METHODS OF INTERPRETATION
THE history of biblical exposition, as traceable in the works of the great exegetes and critics, shows us what diverse methods of interpretation have at various periods prevailed. Doubtless through all these centuries the common sense of readers has accepted the obvious import of the principal portions of the Bible. For, as Stuart observes, from the first moment that one human being addressed another by the use of language clown to the present hour, the essential laws of interpretation became, and have continued to be, a practical matter.
The person addressed has always been an interpreter in every instance where he has heard and understood what was addressed to him. All the human race, therefore, are, and ever have been, interpreters. It is a law of their rational, intelligent, communicative nature.(1) Erroneous and absurd methods of explanation are mostly traceable to false notions of the Bible itself. On the one hand we find a superstitious reverence for the letter of Scripture, prompting to search for hidden treasures of thought in every word; on the other, prejudices and assumptions hostile to the spirit of the holy writings have begotten methods of interpretation which pervert, and often flatly contradict, the plainest statements of Scripture.
The ancient Jewish expositions of the Old Testament exhibit numerous absurd methods of interpretation. For example, the letters of a word were reduced to their numerical value, and then some other word or statement was sought having the same letters in another order, or other letters aggregating the same numerical value, and the two words were thereupon regarded as equivalent in meaning. The numerical value of the letters in the name Eliezer (dzxyla) is three hundred and eighteen, the number of Abraham’s trained men (Gen. 14:14), from which it was inferred that Abraham’s servant Eliezer was alone as powerful as the three hundred others. And so, by ingenious manipulation, every peculiar grammatical form, every instance of pleonasm, or ellipsis, or apparently superflous use of a particle, was made to yield some remarkable significance. It is easy to see that such capricious method must necessarily involve the exposition of the Scriptures in utter confusion; and yet the learned rabbies who employed them sought by these means to show the manifold excellence and wisdom of their sacred books. The study of the ancient Jewish exegesis is, accordingly, of little value in ascertaining the true meaning of the Scriptures. The methods of procedure are fanciful and arbitrary and encourage the pernicious habit of searching the oracles of’ God for something that will minister to a morbid curiosity. But for the illustration of ancient Jewish opinions, especially for the elucidation of certain doctrines and customs, and sometimes for the criticism of the Hebrew text, the comments of the rabbinical writers may be of much service.
The allegorical method of interpretation obtained an early prominence among the Jews of Alexandria. Its origin is usually attributed to the mingling of Greek philosophy and the biblical conceptions of God. Many of the theophanies and anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament were repugnant to the philosophic mind, and hence the effort to discover behind the outer form an inner substance of truth. The biblical narratives were often treated like the Greek myths, and explained as either a historical or an enigmatical embodiment of moral and religious lessons. The most distinguished representative of Jewish allegorical interpretation was Philo of Alexandria, and an example of his allegorizing many be seen in the following remarks on the rivers of Eden (Gen. 2:1014):
In these words Moses intends to sketch out the particular virtues. And they, also, are four in number, prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Now the greatest river, from which the four branches flow off, is generic virtue, which we have already called goodness; and the four branches are the same number of virtues. Generic virtue, therefore, derives its beginning from Eden, which is the wisdom of God; which rejoices, and exults, and triumphs, being delighted at and honored on account of nothing else, except its Father, God. And the four particular virtues are branches from the generic virtue, which, like a river, waters all the good actions of each with an abundant stream of benefits.(2)
Similar allegorizing abounds in the early Christian fathers. Thus, Clement of Alexandria, commenting on the Mosaic prohibition of eating the swine, the hawk, the eagle, and the raven, observes: The sow is the emblem of voluptuous and unclean lust of food . The eagle indicates robbery, the hawk injustice, and the raven greed. On Exod. 15:1, Jehovah has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea, Clement remarks:
The manylimbed and brutal affection, lust, with the rider mounted, who gives the reins to pleasures, he casts into the seathrowing them away into the disorders of the world. Thus, also, Plato, in his book on the soul [Timaeus], says that the charioteer and the horse that ran off(the irrational part, which is divided into two, into anger and concupiscence)fall down; and so the myth intimates that it was through the licentiousness of the steeds that Phaethon was thrown out.(3)
The allegorical method of interpretation is based upon a profound reverence for the Scriptures, and a desire to exhibit their manifold depths of wisdom. But it will be noticed at once that its habit is to disregard the common signification of words, and give wing to all manner of fanciful speculation. It does not draw out the legitimate meaning of an author’s language, but foists into it whatever the whim or fancy of an interpreter may desire. As a system, therefore, it puts itself beyond all welldefined principles and laws.
Closely allied to the allegorical interpretation is the Mystical,(4) according to which manifold depths and shades of meaning are sought in every word of Scripture. The allegorical interpreters have, accordingly, very naturally run into much that is to be classed with mystical theorizing. Clement of Alexandria maintained that the laws of Moses contain a fourfold significance, the natural, the mystical, the moral, and the prophetical. Origen held that, as man’s nature consists of body, soul, and spirit, so the Scriptures have a corresponding threefold sense, the bodily (), or literal, the psychical (), or moral, and the spiritual (), which latter he further distinguishes as allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. In the early part of the ninth century the learned Rhabanus Maurus recommended four methods of exposition, the historical, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the tropological. He observes:
By these the mother Wisdom feeds the sons of her adoption. Upon youth and those of tender age she bestows drink, in the milk of history; on such as have made proficiency in faith, food, in the bread of allegory; to the good, such as strenuously labor in good works, she gives a satisfying portion in the savory nourishment of tropology. To those, in fine, who have raised themselves above the common level of humanity by a contempt of earthly things, and have advanced to the highest by heavenly desires, she gives the sober intoxication of theoretic contemplation in the wine of anagogy . History, which narrates examples of perfect men, excites the reader to imitate their sanctity: allegory excites him to know the truth in the revelation of faith; tropology encourages him to the love of virtue by improving the morals; and anagogy promotes the longing after eternal happiness by revealing everlasting joys . Since then, it appears that these four modes of understanding the Holy Scriptures unveil all the secret things in them, we should consider when they are to be understood according to one of them only, when according to two, when according to three, and when according to all the four together.(5)
Among the mystical interpreters we may also place the celebrated Emanuel Swedenborg, who maintains a three-fold sense of Scripture, according to what he calls the Science of Correspondences. As there are three heavens, a lowest, a middle, and a highest, so there are three senses of the Word, the natural or literal, the spiritual, and the celestial. He says:
The Word in the letter is like a casket, where lie in order precious stones, pearls, and diadems; and when a man esteems the Word holy, and reads it for the sake of the uses of life, the thoughts of his mind are, comparatively, like one who holds such a cabinet in his hand, and sends it heavenward; and it is opened in its ascent, and the precious things therein come to the angels, who are deeply delighted with seeing and examining them. This delight of the angels is communicated to the man, and makes consociation, and also a communication of perceptions.(6)
He explains the commandment Thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13), first, in its natural sense, as forbidding murder and also the cherishing of hatred and revenge; secondly, in the spiritual sense, as forbidding “to act the devil and destroy a man’s soul;” and thirdly, in the celestial or heavenly sense, the angels understand killing to signify hating the Lord and the Word.
Somewhat allied to the mystical is that Pietistic mode of exposition, according to which the interpreter claims to be guided by an inward light, received as an unction from the Holy One (1st John 2:20). The rules of grammar and the common meaning and usage of words are discarded, and the internal Light of the Spirit is held to be the abiding and infallible Revealer. Some of the later Pietists of Germany, and the Quakers of England and America have been especially given to this mode of handling the Scriptures.(7) It is certainly to be supposed that this holy inward light would never contradict itself, or guide its followers into different expositions of the same scripture. But the divergent and irreconcilable interpretations prevalent among the adherents of this system show that the “inward light” is untrust-worthy. Like the allegorical and mystical systems of interpretation, Pietism concedes the sanctity of the Scriptures, and seeks in them the lessons of eternal life; but as to principles and rules of exegesis it is more lawless and irrational. The Allegorist professes to follow certain analogies and correspondences, but the QuakerPietist is a law unto himself, and his own subjective feeling or fancy is the end of controversy. He sets himself up as a new oracle, and while assuming to follow the written word of God, puts forth his own dictum as a further revelation. Such a procedure, of course, can never commend itself to the common sense and the rational judgment.
A method of exposition, which owes its distinction to the celebrated J. S. Semler, the father of the destructive school of German Rationalism, is known as the Accommodation Theory. According to this theory the Scripture teachings respecting miracles, vicarious and expiatory sacrifice, the resurrection, eternal judgment, and the existence of angels and demons, are to be regarded as an accommodation to the superstitious notions, prejudices, and ignorance of the times. The supernatural was thus set aside. Semler became possessed with the idea that we must distinguish between religion and theology, and between personal piety and the public teaching of the Church. He rejected the doctrine of the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures, and argued that, as the Old Testament was written for the Jews, whose religious notions were narrow and faulty, we cannot accept its teachings as a general rule of faith. Matthew’s Gospel, he held, was intended for Jews outside of Palestine, and John’s Gospel for Christians who had more or less of Grecian culture. Paul at first adapted himself to Jewish modes of thought with the hope of winning over many of his countrymen to Christianity, but failing in this, he turned to the Gentiles, and became preeminent in holding up Christianity as the religion for all men. The different books of Scripture were, accordingly, designed to serve only a temporary purpose, and many of their statements may be summarily set aside as untrue.
The fatal objection to this method of interpretation is that it necessarily impugns the veracity and honor of the sacred writers, and of the Son of God himself. It represents them as conniving at the errors and ignorance of men, and confirming them and the readers of the Scriptures in such ignorance and error. If such a principle be admitted into our expositions of the Bible, we at once lose our moorings, and drift out upon an open sea of conjecture and uncertainty.
Moral Interpretation of Kant
A passing notice should also be taken of what is commonly called the Moral Interpretation, and which owes its origin to the celebrated philosopher of Konivsberg, Immanuel, Kant. The prominence given to the pare reason, and the idealism maintained in his metaphysical system, naturally led to the practice of making the Scriptures bend to the preconceived demands of reason. For, although the whole Scripture be given by inspiration of God, it has for its, practical value and purpose the moral improvement of man. Hence, if the literal and historical sense of a given passage yield no profitable moral lesson, such as. commends itself to the practical reason, we are at liberty to set it aside, and attach to the words such a meaning as is compatible with the religion of reason. It is maintained that such expositions are not to be charged with insincerity, inasmuch as they are not to be set forth as the meaning strictly intended by the sacred writers, bat only as a meaning which the writers may possibly have intended.(8) The only real value of the Scriptures is to illustrate and confirm the religion of reason.
It is easy to see that such a system of interpretation, which professedly ignores the grammatical and historical sense of the Bible, can have no reliable or selfconsistent rules. Like the mystical and allegorical methods, it leaves every thing subject to the peculiar faith or fancy of the interpreter.
So open to criticism and objection are all the abovementioned methods of interpretation, that we need not be surprised to find them offset by other extremes.
Of all rationalistic theories the Naturalistic is the most violent and radical. A rigid application of this theory is exhibited in Paulus’ Commentary on the New Testament,(9) in which it is maintained that the biblical critic should always distinguish between what is fact and what is mere opinion. He accepts the historical truth of the Gospel narratives, but holds that the mode of accounting for them is a matter of opinion. He rejects all supernatural agency in human affairs, and explains the miracles of Jesus either as acts of kindness, or exhibitions of medical skill, or illustrations of personal sagacity and tact, recorded in a manner peculiar to the age and opinions of the different writers. Jesus’ walking on the sea was really a walking on the shore; but the boat was all the time so near the shore, that when Peter jumped into the sea Jesus could reach and rescue him from the shore. The excitement was so great, and the impression on the disciples so deep, that it seemed to them as if Jesus had miraculously walked on the sea, and come to their help. The apparent miracle of making five loaves feed five thousand people was done simply by the example, which Jesus bade his disciples set, of distributing of their own little store to those immediately about them. This example was promptly followed by other companies, and it was found that there was more than sufficient food for all. Lazarus did not really die, but fell into a swoon, and was supposed to be dead. But Jesus suspected the real state of the case, and coming to the tomb at the opportune moment, happily found that his suspicions were correct; and his wisdom and power in the case made a profound and lasting impression.
This style of exposition, however, was soon seen to set at naught the rational laws of human speech, and to undermine the credibility of all ancient history. It exposed the sacred books to all manner of ridicule and satire, and only for a little time awakened any considerable interest.
The Naturalistic method of interpretation was followed by the Mythical. Its most distinguished representative was David Friedrich Strauss, whose Life of Jesus (Das Leben Jesu), first published in 1835, created a profound sensation in the Christian world. The Mythical theory, as developed and rigidly carried out by Strauss, was a logical and selfconsistent application to biblical exposition of the Hegelian (pantheistic) doctrine that the idea of God and of the absolute is neither shot forth miraculously, nor revealed in the individual, but developed in the consciousness of humanity. According to Strauss, the Messianic idea was gradually developed in the expectations and yearnings of the Jewish nation, and at the time Jesus appeared it was ripening into full maturity. The Christ was to spring from the line of David, be born at Bethlehem, be a prophet like Moses, and speak words of infallible wisdom. His age should be full of signs and wonders. The eyes of the blind should be opened, the ears of the deaf should be unstopped, and the tongue of the dumb should sing. Amid these hopes and expectations Jesus arose, an Israelite of remarkable beauty and force of character, who, by his personal excellence and wise discourse, made an overwhelming impression upon his immediate friends and followers. After his decease, his disciples not only yielded to the conviction that he must have risen from the dead, but began at once to associate with him all their Messianic ideals. Their argument was: Such and such things must have pertained to the Christ; Jesus was the Christ; therefore such and such things happened to him.(10) The visit of the wise men from the East was suggested by Balaam’s prophecy of the star out of Jacob (Num. 24:17). The flight of the holy family into Egypt was worked up out of Moses’ flight into Midian; and the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem out of Pharaoh’s order to destroy every male among the infant Israelites of Egypt. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand with a few loaves of bread was appropriated from the Old Testament story of the manna. The transfiguration in the high mountain apart was drawn from the accounts of Moses and Elijah in the mount of God. In short, Christ did not institute the Christian Church, and send forth his gospel, as narrated in the New Testament; rather, the Christ of the Gospels was the mythical creation of the early Church. Adoring enthusiasts clothed the memory of the man Jesus with all that could enhance his name and character as the Messiah of the world. But what is fact and what is fiction must be determined by critical analysis. Sometimes it may be impossible to draw the dividing line.
Among the criteria by which we are to distinguish the mythical, Strauss instances the following: A narrative is not historical (1) when its statements are irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events; (2) when it is inconsistent with itself or with other accounts of the same thing; (3) when the actors converse in poetry or elevated discourse unsuitable to their training and situation; (4) when the essential substance and groundwork of a reported occurrence is either inconceivable in itself, or is in striking harmony with some Messianic idea of the Jews of that age.(11)
We need not here enter upon a detailed exposure of the fallacies of this mythical theory. It is sufficient to observe, on the four critical rules enumerated above, that the first dogmatically denies the possibility of miracles; the second (especially as used by Strauss) virtually assumes, that when two accounts disagree, both must be false! the third is worthless until it is clearly shown what is suitable or unsuitable in each given case; and the fourth, when reduced to the last analysis, will be found to be simply an appeal to one’s subjective notions. To these considerations we add that the Gospel portraiture of Jesus is notably unlike the prevalent Jewish conception of the Messiah at that time. It is too perfect and marvelous to have been the product of any human fancy. Myths arise only in unhistoric ages, and a long time after the persons or events they represent, whereas Jesus lived and wrought his wonderful works in a most critical period of Greek and Roman civilization. Furthermore, the New Testament writings were published too soon after the actual appearance of Jesus to embody such a mythical development as Strauss assumes. While attempting to show how the Church spontaneously originated the Christ of the gospels, this whole theory fails to show any sufficient cause or explanation of the origin of the Church and of Christianity itself. The mythical interpretation, after half a century of learned labors, has notably failed to commend itself to the judgment of Christian scholars, and has few advocates at the present time.
The four lastnamed methods of interpretation may all be designated as Rationalistic; but under this name we may also place some other methods which agree with the naturalistic, the mythical, the moral, and the accommodation theories, in denying the supernatural element in the Bible. The peculiar methods by which F. C. Baur, Renan, Schenkel, and other rationalistic critics have attempted to portray the life of Jesus, and to account for the origin of the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles, often involve correspondingly peculiar principles of interpretation. All these writers, however, proceed with assumptions which virtually beg the questions at issue between the naturalist and the supernaturalist. But they all conspicuously differ among themselves. Baur rejects the mythical theory of Strauss, and finds the origin of many of the New Testament writings in the Petrine and Pauline factions of the early Church. These factions arose over the question of abolishing the Old Testament ceremonial and the rite of circumcision. The Acts of the Apostles is regarded as the monument of a pacification between these rival parties, effected in the early part of the second century. The book is treated as largely a fiction, in which the author, a disciple of Paul, represents Peter as the first to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and exhibits Paul as conforming to divers Jewish customs, thus securing a reconciliation between the Pauline and Petrine Christians.(12) Renan, on the other hand, maintains a legendary theory of the origin of the gospels, and attributes the miracles of Jesus, like the marvels of mediaeval saints, partly to the blind adoration and enthusiasm of his followers, and partly to pious fraud. Schenkel essays to make the life and character of Christ intelligible by stripping it of the divine and the miraculous, and presenting him as a nacre man.
Against all these rationalistic theories it is obvious to remark that they exclude and destroy each other. Strauss exploded the naturalistic method of Paulus, and Baur shows that the mythical theory of, Strauss is untenable. Renan pronounces against the theories of Baur, and exposes the glaring fallacy of making the Petrine and Pauline factions account for the origin of the New Testament books, and the books account for the factions. Renan’s own methods of criticism appear to be utterly lawless, and his light and captious remarks have led many of his readers to feel that he is destitute of any serious or sacred convictions, and that he would readily make use of furtive means to gain his end. He is continually foisting into the Scriptures meanings of his own, and making the writers say what was probably never in their thoughts. He assumes, for instance, as a teaching of Jesus, that the rich man was sent to Hades because he was rich, and Lazarus was glorified because he was a pauper. Many of his interpretations are based upon the most unwarrantable assumptions, and are unworthy of any serious attempt at refutation. The logical issue lies far back of his exegesis, in the fundamental questions of a personal God and an overruling providence.
The development of speculative philosophy through Kant, Jacobi, Herbart, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel has exerted a profound influence upon the critical minds of Germany, and has affected the exegetical style and methods of many of the great biblical scholars of the nineteenth century. This philosophy has tended to make the German mind intensely subjective, and has led not a few theologians to view both history and doctrines in relation to some preconceived theory rather than in their practical bearings on human life. Thus, the critical methods of Reass, Kuenen, and Wellhausen, in their treatment of Old Testament literature, seem based, not so much on a candid examination of all the contents of the sacred books of Israel, as upon the application of a philosophy of human history to the books. A dispassionate study of the works of these critics begets a conviction that the detailed arguments, by which they aim to support their positions, are not the real steps of the process by which their conclusions were first reached. The various assaults upon the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch have been noticeably a succession of adjustments. One critical theory has given place to another, as in the assaults on the credibility of the gospels, and the methods employed are largely of the nature of special pleading to maintain a preconceived theory. Reuss tells us in the Preface of his great work on the History of the Jewish Scriptures that his point of view is not that of biblical history, but one inferred from a comparison of the legal codes, and, beginning with an intuition, he aimed to find the Ariadne thread which would lead out of the labyrinth of current hypotheses of the origin of the Mosaic and other bid Testament books into the light of a psychologically intelligible course of development for the Israelitish people.(13) His procedure is, accordingly, an ingenious attempt to make his philosophy of history in general account for the records of Israel’s history, and, so far from interpreting the written records according to legitimate principles, he rearranges them according to his own fancy, and virtually constructs a new history conspicuously inconsistent with the obvious import of the ancient records.
Skeptical and rationalistic assaults upon the Scriptures have called out a method of interpretation which may be called Apologetic. It assumes to defend at all hazards the authenticity, genuineness, and credibility of every document incorporated in the sacred canon, and its standpoint and methods are so akin to that of the Dogmatic exposition of the Bible that we present the two together. The objectionable feature of these methods is that they virtually set out with the ostensible purpose of maintaining a preconceived hypothesis. The hypothesis may be right, but the procedure is always liable to mislead. It presents the constant temptation to find desired meanings in words, and ignore the scope and general purpose of the writer. There are cases where it is well to assume an hypothesis, and to use it as a means of investigation; but in all such cases the hypothesis is only assumed tentatively, not affirmed dogmatically. In the exposition of the Bible, apology and dogma have a legitimate place. The true apology defends the sacred books against an unreasonable and captious criticism, and presents their claims to be regarded as the revelation of God. But this can be done only by pursuing rational methods, and by the use of a convincing logic. So also the Scriptures are profitable for dogma, but the dogma must be shown to be a legitimate teaching of the Scripture, not a traditional idea attached to the Scripture. The extermination of the Canaanites, the immolation of Jephthah’s daughter, the polygamy of the Old Testament saints, and their complicity with slavery, are capable of rational explanation, and, in that sense, of a valid apology. The true apologist will not attempt to justify the cruelties of the ancient wars, or hold that Israel had a legal right to Canaan; he will not seek to evade the obvious import of language, and maintain that Jephthah’s daughter was not offered at all, but became a Jewish nun; nor will he find it necessary to defend the Old Testament practice of polygamy, or of slavery. He will let facts and statements stand in their own light, but guard against false inferences, and rash conclusions. So also the doctrines of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the vicarious atonement, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and the resurrection, have a firm foundation in the Scriptures; but how unscientific and objectionable many of the methods by which these and other doctrines have been maintained! When a theologian assumes the standpoint of an ecclesiastical creed, and thence proceeds, with a polemic air, to search for single texts of Scripture favorable to himself or unfavorable to his opponent, he is more than likely to overdo the matter. His creed may be as true as the Bible itself, but his method is reprehensible. Witness the disputes of Luther and Zwingle over the matter of consubstantiation. Read the polemic literature of the Antinomian, the Calvinistic, and the Sacramentarian controversies. The whole Bible is ransacked and treated as if it were an atomical collection of dogmatic prooftexts. How hard is it, even at this day, for the polemic divine to concede the spuriousness of 1st John 5:7. It should be remembered that no apology is sound, and no doctrine sure, which rests upon uncritical methods, or proceeds upon dogmatical assumptions. Such procedures are not exposition, but imposition. Moreover, the habit of treating the views of others with contempt, or of declaring what this passage must mean, and what that cannot possibly signify, is not adapted to command the confidence of students who think for themselves. Hengstenberg and Ewald represented two opposite extremes of opinion, but the imperious and offensive dogmatism of their writings has detracted largely from the influence of their otherwise invaluable contributions to biblical literature.
In distinction from all the above-mentioned methods of interpretation, we may name the Graminatico-Historical as the method which most fully commends itself to the judgment and conscience of Christian scholars. Its fundamental principle is to gather from the Scriptures, themselves the precise meaning which the writers intended to convey. It applies to the sacred books the same principles, the same grammatical process and exercise of common sense and reason, which we apply to other books. The grammatico-historical exegete, furnished with suitable qualifications, intellectual, educational, and moral,(14) will accept the claims of the Bible without prejudice or adverse prepossession, and, with no ambition to prove them true or false, will investigate the language and import of each book with fearless independence. He will master the language of the writer, the particular dialect which he used, and his peculiar style and manner of expression. He will inquire into the circumstances under which he wrote, the manners and customs of his age, and the purpose or object which he had in view. He has a right to assume that no sensible author will be knowingly inconsistent with himself, or seek to bewilder and mislead his readers.