(Chapter 2)
A treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament
ISBN: 1-57910-225-5


IN order to be a capable(1) and correct interpreter of the Holy Scriptures, one needs a variety of qualifications, both natural and acquired. For though a large proportion of the sacred volume is sufficiently simple for the child to understand, and the common people and the unlearned may find on every page much that is profitable for instruction in righteousness, there is also much that requires, for its proper apprehension and exposition, the noblest powers of intellect and the most ample learning. The several qualifications of a competent interpreter may be classified as Intellectual, Educational, and Spiritual. The first are largely native to the soul; the second are acquired by study and research; the third may be regarded both as native and acquired.

Intellectual Qualifications

Defective mental powers disqualify

    First of all, the interpreter of Scripture, and, indeed, of any other book, should have a sound, well-balanced mind. For dullness of apprehension, defective judgment, and an extravagant fancy will pervert one's reason, and lead to many vain and foolish notions. The faculties of the mind are capable of discipline, and may be trained to a very high degree of perfection; but some men inherit peculiar tendencies of intellect. Some are gifted with rare powers of imagination, but are utterly wanting in the critical faculty. A lifetime of discipline will scarcely restrain their exuberant fancy. Others are naturally given to form hasty judgments, and will rush to the wildest extremes. In others, peculiar tastes and passions warp the judgment, and some seem to be constitutionally destitute of common sense. Any and all such mental defects disqualify one for the interpretation of the word of God.

Quick and clear perception

    A ready perception is specially requisite in the interpreter. He must have the power to grasp the thought of his author, and take in at a glance its full force and bearing. With such ready perception there must be united a breadth of view and clearness of understanding which will be quick to catch, not only the import of words and phrases, but also the drift of the argument. Thus, for example, in attempting to explain the Epistle to the Galatians, a quick perception will note the apologetic tone of the first two chapters, the bold earnestness of Paul in asserting the divine authority of his apostleship, and the far-reaching consequences of his claim. It will also note how forcibly the personal incidents referred to in Paul's life and ministry enter into his argument. It will keenly appreciate the impassioned appeal to the “foolish Galatians” at the beginning of chapter third, and the natural transition from thence to the doctrine of Justification. The variety of argument and illustration in the third and fourth chapters, and the hortatory application and practical counsels of the two concluding chapters will also be clearly discerned; and then the unity, scope, and directness of the whole Epistle will lie pictured before the mind's eye as a perfect whole, to be appreciated more and more fully as additional attention and study are given to minuter details.

Acuteness of Intellect

    The great exegetes have been noted for acuteness of intellect, a critical sharpness to discern at once the connection of thought, and the association of ideas. This qualification is of great importance to every interpreter. He must be quick to see what a passage does not teach, as well as to comprehend its real import. His critical acumen should be associated with a masterly power of analysis, in order that he may clearly discern all the parts and relations of a given whole. Bengel and De Wette, in their works on the New Testament, excel in this particular. They evince an intellectual sagacity, which is to be regarded as a special gift, an inborn endowment, rather than a result of scientific culture.

Imagination needed, but must be controlled

    The strong intellect will not be destitute of imaginative power. Many things in narrative description must be left to be supplied, and many of the finest passages of Holy Writ cannot be appreciated by an unimaginative mind. The true interpreter must often transport himself into the past, and picture in his soul the scenes of ancient time. He must have an intuition of nature and of human life by which to put himself in the place of the biblical writers and see and feel as they did. But it has usually happened that men of powerful imagination have been unsafe expositors. An exuberant fancy is apt to run away with the judgment, and introduce conjecture and speculation in place of valid exegesis. The chastened and disciplined imagination will associate with itself the power of conception and of abstract thought, and be able to construct, if called for, working hypotheses to be used in illustration or in argument. Sometimes it may be expedient to form a concept, or adopt a theory, merely for the purpose of pursuing some special line of discussion and every expositor should be competent for this when needed.

Sober Judgment

    But, above all things, an interpreter of Scripture needs a sound and sober judgment. His mind must be competent to analyze, examine, and compare. He must not allow himself to be influenced by hidden meanings, and spiritualizing processes, and plausible conjectures. He must weigh reasons for and against a given interpretation; he must judge whether his principles are tenable and self-consistent; he must often balance probabilities, and reach conclusions with the greatest caution. Such a discriminating judgment may be trained and strengthened, and no pains should be spared to render it a safe and reliable habit of the mind.

Correct and delicate taste

    Correctness and delicacy of taste will be the result of a discriminating judgment. The interpreter of the inspired volume will find the need of this qualification in discerning the manifold beauties and excellences scattered in rich profusion through its pages. But his taste, as well as his judgment, must be trained to discern between the true and the false ideals. Many a modern whim of shallow refinement is offended with the straightforward honesty and simplicity of the ancient world. Prurient sensitiveness often blushes before expressions in the Scriptures which are as far as possible removed from impurity. Correct taste in such bases will pronounce according to the real spirit of the writer and his age.

Use of reason

    The use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture is everywhere to be assumed. The Bible comes to us in the forms of human language, and appeals to our reason and judgment; it invites investigation, and condemns a blind credulity. It is to be interpreted as we interpret any other volume, by a rigid application of the same laws of language, and the same grammatical analysis. Even in passages which may be said to lie beyond the province of reason, in the realm of supernatural revelation, it is still competent for the rational judgment to say whether, indeed, the revelation be supernatural. In matters beyond its range of vision, reason may, by valid argument, explain its own incompetency, and by analogy and manifold suggestion show that there are many things beyond its province which are nevertheless true and righteous altogether, and to be accepted without dispute. Reason itself may thus become efficient in strengthening faith in the unseen and eternal.

    But it behooves the expounder of God's word to see that all his principles and processes of reasoning are sound and self-consistent, he must not commit himself to false premises; he must abstain from confusing dilemmas; he must especially refrain from rushing to unwarranted conclusions. Nor must he ever take for granted things which are doubtful, or open to serious question. All such logical fallacies will necessarily vitiate his expositions, and make him a dangerous guide. The right use of reason in biblical exposition is seen in the cautious procedure, the sound principles adopted, the valid and conclusive argumentation, the sober sense displayed, and the honest integrity and self-consistency everywhere maintained. Such exercise of reason will always commend itself to the godly conscience and the pure heart.

Apt to teach

    In addition to the above-mentioned qualifications, the interpreter should be “apt to teach” (didaktikov 2nd Tim. 2:24). He must not only be able to understand the Scriptures, but also to set forth in clear and lively form to others what he himself comprehends. Without such aptness in teaching, all his other gifts and qualities will avail little or nothing. Accordingly, the interpreter should cultivate a clear and simple style, and study to bring out the truth and force of the inspired oracles so that others will readily understand.


    The professional interpreter of Scripture needs more than a well balanced mind, discreet sense, and acuteness of intellect. He needs stores of information in the broad and varied fields of history, science, and philosophy. By many liberal studies will his faculties become disciplined and strong for practical use; and extensive and accurate knowledge will furnish and fit him to be the teacher of others.


The biblical interpreter should be minutely acquainted with the geography of Palestine and the adjacent regions. In order to be properly versed in this, he will need to understand the physical character of the world outside of Bible lands. For, though the sacred writers may have known nothing of countries foreign to Asia, Africa, and Europe, the modern student will find an advantage in having information, as full as possible, of the entire surface of the globe.


With such geographical knowledge he should also unite a familiar acquaintance with universal history. The records of many peoples, both ancient and modern, will often be of value in testing the accuracy of the sacred writers, and illustrating their excellence and worth. What a vast amount of light have ancient authors, and the deciphered inscriptions of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, shed upon the narratives of the Bible!


    The science of chronology is also indispensable to the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. The succession of events, the division of the ages into great eras, the scope of genealogical tables, and the fixing of dates, are important, and call for patient study and laborious care. Nor can the interpreter dispense with the study of antiquities, the habits, customs, and arts of the ancients.


    He should inquire into the antiquities of all the ancient nations and races of whom any records remain, for the customs of other nations may often throw light upon those of the Hebrews.


    The study of politics, including international law and the various theories and systems of civil government, will add greatly to the other accomplishments of the exegete, and enable him the better to appreciate the Mosaic legislation, and the great principles of civil government set forth in the New Testament. Many a passage, also, can be illustrated and made more impressive by a thorough knowledge of natural science.

Natural science

Geology, mineralogy, and astronomy, are incidentally touched by statements or allusions of the sacred writers, and whatever the knowledge of the ancients on these subjects, the modern interpreter ought to be familiar with what modern science has demonstrated.


The same may be said of the history and systems of speculative thought, the various schools of philosophy and psychology. Many of these philosophical discussions have become involved in theological dogma, and have led to peculiar principles and methods of interpretation, and, to cope fairly with them, the professional exegete should be familiar with all their subtleties.

The sacred tongues

It is also of the first importance that the interpreter possess a profound and accurate knowledge of the sacred tongues. No one can be a master in biblical exposition without such knowledge.

Comparative philology

To a thorough acquaintance with Hebrew, Chaldee, and Greek, he should add some proficiency in the science of comparative philology. Especially will a knowledge of Syriac, Arabic, and other Semitic languages help one to understand the Hebrew and the Chaldee, and acquaintance with Sanskrit and Latin and other Indo-European tongues will deepen and enlarge one's knowledge of the Greek.

General literature

To all these acquirements the interpreter of God's, word should add a familiar acquaintance with general literature. The great productions of human genius, the world-renowned epics, the classics of all the great nations, and the bibles of all religions, will be of value in estimating the oracles of God.

    It is not denied that there have been able and excellent expositors who were wanting in many of these literary qualifications. But he who excels as a master can regard no literary attainments as superfluous; and, in maintaining and defending against skepticism and infidelity the faith once delivered to the saints, the Christian apologist and exegete will find all these qualifications indispensable.


Partly a gift, partly acquired

    Intellectual qualities, though capable of development and discipline, are to be regarded as natural endowments; educational or literary acquirements are to be had only by diligent and faithful study; but those qualifications of an interpreter which we call spiritual are to be regarded as partly a gift, and partly acquired by personal effort and proper discipline. Under this head we place all moral and religious qualities, dispositions, and attainments. The spirit is that higher moral nature which especially distinguishes man from the brute, and renders him capable of knowing and loving God. To meet the wants of this spiritual nature the Bible is admirably adapted; but the perverse heart and carnal mind may refuse to entertain the thoughts of God. “The natural man,” says Paul, “does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are a folly to him, and he is not able to know, because they are spiritually discerned” (1st Cor. 2:14).

Desire to know the truth

    First of all, the true interpreter needs a disposition to seek and know the truth. No man can properly enter upon the study and exposition of what purports to be the revelation of God while his heart is influenced by any prejudice against it, or hesitates for a moment to accept what commends itself to his conscience and his judgment. There must be a sincere desire and purpose to attain the truth, and cordially accept it when attained. Such a disposition of heart, which may be more or less strong in early childhood, is then easily encouraged and developed, or as easily perverted. Early prejudices and the natural tendency of the human soul to run after that which is evil, rapidly beget habits, and dispositions unfriendly to godliness. “For the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7), and readily cleaves to that which seems to remove moral obligation. “Every one that does evil hates the light, and comes not to the light lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:20). A soul thus perverted is incompetent to love and search the Scriptures.

Tender affection

    A pure desire to know the truth is enhanced by a tender affection for whatever is morally ennobling. The writings of John abound in passages of tender feeling and suggest how deep natures like his possess an intuition of godliness. Their souls yearn for the pure and the good, and they exult to find it all in God. Such tender affection is the seat of all pure love, whether of God or of man. The characteristic utterance of such a soul is: “Beloved, let us love one another; because love is of God, and every one that loves has been begotten of God, and knows God…. God is love; and he that abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1st John 4:7, 16).

Enthusiasm for the word

    The love of the truth should be fervent and glowing, so as to beget in the soul an enthusiasm for the word of God., The mind that truly appreciates the Homeric poems must imbibe the spirit of Homer. The same is true of him who delights in the magnificent periods of Demosthenes, the easy numbers and burning thoughts of Shakspeare, or the lofty verse of Milton. What fellowship with such lofty natures can he have whose soul never kindles with enthusiasm in the study of their works? So the profound and able exegete is he whose spirit God has touched, and whose soul is enlivened by the revelations of heaven.

Reverence for God

    Such hallowed fervor should be chastened and controlled by a true reverence. “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov, 1:7). There must be the devout frame of mind, as well as the pure desire to know the truth. “God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Therefore, they who would attain the true knowledge of God must possess the reverent, truth-loving spirit; and, having attained this, God will seek them (John 4:23) and reveal himself to them as he does not unto the world. Comp. Matt. 11:25; 26:11. Nor should we allow ourselves to be deluded by the idea that the human mind must be a tabula rasa in order to arrive at sound conclusions. To conform to such an assumption is well pronounced by Neander to be impracticable. “The very attempt,” he observes, “contradicts the sacred laws of our being. We cannot entirely free ourselves from presuppositions, which are born with our nature, and which attach to the fixed course of progress in which we ourselves are involved. They control our consciousness, whether we will or no; and the supposed freedom from them is, in fact, nothing else but the exchange of one set for another. Some of these prepossessions, springing from a higher necessity, founded in the moral order of the universe, and derived from the eternal laws of the Creator, constitute the very ground and support of our nature. From them we must not free ourselves.”(2)

Communion with the Holy Spirit

    Finally, the expounder of the Holy Scriptures needs to have living fellowship and communion with the Holy Spirit. Inasmuch as “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2nd Tim. 3:16), and the sacred writers spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2nd Pet. 1:21), the interpreter of Scripture must be a partaker of the same Holy Spirit. He must, by a profound experience of the soul, attain the saving knowledge of Christ, and in proportion to the depth and fullness of that experience he will know the life and peace of the “mind of the Spirit” (Rom. 6:6). “We speak God's wisdom in a mystery,” says Paul (1st Cor. 2:7-11), the hidden spiritual wisdom of a divinely illuminated heart, which none of the princes of this world have known, but (as it is in substance written in Isa. 64:4), a wisdom relating to “what things (a) eye did not see, and ear did not heir, and into man's heart did not enter—whatever things (osa) God prepared for them that love him; for(3) to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who of men knows the. things of the man except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also the things of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” He, then, who would know and explain to others “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 13:11) must enter into blessed communion and fellowship with the Holy One. He should never cease to pray (Eph. 1:17, 18) “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, would give him the spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the full knowledge (epignwsiv) of him, the eyes of his heart being enlightened for the purpose of knowing what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe.”

End Notes

  1. Comp. the import of ikanoi, ikanotpv, and ikaswsen in 2nd Cor. 3:5, 6.

  2. Life of Jesus Christ. Translated by McClintock and Blumenthal; p. 1. N. Y., 1848.

  3. We follow here the reading of Westcott and Hort, who receive yap into the text. This reading has the strong support of Codex B, and would have been quite liable to be changed to the more numerously supported reading oe by reason of a failure to, apprehend the somewhat involved connection or thought. The gar gives the reasou why we speak God's mysterious wisdom, for to us God revealed it through the Spirit. “Is it in truth the word of God,” says T. Lewis, “is it really God speaking to us? Then the feeling and the conclusion which it necessitates are no hyperboles. We cannot go too far in our reverence, or in our expectation of knowledge surpassing in kind, if not in extent. The wisdom of the earth, of the seas, of the treasures hidden in the rocks, and all deep places, or of the stars afar off, brings us not so nigh the central truth of the heavens, the very mind and the thought of God, as one parable of Christ.” The Divine Human in the Scriptures, pp. 25, 26. New York, 1859.

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