Luther sat disputing with Zwinglius the doctrine of trans-substantiation, and to every argument of his rational opponent answered by laying his sturdy finger on the words, “This is my body.” The most powerful Church of Christendom bases itself upon this prosaic reading of a poetic saying.
Many a mysterious dogma would simplify itself at once by remembering that, in the language of the imagination, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth it life."
We are not to rush from this extreme into the opposite error and turn into mystical and marvellous meanings the plain sense of the Biblical writers. Imagine the result of putting all sorts of mystic glosses on the straight-forward accounts of men and things in ordinary writings. Such is in reality the folly of turning the sober statements of Biblical prose writers into allegories, parables, symbols, types; and of finding underneath the plainest meanings a double, triple and quadruple sense.
In the hour of Christ’s approaching arrest he warns his disciples, in His usual figurative manner, that they must now learn to provide for themselves; since he would shortly be taken from them. “He that hath a purse let him take it; and he that hath no sword let him sell his garment and buy one.” And his disciples, being very unimaginative folk, or being perhaps stupefied with wonder and anxiety by His strange words and actions on that night of sad surprises said—“Lord, behold here are two swords.” The Master answered, with a weariness of their obtuseness that we can feel in the curt reply, “It is enough.” And the wisdom of the Roman Church sees herein a type of the temporal and spiritual power of the Papacy!
I am solemnly warned against such learned puerilities every time I turn to my shelves and encounter Swedenborg’s “Arcana Coelestia.” In ten goodly volumes he interprets Scripture history after this fashion:
“’And Rebecca arose’—hereby is signified an elevation of the affection of truth: ’And her damsels’—hereby are signified subservient affections: ’And they rode upon camels’—hereby is signified the intellectual principle elevated above natural scientifics.”!
Of all this pious sort of folly we may say with the Master—“Enough.”
It is the common mistake which gathers a nimbus of mystic sense around every book excessively revered. Thus the Greeks fancied an inner and mystical sense in Homer; and thus Italian professors expound the esoteric significance of Dante.
The fantastic dream of mysterious meanings in the Bible must take wings after its kindred fancies of Greeks and Italians, at the touch of a ripening literary judgment. One rule holds of all human letters. Where there is legend, myth, metaphor, or other clear form of poetic fancy, language is to be read imaginatively. Otherwise, in the Bible, as out of it, the ordinary meaning of words must be followed.