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Theology is derived, is a proposition, which can hardly require demonstration. That book, by which every Christian professes to regulate his religious creed, that book, of which our own Church declares, that “ whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith,” is of course the primary object of religious inquiry. It is a fountain, at which every man must draw in preference even to the clearest of the streams, which flow from it. Indeed, if we neglect to draw there, we shall never know, whether the streams, which flow from it, are pure or turbid.
But the Bible may be studied in such a variety of ways, there are so many points of view, from which it requires to be examined, and the accuracy of our conclusions depends so much on the order, in which these several surveys are taken, that it is of the utmost importance to determine where we should begin. We must establish the Authenticity of the Bible, the Credibility of the Bible, the Divine Authority of the Bible, the Inspiration of the Bible, the Doctrines of the Bi. ble. Now that we cannot begin with the Inspiration of the Bible appears from what was said in the preceding Lecture.
Nor can we begin with the Doctrines of the Bible; for till we have proved its divine au. thority, its doctrines have not the force of obligation. Nor can we begin with its Divine Authority, or, in other words, with the Evidences for the divine origin of our religion. For these evidences are arguments deduced from the Bible itself, and of course presup. pose that the Bible is true. The authenticity of the Bible therefore must be previously established, or the evidences, as they are called, have no foundation, whereon to rest. But no man can undertake to prove the authenticity of the Bible, till he thoroughly understands it. The interpretation of the Bible therefore is manifestly one of the first parts or branches of Theology.
It deserves however to be considered, whether a branch of Theology, hitherto unnoticed in these Lectures, is not entitled to a still higher rank.
I mean the Criticism of the Bible. In that four-fold division, which I have already stated, both the criticism and the interpretation of the Bible are included in the first division. But the operations of criticism, and the operations of interpretation are so distinct, that they ought not, however subdivided, to be placed in the same class. But if we refer them to separate classes, parts, or branches, we must be careful to refer them in such a manner, as not to violate the principle, which we apply to the other branches. Now the criticism of the Bible is a branch of such extent, it so encircles the interpretation of the Bible, that, however different their operations, it is difficult to determine where the separation shall begin. There is one department of sacred criticism, in which at least its application would be very inefficient, if the Bible were not already understood. But there is another department, which we may apply, as well as learn, even before we begin to interpret the Bible. And we shall find that it is ne. cessary so to do.
When we attempt to expound a work of high antiquity, which has passed through a variety of copies, both ancient and modern, both written and printed, copies which differ from each other in very numerous instances, we should have some reason to believe, that the .copy or edition, which we undertake to interpret, approaches as nearly to the original, as it can be brought by human industry, or human judgment. Or, toʻspeak in the technical language of criticism, before we expound an author, we should most correct text of that author. But in a work of such importance as the Bible, we should confide in the bare assertion of no man, with respect to the ques. tion, in what copy or edition either the Greek or the Hebrew text is contained most correctly. We should endeavour to obtain sufficient information on this subject, to enable us to judge for ourselves : and the information, which is necessary for this purpose, may be obtained, even before we are acquainted with any other branch of Theology. For when a passage
is differently worded in different copies, or, to speak in technical terms, when it has various readings, the question, which of those readings is probably the original or genuine reading, must be determined by authorities, and by rules, similar to those, which are applied to classic authors. The study of sacred criticism therefore, as far as it relates to the obtaining of a correct text, may precede the study of every other branch : but, if it may, there are obvious reasons, why it should. And, if that department of it, which relates to the genuineness of whole books, belongs on one account to a later period of theological study, it may still on another account be referred even to the first. Though the application or the practice of it requires the assistance of another branch, yet a knowledge of its principles may be previously obtained. Now the study of sacred criticism produces an habit of accu. rate investigation, which will be highly beneficial to us in our future theological inquiries. Its influence also is such, that it pervades every other part of Theology: and, as our notions in this part are clear or obscure, our conclusions in other parts will be distinct or confused In short, it is a branch, which affords nutriment and life to all the other branches, which must become more or less vigorous, in proportion as this branch either flourishes or decays. To Sacred Criticism then the foremost rank is due.
The reproaches, which have been made, and the dangers, which have been ascribed to it, proceed only from the want of knowing its real value. It is not the object of sacred criticism to expose the Word of God to the uncertainties of human conjecture : its object is not to weaken, and much less to destroy the edifice, which for ages has been the subject of just veneration. Its primary object is to shew the firmness of that foundation, on which the sacred edifice is built, to prove the genuineness of the materials, of which the edifice is constructed. It is employed in the confutation of objections, which, if made by ignorance, can be removed only by knowledge. On the other hand, if in the progress of inquiry excrescences should be discovered, which violate the symmetry of the original
fabric, which betray a mixture of the human with the divine, of interpolations, which the authority or artifice of man has engrafted on the oracles of God, it is the duty of sacred criticism to detect the spurious, and remove it from the genuine. For it is not less blameable to accept what is false, than to reject what is true: it is not less inconsistent with the principles of religion to ascribe the authority of Scripture to that which is not Scripture, than to refuse our acknowledgment, where such authority exists. Nor should we forget, that, if we resolve at all events to retain what has no authority to support it, we remove at once the criteri. on, which distinguishes truth from falsehood, we involve the spurious and the genuine in the same fate, and thus deprive ourselves of the power of ever ascertaining what is the real text of the sacred writings.
But so far is sacred criticism from exposing the word of God to the uncertainties of conjecture, that there is no principle more firmly resisted in sacred criticism than the admission of conjectural emendation, of emendation not founded on documents. In the application of criticism to classic authors, conjectural emendations are allowable. There such liberties can do no harm either to the critic, or to his readers : they affect no truth, either religious or moral. But the case is widely different, when conjectural emendation is applied to the sacred writings.
It then ceases to be merely an exercise of ingenuity: it becomes a vehicle for the propagation of religious opinion: and passages have been altered, in defiance of all authority, for the sole purpose of procuring support to a partic.