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the providence of God hath so ordered it, that St. Paul has writ a great number of epistles; which, though upon different occasions, and to several purposes, yet all confined within the business of his apostleship, and so contain nothing but points of Christian instruction, amongst which he seldom fails to drop in, and often to enlarge on, the great and distinguishing doctrines of our holy religion; which, if quitting our own infallibility in that analogy of faith, which we have made to ourselves, or have implicity adopted from some other, we would carefully lay together, and diligently compare and study, I am apt to think, would give us St. Paul's system in a clear and indisputable sense; which every one must acknowledge to be a better standard to interpret his meaning by, in any obscure and doubtful parts of his epistles, if any such should still remain, than the system, confession, or articles of any church, or society of Christians, yet known; which, however pretended to be founded on Scripture, are visibly the contrivances of men, fallible both in their opinions and interpretations ; and, as is visible in most of them, made with partial views, and adapted to what the occasions of that time, and the present circumstances they were then in, were thought to require, for the support or justification of themselves. Their philosophy, also, has its part in misleading men from the true sense of the sacred Scripture. He that shall attentively read the Christian writers, after the age of the apostles, will easily find how much the philosophy they were tinctured with influenced them in their understanding of the books of the Old and New Testament. In the ages wherein Platonism prevailed, the converts to Christianity of that school, on all occasions, interpreted holy writ according to the notions they had imbibed from that philosophy. Aristotle's doctrine had the same effect in its turn; and when it degenerated into the peripateticism of the schools, that, too, brought its notions and distinctions into divinity, and affixed them to the terms of the sacred Scripture. And we may see still how, at this day, every one's philosophy regulates every one's interpretation of the word of God. Those who are possessed with the doctrine of aerial and ethereal vehicles, have thence borrowed an interpretation of the four first verses of 2 Cor. v. without having any ground to think that St. Paul had the least notion of any such vehicle. It is plain, that the teaching of men philosophy was no part of the design of divine revelation ; but that the expressions of Scripture are commonly suited, in those matters, to the vulgar apprehensions and conceptions of the place and people where they were delivered. And, as to the doctrine therein directly taught by the apostles, that tends wholly to the setting up the kingdom of Jesus Christ in this world, and the salvation of men's souls : and in this it is plain their expressions were conformed to the ideas and notions which they had received from revelation, or were consequent from it. We shall, therefore, in vain go about to interpret their words by the notions of our philosophy, and the doctrines of men delivered in our schools. This is to explain the apostles' meaning by what they never thought of whilst they were writing ; which is not the way to find their sense, in what they delivered, but our own, and to take up,
from their writings, not what they left there for us, but what we bring along with us in ourselves. He that would understand St. Paul right, must understand his terms, in the sense he uses them, and not as they are appropriated, by each man's particular philosophy, to conceptions that never entered the mind of the apostle. For example, he that shall bring the philosophy now taught and received, to the explaining of spirit, soul, and body, mentioned i Thess. v. 23, will, I fear, hardly reach St. Paul's sense, or represent to himself the notions St. Paul then had in his mind. That is what we should aim at, in reading him, or any other author; and until we, from his words, paint his very ideas and thoughts in our minds, we do not understand him.
In the divisions I have made, I have endeavoured, the best I could, to govern myself by the diversity of matter. But in a writer like St. Paul, it is not so easy always to find precisely where one subject ends, and another begins. He is full of the matter he treats, and writes with warmth, which usually neglects method, and those partitions and pauses, which men, educated in the schools of rhetoricians, usually observe. Those arts of writing St. Paul, as well out of design as temper, wholly laid by: the subject he had in hand, and the grounds upon which it stood firm, and by which he enforced it, were what alone he minded ; and without solemnly winding up one argument, and intimating any way that he began another, let his thoughts, which were fully possessed of the matter, run in one continued train, wherein the parts of his discourse were wove one into another : so that it is seldom that the scheme of his discourse makes any gap; and, therefore, without breaking in upon the connexion of his language, it is hardly possible to separate his discourse, and give a distinct view of his several arguments, in distinct sections.
I am far from pretending infallibility, in the sense I have any where given in my paraphrase, or notes : that would be to erect myself into an apostle ; a presumption of the highest nature in any one, that cannot confirm what he says by miracles. I have, for my own information, sought the true meaning, as far as my poor abilities would reach. And I have unbiassedly embraced what, upon a fair inquiry, appeared so to me. This I thought my duty and interest, in a matter of so great concernment to me. If I must believe for myself, it is unavoidable that I must understand for myself. For if I blindly, and with an implicit faith, take the pope's interpretation of the sacred Scripture, without examining whether it be Christ's meaning, it is the pope I believe in, and not in Christ; it is his authority I rest upon; it is what he says, I embrace : for what it is Christ says, I neither know nor concern myself. It is the same thing, when I set up any other man in Christ's place, and make him the authentic interpreter of sacred Scripture to myself. He may possibly understand the sacred Scripture as right as any man: but I shall do well to examine myself, whether that, which I do not know, nay, which in the way I take) I
can never know, can justify me in making myself his disciple, instead of Jesus Christ's, who of right is alone, and ought to be, my only Lord and Master: and it will be no less sacrilege in me, to substitute to myself any other in his room, to be a prophet to me, than to be my king or priest.
The same reasons that put me upon doing what I have in these papers done, will exempt me from all suspicion of imposing my interpretation on others. The reasons that led me into the meaning, which prevailed on my mind, are set down with it : as far as they carry light and conviction to any other man's understanding, so far, I hope, my labour may be of some use to him ; beyond the evidence it carries with it, I advise him not to follow mine, nor any man's interpretation. We are all men, liable to errors, and infected with them ; but have this sure way to preserve ourselves, every one, from danger by them, if, laying aside sloth, carelessness, prejudice, party, and a reverence of men, we betake ourselves, in earnest, to the study of the way to salvation, in those holy writings, wherein God has revealed it from heaven, and proposed it to the world, seeking our religion, where we are sure it is in truth to be found, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things.