CHAPTER XXXIV. GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION.1. Since the Bible addresses men in human language, and according to human modes of thinking and speaking, the interpreter's first work is to ascertain the meaning of the terms employed. Here he must proceed as in the case of other writings, seeking by the aid of grammars, lexicons, cognate languages, ancient versions, ancient interpreters, and whatever other outward helps are available, to gain a thorough knowledge of the language employed by the Holy Spirit in his revelations to men. To these external sources of knowledge he will add all the internal light which comes from a careful consideration of the context, of the author's known use of terms, of parallel passages, etc. In the case of the New Testament, a knowledge of classical Greek will not be sufficient. The interpreter must superadd a thorough acquaintance with the peculiar dialect of the New Testament (Chap.24, No.5), and also the special usages of particular writers. The apostle John, to adduce a single instance, applies the term Logos, Word, to the Son of God. But we cannot argue from this for a like usage by other writers; as, for example, in the well-known passage: |The word of God is quick and powerful,| etc. Heb.4:12. Usage alone is often insufficient to determine the meaning of a word in a particular passage; for (1) the term may occur nowhere else, (2) it may have in current usage two or more different significations. In the former case, the interpreter must avail himself of all the external helps above specified, and especially of the light shed upon the meaning of the term in question by the context. In the latter case, the context must be his chief guide. The same Greek word, for example, signifies stature (Luke 19:3) and age (Heb.11:11). In the interpretation of Matt.6:27, where our version reads: |Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?| the question may naturally enough arise in which of these two senses the Saviour employed it. Whatever may be the decision, it must have for its basis not simple usage, which is ambiguous, but the connection of the word in the context. Many like examples might be adduced. It has been already remarked (Chap.24, No.5) that in New Testament usage many words have a technical and therefore peculiar meaning. We are not at liberty, however, to determine such technical meanings at random, or in accordance with any preconceived opinions. It can only be done, as in the case of all other writings, in accordance with the acknowledged laws of interpretation. The general result, then, at which we arrive is, that in determining the meaning of scriptural terms we must be guided by the same rules which we follow in the interpretation of other writings.2. From the signification of particular words we proceed to the consideration of the sense embodied in the language of the sacred writers. A knowledge of the words which enter into the composition of a sentence does not of itself give us a true apprehension of the sense which the writer seeks to convey. We must know the writer's aim, the shape and course of his argument, the ideas which he is combating as well as those which he seeks to establish, the emphatic words of the sentence, whether he wishes to be understood literally or figuratively, and various other particulars; all which are to be ascertained by the same rules which we employ in the interpretation of language generally.3. The scope or design of the inspired writer may be general or special; the former being his design in writing the whole work in question, the latter, his design in particular sections of it. |The scope,| it has been well observed, |is the soul or spirit of a book; and, that being once ascertained, every argument and every word appears in its right place, and is perfectly intelligible; but if the scope be not duly considered, every thing becomes obscure, however clear and obvious its meaning may really be.| Horne's Introduct., vol.2, p.265, edit. of 1860. This language is not too strong. It is by a neglect or perversion of the scope that the meaning of the inspired writers is perverted, and they are made to contradict one another. The apostle Paul says, for example: |Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.| Rom.3:28. The apostle James: |Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.| James 2:24. If one insists on leaving out of account the separate and distinct design which each of these two writers had in view respectively, he can easily bring their words into contradiction. Had the scope of Paul's argument been to show that faith in Christ releases men from the obligation of obeying the divine law, and thus makes good works unnecessary; or had James been laboring to prove that good works are the meritorious ground of men's forgiveness, then the doctrines of the two apostles would have been irreconcilably at variance. But we know that neither of these suppositions is true. Paul was combating the error of the Pharisees |who trusted in themselves that they were righteous| -- righteous on the ground of |the deeds of the law| -- |and despised others.| His aim was to show that men receive forgiveness and salvation neither wholly nor in part on the ground of the supposed merit of their good works, but wholly through faith in Christ; as he elsewhere argues that |if it be by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.| Rom.11:6. We know also, from the whole tenor of his writings, that he condemned as spurious that pretended faith which does not manifest itself in good works. In this very epistle, where the question is not concerning the meritorious ground of justification, but concerning that character which God will accept, the apostle lays down the great principle: |Unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honor, and peace to every man that worketh good; to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God.| Rom.2:8-11. If now we turn to the epistle of James, we find that the faith without works which he condemns as dead is one of mere empty notions -- an inoperative belief about Christ instead of that hearty trust in him which brings the heart and life into subjection to his authority. In a word, Paul condemns, as dead, works without faith; James, faith without works. The one rejects dead works (Heb.9:14); the other, dead faith. Between these two judgments there is no contradiction. We have dwelt somewhat at large upon this example of alleged contradiction for the purpose of full illustration. The same mode of reasoning might be applied to many other passages, where a knowledge of the writer's design is essential to the true apprehension of his meaning.
Such being the importance of the scope, the question arises: How shall it be ascertained? Here mechanical rules will be of little avail. The attentive and judicious reader will be able, in general, to gather it from the various indications given by the writer himself, or from the known circumstances in which he wrote, just as in the case of other writings.
Sometimes an author directly states his general end, or his design in writing a particular section of his work. An example of the former kind is John 20:31: |These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name;| of the latter kind, 1 Cor.7:1: |Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me,| etc.; whence we learn that in this particular chapter the apostle's design is to answer certain inquiries of the Corinthian Christians in regard to the relation of marriage. More commonly the writer's scope is indicated indirectly by various inferential remarks, as in the passage already quoted: |Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,| which is in fact a statement of the apostle's design in the preceding argument. See Horne's Introduct., vol.2, pp.266, 267, where the author follows Morus, Hermeneutica, 1.2.2.
Sometimes a clear light is shed upon the design of a writer or speaker by a knowledge of historical circumstances; especially, of his own position and that of his opponents. The twenty-third chapter of Matthew, in which the Saviour exposes the wickedness and doctrinal errors of the scribes and Pharisees, and denounces upon them the judgments of heaven, cannot be thoroughly understood without a knowledge of the system of Pharisaism, and the high position of authority and influence which the Pharisees held; sitting, as they did, in Moses' seat, imposing upon the people their human traditions in place of God's commandments, substituting a religion of outward forms for one of inward faith, love, and obedience, and thus taking away from the people the key of divine knowledge. It was necessary that the Son of God, to whom the church belonged, who came to shed his blood for her redemption, and to establish her in the principles of truth and holiness, should expose with unsparing severity the wickedness and ignorance of these scribes and Pharisees, for the instruction of his people in all coming ages. A knowledge of the same historical circumstances throws a strong light on the apostle's aim in writing to the Romans and Galatians. Had we fuller information respecting the false teachers referred to in the epistle to the Colossians and the pastoral epistles, we should understand more clearly the apostle's arguments against them.
But the surest means of ascertaining a writer's scope is the repeated and careful perusal of his words. The biblical student should early form the habit of reading over with earnest attention a whole book at a sitting -- the epistle to the Romans, for example, or that to the Hebrews -- without pausing to investigate particular questions; his aim being to throw himself as fully as possible into the general current of thought, and to be carried forward by it to the writer's final conclusions. When he has thus made himself familiar with the scope of the work as a whole, he will be better prepared for the examination of the particular difficulties that offer themselves in the course of the author's argument.
4. The word context (Latin, contextus) signifies literally a weaving together; and is appropriately used, therefore, to denote the web of a writer's discourse. The scope is the end which a writer proposes to accomplish: the context gives the form and manner of its accomplishment. With reference to a given passage, the context has been loosely defined to be that which immediately precedes and follows. More accurately, it is the series of statements, arguments, and illustrations connected with the passage whose meaning is sought, including all the various connections of thought. The sober interpreter, then, must have constant reference to the context, as well for the signification of particular terms as for the general sense of the passage under consideration. To interpret without regard to the context is to interpret at random; to interpret contrary to the context is to teach falsehood for truth.
The necessity of having constant reference to the context for the determination of the sense, as well as of the particular terms employed, admits of innumerable illustrations. From these we select a few examples:
In Rom.14:23 the apostle lays down the following maxim: |He that doubteth is damned [literally, condemned] if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.| The context relates not to the Lord's supper, but to scruples in respect to the use of particular kinds of food: |One believeth that he may eat all things; another who is weak| -- over-scrupulous in respect to distinctions of food -- |eateth herbs| (ver.2). Consequently there is no reference here to the personal qualifications requisite for partaking of that ordinance, or to the consequence of eating unworthily. The apostle means to say that whoever has scruples about the lawfulness of using a particular article of food is condemned if he eat it, |because he eateth not of faith.| He acts contrary to his persuasion of duty. Thus he violates, in this particular case, that general law of faith which requires that in all things we keep a conscience void of offence towards God and man, subjecting ourselves in loving confidence to Christ's authority, and doing in all things what we believe to be right in his sight.
Again we read in Gal.5:4 the words: |Ye are fallen from grace.| Taken out of their connection, these words are ambiguous in their application. But the context makes all plain. The apostle is addressing those who are inclined to substitute a system of justification by works for the grace of the gospel: |Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace| -- fallen away from grace, as the original word means. Ye have abandoned the system of grace revealed in the gospel for one of works.
The psalmist says: |My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?| Psa.42:2. Taken out of their connection, these words might be understood of his desire to enjoy the beatific vision of God in heaven. But the context shows that the writer had in mind God's earthly sanctuary, from which he was banished: |My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holy-day| (ver.3, 4).
Again the psalmist says: |The king's daughter is all glorious within| (Psa.45:13); words that have more than once been applied directly to the inward spiritual beauty of the church, the bride of Christ. This is, indeed, the idea that we gain from a true interpretation of them. But it comes not directly, but through a beautiful figure. The primary meaning of the words is, that the royal bride appearing within the palace in raiment of wrought gold is all glorious to the beholder's view. Undoubtedly she represents the church espoused to Christ; dwelling, so to speak, in his kingly mansion, and gloriously adorned with his righteousness. Rev.19:8.
The question may naturally occur to the reader: Within what limits is the context to be consulted? The answer must be, that no definite limits can be prescribed. The entire web of discourse must be carefully studied, including the more remote as well as the nearer context; for the inspired writers do not, as a general rule, proceed according to formal divisions and subdivisions. The train of argument is often interrupted by parenthetical remarks, particularly in the writings of the apostle Paul, or it is resumed in an informal way after extended digressions. The true connection of thought, then, is to be gathered not so much from our modern notions of what logical accuracy would require, as from the repeated and careful perusal of the writing in question. In this way alone can we place ourselves in the author's position, and look at the subject under discussion from his point of view; that is to say, in this way alone can we enter into his modes of thinking and reasoning, and thus qualify ourselves to be the expounders of them to others.
In some cases no context exists, and none is to be sought. In a large part of the book of Proverbs, for example, each separate aphorism shines by its own light. If it have any connection with what precedes or follows, it is only casual or superficial. In some books, again, like that of Ecclesiastes, the transitions are rapid, and often difficult to explain. Here we should be careful not to force upon the author a logical connection of which he never thought. Systematic arrangement is good in its place; but the Holy Spirit did not think it needful to secure it in the case of all who spake as he moved them.
Some religious teachers are fond of employing scriptural texts simply as mottoes, with little or no regard to their true connection. Thus they too often adapt them to their use by imparting to them a factitious sense foreign to their proper scope and meaning. The seeming gain in all such cases is more than counterbalanced by the loss and danger that attend the practice. It encourages the habit of interpreting Scripture in an arbitrary and fanciful way, and thus furnishes the teachers of error with their most effective weapon. The practice cannot be defended on any plea of necessity. The plain words of Scripture, legitimately interpreted according to their proper scope and context, contain a fulness and comprehensiveness of meaning sufficient for the wants of all men in all circumstances. That piety alone is robust and healthful which is fed, not by the fancies and speculations of the preacher who practically puts his own genius above the word of God, but by the pure doctrines and precepts of the Bible, unfolded in their true connection and meaning.
It is important to remark, however, that when the general principle contained in a given passage of Scripture has been once fairly explained, it admits of innumerable applications which are in the highest sense legitimate and proper. The principle, for example, that |whatsoever is not of faith is sin,| which the apostle Paul announces in connection with the question of using or abstaining from particular kinds of food, may be applied to the settlement of cases of conscience arising in widely different relations and spheres of action. The preacher's power lies very much in the ability of unfolding to the understanding and applying to the conscience the general principles involved in the passage of Scripture which he undertakes to expound.
5. We may next consider the help to be derived from parallel passages. The ordinary division of parallelisms is into verbal and real: verbal, where the same word or phrase occurs; real, where the same thought is expressed or the same subject discussed. Verbal parallelisms often shed much light on the meaning of particular words or phrases, because what is obscure in one passage is made plain in another by some explanatory addition.
An example is the use of the expression my glory (English version, my honor), in Gen.49:6: |O my soul, come not thou into their secret| (their secret conclave); |unto their assembly, my glory, be not thou united.| A comparison of the parallel passages, Psa.7:5; 16:9; 30:12; 57:8; 108:1, leads to the conclusion that in such a connection the expression is substantially equivalent to my soul, the soul being made in the image of God, and thus the seat of man's glory. By a like process of comparison, we arrive at the true signification of the phrase, |the righteousness of God,| or more fully, |the righteousness which is of God by faith| when used with reference to the way of salvation through Christ; at the meaning of the Greek terms translated |propitiation,| etc. In the same way, as already remarked (No.1, above), the interpreter ascertains the different significations in which words are employed, and determines which of these is appropriate to any given passage.
Real parallelisms are subdivided, again, into doctrinal and historic; doctrinal, where the same truth is inculcated; historic, where the same event or series of events is recorded. The supreme importance of doctrinal parallelisms will appear most fully when we come to look at revelation on the divine side, as constituting a grand system of truth harmonious in all its parts. At present we regard them simply as among the means of ascertaining the sense of a given passage. Presuming that every author means to be self-consistent, it is our custom to place side by side his different statements which relate to the same subject, that they may mutually explain each other. The same reasonable method should be pursued with the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the Old Testament, and of Paul and John in the New. What is obscure is to be interpreted by what is clear; what is briefly hinted, by what is more fully expressed. Different writers, moreover, belonging to the same age, animated by the same spirit, and confessedly governed by the same general rules of faith and practice, mutually explain each other. Thus the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Micah, who belong to the same century, and in a less degree Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets of a later age, shed each a light on the pages of all the rest. The same is true of all the epistolary writers of the New Testament, notwithstanding their marked differences of style, and the different aspects also in which they respectively contemplate Christian doctrine and duty.
Our Saviour says of those who claimed to be, before his advent, the shepherds and leaders of God's spiritual fold: |All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not hear them.| John 10:8. Yet according to this same evangelist he honored Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, as true leaders and teachers of God's people. Chaps.8:39, 40, 56; 5:45-47; 12:38-41. We know, then, that the Saviour's words must be restricted to such spiritual thieves and robbers as the scribes and Pharisees of his day, who under the leadership of Satan (chap.8:41, 44) climbed up some other way into the fold.
The apostle Paul says (Rom.2:7) that God shall render |to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, and honor, and immortality, eternal life.| We know at once, without reference to the context, that he does not mean, in opposition to the whole tenor of his epistles, to affirm that men can obtain eternal life by their own well-doing, without respect to |the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon all them that believe.| But if we examine the context, this shows that here the apostle is not speaking of the meritorious ground of justification, but of God's impartial regard to a righteous character in both Jews and Gentiles.
Historical parallelisms hold of necessity a prominent place in the interpretation of both the Old and the New Testament. In the Old Testament we have the two parallel histories of the Hebrew commonwealth, first in the books of Samuel and the Kings, then in the books of Chronicles. In the New, the four gospels are four parallel accounts of our Lord's life and teachings. Then there are several parallelisms of less extent; as, for example, Isaiah's account of Sennacherib's war upon Hezekiah, and Hezekiah's sickness (Isa. chaps.36-39, compared with 2 Kings 18:13-20:21, and the briefer notice of 2 Chron. chap.32); the three accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:1-22; 22:1-21; 26:1-20); and other passages which will readily occur to the reader. To the work of comparing and harmonizing these parallel histories biblical students have with reason devoted much labor, since they mutually supplement and illustrate each other in many ways. We understand the books of Samuel and Kings more fully by comparison with the books of Chronicles, and the reverse. Each of the four gospels sheds light on the other three. It is by placing the three accounts of Paul's conversion side by side that we gain the most perfect knowledge of this event. The numerous coincidences between the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles, give us a fuller idea of the apostle's inward life and outward labors than we could otherwise gain. Without the epistles the biographical notices of the Acts would be very incomplete; without the narrative of the Acts many references in the epistles would remain obscure.
Yet these same historic parallelisms, which are the source of so much light, are the occasion of difficulties also, which require for their adjustment a comprehensive view of the spirit of inspiration. In respect to all essential matters of faith and practice, a divine unity pervades the Holy Scriptures. But this essential unity does not exclude diversity of conception and representation. Though all the |holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,| it pleased the divine Spirit to leave them free to speak each in accordance with his individual peculiarities of thought and language. A page from the writings of the apostle John, taken anywhere at random, can be at once distinguished from a page of Paul or Luke. In relating the same transaction, two inspired writers often select different materials, or handle them in a different way. The narrative of each is truthful, but not exhaustive. It gives a correct view of the thing related, but not all the particulars connected with it. The omission from two or more parallel narratives of concomitant circumstances, or the neglect of exact chronological order, sometimes makes the work of harmonizing them a very difficult matter. We feel confident that each separate narrative is correct, and that, had we all the accompanying circumstances in the true order of time, we could see how they are consistent with each other; but for want of this light the exact mode of reconciliation remains doubtful. Such difficulties are incident to all parallel histories. Had the Holy Spirit seen good, he could have excluded them from the pages of inspiration; but herein he chose to deal with us not as children, but rather as men |of full age, even those who, by reason of use, have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.| It is worthy of special notice, that where two or more evangelists record the same words of our Saviour, they are solicitous only about their substance.
In the three parallel accounts of the storm on the sea of Galilee, the disciples say according to Matthew (8:25): |Lord save us, we perish;| according to Mark (4:38): |Master, carest thou not that we perish?| according to Luke (8:24): |Master, master, we perish.| And the Lord answers according to Matthew (v.26): |Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?| according to Mark (v.40): |Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?| according to Luke (v.25): |Where is your faith?| On the variations in the words of the disciples Augustine well remarks (and the same remarks hold good of our Lord's answer): |The disciples have one and the same meaning in thus awaking the Lord and desiring salvation. Nor is it necessary to inquire which of these addresses, rather than the others, contains the exact words spoken to him. For whether they uttered one of the three, or other words which no one of the evangelists has mentioned, which yet have the same force in respect to the truth of the thought, what matters it?| Harmony of the Gospels 2.24, quoted by Alford on Matth.8:25.
On the relation of the books of Chronicles to those of Kings and the difficulties connected with them, see Chap.20, Nos.21, 22. On the relation of the four gospels to each other, see Chap.29, Nos.4-10. We cannot here go into particulars. It must suffice to indicate the general principle by which the harmonist must be guided.
6. The external acquirements necessary to constitute the well-furnished expositor of God's word -- the |scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven| -- have been already briefly noticed. Chap.33, No.6. Not only are the Scriptures in their original form locked up in dead languages which the interpreter must thoroughly master, but they are, so to speak, embedded in ancient history, chronology, and archaeology.
Illustrations of this point are so numerous that the only difficulty is in the selection. The servitude of the Israelites under the Egyptians, their captivity in Babylon, their deliverance under Cyrus, and their subsequent history till the time of our Lord's advent, connect themselves immediately, as all know, with the general history of the ancient heathen world. But there are many illustrations of a more special character. The difficulty of the position in which our Lord was placed by the ensnaring question of the Pharisees and Herodians respecting the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar, and the divine wisdom of his answer (Matt.22:15-22: Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26) cannot be perfectly understood without a knowledge, on the one hand, of the political condition and feeling of the Jews as subjected to the dominion of the Romans, which they thoroughly detested, and of which dominion the tribute money daily reminded them; and, on the other, of the hatred which both Pharisees and Herodians bore towards Christ, and their anxiety to find a pretext for accusing him to the people or before this same Roman government.
To apprehend the force of our Lord's argument from the Pentateuch against the error of the Pharisees: |Have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living| (Matt.22:31, 32), we must understand the form in which the Sadducees denied the doctrine of the resurrection. They denied, namely, the existence of spirits separated from bodies. Acts 23:8. To them, consequently, the death of the body was the annihilation of the whole man, which made the very idea of a future resurrection an absurdity. Our Saviour showed from the writings of Moses, whose authority they acknowledged, the error of their assumption that the spirit dies with the body. Thus he demolished the ground on which their denial of a future resurrection rested.
The psalmist says of those who hate Zion: |Let them be as the grass upon the house-tops, which withereth before one plucketh it| (Eng. version, |before it groweth up|): |wherewith the mower filleth not his hand, nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom.| Psa.129:6, 7. For the illustration of these words we need a double reference, (1) to the oriental custom of constructing flat roofs covered with earth, on which grass readily springs up; (2) to the division of the year into two seasons, the rainy and the dry, upon the commencement of which latter such grass speedily withers. Another reference to the same oriental roofs we have in the words of Solomon: |The contentions of a wife are a continual dropping;| |a continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike| (chaps.19:13; 27:15), where we are to understand a continual dropping through of water from the roof, which makes every thing within uncomfortable.
Our Lord's parable of the ten virgins (Matt.25:1-13) requires for its illustration a knowledge of the oriental customs connected with marriage: the transaction recorded by Luke, where a woman came behind Jesus as he reclined at the table, washed his feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:37, 38), and the position of John when at the last supper he leaned on Jesus' bosom (John 13:23, 25), cannot be made intelligible without a knowledge of the reclining posture in which meals were then taken: one familiar only with the use of glass or earthen bottles cannot comprehend the force of our Lord's maxim respecting the necessity of putting new wine into new bottles (Matt.9:17), till he is informed that oriental bottles are made of leather. We might go on multiplying illustrations indefinitely, but the above must suffice. We may affirm, without fear of contradiction, that the study of the Holy Scriptures has contributed more than all other causes to the diffusion among the masses of the community of a knowledge of ancient history and antiquities. To say that a congregation has a thorough knowledge of the Bible is equivalent to affirming that it has an enlarged acquaintance with the ancient world in its spirit as well as in its outward institutions and forms.
7. That the interpreter may make a wise and effective use of all the helps that have been enumerated, he needs especially that sound and practical judgment which is called in ordinary discourse good sense. Investigations respecting the meaning of terms, inquiries concerning the scope, reasonings from the context, the comparison of parallel passages, the use of ancient history, chronology, and archaeology -- that any one or all of these processes combined may lead to valuable results they must be under the guidance of that sound judgment and practical tact by which the interpreter is enabled to seize the true meaning of his author and unfold it with accuracy, or is at least kept from far-fetched and fanciful expositions where the author's real sense is involved in obscurity.
(1.) This quality of sound judgment will preserve the interpreter from inept expositions for which a plausible reason many be assigned.
Thus, when the Saviour says to Martha, who |was cumbered about much serving:| |One thing is needful,| these words have been interpreted to mean one dish -- not many and elaborate preparations, but a single dish. A sound judgment rejects at once this interpretation as below the dignity of the occasion, and not in agreement with what immediately follows: |Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.| The one thing needful is such a devotion of the soul to Christ as Mary manifested. So the words: |Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?| (John 21:15), have been explained to mean: more than these fish, or the employment and furniture of a fisherman -- an ingenious substitution, one must say, of a low and trivial meaning for the common interpretation: more than these thy fellow-disciples love me, which accords so perfectly with Peter's former profession: |Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.| Matt.26:33; Mark 14:29.
Interpreters who ordinarily manifest sound judgment and skill are sometimes betrayed into inept expositions through the influence of some preconceived opinion. The psalmist says, for example (Psa.17:15): |As for me, in righteousness shall I behold thy face: I shall be satisfied upon awaking with thy likeness;| that is, with the contemplation of thy likeness, with apparent reference to Numb.12:8: |The likeness of the Lord shall he behold.| This passage is ordinarily interpreted correctly of the vision of God upon awaking in the world to come. And this view is sustained by other like passages: |In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore| (Psa.16:11); |Truly God shall redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for he shall take me,| (Psa.49:15), where Tholuck well says: |He who took an Enoch and a Moses to himself, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will also take me to himself;| |Thou shalt guide me by thy counsel, and afterwards take me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever| (Psa.73:24-26) -- words that are inexplicable except as containing the anticipation of a blessed immortality with God in heaven; |The wicked is driven away in his wickedness; but the righteous hath hope in his death| (Prov.14:32); etc. But there is a class of interpreters who, having adopted the maxim that the Old Testament, at least in its earlier writings, contains no anticipations of a blessed life with God after death, are constrained to give to the passage in question the frigid meaning: I shall be satisfied with thy likeness when I awake to-morrow, as if the psalm were intended to be an evening song or prayer; or, whenever I awake, that is, from natural sleep.
(2.) A sound judgment will also keep the biblical scholar from interpretations that are contrary to the known nature of the subject.
A familiar example is the declaration made by Moses of God's view of man's wickedness: |And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.| Gen.6:6. The robust common sense of any plain reader will at once adjust the interpretation of these words to God's known omniscience and immutability; just as he will the prayer of the psalmist: |Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.| Psa.139:23, 24. The immutable God does nothing which is not in accordance with his eternal counsels. The omniscient God, to whom all truth is ever present, does not literally institute a process of searching that he may know what is in man. But in these and numberless other passages, he condescends to speak according to human modes of thought and action.
When it is said, again, that |the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh;| that |God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem| (Judg.9:23); that he sent a lying spirit to deceive Ahab through his prophets (1 Kings 22:21-23); that he sent Isaiah with the command: |Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes| (Isa.6:10); that he made the covenant people to err from his ways, and hardened their heart from his fear (Isa.63:17), we instinctively interpret these and other like passages in harmony with the fundamental principle announced by the apostle: |Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted of evil, neither tempteth he any man. But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.| Jas.1:13, 14. The Scriptures ascribe every actual event to God in such a sense that it comes into the plan of his universal providence; but they reject with abhorrence the idea that he can excite wicked thoughts in men, or prompt them to wicked deeds.
When it is said, once more, that men are drawn to Christ (John 6:44), or driven to worship the heavenly bodies (Deut.4:19), we understand at once a drawing and a driving that are in accordance with their free intelligent and responsible nature. Other illustrations of this principle will be given in the following chapter, which treats of the figurative language of Scripture.
(3.) The same quality of good sense will enable the interpreter to make those limitations in the language of the sacred writers which are common in popular discourse. In the language of daily life many statements are made in general terms that require for their exact truthfulness various qualifications which the readers or hearers can readily supply for themselves. Honest men, addressing honest men, are not in the habit of guarding their words against every possible misconstruction. It is enough if they speak so that all who will can understand them.
It is said, for example (Gen.41:57), that |all countries (literally, all the earth) came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because the famine was sore in all the earth.| It would be only trifling to ask whether |all the earth| included the people of Europe and India. The reader naturally understands all the lands around Egypt, since they only could come thither for corn. So when it is said in the account of the deluge that |all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered| (Gen.7:19), it is straining the sacred writer's words to give them a rigid geographical application, as if they must needs include the mountains about the North pole. |All the high hills under the whole heaven| were those where man dwelt, and which were consequently known to man. |The Holy Ghost,| says John, |was not yet given, because that Jesus was not yet glorified.| John 7:39. Yet David prayed ages before: |Take not thy Holy Spirit from me| (Psa.51:11); Isaiah says of ancient Israel that |they rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit| (Isa.63:10); the Saviour, long before his glorification, promised the Holy Spirit to all that should ask for him (Luke 11:13); and it is a fundamental article of our faith that from Abel to the archangel's trump all holiness is the fruit of the Spirit. But John's readers, who lived after the plenary gift of the Holy Spirit from the day of Pentecost and onward, could not fail to understand him as referring to the gift of the Spirit in that special sense. The apostle Paul says (1 Tim.2:4) that God |will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.| Yet the same apostle teaches that some will remain in ignorance of the truth, and thus perish.2 Thess.1: 8, 9; 2:11, 12. The reader's good sense readily reconciles the former with the latter passages. He understands God's will to have all men saved as the will of benevolent desire; just as God says of ancient Israel (Psa.81:13). |Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!| but because they would not do this, he |gave them up to their own heart's lust, and they walked in their own counsels| (ver.12). Many like illustrations might be added.
(4.) Hence we readily infer the office of a sound judgment in reconciling apparent contradictions, since these arise mainly from the neglect, in one or both of the passages between which the contradiction is said to exist, of reasonable qualifications and limitations.
A striking illustration of this is found in the two accounts of the creation. Gen. chaps.1-2:3 and chap.2:4-25. In the former narrative the order of time is an essential element. Not so in the latter, where man is the central object, and the different parts of creation are mentioned only as the writer has occasion to speak of them in connection with him. Hence we have in this latter passage the creation of the man (ver.7), the planting of the garden for his use with its trees and rivers (ver.8-14), the placing of the man in the garden and the law imposed upon him (ver.15-17), the defective condition of the man (ver.18), the notice in connection with this of the creation of beasts and fowls and their being brought to the man to receive names (ver.19, 20), the creation of the woman and the primitive condition of the pair (ver.21-25). This simple statement of the course of narration sufficiently refutes the allegation that the second account is inconsistent with the first.
In the first account of Paul's conversion it is said that |the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no man.| Acts 9:7. In the second Paul says: |They that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.| Acts 22:9. There is no valid ground for doubting that the first narrative, as well as the other two, came from the lips of the apostle himself, and the assumption of any essential contradiction is unreasonable and unnecessary. In regard to the light, it is certain that Paul saw the person of the Saviour, and was made blind by the glory of the vision (Acts 9:17, 27; 22:14; 1 Cor.9:1), while his companions saw only the light that shone around them, which did not make them blind. In regard to the voice, it is a fair interpretation that they heard a voice only, but no intelligible words. How this difference of perception between Paul and his companions in regard to both the light and the voice was effected we do not know, nor is it necessary that we should. The first account, again, represents Paul's companions as having |stood speechless,| while in the third the apostle says: |When we were all fallen to the earth,| Acts 26:14. The most natural explanation here is that the third narrative gives the posture with accuracy, while the first lays stress only upon the amazement which fixed them in a motionless attitude. The apparent discrepancies in these three parallel histories are peculiarly instructive, because they all proceed from the pen of the same author, and must all have been derived from the same source. Such circumstantial differences have the stamp of reality. Instead of throwing any discredit upon the transaction, they only establish its truth upon a firmer basis. Many like illustrations might be added.
(5.) Finally, where the means of reconciling discrepancies are not apparent, the same quality of a sound judgment will keep us from the two extremes of seeking, on the one hand, forced and unnatural explanations, and, on the other, of discrediting well-attested transactions on account of these discrepancies. In the scriptural narratives there are some difficulties (relating mostly to numbers, dates, and the chronological order of events) which we find ourselves unable, with our present means of knowledge, to solve in a satisfactory way. It is the part of sober reason to reserve these difficulties for further light, not to set aside, in view of them, facts attested by irrefragable proof.
Nothing in the evangelic record is more certain, for example, than the fact of our Lord's resurrection. Yet to harmonize the four accounts which we have of it in all their details is a work of extreme difficulty. |Supposing us to be acquainted with every thing said and done, in its order and exactness, we should doubtless be able to reconcile, or account for, the present forms of the narratives; but not having this key to the harmonizing of them, attempts to do so in minute particulars carry no certainty with them.| Alford on Matt.28:1-10. The same general principle applies to other difficulties -- in the Old Testament, that respecting the duration of the sojourn in Egypt, and other chronological questions; in the New, that of the two genealogies given of our Lord by Matthew and Luke, that of the day when our Lord ate the passover with his disciples, etc. See further in Chaps.19, Nos.6 and 8; 20, No.22; 29, Nos.8-10.
8. In bringing this chapter to a conclusion, we add a few words on the office of reason in the interpretation of Scripture. It is admitted by all that we have certain primitive intuitions which lie at the foundation of all knowledge. That an immutable obligation, for example, rests on all men to be truthful, just, benevolent, and grateful, is a truth which we see by the direct light of conscience. There are certain moral axioms, also, outside of the direct sphere of conscience, which shine by their own light. Such is that fundamental truth of theology thus announced by the apostle John: |God is light, and in him is no darkness at all| (1 John 1:5); where light and darkness are both taken in a moral sense, as the context shows; and thus by the apostle James: |God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man| (Jas.1:13); and thus, ages before, by Moses: |He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he| (Deut.32:4); and still earlier by Abraham: |Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?| (Gen.18:25). We are sure that no declaration of God's word, properly interpreted, will contradict these necessary and universal convictions. But there are many weighty truths that lie wholly above the sphere of our direct intuitions on which the infinite understanding of God is alone competent to pass an infallible judgment. Such are the following: If it be God's will to create a race of intelligent beings, what shall be the compass of their faculties, moral, intellectual, and physical? In what circumstances and relations shall he place them, to what probation shall he subject them, and what scope shall he allow to their finite freedom? If they sin, what plan shall he devise for their redemption, and by what processes shall he reveal and execute this plan? These, and many other questions involving man's highest interests, lie above the sphere of simple intuition. God alone, who looks through eternity at a glance, can fully comprehend them, for they are all constituent parts of his eternal plan. That human reason, which cannot see the whole of truth, should affect to sit in judgment upon them, and to pronounce authoritatively what God may, and what he may not do, is the height of presumption and folly.