By Charles H. Welch
Interpretation has to do with words and their meanings.
The Holy Scriptures, even though they had been written in letters of burnished gold, would not have been a revelation of God if the meaning of those burnished letters was hidden from man. It matters not how fair the script may be, or whose hand wrote the lines-they may even be engraved by the finger of God Himself, as were the ten commandments, yet they would still fail of their purpose if no meaning were attached to the holy symbols. Significance, meaning, intention, these are the spirit; the actual words used are but the body, and as the body without the spirit is dead, being alone, so is a word divested of its meaning.
In order to be sure of the meaning of the Scriptures, we must give attention to grammar, to usage, to structure, to manner and custom, to time, place, circumstance, and last but by no means least, the changing dispensations.
The Apostle makes much of intention, significance and meaning, when he sought to guide and restrain the Corinthians in the use of the gift of tongues. Let us read Moffatt's translation:
"Suppose now I were to come to you speaking with "tongues", my brothers: what good could I do you, unless I had some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching to 1ay before you? Inanimate instruments, such as the flute or the harp, may give a sound, but if no intervals occur in their music, how can one make out the air that is being played either on flute or on harp? If the trumpet sounds indistinct, who will get ready for the fray? Well, it is the same with yourselves. Unless your tongue utters 1anguage that is readily understood, how can people make out what you say? You will be pouring words into the empty air. There are ever so many kinds of language in the world, every one of them meaning something. Well, unless I understand the meaning of what is said to me, I shall appear to the speaker to be talking gibberish, and to my mind he will be talking gibberish himself. So with yourselves; since your heart is set on possessing 'spirits' , make the edification of the church your aim in this desire to exce1" (1 Cor. 14:6-12).
Let us pause to consider "how we learn", first naturally, and then especially as it pertains to the Scriptures of Truth. The steps that are taken, consciously or unconsciously, seem to fall under the following headings:
A rapid survey brings to light over thirty parts of speech used by Paul that can be classed under the heading "logical particles", and it will neither be possible nor necessary to attempt to examine the usage of them all. A se1ection with examples, however, seems called for, and so we propose an examination of the following.
"For", gar. The Greek word is a contraction of ge "verily" and ara "therefore" or "further", and indicates the reason, cause or motive of what has already been put forward. It is a particle of affirmation and conclusion "as the case stands", gar can often be translated "consequently". The primary meaning of gar is seen in its employment in questions. In the secondary use it takes up the idea of cause and gives the reason of a preceding statement. Finally it seems to explain or to make clear a preceding thought or word. Take, as an example, the first chapter of Romans, and note the steps in the argument of the Apostle as they are indicated by the particle gar, "for".
His concern is for the church at Rome, and his desire that they should not misunderstand the long delay in his plans to visit them. This leads on to the nature of the gospel itself and the necessity for its revelation of righteousness.
"For" is the translation in the A.V. N.T. of twenty-four Greek words, but not Logical particles" and care must be exercised in the reading of the English version.
Let us take another word for an example.
The English word "that" is a maid-of-all-work, and stands for a pronoun, a conjunction, an adjective or an adverb. We are concerned here only with "that" as a conjunction. "That" is used to introduce a clause which is logically the subject, the object, or a necessary complement of an essential part of the principle sentence. It introduces the reason, purpose, object or end. Let us take as an example the following:
Hina in classical Greek is an adverb of place, and this sense of direction is inherent when it is used as a conjunction. It indicates an end or a goal, and so should be translated "in order that", "to the end that", "with the object that".
Dr. Bullinger comments: "thus hope is followed by hoti which represents the object of the hope, while prayer is followed by hina showing the purpose and design of the prayer."
In many instances hina is followed by the subjunctive mood, to signify the objective, possibility or intention, "in order that it might be". In other cases it is followed by the indicative, pointing to the fact rather than to the mere possibility, or by the optative, denoting a wish rather than a possibility. Keeping to Romans one, we note as examples of hina: "for I long to see you IN ORDER THAT I may impart unto you some spiritual gift IN ORDER THAT I might have some fruit" (Rom. 1:11,13). And, passing over to Romans four, we have the important statement of doctrine, "therefore it is of faith, IN ORDER THAT it might be by grace" (Rom. 4:16).
Hoti. This word expresses the substance or content, and then the reason why anything is said to be or to be done "because", "since", "for that".
Hos. This word is used in comparisons.
It is evident therefore by these few examples taken mainly from Romans one, how "logical" is the method of Paul's presentation of the truth.
In the course of our pursuit for "sense" and "meaning" we come to the great fact that God has made a revelation of His will and purpose, that this revelation constitutes the Holy Scriptures, and that these Scriptures were written in Hebrew, Chaldee and Greek. Now if these languages were our mother tongue, or if we were as familiar with them as we are with English, the next step in our advance towards meaning would be denominated "Interpretation".
But few if any of our readers are so familiar with these ancient languages as to be independent of the office of a translator. Those who are thus privileged are in need of no word here on the subject, and those who are not cannot be turned into translators by the perusal of an article. What then can we do? The teaching of grammar and the necessary practice in translation is quite outside the scope of this Analysis, we can only look at the translator at work, consider principles that guide him and come to whatever conclusions sound thinking on the matter may lead us.
The word "translation" does not occur In the Scriptures In the sense in which we use it in this article, but in the primary sense of transferring someone or something from one place to another (Col. 1 :13, Heb. 11 :5). Metatithemi, which is the word rendered "translate" in Hebrews 11:5, is used of carrying the body of Jacob from Egypt to Sychem (Acts 7:16), for the removing of the believer from the faith (Gal. 1:6), and for the change of priesthood consequent upon the death and resurrection of Christ (Heb. 7:12). Metathesis "translation" in Hebrews 11:5 is rendered "change" in 7:12 and "removing" in 12:27. Methistano, which is employed in Co10ssians 1 :13, is translated elsewhere "put out", "remove" and "turn away" (Luke 16:4, Acts 13:22, 19:26, 1 Cor. 13:2).
While the word "translate" occurs but once in the O.T. of the A.V., namely in 2 Samuel 3:10, "to translate the kingdom from the house of Saul", the Hebrew word thus rendered is in constant use. It is the Hebrew abar, "to cross over", as of the crossing of Jordan. In 2 Samuel itself where the word abar occurs about forty-seven times, in every passage except 3:10 physical transference over or across is intended, as for example, "And there went over a ferry boat to carry over the king's household" (2 Sam. 19:18). It may be said that goods transferred by ferry boat from one side of a stream to another, remain unchanged, but if we widen the breach and transfer goods from the shores of England to the shores of France, then while the material remains the same, conformity to the new conditions, new customs, new dues, new prices, new climatic effects, must be taken into account. This crude illustration brings us to the first great controversy regarding the translation of the Scriptures or of any other book from one language to another.
Dr. Weymouth refers to the R.V. and better still to Darby's New Testament, saying that if the reader is bent upon getting a literal rendering, he will find it in these versions, but should be on his guard against their strong tendency to mislead because of the idioms that are found in the Greek of the N.T., Greek that is interpenetrated with Hebraisms, which "a literal rendering into English cannot but partially veil, and in some degree distort the true sense".
Moffatt quotes from De Quincey's essay on Protestantism on the popular delusion that "every idea and word which exists, or has existed, for any nation, ancient or modern, must have a direct interchangeable equivalent in all languages" . "Thus," continues Moffatt, "there is no exact English equivalent for terms like logos and musterion and dikaiosune."
(1). INTERPRETATION is the act of explaining that which is otherwise unintelligible, not understood, or not obvious.
Interpretation explains the meaning of a word in an unknown tongue, as for example,
Interpretation unfolds the intent, meaning or reason of any sign or event.
Interpretation covers two allied processes: Exegesis; Hermeneutics.
If Hermeneutics is the science and Exegesis the art of explanation, our course is clear. We must start with Hermeneutics. Now it is obvious that to many this word will itself need explanation, so let us first of all attempt the explanation and interpretation of Hermeneutics.
The word is evidently of foreign origin, and the first thing we must do is to "translate" the term. Hermes is the name in Greek mythology which was given to the son of Zeus, the messenger of the gods; and so the god of science, commerce, eloquence, and many of the arts of life, is called "Mercury" by the Romans, or "Hermes" by the Greeks. The reader may feel a certain reluctance in using the name of a false god in connexion with so sacred a task as the interpretation of Holy Writ, and so the next step must be to enable the reader to see that no such reluctance is manifested by the writers of the Scripture.
Hermes and Mercury. The idolatrous people of Lystra, when they saw the miracles and heard the Apostle speak, said:
Here, the idolators indicated some reason for their choice, Mercury, or Hermes as the word is in the Greek of the N.T., being associated with speech. Hermes had become a proper name among the Greeks, as Romans 16:14 will show, while among those who turned away from the Apost1e at the end was one named Hermogenes.
The verbs hermeneuo, diermeneuo and methermeneuo are found in the N.T. all with the meaning "to interpret". Let us consider the way in which these words are employed by the inspired writers.
In addition we have interpretation, hermenia (1 Cor. 12:10, 14:26) and interpreter, diermeneutes (1 Cor. 14:28).
The shade of difference between hermeneuo, diermeneuo and methermeneuo is largely one of emphasis, the simple form conveying mainly the idea of translation and explanation, the compounds having an eye to the obscurity that may be involved, or the person to whom the explanation is given. It will be observed that Mark translates Aramaic sentences for his Roman reader, John translates for the non-Jewish reader, ordinary Hebrew terms. The expounding of the Scriptures by the Saviour to those who needed no translation of the language employed, or the interpretation of the unknown tongue spoken in the assembly, alike illuminate the primary meaning of interpretation.
The extreme importance of "sense" and "meaning" and the value of interpretation in the estimate of the apostle Paul, can be seen by reading 1 Corinthians fourteen. For the benefit of a fresh "interpretation" we will again quote from Moffatt's translation.
Here, we have Scripture itself magnifying the importance of "meaning" and of "interpretation" as a means to that end.
The Grammatico-historical System
"Nearly all the treatises on hermeneutics," says Moses Stuart, "since the days of Ernesti, have laid it down as a maxim which cannot be controverted that the Bible is to be interpreted in the same manner, that is, by the same principle, as all other books . . . these principles are coeval with nature. . . the person addressed has always been an interpreter in every instance where he has heard and understood what was addressed to him." This is the system of interpretation that commends itself to those who seek truth at the fountain head. The first rule to be observed by any who would appreciate Dispensational Truth is the principle of "Right Division". This is so important that a separate article is devoted to it under the title RIGHT DIVISION, which the reader should consult.
The purpose of "right division" referred to above, cannot of course be put into use apart from the "Word of Truth". The expositor deals with "words", words of truth, inspired words, living words, words that are spirit and life, but nevertheless words.
When the Most High condescended to speak to man, He chose the Hebrew and the Greek language as His instruments. When He chose those languages He consequently chose their grammar, their modes of expression, their syntax and their vocabulary. From the Divine standpoint and from the human standpoint the language remains unchanged. In His Sovereignty and in His Providence, the Lord exercised wondrous wisdom in selecting and rejecting items of these languages so that His will should be clearly made known. This is taught in Psalm twelve:
The Companion Bible gives reasons, grammatical and otherwise, for rendering this verse as follows:
The word "of" in the phrase "words of earth" is the Hebrew lamed, which is the sign of the dative "to", not the genitive "of".
The meaning of this verse appears to be, that though the words used by the Lord in making known His will to man must necessarily be words that pertain to the earth, yet such is His grace and power, these words have been used with such discretion and with such precision that they are like silver purified to perfection. While therefore, in our dealing with the Scriptures we are dealing with the Hebrew and the Greek languages, and are not permitted to take any liberties with its grammar, its vocabulary or its syntax (syntax refers to the disposition of the words in a sentence, grammar deals with the actual words them selves as to whether they be nouns, verbs, etc., and the various changes that must be made in order to express number, gender, case, etc.), yet we are encouraged in our search and emboldened in our pursuit by the consciousness that these words of earth have been perfectly purified, so that without reserve we may believe all that they legitimately mean.
There are one or two other references that speak of the fact that the word of God has been "tried" or "refined":
It is objected by some that it is not the sign of great spirituality to be concerned about "mere words". True, "mere words" may be a barren field, but the pure, tried, refined words used by God demand the highest spiritual powers for their appreciation. They can never be called "mere words". There are few who would question the sincerity of Melancthon, friend and helper of Luther. He said:
If a sentence were to be printed here from the original Hebrew or Greek of the Scriptures, and the reader be unacquainted with those languages, although these words would be the words used by inspiration and full of life and peace, they would be "mere words" apart from understanding, and valueless to faith.
It has been a matter of great interest to many to seek the origin of language. The most important theories are:
These theories are insufficient to account for the wonder of language.
We cannot avoid concluding, both from the use of language in Eden, by Adam's evident ability to name the animals that were brought before him, and by the name given to the first children born, that language is a gift of God to man.
The present writer acquired his first knowledge of language, not from a book, nor at a school, but in his home. What ordinarily takes several years in the home training of a child could he accomplished immediately by the Lord in His first contact with Adam. The "miracle" is not in the fact that language is imparted, but in the brevity of the instruction.
The words used by God have been chosen by Divine wisdom as the fittest to convey His meaning without ambiguity to the mind of man. It is incumbent upon all who have the privilege and responsibility of interpreting those inspired words into common speech, to see to it that so far as it is humanly possible, the same clarity be observed by them in their work. We repeat:
Should the reader feel some objection to thus treating the Word of God "as a11 other books", let us remind him that we are for the moment not dealing with its exposition, its preaching, its application, but simply its interpretation. We cannot treat a noun as a verb simply because we deal with Holy Writ, nay rather, we shall feel the importance of treating nouns as nouns, verbs as verbs, and observing every phase and detail with scrupulous care, just because it is Holy Writ.
The meaning of a word must be sought in its usage. It is a proverb that should be kept in mind when dealing with words and their meaning, that "fire is a good servant but a bad master". Etymology is a good servant, but if it controls the mind of the interpreter instead of being a useful adjunct it can very seriously mislead.
In the early books of the O.T. we might expect the words that are used to retain much of their primitive force, but, as time goes on, words change in their meaning; new shades of meaning are taken on; old meanings fade and are forgotten, and consequently the interpreter is faced at every step with a problem. Who, today, thinks of a "diploma" as "a thing folded double"? Who associates "influenza" with astrology and the "influence" of the planets? Who thinks of the god "Mercury" when he speaks of "merchandise"?
To translate such words literally, so that the etymology of the word could be reproduced, would in cases like the above, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, not be translating at all. We are not concerned with the "word" that our author has used so much as we are concerned with his "meaning", and his meaning is not settled by the etymology of the word, but its accepted usage at the time when it was spoken or written. How easy it is to arrange a word for word literal translation of any book, but how misleading its results! One writer of foreign nationality wrote, "his provisions were disappointed." While the etymology of "foresight" and "provision" are the same, both meaning "to see beforehand", in usage they are far apart.
(2). USAGE is the second great principle of interpretation.
Usage may be studied under the following main heads:
A word has a meaning by reason of its etymology and origin. It has a meaning by common usage which modifies the original meaning, and it has a special meaning which is decided by its context and by the scope of the passage which contains it. The scope of a passage is determined by its structure, and the structure is found by noting outstanding items that balance, and that carry the theme on in definite logical steps. In searching for the evidences of structure, do not think that of necessity only important looking words will be used. Sometimes it is the reverse. The scope of Galatians one is determined by its structure, and the structure hinges upon three simple words, "not", "neither", "but". Yet the sense of independence from all the opinions of men that the discovery of these three words bring to the one who has made their message his own, must be experienced to be appreciated. Divested of all subsidiary matter, Galatians one tells us that the Apostle had before him three related subjects that are at the basis of his ministry to the Gentiles:
He who sees this is independent of human opinions, and he who believes it is independent of all human criticism or authority, so far as the meaning of this chapter is concerned.
The knowledge of the scope of a book, discovered by its structure, enforces true translation. This can be illustrated from the A.V. rendering of Ephesians 6:13 "having done all". Had the translators realized that Ephesians has a perfect balance of parts, and that Ephesians 1 :19-2:7 is in structural correspondence with Ephesians 6:10-13, they would have been compelled to balance the word "work in" of Ephesians 1 :19 by "work out" 'in Ephesians 6:13, even as they have so translated the two words in Philippians 2:12,13. Supplementing this we quote from Dr. Bullinger's Figures of Speech:
The writer of this Alphabetical Analysis, if given half an hour in which to prepare to speak on any given passage of Scripture, would devote twenty minutes of that precious time in ascertaining the scope by means of the structure, and would not begrudge the time thus spent, knowing that no knowledge of words, or of doctrine, could make up for essential truth provided by the structure and the scope. We do not give this as a method for others, we but state a personal fact and speak of what is characteristic of our own mode of study and presentation. We can only say to fellow-students and fellow-teachers, "it works." A few examples may be of service, illustrating the way in which the structure points to the teaching of any given passage.
Here it is demonstrated that the "sun" is a figure of the "servant" of the Lord. The structure is of extreme service in preventing one from losing the thread of any passage. For example, if one knew the structure of Hebrews one and two, one would not be confused by the introduction in two different places of "angels" but would realize the development of the theme.
The structural background of Scripture falls into four groups:
Fuller analysis and many more examples can be seen by consulting the works of Dr. Louth, or R. B. Roe, on the correspondencies of Scripture, and the great work of Dr. Bullinger on "Figures of Speech used in the Bible".
Examples, of course, could be multiplied, but examples can never take the place of personal investigation. The unashamed workman will never rest satisfied with his own interpretation or that of any other, until he has tested it by this great test of scope and structure.
A word of caution regarding structure may not be amiss. We early discovered that by inventing our own headlines in our attempt to arrive at the structure, we could save a lot of time, cut out a lot of work, make a very presentable show, BUT FAIL TO ARRIVE AT TRUTH! We therefore discarded "headings" and pinned ourselves down to using actual words from the passage before us. This meant that much that had been put forward both by ourselves and others had to be scrapped, and the work commenced afresh. This is the reason why the reader does not find in the structural outlines submitted in the Berean Expositor and its publications, mere copies of those in any other work.
Where they coincide with the findings of others, it is a confirmation for which we are thankful. Where they differ, it will be discovered generally that the structure of the Berean Expositor adheres to the actual wording of the passage (using of course the original, in every case), whereas the structure that is discarded has employed humanly conceived headings.
As The Berean Expositor has been published for over forty years, the editor feels that the method recommended has stood the test of time, and that in most cases the results are selfevident and useful.
How is a structure of any given passage discovered? We have often been asked the question, but our answers have not given much satisfaction. Few structures of any importance can be discovered apart from protracted study and concentrated effort. There is no short cut. If the subject be a whole book, then the whole book must be read and re-read until the mind is able to hold in suspense the varying items, and until the eye of the mind perceives the disposition of parts. Occasionally the whole matter is settled by the presence of key words, as the whole central member of Galatians is determined by the words "by nature" (Gal. 2:15 and 4:8).
How does one feel sure that a jig-saw puzzle is accurately fitted together? It is self-evident, and so should the structure be. Any sense of forcing or distortion should be suspected. After all, we do not want "structures" for their own sake, but for the sake of truth, and so nothing but the truth in the structure can be tolerated. Further, just as we say "Columbus discovered America" , and not "Columbus invented America" , so the student should remember that in seeking the structure of any passage, he is simply looking for what is there, clues given by God, the underlinings of the Holy Spirit, and is not inventing an outline, however attractive such inventions may be. A few guiding principles in closing.
(1). Never build a doctrine upon a text which is debatable either for its authenticity or because of its obscurity.
We do not expect any reader to pose as a Textual Critic, but it is common knowledge with all intelligent readers of the Scriptures that some readings are doubtful. For example, whether one be a Trinitarian or a Unitarian, one must agree with the R.V. in omitting from the Scriptures 1 John 5:7. Consequently it would be very improper, and expo se the one who so used it to well-merited scorn, to attempt to build the doctrine of the Trinity upon this verse. The doctrine of the Trinity must be based upon passages of Scripture that the Unitarian himself must admit to be authentic.
Again, some passages of Scripture are taken by enthusiasts as proofs of their particular doctrine, that only very slightly lend themselves to its establishment. This is extremely unwise. No doctrine that is fundamental to the faith lacks clear unambiguous testimony from the Word, and any attempt to drag in obscure texts weakens rather than strengthens the case.
(2). Words have one signification in one and the same connexion.
(3). We must interpret any given passage where there is any element of uncertainty, so that it accords with the plain teaching of passages that are clear. In other words, we must regard the analogy of the faith in all our work.