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Interpretation. There is a very suggestive essay on this topic appended to the second volume of Sermons. His two discourses, also, on Prophecy, in the first volume, with the notes, are able and instructive. Various hints are scattered through his sermons generally, but more especially those contained in the posthumous volume published for the purpose of illustrating his mode of interpreting the Bible.
Some of the principles that he lays down in his essay on Interpretation are as follows:
I. “A command given to one man, or to one generation of men, is, and can be, binding upon other men, and other generations, only so far forth as the circumstances in which both are placedare similar. [A commandment of eternal and universal obligation is one that relates to points in which all men at all times are alike, and which there is the same reason, therefore, for all obeying equally. Other commandments may be of a transitory nature, and binding only upon particular persons, or at particular times; but yet, when they proceed from the highest authority, their indirect use may be universal, even though their direct use be limited.
That is, from knowing what God's will was, under such and such circumstances, we may gather, by points of reasoning, what it will be in all other circumstances, namely: the same when the circumstances are the same; analogous when the circumstances are analogous; and absolutely contrary, when they also are contrary."]
II. « The revelations of God to man were gradual, and adapted to his state at the several periods when they were successively made. And on the same principle, commands were given at one time, which were not given at another: and which, according to God's method of dealing with mankind, not only were not, but could not have been given."
These principles, particularly the latter, he applies to some of the more perplexing things in the Old Testament. He takes the ground in regard to the command to Abraham
to slay his son Isaac, the command to Saul utterly to destroy the Amalekites, that such commands could not be given to us, because “to our best reason appearing evil.” He asks the bold question, “ whether in our ignorance of the unseen world, any vision, dream, or revelation whatsoever, so commanding us to evil, can bear with it an external attestation of its coming from God, susficient to counterbalance the internal evidence that it does not come from Him." He thinks it is not sufficient to say in regard to the command to extirpate the Canaanites, that “the destruction effected by an earthquake or a pestilence, is just as unsparing and indiscriminate, without being thought to impeach the goodness of God. The difficulty relates not to the sufferers in this destruction, but to the agents of it; because to men, in an advanced state of moral knowledge and feeling, the command to perpetrate such general slaughter, — to massacre women and infants, the sick and the decrepit, could not fail to be mischievous; or rather, it would be so revolting, that they could not, and ought not to think, that God could possibly be the author of it.”
But in earlier times these commands could be given. “ God has not thought proper to raise mankind at once to its highest state of moral perfection, any more than individuals are born at once to their maturity. ..... Their notions, therefore, on many particular points of practice were really irreconcilable with the principles which they acknowledged ; but the inconsistency did not strike them; and revelation did not as yet interfere to make it palpable. ..... If an action on any one of these points was capable of strengthening their moral principles generally, or tended to serve any other useful end, it would properly be commanded to them, because it could do them no moral harm but probably the contrary; and because, being a command in a parcular case, and not a statement of a general principle, it could not justly interfere with the acquisition of purer views by future generations, when the dispensation of the fulness of time was come. And, therefore, not only would practices be tolerated by God in early times, but actions would be positively commanded, which, in a more advanced state of knowledge, men would be taught of God to shrink from as evil.
The key to the interpretation of this whole class of things in the Old Testament history, he finds in the remark of Christ, about the toleration of a certain practice on account of the hardness of men's hearts. . This, he thinks, " has completely cleared the whole question, and enables us to recognize the divinity of the Old Testament, and the holiness of its characters, without lying against our consciences and our more perfect revelation, by justifying the actions of those characters as right essentially and abstractedly." He finds the Old Testament, even in these parts, however, full of instruction. « The spirit of the story is an eternal lesson: the letter of it ..... must be looked upon as passed away."2
Interpretation of Prophecy.. The general principle he maintains is “that of an uniform historical or lower, and also of a spiritual or higher, sense.” The historical is the looser, the spiritual the more exact. He thinks it “a very misleading notion of Prophecy, if we regard it as an anticipation of History." He does not find it literally and minutely fulfilled in its lower subjects, except in certain exceptional cases. He does not think it was even meant to be. The lower subjects were simply to be the representatives of the higher; not their very images, because “those unmixed principles of good and evil, with which Prophecy is alone properly concerned," cannot be fully imaged by anything here below. “ The true
i Christian Life, its Course, etc., p. 402.
2 Sermons on Interpretation, p. 107. Compare also the sermons on Phinchas and Jael. His strong remark (Life and Corresp. p. 485) about "a bibliolatry” - of the Puritans and the Evangelicals ” — “especially toward the Old Testament, quite as foolish and as mischierous as the superstition of the Catholics," must be placed by the side of those quoted above to be understood. It was aimed against a too narrow and literal system of interpretation. See also what follows.
subject of pure Prophecy, as distinct from history, is not any human person or persons, fact or facts, but ideas and principles which in no merely human persons or actions have ever been embodied perfectly. “ The Babylon of History is only for a limited time, and in an imperfect degree, the Babylon of Prophecy. It is so for a limited time only, because the Historical Babylon has long since perished; but the prophecies in the Old Testament against it have been repeated in the New, almost in the very same words; so that the prophetical Babylon must have been in existence long after the historical Babylon had been destroyed. And only in an imperfect degree, because the language used respecting it, is the exact opposite to that used with respect to Jerusalem; and as the historical Jerusalem never came up to the pictures of the holiness and happiness of the prophetical Jerusalem, so neither have we any reason to believe that there was any such peculiar and unmixed wickedness in the historical Babylon, as to make it the proper and ultimate subject of the denunciations uttered against the Babylon of Prophecy. Not the proper and ultimate subject, but the subject of them partially and in the first instance; as Rome was partially also in the second instance; and as other places may be, and I believe are, in the third instance: so that the Prophecies, as I believe, will go on continually meeting with a typical and imperfect fulfilment, till the time of the end; when they will be fulfilled finally and completely in the destruction of the true prophetical Babylon, the World as opposed to the Church."
On this plan Dr. Arnold interprets the Prophecies generally. He does not deny that there may sometimes be a very minute and literal fulfilment of a prophecy, in its lower sense, but he maintains that this should be regarded “as a fulfilment ex abundanti; as one of those instances not to be drawn into a general rule, in which God has been pleased to grant an agreement of a minute and literal kind between the prediction and the event, as if for the satisfaction of those who could not appreciate agreement in mere general and essential points.” “ If we regard the present desolation
of the country around Babylon to have been necessary to the fulfilment of the prophecies concerning it, we must also require a similar literal fulfilment in all other cases, which it is impossible to find.” He says in one of his earlier letters: “ My own notion is, that people try to make out from prophecy too much of a detailed history, and thus I have never seen a single commentator who has not perverted the truth of history to make it fit the prophecy." (Life, p. 55.) He questions whether the historical facts in regard to Egypt and Edom will bear the stress that is sometimes laid upon them, as exact fulfilments of prophecy. The language is hyperbolical in its lower application; exact only in its higher.
The same principle guides him in the interpretation of the Messianic prophecies. He finds them according to Luke 24:44, in each division of the Old Testament, “ the law or Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” “ The prophetic witness here spoken of consists in the frequent recurrence of the same idea, namely, that of suffering and glory in the persons of God's true servants.”. “ They are the representatives imperfectly of the good cause in human nature, which Christ represented perfectly.” “ Most remarkable is it to see in the Prophets and in the Psalms the confident anticipation of future triumph, which in the human writers individually was never verified. But by this very circumstance their incomplete and typical character is fully manifested; it is by this especially that they in a manner point to Christ; that they stretch out their arms to Him, imploring Him to fulfil what they could but faintly shadow, the whole condition of fallen and redeemed man: sufferings · first, but afterwards glory; the serpent bruising man's heel; but man finally crushing the serpent's head. It is thus that the language of many of the Psalms, necessarily hyperbolical when used by their human writers, finds its perfect application in Him alone, who was the true image of human
I lIis strong belief that prophecy could not have anticipated history, led him to question the authenticity of the latter chapters of Daniel. Life and Correspondence, p. 369.