Scripture

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin taught that a true knowledge of God and of human nature came only through the revelation in scripture. Calvin agreed with the medieval Catholic tradition that the created order contained innumerable signs of God's reality and presence — signs that reason should have recognized — but he thought that the mind was so limited by its finitude and so darkened by sin that its efforts to attain knowledge of God apart from the biblical revelation led only to idolatry. In scripture, God provided the correcting lenses that rescued reason from its fallen state. Among New England theologians, this conclusion was accepted as axiomatic.

The aim in New England was a biblical theology, bound at every point to the teachings of scripture. The clergy agreed that the biblical revelation opened the eyes of understanding "far above the capacity of Reason.'' They thought of the scriptures as divinely inspired, and they assumed that the inspiration preserved the biblical authors from all error. If the "holy pen-men'' were inspired, asked Shepard, "how could they erre"?12

The Puritan clergy also brought to America an attitude toward the authority of scripture that distinguished them from the Anglican establishment in England. They read the Bible as a source of binding precedents that were to determine the shape of the church. They were biblical "primitivists," eager to discard "human inventions" — from vestments and ceremonies to bishops and deans — for which they could find no biblical precedent. "No new traditions," said Cotton, "must be thrust upon us.'' They were bound to the "first institution'' of God, the church as it was described in scripture. They were determined to "walk in the old way,'' by which they meant the biblical way.13

They believed, therefore, that all theological doctrines had to flow from scriptural exegesis, and they accepted the customary Calvinist tenet that scripture interpreted itself. To understand difficult passages, the interpreter had to read them in the light of clearer ones. This maxim produced a primary reliance on what they called the literal or "historical" reading of the text. Unlike medieval exegetes, who also read the Bible as an allegory, a repository of hidden moral truths, and a catalog of references to the New Jerusalem, the New England clergy always appealed primarily to what Hooker called "the letter'' — the grammatical meaning of the text read literally.14

They did not deny, however, that the same text could bear complex meanings, so in addition to searching for express commandments and propositions, they also used other principles of interpretation. Their second approach was to employ the "exemplary" reading of the Bible, the interpretation of scrip tural examples as ''patterns for imitation.'' They often read biblical episodes as precedents that permitted or required a course of action. Critics of Puritan reform in England had argued that it was wrong ''to argue a facto ad jus (of a deed or example to make a law),'' but Thomas Shepard thought that biblical examples could easily be refined into general laws that prescribed perfect rules for even ''the most petty occasions of our lives.''15

A third method of biblical reading was to practice the ancient method of typological interpretation. A type, everyone agreed, was ''some outward or sensible thing ordained of God under the Old Testament, to represent and hold forth something of Christ in the New.'' Noah, for example, who saved his household in the ark, typified Christ, who saved his people through the church; and the Jewish exodus from Egypt prefigured the Christian deliverance from bondage to sin and Satan. The clergy usually drew a clear distinction between typical and exemplary readings. Types were outward signs of future spiritual realities; examples were not. Types pointed beyond themselves; examples bore their meanings on the surface. The visible types were abolished when they found fulfillment in their Christian antitypes; examples endured as perpetual models.16

Yet almost everyone agreed that some types could be partially exemplary and some examples partially typical. A synod at Cambridge in 1646 took note of the claim that the Jewish kings in the Old Testament were types and therefore were no longer ''of force for our imitation.'' They conceded that if Israel's rulers were types ''strictly taken,'' they only ''shadow[ed] out Christs kingly power,'' providing no exemplary model for future magistrates. But they concluded that a ruler like Solomon might be a type of Christ in his kingly office over the temple but not in ''all the Kingly offices'' he performed. In some of his offices, Solomon provided exemplary precedents for New England magistrates. John Cotton made a similar distinction when he defended the singing of psalms in New England churches. If the psalms of Israel had been merely ceremonial types, then Christians could no longer sing them, for with the coming of Christ the types would have been abolished; but the Jewish psalms had been both types and examples, and their exemplary features warranted their continuation.17

The literal, exemplary, and typological readings held the New England theologians close to the biblical text, but a fourth interpretive method helped them link the language of the Bible to the conclusions of reason. John Cotton explained that the exegete might discern the revelation of God's will in scripture ''by Proportion, or deduction, by Consequence, as well as by expresse Commandment, or Example.'' This ''proportional'' way of reading allowed the interpreter to combine two fields of discourse: when one part of a syllo gism came from the Bible, Cotton explained, the conclusion embodied a ''divine proposition'' even though the other premise came from ''our human knowledge.'' A truth could be grounded in the Word in two ways, wrote Thomas Hooker: ''Either in the letter, or included in the sense,'' and the sense could include any ''rational inference'' that might be ''brought out of the Scripture by necessary circumstance.'' Cotton's formulation suggested that the art of divinity combined the languages of scripture and the other arts; Hooker's offered reassurance that nonbiblical expressions might still fittingly convey the biblical sense.18

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