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The Jews, in our Saviour's time, are faid" to have had Moses " and the prophets.” May not we as juftly be said “ to have the
evangelists and apostles," in having their writings so common among us? Christians in former ages had these facred writings in the higheft veneration ; read them privately in their families and closets; and publicly in their churches; spread them far and wide through the earth; and handed them down to us as a public treafure, designed for the benefit of Chriftians in all ages and nations.
In the effay on inspiration annexed to 1 Timothy, I have observed that the apostles had the whole scheme of the Chriftian doctrine by divine illumination; and constantly retained it during the remaining part of their lives. What, therefore, they preached or wrote concerning the Christian doctrine may be depended upon; whatever was the occañon of their so preaching or writing. If Jesus Christ and his apoitles had not first preached and worked miracles, met with such opposition or success, acted or fuffered, as they did, the sacred historians could not have had the facts which they have recorded in their writings; nor the Chriftian religion have been attended with that illustrious evidence, which now appears in the books of the New Testament. Befides, there are not wanting some hints of their epistles being designed for general use. For initance : the first epiftle to the Corinthians is directed, not only to the Chriftians in Corinth, but “ unto all, who, in every place, invoke
the name of our Lord Jesus Chrift, both their Lord and ours." And there is no question, but that every one of their epiftles were intended to be of as extensive benefit as they were capable of.
The four gospels and the Acts of the apostles seem to contain all the effential parts of the Christian religion. But the epistles contain things useful, and of very great moment. The excellent laws, which Solon gave the Athenians, contained the substance of all their laws : but yet the Athenians found it proper to add many particulat laws, as elucidations of Solon's general rules.-The laws of the twelve tables at Rome contained, in a narrow compass, the fubstance of the Roman law : but they found it requifite to add many particular laws to illustrate and explain those of the twelve tables.--The ten commandments contained the fum and substance of the Mofaic law: but yet God law fit to add many particular precepts, to explain and inforce the observation of the ten commandments. And, finally, - the law of Moses" contained the rules of the Jewish religion and government; but yet God saw fit, by the prophets, from time to time, to give that nation many particular precepts for inforcing, explaining, and illustrating the law of Mofes.-In like manner; the four Gospels and the A&ts of the apostles contain a summary of the Christian doctrine and precepts. They direct us to believe in God; and in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah and Saviour of the world. They inculcate the necessity of repentance, where men have done amiss; and of prevailing holiness in all. But they do not always apply these general directions to particular cafes' lo minutely and circumftantially as do the apostles in their epiftles.
The four Gospels give an account of the ministry of John Baptist, and of our Lord, of the twelve apostles and of the seventy: disciples ; with what they said and did as preparatory to the fetting. up the kingdom of the Messiah in the world. The Acts of the apostles contain the history of erecting the gospel-kingdom. In the Epiftles, several things are cleared up, which are but briefly hinted in the Gospels and Acts of the apostles. They were written by difa ferent persons at various times and upon different occasions; and yet they all agree in the doctrines and precepts; and confirm the main facts, viz. that Jesus died and rose again, ascended into heaven, and poured out the spirit; and thereby imparted the knowledge of the gospel unto mankind; and many miraculous powers in atteftation to the Christian doctrine.
It might be expected that the religions, which had been long in poffeffion, would obstruct the progress of the gospel; and that the votaries of each would have their peculiar objections. Accordingly, we find in the epistles that the Jews and Heathens did actually make such objections; and we see also in what manner the apostles have answered them ; and that the nature of the gospel and its evidences were such, and so glorious, that it speedily made its way against various and powerful opposition. The first professors, and more especially the first preachers, of the gospel, might expect persecution from several quarters. The Acts of the apostles, and their Epistles, inform us that they were actually persecuted ; and let us know how they behaved, and what supported them under such hardships and indignities.
By having Christianity set in such different lights ; and the objections of those who first opposed it so clearly and fully answered ; We are enabled much better to understand Christianity in its great extent and glorious evidence; to clear up such difficulties, as would otherwise have been insuperable, and to defend it againit all its adversaries.
By shewing what pure Christianity was at the beginning, we are able much more clearly to point out what it ought now to be, and what are the corruptions of it in later ages; and we have thereby the proper means, in our hands, of Thewing which way a reformation might be effected. And, when and where Christianity is professed in its purity, by having the authentic and original records of it in its primitive glory and perfection, we can the better maintain the purity of it, and prevent future corruptions.
Some, indeed, have applied passages in the epistles to Christians of all ages, which were designed only for some Christians, and in fome particular cafes : but that is one of the abuses of Holy Scripture, against which we are here guarding mankind. What might be a proper rule, to persons indued with miraculous powers, can be no rule to us wlio have no such powers. And yet even such passages are of service now-a-days; as they are a clear proof that, in The primitive church, there were such powers; and consequently the moit glorious evidence attended Christianity, wlien it firft made its appearance in the world. Epistles, written to churches, where the apostles had many and bitter enemies; and which contain appeals to such churches, that such 'spiritual gifts and miraculous powers had been communicated by them, and did then subsift and abound; contain arguments of a peculiar kind in favour of the truth of the Christian religion. For, if there had been, among their couverts, no fuch fpiritual gifts and miraculous powers, their enemies would not have failed to have insulted them, and triumphed over them. And Chriftianity must, in a short time, have funk, as á most notorious impofture. [See my Reasonablenefs of the Christian religion, &c. p. 128, &c.].
It has been already observed that the apoftolic epistles were not cir cular letters, nor catholic epistles, originally written to all Christians; and equally suited to the cases and circumstances of all Christian churches, at all times and in all places. The general doctrines and precepts do, indeed, equally concern all Christians. And the apoftolic epiftles, which were written to particular churches, or persons, and exactly adapted to their case, are fairly applicable to the cases of all churches and of all Christians, as far as their cases are like those of the persons, or churches, to which they were originally addressed.
- This is not confining their meaning ; nor extending it, as I apprehend, beyond what the apostles designed ; or beyond the intention of that facred spirit, by which they were guided and directed, in all that they spoke or wrote, relating to the doctrine of the gloriqus gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The CONCLUSION. To conclude : It appears to me that a critical interpreter of holy Scripture should set out with this, as a first principle; viz. “ that “ no text of Scripture has more than one meaning.” That one true sense he should endeavour to find out, as he would find out the sense of Homer, or any other ancient writer. When he has found out that sense, he ought to acquiesce in it. And so ought his readers too; unless, by the juft rules of interpretation, they can shew that he has mistaken the passage ; and that another is the one, just, true, and critical sense of the place.
END OF VOL. IV.