THE PERILS OF RATIONALISM AND THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF A LIFELONG CONTACT WITH TRUTH-THE PROPERTIES OF INSPIRED WRITINGS. - 2 Timothy 3:14-17
FOR the second time in this paragraph the Apostle puts his faithful disciple in marked contrast to the heretical teachers. A few lines before, after comparing the latter to the Egyptian magicians, he continues, "But thou ( συ) didst follow my teaching." And in the passage before us, after saying that "evil men and impostors shall wax worse and worse," he continues, "But abide thou ( συ δενε) in the things which thou hast learned." Here there is a double contrast; first between Timothy and the impostors, and secondly between his abiding in the truth and their going away from it, and so from bad to worse, first as deceivers and then as being deceived. They begin by being seducers and end in being dupes, and the dupes (very often) of their own deceptions; for deceit commonly leads to self-deceit. Such a result may well act as a warning to Timothy and those committed to his charge of the peril of trifling with the fundamentals of religious truth.
The articles of the Christian faith are not like the commodities in a bazaar from which one can pick and choose at pleasure, and of which one can take three or four without in any way affecting one’s relation to the remainder, or reject three or four, without in any way affecting the security of one’s hold upon those which one decides to take. With regard to the truths of religion, our right to pick and choose has very strict limits. When the system as a whole has presented its credentials to the reason and the conscience, and these have decided that the bearer of such credentials must be the representative of a Divine Being, then the attempt to pick and choose among the details of the system becomes perilous work. To reject this or that item, as being mere fringe and setting rather than a constituent element, or as being at any rate unessential, may be to endanger the whole structure. We may be leaving an impregnable position for an exposed and untenable one, or be exchanging a secure platform for an inclined plane, on which we shall find no lasting resting place until the bottom is reached. And this was what the men, against whom Timothy is warned, had done.
They had left the sure position, and were sometimes sliding, sometimes running, further and further away from the truth.
In other words, there is a right and a wrong use of reason in matters of faith. The wrong use is sometimes spoken of as "Rationalism," and (adopting that term as convenient) the following clear statement, borrowed from another writer, will show in a striking way where it was that St. Paul wished Timothy to part company with the principles of his opponents. "As regards Revealed Truth," wrote J. H. Newman in 1835, "it is not Rationalism to set about to ascertain, by the exercise of reason, what things are attainable by reason, and what are not; nor, in the absence of an express Revelation, to inquire into the truths of Religion, as they come to us by nature; nor to determine what proofs are necessary for the acceptance of a Revelation, if it be given; nor to reject a Revelation on the plea of insufficient proof; nor, after recognizing it as Divine, to investigate the meaning of its declarations, and to interpret its language; nor to use its doctrines, as far as they can be fairly used, in inquiring into its divinity; nor to compare and connect them with our previous knowledge, with a view of making them parts of a whole; nor to bring them into dependence on each other, to trace their mutual relations, and to pursue them to their legitimate issues. This is not Rationalism. But it is Rationalism to accept the Revelation, and then to explain it away; to speak of it as the Word of God, and to treat it as the word of man; to refuse to let it speak for itself; to claim to be told the why and the how of God’s dealings with us, as therein described; and to assign to Him a motive and a scope of our own; to stumble at the partial knowledge which He may give us of them; to put aside what is obscure, as if it had not been said at all; to accept one half of what has been told us, and not the other half; to assume that the contents of Revelation are also its proof; to frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them, and then to garble, gloss, and color them, to trim, clip, pare away and twist them, to order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them."
Timothy is to abide in those things which he has "learned and been assured of." He has experienced the result which St. Luke wished to produce in Theophilus when he wrote his Gospel: he has attained to "full knowledge of the certainty concerning the things wherein he had been instructed." [Luke 1:4] And he is not to allow the wild teaching of his opponents, thoroughly discredited as it is and will be by equally wild conduct, to shake his security. Not everything that is disputed is disputable, nor everything that is doubted doubtful. And if the fruits of the two kinds of teaching do not fully convince him of the necessity of abiding by the old truths rather than by the suggestions of these innovators, let him remember those from whom be first learnt the truths of the Gospel, -his grandmother Lois, his mother Eunice, and the Apostle himself. When it comes to a question of the authority of the teachers, which group will he choose? Those who established him in the faith, or those who are trying to seduce men away from it?
There is a little doubt about the word "of whom thou hast learned them." The "whom" is probably plural ( παρανων) but a reading which makes it singular ( παρανος) is strongly supported. The plural must include all Timothy’s chief instructors in the faith, especially the earliest, as is clear from the nature of the case and from what follows. If the singular is adopted, we must refer it to St. Paul, in accordance with "the things which thou hast heard from me the same commit thou to faithful men" (2 Timothy 2:2). It is possible that the words just quoted have influenced the reading in the passage under consideration, and have caused the substitution of the singular for the plural.
But there is a further consideration. There are not only the character of the doctrine on each side, and the fruits of the doctrine on each side, and the teachers of whom Timothy has had personal experience, and about whose knowledge and trustworthiness he can judge; there is also the fact that from his tenderest infancy he has had the blessing of being in contact with the truth, first as it is revealed in the Old Testament, and then as it is still further revealed in the Gospel. The responsibilities of those who from their earliest days have been allowed to grow in the knowledge of God and of His government of the world, are far greater than the responsibilities of those who have had no opportunity of acquiring this knowledge until late in life.
Old habits of thought and conduct are not extinguished by baptism; and the false opinion and vicious behavior of many of those who are vexing, or will hereafter vex, the Church in Ephesus, may be traced to influences which had become dominant in them long before they came into contact with God’s revealed law. No such allowance can be made for Timothy. He has had the inestimable privilege of knowing the sacred writings from his earliest childhood. It will be his own fault if they do not "make him wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
The expression "sacred writings" ( ιεραμματα) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. The usual expression is "the scriptures" ( αι γραφαι); and once [Romans 1:2] we have "holy scriptures" ( γραφαι αγιαι). Here both substantive and adjective are unusual. The adjective occurs in only one other passage in the New Testament, a passage which throws light upon this one. "Know ye not that they who perform the sacred rites, from the sacred place get their food?" ("Speaker’s Commentary," on 1 Corinthians 9:13) And just as in that passage "the sacred rites" are the Jewish sacrifices, and "the sacred place" the Jewish temple, so here "the sacred writings" are the Jewish Scriptures. It is utterly improbable that any Christian writings are included. How could Timothy have known any of these from infancy? Even at the time when St. Paul wrote this farewell letter, there was little Christian literature, excepting his own Epistles: and he was not likely to speak of them as "sacred writings," or to include them under one expression with the Old Testament Scriptures. The suggestion that Christian writings are included, or are mainly intended, seems to be made with the intention of insinuating that this letter cannot have been written by the Apostle, but by some one of a later age. But would even a writer of the second century have made such a blunder as to represent Timothy as knowing Christian literature from his childhood?
With the use of the substantive "writings"; ( γραμματα) in this passage, should be compared the use of the same word in Christ’s discourse at Jerusalem after the miracle at the pool of Bethesda, where he shows the Jews how hopeless their unbelief is, and how vain their appeal to Moses, who is really their accuser. "But if ye believe not his writings ( γραμματα) how shall ye believe My words?" The Jews had had two opportunities of knowing and accepting the truth; the writings of Moses, and the words of Jesus. So also Timothy had had two sets of instructors; the holy women who had brought him up, whose work had been completed by the Apostle, and the sacred writings. If the authority of the former should seem to be open to question, there could be no doubt of the sufficiency of the latter. They "are able to make him wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
It must be observed that the Apostle uses the present tense and not the past ( δυναμενα) in expressing the power of the sacred writings in communicating a saving wisdom to him who uses them aright. This power was not exhausted when the young Timothy was brought to the ampler truths of the Gospel. However far advanced he may be in sacred knowledge, he will still find that they are able to make him increase in the wisdom which enlightens and saves souls.
But Scripture confers this life-giving wisdom in no mechanical manner. It is not a charm, which has a magical effect upon every one who reads it. The most diligent study of the sacred writings will do nothing for the salvation of a man who does not prosecute his researches in something more than the mere spirit of curious enquiry. Therefore St. Paul adds, "through faith which is in Christ Jesus": It is-when this is added to the soul of the enquirer that the sacred writings of the Old Covenant have their illuminating power; without it, so far from leading to the salvation won for us by Christ, they may keep those who study them away from the truth, as in the case of the Jews to this day. The pillar of fire becomes a pillar of cloud, and what should have been for wealth becomes an occasion of falling.
"Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness." This is the Revisers’ rendering. Besides one or two smaller changes, they have made two important alterations of the A.V.
(1) They have substituted "every scripture" for "all scripture," without allowing the old rendering even a place in the margin.
(2) They have inserted the "is" (which must be supplied somewhere in the sentence) after instead of before "inspired by God"; thus making "inspired by God" an epithet of Scripture and not something stated respecting it. "Every scripture inspired by God is also profitable," instead of "is inspired of God and profitable": but they allow the latter rendering a place in the margin.
This treatment of the passage appears to be very satisfactory, so far as the second of these two points is concerned. Certainty is not attainable in either. Yet, as regards the second, the probabilities are greatly in favor of the Apostle’s meaning that "inspired scripture is also profitable," rather than "scripture is inspired and profitable." But with regard to the first point, it may be doubted whether the balance is so decidedly against the translation "all scripture" as to warrant its exclusion. No doubt the absence of the article in the Greek ( πασα γραφη and not πασα η γραφη) is against the old rendering; but it is by no means conclusive, as other instances both in the New Testament and in classical Greek prove. Nevertheless, there is the further fact that in the New Testament "the scripture" generally means a particular passage of Scripture. [Luke 4:21; John 19:24; John 19:28; John 19:36-37; Acts 8:32; Acts 8:35] When Scripture as a whole is meant, the word is commonly used in the plural, "the scriptures". [Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:24, John 5:39] In the passage before us the meaning is not seriously affected by the change. It matters little whether we say "the whole of scripture," or "every passage of scripture." "Every scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for discipline ( παιδεια) which is in righteousness": i.e. , is of use both for doctrinal and for practical purposes, for informing both faith and conduct. It is because it is "inspired by God," because God’s Spirit breathes through the whole of it, making every passage of it to be a portion of a living whole, that Scripture possesses this unique utility. And if the Apostle can say this of the Old Testament, much more may we affirm it of the New Testament. From the two together, everything that a Christian ought to believe, everything that a Christian ought to do, may be learned. But while this declaration of the Apostle assures us that there is no passage in Holy Writ, which, when properly handled, does not yield Divine instruction for the guidance of our minds, and hearts, and wills, yet it gives no encouragement to hard-and-fast theories as to the manner in which the Spirit of God operated upon the authors of the sacred writings. Inspiration is no mechanical process. It is altogether misleading to speak of it as Divine dictation, which would reduce inspired writers to mere machines. There are certain things which it clearly does not do.
1. While it governs the substance of what is written, it does not govern the language word by word. We have no reasons for believing in verbal inspiration, and have many reasons for not believing in it. For no one believes that copyists and printers are miraculously preserved from making verbal mistakes. Is it, then, reasonable to suppose that God would work a miracle to produce what He takes no care to preserve. Of the countless various readings, which are the words which are inspired?
1. Inspiration does not preserve the inspired writers from every kind of mistake. That it guards them from error in respect to matters of faith and morality, we may well believe; but whether it does more than this remains to be proved. On the other hand it can be proved that it does not preserve them from mistakes in grammar; for there is plenty of unquestionably bad grammar in the Bible. Look for instance at the Greek of Mark 6:8-9; Acts 15:22; Acts 19:34; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:16; Revelation 7:9; etc., etc. And it may be doubted whether inspiration preserves the inspired writer from all possibility of error as regards matters of fact, as to whether there were two men healed or only one; as to whether the healing took place as Christ entered the city or as he left it; as to whether the prophecy quoted comes from Jeremiah or Zechariah, and
2. the like. Can there be any reasonable doubt that St. Matthew has made a slip in writing "Zechariah the son of Barachiah" instead of "Zechariah the son of Jehoiada?" And is there any honest method of bringing St. Stephen’s speech into complete harmony with statements in the Old Testament respecting all the facts mentioned? Must we not suppose that there is error on one side or the other? If, as is quite certain, inspiration does not make a man a grammatical scholar, or give him a perfect literary style, ought we to conclude that it will make him a faultless historian or chronologer? A Divine Revelation through a series of inspired writers has been granted in order to save our souls. We have no right to assume that it has been granted in order to save us trouble. Those saving truths about God and our relations to Him, which we could never have discovered without a revelation, we may expect to find set forth without taint of error in the sacred writings. But facts of geology, or history, or physiology, which our own intelligence and industry can discover, we ought not to expect to find accurately set forth for us in the Bible: and we ought to require very full evidence before deciding that in such matters inspired writers may be regarded as infallible. St. Luke tells us in the Preface to his Gospel that he took great pains to obtain the best information. Need he have done so, if inspiration protected him from all possibility of mistake?
Inspiration does not override and overwhelm the inspired writer’s personal characteristics. There appears to be no such thing as an inspired style. The style of St. John is as different from that of St. Paul as the style of Bishop Butler is from that of Jeremy Taylor. Each inspired writer uses the language, and the illustrations, and the arguments that are natural and familiar to him. If he has an argumentative mind, he argues his points; if he has not, he states them without argument. If he has literary skill, he exhibits it; if he has none, inspiration does not give it to him. "No inspiration theory can stand for a moment which does not leave room for the personal agency and individual peculiarities of the sacred authors and the exercise of their natural faculties in writing" (Schaff, "Apostolic Christianity," p. 608).
What inspiration has not done in these various particulars is manifest to every one who studies the sacred writings. What it has done is scarcely less manifest, and is certainly much more generally recognized. It has produced writings which are absolutely without a parallel in the literature of the world. Even as regards literary merits they have few rivals. But it is not in their literary beauty that their unique character consists. It lies rather in their lofty spirituality; their inexhaustible capacities for instruction and consolation; their boundless adaptability to all ages and circumstances; above all, in their ceaseless power of satisfying the noblest cravings and aspirations of the human heart. Other writings are profitable for knowledge, for advancement, for amusement, for delight, for wealth. But these "make wise unto salvation." They produce that discipline which has its sphere in righteousness. They have power to instruct the ignorant, to convict the guilty, to reclaim the fallen, to school all in holiness; that all may be complete as men of God, "furnished completely unto every good work."