George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
Inspiration Not of Private Interpretation
No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation--2Pe 1:20
There are some texts with the words of which we have been familiar since our childhood, and yet we may never have seriously asked ourselves what is their true meaning. Their cadence lingers with us through the years enriched with recollections of the sanctuary, associated in sweet and tender ways with worship at the family altar, and yet it may be that all the time we have been misinterpreting the Word of God or reading into it a sense that was not there. Now this text which I have chosen is one, I think, that is often so misread. The words have a most familiar sound, but have we ever really thought what they imply?
Observe that prophecy is a very large term. You must not confuse it with the word prediction. As the priest was one who spoke to God, so was the prophet one who spoke for God. And so the word prophecy, in such a place as this, is practically equivalent to our Scripture which is the revelation of God through man to us.
Well then, our text is sometimes held to mean that you and I must not interpret Scripture privately: that is, we must not take the Word of God and wrest it to our peculiar circumstances. That is a common mishandling of Scripture everyone of us knows. When men are in doubt about some action, they often seize on a text to quiet their conscience. And it is this taking of the Word of God at large and using it for our own private interest that Peter is supposed to be speaking of here. Now that is a warning which is always timely and never antiquated nor out of place. It is possible now as nineteen hundred years ago to wrest the Scripture to our own destruction. Yet the whole tenor of the passage shows us that it was not that which was in the mind of Peter when he wrote, "No prophecy is of private interpretation."
Again, these words have been taken to mean that we must not isolate the separate words of Scripture. We must not divorce them from the general sense and give them a private meaning of their own. The word heresy, as many of you know, means such a picking and selecting. A heretic was a man who, out of the whole broad truth, chose out for himself this portion or that portion. And all the evils which have followed heresy have sprung from the false and often passionate emphasis which was laid on the part and not the whole. Now that also is an important truth for we must never isolate the words of Scripture. We must never take this text or that and interpret it out of connection with the whole. Yet once again, studying our passage and looking to the general bearing of it, I think it is clear that that was not Peter's thought when he spoke about private interpretation.
The Prophet's Interpretation Was By the Holy Ghost
What, then, did the apostle mean? Well, it is clear that he meant something of this nature. The interpretation he speaks of is not yours or mine--the interpretation he speaks of is the prophet's. The writers of Holy Scripture were not annalists; the writers of Holy Scripture were interpreters. Before them passed, as in some vision, the doings of God in providence and grace. And the prophet's work was to interpret these and to show their meaning and convey their message so that men might be built up in their faith. Now what Peter teaches is that that interpretation was not in any sense the prophet's own. He looked at things and saw meaning in them, but it was not his own meaning that he saw. It was not natural insight that conducted him nor any genius to discern what mattered--all that would have been a private rendering, and a private rendering is not the Scripture. No prophecy is a prophet's own interpreting. It is not given by the will of man. It is the interpretation of events by something different from human genius. It is the interpretation of events by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost dwelling in men and using every faculty for the glory of God and the blessing of mankind.
This view of Scripture is common both to the Old and New Testaments. I should never dream of building up the doctrine if it had no other warrant than this text. I need not dwell on the Old Testament for the fact is too patent there to be disputed. "And the word of the Lord came to Joel;" that is the attitude of all the prophets. But it may be that you have never noticed how the New Testament adopts that attitude in regard to the testimony of the apostles to Jesus and to His death and resurrection. Does it not seem a very simple thing to bear testimony to certain facts of history? Could not an honest man with a fair mind have borne witness to the crucifixion? And yet the apostles, who from first to last were witnesses and nothing else than witnesses, are regarded as only fit for that by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. The Spirit of truth who proceedeth from the Father--it is He who is to witness, said our Lord. And we are witnesses of these things, cries Peter in the Acts, and so also is the Holy Ghost. In other words, these men who wrote the Scriptures interpreted the facts, not privately, but through the Spirit given from the Father, which was something other than their own genius.
Now this view of Scripture inspiration, which I can't see how any can dispute, sets it apart at once in kind from inspiration of every other sort.
Think, first, of the inspiration of the historian. Now a true historian is not an annalist. He is something more than a mere chronicler. It is for him to show the connection of events and to estimate their importance by what they bring forth. If he does that feebly and confusedly, then we say he is a poor historian. If he does it in a large and illuminative way, we say he has a genius for history. Yet even when there is a genius for history, logical power, and a grasp of facts, all that we expect in the historian is his personal interpretation of the past. That is why Robertson will treat a period in a manner wholly different from Hume. That is why Lecky, handling the same facts, will give them a different complexion from Macaulay. They are inspired, if you care to call them so, using the word in a loose and general way, yet at their best and wisest all they give us is their private interpretation of the past.
Or think of the inspiration of the dramatist as we have it for instance in the plays of Shakespeare. We would say that Shakespeare is inspired, and that in a broad sense is true. Well now, suppose you take the play of Macbeth. You say that that is an inspired play, and I ask you what you mean by that? Well, there is only one thing you can mean if your words have any significance at all. You mean that Shakespeare took the few pages of some chronicle, and he touched them with life, covered them with beauty, and filled them with passion and reality, and this he did with his own imagination, with all the teeming wealth of his own brain, with all the warmth and passion inextinguishable of his own private and peculiar heart. Macbeth and Hamlet came by the will of man. They are the triumph of individual genius. Their power is contained in the fact that they are the rendering of one personality. Were they less private in their interpretation, they would never move us as they so profoundly do. They do not live because the facts are facts. They live because Shakespeare is Shakespeare.
Now in contrast, there stands the inspiration of the Scripture. Unlike all history and every drama, no prophecy is of private interpretation. When a poet is most genuinely inspired, then is he most genuinely himself. When Wordsworth is at his finest and his purest, then is he most emphatically Wordsworth. But what you are taught about Holy Scripture is that it came not by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Isaiah did not look at events and study them and say, Now this is my interpretation of them. John did not look at the cross and at the grave and say, This is how it all appears to me. But they looked at everything under that light of God which is only kindled by the Holy Spirit, and looking so, they saw, and seeing wrote. Understand that I do not suggest they were passive: to say that would be to misinterpret everything. Probably their powers were never so alive as when they were writing a Gospel or epistle. All I say is, and all that Scripture says is, that what you have in the Bible is not genius; it is something different from and something more divine than a private interpretation of events.
The Wonderful Unity of Scripture
If there were ever writers of vigorous and independent personality, I think you may be sure that these writers were the men who have given us the New Testament. If there were ever men who would have looked at facts in diverse or antagonistic ways, John and Paul and Peter were such men. In other words, had the Scripture which they wrote been their own personal interpretation, then almost certainly you would have found between them differences that were irreconcilable. And the very fact that these are never found when they are handling the deep things of God is a witness to an inspiration different in kind from that of genius. There is the freest play of personality--the writers are penmen and not pens--and at the back of every chapter which they wrote is a rich and individual experience. Yet such is the deep and underlying unity in all that is essential to salvation that the more we study, the more we are convinced that the Scripture came not by the will of man. No prophecy is a private rendering. Had it been so we should have had many Bibles. We should have had a Bible of John where everything was love perhaps, and a Bible of Paul where everything was righteousness. And the very fact that the Testament is one, when men so different were the writers of it, speaks of more than individual genius in all its interpretation of events.
The Diversity Between the Message and the Messenger
Now if this is the Scriptural view of inspiration, then we may proceed to ask another question. We may ask, Are there any features in the Scripture which help to corroborate this view? No prophecy is a private rendering. The Scripture came not by the will of man. Are there any features in the Word of God which would incline us to accept that as the truth? In other words, do we find in Holy Scripture what it is almost incredible that we should find had the writers been consulting their own will? When a man is following his own inclination, there are certain things which he avoids. There are aspects of things which from certain standpoints may be highly and naturally uncongenial. And if you find these very aspects dwelt on and expanded and enforced, then you may reasonably conclude that something else is active besides the writer's individual will. Now that is exactly what one finds in Scripture, and finds it increasingly so the more one's knowledge grows. There is a certain curious want of correspondence between the message and the men who uttered it. And I shall close by touching upon that in one or two of its most salient features that we may see how evident it is that Scripture came not by the will of man.
First, then, I note how often prophetic doctrine contradicts the bias of the will. If there is one thing clear in the prophets it is this, that the truths they uttered were often uncongenial. Now men have spoken uncongenial truths sometimes under a compelling sense of duty. When every interest urged them to be silent, their conscience has compelled them to speak out. But you can never explain that old prophetic fire by saying that it was duty which impassioned it, for duty seemed to point the other way. The call of duty is the call of loyalty. The call of duty is the call of home. The call of duty is the call of patriotism when the enemy is marching on the gate. And yet how often these old prophetic heroes lifted their voices up in the name of God, and contradicted every such call. Humanly speaking, they dared to be disloyal. Humanly speaking, they betrayed their country. Humanly speaking, they advocated courses that to the wisest seemed to lead to ruin. And if time has showed that they were not disloyal but the truest patriots in Israel, that only means that in their word of prophecy they were moved by a wisdom higher than their own. They crushed into the dust their private prejudices. They shattered by their speech their private hopes. They flung to the winds, when they lifted up their voice, their private interests and advantages. And what I say is that if the word of prophecy had come to us solely by the will of man, the Bible would have a different tale to tell. No prophecy is of private interpretation. No one would dream it was, who knows the prophets. It is not thus even the bravest speaks when he is speaking at the call of conscience. This is the speaking of men who in their darkness were under the moving of some mighty power, who sat enthroned above the dust of things and saw the end from the beginning.
Biblical Characters Flawed
The same compulsion, as of some higher power, is seen in the portrayal of great Scripture characters. You have characters set up as an ideal, and then mysteriously that ideal is marred. The Jew had essentially a concrete mind. He loved to see all excellences embodied. At the heart of him was a hero-worshipper mightily influenced by old example. And that is one reason why in the Old Testament so much place is given to biography in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and David. Now remember that a Jewish writer never hesitated to idealize his hero. If he thought it was good for edification, he would unhesitatingly paint a character without a flaw. And yet the strange thing is that in the Word of God these grand ideals which are to inspire the world are dashed with weakness and tarnished with iniquity and broken sometimes by the most shameful fall. There was one hero who was the friend of God--what a glorious theme for any Jewish writer! There was another after God's own heart--can you not picture how he would be described? Yet the one--Abraham--descended to mean trickery, and the other--David--fell to the very depths, and all this has been written down for us in the stem pages of the Word of God. My brethren, if the Scripture had come by the will of man, you would never have had anything like that; if prophecy had been a private rendering, you would have had lives like those of the mediaeval saints. And the very fact that you have falls like these in characters which were meant to lead the world is a witness to another will than ours. When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, said Jesus, He will lead you into all truth. It was that spirit which came upon the prophets and led them into the darkest truth unwillingly. In no other way can I explain these tragic pages by writers who knew nothing of historic method and who would never have hesitated to idealize the past for the glory of their people Israel.
And then, lastly, we trace the same compulsion in the self-revelation of the writers. We trace it in David in the fifty-first Psalm for instance, and we have it manifestly in the apostles. I want you to remember that these apostolic writers were men of like passions with ourselves. They were actuated by the same desires and they knew the pressure of our common hopes. They knew, as every man must know, the desire to stand well with those who heard of them and to hand on to the future some worthy memorial of themselves. Now the point is that being men like that, they never hesitated to reveal themselves. They wrote of their weaknesses and of their sins in the very record that told the love of Christ. They concealed nothing for the sake of fame, sheltered nothing for the sake of honor, cast no veil on an unworthy hour even in the sacred cause of friendship. Could not Peter have instructed Mark to cover up the tale of his denial? Might not John, being the friend of Peter have dwelt a little less upon his fall? But the Scripture came not by the will of man nor is any prophecy a private rendering, and there it all stands written to this hour. There is no hurling of contempt at Judas--a chapter like that would have been very natural. There is no golden and enhaloed picture of the men who had left everything for Jesus. John knew not what spirit Christ was of. Peter denied Him with a fisher's curses. Judas in a profound and awful silence goes to his own place--and that is all. That is not the moving of the will; that is the moving of the Holy Ghost. That is the kind of thing which Scripture indicates when it says of itself it is inspired. If there is one thing growing ever clearer as knowledge widens and the ages pass, it is that Scripture came not by the will of man.
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