[Table of Contents]
|Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)
PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION.
On Principles of Interpretation he writes:
The whole Christian religion, in its facts, its precepts, its promises, its doctrine, its institutions, is presented to the world in a written record. The writings of Prophets and Apostles contain all the divine and supernatural knowledge in the world. Now, unless these sacred writings can be certainly interpreted, the Christian religion never can be certainly understood. Every argument that demonstrates the necessity of such a written document as the Bible, equally demonstrates the necessity of fixed and certain principles or rules of interpretation: for without the latter, the former is of no value whatever to the world.
All the differences in religious faith, opinion and sentiment, amongst those who acknowledge the Bible, are occasioned by false principles of interpretation, or by a misapplication of the true principles. There is no law, nor standard--literary, moral, or religious--that can coerce human thought or action, by only promulging or acknowledging it. If a law can effect anything, our actions must be conformed to it. Were all students of the Bible taught to apply the same rules of interpretation to its pages, there would be a greater uniformity in opinion and sentiment than ever resulted from the simple adoption of any written creed.
Great unanimity has obtained in most of the sciences in consequence of the adoption of certain rules of analysis and synthesis: for all who work by the same rules, come to the same conclusions. And may it not be possible, that in this divine science of religion, there may yet be a very great degree of unanimity of sentiment and  uniformity of practice amongst all who acknowledge its divine authority? Is the school of Christ the only school in which there can be no unanimity--no proficiency in knowledge? Is the Book of God the only volume which can never be understood alike by those who read and study it? it can not be supposed, but by dishonoring God: for as all the children of God are taught by God, if they are necessarily unintelligent in his oracles and discordant in their views, the deficiencies must rather be imputed to the teacher than to the taught; for the pupils in this school can be taught other sciences in other schools, with such uniformity and harmony of views, as to make it manifest to all that they are the disciples of one teacher.
God's Book is, however, put into the hands of men as it was first spoken to men; but they have, in some cases, been taught not to receive it from God, but from men. They do not consider that the written book as well as the spoken word, is tendered to us under the stipulations of human language--according to the contract between man and man, touching the value or meaning of the currency of thought--that every word and sentence is to be weighed and tested by the constitutional laws and standards of the currency of ideas.
When one person addresses another, he supposes the person addressed competent to interpret his words; and, therefore, all wise and benevolent men select such words and phrases as, in their judgment, can be interpreted by those addressed. Every speaker proceeds, in all his communications, upon the principle that his hearer is an interpreter--that he has not first to be taught the science of interpretation; and that he is bound so to express himself, that his hearer may interpret and understand his words by an art which is supposed to be native--which is indeed universal--common to all nations, barbarous as well as civilized.
Now, as God is infinitely wise and benevolent in all his oral communications to men, he proceeded upon the principle that they were, by this native art, competent interpreters of his expressions; for otherwise, his addresses could be of no value. He could not even begin to teach them a new art of interpretation, as respected his communications, but by using their own words in the stipulated sense, unless we imagine a miracle in every case, and suppose that all his words were to be understood by a miraculous interposition. And this idea, if carried out, would make a verbal revelation of no value whatever to the children of men.
If human language had never been confounded--if a multitude of different dialects had not been introduced--no occasion for translating language, as a matter of course, would ever have existed. Again, if words and phrases, and the manners and customs of mankind, were unchangeably fixed, or universally the same at all times and in all  countries, the art of interpreting would have been still more simple than it is; for so far as it is artificial, it is owing to different dialects, idioms, manners, customs, and all the varieties which the ever-changing conditions of society have originated and are still originating.
At present, however, we would only impress upon the mind of the reader, that the very fact that we have a written revelation--that this revelation was first spoken, then written--supposes that there is somewhere a native or an acquired art of interpretation; that the persons addressed were already in possession of that art: for without such an understanding, there would have been neither wisdom nor benevolence in giving to mankind any verbal communication from God.
In the present essay we shall offer a very few remarks upon, first, the inspiration of the Bible; second, the language of the Bible; third, the distribution of the Bible into chapters and verses; fourth, the different dispensations of redemption; and fifth, offer seven cardinal rules of interpretation:--
Revelation and inspiration, properly so called, have to do only with such subjects as are supernatural, or beyond the reach of human intellect, in its most cultivated and elevated state. In this sense "holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." But besides this inspiration of original and supernatural ideas, there was another species of supernatural aid afforded the saints who wrote the historical parts of the sacred scripture. There was a revival in their minds of what they themselves had seen and heard; and in reference to traditions handed down, such a superintendency of the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge as excluded the possibility of mistake in the matters of fact which they recorded. The promise of "leading into all truth," and the promise of "bringing all things before known to remembrance," by the Holy Spirit, include all that we understand by inspiration in its primary and secondary import.
But while this inspiration precluded the selection of incorrect or unsuitable words and sentences, the inspired men delivered supernatural communications in their own peculiar modes of expressing themselves. To illustrate my meaning by another reference to the gift of tongue, the subjects of that splendid gift in a moment understood those foreign languages as well at least as they knew their own; and in expressing themselves selected such terms as, in their judgment, most fitly and intelligibly communicated their ideas. In other words, their own judgment or taste in the selection of terms was not suspended by the new language. They used the terms of the new dialect, as they used the terms of their native tongue--chose such as, in their judgment, would most clearly and forcibly reveal the mind of the Spirit to their hearers. 
We regard the Apostles of Jesus Christ as gifted with a full and perfect knowledge of the Christian institution; which entitled them, without the possibility of error, to open to mankind the whole will of their Master, whether in the form of fact, precept, promise, or threatening; and as furnished with such a knowledge of the signs of those ideas in human language as to express this knowledge clearly, accurately and infallibly to mankind. But from what they have spoken and written, we are authorized to think that they were as free in the selection of words and phrases as I am in endeavoring to communicate my views of their inspiration.
My reasons for this opinion are, that neither the Prophets nor the Apostles exhibit any sort of solicitude in always expressing themselves in the same words upon the same subject. Nor does any one of them seem at all concerned to be consistent with himself on all occasions, in using the same words; either in delivering precepts, uttering promises, or in giving a narrative of any of the incidents of his own life or those of his companions. We have no less than three accounts of Paul's conversion and mission to the Gentiles--one from Luke, and two from himself; one delivered to the Jews in Jerusalem, and one before Agrippa; yet no two of them agree in word, though in sense they are uniformly the same.1 We have two accounts of the conversion of the Gentiles--one by Luke, and one by Peter,2 and these are as diverse in words, though as accordant in sense, as the narratives of Paul's conversion. We have four memoirs of Jesus Christ, brief records of his sayings and doings; and yet no two of them agree in words, in narrating a single speech, or in describing a single incident in his life; though there is, as far as they severally relate, a most perfect harmony in sense.
Peter's allusion to the epistles of Paul fully expresses all that we desire to teach on this subject. "Paul wrote," says he, "according to the wisdom given him." Paul's epistles are, then, the development and application of that wisdom given to him, expressed in his own style. It may, indeed, be said that, guided by wisdom, it was impossible for him to select, on any occasion, words or phrases inaccurate, or not clearly and fully expressive of the ideas suggested; so that as Paul himself says, he explained spiritual things in spiritual words, or in words taught by the Spirit. We must, therefore, regard these words as the words of the Spirit. It was God's Spirit speaking to them, through such words as were natural to them from education and habit. According to these views, the English, or German, or French New Testament, is as much the word of the Spirit as the Greek original, if that original is faithfully translated; but in any other  view of inspiration, we have not the word of God, nor the teachings of the Spirit, only in the Hebrew and Greek originals of the two covenants.
Before we dismiss this subject it may be observed that we find many things in these writings which are quite natural and common, for which inspiration is neither claimed nor pretended; many specimens of which will occur to the reader, when one is fairly examined. "Make haste to come to me soon; for Demas having loved the present world has forsaken me, and is gone into Thessalonica, Crescens into Galatia, and Titus into Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Take Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me in the ministry. But Tychycus I have sent to Ephesus. The cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus bring with you, and the books, but especially the parchments."3
The Apostles, acting under the high authority and commission of Jesus Christ, and inspired with all divine and supernatural knowledge, exhibited in doctrine, in precepts, ordinances, promises, threatenings, and developments of things spiritual, celestial, eternal, are, in consequence of these endowments and authority, worthy of all respect and regard, even when writing upon the most common matters; and these apparently uninteresting things are to the student of the Living Oracles, of great value and of indispensable importance in giving a full development of the religion of Christianity, in all its condescensions and adaptations to the most minute and common concerns and business of this life.
God has spoken by men, to men, for men. The language of the Bible is, then, human language. It is, therefore, to be examined by the same rules which are applicable to the language of any other book, and to be understood according to the true and proper meaning of the words, in their current acceptation, at the times and in the places in which they were originally written or translated.
If we have a revelation from God in human language, the words of that volume must be intelligible by the common usage of language; they must be precise and determinate in signification, and that signification must be philologically ascertained--that is, as the words and sentences of other books are ascertained, by the use of the dictionary and grammar. Were it otherwise, and did men require a new dictionary and grammar to understand the Book of God--then, without that divine dictionary and grammar, we could have no revelation from God; for a revelation that needs to be revealed is no revelation at all.
Again, if any special rules are to be sought for the interpretation of the sacred writings, unless these rules have been given in the  volume, as a part of the revelation, and are of divine authority--without such rules, the Book is sealed; and I know of no greater abuse of language than to call a sealed book a Revelation.
But the fact that God has clothed his communications in human language, and that he has spoken by men, to men, in their own language, is decisive evidence that he is to be understood as one man conversing with another. Righteousness, or what we sometimes call honesty, requires this; for unless he first made a special stipulation when he began to speak, his words were, in all candor, to be taken at the current value; for he that would contract with a man for anything, stipulating his contract in the currency of the country, without any explanation, and should afterwards intimate that a Dollar with him meant only three Franks, would be regarded as a dishonest and unjust man. And shall we impute to the God of truth and justice what would blast the reputation of a fellow-citizen at the tribunal of political justice and public opinion!
As, then, there is no divine dictionary, grammar, or special rules of interpretation for the Bible, then that Book, to be understood, must be submitted to the common dictionary, grammar, and rules of the language in which it was written; and as a living language is constantly fluctuating, the true and proper meaning of the words and sentences of the Bible must be learned from the acceptation of those words and phrases in the times and countries in which it was written. In all this there is nothing special; for Diodorus, Herodotus, Josephus, Philo, Tacitus, Sallust, etc., and all the writers of all languages, ages and nations, are translated and understood in the same manner.
Enthusiasts and fanatics of all ages determine the meaning of words from that knowledge of things which they imagine themselves to possess, rather than from the words of the author: "they decide by what they suppose he ought to mean, rather than by what he says."
To adopt any other course, or to apply any other rules, would necessarily divest the sacred writings of every attribute that belongs to the idea of revelation. It must never be forgotten in perusing the Bible, that in the structure of sentences, in the figures of speech, in the arrangement and use of words, it differs not at all from other writings; and must, therefore, be understood and interpreted as they are.
How, then, is the meaning of its words to be acquired? Every word in the Scripture has some idea attached to it, which we call its sense, or meaning. But this meaning is not natural, but conventional. It is agreement, usage, or custom, that has constituted a connection between words and the ideas represented by them, and  this connection between words and ideas has become necessary by usage.
How this originated is not the question before us: the fact is all that now interests us. We are not at liberty to affix what meaning we please to words, nor to use them arbitrarily; inasmuch as custom has affixed, by common consent, a meaning to them.
The meaning of words is, therefore, now to be ascertained by testimony; and that testimony we have collected in those books called dictionaries, which, by the consent of those who spoke that language faithfully, represent the meaning attached to those terms, or the ideas of which those words were the signs. "The fact," says Professor Stuart, "that usage has attached any particular meaning to a word, like any other historical fact, is to be proved by adequate testimony. That testimony may be drawn from books in which the word is employed, or from daily use in conversation. But the fact of a particular meaning being attached to a word when once established, can no more be changed or denied than any historical event whatever. Of course, an arbitrary sense can never with propriety be substituted for a real one. All men in their daily conversation and writings attach but one sense to a word at the same time, and in the same passage, unless they design to speak in enigmas. Of course, it would be in opposition to the universal custom of language, if more than one meaning should be attached to any word in Scripture, in such a case"--that is, in the same passage, and at the same time.
But, although a word has but one meaning at the same time and in the same passage, it may, at another time and in another passage have a different meaning; for many words have, by common consent, more meanings than one. This is what has caused so much ambiguity in language, and so much difficulty in ascertaining the meaning of some sentences and passages in all authors, and in the sacred writings.
Every word, indeed, had but one meaning at first; but to prevent the multiplication of words to an indefinite extent, and to obviate the difficulties that would thence arise in the acquisition of the knowledge of a language, words, in process of time, were used to represent different meanings. A question then arises, How shall we always ascertain the meaning of any particular word? If it have but one meaning, testimony or the dictionary decides it at once; but if it have more meanings than one, the proximate words used in construction with it, usually called the context, together with the design of the speaker or writer, must decide its meaning. Usage and the context will generally decide. If these fail, the design of the speaker and the parallel passages must be summoned. These are the aids which the, canons of interpretation authorize in such cases. 
That there is, generally, perfect certainty in the proper interpretation of a word--that is, in ascertaining or communicating its meaning (for this is what is properly called the act of interpretation), is felt and acknowledged on all hands. But the foundation, or reason of this certainty, is a matter which should be evident to all.
Now, unless we are compelled by necessity, arising from the laws of language, to any particular meaning, there can be no certainty. Therefore, this compulsion is the very cause of certainty. Philological necessity, or that necessity which the common usage of a word, the context, the design of the writer create, in giving a particular meaning to a word in a sentence, is the ground of that complete certainty, which, whether it can or can not explain, everyone feels in the meaning of the language. And as a very eminent critic has said, "If any one should deny that the above precepts lead to certainty, when strictly observed, he would deny the possibility of finding the meaning of language with certainty." These remarks would be sufficient to guide us in acquiring the meaning of words, if they had any one class of meanings. But there is the literal and the topical or figurative meaning of words, which must be distinguished before we can feel ourselves competent to decide, with perfect certainty, the true and proper meaning of any composition.
And, first, of the literal meaning of words. As has been observed, every word originally had but one meaning; and this, of course, which was first, was the natural, or the literal meaning. Some of our most approved philologists and grammarians define the literal sense of words to be, "The sense which is so connected with them, that it is first in order, and is spontaneously presented to the hand, as soon as the sound of the word is heard." "The literal sense does not differ," says the celebrated Ernesti, "among the older and valuable writers, from the sense of the letter." But better defined by Professor Stuart, of Andover: "The literal sense is the same as the primitive or original sense; or, at least, it is equivalent to that sense which has usurped the place of the original one: for example, the original sense of the word tragedy has long ceased to be current; and the literal sense of this word, now, is that which has taken the place of the original one." Popular writers, in speaking of the sense of words, are wont to substitute grammatical for literal, as equivalent; because literal, in its Latin extraction, and grammatical, in its Greek extraction, exactly represent the same thing. But in a shade differing from these they use the word historical in reference to the interpretation of the Scriptures. "Since," says T. H. Horne, in his Introduction, "it is not sufficient to know grammatically the different expressions employed by writers to interpret ancient works, so it is necessary that we add historical interpretation to our grammatical or literal  knowledge. By historical interpretation, we are to understand that we give to the words of the sacred author the sense which they bore in the age when he lived, and which is agreeable to the degree of knowledge which he possessed, as well as conformable to the religion professed by him, and to the sacred and civil rights or customs that obtained when he flourished."
When, however, we speak of the literal or grammatical sense of a word, we mean no more than its primitive meaning. And when we speak of the historical meaning of a word, we mean its meaning at any given time. The figurative meaning of words belongs to another chapter.
In no book in the world is the literal sense of words the only sense; and still less in the Bible. But no book in the world, either among the ancients or the moderns, has been interpreted, quoted, and applied so licentiously as the Bible. Learned and unlearned have quoted and applied its words, as if its authors were outlaws and rebels in the commonwealth of letters. Some of the ancient Jews said that every letter in a word in the Old Testament had a special meaning, and the very openings of the mouth to pronounce them was significant of something sacred. The rabbinic maxim used to be, and perhaps still is, "On every point of the Scriptures hang suspended mountains of sense." The Talmud says, "God so gave the law to Moses, that a thing can be shown to be clean and unclean forty-nine different ways." Little more than a century ago, Cocceius, of Leyden, maintained that "all the possible meanings, of a word are to be united." He raised a considerable party upon this principle.
But an opposite extreme, and quite as dangerous, into which some have run, is, that "some passages of the Scriptures have no literal meaning at all." If by this it were understood that some passages have only a tropical or figurative meaning, it might be admitted without detriment to our knowledge of the will of Heaven; but as it is understood by many, a license is taken to allegorize, not only the historical part of both Testaments, but also the miracles of Moses, of Christ, and of the Apostles--the paradisaical state, the flood; and even the precepts and promises of the gospel institution; so that the whole revelation of God is thrown into the laboratory of every man's imagination, and the key of knowledge forever taken from the people. That the words of the sacred writings are taken both literally and figuratively, as the words of all other books, is now almost universally conceded; and that the true sense of the words is the true doctrine of the Bible, is daily gaining ground amongst the most learned and skillful interpreters: in one word, that the Bible is not to be interpreted arbitrarily, is the most valuable discovery or concession of this generation. This, indeed, was confessed by our most distinguished  reformers. Melanchthon said, "The Scripture can not be understood theologically until it is understood grammatically." And Luther affirmed that "a certain knowledge of Scripture depends only upon a knowledge of its words."
The various divisions and subdivisions of the sacred Scriptures into chapters, verses, and members of sentences, are of human authority, and to be regulated as such. Anciently all the books of the sacred Scriptures were written in one continuous manner--without a break, a chapter, or a verse. The division into chapters that now universally obtains in Europe, derived its origin from Cardinal Cairo, who lived in the twelfth century. The subdivision into verses is of no older date than the middle of the sixteenth century, and was the invention of Robert Stevens. Whatever advantage these divisions may have been in the way of facilitating references, they have so dislocated and broken to pieces the connection, as not only to have given to the Scriptures the appearance of a book of proverbs, but have thrown great difficulties in the way of an easy intelligence of them. The punctuation, too, being necessarily dependent on these divisions, is far from accurate; and, taken altogether, it affords a demonstration that there is no more divinity in the chapters, verses, commas, semicolons, colons and periods of the inspired writings than there is in the paper on which they are inscribed, or in the ink by which they are depicted to our view.
From all of which facts, the following rule is of essential importance:--
In reading the historical and epistolary parts of the sacred writings, begin at the beginning and follow the writer in the train of his own thoughts and reasonings to the end of the subject on which he writes, irrespective of chapters and verses.
This rule must be observed in all cases when we read for the sake of understanding any of the sacred books or letters.
It must always be remembered by him who would be a scribe, well instructed in the kingdom of heaven, that the whole Bible comprehends three distinct dispensations of religion, or three different administrations of mercy to the human race. These are the Patriarchal, Jewish and Christian ages of the world.
There are three high priesthoods, viz.: that of Melchizedek, that of Aaron, and that of Jesus the Messiah; and under each of these there will be found a different economy of things. A knowledge of the leading peculiarities of each is essential to an accurate knowledge of any of them and the right interpretation of the Bible.
It is a standing maxim in religion, that, the priesthood being changed, there is of necessity a change of the law pertaining to acceptable worship. 
After the close of one dispensation, and the commencement of a new one, no man could be accepted in his approaches to God by the preceding economy. Moses, nor Aaron, nor the people of the Jews, after they had departed from Sinai, dare approach God by sacrifice--as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were wont to do.
The sovereignty and wisdom of God is most conspicuous in these arrangements. But it is our present duty only to say, that before we an feel any confidence in our interpretations of any law, commandment, or institution of religion, a previous question must always be decided--viz.: To what dispensation did it belong?
We shall now conclude this summary view of the principles of interpretation, by stating in order seven general rules of interpretation of primary importance, deduced from the preceding reflections:
Rule I. On opening any book in the sacred Scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.
II. In examining the contents of any book, as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, etc., observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates. Is he a Patriarch, a Jew, or a Christian? Consider also the persons addressed--their prejudices, characters, and religious relations. Are they Jews or Christians--believers or unbelievers--approved or disapproved? This rule is essential to the proper application of every command, promise, threatening, admonition, or exhortation, in Old Testament or New.
III. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, etc., the same philological principles, deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.
IV. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have according to testimony--(i. e., the Dictionary)--more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning; for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.
V. In all tropical language ascertain the point or resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.
VI. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories, and parables, this rule is supreme. Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point--to all the  attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.
VII. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance.
There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance, beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ear hears not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills.
Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance can not understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference.
The wisdom of God is as evident in adapting the light of the Sun of Righteousness to our spiritual vision, as in adjusting the light of day to our eyes. The light reaches us without an effort of our own; but we must open our eyes; and if our eyes be sound, we enjoy the natural light of heaven. There is a sound eye in reference to spiritual, as well as in reference to material light. Now, while the philological principles and rules of interpretation enable many men to be skillful in biblical criticism, and in the interpretation of words and sentences, who neither perceive nor admire the things represented by those words, the sound eye contemplates the things themselves, and is ravished with the spiritual and divine scenes which the Bible unfolds.
The moral soundness of vision consists in having the eyes of the understanding fixed solely on God himself, his approbation, and complacent affection for us. It is sometimes called a single eye, because it looks for one thing supremely. Every one, then, who opens the book of God with one aim, with one ardent desire, intent only to know the will of God--to such a person the knowledge of God is easy; for the Bible is framed to illuminate such, and only such, with the salutary knowledge of things spiritual and divine.
Humility of mind, or what is in effect the same, contempt for all earth-born pre-eminence, prepares the mind for the reception of this light, or, what is virtually the same, opens the ears to hear the voice of God. Amidst the din of all the arguments of the flesh, the world, and Satan, a person is so deaf that he can not hear the still, small voice of God's philanthropy. But receding from pride, covetousness, and false ambition--from the love of the world--and in coming within that circle, the circumference of which is unfeigned humility, and the center of which is God himself--the voice of God is distinctly heard and clearly understood. All within this circle are  taught by God--all without it are under the influence of the wicked one. "God resisteth the proud, but he giveth grace to the humble."
He, then, that would interpret the oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master's feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.
A. C., 1846, p. 13.
Alexander Campbell. "Tracts for the People.--No. III.: The
Bible--Principles of Interpretation."
[Table of Contents]
|Benjamin Lyon Smith
The Millennial Harbinger Abridged (1902)