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Of the Influence of Prejudice and Imagination in interpreting Scripture.
IN reading the history of controversies, which tends to throw great light on the principles of human nature, and the human mind, we are perpetually astonished at the gross mistakes of very able and very honest men; but the wonder always arises from our not placing ourselves precisely in their situation, and especially from our not considering the fixed principles they had acquired in their earliest years. Nothing surprises Protestants of the present day more than the difficulty with which the doctrine of Transubstantiation was abandoned by the first Reformers, an example of which we have in the conduct of Luther, mentioned above [p. 460]. But whatever a man's fixed principles are, and however they were acquired, he argues from them as indubitable maxims, and likewise interprets scripture by them.
Luther's conduct (however it may appear to us who were not educated with his prejudices) in his obstinately adhering to the literal interpretation of the words of Christ, is more excusable than that of the Arians, with respect to the doctrine of creation by Christ; because it is well known, that the term creation is used in the Scriptures in two senses, one of which implies nothing more than a renovation, or change; as when men are said to be "created in Christ Jesus," and God is said [Isa. lxv. 18,] to "create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. Consequently, we are not obliged by the use of any word, in the scripture sense of it, to suppose that Christ properly created any thing. And though the word logos is applied to Christ in the book of Revelation, where he is, or at least is supposed to be, meant by the person whose name is called The Word of God," yet when the word of God is said to create any thing, it is never to be understood of Christ, but of the power of the Father only, as when it is said, [Psalm xxxiii. 6,] that by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth."
On this account, I cannot help considering your literal
interpretation of those texts which ascribe the creation of the material world to Christ as, in reality, unnatural. cannot, however, help approving of your conduct in one respect, viz. in connecting the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, with that of his creation of all things; for certainly the same texts of scripture prove both, or neither. Besides, if no great office be ascribed to him before his incarnation, it cannot be known whether he was any thing more than a human soul, for which no body had been immediately provided, (and which, according to your idea of an unembodied soul, was altogether incapable of action, or even sensation,) so that all the sublime of the scheme, that which recommends it to many, absolutely vanishes.
There is in every general scheme of Christianity, (as you call the doctrine concerning the person of Christ,) something that forcibly strikes the imagination; some leading principle, or maxim, which, whether it be expressly found in the words of scripture, or not, is at least supposed to be implied, and alluded to in them. Thus the Trinitarians think it absolutely necessary that "the infinite evil of sin be atoned for by the sufferings of an infinite Being;" and though they find no such maxim in the Scriptures, (but in fact the contrary, as in all such passages as those in which God is said to forgive sins for his own sake, his name's sake, or his mercy's sake,) yet they cannot but think that Christ must necessarily be God, having something to do that God only could execute.
Ŏthers are struck with the idea of " the same person being the maker of the world, the medium of all the Divine communications with it, and finally the redeemer of it." They cannot, therefore, be satisfied without supposing Christ to be possessed of powers equal to the making of the world, and consequently to have been of a superangelic nature. Dr. Clarke even scrupled to call him a creature,* but considered
See Script. Doct. Pt. ii. Sect. xiii. xiv. Ed. 3. 1732, pp. 266–274. In “a paper laid by Dr. Clarke before the Bishops," (the Upper House of Convocation,) July 2, 1714," he says, "My opinion is, that the Son of God was eternally begotten by the eternal, incomprehensible power and will of the Father." Whiston's Hist. Mem. Ed. S, 1748, p. 57; Biog. Brit. III. p. 602. Dr. Clarke, afterwards, in reply to an anonymous correspondent, adds the following explanation: “My intention in the first paragraph of the paper you are so much disturbed at, was not to assert any thing different from what I had before written; but only to shew, that I did not in any of my books teach (as had by many been industriously reported) the doctrine of Arius, (viz. that the Son of God was a creature, made out of nothing, just before the beginning of this world,) but that he was begotten eternally, that is, without any limitation of time, (αχρόνως, προ χρονων αιωνίων, προαιωνίως, προ παντων awowy,) in the incomprehensible duration of the Father's eternity: not by absolute necessity of nature, (which infers self-existence and independency,) but by the power and by the will of the Father." Hist. Mem. p. 61.
him as a kind of necessary appendage to the Almighty Father, as the hand by which he operated.
Nothing of this, however, is found in the Scriptures; and whenever mention is made of the creation of the heavens or the earth, it is always ascribed to the Father only, who "stretched out the heavens" by himself, without any assistant, or instrument whatever; but still the idea is so splendid and captivating, that the imagination cannot quit it. You, however, compelled by the evidence of scripture, (which represents the Father as not having spoken to mankind by his Son till the last days,) content yourself with making Christ equal to the creation of the earth and its appendages, and fancy, (for you must excuse me, if, since it is not contained in the Scriptures, I say you only fancy,) that some mischief had been done to this world by an angelic being, which could only be repaired by a being of superangelic nature, though the mischief be undefinable, and the manner in which the remedy (viz. the death of Christ) operated, be equally undefinable, which certainly throws an obscurity over the scheme.
Lastly, others being staggered at the idea of Christ having made the heavens and the earth, (a province which he never claimed himself, and which is never expressly ascribed to him,) are satisfied with giving him simple pre-existence, without determining his rank in the scale of being, at all, or knowing when his being commenced. This I consider ast the poorest of all schemes, and least worth contending for, as you also seem to think by not adopting it.
All this while, the simple doctrine of Christ being a man, though he is always so called in scripture, and he is always represented as having felt and acted, in all respects, like a man, assisted by God, is wholly overlooked, because there is nothing in it to strike the imagination. They see no grandeur or beauty in the scheme to make it desirable to them; and yet, in the writings of the apostle Paul, [1 Cor. xv. 21,] we find a general maxim which applies to no other scheme whatever, viz. that as " by man comes death, so by man comes also the resurrection of the dead." Thus, in my opinion, many, overlooking the plain sense of scripture, teach for doctrines the vain imaginations of men.
You, no doubt, see my opinion in some such unfavourable light; and nothing remains but that, with mutual candour, we exhibit our respective opinions with their proper evi
* Isaiah xlii. 5, xlv. 12, li. 18; Jer. x. 12, li. 15.
dence; being all of us persuaded, that the time is coming, when the whole Christian world will embrace our opinion, and that, in due time, all those who now think differently from us, will come to think just as we do, and wonder that they should ever have thought otherwise.
I am, &c.
Of the Mosaic History of the Fall of Man, and the Conclusion. DEAR FRIEND,
You enlarge very much, in this Appendix, on the opinion I have advanced concerning the Mosaic history of the fall of man, and you had represented it (though it seems without knowing it to be mine) as "not worth particular notice;"* and yet, when you come to state your own opinion on the subject, I cannot perceive any ground for such an opprobrious distinction between them. I consider the account that Moses has given as his own, since he no where says that it is not, and, consequently, the best that he could collect from tradition; and having particularly examined it, I scrupled not to call it a very lame one.† I wish, however, that instead of the term lame, I had said imperfect, which has the same meaning, and might have given less offence. Now, what do you say of it? "I am indeed inclined to look upon the Mosaic history of the creation, the fall, the deluge, &c., as a popular history, which should be read with great allowances for the ancient manner of instruction by emblems and hieroglyphics. But I pay more regard to it than Dr. Priestley seems to do." That, no doubt, you do. But, then, I see no reason for this superior regard. If it be after all but a popular history, and of course not strictly and philosophically true, and if the interpretation be so very difficult, what can we certainly learn from it? Interpret this as you do the passages that speak of the creation of all things by Christ in the New Testament, and see what it will then make for Arianism.
You say, on this occasion, that I do not allow of " scriptural authority."§ But indeed, my friend, you should have
Appendix, p. 375.
† Supra, p. 410. ‡ Appendix, p. 376. (P.) Ibid. (P.) "It is here an obvious reflection," says Dr. Price," that the introduction of death by a fall, being a fact capable of being proved only by scriptural authority, and Dr. Priestley not allowing that authority, all disputes with him about it must be nugatory." Ibid.
expressed yourself with more caution. No man can pay a higher regard to proper scriptural authority than I do; but neither I, nor, I presume, yourself, believe implicitly every thing that is advanced by any writer in the Old or New Testament. I believe all the writers, without exception, to have been men of the greatest probity, and to have been well informed of every thing of consequence of which they treat; but, at the same time, I believe them to have been men, and, consequently, fallible, and liable to mistake with respect to things to which they had not given much attention, or concerning which they had not the means of exact information; which I take to be the case with respect to the account that Moses has given of the creation and the fall of man.
It is on this principle only, that the evidence of revelation can be defended; and if we go upon any other, we load ourselves with insurmountable difficulties, as you would have been still more sensible of if you had written as much as I have done in defence of revealed religion. Do not then say, in such general and unqualified language, that I do not allow of scriptural authority; for, if that was the case, I could not be a believer in revelation, which, I am confident, is not your opinion, or an opinion that you would be the means of propagating among others, who, on your authority, would be ready enough to adopt it, and propagate it still farther.
I do not, in this letter, discuss the subject of the fall of man, because I have already advanced what I think sufficient about it, and what I have as yet seen no reason to retract, in the Theological Repository, under the signature of PAMPHILUS.* For the same reason neither do I now say any thing in defence of what I there advanced on the natural fallibility and peccability of Christ. But I wish that, instead of seeing my opinions merely exhibited, with every circumstance that can tend to make them appear frightful, and excite the horror of the generality of readers, (which is all that has yet been done by any of my opponents,) they would produce their strong reasons against them. They can hardly suppose that such conduct will much affect me, and its effect on our readers is only temporary, and may be unfavourable to their purpose in the end. When the most frightful objects have been viewed very often, they cease to appear frightful, and it is no uncommon thing for men to become the most attached to those things to which they at first had the greatest aversion.
See "Observations relating to the Inspiration of Moses," 1784, in the Fourth Volume of Theol. Repos.