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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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INSIGHT.—In ordinary literary usage the word ‘insight’ is employed to signify the intellectual apprehension of the cause or processes to which an object or event owes its origin, as distinguished from the mere perception of the object or event itself. We get an insight into the working of a steam-engine, e.g., when we have mastered the principles of engineering; or into some great political crisis, when the various motives that acted upon the minds of the statesmen who took part in it are revealed to us. Insight is also used to designate the faculty that penetrates into the causes that lie behind appearances. A man of practical insight is a man of quick discernment of the principles that determine the appearance of the objects or events that are recurrent in the business or intercourse of life. A man of political insight is a man who instinctively understands what the community will think, desire, or do at any particular period or special conjunction of circumstances.

In the spiritual or metaphysical sphere, ‘insight’ has the same double meaning. It is the immediate apprehension of the spiritual significance of truths that can be stated as objective facts. It is also the faculty of the higher reason which intuitively grasps this spiritual significance. Goethe says: ‘There are men who put their knowledge in the place of insight.’ Here the word is used in the first sense of intuitive apprehension of spiritual truth. ‘Jealousy to resist metaphor,’ says Francis Newman, ‘does not testify to depth of insight.’ Here it is the faculty that is referred to. The limits or even the precise nature of this faculty of insight have never been adequately defined. It is used of those subtle processes of thought that elude the syllogistic reason, but with which all are more or less familiar in experience. It is used also to designate that higher faculty of the soul through which the mystic claims to attain to the immediate cognition of the Absolute in its pure being.

Generally it may be said that, in the religious meaning of the word, insight is direct perception of, or the faculty of the soul that perceives, the spiritual order that lies behind phenomena. Sight sees the visible, the phenomenal; insight grasps the invisible, the noumenal. The very definition involves a theory. It implies that there is in the universe a spiritual order, of which man is a constituent element, to perceive; that the noumenal is real, and that what is called immediate cognition of it conveys genuine knowledge, knowledge that can be relied upon as a safe guide to action. It is clear that this theory cannot be proved by any of the ordinary processes of reasoning, seeing it is the result of an immediate cognition which is valid only for the individual. Sight carries its own evidence; and insight, which is the higher sight, must do the same. Truths which come to us through insight, and which press themselves home to the soul with irresistible conviction, must prove themselves in experience by their power of explaining the facts and solving the problems of life. Experience must be the ultimate test of reality. Truths of insight are the postulates of experience. The soul recognizes its immediate cognitions as corresponding with reality, because they are necessary to make its experience rational.

It is a characteristic of Jesus that with Him sight is insight. The spiritual vision is to Him so clear that it is unnecessary to designate the faculty or its object by another term. Jesus is the only-begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18)—the Logos which was with God and which was God (John 1:1). Jesus sees God as no man can see Him, for human vision of God can only be through the light with which He illumines the soul (John 1:18). Because of this unique relation with the ultimate spiritual Reality, His insight into the nature of God is a clear and open vision. The claims He makes, therefore, as to His intimate union with God are the outcome of a personal consciousness which is part of His essential being. It is similar to our own assurance of selfhood. When Jesus says, ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30), He is as certain of the fact as when we say, ‘I am I.’ For Jesus is living in a realm where the object of consciousness is not deflected and refracted by the illusions of sense or the distortions of passion, but where the spirit sees things as they are. It is the realm of pure Reality. There the soul sees what is, not what seems to be. And, further, Jesus thus living in the Absolute and Eternal, sees the lives of men and the processes of history purely in the light of their spiritual issues. What touches His consciousness in the great human drama is the hidden movement that is working out human destiny. With Him the fact is merely the symbol, and the symbol has become so luminous that His vision is always of the spiritual processes of which it is an indication. Browning in the Epistle of Karshish, the Arab Physician, has made a daring attempt to get into a consciousness similar to that of Jesus, by trying to imagine how a man whose soul had assimilated the pure spiritual environment of heaven, would feel and act were he permitted to come back to earth and to envisage life from the standpoint of the new experience. It would be—

‘Heaven opened to a soul while yet on earth,

Earth forced on a soul’s use while seeing heaven.’

The attempt is strikingly suggestive, but Lazarus remains a man with a finite soul, who cannot find his true function in what is now an alien environment. With Jesus this spiritual consciousness was so perfect that it mastered its alien environment and moved through it calmly and serenely, indicating its true place in the Divine purpose, and giving the right interpretation to all its manifestations. The teaching of Jesus is thus a key to the meaning of life, because He sees life in its essence, and has a sure insight into those hidden processes that are evolving the visible order of existence.

And again, from His very nature, the insight of Jesus into the individual souls of men is no less sure and unerring. He reads the human soul like an open book. He needed not that any should testify of man, for He knew what was in man (John 2:25). He could trace accurately the working of the ideas He was instilling into the minds of His disciples, as they mingled with their own crude religious conceptions (John 6:61). He understood perfectly the feeling of instinctive resistance that arose within the minds of the Pharisees at the impact of spiritual truth upon the hard crust of an artificial religionism which had become part of their very nature (Luke 6:8, Matthew 12:25). And He recognized the uprising of a pure spiritual emotion in the hearts even of the most degraded when it was spontaneous and genuine (Luke 7:47), while He could repress and discourage the most fervent offer of devotion when He detected in it a vein of insincerity (Luke 9:57-58). It was this insight into human nature which was the secret of His amazing power over men in the days of His flesh. It is a faculty possessed by men in very varying degrees. Its accuracy and intensity depend upon the richness of a man’s nature—upon his knowledge of and sympathy with the gamut of human emotion. There have been many men of wonderful insight, and therefore of strong personal magnetism. But man’s insight is always obscured by individual bias and by the obstruction of the medium of sense which conceals the soul’s working. Men are always more or less deceived, and even men of the keenest insight often break down in their reading of character at the point where it is most essential for them to be right. Jesus was perfect man, and therefore His sympathy with men was full and entire, and touched human nature at every point. For Jesus, who viewed human life in the light of eternity, the sense-medium did not exist. It was the spirit that was always before His vision, and therefore His knowledge of the human heart was instinctive and unerring. Hence it was that the method of Jesus in dealing with diverse types of character is so full of suggestiveness and instruction.

This conception of the consciousness of Jesus must be kept clearly in mind when we study His sayings. His is a consciousness that moves freely in the realm of pure Reality, and visualizes God, human destiny, and the individual soul in the light of their eternal relations. Hence those marvellous revelations of the essence of the Divine Nature in its correspondence to human needs and human aspirations. Hence, too, it results that it is the spiritual meaning of human actions alone that gives them value to Him, and the measure of their value is the degree of spiritual vitality they indicate. Thus Jesus continually reverses the valuations of the world, which are based on the theory of the reality of the objects of sense-perception. He that is greatest among men is he that is the servant of all (Mark 9:35). The two mites thrown by the widow into the Temple treasury are a more munificent offering than the costly gifts of the Pharisees, because they represent a greater degree of sacrifice (Mark 12:43-44). The action of Mary in breaking over the head of Jesus the alabaster box of very precious ointment, is one of the memorable events of history, because it indicates a fine perception of what is due to the Lord of life at the supremely critical moment of world-development (Mark 14:3, John 12:3). Jesus gives to the penitent thief the assurance of immediate entry into Paradise, because full and adequate penitence for sin is itself the crossing of the threshold of the spiritual realm (Luke 23:43). If this clue be rigorously applied, it solves many of the difficulties that beset a literal exegesis of the words of Jesus. It is especially significant when we study His apocalyptic utterances. Here the difficulty of interpretation frequently lies in the fact that the commentator often attempts to force upon them a materialistic meaning that was never intended. Language is material, and has been constructed primarily to indicate the phenomena of sense-perception. When it is used to describe spiritual processes, the ideas conveyed must he detached from the medium of conveyance, if they are to be rightly understood. Jesus lived in the noumenal world. What He saw there He could convey to the souls of His hearers only by the use of words that had been coined to connote totally different conceptions. When Nathanael, struck by Jesus’ recognition of him under the figtree, hails Him as the Son of God, Jesus says: ‘Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the figtree, believest thou?… Verily, verily, I say unto you, Henceforth ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’ (John 1:50, John 1:51). It is significant that the Authorized Version translates ἀπʼ ἅρτι ‘hereafter.’ The translators were evidently dominated by the idea that Jesus is describing a physical marvel which Nathanael will witness in the distant future. But Jesus clearly means that the intercourse of Nathanael with Himself will bring heaven to his soul, and enable him to realize that a living link of communication has been established between God and man.

The words of Jesus regarding death, judgment, His second coming, and the life to come, can be interpreted with rigorous precision, even although they clothe spiritual conceptions with a material garb. They are not mere metaphors, for a metaphor is rarely, if ever, the exact counterpart of the idea it illustrates. Jesus is dwelling in eternity and contemplating the processes of the spiritual world, and He conveys to the receptive soul by the only medium at His command the impression He Himself receives from His direct vision of the truth He is envisaging. The medium is of value only in so far as it serves its purpose. To the irresponsive soul it has no meaning or value at all. To the soul that has the faculty of vision the words are luminous, and reveal God’s secrets. There is no question here of metaphor except in so far as nine-tenths of spoken words are metaphorical. There is nothing overstrained or untrue.

The bearing of this on the doctrine of Revelation cannot here be overlooked. Revelation is insight in its intensest form. The revelation granted to the prophets in OT times was their insight into the meaning of God’s ways, their vision of the spiritual processes through which the higher life of humanity is evolved. The revelation granted to the Apostles was their response to the brilliancy of the light that streamed from the Eternal Word during the brief period of His Incarnation. Jesus reveals because He is the Light of the world. He never argues. He knows nothing of the dialectic process in pressing home the higher truths to the soul. He sees and He would have others to see, and only in so far as they see is He capable of blessing them (John 12:44; John 12:46). It follows that all revelation is personal, and incommunicable from one man to another. Only the Triune God is the Revealer of the spiritual mystery. A written revelation is thus, in the strict meaning of the words, a contradiction in terms. The Bible is not a revelation, but a record of a series of revelations that were given to men of insight, men who possessed the faculty of vision. Its purpose is not to reveal, but to put the soul in an attitude of expectancy by telling what other men have seen. It is the Holy Spirit that quickens the soul and conveys the gift of vision to which alone Divine Truth can be revealed. This is everywhere the doctrine of Scripture, and has never been more clearly or beautifully stated than in the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. i. par. 5).

Jesus invariably attaches a knowledge of the Divine mysteries to a certain spiritual attitude apart from which nothing can be known. It is the pure in heart who see God (Matthew 5:8). It is the doer of God’s will who alone can judge of the truth of His doctrine (John 7:16-17). The sin of the Pharisees is that they are blind while they think they see (John 9:41). No matter with what brilliancy the light may shine, so long as the spiritual orb is darkened it can reveal nothing of the wonders of the spirit-land (John 1:12). And St. Paul says that no man knoweth the things of God; it is the Spirit of God alone who knoweth them; and only in so far as the spirit of man is illumined by the Spirit of God can they be revealed to him (1 Corinthians 2:11). Only when the Divine in man meets and mingles with the Divine that is without and around him can there result that spiritual certainty which is revelation.

Insight, then, in the spiritual sense of the term (which is the sense in which it is generally used), links itself on to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (wh. see). It is the Light that lighteth every man coming into the world; for we must assume that the capacity, in germ at least, is universal as humanity, otherwise there would be some to whom religion is impossible. But it is given in varying degrees, and is conditioned by varying environments. The visions it sees are not always of reality, for the medium through which it looks is often obscured by earthly passions and prejudices. But when it does see right into the heart of things, it enunciates truths to which the soul clings as essential to its very life.

Literature.—Knight, Aspects of Theism; Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (translation by Bailey Saunders); Gilchrist, Life of William Blake; F. W. Newman, The Soul; Hibbert Lectures on Basis of Religious Belief, by C. B. Upton; James, Varieties of Religious Experience; Ewald, Revelation, its Nature and its Record; Oman, Vision and Authority; W. P. dn Bose, The Ecumenical Councils; Herrmann, Verkehr des Christen mit Gott; Meister Eckhart, Schriften und Predigten, Leipzig, 1903.

A. Miller.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Insight'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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