The Reasonableness of Accepting the Other’s Interpretation of Holy Scriptures – Advent 1868

THIED SUNDAY m ADVENT.

THE KI’A.SONABLENESS OF ACCEPTING THE OHTJBCH’s UTTEBPIB-
TATION OF HOLY SCRIPTURES.

I Timothy, III, 15.
” The Church, which is the pillar and ground of tho tmth.*

The teachings of the Advent season are perhaps the clear-
est and most definite in the Prayer Book. The thought of
the coming judgment, kept up by the constant repetition of
the collect for the first Sunday, pervades all the services like
a solemn undertone. On the second Sunday, the “Word of
God, and on this, the third Sunday, the Church of God are
then set before us as the Divinely appointed means of pre-
paring for that judgment ; while on the concluding Sunday
the result which ought to flow from the proper use of these
means is suggested to us, viz : the bringing each of us into
closer communion with our Lord so that by His strength
we may gain the victory over those evils which hinder us
in running the race set before us, even our own sins and
wickedness.

On Sunday morning last I spoke of the Holy Scriptures and
endeavored to show how men are at the present day mak-
ing them of none effect by their traditions, i. e., their explana-
tions of the Word of God, which, instead of interpreting it,
really explain away and neutralize its true meaning. Now
we must remember that the true meaning of Scripture
is Scripture, but the great difficulty is — on the theory on
which men in the present day generally proceed — to find out
what that true meaning is ; and that difficulty arises in a
great measure because people have explained away such a
passage as that contained in the text. They havo lost all

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idea of the Church as a living body-, the body of Christ. They
have made the Scripture doctrine concerning it of none
effect by their tradition.

The popular idea, widely prevalent at present, is that God
revealed Himself to mankind by means of a book, viz., the
Bible — that those who wrote it, under the influence of the
Holy Spirit, had not much more to do with it than the pens
by which it was written ; that being thus written it became
the duty of every man to read this book and to form his
own faith from it ; that having done so, they were to assem-
ble and form a church in agreement with their idea of its
directions, and to receive its doctrines and precepts as they
severally understood them. Each person is to interpret
the Book for himself, and the theory in the minds of most
men among us at the present day, is that that we do, in
some way, think for ourselves in religion with the Bible only
as our authority. It is not true — it is a mere fallacy which
people practice upon themselves, but they like to fancy that
it is so. The fact is, and it is one for which we should
be deeply thankful, that the majority of earnest persons —
whether they are conscious of it or not — accept the Bible
very much in the sense which the church gives it — reading
it in the only rational way, viz : in the light of the creeds,
catechism ajid liturgy of the Church which Holy Scripture
says is the Pillar and Ground of the truth.

Now let us look for a moment at this theory which is in
such high favor with the multitude, and at some of the
results flowing from it. According to it, every man is to
interpret the Bible for himself. I will not dwell on the
very important fact of the impossibility of every man being
able to prove satisfactorily that what we call the Bible is
really such. There is no doubt that it is so, but it is impos-
sible for every man tojp7’ove it by his own unaided powers
and reason. But, supposing that point is granted, how is

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every man to ascertain and decide upon its true meaning I
” Oh,” people say, ” you have only to read it carefully and
pray for guidance and you will be sure to be led to the
truth.” That is easily said, but is it true ? If it is, how are
we to account for the indisputable fact that men of honesty,
learning and devoutness differ so widely? Churchmen, Ro-
man Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Congrega-
tionalists, Unitarians, ITniversalists, and many more, read it
earnestly, and pray over it devoutly, and yet they come to
conclusions as to its meaning which are utterly and abso-
lutely irreconcileable. In point of fact it is a Book which is,
and (if it is what we hold it to be) must be, very deep and
difficult. It is not, whatever men may say, to be treated
” like any other book,” and its difficulty andmysteriousness is
evident from the one undeniable fact of the variety ol interpre.
tation, of which it is the subject. If there was no difficulty
in understanding it ; if ” every man ” is competent to do so,
there would be no difference of opinion regarding its mean-
ing. In fact, as you remember, St. Peter says expressly
that it is difficult, and because of this difficulty it is also
dangerous, unless properly used. He says that in some parts
are ” things hard to be understood.” Here is the acknow-
ledgment of the difficulty, and these difficult passages, he
adds, ” they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they
also the other Scriptures do to their own destruction,”
which is surely a sufficiently alarming statement con-
cerning the danger of the misuse of the Word of God.
This, I repeat, is what St. Peter, speaking by the Holy Ghost,
distinctly asserts — but I shall not be in the least surprised
to hear next week that, as the penalty of quoting his words,
I am charged with stating publicly that it is a highly dan-
gerous thing for the people generally to read the Bible,
which, of course, is exactly contrary both to what I think
and what I say. But though this is the statement of St,

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Peter, few men now-a-days, however, unlearned or unstable,
hesitate to set themselves up as the final judges — each, in his
own case — of what is scriptural or unscriptural, and hence
what one man declares to bo in accordance with the “Word
of God, the next asserts to be rank heresy ; and, if one of
these be equal to the other in general intelligence and hon-
esty of purpose, it is very difficult to see why, upon the pop-
ular theory of every man being his own interpreter — one is
not just as likely to be right as the other.

A great stir has of late years been made by the publica-
tions of Dr. Colenso. lie is a man whose native powers of
intellect are undoubtedly great. His attainments in some
branches of science arc conspicuous, and his general acquire-
ments far above the average. He must also be a sincere
and bold man or he Avould never, for the sake of his convic-
tions, have ventured to place himself in such a position or
have incurred such a storm of opposition as he has volun-
tarily done. But it is hard to see why — on the popular the-
ory, raind^ie should be so denounced. He has only done
what that theory loudly declares is a right thing to do.
He has examined the Scriptures for himself and formed his
own opinions of them and from them. You think his opinions
wrong. / am certain they are heretical ; but on what do
we base this conviction ? Are we better able to interpret
Scripture than he is ? , Are we so superior to him in powers
and attainments that our views must be right and his wrong ?
Have we given any greater evidence of sincerity than he
has done ? and, if not, if on the contrary, in all these par-
ticulars, we, as individuals, stand far below him, why should
not HE be more likely to be right than w^e are, i. ower8 of
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prevailing theory requires as a right thing to do — is a wrong
thing ; a thing that God never intended that we should do, and
I assert that the Holy Scriptures should be devoutly read, but
with quite another purpose than that of each one manufac-
turing from them a system of opinion and doctrine for himself.

For example, I have no manner of doubt or question that
the writer who has been referred to is a heretic in the Scrip •
ture sense of the term ; that he has assaulted the very foun-
dations of Christianity, and that he has done what in him
lies to take the very heart out of the Gospel ; but the absolute
firmness of this conclusion could not possibly arise from any
idea of equality ,with much less superiority to the writer allud-
ed to, either in original mental power or in those attainments
which fit us for the investigation of difficult subjects. On
the contrary, there is no comparison to be made in the case,
but that fact does not in the least degree disturb the abso-
lute rest with which I entertain my convictions, because I
base them not on anything so utterly weak and worthless
as my individual powers of settling such questions, but on
the immoveable foundation of the decisions of the whole
Church of the living God — that Church which the Scripture
says is the Pillar and Ground of the truth.

Now, let me try to show you why we hold it to be a most
reasonable thing thus to rest upon the decisions of the
Church of God. That our Heavenly Father revealed Him-
self to mankind by means of a book is simply not true. He
never has done what (on the popular theory referred to)
many well meaning people suppose Him to have done. Pie
revealed Himself to us, the Scripture says, by His Son—
” God, who at sunJiry times and in divers manners, spake
unto the fathers by the Prophets, hath in these last days
spoken unto us by His Son.” That Blessed Son Who is
Himself the Truth, and by Whom grace and truth eame,com-
mitted the deposit of the faith to those chosen men whom

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He had chosen, and whom alone He appointed and com-
missioned to build up, rule and teach His Church. ” Go
TB,” He said, ” and make disciples of all nations. Go ye
and baptize them. Go te and teach them to observe all
things that I have commanded you, and lo I am with you
(and with you only) always, even unto the end of the world.”
They obeyed this Divine command — they organized, devel-
oped and governed His Church, which i& the pillar and
ground of the truth. The truth at that time could have no
other possible ground or pillar, for the world was lying in
darkness. By the instrumentality ot those whom our Lord
appointed, multitudes ^^ ere brought into it, trained in the
ways of holiness, and fitted for the hour of death and for
the Day of Judgment, who never saw one word of the New
Testament, for the best of all reasons, that not one word of
it was written. Yet inasmuch as they were taught by those
who were commissioned by our Lord and inspired by His
Spirit, no one, I suppose, doubts that they held the faith in
its purity and completeness. But since the fallibility ot
man was likely to corrupt the faith, it became necessary in
course of time, that the history of our Lord’s life should be
written, and certain epistles, growing out of various exig-
encies of the time, were, in the course of years, addressed
by the Apostles to several branches of the one Church
which they had founded and instructed in the faith. These
writings were eventually declared by the Church to be in-
spired by the Holy Ghost and to set forth Divine proof and
evidence of those truths which she was commissioned to tea ^h.
It never entered the mind of any primitive christian that he
was to take these writings and form from them his own creed,
irrespective of the teachings and authority of the Church
which placed them in his hands. St. Luke, you remember,
expressly says that having had perfect understanding of all
things from the yeiy beginning, he had undertaken to set them

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forth in his Gospel. “Why ? That those to whom he wrote
might know the certainty of those things wherein they had
BEEN instructed, i, e. had been instructed by the already exist-
ing Church long before the Gospel had been written. If any
one had taken these writings (as so many in later years have
done) and worked out from them a sense altogether different
from that in which the disciples had been previously instruct-
ed, it must necessarily have been a wrong sense. It might, by
some specious and ingenious wresting of the words, be made
to looh as if it was supported by Scripture, but it could not
be so, for those who by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost
had taught the disciples before the Scriptures were written,
could not, by the inspiration of the same Spirit, have in-
structed them in a different and conflicting set of truths in the:
Kew Testament. The real meaning of Scripture (which
alone is Scripture) must have been known to those to whom
it was originally addressed,^ecause they were fully instructed
by those by whom it was written, and therefore we are safe
only when we receive it and understand it in the sense in.
which it is held by the Church of the Living God, which is
the pillar and ground of the truth. And now, although I
must trespass somewhat on your patience by detainiiig you
a little longer than it is our custom to do, I am unwilling,
to leave my argument incomplete, which would neces-
sarily be the case if I was to stop now. The subject is im-
portant, and ought not to be without interest, seeing that it
refers to a matter which has been a source of perpJexity to
many honest minded persons. Any one who has followed
the train of reasoning which I am endcavoiing to set forth,
will probably say,’ that after all, the difficulty has been re-
moved only one step further off, but has met with no solu-
tion. The question was how shall we know the true mean-
ing of Holy Scripture ? and we are told that we are to un-
derstand it in the sense held by the Church^ But how are

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we to be certain what that sense is, and which of the con-
flicting branches of the Church we are to obey ? The Ori-
ental or Greek Church, by refusing to accept certain words
in the Kicene creed, seems to deny that the Holy Ghost
proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father — the Ro-
man Church imposes on its members the new dogma of the
Imacculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin ; the Anglican
Church sets forth much that many pi ous nonconfonnists reject.
A so-called (Ecumenical Council is next year to be held in
Rome, and judging from the past, it may set forth some new
article of faith which was never heard of before. Are people
to accept that, too, as the true sense of Scripture? These
are perfectly reasonable questions, and the answer to them
is contained in the famous rule of Tertullian, a writer of the
second century, which is this : ” Whatever is lirst is true,
whatever is later is adulterate.” Since the Church of the
living God has by man’s sins been rent into three parts, the
Greek, Roman and Anglican, she has lost her voice, (so to
speak), or if she speaks she has not the assurance which she
once possessed of speaking rightly. The promise of being
led into all truth cannot be justly claimed by any one part
of the Church, because it was given to the whole and not
to any particular section of it. It is only those inter-
pretations of the Holy Scriptures therefore which she gave
when she was one and undivided, that are of unquestionable
authority. When in God’s good time she shall again be one,Qh.e
will be enabled once more to speak with a voice unhesitat-
ing and irresistible, but not before. But thank God we do
not need any fresh definitions of the faith. It was once
for all delivered to the Saints long before Holy Scripture
was written ; and in her undivided days the Church, the
pillar and ground of truth, told us what that faith was with
perfect distinctness and appeals to the Word of God to prove
the certainty of those tilings in which she instructs us. She

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has spoken in the ancient Catholic creeds, in her liturgies, for-
mularies, sacraments and rites, and from these we may, if we
will, readily and certainly learn her decisions on all the great
articles of the faith. This is the doctrine of the Church of
England on the subject,as every one may see who will examine
the XXth Art.,wherein it is said that the Church is the keeper
or guardian of Holy Scripture— tlie witness to its true meaning
and is of authority in controversies of faith: i.e.she has author-
ity to decide them, and yet that it re not lawful for her be-
cause it would be a violation of her special office, to ordain
anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, or so to
expound one place of Scripture as to be repugnant to an-
other. But, how, it will be asked, does she exert this au-
thority and express her decision on controverted points ?
That is a question not hard to answer. There is e. g.: a
long standing controversy about the government of the
Church by Bishops, Priests and Deacons. She decides the
point for us with no hesitating voice. She says : ” It is evi-
dent unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scripture and
ancient authors that from the Apostles times there have been
these orders ofministers in Christ’s Church, Bishops, Priests
and Deacons.” (pref to ordinal in the Prayer Book.) There is
another controversy about infant baptism. She gives her in-
terpretation of Holy Scripture on the point by ordering that
her people shall not delay the baptism of their children longer
than the first or second Sunday after their birth. There is
another dispute about the eifect of baptism ; but her de-
cision is most clear and difinite for she requires her minis-
ters, after the baptism of every child, to thank God that He
hath been pleased to regenerate that child by His Holy
Spirit. There is another controversy about the benefits of
the Holy Communion and the reality of Christ’s presence.
She decides the controversy by saying that we spiritually
eat the flesh of Christ and drink His blood, which she fur-

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tlier asserts are verily cmd indeed taken and received by the,
faithful in the Lord’s Supper. So with the Calvinist, the.
Unitarian and Universalist controversies. She speaks on
those subjects with a clear and delinite voice, and these de-
cisions are not those of the Church ot England only, but of
the whole Catliolic Church. They were unquestioned with-
in her vast and undivided communion for 1 ,500 years. Chris-
tians from the beginning had been instructed in them by
the Church, and Holy Scripture was afterwards written that,
they might know the certainty of those things in which,
they had been previously instructed. A few men arose some.
1500 years after Christ and set themselves to deny the teach-
ings of the Primitive Church on these points and drew from
the Holy Scripture a new sense which had never been heard
of before, and which, being new, must consequently be false.
Against the presumption of such a proceeding, the English
branch of the Catholic Church emphatically protests. She.
warns her clergy that they teach nothing but what is in .
agreement with the doctrine of “the ancient fathers and
Catholic doctors (i. e., teachers) of the Church,” for she
holds it to be a monstrous supposition that the Church of
the living God, which is the pillar and ground of the truth?
should everywhere have been wrong for 1500 years, and that
Christ should, contrary to His own promise, have allowed
the gates of Hell to prevail against it, which would have
been the case had she been allowed to deny the faith.

The reply to all this is a very natural one, and is doubt-
less present at this moment in the minds of many of those
who have taken the trouble to follow the argument which
has been set before them. It is this : how can all this bo
so plain and definite as you endeavor to make out, when it
is a fact which is notorious that many, even among the clergy
themselves, hold the most opposite opinions on many of these
points ? That is simply the result of men prefelring their

97

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own private interpretations to the teaching and theory of
the Church, and this leads me to conclude with one piece of
plain, practical advice. “When a clergyman is officiating in
the reading desk, at the font, or at tha altar, his voice is
the voice of the Church ; for he is allowed to add nothing of
his own to her creeds, offices or liturgy ; but in private con-
versation, or in the pulpit, it is his own voice and therefore
you have no security against error, unless his words are in
agreement with those of the Church, because he may choose
to put his own private interpretation upon the Holy Scrip-
ture instead of taking her explanation of it. Therefore it is
a safe rule always to believe him when in the desk, or else-
where, he uses the Divine offices, and always disbelieye him
when in the pulpit he contradicts what he had uttered
when speaking as the mouth-piece of the Church.

Such things unhappily do happen. A clergyman will, at
the font, thank God that it hath pleased God to regenerate
some child whom he has just baptised, and in the pulpit will
immediately afterwards declare that to suppose that children
are necessarily regenerated in baptism is “a soul destroy-
ing heresy.” JBoth cannot possibly be right. Which is
most likely to be so — the whole Church of the living God,
in all time and in every place — the Church which St. Paul
says is the pillar and ground of the truth, or the individual
clergyman who, on the strength of his own personal infalli-
bility, undertakes to pronounce her wrong ?

My sermon has been a long chain of dry and, perhaps to
some, rather hard reasoning, and I have now no time and
you can have no patience for exhortation or what is called
” practical application.” I hope, however, on Sunday morn-
ing next, D. Y., to point out (if I shall find the time for the
necessary preparation) what ought to be the effect upon our
souls, of a due, reverent and reasonable use of the Word of
God and of the Church of God. I have endeavored to b©

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as clear and explicit as possible. I set forth these views in
no spirit of dogmatism ; I simply state them as conclusions
to which honest thought and such poor reading as a busy
life permits, has brought the mind of one who has not
been insensible to the doubts and difficulties which
encompass so important a subject, and I pray God that they
may be instrumental in leading others to the same restfulness
of mind, which they have conferred upon myself. The
Word of God is the sheet anchor of our hopes in these
dangerous days, but its value depends upon our understand-
ing it rightly. Take away from us its blessed light, or
misinterpret its holy teachings, and we are left without
comfort in this life and without hope tor the life to come.