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ESSAY ON THE ABSTRACT IDEAS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
RELIGION and philosophy have often been contrasted as moving in different planes, in which they can never come into contact with each other. Yet there are many meeting-points at which either passes into the circle of the other. One of these meeting-points is language, which loses nothing of its original imperfection by being employed in the service of religion. Its plastic nature is an element of uncertainty in the interpretation of Scripture; its logical structure is a necessary limit on human faculties in the conception of truths above them; whatever growth it is capable of, must affect also the growth of our religious ideas; the analysis we are able to make of it, we must be able also to extend to the theological use of it. Religion cannot place itself above the instrument through which alone it speaks to man; our true wisdom is, therefore, to be aware of their interdependence.
One of the points in which theology and philosophy are brought into connexion by language, is their common usage of abstract words, and of what in the phraseology of some philosophers are termed ‘mixed modes’, or ideas not yet freed from associations of time or sense. Logicians speak of the abstract and concrete, and of the formation of our abstract ideas: Are the abstractions of Scripture the same in kind with those of philosophy? May we venture to analyse their growth, to ask after their origin, to compare their meaning in one age of the world and in another? The same words in different languages have not precisely the same meaning. May not this be the case also with abstract terms which have passed from the Old Testament into the New, which have come down to us from the times of the Apostles, hardened by controversy, worn by the use of two thousand years? These questions do not admit of a short and easy answer. Even to make them intelligible, we have to begin some way off, to enter on our inquiry as a speculation rather of logic than of theology, and hereafter to return to its bearing on the interpretation of Scripture.
It is remarked by a great metaphysician, that abstract ideas are, in one point of view, the highest and most philosophical of all our ideas, while in another they are the shallowest and most meagre. They have the advantage of clearness and definiteness; they enable us to conceive and, in a manner, to span the infinity of things; they arrange, as it were, in the frames of a window the many-coloured world of phenomena. And yet they are ‘mere’ abstractions removed from sense, removed from experience, and detached from the mind in which they arose. Their perfection consists, as their very name implies, in their idealism: that is, in their negative nature.
For example: the idea of ‘happiness’ has come down from the Greek philosophy. To us it is more entirely freed from etymological associations than it was to Aristotle, and further removed from any particular state of life, or, in other words, it is more of an abstraction. It is what everybody knows, but what nobody can tell. It is not pleasure, nor wealth, nor power, nor virtue, nor contemplation. Could we define it, we seem at first as if we should have found out the secret of the world. But our next thought is that we should only be defining a word, that it consists rather in a thousand undefinable things which, partly because mankind are not agreed about them, partly because they are too numerous to conceive under any single idea, are dropt by the instinct of language. It means what each person’s fancy or experience may lead him to connect with it; it is a vague conception to his own mind, which nevertheless may be used without vagueness as a middle term in conversing with others.
It is the uniformity in the use of such words that constitutes their true value. Like all other words, they represent in their origin things of sense, facts of experience. But they are no longer pictured by the sense, or tinged by the affections; they are beyond the circle of associations in which they arose. When we use the word happiness, no thought of chance now intrudes itself; when we use the word righteousness, no thought of law or courts; when the word virtue is used, the image no longer presents itself of manly strength or beauty.
The growth of abstract ideas is an after-growth of language itself, which may be compared to the growth of the mind when the body is already at its full stature. All language has been originally the reflection of a world of sense; the words which describe the faculties have once referred to the parts of the body; the name of God himself has been derived in most languages from the sun or the powers of nature. It is indeed impossible for us to say how far, under these earthly and sensual images, there lurked among the primitive peoples of mankind a latent consciousness of the spiritual and invisible; whether the thought or only the word was of the earth earthy. >From this garment of the truth it is impossible for us to separate the truth itself. In this form awhile it appears to grow; even the writers of the Old Testament, in its earlier portion, finding in the winds or the light of heaven the natural expression of the power or holiness of Jehovah. But in process of time another world of thought and expression seems to create itself. The words for courage, strength, beauty, and the like, begin to denote mental and moral qualities; things which were only spoken of as actions, become abstract ideas, the name of God loses all sensual and outward associations; until at the end of the first period of Greek philosophy, the world of abstractions, and the words by which they are expressed, have almost as much definiteness and preciseness of meaning as among ourselves.
This process of forming abstractions is ever going on—the mixed modes of one language are the pure ideas of another; indeed, the adoption of words from dead languages into English has, above all other causes, tended to increase the number of our simple ideas, because the associations of such words, being lost in the transfer, they are at once refined from all alloy of sense and experience. Different languages, or the same at different periods of their history, are at different stages of the process. We can imagine a language, such as language was, as far as the vestiges of it allow us to go back, in its first beginnings, in which every operation of the mind, every idea, every relation, was expressed by a sensible image; a language which we may describe as purely sensual and material, the words of which, like the first written characters, were mental pictures: we can imagine a language in a state which none has ever yet reached, in which the worlds of mind and matter are perfectly separated from each other, and no clog or taint of the one is allowed to enter into the other. But all languages which exist are in reality between these two extremes, and are passing from one to the other. The Greek of Homer is at a different stage from that of the Greek tragedians; the Greek of the early Ionic philosophers, at a different stage from that of Plato; so, though in a different way (for here there was no advancement), the Greek of Plato as compared with the Neo-Platonist philosophy. The same remark is applicable to the Old Testament, the earlier and later books of which may be, in a similar way, contrasted with each other; almost the whole of which (though here a new language also comes in) exhibits a marked difference from the Apocrypha. The structure of thought insensibly changes. This is the case with all languages which have a literature—they are ever becoming more and more abstract—modern languages, more than ancient; the later stages of either, more than the earlier. It by no means follows that as Greek, Latin, and English have words that correspond in a dictionary, they are real equivalents in meaning, because words, the same, perhaps, etymologically, may be used with different degrees of abstraction, which no accuracy or periphrasis of translation will suffice to express, belonging, as they do generally, to the great underlying differences of a whole language.
Another illustration of degrees of abstraction may be found in the language of poetry, or of common life, and the language of philosophy. Poetry, we know, will scarcely endure abstract terms, while they form the stock and staple of morals and metaphysics. They are the language of books, rather than of conversation. Theology, on the other hand, though its problems may seem akin to those of the moralist and metaphysician, yet tends to reject them in the same way that English tends to reject French words, or poetry to reject prose. He who in paraphrasing Scripture spoke of essence, matter, vice, crime, would be thought guilty of a want of taste; the reason of which is, that these abstract terms are not within the circle of our Scripture associations. They carry us into another age or country or school of thought—to the ear of the uneducated they have an unusual sound, while to the educated they appear to involve an anachronism or to be out of place. Vice, they say, is the moral, sin the theological term; nature and law are the proper words in a treatise on physiology, while the actions of which they are the imaginary causes would in a prayer or sermon be suitably ascribed to the Divine Being.
Our subject admits of another illustration from the language of the Fathers as compared with that of Scripture. Those who have observed the circumstance naturally ask why it is that Scriptural expressions when they reappear in the early patristic literature slightly change their signification? that a greater degree of personality is given to one word, more definiteness to another, while a third has been singled out to be the centre of a scheme of doctrine? The reason is, that use, and reflection, and controversy do not allow language to remain where it was. Time itself is the great innovator in the sense of words. No one supposes that the meaning of conscience or imagination exactly corresponds to the Latin ‘conscientia’ or ‘imaginatio’, Even within the limits of our own language the terms of the scholastic philosophy have acquired and lost a technical signification. And several changes have taken place in the language of creeds and articles, which, by their very attempt to define and systematize, have slightly though imperceptibly departed from the use of words in Scripture.
The principle of which all these instances are illustrations leads to important results in the interpretation of Scripture. It tends to show, that in using the same words with St. Paul we may not be using them in precisely the same sense. Nay, that the very exactness with which we apply them, the result of the definitions, oppositions, associations, of ages of controversy, is of itself a difference of meaning. The mere lapse of time tends to make the similarity deceitful. For if the language of Scripture (to use an expression which will have been made intelligible by the preceding remarks) be really at a different stage of abstraction, great differences in the use of language will occur, such as in each particular word escape and perplex us, and yet, on a survey of the whole, are palpable and evident.
A well-known difficulty in the interpretation of the Epistles is the seemingly uncertain use of δικαιοσύνη, ἀλήθεια, ἀγάπη, πίστις, δόξα, &c., words apparently the most simple, and yet taking sometimes in the same passage different shades and colours of meaning. Sometimes they are attributes of God, in other passages qualities in man; here realities, there mere ideas, sometimes active, sometimes passive. Some of them, as ἁμαρτία, πίστις, have a sort of personality assigned to them, while others, as πνεῦμα, with which we associate the idea of a person, seem to lose their personality. They are used with genitive cases after them, which we are compelled to explain in various senses. In the technical language of German philosophy, they are objective and subjective at once. For example: in the first chapter of the Romans, ver. 17, it is asked by commentators, ‘Whether the righteousness of God, which is revealed in the Gospel,’ is the original righteousness of God from the beginning, or the righteousness which He imparts to man, the righteousness of God in Himself or in man. So again, in chap. v, ver. 5, it is doubted whether the words ὅτι ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐκκέχυται ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις, refer to the love of God in man, or the love of God to man. So πνεῦμα θεοῦ wavers in meaning between a separate existence, or the spirit of God, as we should say the ‘mind of man’, and the manifestation of that spirit in the soul of the believer. Similar apparent ambiguities occur in such expressions as πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὑπομουὴ Χριστοῦ, ἀλήθεια θεοῦ, δόξα θεοῦ, σοφία θεοῦ, and several others.
A difficulty akin to this arises from the apparently numerous senses in which another class of words, such as νόμος, ζωή, θάνατος, are used in the Epistles of St. Paul. That νόμος should sometimes signify the law of Moses, at other times the law of the conscience, and that it should be often uncertain whether ζωή referred to a life spiritual or natural, is inconceivable, if these words had had the same precise and defined sense that the corresponding English words have amongst ourselves. The class of expressions before mentioned seems to widen and extend in meaning as they are brought into contact with God and the human soul, or transferred from things earthly and temporal to things heavenly and spiritual. The subtle transformation which these latter words undergo, may be best described as a metaphorical or analogous use of them: not, to take a single instance, that the meaning of the word ‘law’ is so widened as to include all ‘law’, but that the law of Moses becomes the figure or type of the law written on the heart, or of the law of sin and death, and ζωή, the natural life, the figure of the spiritual. Each word is a reflector of many thoughts, and we pass, from one reflection of it to another in successive verses.
That such verbal difficulties occur much more often in Scripture than in any other book, will be generally admitted. In Plato and Aristotle, for example, they can be hardly said to exist at all. What they meant by εἶδος or οὐσία is hard to conceive, but their use of the words does not waver in successive sentences. The language of the Greek philosophy is, on the whole, precise and definite. A much nearer parallel to what may be termed the infinity of Scripture is to be found in the Jewish Alexandrian writings. There is the same transition from the personal to the impersonal, the same figurative use of language, the same tendency to realize and speak of all things in reference to God and the human soul. The mind existed prior to the ideas, which are therefore conceived of as its qualities or attributes, and naturally coalesced with it in the Alexandrian phraseology.
The difficulty of which we have been speaking, when considered in its whole extent, is its own solution. It does but force upon us the fact, that the use of language and the mode of thought are different in the writings of the Apostle from what they are amongst ourselves. It is the difficulty of a person who should set himself to explain the structure of a language which he did not know, by one which he did, and at last, in despair, begin to learn the new idiom. Or the difficulty that a person would have in under standing poetry, who imagined it to be prose. It is the difficulty that Aristotle or Cicero found in under standing the philosophers that were before them. They were familiar with the meaning of the words used by them, but not with the mode of thought. Logic itself had increased the difficulty to them of understanding the times before logic.
This is our own difficulty in the interpretation of Scripture. Our use of language is more definite, our abstractions more abstract, our structure more regular and logical. But the moment we perceive and allow for this difference in the use of language in Scripture and among ourselves, the difficulty vanishes. We conceive ideas in a process of formation, falling from inspired lips, growing in the minds of men. We throw ourselves into the world of ‘mixed modes’, and seek to recall the associations which the technical terms of theology no longer suggest. We observe what may be termed the difference of level in our own ideas and those of the first Christians, without disturbing the meaning of one word in relation to another.
The difficulty while it is increased, is also explained by the personifying character of the age. Ideas in the New Testament are relative to the mind of God or man, in which they seem naturally to inhere so as scarcely, in the usage of language, to have an independent existence. There is ever the tendency to speak of good and virtue and righteousness as in separable from the Divine nature, while in evil of every sort a reflection of conscience seems to be included. The words δικαιοσύνη, ἀλήθεια, ἀγάπη, are not merely equivalent to righteousness, truth, love, but connect imperceptibly with ‘the Author and Father of lights’. There is no other righteousness or truth but that of God, just as there is no sin without the consciousness of sin in man. Consequently, the two thoughts coalesce in one, and what are to us ideas, which we can imagine existing even without God, are to the Israelite attributes of God Himself. Still, in our ‘mixed modes’ we must make a further step; for as these ideas cannot be separated from God, so neither can they be conceived of, except as revealed in the Gospel, and working in the heart of man. Man who is righteous has no righteousness of his own, his righteousness is the righteousness of God in him. Hence, when considering the righteousness of God, we must go on to conceive of it as the revelation of His righteousness, without which it would be unknown and unmeaning to us. The abstract must become concrete, and must involve at once the attribute of God and the quality in man. This ‘concrete’ notion of the word righteousness is different from the abstract one with which we are familiar. Righteousness is the righteousness of God; it is also the communion of that righteousness with man. It is used almost with the same double meaning as we attribute to the will of God, which we speak of actively, as intending, doing, and passively, as done, fulfilled by ourselves.
A part of this embarrassment in the interpretation of Scripture arises out of the unconscious influence of English words and ideas on our minds, in translating from Hellenistic Greek. The difficulty is still more apparent, when the attempt is made to render the Scriptures into a language which has not been framed or moulded on Christianity. It is a curious question, the consideration of which is not without practical use, how far the nicer shades either of Scriptural expression or of later theology are capable of being made intelligible in the languages of India or China.
Yet, on the other hand, it must be remembered, that neither this nor any of the other peculiarities here spoken of, is a mere form of speech, but enters deeply into the nature of the Gospel. For the Gospel has necessarily its mixed modes, not merely because it is preached to the poor, and therefore adopts the expressions of ordinary life; nor because its language is incrusted with the phraseology of the Alexandrian writers; but because its subject is mixed, and, as it were, intermediate between God and man. Natural theology speaks clearly, but it is of God only; moral philosophy speaks clearly, but it is of man only: but the Gospel is, as it were, the communion of God and man, and its ideas are in a state of transition or oscillation, having two aspects towards God and towards man, which it is hard to keep in view at once. Thus, to quote once more the example just given, the righteousness of God is an idea not difficult to us to comprehend, human justice and goodness are also intelligible; but to conceive justice or righteousness as passing from heaven to earth, from God to man, actu et potentiâ at once, as a sort of life, or stream, or motion, is perplexing. And yet this notion of the communion of the righteousness of God being what constitutes righteousness, is of the very essence of the Gospel. It was what the Apostle and the first believers meant and felt, and what, if we could get the simple unlettered Christian, receiving the Gospel as a little child, to describe to us his feelings, he would describe.
Scripture language may thus be truly said to belong to an intermediate world, different at once both from the visible and invisible world, yet partaking of the nature of both. It does not represent the things that the eye sees merely, nor the things that are within the veil of which those are the images, but rather the world that is in our hearts; the things that we feel, but nobody can express in words. His body is the communion of His body; His spirit is the communion of His spirit; the love of God is ‘loving as we are loved’; the knowledge of God is ‘knowing as we are known’; the righteousness of faith is Divine as well as human. Hence language seems to burst its bounds in the attempt to express the different aspects of these truths, and from its very inadequacy wavers and becomes uncertain in its meaning. The more intensely we feel and believe, and the less we are able to define our feelings, the more shall we appear to use words at random; employing some times one mode of expression, sometimes another; passing from one thought to another, by slender threads of association; ‘going off upon a word,’ as it has been called; because in our own minds all is connected, and, as it were, fulfilled with itself, and from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. To understand the language of St. Paul it is necessary, not only to compare the uses of words with one another, or to be versed in Alexandrian modes of thought, but to lead the life of St. Paul, to have the mind of St. Paul, to be one with Christ, to be dead to sin. Otherwise the world within becomes unmeaning to us. The inversion of all human things of which he speaks, is attributed to the manner of his time, or the peculiarity of his individual character; and at the very moment when we seem to have attained most accurately the Apostle’s meaning, it vanishes away like a shadow.
No human eye can pierce the cloud which overhangs another life; no faculty of man can ‘by understanding find out’ or express in words the Divine nature. Yet it does not follow that our ideas of spiritual things are wholly indefinite. There are many symbols and images of them in the world without and below. There is a communion of thoughts, feelings, and affections, even on earth, quite sufficient to be an image of the communion with God and Christ, of which the Epistles speak to us. There are emotions, and transitions, and passings out of ourselves, and states of undefined consciousness, which language is equally unable to express as it is to describe justification, or the work of grace, or the relation of the believer to his Lord. All these are rather intimated than described or defined by words. The sigh of sorrow, the cry of joy or despair, are but inarticulate sounds, yet expressive, beyond the power of writing, or speech. There are many such ‘still small voices’ of warning or of consolation in Scripture, beyond the power of philosophy to analyse, yet full of meaning to him who catches them aright. The life and force of such expressions do not depend on the clearness with which they state a logical proposition, or the vividness with which they picture to the imagination a spiritual world. They gain for themselves a truth in the individual soul. Even logic itself affords negative helps to the feebleness of man in the conception of things above him. It limits us by our own faculties; it guards us against identifying the images of things unseen with the ‘very things themselves’; it bars remote inferences about terms which are really metaphorical. Lastly, it helps us to define by op position. Though we do not know what spirit is, we know what body is, and we conceive of spirit as what body is not. ‘There is a spiritual body, and there is a natural body.’ We imagine it at once both like and unlike. We do not know what heaven, or the glory of God, or His wisdom, is; but we imagine them unlike this world, or the wisdom of this world, or the glory of the princes of this world, and yet, in a certain way, like them, imaged and symbolized by what we see around us. We do not know what eternity is, except as the negative of time; but believing in its real existence, in a way beyond our faculties to comprehend, we do not confine it within the limits of past, present, or future. We are unable to reconcile the power of God and the freedom of man, or the contrast of this world and another, or even the opposite feelings of our own minds about the truths of religion. But we can describe them as the Apostle has done, in a paradox (2 Cor. iv. 12; vi. 8-10).
There is yet a further way in which the ideas of Scripture may be defined, that is, by use. It has been already observed that the progress of language is from the concrete to the abstract. Not the least striking instance of this is the language of theology. Embodied in creeds, it gradually becomes developed and precise. The words are no longer living creatures with hands and feet’, as it were, feeling after the hearts of men; but they have one distinct, unchanging meaning. When we speak of justification or truth, no question arises whether by this is meant the attribute of God, or the quality in man. Time and usage have sufficiently circumscribed the diversities of their signification. This is not to be regarded as a misfortune to Scriptural truth, but as natural and necessary. Part of what is lost in power and life is regained in certainty and definiteness. The usage of language itself would forbid us, in a discourse or sermon, to give as many senses to the word ‘law’ as are attributed to it by St. Paul. Only in the interpretation of Scripture, if we would feel as St. Paul felt, or think as he thought, it is necessary to go back to that age before creeds, in which the water of life was still a running stream.
The course of speculation which has been adopted in this essay, may seem to introduce into Scripture an element of uncertainty. It may seem to cloud truth with metaphysics, and rob the poor and uneducated of the simplicity of the Gospel. But perhaps this is not so. Whether it be the case that such speculations introduce an element of uncertainty or difficulty into Scripture or not, they introduce a new element of truth. For without the consideration of such questions as that of which a brief sketch has been here attempted, there is no basis for Scriptural interpretation. We are ever liable to draw the meaning of words this way or that, according to the theological system of which we are the advocates; to fall under the slavery of an illogical logic, which first narrows the mind by definitions, and then wearies it with far-fetched inferences. Metaphysics must enter into the interpretation of Scripture, not for the sake of intruding upon it a new set of words or ideas, but with the view of getting rid of meta physics and restoring to Scripture its natural sense.
But the Gospel is still preached to the poor as before, in the same sacred yet familiar language. They could not understand questions of grammar before; they do not understand modes of thought now. It is the peculiar nature of our religious ideas that we are able to apply them, and to receive comfort from them, without being able to analyse or explain them. All the metaphysical and logical speculations in the world will not rob the poor, the sick, or the dying of the truths of the Gospel. Yet the subject which we have been considering is not without a practical result. It warns us to restore the Gospel to its simplicity, to turn from the letter to the spirit, to withdraw from the number of the essentials of Christianity points almost too subtle for the naked eye, which depend on modes of thought or Alexandrian usages, to require no more of preciseness or definition than is necessary to give form and substance to our teaching. Not only the feebleness of human faculties, but the imperfection of language itself, will often make silence our truest wisdom. The saying of Scaliger, taken not seriously but in irony, is full of meaning: ‘Many a man has missed of his salvation from ignorance of grammar.’
To the poor and uneducated, at times to all, no better advice can be given for the understanding of Scripture than to read the Bible humbly with prayer. The critical and metaphysical student requires an other sort of rule for which this can never be made a substitute. His duty is to throw himself back into the times, the modes of thought, the language of the Apostolic age. He must pass from the abstract to the concrete, from the ideal and intellectual to the spiritual, from later statements of faith or doctrine to the words of inspiration which fell from the lips of the first believers. He must seek to conceive the religion of Christ in its relation to the religions of other ages and distant countries, to the philosophy of our own or other times; and if in this effort his mind seems to fail or waver, he must win back in life and practice the hold on the truths of the Gospel which he is beginning to lose in the mazes of speculation.
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