« PreviousContinue »
FOR THE UNDERSTANDING OF
ST. PAUL'S EPISTLES,
BY CONSULTING ST. PAUL HIMSELF.
To go about to explain any of St. Paul's epistles, after so great a train of expositors and commentators, might seem an attempt of vanity, censurable for its needlessness, did not the daily and approved examples of pious and learned men justify it. This may be some excuse for me to the public, if ever these following papers should chance to come abroad: but to myself, for whose use this work was undertaken, I need make no apology. Though I had been conversant in these epistles, as well as in other parts of sacred Scripture, yet I found that I understood them not ; I mean the doctrinal and discursive parts of them : though the
practical directions, which are usually dropped in the latter part of each epistle, appeared to me very plain, intelligible, and instructive.
I did not, when I reflected on it, very much wonder that this part of sacred Scripture had difficulties in it: many causes of obscurity did readily occur to me. The nature of epistolary writings in general disposes the writer to pass by the mentioning of many things, as well known to him to whom his letter is addressed, which are necessary to be laid open to a stranger, to make him comprehend what is said : and it not seldom falls out that a well-penned letter, which is very easy and intelligible to the receiver, is very obscure to a stranger, who hardly knows what to make of it. The matters that St. Paul writ about were certainly things well known to those he writ to, and which they had some peculiar concern in ; which made them easily apprehend his meaning, and see the tendency and force of his discourse. But we having now, at this distance, no information of the occasion of his writing, little or no knowledge of the temper and circumstances those he writ to were in, but what is to be gathered out of the epistles themselves; it is not strange that many things in them lie concealed to us, which, no doubt, they who were concerned in the letter understood at first sight. Add to this, that in many places it is manifest he answers letters sent, and questions proposed to him, which, if we had, would much better clear those passages that relate to them than all the learned notes of critics and commentators, who in after-times fill us with their conjectures; for very often, as to the matter in hand, they are nothing else.
The language wherein these epistles are writ is another, and that no small occasion of their obscurity to us now: the words are Greek; a language dead many ages since; a language of a very witty, volatile people, seekers after novelty, and abounding with variety of notions and sects, to which they applied the terms of their common tongue with great liberty and variety : and yet this makes but one small part of the difficulty in the language of these epistles; there is a peculiarity in it that
much more obscures and perplexes the meaning of these writings than what can be occasioned by the looseness and variety of the Greek tongue. The terms are Greek, but the idiom, or turn of the phrases, may be truly said to be Hebrew or Syriac. The custom and familiarity of which tongues do sometimes so far influence the expressions in these epistles, that one may observe the force of the Hebrew conjugations, particularly that of Hiphil, given to Greek verbs, in a way unknown to the Grecians themselves. Nor is this all; the subject treated of in these epistles is so wholly new, and the doctrines contained in them so perfectly remote from the notions that mankind. were acquainted with, that most of the important terms in it have quite another signification from what they have in other discourses. So that putting all together, we may truly say that the New Testament is a book written in a language peculiar to itself
. To these causes of obscurity, common to St. Paul, with most of the other penmen of the several books of the New Testament, we may add those that are peculiarly his, and owing to his style and temper. He was, as it is visible, a man of quick thought and warm temper, mighty well versed in the writings of the Old Testament, and full of the doctrine of the new. All this put together, suggested matter to him in abundance on those subjects which came in his way : so that one may consider him, when he was writing, as beset with a crowd of thoughts, all striving for utterance. In this posture of mind it was almost impossible for him to keep that slow pace, and observe minutely that order and method of ranging all he said, from which results an easy and obvious perspicuity. To this plenty and vehemence of his may be imputed those many large parentheses which a careful reader may observe in his epistles. Upon this account also it is, that he often breaks off in the middle of an argument, to let in some new thought suggested by his own words ; which having pursued and explained, as far as conduced to his present purpose, he re-assumes again the thread of his discourse, and goes on with it, without taking any notice that he returns again to what he had been before saying ; though some
times it be so far off, that it may well have slipped out of his mind, and requires a very attentive reader to observe, and so bring the disjointed members together, as to make up the connexion, and see how the scattered parts of the discourse hang together in a coherent, well-agreeing sense, that makes it all of a piece.
Besides the disturbance in perusing St. Paul's epistles, from the plenty and vivacity of his thoughts, which may obscure his method, and often hide his sense from an unwary or over-hasty reader; the frequent changing of the personage he speaks in renders the sense very un, certain, and
is apt to mislead one that has not some clue to guide him ; sometimes by the pronoun, I, he means himself; sometimes any Christian; sometimes a Jew, and sometimes any man, &c. If speaking of himself, in the first person singular, has so various meanings ; his use of the first person plural is with a far greater latitude, sometimes designing himself alone, sometimes those with himself, whom he makes partners to the epistles ; sometimes with himself, comprehending the other apostles, or preachers of the Gospel, or Christians : nay, sometimes he in that way speaks of the converted Jews, other times of the converted Gentiles, and some. times of others, in a more or less extended sense, every one of which varies the meaning of the place, and makes it to be differently understood. I have forborne to trouble the reader with examples of them here. If his own observation hath not already furnished him with them, the following Paraphrase and Notes, I suppose, will satisfy him in the point.
In the current also of his discourse he sometimes drops in the objections of others, and his answers to them, without any change in the scheme of his language, that might give notice of any other speaking besides himself. This requires great attention to observe; and yet, if it bę neglected or overlooked, will make the reader very much mistake and misunderstand his meaning, and render the sense very perplexed.
These are intrinsic difficulties arising from the text itself, whereof there might be a great many other named, as the uncertainty, sometimes, who are the persons he
speaks to, or the opinions, or practices, which he has in his eye, sometimes in alluding to them, sometimes in his exhortations and reproofs. But those above-mentioned being the chief, it may suffice to have opened our eyes a little upon them, which, well examined, may contribute towards our discovery of the rest.
To these we may subjoin two external causes, that have made no small increase of the native and original difficulties, that keep us from an easy and assured discovery of St. Paul's sense, in many parts of his epistles; and those are,
First, The dividing of them into chapters and verses, as we have done; whereby they are so chopped and minced, and, as they are now printed, stand so broken and divided, that not only the common people take the verses usually for distinct aphorisms; but even men of more advanced knowledge, in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the coherence and the light that depends on it. Our minds are so weak and narrow, that they have need of all the helps and assistances that can be procured, to lay before them undisturbedly the thread and coherence of any discourse; by which alone they are truly improved, and led into the genuine sense of the author. When the eye is constantly disturbed in loose sentences, that by their stand. ing and separation appear as so many distinct frag. ments; the mind will have much ado to take in, and carry on in its memory, an uniform discourse of de pendent reasonings ; especially having from the cradle been used to wrong impressions concerning them, and constantly accustomed to hear them quoted as distinct sentences, without any limitation or explication of their precise meaning, from the place they stand in, and the relation they bear to what goes before, or follows. These divisions also have given occasion to the reading these epistles by parcels, and in scraps, which has farther confirmed the evil arising from such partitions. And I doubt not but every one will confess it to be a very unlikely way, to come to the understanding of any other letters, to read them piece-meal, a bit to-day, and another scrap to-morrow, and so on by broken intervals;