CHAPTER XXXIII. INTRODUCTORY REMARKS.1. The term Hermeneutics (Greek, hermeneuo, to interpret) is commonly employed to denote the principles of scriptural interpretation. The Greek word exegesis -- that is, exposition -- denotes the actual work of interpretation. Hermeneutics is, therefore, the science of interpretation; Exegesis, the application of this science to the word of God. The hermeneutical writer lays down general principles of interpretation; the exegetical writer uses these principles in the exposition of Scripture. The terms epexegesis and epexegetical are used by expositors in a special sense to denote something explanatory of the immediate context.2. The expositor's office is, to ascertain and unfold the true meaning of the inspired writers, without adding to it, subtracting from it, or changing it in any way. Here we may draw an instructive parallel between his work and that of the textual critic. The textual critic aims to give, not what some one might think the inspired penman should have written, but what he actually did write. So the true expositor, taking the very words of Scripture, seeks not to force upon them a meaning in harmony with his preconceived opinions, but to take from them the very ideas which the writer intended to express. It is pertinent, therefore, to consider at the outset the qualifications which belong to the biblical interpreter. These include high moral and intellectual qualities, as well as varied and extensive acquirements.3. Foremost among the qualities that belong to the interpreter is a supreme regard for truth. A general conviction and acknowledgment of the duty of truthfulness will not be sufficient to guard him against all the seductive influences that beset his path. Though he may be a sincere Christian, he will still be in danger of being misled by the power of preconceived opinions and party connections. He will need a constant and vivid apprehension of the sacredness of all truth, more especially of scriptural truth, which God has revealed for the sanctification and salvation of men. |Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.| These words of the Saviour he will do well to ponder night and day, till they become a part of his spiritual life; and to remember always that, if such be the divine origin and high office of scriptural truth, God will not hold guiltless any who tamper with it in the interest of preconceived human opinions, thus substituting the folly of man for the wisdom of God.4. The interpreter further needs a sound judgment, combined with the power of vivid conception. These two qualities are named together, because they mutually supplement each other. A large part of the Bible is occupied with description. Here the interpreter needs the power of conception, that he may bring before his mind a vivid picture of the scenes described, with the relations of their several parts to each other. Another large part of the Bible contains the language of poetry and impassioned feeling. In the interpretation of this, the faculty of conception is especially necessary, that we may place ourselves as fully as possible in the circumstances of the writers, and form a true idea of the emotions which filled their minds and gave form and complexion to their utterances. Pure cold logic, with the addition of any amount of human learning, will not enable us to comprehend and expound aright the forty-second Psalm. By the power of imagination, we must go with the poet, in his exile from the sanctuary at Jerusalem, across the Jordan to the land of the Hermonites; must see his distressed and forsaken condition; must hear the bitter taunts of his enemies; must witness the inward tempest of his feelings -- a continual conflict between nature and faith -- before we can have a true understanding of his words. The same might be said of innumerable other passages of Scripture. But this power of vivid conception, when not held in check by a sound judgment, will lead the expositor of Scripture into the wildest vagaries of fancy. Disregarding the plainest rules of interpretation, he will cover up the obvious sense of Scripture with a mass of allegorical expositions, under color of educing from the words of inspiration a higher and more edifying meaning. That high natural endowments, united with varied and solid learning and indefatigable zeal for the gospel, do not of themselves constitute a safeguard against this error, we learn from the example of Origen and many others. Not content to let the simple narratives of Scripture speak for themselves and convey their proper lessons of instruction, these allegorical expositors force upon them a higher spiritual sense. In so doing, they unsettle the very principles by which the spiritual doctrines of Scripture are established. Origen, for example, in commenting on the meeting between Abraham's servant and Rebecca at the well in Haran, says: |Rebecca came every day to the wells. Therefore she could be found by Abraham's servant, and joined in marriage with Isaac.| Thus he gives the literal meaning of this transaction. But he then goes on to show, among other things, that Rebecca represents the human soul, which Christ wishes to betroth to himself, while Abraham's servant is |the prophetic word, which unless you first receive, you cannot be married to Christ.| See in Davidson's Sacred Hermeneutics, pp.103, 104.
5. Another indispensable qualification of scriptural interpretation is sympathy with divine truth; in other words, that harmony of spirit with the truths of revelation which comes from a hearty reception of them, and a subjection of the whole life, inward and outward, to their control. |If any man,| said our Saviour, |will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.| John 7:17. In these words our Lord proposed to the unbelieving Jews the true remedy for their ignorance and error respecting his person and office, which had their ground not in the want of evidence, but in their perverse and guilty rejection of evidence. Their moral state was one of habitual rebellion against the truth of God; and they could not, therefore, have sympathy with the Saviour's doctrine. They hated the light, and would not come to the light, because their deeds were evil. John 3:20. What they needed was not more light, but that obedient spirit which loves the light, and allows it to shine through the soul. The man who would be a successful interpreter of God's word must begin where the Saviour directed these Jews to begin. So far as he knows the truth, he must give it a hearty reception not in theory alone, but in daily practice. Then he will be prepared to make further progress in the knowledge of it, and to unfold its heavenly treasures to his fellow-men. But if he comes to the study of God's word with a heart habitually at variance with its holy precepts, and an understanding darkened by the power of sinful affections, no amount of scholarship or critical sagacity will avail to make him a true expositor of its contents. Having no sympathy with the great foundation doctrines of the gospel, but regarding them with positive aversion, he will neither be able to apprehend them in their true light, nor to explain them aright to his fellow-men. In the work of interpretation, a good heart -- good in the scriptural sense -- is not less important than a clear understanding and well-furnished mind.
6. How extensive and varied should be the acquirements of the able interpreter will be manifest to any one who considers the extent and variety of the fields of knowledge covered by the Holy Scriptures.
The languages in which they are written are no longer spoken. The knowledge of them, like that of all dead languages, is locked up in books -- grammars, lexicons, ancient versions, and various subsidiary helps -- and can be mastered only by severe and protracted study. It is not indeed necessary that the great body of Christians, or even all preachers of the gospel, should be able to read the Bible in the original languages. But it is a principle of Protestantism, the soundness of which has been confirmed by the experience of centuries, that there should always be in the churches a body of men able to go behind the current versions of Scripture to the original tongues from which these versions were executed. The commentator, at least, must not take his expositions at second hand; and a healthy tone of feeling in regard to the sacredness and supreme authority of the inspired word will always demand that there should be a goodly number of scholars scattered through the churches who can judge from the primitive sources of the correctness of his interpretations.
The Scriptures are crowded with references to the cities, mountains, plains, deserts, rivers, and seas of Palestine and the surrounding regions; to their climate, soil, animals, and plants; to their agricultural products and mineral treasures; to the course of travel and commerce between the different nations; in a word, to those numerous particulars which come under the head of geography and natural history. The extended investigations of modern times in these departments of knowledge have shed a great light over the pages of inspiration, which no expositor who is worthy of the name will venture to neglect.
And if one collect and illustrate the various allusions of Scripture to the manners and customs of the ancient Hebrews, to their civil institutions and their religious rites and ceremonies, he will compose a volume on biblical antiquities.
The connection, moreover, which the covenant people had with the surrounding nations, especially the great monarchies which successively held sway over the civilized world -- Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, Greece, Rome -- requires an extended knowledge of ancient history, and, as inseparably connected with this, of ancient chronology. Biblical chronology constitutes, indeed, a science of itself, embracing some very perplexed and difficult questions, the solution of which has an important bearing upon the passages of Scripture to which they have reference.
7. We do not affirm that all the above-named qualifications are necessary to a saving knowledge of God's word. Its great essential doctrines and precepts are so plain that the unlettered reader, who brings to the work an honest heart, cannot fail to understand them. In this respect God has made the vision so plain |that he may run that readeth it;| and the road to heaven so direct that |the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.| But the interpreter of Scripture is expected to unfold the meaning of the difficult passages also, as far as human investigation will enable him to do so. They are a part of |all Scripture given by inspiration of God,| which the apostle affirms to be |profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.| He should spare no effort, therefore, to ascertain their exact sense, and to expound this sense to others with all possible fidelity and clearness.
8. There is a human and a divine side to biblical interpretation -- a human side, because the Scriptures address men in human language, and according to human modes of thinking and speaking; a divine side, because they contain a true revelation from God to men, and differ in this respect from all other writings. The neglect of the human side leads to visionary schemes of interpretation, in which the writer's fancy is substituted for the sober rules of criticism, and the word of God accommodated to his preconceived opinions. The rejection, open or covert, of the divine side, manifests itself in a cold, skeptical criticism, which denies or explains away all that is supernatural in the Bible; which, instead of seeking to discover and unfold that unity of plan and harmony of parts which belong to every work of God, delights rather in exaggerating the supposed inconsistencies and contradictions of the sacred writers, and in arraying one part of Scripture against another; and which, having no faith itself in the Bible as containing a revelation from God, infuses doubts respecting its divine origin into the mind of the reader. It is only by keeping steadily in view these two sides of revelation, which mutually supplement each other, that we can attain to a true knowledge of the inspired word.