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Good Words 1860
Popular Misapplication of Scripture


Of all the sins which our Saviour laid to the charge of the Pharisees, perhaps none was more heinous, certainly none more mischievous than this, that they made the Word of God of none effect through their traditions. It would not be difficult to enumerate many of those traditions, and to point out their evil effects; but our object on this occasion is rather to inquire whether Christians have not, through very culpable carelessness, fallen into a very similar error. Here a wide field of observation is opened to us in the traditions of the Romish Church, and in the astoundingly impudent misquotations and misapplications of Scripture by which it is attempted to defend every error of the Romish system; but it seems more to the purpose that we should ask to what extent have we Protestants been guilty in this matter of making the Word of God void by our traditionary modes of understanding and applying various passages of Scripture? There are many passages which have received a sort of traditionary application, the correctness of which appears to us most questionable. Some of these errors are, perhaps, harmless; others, we fear, are fraught with no little mischief; but, under any circumstances, let us see to it, that we understand the Scripture as it ought to be understood, and apply it as it ought to be applied.

As an instance of harmless misapplication, we may mention the traditionary meaning which has been imposed upon the well-known words, '' How art thou fallen from heaven, 0 Lucifer, son of the morning!" It has been very hastily taken for granted that the prophet here speaks of the fall of Satan; and, accordingly, for many centuries, he whose kingdom is darkness, whose works are darkness, whose character is darkness, has been invested with this really noble and magnificent name—-Lucifer, the bringer of light. Now, any one who is at the trouble of consulting the context, sees that Lucifer, the morning-star, is the representation of the king of Babylon, and that there is not the slightest allusion to the prince of darkness. Our readers may not all be aware that the very word Lucifer, in its Greek form, is applied by the Apostle Peter in a very different manner (2 Pet. i. 19). Here, whatever Peter may mean by the day-star, and on this point there is considerable diversity of opinion, the day-star and Lucifer, the light-bringer, are one and the same word. Thus Lucifer is, in one passage, the emblem of the king of Babylon in all his power and grandeur; in another, the type of some glorious light arising in the Christian's heart. The application of the word to Satan is altogether a mistake.

Some of our traditions have done injustice to characters mentioned in the Scriptures. We have dealt rather too severely with Gallio, the deputy of Achaia, who, we are told, ''cared for none of these things," and who, therefore, has been held up to reprobation as the representative of all careless and thoughtless sinners. Now, when the conduct of Gallio is inquired into, he appears more deserving of praise than of censure. He protected St Paul from the malicious Jews; and when the Greeks, sympathising with the apostle, and detecting the motives of his enemies, took their leader and beat him in the court, Gallio thought that he deserved his beating, and would not interfere. Gallio would not, as a civil magistrate, undertake to determine a matter of religious belief; he would not sanction persecution. He "cared for none of these things;" what things? the truths preached by Paul ? we fear that he did not care much about them; but what he is said not to have cared for was the trumpery accusations laid against the apostle by his persecutors. We have not treated Gallio fairly; we have treated another person much more unfairly. It has been assumed that Mary Magdalene was, before her conversion, a woman of openly and notoriously wicked life; and hence, institutions for the reception of such persons have been named Magdalen Hospitals. Now, there really is not the slightest ground for the infamy which has thus been attached to the name of Mary Magdalene. We read that she had been demoniacally possessed; but demoniacal possession seems to have manifested itself in madness, or something very like it, not in gross licentiousness. Tradition has identified Mary Magdalene with the sinner woman who anointed, the Saviour's feet, in the house of Simon the Pharisee; but there is not a little of evidence in favour of such identification. But we have taken for doctrine the traditions of men, and hence a woman, of whose moral character the Scripture says not one disapproving word, has been for ages the victim of a most abominable slander.

The cases which we have mentioned are not, however, of so serious a character as to produce any injurious results; but our traditions are not always so harmless. Sometimes they involve us in very needless difficulties. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." This is a great and inestimable truth; but the popular notion seems to be this, that, because all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, every sentence in the Bible is the deliverance of a divinely-inspired truth. It seems to be forgotten that one part of the sacred writers' duty was to record with all fidelity, and, generally, without note or comment, many foolish, false, and wicked speeches uttered by ignorant, mistaken, sinful men. The book of Job abounds with such speeches. Job and his three friends say many things which, if we forget that they were uninspired, will sorely perplex us. Job protests that he is an innocent man, comes out largely upon his good works, and declares that God is dealing with him very harshly; his friends tell him that he is an unparalleled hypocrite, and that his sufferings prove that such a monster of wickedness never had been seen before. Now, if we remember that it is distinctly stated that they all erred, we shall perceive that nothing said by them necessarily carries with it Divine authority. So, let Job and his three friends say what they will, let them utter all manner of heresies, what of that? we are not concerned to harmonise their opinions and assertions with wisdom and righteousness. The poor men walked in darkness. They said much that is wise, true, good; but intermingled with it much that is foolish, false, and bad. So when we read this book, and our attention is arrested by some passage which seems heterodox, let us first ask who utters it; and if it be either Job himself, or any of his three miserable comforters, we should remember that God, so far from endorsing all their remarks, says to Job, "Who is this that darken-eth counsel by words without knowledge?" and commands him to offer a sacrifice, to make atonement for the folly and sin uttered by Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad.

We find that one of the most fruitful sources of error, in our common interpretations of Scripture, is the studious care with which we seem to shun the context, when quoting or applying passages of God's Word. We listen to the Scripture for a moment, hear it make some statement, and then we say, It is enough; we think we have the whole truth; whereas, if we listened a little longer, it would teach us something very different from that which we have so hastily inferred. For example, turn to that well-known verse, 1 Cor. ii. 9. We read thus far, and then shut the book and begin to speak of the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him as altogether mysterious; and the knowledge of them we pronounce impossible in our present state of being. Now, open the book again, and what do we read, in immediate sequence to that passage? "But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit, for the Spirit searcheth all things, even the deep things of God." Thus Paul declares that God has revealed to him, and to others likewise, those very things the knowledge of which you have hastily pronounced unattainable. The traditionary interpretation tells us that it is one of the imperfections of this present state that we cannot know what good things God hath prepared for them that love Him; the true interpretation, gathered from the context, is exactly the reverse.

The traditionary interpretation, restricting itself to one verse, tells us that inquiry into a certain glorious region of truth is utterly useless; the very next instance assures us that such inquiry may be prosecuted with great and profitable success. We seem in this instance to have gone very far towards making the Word of God of none effect by our tradition.

Christian people, when encouraging themselves and one another to pray, frequently quote, as applicable to the subject, these words, "Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." "Prove me now herewith;" with what ? with prayer, says our traditional interpretation ; pray, and then see whether God will not, in answer to your prayer, bless you in this abundant manner. But let us, in common honesty, look at the context. We find the passage in Mal. iii. 10; now, see wherewith God is to be proved; not with prayer, but thus—"Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith," &c. By what authority, then, have we interpreted the words, "prove me now herewith" as having reference to prayer? If the passage teaches us anything, it teaches us this, that we are to expect God's blessing when we have rendered to Him and to His cause that service, that substantial help which is His due, and which, in the Christian dispensation, corresponds with the tithes and offerings of the law. But the traditionary interpretation, sympathising with man's selfishness, perhaps springing out of it, has shut out of view this important principle—has had the audacity to substitute prayer for liberality, and led men to expect the opening of the windows of heaven on a. condition which God, in this passage, has not laid down. By all means, let us pray for God's blessing; let not one word be uttered to the disparagement or restraining of prayer; let us pray; but let us also open our hearts, open our hands, render unto God thankfully and cheerfully His due, recognise His bounty by being bountiful ourselves, and then we can honestly, fairly, and rationally plead this promise.

Once more: as an instance of mischief arising from traditional interpretation, we would refer to the manner in which the parable of the wise and foolish builders has been treated. Tradition says, to build upon the rock is to trust in Christ; to build upon the sand is to trust in self. So far well; but is this the whole truth? Whom does Christ describe as the wise builder? The man who "heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them." "These sayings of mine" are all the sayings in the sermon on the mount, sayings which, all must admit, set forth the practical duties rather than the doctrinal beliefs of Christianity. The man who heareth these sayings and doeth them is, obviously, the man who not only believes in Christ, but to the uttermost obeys Him, and so advances to the perfection of holiness. The traditional interpretation, accepted by many, almost loses sight of this; it says, trust in Christ, and then your house is built upon the rock. No, friend: trusting in Christ you come to the rock, you confide in the rock, you lay the foundation of your house upon the rock; but the building of that house is to be the work of your whole life; it is the work of ever doing all that Christ has commanded you, it is the work of obeying every precept in that great discourse, of which the parable of the builders is the solemn and beautiful conclusion.

From these examples, (and they are but a few out of many that might be given,) it would seem that we have not steered altogether clear of the error committed by the Pharisees. We have our traditionary interpretations and applications of Scripture, which have, in some instances, led us to form unjust estimates of character; in some, obscured the meaning of God's Word; in some, deprived us of Christian consolation; in some, concealed from us the path of duty. Let us learn to be more careful in the handling of Divine truth. Happily, tradition has not made of none effect the great leading truths of the gospel; but there are, in Scripture, pearls of lesser price as well as the pearl of great price; and the smallest and least-considered of these gems is far too costly a gift to be left covered with the obscuring dust of ignorant and mischievous traditions. If we are faithful to God's Word, God's Word will be faithful to us ; but if we intend to be thus faithful, we must not, under the treacherous guidance of popular and traditionary interpretation, learn from the Bible what it does not teach, nor expect from its Author what He does not promise.


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