A treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament
MILTON S. TERRY
General Principles defined
THERE are certain general principles of thought and language which underlie all intelligible writings. When one rational mind desires to communicate thought to another it employs such conventional means of intercourse as are supposed to be understood by both. Words of defined meaning and usage serve this purpose in all the languages of men, and accordingly, if one understand the written thoughts of another, he must know the meaning and usage of his words. It is the province of interpretation to observe the methods and laws of human thought as exhibited in the ordinary processes of speech. “The perfect understanding of a discourse,” says Schleiermacher, “is a work of art, and involves the need of an art‑doctrine, which we designate by the term Hermeneutics. Such an art‑doctrine has existence only in so far as the precepts admitted form a system resting upon principles which are immediately evident from the nature of thought and language.”(1)
Bible to be interpreted like other books
In general, therefore, we hold that the Bible, as a body of literature, is to be interpreted like all other books. The writers of the several parts and those who assume to explain what is written are alike supposed to be in accord with the logical operations of the human mind. The first work of the interpreter is accordingly philological. He should know the primary signification of each word, the manner of its usage, and the peculiar shades of meaning it may have acquired. With the study of words he must also unite a knowledge of the genius and grammatical structure of the language employed, for thus only can one come into possession of the precise thoughts of an author, and judge of their adaptation to impress the first readers. The main object of an author in writing is also to be diligently sought, for in the light of his chief purpose the details of his composition are often more clearly apprehended. Along with the scope of a book the form of its structure is also to be studied, and the logical relation of its several parts discerued. A wide comparison of all related books, or of similar passages of writing, is invaluable, and hence the comparison of one Scripture with another may often serve to set the whole in clearest light. Especially important is it for the exegete to transfer himself in spirit to the times of an ancient writer, learn the circumstances under which he wrote, and look out upon the world from his point of view.
Importance of general principles
These general principles are applicable alike to the interpretation of the Bible and of all other books, and are appropriately designated General Hermeneutics. Such principles are of the nature of comprehensive and fundamental doctrines. They become to the practical interpreter so many maxims, postulates, and settled rules. He holds them in mind as axioms, and applies them in all his expositions with uniform consistency. For it is evident that a false principle admitted into the method of an interpreter will vitiate his entire exegetical process. And when, for example, we find that in the explanation of certain parts of the Scriptures no two interpreters out of a whole class agree, we have good reason to presume at once that some fatal error lurks in their principles of interpretation. It was surely no purpose or desire of the sacred writers to be misunderstood. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that the Holy Scripture, given by inspiration of God, is of the nature of a puzzle designed to exercise the ingenuity of the reader. It is to be expected, therefore, that sound hermeneutical principles will serve as elements of safety and satisfaction in the study of God's written word.
Ennobling tendency of hermeneutical study
The process of observing the laws of thought and language, as exhibited in the Holy Scriptures, is an ennobling study. It affords an edifying intercourse with eminent and choice spirits of the past, and compels us for the time to lose sight of temporary interests, and to become absorbed with the thoughts and feelings of other ages. He who forms the habit of studying, not only the divine thoughts of revelation, but also the principles and methods according to which those thoughts have been expressed, will acquire a moral and intellectual culture worthy of the noblest ambition.
1. Outline of the Study of Theology, p. 142. Edinb., 1850.
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