THE TITLE OF THE PAPER.
Spirit of the Word
By Arthur Prince Adams
By the Spirit of the Word I mean its real and intended meaning, in contradistinction to its apparent and surface meaning, or the "letter." It is a common mistake among Christians to suppose that the Bible is written in very plain and simple language, and that the correct meaning is that which lies upon the surface-the most obvious and apparent sense. If I err not, the truth is just the opposite of this. The Bible often means something very different from what it says; there is a hidden, mystical sense that is like "the pearl hid in the depths of the sea, the real jewel." It may sound strange and erroneous to some to hear any one say that the Bible does not mean what it says. But if you will read this paper month after month, I think I can show you that I do not make the statement unwarrantably: and herein, let me add, lies the explanation of that fact that has been, and still is, such a stumbling stone to thousands of honest seekers after truth, viz., the almost innumerable differences of opinion on Bible doctrine. Men equally pious, devoted and learned, are in antipodal antagonism in regard to Scriptural teachings; and the learned seeing such discrepancy among those who are considered leaders, each one pointing in a different direction, are brought into endless perplexity and confusion. The fact is, oftentimes, all these leaders are wrong. They are building upon the letter that kills, and hence the contradictions. Error is manifold. Truth is a unit; there may be any number of wrong explanations of scripture or a doctrine; there is only one right one. A crooked line may run in any number of different directions. A straight line can run in but one. All the while the "doctors" are disputing about the letter, the truth lies like a fair jewel hid away in the spirit, to be revealed to some humble soul, unlearned and obscure, it may be, and yet possessing the proper spirit to enable him to receive "the deep things of God." "I thank thee, Father, maker of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight."
I claim (without stopping now to give proof, of which there is abundance, as I shall show hereafter) that to all scripture there is a spirit as well as a letter, the former is the real but hidden meaning; the latter is only the outward form of the truth, the shell, the husk, the symbol, absolutely useless and worthless, and even harmful, unless the true intent is apprehended. This Spirit of the Word we shall endeavor to bring out, as God shall help us, so that the Scripture shall really be life unto us, and not death. For the present we will only notice one very plain and familiar illustration of this spiritual meaning of Scripture.
Take the case of Abraham and his two wives, as told in the Old Testament and as explained by Paul in the fourth chapter of Galatians. The Old Testament account is the letter that kills. Paul's explanation is the spirit, or real meaning that giveth life. But how is it, some one asks, that the letter in this account kills, and the spirit gives life? The Old Testament account appears anything but creditable either to God, or to Abraham, or to Sarah. The command that God gives in Gen. 21:12, seems harsh and unjust. Abraham's course seems to have been very reprehensible; and Sarah's conduct unreasonable and cruel in the extreme. (See Gen. 16:3-6 and 22:9, etc.). Take this account as it reads, in the letter merely, and it would certainly give one a disagreeable impression of God, and would repel them from him, instead of drawing them toward him; and many an infidel has brought up these very points and objections to show the evil tendency of the teaching of the Bible, and the unfeeling and unjust character of the God of the Hebrews. Thus the letter kills. But now in the light of Paul's explanation all these objections fall to the ground; everything is made plain when we understand that "all these things happened for types," (1 Cor. 10:11, margin). Paul brings out the real meaning of the Old Testament, the Spirit of the Word, and thus we obtain knowledge of God (for in Paul's "allegory" we have an epitome of God's entire plan of salvation) . Knowledge of God is "life eternal" (æonial) John 17:3. Thus "the spirit giveth life."
The Spirit of the Word, I have said, is the real, the intended meaning; and I would add that it is the only meaning that is profitable to the child of God. If you miss the spirit of a passage of Scripture and see only the letter, you have lost the full ear of corn and hold only the husk in your hand. "The flesh profiteth nothing, it is the spirit that giveth life," (John 6:63). The Bible is purposely written in "parables and dark sayings" that the truth may not be seen (Mark 4:12) except by those who "search for it as men search for hid treasures." The passage in Hab. 2:2 is often quoted, "that he who runs may read;" the idea being that so plain is the Word of God that a passing glance, like one glancing at a sign as he hastens by, is all that is needful to make the truth clear. But the passage is misquoted; the correct reading is "that he that readeth may run." If we read God's Word in the spirit (and if we do not get the spirit of the Word we do not read God's Word at all), it will certainly cause us to "run with patience the race set before us." But we need not think that a mere cursory glance at God's truth, while we are all absorbed for the most of the time in the world, will be all that is needful to make us "wise unto salvation."
One more thought-I would make a distinction between this view of the Spirit of the Word and the method of so called "spiritualizing" of scripture that is so largely practiced by theologians of our day. By this latter process the Scriptures are often made perfectly meaningless and abortive. For instance the 35th chapter of Isaiah being thus "spiritualized" is made to apply to the present time, and thus its grand symbols and marvelous declarations are greatly belittled and impaired. In the same way the last chapter of Zechariah is robbed of its grand meaning and beauty. Now I do not believe in any such "spiritualizing" as this, but rather in the kind indicated above. We may safely lay it down as a rule that the spiritual meaning of any passage is never less important, and less grand than the letter. God's promises are not at a discount, but rather at a premium. His "paper" is worth more than the face value, not less. Any explanation of a scripture that belittles it, that seems to fall far short of the language used, may be looked upon at once with suspicion, for the reality of God's truth is not below, but far above the power of human expression.
I shall be able to make this subject clearer, I think, by Scriptural illustrations from time to time in the paper. The foregoing will perhaps sufficiently explain the title for the present.