Milton S. Terry
ISBN: 1-57910-225-5 ©1890
Special qualities of the Bible
WHILE it is true that the Bible is to be interpreted like other books, and therefore requires attention to the laws of General Hermeneutics, it is also a notable fact that in many respects it differs from all other books. It contains many revelations in the form of types, symbols, parables, allegories, visions, and dreams. The poetry of the Hebrews is a special study in itself, and no one is competent to appreciate or expound it who has not become familiar both with its spirit and its formal elements. And what a wealth of figurative language in the Bible! " I am persuaded," wrote Sir William Jones, "that this volume, independently of its divine origin, contains more true sublimity, more exquisite beauty, more pure morality, more important history, and finer strains of poetry and eloquence than can be collected from all other books, in whatever age or language they may have been written." 1
Textbook of religion
The Bible, moreover, is a textbook of religion, and its chief value is seen in the fact that it is divinely adapted to be profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and, for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). It is therefore of the highest importance to know to what extent these sacred instructions may be gathered from the written word, and to guard against false methods in the elaboration of scriptural doctrine. Some exegetes manifest a morbid desire to find "mountains of sense in every line of Holy Writ," and are constantly finding double meanings, recondite allusions, and marvelous revelations in the plainest passages. Others go to an opposite extreme, and not only eliminate the doctrines of the supernatural, but even refuse to recognize some of the most obvious lessons touching the unseen and eternal which are set forth on many a page. No faithful and permanently satisfactory exposition of the book of religious instruction is possible without a sound conception of the spiritual nature of man, and of faith in God as the means of religious life and growth.
It is also to be observed that the Holy Scriptures are the accretion of a literature that covers some sixteen centuries, and variety of subject matter and represents various authors and times of composition. These books embody biography, history, law, ritual, psalmody, drama, proverbs, prophecy, apocalypses, and epistles. Some were written by kings, others by shepherds, and prophets, and fishermen. One writer was a tax gatherer, another a tentmaker, another a physician. They lived and wrote at various periods, some of them centuries apart from others, and their places of residence were also far separate, as Arabia, Palestine, Babylon, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. The antiquities and varying civilizations of different nations are imaged in these books, and when the name of an author is not known, it is usually not difficult to ascertain approximately, from his statements or allusions, the time and circumstances of his writing. The obvious result is that the Bible comprises a great diversity of literature, and the larger portion of it calls for special hermeneutics in its interpretation.
Distinction between substance and form
It is an important part of the province of Special Hermeneutics to set forth the distinction between the essential thought of a writer and the form in which lt is clothed. No little confusion has been introduced into biblical exposition by reason of a failure to make this discrimination. The faithful and true interpreter must imbibe the spirit of the author whom he would expound. If he would understand and explain Isaiah, he must not only transport himself into the age in which that prophet lived, but must also become possessed of some measure of his emotion when he bewailed the abominations of his time. And when, for example, the son of Amoz portrays the sinful nation as diseased in head and heart, and declares that from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness, but rather wounds, and bruises, and raw sores (Isa. 1:6), we are not to insist on the full significance of each particular word. Such doleful utterances, even of inspired prophets, are likely to contain elements of oriental hyperbole, and may, at times, be coloured by the speakers own despondency. A notable instance of this kind is the language of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:10 (comp. verse 18), and it is probable that other prophets, although not fleeing for their lives, have sometimes expressed their heart-sorrow in a similar strain. When Isaiah in the name of Jehovah denounces the burnt offerings of Israel as an abomination (Isa. 1:11-14), we are not to rush to the conclusion that his language is equivalent to a condemnation of animal sacrifices in general, nor does it warrant the opinion that the ritual of the sanctuary was not of divine appointment. The passage in Jer. 7:21-26 has troubled some critics because of its apparent conflict with the recorded history of the exodus; but is not its real import best apprehended when we recognize it, not as a prosaic statement of historical fact, to be literally understood, but as an impassioned outburst of prophetic inspiration, designed to emphasize the utter worthlessness of sacrifice when made a substitute for obedience ? Special Hermeneutics aims to find the proper analysis and import of such language of emotion. It must take cognizance both of the spirit and the forms of human speech, and distinguish correctly between them. In like manner must it treat of all which is special or peculiar in the Holy Scriptures, and which, accordingly, differentiates these writings from other compositions of men. 2
Biblical Hermeneutics is a department of General Hermeneutics, and, as we have seen, calls in the main for the application of the general principles required in the interpretation of all literature. But as so large a portion of the Bible is composed of poetry and prophecy, and contains so many examples of parable, allegory, type, and symbol, it is proper in treating the science of biblical interpretation to devote more space to Special than to General Hermeneutics.
Parables, allegories, types, and symbols, have their peculiar laws, and grammatico-historical interpretation must give attention to rhetorical form and prophetic symbolism, as well as to the laws of grammar and the facts of history.
The Bible its own best interpreter
The principles of Special Hermeneutics must be gathered from a faithful study of the Bible itself. We must observe in the Bible the methods which the sacred writers followed. Naked propositions or formulated rules will be of little value unless supported and illustrated by self-verifying examples. It is worthy of note that the Scriptures furnish numerous instances of the interpretation of dreams, visions, types, symbols, and parables. In such examples we are to find our principles and laws of exposition. The Holy Scripture is no Delphic oracle, to bewilder the heart by utterances of double meaning. Taken as a whole, and allowed to speak for itself, the Bible will be found to be its own best interpreter.
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1. Written on a blank leaf in his Bible.
2. The very peculiarities of the Bible have undoubtedly contributed largely to their enduring power over the human heart "This volume," says Phelps, "has never numbered among its believers a fourth part of the human race, yet it has swayed a greater amount of mind than any other volume the world has known. It has the singular faculty of attracting to itself the thinkers of the world, either as friends or foes, always and every-where." Men and Books, p. 239, New York, 1882.