A Concise Introduction to the Study of the Holy Scriptures by James McKnight

Dr. James MacKnight (1721-1799) was a pastor in Scotland whose works, including a Harmony of the Gospels, Truth of the Gospel History, and New Translation of the Apostolocial Epistles, with a Commentary and Notes, went through numerous editions. The following was found in an 1833 edition of the English Version of the Polyglott Bible.

A

CONCISE INTRODUCTION 

TO THE

STUDY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES,

by James MacKnight

      The scriptures of the Old and New Testament claim to be a perfect and authoritative rule of faith and practice; and to be such a rule, because they are the declarations of the will of the Creator and Moral Governor of the world. The validity of these claims, then, cannot but be an interesting and important subject of investigation; --it must be an important inquiry to which to furnish a satisfactory answer. Are the writings contained in the Bible really a revelation from God? Before we attempt to furnish such an answer, there are some previous questions which need to be disposed of; for example, Is a Revelation from Heaven possible? Is it likely that such a revelation would be afforded to his creatures, by the Creator? Is there any necessity for such a communication from God to man? Then, supposing these questions to be answered affirmatively, the next will be a question of fact, Whether such Revelation has been indeed made to man? When this question shall be settled affirmatively, another will arise in the mind of the mere English Reader; Whether his Bible, the English translation, may be relied on as the word of God? It will be our object in this Introduction, to reply to these several inquiries; and to endeavor to prove the affirmative of them, viz. That a Revelation of the Divine will is possible; --That it is highly probable that such a Revelation is necessary; --That such a Revelation has been given; --and that our English translation, in what is called the authorized version, contains the imparted Revelation.

 CHAPTER I.

 A Revelation of the Divine will is possible.

      Any person who believes in the existence of a God, possessing the attributes usually ascribed to him in Christian countries, and particularly Omnipotence, must at once admit the He can, if he see fit, make a communication of his will to man: for Omnipotence is the power of doing whatever does not imply a contradiction; and no contradiction is involved in the supposition of such a communication from God to man. He can communicate other knowledge than men have the power to acquire in the ordinary modes of intercourse with each other; and also can impart, in a manner different from that in which men usually obtain it, knowledge, which is attainable by ordinary means. He can preserve those to whom he makes his communications, from those errors into which they would, without such special assistance, be liable to fall; and he can render them capable of exertions in the apprehension and expression of truth, to which their unaided powers are altogether inadequate. Now all that is claimed for the inspired writers, is, That they make known truths the knowledge of which cannot be obtained the ordinary way; --that they were sometimes, in an extraordinary way, instructed in things, the knowledge of which is attainable by common means; --that they were, by special divine superintendence, preserved from error; --that their powers were, sometimes, specially enlarged and elevated; and that they were thus, in the ordinary exercise of their faculties, operating in an elevated degree, capable of efforts to which, under ordinary circumstances, they were not equal. All therefore which is claimed for them is conceded as possible, by him who admits the existence of an Almighty Governor of the Universe, and with others we have, here, no argument.

     Moreover, An Almighty being is able so to communicate his will to his rational creatures, as to make it certain to them, that it is He who converses with them. Can it be that men have the means of intercourse with each other, and also the means of knowing, certainly, who it is with whom they hold this converse; and yet, that the Almighty is without the power of convincing his servants that it is He who converses with them? Is his power circumscribed within limits narrower than theirs? If not, it is possible for him to accredit his communications to those to who he originally makes them; and to deny this, and admit Omnipotence in God, is a glaring contradiction.

CHAPTER II.

A Revelation of the Divine will is probable. 

     Every enlightened Deist is ready to admit the Divine Being to be possessed of infinite wisdom. He admits also that this All-wise Being has created, and placed man upon the earth. Now such a Being would not call man into existence, and place him on the stage, without a purpose which he designed to accomplish by so doing. Nor would he place man upon earth in any other circumstances, than those best calculated to secure the end he proposed in man’s creation and location here; for infinite wisdom must choose the best means to accomplish its purposes. Now is it more probable that while our Creator designed us to accomplish his will, he should leave us in ignorance of that will, or that he should make to us a communication of it? Every man’s reason and common sense at once answers this question, that the communication of a revelation is a more probable event then the withholding of it.

     Again, The Deist admits, that God is a being of equal justice, and boundless benevolence; and, that man is the subject of God’s moral government, and accountable to his Maker for his actions. Now, if man be accountable for his actions, they must be examined by some standard; that standard is the rule of actions, -the law of conduct. But a law is an exhibition of the will of the law-giver; and, such an exhibition, from man to God, is a revelation. Now is it more probable, that God will call men to account for their actions, as corresponding, or disagreeing with his will, when he never imparted to them that will; or that as they are accountable, he will furnish to them a rule of conduct, and a standard of duty? Which course would most nearly accord with even-handed justice, and boundless benevolence? Benevolence desires the good of its object; which, then, is most likely to promote men’s good, and their happiness; the destitution of that rule, by observing which happiness may be secured? or, the possession of it? If the possession of it, then is it probable, that under the government of an infinitely benevolent being, a Revelation would be imparted.

     Again, What we actually witness and experience of the benevolence of God, would render it probable, that he would afford to man a revelation of his will. We see the world everywhere furnished with remedies for the diseases to which mankind are liable. It is God who has thus produced, in abundance, the means of alleviating natural evil; and his benevolence appears in these provisions. Now moral evil exists, as the Deist will readily admit, and its ravages are committed on the more noble part of man’s nature, especially, -his soul. Is it probable, that for the evils suffered by our inferior part, our Creator should make such varied and abundant provision; while, yet, for the nobler, and ever enduring spirit, under its far more serious sufferings, no remedy should be provided? Is it probable, that for the diseases of the body, which must soon, at all events, drop into the grave, remedies should be furnished; while, yet, for the deeper maladies of the deathless spirit, (e.g. ignorance of God, the chief good, -and distaste to his service, the highest felicity) the whole range of this lower world should contain no intimations of a healing balm? Whoever admits a God, sufficiently benevolent to regard the miseries of his creatures, and sufficiently wise, to proportion his regard to the nature and magnitude of these miseries, must admit, that there is a greater probability that a revelation should be imparted, than that it should be withheld.

CHAPTER III

A Revelation of the Divine Will is necessary.

     The truth of this position may be shown, from various considerations.

1.       From the moral state of the ancient Heathens. On this subject we have testimonies in abundance, and the difficulty lies only in selection. Sacred writers, considered merely as historians, may be properly introduced here as witnesses. On religious and moral subjects, these writers declare the heathen to have become “vain in their imaginations” or “reasonings,” and that, “their foolish heart was darkened:” they were “given over to vile affections, and to work” or practice “all uncleanness with greediness:” – that being “without Christ” they were “without hope and without a God” deserving of the name or worship of one.

The moral state of the ancient heathen may be learned also, and the testimony of the sacred writers, respecting them, confirmed by that of heathen writers themselves. Crimes, the most flagitious, were countenanced both by the arguments and example, of their moralists and Philosophers. Plato taught the expediency, and the lawfulness of infanticide by exposure; and Aristotle, of procuring abortion. Lycurgus, a man whom Plutarch has eulogized, as a perfectly wise, or good man, allowed the exposure, or murder of weak and imperfectly formed children in his republic, as also of theft; for which itself no punishment was inflicted, but only for the want of adroitness in the practice of it. The public baths of Sparta, also, were for the indiscriminate use of both sexes, and both were compelled to bathe together; and this model of perfection, Lycurgus, ordered, that females, as well as males, should appear naked in the public exercises, and in that state, should dance with them at solemn festivals and sacrifices. The task were easy to produce, from heathen writers, evidence of the most revolting and flagitious wickedness, in the practice of the communities of those times; but we must not pollute the pages with the details. Such persons, as are desirous of perusing the sad particulars of their moral degradation and pollution, are referred to the Biblical Repository, Vol.2. p. 441. et. seq. Enough has here been said, to evince the necessity of a Revelation from the moral state of the heathen generally; for, laws tolerating such enormities, and far less enjoining them, could not have been enacted by legislators, even the most abandoned, had not public sentiment accorded with them; and, in a measure, invited their enactment. But, lest it should be supposed that this was the morality of merely the common people, the profanum vulgus, and that the enlightened and refined among the ancient heathen, were persons of correct and pure morals, we must proceed another step in our argument, and prove our position.

2.       From the moral state of the refined and educated among the heathen; -the practices of their Philosophers, Legislators, and Poets. We must, of necessity, be brief, in the notices we introduce, and also in the catalogue of names we mention; we shall, therefore, make our selection from among the least exceptionable of their distinguished men; from those whom classical scholars universally admire, and whom Deists are the readiest to quote, in their endeavors to show the sufficiency of reason and the needlessness of a revelation in matters of morals and religion.

     SOCRATES, the first among the Greeks who made morality the proper and only subject of his philosophy, and introduced it into common life, recommended divination, and was addicted to incontinence and fornication. PLATO, the great disciple of Socrates, encouraged by his practice, unnatural lusts and vices; and if his practice may be estimated by his precepts, would not hesitate, on what he would call a fit occasion, to dissemble, deceive and lie; for he teaches in his Republic, that, to lie, is often xalov, honorable; and that “he may lie who knows how to do it, on a fit, or needful occasion.” CICERO, as favorable a specimen of heathen excellence as we can readily find, commends, and justifies, and at length practiced suicide; and warmly pleads for fornication; as having in it nothing censurable; and as being universally allowed and practiced. CATO of Utica, (who has been extolled as “a perfect model of virtue,) actually prostituted his wife to Hortensius; was an habitual drunkard; and advocated and practiced self-murder. It has been said of some of the ancient philosophers, and particularly of Socrates, that the morality he taught was pure and elevated; and, especially, that the great Christian duty, of love to enemies, and forgiveness of injuries, was inculcated by him, and that, therefore, there is no “necessity of Revelation” to teach us even this exalted branch of moral. But if the whole scope of the passage be duly observed, it will be seen to be otherwise. It is one thing to abstain from inflicting punishment, either with our own hands, or by the hands of the minister of justice; and another thing to forgive and love the offender. The former, Socrates approves and enjoins; but not the latter; so far from it, indeed, that he assigns his desire of the highest and most refined vengeance, as a reason why he would not prosecute an enemy at the tribunals of his country. The following is the substance of his reasoning: -“You allow that moral excellence is the greatest good. You allow, also, that the punishment of offenders is one means of reforming them. If then our enemy has injured us, the greatest good we can bestow upon him, is to bring him to a court of justice, and inflict the vengeance of the laws. Then by no means punish your enemy for having injured you; for so you defeat your own purpose of revenge. Leave him to the whole, uncontrolled, uncounteracted influence of his moral depravity, because that is the greatest evil which can be endured.”

        As to the morality of the poets of pagan antiquity, if by their works, we may estimate their ways, it was as utterly objectionable as that of the other classes. The creations of their fancy, laid the foundation of the popular theology; and who can wonder that the people became enormously wicked, when the very evils which they practiced, were recorded and celebrated as those of their deities, in the songs of those that were their prophets? It is saying sufficient of the morals of the poets, to observe, that the works of most of them, as Anacreon, and Juvenal, and Ovid, and Martial, and Horace, &c. we cannot put into the hands of youth, except in a purified edition, lest we should excite the passions of their animal nature, and inflict injuries which could never be repaired. And what better morality could be expected in the practice of teachers whose creed, given to the world by the trumpet of fame, admits no state of future rewards and punishments, and declares death an everlasting sleep? Seneca speaks, substantially, the language of them all, when he says, “There is nothing after death; and death itself is nothing; do you ask what will be your condition after you decease? It will be even that of those unborn.”

3.       From the sense entertained by the great men of antiquity, as to the necessity of a revelation. They witnessed the efforts, and felt the strugglings of giant intellects, to acquire some knowledge of man’s ultimate destiny; and some scintillations of light were occasionally elicited; - as in Socrates, in the Phaedo of Plato; but, was there a confidence, thus inspired, of immortality? No: after stating arguments in its favor, the best he could devise, he adds, “That these things are so as I have represented them, it does not become any man of understanding to affirm.” Again, “If the things which are told us are true, those who live there,” (i,e, in a future state of being,) “are in other respects happier than we, and also in this; that for the rest of their existence they are immortal.” Does this hesitating language exhibit a satisfaction with the decisions of reason, and a conviction of its sufficiency? Who does not see, in every season of it, a proof of the necessity of revelation to cast a radiance over the gloom of the grave? He shall speak once more; -When about to die, he said, “I hope to go hence to good men; but of this I am not very confident; nor is it fitting for a wise man to be confident, that these things are true. I shall now die, and you will live; but which of us shall be in the best state, God only knows.” Cicero also, after having enumerated the opinions of philosophers respecting immortality, concludes as follows, “Of these opinions, which is the true one, a god may perceive;”q. d. it is past the power of a mortal to discern. What a contrast to this uncertainty, is presented in the language of an apostle. “I know whom I have believed, and am PERSUADED that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day.” “We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, We have a building of God; a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge SHALL give me at that day.” The judgment of the wisest heathens on the necessity of Revelation cannot be more fully and satisfactorily exhibited, than in the following sentence from Plato. “It is necessary that a lawgiver be sent from heaven to instruct us;” such a lawgiver he did, at least, faintly expect: and “O,” says he, “How greatly do I desire to see that man, and who he is.” Nay, he goes farther, and says, “He must be more than man; for since every nature is governed by another nature superior to it; as beasts and birds by men, he infers, that this lawgiver was to teach man, what man could not know by his own nature, must be of a nature superior to man, that is, of a divine nature.” But, farther still, he, in another place, gives as lively a description of the person, qualifications, life, and death of this celestial teacher, as if he had been acquainted with the predictions of Isaiah respecting him. He says, “This just person must be poor, and void of all recommendations but that of virtue alone; that a wicked world would not bear his instructions and reproofs; and therefore, within three or four years after he began to preach, he would be persecuted, imprisoned, scourged, and at last put to death.”

     From these observations it will be seen that, as far as the ancient heathen are concerned, whether we look at the community in general, or at the refined and cultivated in particular, on all the most important subjects, as God, and religion, and human happiness, their reason was asleep; and if some of its dreams had about them a striking resemblance to reality and truth, yet, without the guidance of revelation, they invariably wandered into the mazes of error.