Theological-Political Treatise

Scriptural interpretation

Spinoza was not only the real father of modern metaphysics and moral and political philosophy, but also of the so-called higher criticism of the Bible. He was particularly attuned to the idea of interpretation; he felt that all organized religion was simply the institutionalized defense of particular interpretations. He rejected in its entirety the view that Moses composed the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch by Christians or Torah by Jews. He provided an analysis of the structure of the Bible which demonstrated that it was essentially a compiled text with many different authors and diverse origins; in his view, it was not "revealed" all at once.

His Tractatus Theologico-Politicus undertook to show that Scriptures properly understood gave no authority for the militant intolerance of the clergy who sought to stifle all dissent by the use of force. To achieve his object, Spinoza had to show what is meant by a proper understanding of the Bible. And this gave him occasion to apply criticism to the Bible. To appreciate his services in this connection it must be remembered that his age was remarkably lacking in historical sense, especially in matters relating to religion. Saintly contemporaries like John Bunyan and Manasseh ben Israel made the most fantastic use of Scripture texts; while militant clerics, relying on the ignorant bibliolatry of the masses, misapplied Bible texts to gain their ends. Spinoza, who permitted no supernatural rival to Nature and no rival authority to the civil government of the state, rejected also all claims that Biblical literature should be treated in a manner entirely different from that in which any other document is treated that claims to be historical. His contention that the Bible "is in parts imperfect, corrupt, erroneous, and inconsistent with itself, and that we possess but fragments of it"[1] roused great storm at the time, and was mainly responsible for his evil repute for a century at least.[2] Nevertheless, the intelligent world has gradually come around to his views, and has learned to agree with him that the real "word of God", or true religion, is not something written in books but "inscribed on the heart and mind of man".[3] And many scholars and ministers of religion now praise Spinoza's services in the correct interpretation of Scripture as a document of first rate importance in the progressive development of human thought and conduct.[2]


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