notes of the two celebrated commentators on the New Testament, Dr. Hammond and Beza, both men of parts and learning, and both thought, by their followers, men mighty in the sacred Scriptures. So that here we see the hopes of great benefit and light, from expositors and commentators, is in a great part abated; and those who have most need of their help can receive but little from them, and can have very little assurance of reaching the apostle's sense, by what they find in them, whilst matters remain in the same state they are in at present. For those who find they need help, and would borrow light from expositors, either consult only those who have the good luck to be thought sound and orthodox, avoiding those of different sentiments from themselves, in the great and approved points of their systems, as dangerous and not fit to be meddled with; or else with indifferency look into the notes of all commentators pro
miscuously. The first of these take pains only to confirm themselves in the opinions and tenets they have already, which whether it be the way to get the true meaning of what St. Paul delivered, is easy to determine. The others, with much more fairness to themselves, though with reaping little more advantage (unless they have something else to guide them into the apostle's meaning than the comments themselves), seek help on all hands, and refuse not to be taught by any one who offers to enlighten them in any of the dark passages. But here, though they avoid the mischief, which the others fall into, of being confined in their sense, and seeing nothing but that in St. Paul's writings, be it right or wrong; yet they run into as great on the other side, and instead of being confirmed in the meaning that they thought they saw in the text, are distracted with a hundred, suggested by those they advised with; and so, instead of that one sense of the Scripture, which they carried with them to their commentators, return from them with none at all.
This, indeed, seems to make the case desperate: for if the comments and expositions of pious and learned men cannot be depended on, whither shall we go for help? To which I answer, I would not be mistaken, as if I thought the labours of the learned in this case wholly lost and fruitless. There is great use and benefit to be made of them, when we have once got a rule to know which of their expositions, in the great variety there is of them, explains the words and phrases according to the apostle's meaning. Until then it is evident, from what is above said, they serve for the most part to no other use, but either to make us find our own sense, and not his, in St. Paul's words; or else to find in them no settled sense at all.
Here it will be asked, "How shall we come by this rule you mentioned? Where is that touchstone to be had, that will show us, whether the meaning we ourselves put, or take as put by others, upon St. Paul's words, in his epistles, be truly his meaning or no?" I will not say the way which I propose, and have in the following Paraphrase followed, will make
us infallible in our interpretations of the apostle's text: but this I will own, that till I took this way, St. Paul's epistles, to me, in the ordinary way of reading and studying them, were very obscure parts of Scripture, that left me almost every where at a loss; and I was at a great uncertainty in which of the contrary senses, that were to be found in his commentators, he was to be taken. Whether what I have done has made it any clearer and more visible, now, I must leave others to judge. This I beg leave to say for myself, that if some very sober, judicious Christians, no strangers to the sacred Scriptures, nay, learned divines of the church of England, had not professed, that by the perusal of these following papers, they understood the epistles much better than they did before, and had not, with repeated instances, pressed me to publish them, I should not have consented they should have gone beyond my own private use, for which they were at first designed, and where they made me not repent my pains.
If any one be so far pleased with my endeavours, as to think it worth while to be informed, what was the clue I guided myself by, through all the dark passages of these epistles, I shall minutely tell him the steps by which I was brought into this way, that he may judge whether I proceed rationally, upon right grounds, or no; if so be any thing, in so mean an example as mine, may be worth his notice.
After I had found, by long experience, that the reading of the text and comments in the ordinary way proved not so successful as I wished, to the end proposed, I began to suspect, that in reading a chapter as was usual, and thereupon sometimes consulting expositors upon some hard places of it, which at that time most affected me, as relating to points then under consideration in my own mind, or in debate amongst others, was not a right method to get into the true sense of these epistles. I saw plainly, after I began once to reflect on it, that if any one now should write me a letter, as long as St. Paul's to the Romans, concerning such a matter as that is, in a style as foreign, and expressions as dubious, as his seem to be, if I should divide it into
fifteen or sixteen chapters, and read of them one today, and another to-morrow, &c. it was ten to one I should never come to a full and clear comprehension of it. The way to understand the mind of him that writ it, every one would agree, was to read the whole letter through, from one end to the other, all at once, to see what was the main subject and tendency of it: or if it had several views and purposes in it, not dependent one of another, nor in a subordination to one chief aim and end, to discover what those different matters were, and where the author concluded one, and began another; and if there were any necessity of dividing the epistle into parts, to make these the boundaries of them.
In prosecution of this thought, I concluded it necessary, for the understanding of any one of St. Paul's epistles, to read it all through at one sitting; and to observe, as well as I could, the drift and design of his writing it. If the first reading gave me some light, the second gave me more; and so I persisted on, reading constantly the whole epistle over at once, till I came to have a good general view of the apostle's main purpose in writing the epistle, the chief branches of his dis course wherein he prosecuted it, the arguments he used, and the disposition of the whole.
This, I confess, is not to be obtained by one or two hasty readings; it must be repeated again and again, with a close attention to the tenour of the discourse, and a perfect neglect of the divisions into chapters and verses. On the contrary, the safest way is to suppose that the epistle has but one business, and one aim, until, by a frequent perusal of it, you are forced to see there are distinct independent matters in it, which will forwardly enough show themselves.
It requires so much more pains, judgment, and application, to find the coherence of obscure and abstruse writings, and makes them so much the more unfit to serve prejudice and pre-occupation, when found; that it is not to be wondered that St. Paul's epistles have, with many, passed rather for disjointed, loose, pious discourses, full of warmth and zeal and overflows of light, rather than for calm, strong, coherent reasonings,