[To permit readers to cite and locate passages in the print edition, page breaks are indicated in the following manner: "347/348." The original text identifies quoted scriptural passages with footnotes, which here have been converted to in-text citations that appear within brackets (GPL).]
"In which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the; other Scriptures, unto their own destruction." — 2 Peter, iii. 16.
HE writings of St. Paul, occupying, as they do, a large portion of the New Testament, treat much of the sublimer and more difficult articles of Christianity. It is undeniable that there is a, great deal made known to us by the Epistles, which could only imperfectly, if at all, be derived from the Gospels. We have the testimony of Christ himself that he had many things to say to his disciples, which, whilst he yet ministered on earth, they were not prepared to receive. Hence it was altogether to be expected that the New Testament would be, what we find it, a progressive book; the communications of intelligence growing with the fuller opening out of the dispensation. The deep things of the Sovereignty of God; the mode of the justification of sinners, and its perfect consistence with all the attributes of the Creator; the [347/348] mysteries bound up in the rejection of the Jew and the calling of the Gentile; these enter largely into the Epistles of St. Paul, though only faintly intimated by writers who precede him in the canon of Scripture. And it is a natural and unavoidable consequence on the greater abstruseness of the topics which are handled, that the Apostle's writings should present greater difficulties to the Biblical student. With the exception of the Book of Revelation, which, as dealing with the future, is necessarily hard to be interpreted, the Epistle to the Romans is probably that part of the New Testament which most demands the labours "of the Commentator. And though we select this Epistle as pre-eminent in difficulties, we may say generally of the writings of St. Paul, that, whilst they present simple and beautiful truths which all may understand, they contain statements of doctrine, which, even after long study and prayer, will be but partially unfolded by the most gifted inquirers. With this admission of difficulty we must join the likelihood of misconception and misapplication. Where there is confessedly obscurity, we may naturally expect that wrong theories will be formed, and erroneous inferences deduced. If it be hard to determine the true meaning of a passage, it can scarcely fail that some false interpretation will be advanced, or espoused, by the partisans of Theological systems. If a man have error to maintain, he will turn for support to passages of Scripture, of which, the real sense [348/349] being doubtful, a plausible maybe advanced on the side of his falsehood. If, again, an individual wish to persuade himself to believe tenets which encourage him in. presumption and unholiness, he may easily fasten on separate verses, which, taken by themselves, and without concern for the analogy of faith, seem to mark out privileges superseding the necessity of striving against sin. So that we can find no cause of surprise in the fact, that St, Peter should speak of the Epistles of St. Paul as wrested by the "unlearned and unstable" to their own destruction. He admits that in these Epistles "are some things hard to be understood." And we consider it, as we have just explained, a necessary consequence on the difficulties, that there should be perversions, whether wilful or unintentional, of the writings.
But you will observe, that, whilst St. Peter confesses both the difficulty and the attendant danger, he gives not the slightest intimation that the Epistles of St. Paul were unsuited to general perusal. The Roman Catholic, when supporting that tenet of his Church which shuts up the Bible from the laity, will appeal confidently to this statement of St. Peter, arguing that the allowed difficulty, and the declared danger, give the Apostle's authority to the measure of exclusion. But certainly it were not easy to find a more strained and far-fetched defence. Had St. Peter intended to infer, that, because obscurity and abuse existed, there ought to be prohibition, it is [349/350] altogether unaccountable that he did not lay down the inference. A fairer opportunity could never be presented for the announcement of such a rule as the Roman Catholic advocates. And the mere finding, that, when an inspired writer speaks of the dangers of perusal, he gives not even a hint which can be tortured into sanction of its prohibition, is, in itself, so overpowering a witness to the right of all men to read the Bible for themselves, that we wonder at the infatuation of those who can appeal to the passage as supporting a counter-opinion. You will observe that whilst St. Peter speaks only of the writings of St. Paul as presenting "things hard to be understood," he extends to the whole Bible the wresting of the unlearned and unstable. So that, when there is wanting that chastened, and teachable, and prayerful disposition, which should always be brought to the study of Scripture, the plainest passages and the most obscure may be equally abused. After all, it is not so much the difficulty which makes the danger, as the temper in which the Bible is perused. And if St. Peter's statement prove any thing, it proves that selections from Holy Writ, such as the Papist will allow, are to the full as fraught with peril as the unmutilated volume; and that, therefore, unless a man is to read all, he ought not. to read a line. We cannot but admire the manner in which the Apostle has expressed himself. If he had specified difficulties; if he had stated that it was upon such or such points that St. Paul's [350/351] Epistles, or the Scriptures in general, were obscure; those who are disposed to give part, and to keep back part, might have had a ground for their decision, and a rule for their selection. But since we have nothing but a round assertion that all the Scriptures may be, and are, wrested by the unlearned and unstable, there is left us no right of determining what is fit for perusal, and what is not fit; so that, in allowing a solitary verse to be read, we run the same risk as in allowing every chapter from the first to the last. Thus we hold it clear to every candid inquirer, that our text simply proves the necessity of a right temper to the profitable perusal of the Bible. It gives no such exclusive characteristic to the writings of St. Paul, as would warrant our pronouncing them peculiarly unsuited to the weak and illiterate. If it sanction the withdrawment of any part of the Bible, it imperatively demands the withdrawment of the whole. And forasmuch as it thus gives not the shadow of authority to the selection of one part and the omission of another; and forasmuch, moreover, as it contains not the remotest hint that danger is a reason for shutting up the Scriptures; we rather learn from the passage, that free as the air should be the Bible to the whole human population, than that a priesthood, sitting in assize on its contents, may dole out fragments of the word, or keep it, if they please, undividedly to themselves.
We are not, however, required, in addressing a [351/352] Protestant assembly,to expose, at any length, the falsehood of that doctrine of popery to which we have referred. We introduced its mention, simply because its advocates endeavour to uphold it by our text. They just give a new witness to the truth of the text. They show, that, like the rest of the Scriptures, this verse may be perverted. The very passage, which declares that all Scripture may be wrested, has itself been wrested to the worst and most pernicious of purposes. So that, as if in verification of the statement, of St. Peter, when that statement became part of the Bible, it was seized upon by the "unlearned and unstable," and wrenched from its original bearings.
But we desire, on the present occasion, to bring before you what we count important considerations, suggested by the announcement that there are difficulties in Scripture. We have the decision of an inspired writer, that, in the volume of inspiration, there "are some things hard to be understood." We lay great stress on the fact, that it is an inspired writer who gives this decision. The Bible attests the difficulties of the Bible. If we knew the Bible to be difficult, only as finding it difficult, we might be inclined to suppose it luminous to others, though obscure to ourselves. We should not so thoroughly understand that the difficulties, which one man meets with in the study of Scripture, are not simply produced by his intellectual inferiority to another — no, nor by his moral or spiritual inferiority — but are, in a great degree [352/253], inherent in the subject examined, so that no equipment of learning and prayer will altogether secure their removal. The assertion of our text may be called an unqualified assertion. The proof, that there are "things hard to be understood," does not lie in the fact, that these things are wrested by "the unlearned and unstable;" for then, by parity of reason, we should make St. Peter declare that all Scripture is "hard to be understood." The assertion is independent on what follows, and shows the existence of difficulties, whether or no they gave occasion to perversions of the Bible. And though it is of the writings of St. Paul, and of these alone, that the assertion is made, we may infer naturally, from the remainder of the passage, that the apostle intended to imply that difficulties are scattered through the whole of the Scriptures, so that it is a general characteristic of the Bible, that there are in it "some things hard to be understood."
Now it is upon this characteristic — a characteristic, you observe, not imagined by ourselves, because often unable to bring out all the force of a passage, but fastened on the Scriptures by the Scriptures themselves — that we desire to turn your attention. We have before us a feature of revelation, drawn by revelation itself, and not sketched by human surmise or discovery. And it seems, to us that this feature deserves our very closest examination, and that from such examination we may look to derive lessons of more than ordinary worth. [353/354] We take inter our hands the Bible, and receive it as a communication of God's will, made, in past ages, to his creatures. And we know that, occupying, as all men do, the same level of helplessness and destitution, so that the adventitious circumstances of rank and education bring with them no differences in moral position, it cannot be the design of the Almighty, that superior talent, or superior learning, should be essential to the obtaining due acquaintance with revelation. There can be no fairer expectation than that the Bible will be intelligible to every capacity, and that it will not, either in matter or manner, adapt itself to one class in preference to another. And when, with all this antecedent idea that revelation will condescend to the very meanest understanding, we find, as it were, on the covers of the book, the description that there are in it "things hard to be understood," we may, at; first, feel something of surprise that difficulty should occur where we had looked for simplicity. And undoubtedly, however fair the expectation just mentioned, the Bible is in some senses, a harder book for the uneducated man than for the educated. So far as human instrumentality is concerned, the great mass of population must be indebted to a few learned men for any acquaintance whatsoever with the Scriptures. Never let learning be made of small account in reference to religion, when, without learning, a kingdom must remain virtually without a revelation. If there were no learning in a land, [354/355] or if that learning were not brought to bear on translations of Scripture, how could one out of a thousand know any thing of the Bible? Those who would dispense with literature in a priesthood, undermine a nation's great rampart against heathenism. And just as the unlearned are thus, at the very outset, dependent altogether on the learned, it is not to be denied that the learned man will possess always a superiority over the unlearned, and that he has an apparatus at his disposal, which the other has not, for overcoming much that is difficult in Scripture.
But after all, when St. Peter speaks of "things hard to be understood," he cannot be considered as referring to obscurities which human learning will dissipate. He certainly mentions the "unlearned" as wresting these difficulties, implying that the want of one kind of learning produced the perversion. But, of course, he intends by "unlearned" those who were not fully taught of the Spirit, and not those who were deficient in the acquirements of the academy. There were but few of the learned of the earth amongst the apostles and their followers; and it were absurd to imagine that all but those wrested the Scriptures to their destruction. And, therefore, whilst we frankly allow that there are difficulties in Holy Writ, for the coping with. which human learning equips an individual — historical difficulties, for example, grammatical, chronological — we see, at once, that it cannot be to these St. Peter [355/356] refers; since, when he wrote, either these difficulties had not come into existence, or he him self was classed with the "unlearned," if by "unlearned" were intended the men unenlightened by science.
We thus assure ourselves, that, in allowing "things hard to be understood" to find place in the volume of inspiration. God has dealt with man- kind irrespectively of the differences of rank. It cannot be human learning which makes these thing's comparatively easy to be understood. They must remain hard, aye, and equally hard, whatever the literary advantages of a student; otherwise the whole statement of our text becomes unintelligible. The "unlearned" in short are also the unstable: it is not the want of earthly scholarship which makes the difficulties, it is the want of moral stedfastness which occasions the wresting. We have nothing, therefore, to do, in commenting on the words of St. Peter, with difficulties which may be caused by a defective, and removed by a liberal education. The difficulties must be difficulties of subject. The things which are handled, and, which are "hard to be understood," must, in themselves, be deep and mysterious, and not such as present intricacies which human criticism may prevail to unravel. And that there are many of their things in the Bible will be questioned by none who have given themselves to its study. It were a waste of time to adduce instances of the difficulties. To be unacquainted with them is to be [356/357] unacquainted with Scripture; whilst to be surprised at their existence is to lie surprised at what we may call unavoidable. It is this latter point which chiefly requires illustration, though there are others which must not be passed over in silence. We assume, therefore, as matter-of-fact, that there are in Scripture "things hard to be understood." We shall endeavour to show you, in the first place, that this fact was to be expected. We shall then, in the second place, point out the advantages which follow from the fact, and the dispositions which it should encourage.
And, first, we would show you — though this point requires but brief examination — that it was to be expected, that the Bible would contain "some things hard to be understood." We should like to be told what stamp of inspiration there would be upon a Bible containing nothing "hard to be understood." Is it not almost a self-evident proposition, that a revelation without difficulty could not be a revelation of divinity? If there lie any thing of that unmeasured separation, which we are all conscious there must lie, between ourselves and the Creator, is it not clear that God cannot be comprehensible by man; and that, therefore, any professed revelation, which left him not incomprehensible, would be thereby its own witness to the falsehood of its pretensions? You ask a Bible which shall, in every part, be simple and intelligible. But could such a Bible discourse to us of God, that Being who must remain [357/358], necessarily and for ever, a mystery to the very highest of created intelligences? Could such a Bible treat of purposes, which, extending themselves over unlimited ages, and embracing the universe with in their ranges, demand eternity for their developement, and infinity for their theatre? Could such a Bible put forward any account of spiritual operations, seeing that, whilst confined by the trammels of matter, the soul cannot fathom herself, but withdraws herself, as it were, and shrinks from her own scrutiny? Could such a Bible, in short, tell us any thing of our condition, whether by nature or grace? Could it treat of the entrance of evil; could it treat of the Incarnation; of Regeneration; of a Resurrection; of an Immortality? In reference to all these matters, there are in the Bible "things hard to be understood." But it is not the manner in which they are handled which makes them "hard to be understood." The subject itself gives the difficulty. If you will not have the difficulty, you cannot have the subject. You must have a Revelation which shall say nothing on the nature of God, for that must remain inexplicable; nothing on the soul, for that must remain inexplicable; nothing on the processes and workings of grace, for these must remain inexplicable. You must have a Revelation, which shall not only tell you that such and such things are, but which shall also explain to you how they are; their mode, their constitution, their essence. And if this were the character of Revelation, it would [358/359] undoubtedly be so constructed as never to overtask reason; but it would, just as clearly, be kept within this boundary only by being stripped of a on which we mainly need a Revelation. A Revelation in which there shall be nothing "hard to be understood," must limit itself by the powers of reason, and, therefore, exclude those very topics on which, reason being insufficient, revelation is required. We wish you to be satisfied on the point, that scriptural difficulties are not the result of obscurity of style, of brevity of communication, or of a designed abstruseness in the method of argument. The difficulties lie simply in the mysteriousness of the subjects; There is no want of simplicity of language when God is described to us as always every where. But who understands this? Can language make this intelligible? Revelation assures us of the fact; reason, with all her stridings, cannot overtake that fact. But would you, therefore, require that the omnipresence of Deity should be shut out from revelation? There is a perfect precision and plainness of speech, when the Bible discourses on the Word being made flesh, and on the second person in the Trinity humbling himself to the being "found in fashion as a man" [Philippians, ii. 8]. But who can grapple with this prodigy? Is the palpable impossibility of explaining, or understanding it, at all the result of deficiency of statement? Who does not feel that the impossibility lies in himself, and that the matter [359/360] is unintelligible, because necessarily overpassing the sweep of his intelligence? He can receive. the bare fact; he cannot receive the explanation. But shall we, on this account, and just in order to have a Bible free from "things hard to be understood," require the Incarnation to be expunged from revelation?
We might argue in like manner with regard to every Scriptural difficulty. We account for the existence of these difficulties mainly by the fact that we are men, and, because men, finite in our capacities. We suppose not that it would have been possible, by any power of description or process of explanation, to have made those things which are now hard, easier to be understood, unless the human faculties had been amplified and strengthened, so that men had been carried up to a higher rank of being. We can quite believe that to an angel, endowed with a nobler equipment of intellectual energy, and unincumbered with a framework of matter, there would be a far clearer idea conveyed by the revelation, that " there are three that bear record in heaven, and these three are one" [Hebrews, iii. 12], than is conveyed by such announcement to ourselves. But it does not, therefore, follow that the doctrine of the Trinity might have been made as comprehensible by us as by angels. Let there "be only the same amount of revelation, and the angel may know more than the man, because gifted with a keener and more vigorous understanding. [360/361] And it is evident, therefore, that few things could have less warranty than the supposition, that revelation might have been so enlarged that the knowledge of man would have reached to the measure of the knowledge of angels. We again say that there is no deficiency of revelation, and that the difficulties which occur in the perusal of Scripture result from the majesty of the introduced subjects, and the weakness of the faculties turned on their study. It is little short of a contradiction in terms, to speak of a revelation free altogether from "things hard to be understood." And we are well persuaded, that, however disposed men may be to make the difficulties an objection to the Bible, the absence of those difficulties would have:
been eagerly seized on as a proof of imposture., There would have been fairness in the objection — and scepticism would not have been slow in triumphantly urging it — that a book, which brought down the infinite to the level of the finite, must contain false representations, and deserve, there- fore, to be placed under the outlawry of the world. We should have had reason taking up an opposite position, but one far more tenable than she occupies when arguing from the difficulty, against the divinity, of Scripture. Reason has sagacity enough, if you remove the bias of the "evil heart of unbelief" [Hebrews, iii. 12], to perceive the impossibility that God should be searched out and comprehended by man. And if, therefore, reason [361/362] sat in judgment on a professed revelation of the Almighty, and found that it gave no account of the Deity but one, in every respect, easy and intelligible, so that God described himself as removed not, either in essence or properties, from the ken of humanity; it can scarcely be questioned that she would give down as her verdict, and that justice would loudly applaud the decision, that the alleged communication from heaven wanted the signs the most elementary of so illustrious an origin.
It can only be viewed as a necessary consequence on the grandeur of the subjects which form the matter of revelation, that, with every endeavour at simplicity of style and aptitude of illustration, the document contains statements which overmatch all but the faith of mankind. And, therefore, we are bold to say that we glory in the difficulties of Scripture. We can indeed desire, as well as those who would turn these difficulties into occasion of cavil and objection, to understand, with a thorough accuracy, the registered truths, and to penetrate and explore those solemn mysteries which crowd the pages of inspiration. We can feel, whilst the volume of Holy Writ lies open before us, and facts are presented which seem every way infinite — height, and breadth, and depth, and length, all defying the boldest journeyings of the spirit — we can feel the quick pulse of an eager wish to scale the mountain, or fathom the abyss. But, at the same time [362/263], we know, and we feel, that a Bible without difficulties were a firmament without stars. We know, and we feel, that the far-off land, enamelled, as we believe it, with a loveliness which is not of this earth, and inhabited by a tenantry gloriously distinct from our own order of being, would not be the magnificent and richly-peopled domain which it is, if its descriptions overpassed not the outlines of human geography. We know, and we feel, that the Creator of all things, he who stretched out the heavens, and sprinkled them with worlds, could not be, what we are assured that He is, inaccessibly sublime and awfully great, if there could be given us a portrait of his nature and properties, whose every feature might be sketched by a human pencil, whose every characteristic scanned by a human vision. We know, and we feel, that the vast business of our redemption, arranged in the councils e£ the far-back eternity, and acted out amid the wonderings and throbbings of the universe, could not have been that stupendous transaction which gave God glory by giving sinners safety, if the inspired account brought its dimensions within the compass of a human arithmetic, or defined its issues by the lines of a human demarcation. And, therefore, do we also know and feel that it is a witness to the inspiration of the Bible, that, when this Bible would furnish us with notices of the unseen world hereafter to be traversed, or when it would turn thought on the Omnipotent, or when it would [363/364] open up the scheme of the restoration of the fallen; then, with much that is beautifully simple, and which the wayfaring man can read and understand, there are mingled dark intimations, and pregnant hints, and undeveloped statements, before which the weak and the masterful must alike do the homage of a reverent and uncalculating submission. We could not rise up from the perusal of Scripture with a deep conviction that it is the word of the living God, if we had found no occasions on which reason was required to humble herself before giantlike truth, and implicit faith has been the only act which came within our range of moral achievement. We do not indeed say — for the saying would carry absurdity on its forefront — that we believe a document inspired, because, in part, incomprehensible. But if a document profess to be inspired; and if it treat of subjects which we can prove beforehand to be above and beyond the stretchings of our intellect; then, we do say that the finding nothing in such a document to baffle the understanding would be a proof the most conclusive, that what alleges itself divine deserves rejection as a forgery. And whilst, therefore, we see going forward on all sides the accumulation of the evidences of Christianity, and history and science are bringing their stores and emptying them at the feet of our religion, and the very wrath of the adversary, being the accomplishment of prophecy, is proving that we [364/365] follow no "cunningly devised fables" [2 Peter, i. 16]; we feel that it was so much to be expected, yea, rather that it was altogether so unavoidable, that a revelation Should, in many parts, be obscure, that we take as the last link in the chain of a lengthened and irrefragable demonstration, that there are in the Bible "things hard to be understood."
But we trench on the second division of our subject, and will proceed, therefore, to the more distinct exposition of the advantages which follow, and the dispositions which should be encouraged by, the fact which has passed under review. We see, at once, from the statement of St. Peter, that effects, to all appearance disastrous, are produced by the difficulties of Scripture. The "unlearned and unstable" wrest these difficulties to "their own destruction;" and, therefore, though we have proved these difficulties unavoidable, by what process of reasoning can they be proved advantageous? Now, if we have carried you along with us through our foregoing argument, you are already furnished with one answer to this inquiry. We have shown you that the absence of difficulties would go far towards proving the Scriptures uninspired; and we need not remark that there must be a use for difficulties, if essential to the complete witness for the truth of Christianity. But there are other advantages which must, on no account, be [365/366] overlooked. We only wish it premised, that, though the difficulties of Scripture — as, for example, those parts which involve predestination — are wrested by many "to their own destruction," the "unlearned and unstable" would have equally perished, had no difficulties whatsoever existed. As the case indeed now stands, the "things hard to be understood" are the stumbling-blocks over which they fall, and, falling, are destroyed. But they would have stumbled on the plain ground as well as on the rough: there being no more certain truth in theology, than that the cause of stumbling is the internal feeblcness, and not the external impediment. A man may perish, ostensibly through abuse of the doctrine of election. He may say, I am elect, and, therefore, shall be saved, though I continue in sin. Thus he wrests election, and that too to his own certain destruction. But would he not have perished, had he found no such doctrine to wrest? Aye, that he would; as fatally, and as finally. It is the love of sin, the determination to live in sin, which destroys him. And though, whilst giving the reins to his lusts, he attempt to derive from election a quietus and excuse, can you think that he would be at a loss to find them elsewhere, if there were no doctrine of election from which, when abused, they may be wrenched and extorted? It is possible that a man may slay himself with "the sword of the Spirit" [Ephesians, vi; 17]; but only because he is so bent upon [366/367] suicide, that, had he not found so costly a weapon, he would have fallen on a ruder and less polished. Satan has every kind of instrument in his armoury, and leaves no one at a loss for a method of self-destruction. So that, had it not been unavoidable that "things hard to be understood" should find place in the Bible, their insertion, though apparently causing the ruin of many, would in no degree have impeached the loving-kindness of the Almighty. Scriptural difficulties destroy none who would not have been destroyed, had no difficulties existed. And, therefore, difficulties might be permitted for certain ends which they, undoubtedly, subserve, and yet not a solitary individual be injured by an allowance which is to benefit the great body of the church. We wish this conclusion borne carefully in mind, because the first impression, on reading our text, is, that some are destroyed by the "things hard to be understood," and that they would not have been destroyed without these things to wrest. This first impression is a wrong one: the hard things giving the occasion, but never being the cause of destruction. The unstable wrest what is difficult. But, rather than be without something to pervert, if there were not the difficult, they would wrest the simple. This being premised, we may enlarge, without fear, on the advantages resulting from the fact, that Scripture contains "some things hard to be understood." And first, if there were nothing in Scripture which overpowered our reason, who [367/368] sees not that intellectual pride would be fostered by its study? The grand moral discipline which the Bible now exerts, and which renders its perusal the best exercise to which men can be subjected, lies simply in its perpetual requisition that Reason submit herself to Revelation. You can make no way with the disclosures of Holy Writ, until prepared to receive, on the authority of God, a vast deal which, of yourself, you cannot prove, and still more which you cannot explain. And it is a fine schooling for the student, when, at every step in his research, he finds himself thrown on his faith, required to admit truth because the Almighty hath spoken it, and not because he himself can demonstrate. It is just the most rigorous and wholesome tuition under which the human mind can be brought, when it is continually called off from its favourite processes of argument and commentary, and summoned into the position of a meek recipient of intelligence to be taken without questioning — honoured with belief when it cannot be cleared by exposition. And of all this schooling and tuition you would instantly deprive us, if you took away from the Bible "things hard to be understood." Nay, it were comparatively little that we should lose the discipline: we should live under a counter system, encouraging what we are bound to repress. If man were at all left to entertain the idea that he can comprehend God, or measure his purposes — and such idea might be lawful, were there no mysteries in Scripture — we [368/369] know no bounds which could be set to his intellectual haughtiness: for if reason seemed able to embrace Deity, who could persuade her that she is scant and contracted? I might almost be pardoned the fostering a consciousness of mental greatness, and the supposing myself endowed with a vast nobility of spirit, if I found that I kept pace with all the wonders which God brought out from his own nature and his own dwelling, and if no disclosures were made to this creation too dazzling for my scrutiny, or too deep for my penetration. A Bible without difficulties would be a censer full of incense to man's reason. It would be the greatest flatterer of reason, passing on it a compliment and eulogy which would infinitely outdo the most far-fetched of human panegyrics. And if the fallen require to be kept humble; if we can advance in spiritual attainment only in proportion as we feel our insignificance; would not this conversion of the Bible into the very nurse and encourager of intellectual pride, abstract its best worth from revelation; and who, therefore, will deny that we are advantaged by the fact, that there are in Scripture "things hard to be understood?"
We remark again, that though controversy have its evils, it has also its uses. We never infer, that, because there is no controversy in a church, there must be the upholding of sound doctrine. It is not the stagnant water which is generally the purest. And if there are no differences of [369/370] opinion which set men on examining and ascertaining their own belief, the probability is, that, like the Samaritans of old, they will worship they "know not what" [John, iv. 28]. Heresy itself is, in one sense, singularly beneficial. It helps to sift a professing community, and to separate the chaff from the wheat, And whilst the unstable are carried about by the winds of false doctrine, those who keep their stedfastness find, as it were, their moral atmosphere cleared by the tempest. We consider this statement to be that of St. Paul, when he says to the Corinthians, "There must be also heresies amongst you, that they which are approved may be made manifest" [1. Corinthians, xi. 19]. And it is not the mere separation of the genuine from the fictitious which is effected through the publication of error. We hold that heresies have been of vast service to the Church, in that they have caused truth to be more thoroughly scanned, and all its bearings and boundaries explored with a most painstaking industry. It is astonishing how apt men are to rest in general and ill-defined notions, so that, when interrogated and probed on an article of faith, they show themselves unable to give account of their belief. When a new error is propounded, you will find that candid men will confess, that, on examining their own views on the litigated point, they have found them in many respects vague and incoherent; so that, until driven to the work of expounding [370/371] and defining, they have never suspected their ignorance upon matters with which they professed themselves altogether familiar. We think that few men would have correct notions of truth, unless occasionally compelled to investigate their own opinions. They take for granted that they understand what they believe. But when heresy or controversy arises, and they are required to state what they hold, they will themselves be surprised at the confusion of their sentiments. We are persuaded, for example, that, however mischievous in many respects may have been the modern agitation of the question of Christ's humanity, the great body of Christians have been thereby advantaged. Until the debate was raised, hundreds and thousands were unconsciously holding error. Being never required to define the true doctrine of the Saviour's person, they never doubted that they knew and understood it, though, all the while, they either confounded the natures, or multiplied the person; or — and this was the ordinary case — formed no idea at all on so mysterious, yet fundamental a matter. Thus controversy stirs the waters, and prevents their growing stagnant. We do not indeed understand from the "must be" of St. Paul, that the well-being of the Church is dependent on heresy, so that, unless heresy enter, the Church cannot prosper. But we can readily suppose that God, foreknowing the corruptions which would be attempted of the Gospel, determined to employ these corruptions [371/372] as instruments for speeding onward the growth in grace of his people. The "must be" refers to human depravity and satanic influence. It indicates a necessity for which the creature. alone is answerable, whilst the end, which heresies subserve, is that which most engages the interferences of the Creator. Thus we speak of evil as beneficial, only as over-ruled by the Almighty, and pronounce controversy advantageous, because a corrupt nature needs frequent agitation. If never called to defend the truth, the church would comparatively lose sight of what truth is. And therefore, however the absence of controversy may agree well with a millennial estate, we are amongst the last who would desire that it should not now be heard in the land. We feel that if now "the wolf should dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid" [Isaiah, xi, 6], we should have nothing but the millennium of liberalism; the lamb being little more than the wolf in disguise, and the kid the leopard with his spots slightly coloured. Such is the constitution of man — and such it: will be, till there pass over this globe a mighty regeneration — - that, unless there be opposition, we shall have no purity. Dissent itself, with its manifold and multiform evils, has done the church service; and, by rousing energies which might otherwise have lain dormant, has given fixedness where it thought to undermine. But if there were no scriptural difficulties, we could have no controversy. The "things [372/373] hard to be understood" form the groundwork of differences of opinion: and, if these were swept away, there would either be space for only one theory, or, if another were broached, it would be too absurd for debate. So that scriptural difficulties are literally the preservatives of sound doctrine. The church would slumber into ignorance of even simple and elementary truth, if there were no hard things, which, wrested by the unstable, keep her always on the alert. And if, therefore, the upholding, through successive generations, of a clear and orthodox creed, be a result which you hail as teeming with advantage, have we not a right to press home on you the fact, that it is advantageous to mankind that there are in the Bible "some things hard to be understood"?
We might extend on all sides our view of the advantages of difficulties. But we are confined by the limits of a discourse, and shall only adduce one other illustration. When I read the Bible, and meet with passages which, after the most patient exercises of thought and research, remain dark and impenetrable, then, in the most especial degree, I feel myself immortal. The finding a thing "hard to be understood" ministers to my consciousness that I am no perishable creature, destined to a finite existence, but a child of eternity, appointed to survive the dissolutions of matter, and to enter on another and an untried being. If the Bible be God's revelation of himself to man- kind, it is a most fair expectation, that, at one time [373/374] or another, the whole of this revelation will be clear and accessible; that the obscure points, which "we cannot now elucidate, and the lofty points, which we cannot now scale, will be enlightened by the flashings of a brighter luminary, and given up to the marchings of a more vigorous inquiry. We can never think that God would tell man things, for the understanding of which he is to be always incapacitated. If he know them not now, the very fact of their being told is sufficient proof that he shall know them hereafter. And, therefore, in every scriptural difficulty I read the pledge of a mighty enlargement of the human faculties. In every mystery, though a darkness thick as the Egyptian, may now seem to shroud it, I can find one bright and burning spot, glowing with promise that there shall yet come a day, when, every power of the soul being wrought into a celestial strength, I shall be privileged, as it were, to stretch out the hand of the lawgiver, and roll back the clouds which here envelope the truth. I can muse upon one of those things which are "hard to be understood," till it seem to put on the prophet's mantle, and preach to me of futurity; telling me, in accents more spirit-stirring than those of the boldest of mortal oratory, that the present is but the infancy of my being; and that, in a nobler and more glorious estate, I shall start from moral and mental dwarfishness, and, endowed with vigour of perception, and keenness of vision, and vastness of apprehension, walk the labyrinth, and pierce the [374/375] rock, and weigh the mountain. Oh, I can thank God that, amongst those countless mercies which he has poured down on our pathway, he hath given us a Bible which is not, in every part, to be explained. The difficulties of Holy Writ — let them be made by objectors the subjects of marvel, or of cavil — they constitute one great sheet of our charter of immortality: and, in place of wondering that God should have permitted them, or lamenting that they cannot be overcome, I rejoice in them as earnests, given me by Him "who cannot lie" [Titus, i. 2], that man hath yet to advance to a sublime rank amongst orders of intelligence, and to stand, in the maturity of his strength, in the very centre of the panorama of truth. And 'if it be true that every mystery in Scripture, as giving pledge of an enlargement of capacities, witnesses to the glories with which the future comes charged; and if from every intricate passage, and every dark saying, and every unfathomable statement, we draw new proof of the magnificence of our destinies; which of you will withhold his confession, that the difficulties of the Bible are productive of benefit, and that, consequently, there result advantages from the fact, that there are in Scripture "some things hard to be understood"?
Such are certain of the advantages which we proposed to investigate. It yet remains that we briefly state, and call upon you to cultivate, the dispositions which should be brought to the study [375/376] of a Bible thus "hard to be understood." We have shown you that there are difficulties in Scripture which must remain unexplained, whilst we continue in the flesh. Other difficulties indeed may be removed by thought and prayer and research; and we would not have you sparing of any of these appliances when you examine the volume of inspiration. But difficulties which are inherent in the subject; things "hard to be understood" because they deal, for example, with the nature and purposes and workings of Deity; these are not to be mastered by any powers of reason, and are, therefore, matters for the exercise of faith rather than of intellect. We ought to know, before we open the Bible, that it must present difficulties of this class and description. We are therefore bound, if, in idolizing reason, we would not degrade and decry it, to sit down to the study of Scripture with a meek and chastened understanding, expecting to be baffled, and ready to submit. We tell the young amongst you more especially, who, in the pride of an undisciplined intellect, would turn to St. Paul as they turn to Bacon or Locke, arguing that what was written for man must be comprehensible by man — we tell them that nothing is excellent out of its place; and that, in the examination of Scripture, then only does reason show herself noble, when, conscious of the presence of a king, the knee is bent, and the head uncovered. We would have it, therefore, remembered that the docility and submissiveness of a [376/377] child alone befit the student of the Bible; and that, if we would not have the whole volume darkened, its simplest truths eluding the grasp of our understanding, or gaining, at least, no hold on our affections, we must lay aside the feelings which we carry into the domains of science and philosophy, not arming ourselves with a chivalrous resolve to conquer, but with one winch it is a thousand-fold harder either to form or execute, to yield.
The Holy Spirit alone can make us feel the things which are easy to be understood, and prevent our wresting those which are hard. Never then should the Bible be opened except with prayer for the teachings of this Spirit. You will read without profit, as long as you read without prayer. It is only in the degree that the Spirit, which indited a text, takes it from the page and breathes it into the hear , that we can comprehend its meaning, be touched by its beauty, stirred by its remonstrance, or animated by its promise. We shall never then master scriptural difficulties by the methods which prove successful in grappling with philosophical. Why is it that the poor peasant, whose understanding is weak and undisciplined, has clear insight into the meaning of verses, and finds in them irresistible power and inexhaustible comfort, whilst the very same passages are given up as mysteries, or overlooked as unimportant, by the high and lettered champion of a scholastic theology? It were idle to deny [377/378] that our rustic divines will oftentimes travel, with a far stauncher and more dominant step than our collegiate, into the depths of a scriptural statement; and that you might obtain from some of the patriarchs of our vallies [sic], whose chief instruction has been their own communing with the Almighty, such explanations of "things hard to be understood" as would put to shame the commentaries of our most learned expositors. And of this phenomenon the solution would be hopeless, if there were not a broad instituted difference between human and sacred literature: "the kingdom of heaven" being "like unto treasure hid in a field" [Matthew, xiii. 44]; and the finding this treasure depending not at all on the power of the intellect brought to the search, but on the heartiness and the earnestness with which the Psalmist's prayer is used, "open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law" [Psalm cxix. 18]. If you open a scientific book, or study an abstruse and metaphysical work, let reason gird herself boldly for the task: the province belongs fairly to her jurisdiction; and she may cling to her own energies without laying herself open to the charge, that, according to the characteristic which Joel gives of the last times, the weak is vaunting itself the strong [Joel, iii. 10]. But if you open the Bible, and sit down to the investigation of scriptural truth, you are in a district which lies far beyond the just limits of the empire of reason: there is need of an apparatus wholly [378/379] distinct from that which sufficed for your former inquiry: and if you think to comprehend revelation, except so far as the author shall act as interpreter, you are, most emphatically, the weak pronouncing yourselves the strong, and the Bible shall be to you a closed book, and you shall break not the seals which God himself hath placed on the volume. Oh, they are seals which melt away, like a snow-wreath, before the breathings of the Spirit; but not all the fire of human genius shall ever prevail to dissolve or loosen them.
We feel that we have a difficult part to perform in ministering to the congregation which assembles within these walls. Gathered as it is from many parts, and, without question, including oftentimes numbers who make no profession whatsoever of religion, we think it bound on us to seek out great variety of subjects, so that, if possible, the case of none of the audience may be quite overlooked in a series of discourses. And we feel it peculiarly needful that we touch now and then, as we have done this night, on topics connected with infidelity, because we fear that infidelity is growing in the land, and specially amongst its well-educated youth. If there be one saying in the Bible, bearing reference to the things of the present dispensation, on which we look with greater awe than on another, it is this of Christ Jesus, "when the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" [Luke, xviii. 8] It would seem to mark out a fierce [379/380] conflict of antagonist principles, issuing in the almost total ejectment of Christianity; so that, when the day of the second advent is ushered in by its august heraldry, it shall dawn upon blasted and blackened scenery, and discover the mass of mankind carrying on, amid demolished temples and desecrated bibles, the orgies of a dark and desperate revelry. And knowing that such is the tenour of prophecy, and gathering from many and infallible signs that already has the war-tug begun, we warn you, and beseech you, with all the veins of our heart, that ye be on your guard against the inroads of scepticism. We speak peculiarly to the young, the young men who throng this chapel, and who, in the intercourses of life, will meet with many who lie in wait to deceive. It is not possible that you should mix much with the men of this liberal and libertine age, and not hear insinuations, either more or less direct, thrown out against the grand and saving tenets of Christianity. You cannot, even by the exercise of the most godly circumspection, keep yourselves wholly at a distance from the sarcasms or sophisms of insidious and pestilent teachers. The enemy is ever on the watch; and, adapting himself to the various dispositions and circumstances of those whom he seeks to entangle, can address the illiterate with a hollow jest, and assail the educated with a well turned objection. Oh, I could tremble for those, who, blind to the weakness which is naturally the portion of our race, and [380/381] rashly confident in a strength to which the fallen have no jot of pretension, adventure themselves now upon the sea of life, and go forth into a world where must often be encountered temptations to think lightly of the faith of their fathers. Oh, I say, I could tremble for them. If any amongst you — I speak it with all affection, and from the knowledge which positions in life have enabled me to form of the progress of youthful infidelity — if any amongst you enter the busy scenes of society, with an overweening confidence in your own capacities, with a lofty opinion of the powers of reason, and with a hardy persuasion that there is nerve enough in the mind to grapple with divine mysteries, and vigour enough to discover truth for itself — if, in short, you, the weak, shall say we are strong — then I fear for you, far more than I can tell, that you may fall an easy prey to some champion of heretical error, and give ready ear to the flattering schemes of the worshippers of intellect; and that thus a mortal blight shall desecrate the buds of early promise, and eternity frown on you with all the cheerlessness which it wears to those who despise the blood of atonement, and you — the children, it may be, of pious parents, over whose infancy a godly father hath watched, and whose young years have been guarded by the tender solicitudes of a righteous mother — you may win to yourselves a heritage of shame and confusion and go down, at the judgment, into the pit of [381/382] the unbelieving and scornful. Better, infinitely better would it have been, that your parents had seen you coffined and sepulchred, ere as yet ye knew evil from good, than that they should have nursed you, and nurtured you, to swell, in later days, the ranks of the apostate. Be admonished, by the subject which we have this night discussed, to distrust yourselves, and to depend on a higher teaching than human. Difficulties there are in the Bible: but they ought rather to assure, than make you doubtful of, the divinity of its origin. And if you are assailed with sceptical objections which you are unable to answer, have the candour and modesty to suspect that a straightforward and sufficient answer there may be, though you have not the penetration to discover it. Lay not the blame on the deficiencies of Christianity, when it may possibly lie in the deficiencies of your own information. The argument was never framed against the truth of our religion, which has not been completely taken off, and triumphantly refuted. Hesitate, therefore, before you conclude a sceptic in the right, just because you are not able to prove him in the wrong. We give you this advice, simply and affectionately. We see your danger, and we long for your souls. Bear with us yet a moment. We would not weary you: but speaking on the topic of "things hard to be understood," we feel compelled to dwell, at some length, on the scepticism of the age. I can never dare answer, when I stand up in this holy [382/383] place, and speak to you on the truths of our religion, that I address not some who throw on these (ruths habitual contempt, who count Christianity the plaything of children, invented by imposture, and cradled in ignorance. And if I knew that even now there were such amongst you; if they were pointed out to me, so that I might stand face to face with the despisers of our Lord — the thunder, the sackcloth of hair, the worm that dies not, the fire that is not quenched — should I array against them these terrible things, and turn upon them the battery of the denunciations of God's wrath? Alas, alas, I should have no moral hold on them with all this apparatus of woe and destruction. They might wrap themselves up in their scepticism. They might tell me they had read too much, and learned too much, to be scared by the trickeries of priestcraft : and thus, by denying the authority of Scripture, they would virtually blunt all my weapons of attack, and show themselves invulnerable, because they had made themselves insensible. There is nothing that the minister could do, save that which Elisha the Prophet did, when speaking with Hazael: "he settled his countenance stedfastly, until he was ashamed: and the man of God wept" [2 Kings, viii. 10]. Who could do otherwise than weep over the spectacle of talents, and hopes, and affections, tainted with the leprous spots of moral decay, the spectacle of a blighted immortality, the spectacle — [383/384] a glimpse of which must almost convulse with amazement the glorious ranks of the celestial world — that of a being whom Christ purchased with his blood, whom the Almighty hath invited, yea besought, to have mercy upon himself, turning into jest the messages of the Gospel, denying the divinity of the Lord his Redeemer, or building up, with the shreds and fragments of human reason, a baseless structure, which, like the palace of ice, shall resolve itself suddenly into a tumultuous flood, bearing away the inhabitant, a struggling thing, but a lost? Yea, if I knew there were one amongst you who had surrendered himself to the lies of an ensnaring philosophy, then, although I should feel, that, perhaps even whilst I speak, he is pitying my credulity, or ridiculing my fanaticism, I would not suffer him to depart without calling on the congregation to baptize him, as it were, with their tears; and he should be singled out — oh, not for rebuke, not for contempt, not for anger — but as more deserving to be wept over and wailed over than the poorest child of human calamity, more worthy of the agonies of mortal sympathy than he who eats the bitterest bread of affliction, and in whose ear ring mournfully the sleepless echoes of a funeral bell. Yea, and he should not leave the sanctuary till we had told him, that, though there be in the Bible "things hard to be understood," there is one tiling beautifully plain, and touchingly simple : and that is, that "the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all [384/385] sin" [1 John, i. 7]. So that it is not yet too late: the blasphemer, the scorner, the infidel — oh, the fire is not yet falling, and the earth is not yet opening — let him turn unto the Lord, and confess his iniquity, and cry for pardon, and a sweep of joy from the angels" harp-strings shall tell out the astounding fact, that he is no longer a stranger and foreigner, but a fellow-citizen with the saints, and of the household of God.
But we hasten to a conclusion. We again press upon all of you the importance of reading the Bible with prayer. And whilst the consciousness that Scripture contains "things hard to be understood" should bring us to its study in a dependent and humble temper, the thought, that what we know not now we shall know hereafter, should make each difficulty, as we leave it unvanquished, minister to our assurance that a wider sphere of being, a nearer vision, and mightier faculties, await us when the second advent of the Lord winds up the dispensation. Thus should the mysteries of the Bible teach us, at one and the same time, our nothingness, and our greatness; producing humility, and animating hope. I bow before these mysteries. I knew that I should find, and I pretend not to remove, them. But whilst I thus prostrate myself, it is with deep gladness and exultation of spirit. God would not have hinted the mystery, had he not designed hereafter to explain. And, therefore, are my thoughts in a far-off home [385/386], and rich things are around me, and the voices of many harpers, and the shinings of bright constellations, and the clusters of the cherub and the seraph; and a whisper, which seems not of this earth, is circulating through the soul, "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known" [1 Corinthians, xiii. 12]. May God grant unto all of us to be both abased and quickened by those things in the Bible which arc "hard to be understood."
Henry Melvill. "The Difficulties of Scripture." Sermons. 2nd ed. London: J., G., and F. Rivington, 1834.
Last modified 5 September 2004