New Testament Interpretation

My dear brother, after a protracted course of study, and after some preliminary work in which you have tested your strength, you have been honored by the call of our oldest Theological Seminary to be one of its corps of instructors, and by the ordination of this church and council to be a recognized minister of Jesus Christ. Between your election as teacher, and your setting apart as minister, there is a very natural connection. The work you are to do in expounding the New Testament is in itself a preaching of the gospel, and ordination to that work, after careful examination by the representatives of the churches, is by just so much the more proper and important, as the teaching of the teachers is a more responsible and difficult service than the preaching of the Gospel to an ordinary congregation. We need guarantees that the man intrusted with such responsibilities knows the truth which he proposes to teach, believes in its divine authority, has some sense of a call of God to interpret it, and sorco assurance of the aid of the Holy Spirit in his work. With regard to all of these matters, this afternoon's examination has laid to rest all doubts in the mind of either church or council, and we have proceeded to publish to the world our vote setting you apart to the gospel ministry, with an unusual conviction that in so doing we are only recognizing and ratifying what God has done before us. I congratulate you upon the new light that is thus thrown upon your own path and your own duty; upon the practical settlement of all questions with regard to your vocation and place of labor; and upon the manifest wisdom of God that has guided you, when blind, by a way that you knew not, and has led you at length to this opportunity of exceeding usefulness and of permanent influence upon the ministry and the churches of Jesus Christ.

The task has been assigned me, by the council, of giving to you a charge with regard to the duties, the methods, and the spirit, of your new work. I take pleasure in doing this, because I have known you so well, and have such confidence that you will be faithful. But the charge must be a peculiar charge. It will not be the ordinary charge to one who is to be pastor of a church, for you are not called to be a pastor. It will not deal with the merely common-place and superficial duties of your vocation, for these are patent to you already. It will not be dogmatic or assertatory, for no independent mind can be benefited by a substitution of the oracles of man for the oracles of God. I shall only attempt, in the brief time allotted me, to mention certain modern requisites to success in the department of teaching

* A Charge to the Candidate, at the Ordination of Mr. Ernest D. Burton, Acting Professor-elect in Newton Theological Institution; Rochester, Juno 22,1883.

to which you are to devote yourself — the department of New Testament Language and Interpretation.

My first suggestion is, that yon teach thoroughly. I do not now speak of mere accuracy in the matter of Greek forms, or of precise methods of statement in explaining them. I use the word thorough in its etymological sense. That is thorough, which goes through a subject — goes to the bottom of it. Modern scholarship is instinct with this spirit. It cannot tolerate a mere half-truth, when the whole truth is attainable. It cannot tolerate dogmatism upon a narrow basis of investigation. You will find students who will expect of you thorough work, and who will give you their confidence, only as you show that you have done thorough work before forming your opinions. There are certain questions of grammar, like the telic use of iva or the meaning of the aorist; questions of chronology, like the date of the Savior's birth, or the definition of the feast in John's fifth chapter; questions as to the origin and date of the gospels; questions as to relative value of manuscript authorities ; and these are questions upon which weighty results hang, and yet questions difficult to settle. The teacher of New Testament Greek must have an opinion upon them —an opinion of his own. But his opinion will be of little value to himself, or to his classes, unless it has been formed by prolonged and original investigation. On some of these questions, at least, he must show that he has formed such opinions, and has formed them in a safe way. This cannot be done all at once. No one has a right to expect a new teacher to have personally settled, at the very start, all the difficult questions of exegesis and theology. He must make his strong points, teach with emphasis what he knows, and for the rest refer to text-books written by others, or induce the student to investigate for himself. But though time is required, and long study goes to the solution of the more important problems, it is still possible for the teacher, year by year, to master one difficulty after another, and at last to give his teaching something like completeness and organic unity. As a help to this, let me urge you always, and from the very beginning, to have on your hands and before your eyes some one point of investigation of fundamental importance, upon which you are turning your most concentrated and continuous thought, with a view to putting the results into compact and written form. Nothing is more valuable to the teacher than to hold himself to the not infrequent, and somewhat regular, publication of articles upon special topics in his department. The prospect of a wider audience than that of the lecture-room, and of being judged by his peers, will stimulate him to harder work than he would otherwise be apt to do. Thoroughness and depth are not so easy as superficiality. But they are essential to good teaching, and the true teacher will not content himself without knowing more, about certain vital points of his subject, than is known by any other man in the world.

But there is a second characteristic of good teaching, that I would have you cultivate. I mean breadth It is as important as depth. It is quite possible for the expounder of Scripture to be so minute and microscopic, in his examination of a passage, that all sense of its general scope and power vanishes from the mind of the pupil. While instances of absolutely exhaustive investigation are given, and given in sufficient number to teach the student a method and to put within him an impulse, the time given to exegetical study in our Seminaries is all too brief to permit the teacher to go over any large portion of Scripture in this way. Reading considerable sections of the New Testament, whole Gospels and whole Epistles, at a rate which the minute exegete would regard as very rapid, and reading them mainly with a view to their broad general sweep of meaning, is just as important as the careful and exhaustive study of a few important passages. You are well aware that English exegesis has passed through several stages, such as the homiletical stage represented by Matthew Henry, the grammatical stage represented by Ellicott, and the historical stage represented by Lightfoot. I think it cannot be doubted that Lightfoot's Commentaries mark a great advance in the characteristic I am commending, namely, that of breadth. More attention is paid to introduction, to analysis of the portion of Scripture under treatment, to context, to the historical setting. Matthew Arnold's dictum, that the Scriptures must be interpreted as literature, has a certain truth in it, and a truth that must not be neglected. But how plain it is, that this broad treatment of the New Testament writings is safe and valuable only in the hands of a broad man. Much material is accessible to him in the voluminous literature of his subject both in English and in German, and of the German instruments of investigation he cannot long afford to be ignorant. A mind of philosophical tendencies, that by a sort of necessity reduces scattered facts to order aud expresses results in a lucid and articulate way — such a mind is one of the greatest elements of success in thin broad sort of teaching, and such a mind we credit you with possessing. But there are many other helps to breadth. You must give yourself to a wide range of reading. All history, all science, all master-pieces of human genins in painting and sculpture, in epic and tragic poetry, in eloquence and state-craft and invention, can help the interpretation of the word of God, — for these things help us to know man, man's thoughts, man's language, man's ways,—and, as man was made in the image of God, we may find in these things, as in a concave mirror, a faint and miniature reflection of the divine. But this is not enough. The mere book-worm cannot be a good interpreter. The teacher of the New Testament must be a full man, with social sympathies, in with the life of his times, knowing something by personal observation of its currents of opinion, mixing with cultivated people and getting stimulus from their talk, interesting himself, and so far as possible participating, in the political and the denominational movements of the day in which he lives. All this I say to you with the more emphasis, from the fact that you go to your work with no preliminary experience in the pastoral office aud no great practice in preaching. Avail yourself of all opportunities to preach which you can use consistently with your main duty of teaching. Mingle with men. It will not hurt your work, but further it. It will give you illustrations for your class-room. It will put life and reality into your expositions of Paul and John.

I exhort you, in the third place, to boldness. Natural modesty is an admirable thing, — but when it becomes self depreciation and timidity it may hinder much good. I would have yon bold in your thinking. Biblical interpreters have for ages followed one another like a flock of sheep. No one conversunt with the commentaries, has failed to note how certain early and sometimes perverse opinions have repeated themselves, often in similar forms of words, from generation to generation. It is a sort of visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, which should be a warning to us. There is such a thing as the right of private judgment, and most men recognize it. They do not so often recognize the duty of private judgment. It is particularly necessary that a teacher of exegesis should form in his pupils the habit of investigating and of deciding the meaning of the word of God for themselves. To stereotype certain traditional interpretations, and to transmit to posterity a number of lifeless copies of them, might have seemed a worthy work to the mediaeval scholastic, but it ought not to seem a worthy work to us. But if the teacher is to make his pupils independent, he must be independent himself. He must come to the conclusion, with all proper humility, that with the help of the Holy Spirit, he has a right to his own opinion, and that, in a matter of interpretation, his opinion is as good as anybody's— at any rate is the only opinion which he can safely utter and act upon. It is a great epoch in one's history — and it is often marked by great struggle and prostration before God — when a teacher resolves that, come what will, he will follow the light he has, and will stand for what he thinks to be the truth. Then only, he begins to be a living force in the world of thought. Then only, his real powers begin to manifest themselves. If Christian teachers had always refused to say things, simply because others had said them, and had set themselves to publish the truth of Scripture as God made it known to them, the whole circle of theological sciences would have been lifted to a higher plane than that upon which they stand to-day,

— and I venture to say that no seminary of our denomination would deprive its teachers of this independence. It is assumed that your general convictions are in harmony with those of the denomination and of the Seminary where you give instruction, and that, when they cease to be so, you will as an honest man resign your place. But this binds you to no narrow following of other men. You are to do independent work, as a teacher of God's word. And, if your conclusions should in any given case differ from those of your colleagues, you have the right to express your view, so long as you treat the opposing view with fairness and respect. It is not your main business to teach dogmatic theology,—but your department has intimate relations to dogmatic theology, and when you are asked in what direction any particular passage of Paul's epistles seems to tend, you have a right to state what are to your own mind its dogmatic implications. General uniformity of view in the Faculty of a Theological Seminary is indispensable. Division and party-spirit are fatal to its general influence. But absolute uniformity of thinking is impossible among differently constituted men; and, if it were possible, it would be a sure sign of intellectual stagnation, aud of a mechanical sort of faith. Before your colleagues, then, as before your pupils, be yourself, and none other. Have a holy trust under God in your own powers,

— you are set as a witness for God and you have the promise of his Spirit. Resolve nobly that you will strike out your own course. Let no man call you master. Let no man despise your youth. Find the lines upon which you can best lay out your strength. In those lines do your own thinking. And when you have by original and prayerful investigation reached results, utter them with energy of voice and manner; defend them against all comers; make your classes feel the mass and force of your own conviction; stir them up by the vividness and insistence of your faith ; make them fight or surrender. A teacher who holds to nothing with earnestness may seem to succeed in his teaching,—but his success is due to the subject and not to the man. In the hands of a real teacher, even a subject of inferior moment seems dignified and important. My God help you, by the boldness of your teaching, to make the New Testament seem sublime.

But this leads me to the last of my suggestions. It is this: Be reverent. There is a fairy story that tells of a prince led to door after door of an enchanted castle, and finding inscribed over every door the words: "Be bold!" Animated by the apparent invitation, he tries each door successively, and it opens to his touch. But he comes at last to a door over which is written: "Be not too bold !" and to open that door is peril and death. So there is a limit to all human wisdom and power — a limit to the knowledge possible to man. There is a point where boldness should cease, even though it be the holy boldness of the saints, and we should fall on our faces before the majesty and authority of divine revelation. You will bear me witness, that all thought of a human reason that is the ultimate criterion or source of truth is foreign and abhorrent to me. In all that I have said with regard to thoroughness, breadth, boldness, as characteristics of true teaching in the department of theology which you are to cultivate, I have taken it for granted that you recognize the Bible as the word of God, inspired in every part, the only and infallible rule of faith and practice. Without such a sheet anchor as this faith in God's word furnishes, the thoroughness, breadth and boldness which I have inculcated would only be wind and steam and current to drive your vessel upon the rocks. And though I know that your faith is sound, let me formally and solemnly remind you that only absolute confidence in that word of God, and absorbing love for it as the eternal truth that is able to make us wise unto salvation, could justify you for a single moment in entering upon the great work to which you are called. Let me remind you that the man who interprets the Scriptures, and who studies them in a thorough way, has his peculiar dangers and temptations. He becomes acquainted with subtle objections and difficulties of which the ordinary Christian knows nothing. There are sprung upon him at times powerful and almost overwhelming assaults of scepticism. And often he can have no human helper—he must meet these attacks alone. At such times, if he be a merely professed, or a weak or sluggish, Christian, his faith, such as it is, may be undermined, honey-combed, annihilated. But if he be a strong Christian, fall of love for God and for his word, his soul will be stirred within him; the very ark of God's covenant will seem to be attacked; he will be led to new discoveries of its impregnable defenses; the result will be only new arguments for the Bible, and a more solid conviction of its everlasting truth. How tremendous are the interests at stake, when a teacher of teachers wavers in his faith and propagates his unbelief to others,— each student whom he instructs communicating the evil spirit to a thousand others, and they to other thousands, through the long succession of the years! To break one of Christ's least commandments and to teach men so, is to make ourselves the least in the kingdom of heaven. Where shall they be found, who seek to undermine the foundations of the kingdom of God on earth, by destroying the faith of God's elect?

My brother, I know that you realize your responsibility, and that you do not take to yourself this office of teaching the future ministers of Christ's churches. God has put it upon you, and I gladly commend you to him who qualifies every servant of his for his work. The only thing that can carry you through the arduous task before you, is the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul asked: "Who is sufficient for these things?" But he answered his own question: "Truly our sufficiency is from God, who hath made us able ministers of the New Testament." Such an able minister and teacher of the New Testament, may God make you to be! I pray that he will give you — I believe that he will give you — great joy and success in your work, and that he will make you, according to the measure of your powers, a means of enlarging the circle of Christian knowledge, of fitting his ministers for their sacred work, of drawing the church nearer to the heart of Christ, and of hastening the trinmph of his kingdom in the world.

"And for the rest, in weariness,
In disappointment and distress,
When strength decays and hope grows dim,
We ever may recur to him

Who has the golden oil divine
Wherewith to feed our failing urns,—
Who watches every lamp that burns

Before his sacred shrine."