A treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament




Hermeneutics Defined

HERMENEUTICS is the science of interpretation.  The word is usually applied to the explanation of written documents, and may therefore be more specifically defined as the science of interpreting an author’s language.(1) This science assumes that there are divers modes of thought and ambiguities of expression among men, and, accordingly, it aims to remove the supposable differences between a writer and his readers, so that the meaning of the one may be truly and accurately apprehended by the others.

General and Special Hermeneutics

It is common to distinguish between General and Special Hermeneutics. General Hermeneutics is devoted to the general principles which are applicable to the interpretation of all languages and writing.  It may appropriately take cognizance of the logical operations of the human mind, and the philosophy of human speech, Special Hermeneutics is devoted rather to the explanation of particular books and classes of writings. Thus, historical, poetical, philosophical, and prophetical writings differ from each other in numerous particulars, and each class requires for its proper exposition the application of principles and methods adapted to its own peculiar character and style.  Special Hermeneutics, according to Cellerier, is a science practical and almost empirical, and searches after rules and solutions; while General Hermeneutics is methodical and philosophical, and searches for principles and methods.(2)

Biblical or Sacred Hermeneutics

Biblical or Sacred Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. According to the order of books in the Christian Canon, we have, first, the five Books of Moses, commonly called the Pentateuch; next follow twelve Historical Books, recording the history of the Israelites from the death of Moses to the restoration from Babylonian exile, and covering a period of a thousand years. Then follow five Poetical Books—a drama, a psalter, two books of proverbial philosophy, and a song of love; and after these are seventeen Prophetical Books, among which are some of the most magnificent monuments of all literature. In the New Testament we have, first, the four Gospels, a record of the life and words of Jesus Christ; then the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the beginning of the Christian Church; then the thirteen Pauline Epistles, followed by the Epistle to the Hebrews and the seven General Epistles; and, finally, the Apocalypse of John.

Old and New Testament Hermeneutics should not be separated

Inasmuch as these two Testaments differ in form, language, and historical conditions, many writers have deemed it preferable to treat the hermeneutics of each Testament separately. And as the New Testament is the later and fuller revelation, its interpretation has received the fuller and more frequent attention. But it may be questioned whether such a separate treatment of the Old and New Testaments is the better course. It is of the first importance to observe that, from a Christian point of view, the Old Testament cannot be fully apprehended without the help of the New. The mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known unto men, was revealed unto the apostles and prophets of the New Testament (Eph. 3:5), and that revelation sheds a flood of light upon numerous portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the other hand, it is equally true that a scientific interpretation of the New Testament is impossible without a thorough knowledge of the older Scriptures. The very language of the New Testament, though belonging to another family of human tongues, is notably Hebraic. The style, diction, and spirit of many parts of the Greek Testament cannot be properly appreciated without acquaintance with the style and spirit of the Hebrew prophets. The Old Testament also abounds in testimony of the Christ (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; Acts 10:43), the illustration and fulfillment of which can be seen only in the light of the Christian revelation. In short, the whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and there is danger that, in studying one part to the comparative neglect of the other, we may fall into one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition. The Holy Scriptures should be studied as a whole, for their several parts were given in manifold portions and modes (polumeowv kai polutoopwv Heb. 1:1), and, taken all together, they constitute a remarkably self-interpreting volume.

Distinguished from Introduction, Criticism and Exegesis

Biblical Hermeneutics. having a specific field of its own, should be carefully distinguished from other branches of theological science with which it is often and quite naturally associated. It is to be distinguished from Biblical Introduction, Textual Criticism, and Exegesis. Biblical Introduction, or isagogics, is devoted to the historico-critical examination of the different books of the Bible. It inquires after their age, authorship, genuineness, and canonical authority, tracing at the same time their origin, preservation, and integrity, and exhibiting their contents, relative rank, and general character and value.  The scientific treatment of these several subjects is often called the “Higher Criticism.”

Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism has for its special object the ascertaining of the exact words of the original texts of the sacred books. Its method of procedure is to collate and compare ancient manuscripts, ancient versions, and ancient scripture quotations, and, by careful and discriminating judgment, sift conflicting testimony, weigh the evidences of all kinds, and thus endeavor to determine the true reading of every doubtful text. This science is often called the “Lower Criticism.” Where such criticism ends, Hermeneutics properly begins, and aims to establish the principles, methods, and rules which are needful to unfold the sense of what is written. Its object is to elucidate whatever may be obscure or ill-defined, so that every reader may be able, by an intelligent process, to obtain the exact ideas intended by the author.

Exegesis and Exposition

Exegesis is the application of these principles and laws, the actual bringing out into formal statement, and by other terms, the meaning of the author’s words. Exegesis is related to hermeneutics as preaching is to homiletics, or, in general, as practice is to theory. Exposition is another word often used synonymously with exegesis, and has essentially the same signification; and yet, perhaps, in common usage, exposition denotes a more extended development and illustration of the sense, dealing more largely with other scriptures by comparison and contrast. We observe, accordingly, that the writer on Biblical Introduction examines the historical foundations and canonical authority of the books of Scripture. The textual critic detects interpolations, emends false readings, and aims to give us the very words which the sacred writers used. The exegete takes up these words, and by means of the principles of hermeneutics, defines their meaning, elucidates the scope and plan of each writer, and brings forth the grammatico, historical sense, of what each book contains. The expositor builds upon the labors both of critics and exegetes, and sets forth in fuller form, and by ample illustration, the ideas, doctrines, and moral lessons of the Scripture.(3)

But while we are careful to distinguish hermeneutics from these kindred branches of exegetical theology, we should not fail to note that a science of interpretation must essentially depend on exegesis for the maintenance and illustration of its principles and rules. As the full grammar of a language establishes its principles by sufficient examples and by formal praxis, so a science of hermeneutics must needs verify and illustrate its principles by examples of their practical application. Its province is not merely to define principles and methods, but also to exemplify and illustrate them.

Hermeneutics both a Science and a Art

Hermeneutic, therefore, is both a science and an art. As a science, it, enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.

Necessity of Hermeneutics

The necessity of a science of interpretation is apparent from the diversities of mind and culture among men. Personal intercourse between individuals of the same nation and language is often difficult and embarrassing by reason of their different styles of thought and expression. Even the Apostle Peter found in Paul’s epistles things which were difficult to understand (dusnopta, 2nd Pet. 3:16). The man of broad and liberal culture lives and moves in a different world from the unlettered peasant, so much so that sometimes the ordinary conversation of the one is scarcely intelligible to the other. Different, schools of metaphysics and opposing systems of theology have often led their several advocates into strange misunderstandings. The speculative philosopher, who ponders long on abstract themes, and by deep study constructs a doctrine or system clear to his own mind, may find it difficult to set forth his views to others so as to prevent all misconception. His whole subject matter lies beyond the range of common thought. The hearers or readers, in such a case, must, like the philosopher himself, dwell long upon the subject. They must have terms defined, and ideas illustrated, until, step by step, they come to imbibe the genius and spirit of the new philosophy. But especially great and manifold are the difficulties of understanding the writings of those who differ from us in language and nationality. The learned themselves become divided in their essays to decipher and interpret the records of the past. Volumes and libraries have been written to elucidate the obscurities of the Greek and Roman classics. The foremost scholars and linguists of the present generation are busied in the study and exposition of the sacred books of the Chinese, the Hindus, the Parsees, and the Egyptians, and, after all their learned labors, they disagree in the translation and solution of many a passage. How much more might we expect great differences of opinion in the interpretation of a book like the Bible, composed at sundry times and in many parts and in modes, and ranging through many departments of literature! What obstacles might reasonably be expected in the interpretation of a record of divine revelation, in which heavenly thoughts, unknown to men before, were made to express themselves in the imperfect formulas of human speech! The most contradictory rules of interpretation have been propounded, and expositions have been made to suit the peculiar tastes and prejudices of writers or to maintain preconceived opinions, until all scientific method has been set at nought, and each interpreter became a law unto himself. Hence the necessity of well-defined and self-consistent principles of Scripture interpretation. Only as exegetes come to adopt common principles and methods of procedure, will the interpretation of the Bible attain the dignity and certainty of an established science.

Rank and importance of Hermeneutics in Theological Science

The rank and importance of Biblical Hermeneutics among the various studies embraced in Theological Encyclopedia Methodology is apparent from the fundamental relation which it sustains to them all. For the Scripture revelation is itself essentially the centre and substance of all theological science. It contains the clearest and fullest exhibition of the person and character of God, and of the spiritual needs and possibilities of man. A sound and trustworthy interpretation of the scripture records, therefore, is the root and basis of all revealed theology. Without it Systematic Theology, or Dogmatics, could not be legitimately constructed, and would, in fact, be essentially impossible. For the doctrines of revelation can only be learned from a correct understanding of the oracles of God. Historical Theology, also, tracing as it does the thought and life of the Church, must needs take cognizance of the principles and methods of scripture interpretation which have so largely controlled in the development of that thought and life. The creeds of Christendom assume to rest upon the teachings of the inspired Scriptures. Apologetics, polemics, ethics, and all that is embraced in Practical Theology, are ever making appeal to the authoritative records of the Christian faith. The great work of the Christian ministry is to preach the word; and that most important labor cannot be effectually done without a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and skill in the interpretation and application of the same. Personal piety and practical godliness are nourished by the study of this written word. The psalmist sings (Psa. cxix, 105, 111):

A lamp to my foot is thy word,

And a light to my pathway.

I have taken possession of thy testimonies forever,

For the joy of my heart are they.(4)

The Apostle Paul admonished Timothy that the Holy Scriptures were able to make him wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (2nd Tim. 3:1, 5). And Jesus himself, interceding for his own chosen followers, prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Accordingly, the Lord’s ambassador must not adulterate (2nd Cor. 2:17), but rightly divide, the word of the truth (2nd Tim. 2:15). For if ever the divinely appointed ministry of reconciliation accomplish the perfecting of the saints, and the building up of the body of Christ, so as to bring all to the attainment of the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 4:12, 13), it must be done by a correct interpretation and efficient use of the word of God. The interpretation and application of that word must rest upon a sound and self-evidencing science of hermeneutics.

End Notes

  1. The word hermeneutics is of Greek origin, from ermhneuw, to interpret, to explain; thence the adjective h ermhneutikh (sc. tecnh) that is, the hermeneutical art, and thence our word hermeneutics, the science or art of interpretation. Closely kindred is also the name Ermhv, Hermes, or Mercury, who, bearing a golden rod of magic power, figures in Grecian mythology as the messenger of the gods, the tutelary deky of speech, of writing, of arts and sciences, and of all skill and accomplishments.
  2. Manuel d’Hermneutique Biblique, p, 5. Geneva, 1852.
  3. Doedes thus discriminates between explaining and interpreting: “To explain, properly signifies the unfolding of what is contained in the words, and to interpret, the making clear of what is not clear by casting light on that which is obscure. Very often one interprets by means of explaining, namely, when, by unfolding the sense of the words, light is reflected on what is said or written; but it cannot be said that one explains by interpreting. While explaining generally is interpreting, interpreting, properly speaking, is not explaining. But we do not usually observe this distinction in making use of these terms, and may without harm use them promiscuously,” Manual of Hermeneutics, p. 4.
  4. All scripture quotations in the present work have been made by translating directly from the Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek originals. To have followed the Authorized Version would have necessitated a large amount of circumlocution. In many instances the citation of a text is designed to illustrate a process as well as a principle of hermeneutics. It is often desirable to bring out, either incidentally or prominently, some noticeable emphasis, and this can be done best by giving the exact order of the words of the original. The observance of such order in translation may sometimes violate the usage and idiom of the best English, but, in many cases, it yields the best possible translation.

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