The literal, grammatical interpretation of the Scriptures must (connected with the figurative, tropical, or rhetorical) be observed in order to obtain a correct understanding of this kingdom.
PROPOSITION 4. The literal, grammatical interpretation of the Scriptures must (connected with the figurative, tropical, or rhetorical) be observed in order to obtain a correct understanding of this kingdom.
On a proposition which has brought forth many volumes in its discussion, we desire simply to announce our position, and assign a few reasons in its behalf. Its import is of such weight; the consequences of its adoption are of such moment; the tendency it possesses of leading to the truth and of vindicating Scripture is of such value, that we cannot pass it by without some explanations and reflections.
Obs. 1. We unhesitatingly plant ourselves upon the famous maxim (Eccl. Polity, B. 2.) of the able Hooker: “I hold for a most infallible rule in expositions of the Sacred Scriptures, that where a literal construction will stand, the furthest from the letter is commonly the worst. There is nothing more dangerous than this licentious and deluding art, which changes the meaning of words, as alchymy doth, or would do, the substance of metals, making of anything what it pleases, and bringing in the end all truth to nothing.” The primitive Church occupied this position, and Irenæus (Adv. Hær. 2, C. 27) gives us the general sentiment when (in the language of Neander, Hist. Dogmas, p. 77) “he says of the Holy Scriptures: that what the understanding can daily make use of, what it can easily know, is that which lies before our eyes, unambiguously, literally, and clearly in Holy Writ.”(1) However much this principle of interpretation was subverted, as history attests, by succeeding centuries (not without protests), yet at the Reformation it was again revived. Thus Luther (Table Talk, “On God’s Word,” 11) remarks: “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word; he that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay.”(2) In confirmation of such a course, it may be said: if God has really intended to make known His will to man, it follows that to secure knowledge on our part, He must convey His truth to us in accordance with the well-known rules of language. He must adapt Himself to our mode of communicating thought and ideas. If His words were given to be understood, it follows that He must have employed language to convey the sense intended, agreeably to the laws grammatically expressed, controlling all language; and that, instead of seeking a sense which the words in themselves do not contain, we are primarily to obtain the sense that the words obviously embrace, making due allowance for the existence of figures of speech when indicated by the context, scope, or construction of the passage. By “literal,” we mean the grammatical interpretation of Scripture. Some writers, to avoid lengthy or circumlocutory phraseology, have employed the phrase “literal interpretation,” by which they denote, not that every word or sentence is to be taken in its rigid literalism, but that the language of the Bible is to be interpreted by the customary rules of grammar and rhetoric, which are used in determining the sense of the “Iliad,” “Paradise Lost,” and works of human composition. We are to accept of a strictly literal rendering, unless we have the distinctive marks of figures of speech, when the tropical sense is also received, without afterward, in addition, engrafting upon it another and separate sense which is not allowed by the rules of grammar, but which (i.e., last added sense) is applied by many to the Bible, as if the language of that book was not fairly circumscribed by, but formed an exception to, the universal laws of language. This is our position endorsed by the exhortation given to all to search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11; Jno. 5:39), by the frequent appeals made to the fulfilment of prophecy on a literal basis, by the obligations to know God’s Word founded on the ability (Matt. 24:15) to comprehend it, etc. When employing the word “literal,” we are to be comprehended as also fully acknowledging the figurative sense, the beautiful ornaments of language; we cordially accept all that is natural to language itself, its naked strength and its charming adornments, but object to additionally forcing on it a foreign element, and enclosing it in a garb that hides its just proportions. When, too, it is said that the Bible is thus to be interpreted like any other book, governed by the laws which alone can protect us against a wrong imposition of meaning, reference is solely made to its grammatical construction, and not, as Liberals and others employ this idea in behalf of unbelief, that it is merely a human production. With the human element there is also a Divine; grammatically, to accord with our infirmity, it is constructed like any other book, but under, in and through this are truths far beyond human conception and production.(3)
Note 1. Neander (Ch. Hist. vol. 1, p. 388) says that Irenæus, Tertullian, Clement, etc., in opposing Gnosticism, directed attention to “a sober, grammatical method of interpretation, and leading them to establish the first hermeneutical canons,” etc. The student will observe that, while advocating the early reception of the grammatical interpretation, yet even, as Mosheim, Neander, and others have noticed, then some of its advocates as well as others more or less imbibed the Rabbinical Jewish custom of obscuring the plain language of Scripture by forced allegories and a recondite sense. The Jews, as is well known, while to a large degree holding to a literal interpretation (as e.g. in reference to a literal coming and kingdom of the Messiah, etc.), at the time of the First Advent had fallen more and more into a figurative and allegorizing interpretation, which culminated in the speculative Cabala. Milman (Hist. Jews, vol. 3, p. 443) remarks of the Cabala: “Not only was the Bible one vast allegory, in which the literal sense was scornfully cast aside, and a wild and arbitrary one attached to every history and every doctrine, but at the same time there was a superstitious reverence for the letter; the numbers of the letters, 10, 7, 12, 32, every single letter, the collocation of every letter, the transposition, the substitution, had a special, even a supernatural power.” Fairbairn (Typology, vol. 1, p. 326) refers to Eisenmenger (Entwectes Judenthum), and remarks that “some Rabbinical authorities contend for forty-nine, and others for as many as seventy meanings to each verse.”
Note 2. Bloomfield (Pref. p. 15, Gr. Test.) quotes Luther, Melanchthon, Scaliger, and Bishop Middleton as favoring the grammatical and literal sense. Luther (On Deut., quoted Seiss’s Last Times, p. 253) pointedly says: “I here once more repeat, what I have so often insisted on, that the Christian should direct his efforts toward understanding the so-called literal sense of Scripture, which alone is the substance of faith and of Christian theology, which alone will sustain him in the hour of trouble and temptation, and which will triumph over sin, death, and the gates of hell, to the praise and glory of God. The allegorical sense is usually uncertain, and by no means safe to build our faith upon; for it depends for the most part on human opinion only, on which if a man lean he will find it no better than the Egyptian reed. Therefore Origen, Jerome, and similar of the Fathers are to be avoided, with the whole of that Alexandrian school which abounds in this species of interpretation.” The Encyclop. Relig. Knowl., Art. “Sense of Scripture,” affirms that the Reformers, over against the Romish fourfold sense, adopted the grammatical, and that Luther declared it to be “the only sense that it will do to die by.” Mosheim (Eccl. Hist., vol. 3, p. 137), over against “the uncertain and fallacious method of the ancients, who neglected the literal sense, and labored to extort from the holy oracles by the aid of the fancy a kind of recondite meaning, or in other words to divert them without reason, to foreign applications,” eulogizes “that golden rule of all sound interpretation which Luther first introduced, namely, that all the sacred books contain but one single meaning,” and commends Melanchthon because “rarely departing from the literal meaning.” All the Reformers, without exception, expressed similar views; and however much they may have, on the one hand, injured the principle by a too rigid literalism in some instances, or, on the other, by a violation of it, yet every one holds it up as a principle to be followed as a guide. Every student of the Reformation must have noticed that one of the objections urged against the Reformers was their too strict adherence to the letter, as e.g. Carlstadt’s issuing violent tracts against Luther’s “stupid and shallow literal theology.” Ellicott (Aids to Faith, Essay 9, Scrip. and Inter.), after tracing the interpretation of the Church, says: “there has been from the very earliest times, not only in theory but in practice, a plain, literal, and historical mode of interpreting Scripture,” and this he finds exemplified even in many who often, for the sake of the preciousness of the literal, overlooked their theory of differing senses.
Note 3. The extreme of Parker (Dis. of Religion, p. 242) is one-sided—viz., “the conclusion is forced upon us that the Bible is a human work, as much as the Principia of Newton or Descartes.” Unbelievers and semi-believers generally advocate that the construction of the Bible is like that of other books, but refuse (Bauer, etc.) to credit the fact that it is diverse from all other books in the authority and truths that it contains. Our entire argument following shows that we hold it to be above and beyond all other books in the unity of supernatural and Divine things embraced. Briefly: when the dyer and weaver color and weave the woollen fabric of artistic design, we do not discard the wool, or dye, or machinery—common to the production of all woollen fabrics—which have aided in producing it, when we also regard the design, the figures and their connection, and admire the taste and skill of the designer. Thus applied to the Word, admitting the instrumentalities employed—even the most humble—it would be folly to confine ourselves to these, and not contemplate the unity of design, etc. evidenced. Again, the very fact that the Bible is received as a revelation, has influenced many, who are largely addicted to spiritualizing, to tell us, as e.g. Professor Bush (Pref. to Mill.): “it cannot be doubted that the sacred volume was given to man in order to be understood.” If so, how is it possible to discard the grammatical interpretation for another depending solely upon man’s inferences or fancies? Again, this position does not conflict with a twofold fulfilment of prophecy, if some choose to adopt it in several cases (Comp. Brooke’s El. of Proph. Interp., p. 86, etc.), seeing that both fulfilments are based on the same literal sense. Again, the grammatical interpretation combined with the historical does not forbid, owing to the variety of subjects, the greatness of them, the deep meanings often presented, the connection that one portion has to another, the difference of style, the signification of words, etc., a diversity of opinion on various passages.
Obs. 2. The only true standard of interpretation is the grammatical (aided by the historical), and this opposes: 1. That spiritual or mystical one which looks for an internal revelation either in or under the letter; 2. The rationalistic notion that such an interpretation must be attached to the letter as will best accommodate itself to reason; 3. The Romish idea that such an interpretation of the letter can only be accepted as is in unison with the authoritative utterance of the Church; 4. And the High Church notion, that only such a meaning as is consistent with symbolical representations can be received. The adoption of any one of these four opinions immediately causes a prejudicing of the Word, and thus unqualifies the person from becoming an unbiased interpreter. Let the reader consider that the grammatical interpretation was for ages the only one used; and can a reason be given why it should suddenly be abandoned for another? Much of Scripture was presented long before Christ, and the portion thus written was literally comprehended by the Jews, not only without rebuke from, but with the decided approbation of, the Almighty. God appeals to the literalness of His Word, as affording proof that each part shall find in due time its mate. His veracity and power are staked on a literal fulfilment. Now if the Word was not thus to be understood; if a hidden and recondite sense lay beneath it waiting for Origen, Swedenborg, etc., to reveal it, how could the Jews be censured for misapprehending the Scriptures; how could they derive comfort and edification from them; and how could they possibly have entertained an enlightened faith and hope? To suppose this is equivalent to saying, that for many centuries the Jews held to an erroneous sense(1)—to the “husk,” as Neander and others phrase it—and that they were guided into, and confirmed in, such a belief by the express words of God Himself. If we reject the literal and substitute another mode of interpretation, there is no deliverance from this dilemma, however much men may attempt to gloss it over by “progression,” “development,” etc. Admitting that revelation was gradual, that truth and additional light were introduced by degrees, all this has nothing whatever to do with the mode of interpretation, seeing, as we shall abundantly show hereafter, that a consistent unity can only be preserved by a continuous application of the same method of interpretation to the respective additions given. It is the most reasonable to anticipate, that a principle of interpretation once universally held and for ages applied, would not undergo a reversal without a plain direction from God authorizing it to be made.(2)
Note 1. We do not overlook (Obs. 1, note 1) that before the Advent of Jesus the Jews had already, to some extent, departed from this literal interpretation, having adopted an allegorical, mystical system, which was in favor with the Rabbinical portion. This, however, does not vitiate our argument, which urges the period preceding this introduction, and accepts of the fact that, e.g., in reference to the doctrine of the kingdom, there was no departure from the literal interpretation even among the Rabbinical party. The mystical departure, too, was confined to but a few, comparatively, of the learned, and had but little influence upon the body of the nation. This is seen, 1. By the united expectation of a literal kingdom, as admitted by all writers; 2. By the preaching of John the Baptist, the disciples, and Jesus; 3. By the rejection of Jesus on the ground that a literal kingdom was not established, etc. Even Shedd (Hist. Ch. Doc.) acknowledges that “one of the principal grounds of their (Jews) rejection of Christ was the fact that He represented the Messiah’s rule as a spiritual one in the hearts of men, and gave no countenance to their literal and materializing interpretation of the Messianic prophecies.” (Shedd’s misapprehension of Christ’s teaching will be noticed hereafter, but he is correct in his statement that the Jews understood the Messianic prophecies in their grammatical sense.) Dr. Knapp (Ch. Theol., p. 326) affirms: “The allegorical interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures cannot be historically proved to have prevailed among the Jews from the time of the exile, or to have been common with the Jews of Palestine at the time of Christ and His apostles. Although the Sanhedrim and the hearers of Jesus often appealed to the Old Testament, according to the testimony of the New Testament writers, they give no indication of the allegorical interpretation. Even Josephus has nothing of it The Platonic Jews of Egypt began, in the first century, in imitation of the heathen Greeks, to interpret the Old Testament allegorically. Philo was distinguished among those in that place who practised this method and he defends it as something new and before unheard of, and for that reason opposed by the other Jews; De Confus. Lingu. page 347 seq. Jesus was not, therefore, in a situation where he was compelled to comply with a prevailing custom of allegorical interpretation; for this method did not prevail at that time among the Jews, certainly not in Palestine, where Jesus taught.” (He declares: “The writers of the New Testament themselves make a clear distinction between the allegorical and literal interpretation of the Old Testament. When they use the allegorical method, they either say expressly, here is allegory, Gal. 4:24, or they show it by the context, or by prefixing some particle of comparison, e.g., ?¯spe? ?a??¯?, Heb. 7; John 3:14; Matt. 12:40.” He concludes, therefore, that we must receive literal predictions, promises, etc., unless otherwise indicated, which rule he repeatedly violates in his own work.) Dr. Knapp’s position is abundantly confirmed by Neander, Mosheim, Kurtz, and other historians, by articles in Cyclopædias on Philo, interpretation, etc. Pressense (The Early Years of Christianity, p. 99) says: “While an ingenious and learned school formed at Alexandria had contrived by a system of allegorical interpretation to infuse Platonism into the Old Testament, the school at Jerusalem had been growing increasingly rigid, and interdicted any such daring exegesis. It clung with fanatic attachment to the letter of the Scriptures, but, failing to comprehend the spirit, it sunk into all the puerilities of a narrow literalism. Its interpretations lacked both breadth and depth; it surrendered itself to the subtilities of purely verbal dialectics.” So also Pressense (p. 325) remarks of the heresies of the first century: “These heretics then followed the example of Simon Magus, in turning the Scriptures to their own purposes, and wresting them into the confirmation of their peculiar tenets. They gave an allegorical interpretation to the historical portion of the Old Testament, and thus cast a sacred veil over their monstrous errors.” Heresy is no friend to the plain grammatical sense of the Word. The history of interpretation is briefly told. The first, and Jewish, method was to abide by the grammatical sense (still retained to some extent by the Orthodox—over against the Reformed or Rationalist—Jews, and especially by “the Karaites” or “Scripturists”), but as the Jews came in contact with Greek and Oriental philosophy (in Egypt, Greece, etc.), the effort to conciliate the Hebrew Scriptures with such a philosophy led to a second mode by which the obvious sense is made figurative in order to convey another sense—the latter being regarded as the higher. This brought forth three distinctive types of interpretation: the grammatical, the ideal, and these two, more or less, combined. The Jewish method—evidenced by its exclusiveness and Messianic hopes—was adopted by the primitive Church, as witnessed e.g. by its application of prophecy, its Pre-millenarian views, etc. The ideal, presented in the system of Philo, was inaugurated into the Christian Church by the Alexandrian fathers, and speedily gained a wide-spread reputation, being followed by numerous writers. A combination of the grammatical and ideal found a host of followers down to the Reformation. Tradition, metaphysical speculations, some favorite form of philosophy, were incorporated. At the Reformation there was a return to the Jewish method, and while the ideal and mystical has been largely adopted, yet the extremes—excepting in a few cases—once so prevailing are now avoided. As to Philo’s system, afterward adopted by Christian fathers (Origen, etc.), we only quote, as illustrative, from an Article entitled “Alexandrian Christianity” (The North Brit. Review, August, 1855): “According to him (Philo), nearly the whole of Scripture, not only its parables, its symbolical ceremonies, its obscure prophecies, but even the simplest language in which it relates the most ordinary transaction, every name and every number that it contains, possesses not only a plain but also a hidden meaning, the former of which is to the latter as the body to the soul.” After stating that Aristobulus and other Jews, Oriental and Alexandrian, and even Greeks (in application to their poets) had employed this method, the writer adds: “We should say that the adoption of this principle of interpretation by Philo and his Christian disciples was the greatest obstacle to their discovering the true meaning of the Bible, and is the cause of their being almost useless as expositors. They themselves compared the literal interpretation to the flowers and fruits that grow upon the surface of the ground, and the allegorical one to a jewel hid beneath the soil; and we may well say that, while boring and groping after this jewel supposed to be concealed, turning every stone and sifting every grain of sand, they often missed or destroyed the wholesome fruit and beautiful flower that grew before their eyes and beneath their feet.” So that Ueberweg (Hist. Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 229) remarks: “Philo criticises the attitude of those who merely hold fast to the literal sense of Scripture as low, unworthy, and superstitious.”
Note 2. It is a sad fact that multitudes declare the plain grammatical sense in numerous passages, if received, to be a corruption of the truth. God is thus virtually charged not merely with surrounding “the kernel” (truth) with “a husk” (error), but (to carry out the figure) with a poisonous one! But even men who constantly violate the grammatical sense by the engrafting of a higher and spiritual sense, at times confess the superiority of the former. Thus, to illustrate (quoted in McClintock and Strong’s (Cyclop., Art. “Interp.”): “Jerome (Com. in Mal. 1:14), about A.D. 400, could say, ‘The rule of Scripture is, where there is a manifest prediction of future events, not to enfeeble that which is written by the uncertainty of allegory.’ ” “Even Hilary in his book ‘De Trinitate,’ 1, properly asserts, ‘He is the best reader who rather expects to obtain sense from the words than imposes it upon them, and who carries more away than he has brought, nor forces that upon the words which he had resolved to understand before he began to read.’ ” The student will not fail to observe that Protestant Confessions of Faith insist upon this grammatical sense when e.g. speaking (Art. XX. Anglican Church) of “God’s Word written,” or (Art. 18, Scotch Conf.) of “the plain text of Scripture.” Indeed, all confessions are based upon it, and assume the sense accepted as the one commending itself to all by the common rules of language. Many, like Porphyry (in his third Book; see Art. on, McClintock and Strong’s Cyclop.), object to the allegorical and mystical interpretation introduced into the Church by the Alexandrian fathers, as e.g. illustrated in “The Apology,” (vol. 1, p. 11 of The Literalist), and in Luther’s principle of interpretation (vol. 3, p. 127). Some Millenarian writers (as Dr. Craven in Lange’s Com. Rev., p. 98) prefer “normal” to the word “literal,” as more expressive of our views of interpretation, not discarding the figurative.
Obs. 3. Such a reversal or change is, unfortunately, inferred from several passages of Scripture, and professing to be controlled in this matter by the Word, it becomes requisite to examine the legitimacy of the inference. 1 Cor. 2:14 is advanced as in conflict with our proposition and as fully endorsing its opposite, viz: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” This passage pushed to an extreme, forms the key-note of the mystical, spiritualizing, Origenistic system of interpretation; the foundation of countless vagaries. Let us test it, e.g., by the facts connected with the incarnation and death of Jesus; these were revealed by the Spirit and realized in such a manner that they are to be understood literally (as commands, duties, etc.), but to one class they are foolishness, and they do not know them, in the sense of appreciating their value, or importance, or relation to God and man (for knowing is used, as any concordance will show, as an equivalent for appreciation, experience, etc.); while to another class they are known by “spiritual discernment.” What does this latter expression denote? That we are to attach to the incarnation and death a spiritual meaning and discard the literal? No! “spiritually discerned” is discerning “the things of the Spirit,” i.e., things given by the Spirit; noting how the Spirit reveals and records them in the Scriptures, submitting ourselves to the guidance and enlightening influence of the Spirit through the written Word, until by His teaching and Divine aid we learn to appreciate and to appropriate the truths revealed to ourselves; and not to reject a literal rendering, and fasten, under the assumption of special superadded enlightenment, another sense upon the Scriptures. “The things of the Spirit” are a matter of record, and not left to the fancies or heated imaginations of every man who professes to be remarkably guided and influenced by the Spirit. Therefore, to properly discern what are the teachings of the Spirit, the record itself must be received in the sense prescribed by the usage of language. Even if the passage be regarded as teaching that the soul, mind, or Spirit discerns the truth, this does not invalidate the literalness of the recorded things of the Spirit, as already evidenced by the example presented. For in the context it is distinctly stated that God reveals His truth through the Spirit, and that such a revelation is contained “not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but” (in the words) “which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things” (i.e. the things taught by the Spirit) “with spiritual things” (i.e. with other things also received from the Spirit). This brings us back to the question already answered, How are the words themselves to be apprehended—as teaching what they grammatically contain, or as including some other meaning?
Another passage often paraded as against us is found in 2 Cor. 3:6: “Who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” While it is impossible to preserve the force and true apprehension of this Scripture without understanding what is meant by the New Testament or covenant (which will be examined Prop. 50, in connection with the Abrahamic covenant), yet, aside from this, sufficient reason can be advanced to rebut its reference to a literal, or any other system of interpretation. Asking what is meant by “the Spirit,” the answer comes in the very same chapter “Now the Lord is that Spirit” (v. 17, comp. Barnes’ admissions, etc.), and (in v. 18, according to Barnes, Beza, Wolf, Locke, Rosenmüller, Doddridge, etc., the Greek is) “from the Lord the Spirit.” If Christ be the Spirit here denoted, how can it refer to interpretation? Or, if the testimony of the apostle, that by the Spirit Christ is meant, is set aside, we ask then, How comes it, according to the statement of Neander and a host of writers, that the apostles could not rid themselves of the “materialistic husk” of a literal interpretation of the Word? If the “literal” application “killeth” as some(1) declare, how does it come then that God gives His word in such a form? Is it reasonable or credible that He, who is justly lauded for benevolence, mercy, and grace, would give truth surrounded by a deadly covering—truth too indispensable to secure the happiness and peace of man? Is it not the rule of the Divine procedure (uttered by Jesus, Matt. 7:8, 9, 10, etc.) that even man will not give to an asking son a stone for bread or a serpent for a fish, much less God? Such are a few of the questions that immediately suggest themselves, when making the passage advocate a proceeding that would be inconsistent in man. The simple, unpretending meaning of the verse is this: that the Word of God in its letter (i.e. in its plain, unambiguous written form) cannot give life; that possessing the letter alone would inevitably lead to death, for having only the letter the covenant promises could not be realized, but that having the Spirit, even Christ, the assurance is given that the letter itself—death without Christ or the Spirit—or the promises of God contained in the letter, shall be duly verified and accomplished. Two passages throw light on this verse; the one where even the letter of the Gospel, the preaching of the apostles, may prove to be a “savor of death unto death” (2 Cor. 2:16) without Christ; and the other (John 6:63), when Jesus, to indicate the future resurrection and possession of eternal life, says: “It is the Spirit that quickeneth” (comp. 2 Cor. 4:14; John 5:21; Rom. 8:11; Gal. 4:17; Phil. 3:21), keeping in view that this quickening is applied to Christ in 1 Pet., 3:18, “being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” Hence the literal aspect of the truth is far from being condemned or set aside; if so, it would sweep away the most precious promises that the Bible contains. It is then to be received, but in connection with it, that also which alone gives it efficacy and power in this world, and in that which is to come.(2) The idea, therefore, of the apostle is, that without the related work and power of Jesus, as the Christ, and His Spirit exerted in our behalf, the mere reception of the truth in its material form will, instead of delivering from, only conduct to death. There is nothing in the scope of the passage to indicate any such reference as many attach to it, so condemnatory to the Bible and the practice of the apostles.(3)
Note 1. Cornelias Agrippa (On the Vanitie of Sciences, ch. 97) speaks of the Scholastics and their performances, and adds (what is applicable to-day): “against which if any will resist with the authoritee of the holy Scriptures, fourthwith he shall saie: the letter killeth, it is deadly, it is unprofitable; but they saye that we ought to search out that which lieth hidden in the letter afterwarde they having recourse to interpreting, to expoundinge, to glossinge, and to sillogisinge, do rather give it some other sense, than the proper meaninge of the letter; if thou instantly require an answere and be earnest upon them, they will give evil language and call thee Asse, as one which understandeth not that which is hidden in the letter, but as a serpente feedest on the earthe alone,” etc. A recent illustration of a ruinous interpretation of this passage in 2 Cor. 3:6 may be in place. The eloquent H. W. Beecher preached from this text, as reported e.g. N. Y. Sun, May 19th, 1873, and the sermon exhibits the painful conclusion that in his efforts to glorify “the Spirit” he utterly degrades “the letter.” Misapprehending the meaning of his text, he presses it in his service to undervalue—as infidels do—the written record; comparing the latter in its imperfections to the dead bark, moss, worms, and insects scraped (by assailants, unbelievers) from the trees of an orchard, adding: “and the more they raked the better he would like it,” etc. The tendency of such declarations are dangerous and most derogatory to the Word. Then, again, it is amazing to witness the self-contradiction of writers. Take e.g. Calvin (who in many places favors a literal interpretation Inst. ch. 10 B. 2, S. 8,) speaking of the letter, says: “The Old Testament is literal, because it was promulgated without the efficacy of the Spirit,” etc., and yet in the same section he admits that under this “literal” dispensation men were converted, that the work of the Spirit was experienced, that men were moved and spake by Him! He endeavors to palliate his expression by adding that this “is used by way of comparison.” But this does not remove the difficulty, and it does not inform us how the Old Testament, once literal, now becomes “spiritual.” And when Calvin was attacked (D’Aubigné’s Reformation, vol. 3, p. 81) by Quinten “the spiritual,” the latter sought refuge in the following: “We are not subject to the letter which killeth, but to the Spirit which giveth life.… The Bible contains allegories, myths which the Holy Spirit explains to us.” Calvin replied: “You make your Scriptures a nose of wax, and play with it, as if it were a ball.”
Note 2. The critical reader will observe that our argument has only reference to the doctrinal interpretation, and not to the practical influence that doctrine or truth should have on the life. There may be a clear apprehension of doctrine, and yet it may (as, alas, multitude of instances testify) be inconducive to piety, etc., but this practical neglect does not affect the interpretation. Spener (Hagenbach, Hist. Doc., vol. 2, p. 246) took the right position when opposing the mere reception of the letter without an additional self-appropriation of the truth expressed in it. And in opposing the Quakers he justly observes, on the other side: “Our feelings are not the norm of truth, but Divine truth is the norm of our feelings. This rule of truth exists in the Divine Word apart from ourselves.”
Note 3. The misinterpretation of this and the previous passage has opened a wide door to innumerable vagaries and assumptions of higher spiritual excellence. Thus, to illustrate: it led Schwenkfeld (Kurtz, Ch. Hist., vol. 2, p. 155), to call Luther’s insisting upon the unconditional authority of the Word of God “a bondage to the letter,” and caused him to exalt a professed “inner word of the Spirit above the written Word of the Scriptures.” The names of Antoinette Bourignan, Seb. Frank, Thamer, Servetus, Labadie, “The Angelic Brethren,” Jumpers or Barkers, Shakers, Duchoborzins (a Russian sect, see Kurtz, Ch. Hist., vol. 2, p. 239), Zoharites, Muggletonians, Petro-Joannites, and others, are suggestive of the same. This theory of interpretation run to excess may be found in Woolston’s book (London, 1722), “A Free Gift to the Clergy,” in which “the hireling priests of what denomination soever” “are all ministers of the letter.” The titles of various works are amply sufficient, such as e.g. How’s “Sufficiency of the Spirit’s Teaching without Human Learning; or a Treatise Tending to Prove Human Learning to be no Help to the Spiritual Understanding of the Word of God;” or the “Allegorical Explanations of both Testaments;” or the “Mystical Ark,” etc. So Hutchinson based his system on a fanciful etymology of Hebrew words, from which spiritual significations were drawn, so that history was turned into prophecy, and the plain grammatical sense was set aside. Such extravagances still exist, and a thousand illustrations might be drawn from recent writers, reviving in a measure the idea advocated even by Lardner, Stevenson, Pearce, Sherlock, etc. (who follow Woolston’s and Thomas’ views) that the Gospel history itself is to be understood in a mystical or parabolic sense. Mysticism, more or less developed, is found in many authors of the present day, although they refuse the extreme of the “Abecedarians,” who (Appletons’ Cyclop.) “held that without the aid of study the Holy Spirit would convey directly to the understanding a knowledge of the Scriptures, and that, therefore, it was better not to know how to read.” It is also a sad commentary on human weakness that tracts and books, containing doctrinal statements, interpretations of prophecy, etc., claim that their interpretations were given by special Divine inspiration or enlightenment through the Spirit. Without questioning the sincerity of these persons (for men are easily led to such a belief, if they assume themselves to be the special favorites of the Spirit in the reception of gifts), it is sufficient to say that every such a plea vitiates the value of their teaching, and imposes alone upon the weak, ignorant, or unreflecting, who are unable to test their utterances by the general analogy of the Word. Luther, on John 14:25–28, gives an infallible rule for trying the professed (by men) utterances of the Holy Spirit, thus: “If one come, therefore, and present anything to me as taught or revealed by the Holy Spirit, I keep to the Word and hold this doctrine up to it, as to the true touchstone. If now I see that it agrees with that which Christ says, I receive it as right and good. But if it be a departure from it, or would produce something different from it, then I say, Thou art not the Holy Ghost, but the detestable devil. For the true Spirit comes in no other name than in the name of Christ, and teaches nothing other than what the Lord Christ has said.” A writer in the North Brit. Review (May 1849) objects to Morell (“Philosophy of Religion”), not allowing the letter of the Scriptures its true position and weight as the testimony of God, but makes the only ground of certitude to exist in the subjective mind of the inquirer—in intuitional consciousness. The fact is that, to induce the highest certitude, we must receive the authoritative letter as containing the truth, give it its logical force (through reason), and allow its intuitive influence (through a responding moral nature), dependant upon the Spirit that gave the truth, and upon our adaptability for its reception. God’s Word is true, whether men receive or reject it.
Obs. 4. Briefly, then, we are forced by a regard for consistency to endorse the proposition for the following reasons: 1. God communicates with us through language, and He follows, in order that we may understand, the usages of language. 2. The literal interpretation was the ancient mode employed down to the time of Christ. 3. It was the early Christian Church method, and continued thus until subverted by the Alexandrian and monkish one. (Comp. e.g. in reference to interpretation of Scriptures relating to kingdom, Props. 70–78). 4. It is the one to which God alone appeals in behalf of the veracity, etc., of His word. 5. It is the only one that can give us the certainty that it is not the work of man. 6. The fundamental truths of Christianity, the covenants, the person, incarnation, life, and death of Jesus, the promises, the fulfilment of prophecy, etc., are based upon it. 7. It is the one that maintains its reasonableness and accordance with the laws of language, and can thus be tested and proven. 8. It presents a simplicity which binds together the Old and New Testaments in unity of language and of design that no other system bestows. 9. It brings forth most prominently the analogy of Scripture and of faith. 10. It not only preserves the promises of God intact, but fully shows how and when they are fulfilled. 11. It conduces to bring out most distinctively a perfect Redeemer and a completed redemption. 12. It prevents a host of contradictory meanings applied to the kingdom, clearly tracing and presenting it as the covenants and promises demand. 13. It effectually closes the door to a flood of wild and antagonistic interpretations fastened on the Word under the claim of superior spiritual enlightenment, discernment, and sanctity. 14. It aids us fairly to meet, without lowering and degrading the Word by abject concessions and the accommodation theory, the assaults of unbelievers. The bearing of all this will be evidenced as we pass over the leading doctrine of the Bible; and the result of our labors, the fruit of adherence to grammatical interpretation, will indicate the solidity of the ground occupied.(1)
Note. Dr. Sprecher in his Groundwork of Theol., p. 1, ch. 5, on “The Right of Private Judgment and the Sufficiency, Intelligibility, and Efficacy of the Sacred Scriptures,” fully and ably sustains our position. After insisting upon the intelligibility of the Scriptures, because “a revelation unintelligible is no revelation at all,” etc., he (p. 109) remarks: “As the revelation is made in oral communications and in written words, in articulate speech and intelligible language—language intelligible to its first hearers and readers—it follows that the words in this revelation must have been used according to the rules of language then prevalent, the usus loquendi of that day, according to the meaning or sense of the words to those to whom the language was vernacular. Otherwise the communication could not have been understood by them. It is evident, therefore, that the Bible must be explained in the same way, and interpreted by the same rules which apply to any other books written in the same language. This was the view of Luther, and he called it the sensum literalem.” Brookes (Maranatha, p. 38) justly observes, in behalf of the grammatical sense, that if the Word is at the mercy of the interpreter, then the Bible “is no longer a revelation, but a concealment of God’s will.” Professor Riddle (Hints on Bible Interpretation) forcibly observes that “the right of private interpretation” “assumes that the Bible is a human (in its language) book; that however its human authors were inspired, they wrote or spoke so as to be understood, using words, whether literally or figuratively, in the sense in which general usage employs them. For if this principle of interpretation were not correct, there could be no duty of private interpretation.” “Indeed, any other position makes the Bible a dishonest book.” Chillingworth (Works, vol. 1, p. 231) affirms our view, because God designed His Word not simply “for the learned, but for all men,” which design is only met by the grammatical sense.
Obs. 5. Our position is endorsed, at least in theory if not always in practice, by the ablest writers. Our introductions and aids to the study of the Bible (as e.g. Horne’s, vol. 1, p. 322, etc. Comp. Alford’s How to Study New Test., Dunn’s Study of the Bible; Smith’s Dic. of the Bible; Herzog’s Encyc., The Bible and its Study, etc.), regard it as fundamental to a correct understanding of the Word. Theologians and authors in every statement of doctrine or argument, lay stress on it as the strongest possible proof to be adduced in favor of what the Scriptures actually do teach. This, e.g. is evidenced on almost every page of such works as Kitto’s Cyclopedia, Fairbairn’s Bib. Dictionary, Kurtz’s Sac. History, etc., and in all our leading commentaries, in Sys. Divinity, etc. Indeed, the plain grammatico-rhetorical sense is to multitudes the end of controversy. The reformers, as stated (comp. Mosheim’s Ch. Hist., Cent. 16, S. 3; Eichhorn’s Gech. der Cultur, p. 1, and 175; Hallam’s Introd. Lit. of Europe, vol. 2, p. 287 etc.) confined themselves, more or less, to the literal interpretation. Even some eminent Roman Catholic divines (comp. Calmet’s Dic.) have admitted the literal sense, as e.g. John Charlier De Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, of whom Neander (Hist. Dogmas, vol. 2, p. 607) says: “Gerson first of all asserted as a fundamental maxim that the literal sense of the Bible was the only true one; that all things necessary to salvation were plainly contained in the Bible, and that no true doctrine could be at variance with the Bible.” He, however, neutralized this by also declaring that this literal sense must be explained by the interpretation of the Church, given to it through General Councils. The most pompons array of testimonials might be presented in favor of the interpretation advocated by us—even from men who are largely addicted to spiritualizing—but the illustrations appended will suffice. It is self-evident that, in the perusal of the writings of others, we feel, explain it as we may, that in the interpretation of Scripture they are correct and truthful in proportion as the literal sense or the natural figurative one sustains them. Barnes (Com. Gal. 4:24) expresses our view: “the great truth has gone forth, never more to be recalled, that the Bible is to be interpreted on the same principle as all other books; that its language is to be investigated by the same laws as language in all other books; and that no more liberty is to be taken in allegorizing the Scriptures than may be taken with Herodotus or Livy.”(1)
Note. Rev. Dr. Sprecher, my honored instructor in theology, in a letter addressed to me dated January 16th, 1856, after referring to his extensive reading on the subject and the reflection of years, says: “Their (i.e., Millenarians) principles of interpretation are correct,” however he may differ on some details of exegesis. Rev. Robert Hall, in his Review of Gregory’s Letters, utters the following: “Let the fair grammatical import of Scripture language be investigated; and whatever propositions are, by an easy and natural interpretation, deducible from thence, let them be received as the dictates of infinite wisdom, whatever aspect they bear, or whatever difficulties they present. Repugnant to reason they never can be, because they spring from the author of it; but superior to reason, whose limits they will infinitely surpass, we must expect to find them, since they are a communication of such matters of fact respecting the spiritual and eternal world as need not to have been communicated, if the knowledge of them could have been acquired from any other quarter.” Ernesti only expresses the views of many when he tells us: “Theologians are right when they affirm the literal sense to be the only true one.” In the Inst. Interp. of the New Testament, he lays it down as a fundamental law of exegesis that the interpretation of Scripture is to be conducted by the same rules applicable to the interpretation of a classical or profane author. (This has not been wholly eliminated in Professor Stuart’s translation). The only caution requisite is, that no exegesis is to be considered isolated from other Scripture, but must be regarded in its connection with the general analogy, spirit, or design of the writers. The painful fact is, that, however correct in principle, Ernesti, Michælis, and others too much overlooked the internal and Divine unity exhibited by a grammatico-historical interpretation—i.e. its union and correspondence with a continuous Divine plan. They failed to combine what even exegesis presented. Every reader of course knows that without the literal interpretation, works on the fulfilment of prophecy cannot be effective as seen in writings of Sherlock, Newton, Kett, Faber, Keith, Hurd, etc. Greswell (Parables, vol. 3, p. 173) denounces the dangerous practice of making varied senses, as “substituting an indefinite and capricious standard of interpretation,” and then forcibly adds: “If there is any one principle of interpretation which from the nature of the case is not liable to vary; which is founded in the reason of things, and cannot accommodate itself to the peculiar tastes or prejudices of individuals, in the use and admission of which persons of every persuasion might be capable of concurring, and which would lead all, if they applied it rightly, to similar conclusions; which is consequently the least likely to fail of the desired effect, and therefore we may presume was of all others intended to be our guide and director in arriving at the knowledge both of what we are required to believe, and of what we are bound to practice; it appears to me to be this, that we take the words of Scripture as we find them; that we endeavor to ascertain their true, grammatical sense, whether in the Old or the New Testament, in the first instance, and then receive the truths which are thereby conveyed, whether articles of faith or rules of practice, according to the plain and simple and obvious meaning of the language itself.” Graff, in his Lay Sermons, No. 1, observes that “the language is human,” and adds: “It is this human phase of the Scriptures which brings them within our reach, even as it is the human nature of the Divine Person, of whom they treat, that renders Him capable of being our Saviour, Representative, and Friend. As in the perusal of other books, so in reading the Bible, there is no better general rule than that the obvious meaning is the true.” A sensible art. on Biblical Interpretation may be found in the North Brit. Review, Aug., 1858. We only add this: if the idea contained in the grammatical sense is not the one inspired, then the inspiration of the views presented is largely left to the option of the interpreter.
Obs. 6. This proposition is of the utmost importance, seeing that, as all frankly acknowledge, our doctrinal basis and subsequent superstructure depend upon its adoption. The early Christians in their simplicity and faith occupied our posture,(1) and therefore held a doctrine concerning the kingdom, which, by a change to another attitude, is now regarded by the masses as erroneous. We are mainly indebted to Origen for this transformation, he giving the leverage through which it was accomplished. Luther and others may give their estimate of his performance.(2) It is sufficient to say that he laid down the principle “that the Scriptures are of little use to those who understand them as they are written,” etc. (Porter’s Lec. Hom., p. 51). He advocates (De. Princ. B. 4 C. 1) the threefold interpretation; the obvious sense he likens to “the flesh; a higher sense is equivalent to “the soul,” and a still higher is represented by “the Spirit;” “for as man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture.” How this system spread is briefly stated by Mosheim (Eccl. Hist., Cen. 3, p. 2, S. 6): “A prodigious number of interpreters, both in this and succeeding ages, followed the method of Origen, though with some variations; nor could the few, who explained the sacred writings with judgment and a true spirit of criticism, oppose with any success the torrent of allegory that was overflowing the Church.”(3) Augustine (City of God, B. 17, S. 3) gives a threefold meaning to the prophecies, one referring to the earthly, another to the heavenly Jerusalem, and a third to both of these. The moral sense advocated by Kant (Horne’s Introd., vol. 1, p. 323), which, setting aside the grammatical, imposes a moral meaning, whether the passage can naturally bear it or not, is an offshoot of such a system. So also the theory of accommodation to the opinions and prejudices of the Jews as advanced by Semler and developed by his followers (Horne’s Introd., vol. 2, p. 324), is the natural offspring of such bold handling of the Word. In addition: the extravagant claims of Swedenborg that he was set up as the true interpreter of the Word, is exclusively based on the notion that to him was, for the first time, given the secret key by the Creator himself, to unlock the Bible and portray its meaning; and this key, on examination, turns, only in a more scientific way, the old bolts in Origen’s lock, now enlarged and reburnished. It resolves itself in as wide a removal as possible from the literal, and finds morality and religion in the plainest historical statements and facts; in short, wherever a mystical ingenuity could engraft them.(4) Without questioning the sincerity, intended honesty, and piety of such men, justice to ourselves, and a desire to vindicate the truth, demands an exposure of their inconsistency and dangerous tendency. Many, indeed, reject the vagaries of Origen, the absurdities of Augustine, the folly of Kant and Semler, the visions of Swedenborg, and would regard it as uncomplimentary to be classed as interpreters with one or the other of them, who, notwithstanding, are precisely in the same category. For with all these, they also forsake the literal sense, or, if the passage contains it, the figurative sense, and add as the true sense another, viz., a spiritual or mystical. It is singular, too, that many writers, unable to discriminate between figurative language and their own superadded spiritualizing, confound the two, although greatly differing, as one. Waldegrave, Fairbairn, and others employ the term “figurative” as if it were equivalent to spiritual, overlooking the fact that all figurative language falls under the grammatical construction of speech and is very different from the additional meaning fastened upon the obtained figurative sense. Let us again say: all parties admit—however some may afterward discard it—the literal sense; they all accept of the figurative meaning ascertained by the rules of grammar and rhetoric; these are freely admitted as contained in the words or sentences, and thus far all are agreed, but here the points of agreement cease, and the paths become diverging. We are satisfied with the sense thus obtained, seeking no other foreign to all languages, and which no one dreams to apply to any book except to the Bible. They, on the other hand, are not contented with such a sense—frequently finding it contradictory to their preconceived theory—but gravely tell us that this grammatical sense is a purely representative sense of another and differing one, which last they fail, either through design or discrimination, to distinguish from the literal.(5) This peculiar mode of interpretation, traceable to the old Origenistic method, makes it easy to fasten almost any meaning to “the kingdom of heaven.” To its looseness are we indebted for the varied interpretations concerning it.(6)
Note 1. Professor Shedd (Hist. of Ch. Doc., B. 6, ch. 1) endeavors to make the impression that the later system of interpretation (i.e., Alexandrian) was “the most authoritative one.” Rev. Shimeall, in his Reply, conclusively shows that it only became such, over against the literal, by a wide and disastrous departure from the once prevailing interpretation. Ellicott (Aids to Faith, Essay 9, “Scripture and its Interpretation”) correctly shows that the only really valuable and authoritative interpretation of the Church, including even the available portion of Origen’s, etc., is that based on a grammatical and historical one. The reader will be gratified with his Essay.
Note 2. For Luther’s view, see note toObs. 1. Also Michelet’s Life of Luther, p. 273 and Ap. p. 419. Comp. estimate of Mosheim, Neander, Milner, and Kurtz in Ch. Histories, Killen in The Old Cath. Church, Porter’s Homiletics, etc., and it will be found that Pressense (Early Years of Chris., vol. 2, p. 328) is correct when he says that Origen’s mode of interpretation “reads a Bible of his own invention, a human book within the Book of God.”
Note 3. Compare Hagenbach’s Hist. of Doc., sec. 162, vol. 1, Davison’s Sac. Herm., p. 163–192, etc., and it will be found that Origen’s threefold sense and Augustine’s three and fourfold sense gave place even to Angelom’s sevenfold and eightfold sense, and ultimately to as many as could be derived. John Scotus Erigena taught an infinite sense, and Cocceius declared, “that the words of Scripture must everywhere be supposed to signify just as much as they may signify,” i.e., as much as fancy could torture out of them. Milner justly describes (Eccl. Hist., vol. 1, p. 469) a long period thus: “A thick mist for ages pervaded the Christian world, supported and strengthened by his (Origen’s) allegorical manner of interpretation. The learned alone were considered for ages implicitly to be followed; and the vulgar, when the literal was hissed off the stage, had nothing to do but to follow their authority wherever it led them.” This “mist” is far from being dispelled, and the work performed under its cover is still largely retained.
Note 4. Swedenborg (The Apoc. Revealed, vol. 2, p. 959) advocates three senses, viz., “the celestial, the spiritual, and the natural;” the last being of little account. Under the pious garb of visions, etc., he conveniently gets rid of the grammatical sense, and, with it, of covenant and prediction according to their plain meaning. This Swedenborgian key reveals, e.g., that (Div. Prov. No. 326) “cows” signify “good natural affections;” that (True Ch. Relig. Nos. 113, 277) a horse denotes “the understanding of the Word of God;” that (Arc. Cœles. No. 2089) Ishmael begetting twelve princes means “the primary precepts which are of charity;” that (Arc. Cœlest. No. 4790) Joseph sold to Potiphar signifies “the alienation of Divine truths by scientifics.” A large number of such engrafted meanings are scattered all through his writings, and remind us strongly of Origen’s flights in the same direction. Thus e.g. the latter makes the seven women taking hold of one man, mentioned by Isaiah, to denote the “seven operations of the Divine Spirit,” viz., “the spirit of wisdom, of intelligence, of council, of virtue, of knowledge, of piety, and the fear of the Lord” (Porter’s. Lec. Hom., p. 51). Multitudes followed and endorsed such interpretation. Gregory the Great in his exposition of Job fancies that “Job’s friends denote the heretics, his seven sons the twelve apostles, his three daughters the laity adhering to the Trinity, his seven thousand sheep the same faithful people, and his three thousand humpbacked camels the depraved Gentiles.” Eckhart (art., Mystics of Fourteenth Century, Littell’s Living Age, vol. 123, p. 457) informs us that “the shell is to be broken, the husk to be torn off and flung away ere the spiritual kernel could be reached.” How he reaches this “spiritual kernel” is illustrated in his sermon on the restoration to life of the widow’s son, thus: he makes “the city of Nain to be the soul of man, the disciples the rays of light entering into the soul, and the widow’s son the human will,” etc. Nicholas of Basle, with thousands of others, in a professed spirit of self-renunciation, but which really exalted self in that it possessed a private inspiration, sought out the hidden meaning of Scripture. Under the plea of supernatural illumination, ancients and moderns discard the authority of the letter—some are extremists, others more moderate.
Note 5. Thus e.g., take the promises relating to the re-establishment of the throne and kingdom of David, and to the blessings to be enjoyed by the same Jewish nation which realized the fulfilled threatenings, and after the grammatical sense, both strictly literal and figurative, is obtained, then these are converted into something else. Thus David’s throne is the Father’s throne in heaven, the blessings specifically announced to the Jews are spiritualized as something now to be experienced and appropriated by the Gentiles, etc. Those who are desirous to see how far men can go in spiritualizing are referred to the writings of T. R. Gates and others. This additional sense, too, is often one of the most far-fetched inferential, reminding one of the Rabbinical principle, thus (Hopkins’ Puritans, vol. 1, p. 533) illustrated: “Hunting on the Sabbath day is a sin,” says the Jewish Talmud, and “therefore catching a flea on that day is sin, because it is a kind of hunting.” This is no caricature; for recently in the Christian Pulpit appeared an article by an evidently sincere writer (whose name, out of respect, is repressed) on the “Parable of the Leaven,” in which the author asserts that the first measure of meal was the Jews, the second measure George Washington and his compeers, and the third a chosen body now raised up in a certain sect of which the writer is a member! Alas for the Word, when thus mutilated. One of the latest exhibitions in this direction is found in Milton Woolley’s Science of the Bible, which interprets all by supposed astronomical relations. Even plain history symbolizes natural phenomena, either terrestrial or celestial. We give a brief specimen of application: “Now when Moses was grown (i.e., when Aquarius rises heliacally as before the sun), he spied an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew (i.e., winter smiting summer), and he looked this way and that way, and perceiving himself unseen (i.e., the sun’s rays hid him), he slew the Egyptian (i.e., winter was followed by summer). But when he went out the second day (i.e., after he passed the summer solstice), he saw two Hebrews (i.e., the two halves of summer) striving together,” etc. Ridiculous as this may appear, it is not near as dangerous as many other interpretations already mentioned.
Note 6. The reader is reminded that recent writers, as Fairbairn, Brown, etc., make no effort to give us canons or rules which would guide us in engrafting a spiritual sense upon the grammatically figurative. The nearest approach is that given by Horne, (Introd. vol. 1, p. 382, on the “Spiritual Interpretation,” sec. 1). This is unsatisfactory because it mixes type, symbol, figure, etc. In conversation with a talented professor of theology, allusion was made to Horne’s rules for spiritual interpretation, and although favorable himself to spiritualizing, he promptly rejected them, and frankly admitted that determinate rules could not be recorded, claiming that there were some things beyond our power to fully recognize and control by rules. However true the latter may be as to some scientific or theological truth, it certainly cannot apply to interpretation.
Obs. 7. A departure from the literal sense has not only caused those immensely varied and antagonistic interpretations of the kingdom, but it has, in its self-defence, forced able and pious men to a confession which undermines and destroys the authority of the Bible. Strauss, Bauer, and others, charge the Bible, including the New Testament, with teaching in a direct, literal sense a visible, outward kingdom here on earth under the personal reign of Jesus; in brief, a kingdom in its Jewish form. This is frankly admitted by eminent theologians; indeed, there can be, as we shall hereafter show, no question about its being a fact. But how do they get rid of this objection as urged by Renan, Parker, and others? Easily enough, by turning on to it the light afforded by their additional sense. We have one of the most scholarly inform us. Thus e.g. Neander (Life of Jesus, p. 250, etc.) concedes that the true idea of the kingdom of God was contained in a “materialistic husk,” which (the latter) he designates a “chimera, which was the rough rind of the sacred bulb;” and contends that this “husk” was in the second or third century removed, and then “the real kingdom of God was made clear,” and the believers in that “rough rind” by the change “became heretics.” In other words, the literal sense once held is discarded and another sense, which is pronounced the true one, is given to the kingdom, and a complete reversal of opinion follows, so that in the estimation of many the former believers are no longer to be regarded as in sympathy and belief with the Church. We earnestly protest against such a procedure, which makes the apostles and early believers to put their faith in a “chimera,” “a rough rind,” “a materialistic husk;” which proclaims with the utmost self-complacency that “in the things of the Spirit,” in doctrinal truths, we, or the Church, are far in advance of the apostles; which makes inspired men and preachers of the kingdom ignorant of the leading doctrine of the Bible, and one too that they were specially to proclaim. Let this husk be the grammatical sense—strictly literal and figurative—we are abundantly satisfied with its consolations, profundity, and sublimity. Its meat is wholesome and nourishing, imparting strength, and we need no other, although it is, with high-sounding words, pronounced to be the inner, sacred germ developed by “the consciousness of the Church,” or by the growth induced by the Spirit. When we see that the reception of this inner germ produces direct antagonism to one admitted sense of the Word, hostility to the early faith of the Church, inability to fairly meet the objections of infidelity, a countless number of mystical additions leading to the most extravagant revelations, we respectfully, but firmly, decline the intoxicating potion. This “germ system” virtually makes the Bible “all things to all men,” in a way that opens wide the door to the entrance of that mournful, endless procession of diverse, adverse, opposite, inimical opinions, doctrines, systems, etc., which appear in the history of hermeneutics, theology, and the Church. Should we not, to say the least, hesitate before we endorse a method which has been so widespread for evil, and which, with the best intention, sweeps a net with meshes so large that it cannot hold in confinement the fishes it encloses; which is a power so explosive and dangerous to manage that when handled its effects cannot be controlled? It leads even such men as Cocceius to exult in the prolific manner in which reason can become the measurer of Scripture, saying: “The Scripture is so rich that an able expositor will bring more than one sense out of it.” What kind of riches these are, we need not now delineate.(1)
The most dangerous attacks of unbelief against the Bible are based on a purely grammatical interpretation of it. The result is, that the teaching of the Scriptures being diverse—as e.g. in reference to the kingdom—from the spiritual conceptions of the modern Church, both are rejected on the ground that they are unreliable, for the first given by professed inspired men is not entertained by the Church, and the second is solely the work of fallible successors. Now the vast mass of the Church, having left the apostolic interpretation and followed the Alexandrian, monkish, and popish interpretations, is utterly unable to resist those attacks without resorting to a double, concealed, inner, or spiritual meaning. Here is the fatal lack of consistency; for it is virtually admitting that the Word according to its letter cannot be defended, thus opening a wide gap for the enemies of the truth to enter, conceding that one admitted sense possesses a serious defect. Now, we propose in this work to take the principles of interpretation correctly adopted by unbelievers, admitted by many orthodox to be sound and reliable, however they may violate them, and show, step by step, presenting Scripture proof as we advance, that they preserve the integrity of the Word, the inspired teaching of the apostles, and a marked unity of design in redemptive purposes. While there is a largo class who make their attack against Christianity through the literal interpretation and reject it as untenable, there is another large one who profess to retain some regard for the Bible, and under this esteem manipulate the literal sense by engrafting upon it what they designate a higher and nobler sense. Rationalistic, Naturalistic, and Liberal books, full of Free Religionist ideas, develop this feature largely. Alas! this destructive work was taught them by the system of believers, and they plant themselves complacently upon the interpreting basis so kindly provided—all objections being swallowed up in the latitude given by a supposed freedom. Grammar, rhetoric, and history are violated for the sake of an idea, an “inner germ,” and the most scholarly, learned men are pushing on, exultantly, the work.(2) Prudence dictates a return to the grammatical sense, which all admit, and a strict adherence to the same. Every one feels that just in proportion as an important doctrine or truth is founded upon such a sense, in that proportion is it credible. Even mystics, the greatest spiritualizers, seek to sustain their views by an appeal to such wherever available. The leading doctrine of the kingdom cannot prove an exception to a rule which commends itself to good judgment.
Note 1. History is full of them. Not merely Cocceius (Mosheim Ch. Hist., vol. 3, p. 429), but a host of others arose in all centuries, who thus perverted the plainest passages, making even (Horne’s Introd., vol. 1, p. 384, note) the incest of Lot and his daughters a sign of salvation through Jesus Christ, and the phrase “Joshua the son of Nun” to be the equivalent of “Jesus the Son of Man,” etc. These are extremes, which happily the good sense of many of our opponents reject with us, and they are only presented to show what fruits the system itself, in the hands of some, produces. Multitudes accuse us of folly (1 Cor. 3:18) in adhering to the grammatical construction, but they forget two things, 1. That if the grammatical word contains foolishness, then the Spirit is justly chargeable in its production; and 2. That no mistakes of rigid literalism, overlooking figures of speech contained (as alleged e.g. against the Audiani, the followers of Audæus), can be compared with the more serious and dangerous blunders of spiritual and mystical interpretation. One of the most sad mistakes, under the impression of “spiritual discernment,” is found in the history of Irving’s life (see p. 445, etc., and App. p. 567, 609, Irving’s Life by Mrs. C). The student, undoubtedly, has noticed the multitude of interpretations which accommodate Scripture—in the manner of the clergyman who preached before the Pretender at Perth from Isa. 14:1, 2—to present existing circumstances and conditions, when the context, scope, etc., indicate no such reference. Professor Sherer, when he repudiates “the literal system” as “the theological baggage,” and makes the Spirit apart from (not in and by) the Word the bestower of new revelations, new truths, new doctrines etc., is only reproducing an old departure from the Scripture teaching; and when Castellio, at Geneva, said, “The Spirit will eclipse the light of the Scripture as the sun eclipses the light of a candle,” it is only the repetition of an oft-repeated fanatical prediction. It is the spirit of the Jesuit who made the Pope “the greater light,” or of the London preacher who made Pharaoh to mean God the Father, Joseph the Son of God, and Potiphar’s wife sinful nature (Ency. Bib. Knowl., art. “Spiritualize”).
Note 2. The spiritualistic theory, now so prevalent and heartily endorsed in the Church, is bearing its deadly fruit in many a work published under infidel and semi-infidel auspices. Thus e.g. A. Coqueral, Jr. (Hurst’s Hist. Rational., p. 409) is the mouthpiece of a vast number when he declares that “authority does not rest in the letter, or in the leaves of Scripture. The Divine Spirit acts in the soul freely and independently of the letter. It is high time that we renounce the puerile, disrespectful, and contradictory worship of the letter. The letter killeth.” It is not a sufficient reply to say that these men believe that every man possessing truth is equally inspired with the apostles, and hence do not confine themselves to the spiritual sense of the Word, but embrace their own individual deductions. For this is precisely what multitudes, professing to be Christians and not ranked with infidels, are doing, viz., giving an additional sense to the Word under the claim that “the letter killeth,” and that the Spirit is specially given to them, thus manufacturing a Bible of their own out of the Word consistent with their own conceptions of what truth demands. We can, alas, point to large organized bodies setting up antagonistic claims in this manner, while all denominations are, more or less, leavened by its spirit and practice. Admitting the principle to be a correct one, how can you meet in argument those who claim that they have the Spirit equally with yourself? You cannot appeal to the letter, for that “killeth;” you cannot appeal to the Spirit, for both profess to possess it. In fact, it leaves us no solid criterion by which to judge.
Obs. 8. While urging a literal interpretation, we are, as already intimated, equally opposed to that ultra-literalism which makes no allowance for the figures of speech incident to all language. Tropical usage is by no means an evidence of ambiguity or weakness; it is rather that of clearness and strength, for according to the decided testimony of rhetoricians, its design and province is (Blair’s Rhet., S. 14) to “illustrate a subject, or throw light upon it,” or (Jamieson’s Rhet., p. 138) “to give us, frequently, a much clearer and more striking view,” etc. Hence to reject them is to evince a childish play, such a puerile literalism as was exemplified in Origen’s unfortunate emasculation (how much had this to do with the after-development of his threefold sense?), and even in the contest between the great reformers Luther and Zwingli on the words instituting the Supper. This disclaimer is the more necessary, since in numerous books, reviews, and newspapers, it is alleged that Millenarians confine themselves to the exclusive, rigid, literal sense, admitting no other, and denying that of figure. One writer even, Dr. Spring, made the utterly unwarranted assertion that we “affirm that the prophetic and apocalyptic writings which speak of the Millennium are free from figures, symbols, and are altogether literal.”(1) The simple truth is, that not a single Millenarian author, from the days of the apostles down, holds to such an opinion; all of them, without exception, fully recognize symbols, types, and figures of speech, notice their peculiarities, and discriminate them from the strictly literal. It is their plain, unanimous statement that language must be interpreted by the laws which produce and regulate it: if symbolic, it is to be interpreted by the laws governing symbols; if typical, then by the laws underlying types; if figurative, then by the rules controlling figures; and if rigidly literal, then by the laws of unfigurative speech. Works specially directing attention to these rules are presented by Millenarian writers, as e.g. Brookes, Bickersteth, Lord, Winthrop, etc.(2)
Note 1. The Literary and Theological Journal of D. N. Lord, while published, did good service in correcting such unjust representations, both in showing their groundlessness and in advocating the direct converse. To this journal the reader is referred for numerous examples of misrepresentations (like Spring’s, etc.), corrected, for illustrations of the manner in which passages are explained by us and our opponents, and for the opinions of Duffield, McNeile, and others on the subject. Bickersteth’s Guide, Brooke’s Elements of Prophetic Interpretation, The Prophetic Times, etc., may also be consulted with advantage.
Note 2. It is not necessary to reproduce the rules adopted by us, for these are found in our grammars and rhetorics, introductions to the Bible (as Horne’s, etc.), and in the writings of the class mentioned. Let us add, that the grammatical interpretation of figure, symbol, type, is not the spiritual interpretation that we condemn; but after the lawful interpretation of such figure, etc., has been ascertained, to leave this and fasten another upon it—this so-called spiritual sense we resist. While the literal may be unlawfully made figurative, and the figurative by violence be made literal—mistakes to which all are liable—a legitimate literal and figurative interpretation is not to be set aside for another and representative sense of something that the words do not express. It is amusing to notice writers who cannot distinguish between their special superadded spiritual sense and a figurative one; and who, blundering, call figure, symbol, and type spiritual language, or else overlook the fact that as figurative language falls in with the purely grammatical, they cannot justly charge us with error in making it such, when we hold to a literal fulfilment of the same after it has been interpreted by the rules of language. We hold that rigid literal language, symbol, type, and figure in their plain grammatical interpretation often teach us spiritual facts, etc., but this they do in the plain sense conveyed. Even allegory we receive where it is plainly contained in the language; and in reference to the expression of Paul (Gal. 4:24), this is no criterion to be followed by us, as is clearly stated by Albert Barnes (Com. loci.), to which the reader is referred, coming as it does from one who favored spiritualizing.
Obs. 9. To prove that our proposition is wrong in limiting the interpretation of the Bible by the laws of language, as universally held, it must be shown: 1. That the Bible in its usage of language is an exception to all other books. 2. That the subject-matter, superior to that contained in other books, is not conveyed to us through the common channel of language in the ordinary way. 3. That a sense beyond that given by the rules of language is a legitimate one, and either, in some manner, drawn from language itself or found incorporated or announced in the Word. 4. Some rules or directions for ascertaining and applying this additional sense, so that it may be easily recognized and not arbitrarily used. 5. Some decided—not inferential—examples of such a sense being determined and enforced by the Bible, in order to elevate it to a justly recognizable rank. In this way we may, perhaps, be enabled to appreciate that overwhelming stream of scholasticism, mysticism, and spiritualism pervading our theological literature. Men laughingly refer to those enormous summaries of Divinity concocted in past ages, with their violations of Scripture language, while they themselves, unconsciously, approvingly quote and endorse in their formative theology many of the erroneous interpretations of the Thomists, Scotists, Occamites, etc. Having a system of interpretation identical in many respects with the scholastics, etc., it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to rid themselves entirely of their interpretations.(1)
Another feature must also be discarded. It has become quite fashionable with recent writers, in their efforts to find arguments against us, to practically lower the prophetical portion of the Word by placing the non-prophetical of the New Testament in the scale as far superior to the former, etc. (so e.g. Waldegrave, comp. Lord’s Journal, Ap. 1857). Now, when ever a system is forced, in self-defence, to thus discriminate between the Scriptures and portions of them, exalting one part above the other as more worthy of reception or credence, instead of receiving the whole as standing upon the same ground of being a revelation of God’s will and purpose (comp. Prop. 16), it is evidence—decisive—of weakness and imperfection. A substantial method does not need such unstable propping. Notwithstanding its plausible and authoritative air, it becomes, by its disintegrating qualities, a dangerous instrumentality. It is the weapon so freely employed by German Rationalists and others to invalidate the credibility and authority of the prophetic writings, and to graft upon them any desired meaning. To make one portion of scripture to be the sole and exclusive arbiter and interpreter of the Bible, is subversive of the light given in a general analogy and a continuous Divine plan. Such a course is like to that of a person who, in a large room containing a number of windows, contents himself with the light of one when all are available; and then, owing to the quantity of light received, distinguishing things imperfectly, still contends that such is their true and only appearance.(2)
Note 1. Hence Le Roy Pope (Modern Fancies and Follies, p. 337) takes the position, owing to the variety of interpretation, that the true meaning of the Bible cannot be obtained from the language of Scripture, asserting: “The only light which can afford us this indispensable aid, and bring the religious world, which has gone so far astray, back to true religion, is the light of nature.” But he forgets; 1. That the variety of interpretation springs not so much from the grammatical sense as from the system of spiritualizing the language; 2. That no other book must call in “the light of nature” in order to have its true sense presented; 3. That the advocates of this “light of nature” also bring in an endless variety of interpretations; 4. And that he thus makes, allowing the claims of the Bible, the lesser to be the guide and instructor of the greater.
Note 2. Other points worthy of notice might be presented, but we briefly advert to another, very common, viz., boldly to assert a sweeping accusation without giving any reasons or facts to sustain it. Thus e.g. Fairbairn (a valuable writer) On Prophecy, Append. G, p. 497, approvingly quotes Hengstenberg, attempting to make the literal interpretation odious, saying, “that its strongest condemnation consists in its being the very method of interpretation which led to the crucifixion of Christ.” If this is its “strongest condemnation,” we are abundantly satisfied to retain it. Allusion is evidently had to Jesus being charged with His being a king, etc., but let the objector bear in mind that Jesus never denied the charge, but appropriated the fact as applicable. This will be developed under its appropriate head hereafter; now it may be said, the Jews rejected the literal fulfilment of prophecy in Christ’s forerunner, in Christ’s birth, life, miracles, entry into Jerusalem, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. The apostles accuse them of such conduct, and hence their unbelief is represented as the more inexcusable. Their hatred toward and their crucifixion of Christ, according to the testimony, was based neither on the literal nor the spiritual interpretation of prophecy, but on their unbelief, hardness of heart, apprehension of the people leaving them for Christ, etc., thus leading to false and malicious charges. The best possible refutation of Fairbairn is given by himself, p. 223–226 of the same work, where the literal fulfilment of prophecy is lauded, and we are told that “it is necessary to compare together prophecy and history” to see the literal authentication.
Obs. 10. In our Introductions to the Bible it is a generally admitted principle that no important doctrine should be solely based on figurative language; that to give it certainty it ought to be founded on the literal meaning of the words. This is a necessity, notwithstanding the theorizing, so much impressed, that in every promulgation of doctrine, men will instinctively feel that if they can secure the literal sense in their favor, the strongest possible proof is thus obtained. Why reject this when we come to the doctrine of the kingdom? Surely, if there is a doctrine in the Bible that ought to be sustained by the clearest evidence, it is the leading one of the kingdom. This is abundantly provided, if we will only consider and receive it. Its simplicity should not deter us; this feature ought rather to recommend it to our special notice. More than this: if we reject it we will be held responsible for the same, just as Jesus held the Jews accountable for the literal understanding of the Scriptures. We certainly are not amenable to a still “higher sense” of interpretation, whose laws are not given; and certainly we are not to be condemned for rejecting that which is said by men to be concealed, hidden under the letter, and which it is impossible to perceive in the letter by the rules regulating that letter. Thus e.g. out of the many meanings engrafted upon the kingdom by the adoption of a hidden germ, etc., which sense ought we then to adopt, and what assurance have we that it is, after all, the correct one? No! we are only answerable to God’s demand, how we have treated the very letter committed to our trust, and this obligation presses alike upon the learned and unlearned. Our doctrine, firmly adhering to one system of interpretation, is found equally in both Old and New Testament. Our opponents tell us that the Jews understood the Old Testament too literally, and in place of their belief we are informed (Essays and Reviews, S. 7, p. 406), that it is necessary for the salvation of the world to introduce new truths into the Old Testament in place of the old. Others plead that the primitive Church comprehended the New Testament too literally (Neander, etc.), but that this was merely a transition stage before “the husk” was thrown off and the genuine truth revealed. Once for all let us say, that as reverent believers in the Word, it is impossible to credit such explanations, condemnatory of God’s Word, justice, and love, and cruelly unjust to His ancient people, as if they were in faith a deceived people, and the deception grew out of God’s mode of teaching. Never can we accept, however sincere its advocates, of such consequential, evil tending teaching. We desire not to endorse a system which, in the hands of a God-fearing man, may result in comparative little injury, but which, in the grasp of infidelity, becomes a power, widely felt, in subverting all the distinctive orthodox doctrines, the most cherished hopes of the Church, and the true idea of the kingdom of God.(1)
Note. The literal interpretation is especially valuable in argument. It gives the only solid foundation for the expression of opinion; for a sense that language bears upon its very surface is undoubtedly the one intended by the author, and however unwilling persons are to admit it, yet they, notwithstanding, feel its force. Even mystics, etc., in explaining the added spiritual sense, wish us to receive their own explanations in this way. To resort to added senses, engenders doubt, or impresses the mind that something evasive exists. Coleridge (Aids to Reflection, p. 82) justly observes that, “in arguing with infidels, or the weak in faith, it is the part of religious prudence, no less than of religious morality, to avoid whatever looks like an evasion. To retain the literal sense, whenever the harmony of Scripture permits, and reason does not forbid, is ever the honester and, nine times in ten, the more rational and pregnant interpretation. The contrary plan is an easy and approved way of getting rid of a difficulty; but, nine times in ten, a bad way of solving it.” Ellicott (Aids to Faith, Essay 9) well says: “The true and honest method of interpreting the Word of God—the literal, historical, and grammatical—has been recognized in every age, and the results are seen in the agreement of numberless passages of importance that may be found in expositors of all periods,” and it is this agreement, thus cemented by a common bond, that adds force in argument.
Obs. 11. All believers ask for the aid of the Spirit in understanding the Scriptures, but this aid or enlightenment is not outside of the scriptural truth, but of it. Faith, in its influence upon the heart, qualifies the believer to appreciate the Word; for its truths can only be properly estimated by him who practically receives them and experiences their power in heart and life. The higher our experience of God’s promises, the more we are enabled to understand Holy Writ containing them. The Author of the Scriptures is the Spirit: we honor Him by asking His assistance to comprehend them, and such honor and reliance is only properly exhibited by a personal study of them. Human helps are valuable, and the Spirit will certainly (as experience testifies) use them in impressing the truth, provided the chief reliance is placed on the Scriptures themselves as given by Him and the moral enlightenment resulting from their reception. This distinguishes a mere student from a believer, for a man may be learned and able, and yet utterly fail to receive the truth as intended (thus failing in his apprehension), while an unlearned believer, cordially accepting and appropriating personally the Scriptures, experiences their power in his own heart and life. (“If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God,” John 7:17); but both combined, learning and religious experience, elevates the man to the highest plane.(1)
Note. Whatever principle of interpretation is adopted, without appropriating practical faith and the resultant fruits, we cannot get the understanding that God commends. Unless the Scriptures make us “wise to salvation” (2 Tim. 2:15), all our theoretical knowledge is vain (e.g. Matt. 7:21–23; 1 Cor. 13:1–3, etc.), and only increases our condemnation (e.g. John 3:18, 19, and 12:47, 48, etc.). The grand truths contained in the plain grammatical sense must—as God intended—lead to a heart-felt obedience, with a coexistent moral, religious, spiritual influence, and then its preciousness will be self-evident. It is certain that the Christian consciousness possesses the Witness of the Spirit, but this witness is not given independently of the truth, but always connected therewith, and hence is evidenced in the ordinary religious experience—not by a direct but indirect, not by an immediate but mediate testimony—by the work it performs, the fruits it bestows, the experience it gives, the controlling love that it imparts. Any other view opens—as history sadly shows—the door to fanaticism and ten thousand visionary interpretations. Let us remember, that the Witness of the Spirit, the Sealing of the Spirit, the Mind which was in Christ, are all the same (comp. President Edwards’ On the Affections), and it materially aids us in estimating the effect that the Scriptures should have upon ourselves by the Spirit’s help, and in ridding ourselves of that vast body of interpretation presented to us under the claim of a special, supernatural, inward teaching of the Spirit. An observance of the rules common to language, practical sense, a due regard to the analogy of Scripture and Faith, an observance of the historical application in reference to opinions and views held, an unprejudiced mind and a heart willing, irrespective of preconceived ideas, to bring forth the real meaning and intent of the writer—these, in connection with a personal experience of the truth, are requisites to constitute a good interpreter.