Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 12

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Theologico-Political Treatise by Benedictus de Spinoza, translated by Robert Willis (1799–1878)
Chapter XII.

They who hold the Bible as it is, to be the hand-writing of God, sent from heaven to man, will doubtless exclaim that I am guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost, in concluding that it is in parts imperfect, corrupt, erroneous, and inconsistent with itself; that we have but fragments of a much greater mass of hieratic writings; and finally, that the original of the covenant which God made with the Jews has perished. Yet I cannot but think, if these persons will only consider the subject calmly, that they will cease from their clamour. For the voice of reason and the declarations of the prophets and apostles alike proclaim that the eternal word and covenant of God — The True Religion — is divinely inscribed on the heart and mind of man, and that this is the true covenant, this the bond on which God has set his seal and impressed the idea or likeness of his divinity.

Religion was delivered to the first Jews as a written law, because in those early times they were treated as children. Both Moses and subsequently Jeremiah, however, foretold to them a time to come when God would write his laws in their hearts (Deut. xxx. 6; Jeremiah xxxi. 33). The Jews therefore, and especially the Sadducees, were the only parties truly interested in contending for the law inscribed on tables of stone; they who have the law written in their hearts and minds are nowise interested in the dispute. Whoever duly considers this will find nothing in what precedes that is repugnant to the word of God or true religion, or that tends in any way to weaken its hold upon man; on the contrary, they will find nothing that does not rather strengthen true piety; as indeed has already been shown at the close of Chapter X. Were this not so, I should have determined to hold my tongue; yea, to escape difficulties, I should have preferred admitting that all sorts of unfathomable mysteries were locked up in Scripture. But as from such concessions superstitions the most intolerable and other grave inconveniences have arisen, of which I have made mention in my introduction to Chap. VII., I have thought that I could by no means keep silence. Religion requires no superstitious trappings, but is much rather shorn of its native beauty when meretriciously tricked out.

It may still be said, however, that though the divine law be written in the heart and mind of man, Scripture is nevertheless the word of God; and so that it is no more admissible to say of Scripture, than it were of the very word of God, that it is imperfect and corrupt. Now for my part, I rather fear that they who speak in this way incline to set themselves up for saints, and to turn religion into superstition, nay, that they come at length to fall down and worship an idol composed of ink and paper for the true word of God. Of this I feel assured, that I have said nothing unbecoming of the sacred Scriptures, in so far as they are the word of God; that I have advanced no proposition which I have not been prepared to support by the most cogent reasons; and I can therefore positively affirm that I have uttered no word that is irreverent, or has even a smack of impiety. I own, indeed, that some profane persons, to whom religion is a load, may pretend to derive a license for their irregular lives from my observations, and thence conclude that the Scriptures are everywhere and alike corrupt and imperfect, and are therefore of no authority in the conduct of life. It is impossible in any contingency to escape false inferences; according to the proverb that nothing however right can be said but it may be twisted to wrong by an evil construction; and they who are disposed to indulge in sensual pleasures are never at a loss to find an excuse for their doings. It is, indeed, distressing to believe that they who formerly held the originals of our sacred writings in their hands, who had the ark of the covenant in their keeping, the very prophets and apostles of old, were no more trustworthy than the rest of the world; but it must be owned that all, Jews as well as Gentiles, were always found alike: true virtue has in all ages been extremely rare. To remove scruples, however, I shall now proceed to show, 1st, in what sense Scripture as a dumb thing can be called sacred and divine; 2nd, what that is contained therein is truly word of God, and not comprised in any set number of books; and, lastly, I shall show that the doctrines of Scripture, in so far as they are necessary to obedience and salvation, cannot have been corrupted. These points established, every one will be able to see that I have said nothing against the word of God, and nowhere given scope or license for impiety.

That which is intended for piety and the practice of religion is called sacred and divine; but it is so only so long as men use it reverently: devoted to impious purposes, that which was before sacred and divine forthwith becomes profane and accursed. For example, a certain place was by the patriarch Jacob called Beth El, the house of God, because there he worshipped God revealed to him; but by the prophets the very same place was called Beth-aven. the house of iniquity, because there the Israelites, at the command of Jeroboam, were wont to sacrifice to idols (Amos v. 5, and Hosea x. 5). This other example shows the same thing very clearly: words have a certain signification by use and wont, and if they are so arranged according to their familiar uses as that men in reading them are moved to devotion, then will these words be sacred, as will a book written with words so disposed. But if these words fall into disuse by the lapse of time, so as at length to convey no meaning to the reader, or the book they compose falls into almost entire disuse, either through malevolence or because it is no longer wanted, then will the words and the book be useless, and have no sanctity. Lastly, if the same words are otherwise disposed, or if by usage they have come to bear another and a contrary meaning, then will the words and the book, which before were sacred, become impure and profane. From which it follows that nothing beyond the mind absolutely, or in respect of itself only, is either pure or impure, sacred or profane. This proposition is illustrated by many parts of Scripture. To quote one or two: Jeremiah (vii. 4) says that the Jews of his times falsely called the temple of Solomon the temple of God; for, he proceeds to explain, the title "temple of God "could only be properly applied so long as it was entered by men who worshipped him in truth, and who did justly; but frequented by homicides, idolaters, and other wicked persons, then was it rather a den of transgressors. Scripture nowhere informs us as to what became of the ark of the covenant, which I have often wondered at; this only seems certain, that it perished, or was consumed with the temple, although there was nothing held so sacred or so much reverenced by the Jews. For this reason, therefore, Scripture also is sacred, and its doctrines are divine, so long only as it moves mankind to piety towards God; but if it comes to be almost entirely neglected, as it was at one time by the Jews, it is nothing more than ink and paper; it may then indeed be profane, and obnoxious to corruption; and if under such circumstances it is corrupted or perishes, it is a false phrase to say that it is the .word of God which is corrupted or perishes: in the neglect of its precepts it has ceased to these men to be the word of God, even as in the time of Jeremiah it was incorrect to say that the building which perished in the flames was the temple of the Lord. Thus therefore does he address the transgressors of his day: "Wherefore do ye say, We are skilful, or that the law of God is with us? In vain was the law set forth, in vain the pen of the scribe!" that is to say: you deceive yourselves, though the Scriptures be among you, when you say you have the law of God, after having roused his wrath by your wickedness. So also, when Moses broke the first tables of the law, he by no means cast the word of God from his hands in anger, for who can imagine this of Moses, or believe it possible as regards the law of God? but merely the stone tables, which, although sacred before, because on them was inscribed the covenant whereby the Jews were bound in obedience to Jehovah, nevertheless lost all sanctity after the people had violated the compact by worshipping a calf. In the same way, and for the same reason, the tables of the second covenant, as well as the ark of the sanctuary, could be said to perish. It is not therefore wonderful that the original writings of Moses are no longer extant, nor that the Scriptures we possess, of which we have spoken in preceding chapters, should only have reached us in the state we find them, when the original of the divine covenant, the most sacred of all things, has totally perished. Let them cease, then, to accuse us of impiety, who have not breathed a murmur against the word of God, who have been most careful not to alter or corrupt it; let them rather turn their anger, righteous, if anger ever can be righteous, against the ancients, whose wickedness and neglect profaned the ark, the temple, the law of God, and subjected the sacred things confided to them to change and corruption. If, finally, in consonance with what is said in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (iii. 3), they desire to be "declared the epistle of Christ, written not with ink, but with the spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart," let them cease to worship the letter, which kills, and show themselves more eager after the spirit, which gives life everlasting.

I have thus, I think, sufficiently explained in what sense Scripture is to be held sacred and divine. But I have still to show what is properly to be understood by the Hebrew phrase Dabar Jehovah, translated, word of God, or word of the Lord. The word dabar has, however, several significations besides word; it means discourse, edict, and thing. We have already shown in Chap. I. how in Hebrew a thing is said to be of God, or is referred to God, and from this it will easily be understood what is intended in Scripture, when the words, the sayings, the commands of God are mentioned. It is therefore unnecessary to repeat what has already been said on this point; neither is it necessary to recur to what has been advanced in Chap. III. on Miracles. It will be enough here to recall the matter to the reader's attention, in order that what I am now about to say may be the better understood; namely, that the expression word of God, when any subject is matter of discourse other than God himself, properly signifies that divine law of which we have spoken particularly in Chap. IV.; in other words, that universal or truly Catholic religion, proper to the whole human family, of which Isaiah speaks (ch. i. 16 et seq.), which he says consists not in ceremonies, but in charity and holiness of life and mind, and which he entitles indifferently word and law of God. The expression word of God, again, is used metaphorically for the order of nature and fate, or necessary sequence in creation (which, in fact, depends on and follows the eternal decrees of the divine nature); and especially for so much of this order and succession as the prophets foresaw, and this because they did not perceive future events as the effects of natural causes, but as the special behests or decrees of God. Further, the phrase is employed for the command of a prophet, in so far as it has been conceived in virtue of his peculiar prophetic power, and not by the force of his natural understanding, and this happened especially from the prophets having been accustomed to regard God as a law-giver, as has been shown in Chap. IV. Scripture consequently is entitled Law of God, from these three causes: 1st, because it teaches absolute religion, of which the everlasting God is the author; 2nd, because it relates predictions of future events as decrees of God; 3rd, because they who were its authors mostly taught in virtue of a certain peculiar gift, not in virtue of their natural understanding, and commonly introduced God as the utterer of their revelations. And although there are many other things in Scripture which are mere matter of history, and conceptions of our common natural capacity, still the title is derived from the preponderating characteristic of the Bible writings. In this way do we readily perceive how God is to be understood as the author of the Bible. It is because of the absolute religion which is taught therein, not because it is a collection of books which God desired to communicate or did verbally communicate to man. Thus also do we understand why the Bible is divided into the books of the Old and New Testament, because of the prophets having been accustomed before the coming of Christ to preach religion to the Jews as the law of their native country, and in virtue of a covenant made in the time of Moses. After the appearance of Christ in the world, however, the apostles preached religion as an universal law to all mankind, and in virtue of the Passion of Christ alone. But this does not imply that there is any diversity in the doctrines of the Old and New Testament; nor that they are the instruments of two special covenants; nor, finally, that the universal religion, which is also the most natural religion, is anything new, save and except to those who knew it not before. "It was in the world," says John the Evangelist (i. 10), "and the world knew it not."

Though we had fewer books, then, both of the Old and New Testament, than we possess, we should not therefore be without the word of God, by which, as already said, we understand the true or absolute religion; even as we do not think that we are without God's blessed word because we are without many other most precious writings, such as "The Book of the Law," which was wont to be religiously preserved in the temple as the instrument of the covenant between God and the Jews, to say nothing of the "Book of the Wars," "The Chronologies," and many more, from which those books which we now possess, and which compose the Old Testament, were extracted and put together. This view is confirmed by many other considerations: 1st, Because the books of both the Testaments were not written by an express command for all ages at one and the same time; but fortuitously, as it were, for certain individuals, and as the time and their peculiar mental constitution required. This is plainly indicated by the vocation of the prophets, who were called to admonish the wicked of their age; so is it also in the Epistles of the apostles. 2nd, Because it is one thing to understand Scripture and the minds of the prophets, and another to comprehend the mind of God, i.e. to comprehend the very truth of a thing in itself, as follows from what has already been said in Chap. II., which treats of The Prophet. The same distinction we have shown requires to be made in regard to the narratives and the miracles (vide Chapter VI.); but no such thing can be said of the parts in which true religion and true virtue are discussed. 3rd, Because the books of the Old Testament are a selection from among a great number, and were finally put together and approved by a council of Pharisees, as has been shown in Chapter X. The books of the present New Testament, in like manner, were assumed into the Canon by certain councils, by whose decrees, also, numerous other books were rejected as spurious, which were nevertheless held sacred by many. The members of these councils, however, were not prophets, but merely doctors and learned persons, though it is proper to admit that they had the word of God as a standard in making their selection: before approving the books they chose they necessarily had a knowledge of the word of God. 4th, Because the apostles wrote not as prophets, but as teachers, and chose their own mode of teaching, having regard doubtless to the state and capacity of those they were called upon to instruct; whence it follows that there must be many things in the writings of the apostles which, as regards religion, might be dispensed with. 5th, Because, lastly, we have four evangelists in the New Testaments. And who can believe that God desired to narrate and in writing to communicate to man the history of Christ four several times? And although some things are contained in one Gospel which are not in another, and one often aids in understanding another, we are not therefore to conclude that everything in the four Evangels is needful to be known, and that God elected four different men to write distinct narratives in order that the history of Christ might be better understood. The several evangelists seem to have preached their Gospel in different places, and each to have written what he had preached in a simple style, that he might himself relate the history of Christ, and not with any view to explaining the narratives of the others. If, indeed, by the mutual collation of the four Gospels we do come to understand some passages better than we did before, this is rather fortuitous than necessary, and occurs in respect of a few passages only, which, had they remained obscure or unintelligible, the history would still have been equally perspicuous, and mankind not the less instructed.

Thus do we show that Scripture can properly be called the word of God in respect of the absolute religion, of the universal divine law alone which it proclaims. But we have now to show that in so far as it is the word of God, Scripture is neither mendacious, nor imperfect, nor corrupt. Now I call that mendacious, corrupt, and imperfect, which in writing and construction is so faulty that the sense is by no means to be made out by taking the language in any of its accredited significations, or when the meaning is not to be had from the text alone; for I would not be supposed to affirm that Scripture, in so far as it contains the divine law, always makes use of the same literal apices, of the same letters, and, finally, of the same words (matters which I leave to the Masoretes and those who superstitiously worship the letter of Scripture), but only that the sense, in regard to which alone can any writing be spoken of as divine, has come down to us uncorrupted, although the words in which it was originally embodied may be supposed to have been altered many times. This, as has been said, takes away nothing from the divineness of Scripture; for it would have been equally divine had it been written in other words or in another language. That in this sense we have received the divine law uncorrupted, no one, I think, can doubt. For from Scripture we learn, without any kind of difficulty or ambiguity, that its sum is this, — to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves. Now there can be no error here. This is no sentence set down by a hasty and careless pen; and did Scripture elsewhere teach aught different, it were necessarily to be regarded as corrupt; for divine and neighbourly love is the foundation of all religion, and this ignored, the whole fabric falls to pieces. Such Scriptures would not be those of which we make question here, but a totally different production.

It remains established therefore that Scripture has always taught this doctrine, and that here no error has crept in to corrupt the sense of the text. Such a thing would have been immediately apparent to all; nor could any attempt even have been made to alter the sense without detection. Since, then, this fundamental principle is to be held established, it follows of necessity that all which rests on it or which without dissidence flows from it, is also to be held fundamental and assured; — such as that God exists; that he is omniscient, foreseeing all; that he is omnipotent; and that in virtue of his eternal decree it is well with the good but ill with the wicked, and that our salvation depends on his grace alone. Such, in brief, is the teaching of the whole of Scripture; otherwise everything else it contains were vain and without significance. Nor are the other moral precepts of Holy Writ to be regarded as less free from taint, seeing that they all obviously rest on the broad foundation of love of God and love of our neighbour. The commands to do justly, to succour and assist the poor and oppressed, to do no murder, not to commit adultery, not to covet our neighbour's goods, &c., — these are precepts which the wickedness of man could never corrupt, and of which no length of time can lessen the excellence. Anything fallen away or taken away from such precepts would again immediately spring up or be supplied from the universal foundation on which they all rest, and especially from that precept of Charity which is everywhere so strongly insisted on both in the Old and in the New Testament.[1] Add, that though there is no crime the most heinous which has not been committed by man, still there is no one who, to excuse his guilt, has attempted to destroy the laws, or to present as an eternal and wholesome precept that which is impious and pernicious. For we see mankind so constituted by nature, that no one — be he king or be he subject — ever does any baseness, but he tries to surround his deed with such circumstances and excuses as tend to make it appear that he has done nothing against justice and propriety.

Let us conclude, therefore, absolutely that the whole of the universal divine law which Scripture teaches has come down to us in its original, genuine, and uncorrupted state. Besides this, however, there are other things which we cannot doubt have been handed down to us in perfect good faith. Under this head I class the ground-work of the Scripture histories, these having been familiarly known to all. The common people of the Jews in former ages were wont to sing the antiquities of their nation in their psalms. The heads of the things done by Christ, and the story of his passion, were also speedily spread over the whole of the Roman Empire. Wherefore it is not to be believed, unless the majority of the people had come to such an understanding, which is a thing incredible, that the grand facts of this history have been transmitted to posterity in another shape than that in which they were first made known. Whatever, therefore, is suspicious in Scripture, or incorrect, or false, can only be so as regards the other matters of which it treats, viz. the circumstances of this or that narrative, prophecy, or miracle; in narratives calculated to arouse the devotional feelings of the people, or to disconcert the philosophers; or, lastly, in speculative matters, after they had begun to be introduced into religious discussions by schismatics, in order that each might find support for his own conceits in Holy Writ. But it matters little to the soul's state whether such things are in great or in small measure. This I shall proceed to show in the next chapter, although I believe, from what has just been said, as well as from Chapter II., that it has been already demonstrated.


  1. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity," says the apostle Paul (1 Cor. xiii.), "I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." — Ed.