Understanding The Bible
Part IV - Introduction to HERMENEUTICS


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Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible
Circa 1970


    It soon becomes obvious to the serious student of the Word that the Bible contains a great variety of types of literature. It is not all the recitation of historical fact in straight prose. There is poetry, parable, allegory, type, simile, etc. Each type of literature as found in the Scriptures has its own rules of interpretation. For this reason there is need to study the principles of Special Hermeneutics. "Parables, allegories, types, and symbols, have their peculiar laws, and grammatical-historical interpretation must give attention to rhetorical form and poetic symbolism, as well as to the laws of grammar and facts of history." (Terry)

    1. Poetry (how to read and understand it)
      The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations are highly poetical. Sections of other OT books are also poetic. Terry estimates that nearly one-half of the OT is written in this poetic style.

      Hebrew poetry is not characterized by the rhyming of sounds, but rather by the paralleling of thoughts." The distinguishing feature of Hebrew poetry is now generally acknowledged to be the parallelism of members" (lines or thoughts). (Terry) For this reason Hebrew poetry is capable of more exact translation than that of any other language. This principle of parallelism was rediscovered by Bishop Lowth more than a century after the King James Version was translated.

      Bishop Lowth classified Hebrew parallelism under three general heads: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic. These in turn may be subdivided according to the number of lines--couplets, triplets, quatrains, etc.

      1. Synonymous Parallelism
        "Here we place passages in which the different lines (or members) present the same thought in a slightly altered manner of expression." (Terry)

        1. Identical
          The different members use the same, or nearly the same words. "Thou wert snared in the sayings of thy mouth; Thou wert taken in the sayings of thy mouth." Prov. 6:2; cp. Ps. 93:3; Job 18:13; Isa. 15:1

        2. Similar
          The sentiment is substantially the same, but language and figures are different. "For he on the seas has founded it. And on the floods will he establish it." Ps. 24:2; cp. Job 6:5

        3. Inverted
          When there is an inversion or transposition of words or sentences so as to change the order of thought. "The heavens are telling the glory of God, And the work of His hands declares the expanse." Ps. 19:1; cp. Ps. 78:10; 91:14; Isa. 35:3

      2. Antithetic Parallelism
        "Under this head come all passages in which there is contrast or opposition of thought presented in the different sentences. This kind of parallelism abounds in the book of Proverbs especially, for it is peculiarly adapted to express maxims of proverbial wisdom." (Terry)

        1. Simple
          The contrast is presented in a couplet of simple sentences. "Righteousness exalteth a nation: But sin is a reproach to any people." Prov. 14:34 (cp. 15:2; 30:5-6)

        2. Compound
          Two or more sentences in each member of the antithesis.
          "The ox has known his owner,
          And the ass the crib of his lord;
          Israel has not known, - -
          My people doth not consider." Isa. 1:3 (cp. 1:19-20; 54:7-8)

      3. Synthetic Parallelism
        "Consists only in the similar form of construction, in which word does not answer to word, and sentence to sentence, as equivalent or opposite; but there is a correspondence and equality between different positions in respect to the shape and turn of the whole sentence and of the constructive parts; such as noun answering to noun, verb to verb, member to member, negative to negative, interrogative to interrogative." (Lowth)

        "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
        Nor standeth in the way of sinners,
        Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful;
        But his delight is in the law of the Lord;
        And in His law doth he meditate day and night."

        Note the climax in those lines from Ps. 1:1-2; cp. Isa. 55:6-7; Ps. 35:26-27; Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 16:13.

      4. Figurative Language

        1. The problem of figurative language (no double sense admitted)
          When a word is used in other than its primary sense, or applied to some object different from that to which it is appropriated in common usage, it is being used in a figurative sense. Compare Gal, 2:9, where James, Peter, and John are called pillars of the church. Every language uses figurative speech, the Bible being no exception. Cellerier reminds us, "It should be remembered, however, that this is no concession to those who deny the inspiration of the Word, since a figure or parable may be just as much inspired as a rigid syllogism.

          A problem arises in determining whether a given term is being used in a figurative sense or not. Note the claim of the amillennial camp that Jerusalem and Zion, used in the prophetic portions of the OT, are to be understood as figurative, symbolizing the Church. In determining whether a word is figurative or literal the fundamental principle must be: "Does the literal make good sense?" If the literal proves to be absurd, or in any way inconsistent, either with other parts of the sentence or with the nature of the things discussed, we may conclude with tolerable certainty that the language is figurative." (Lockhart)

          No double sense is to be admitted in the recognition that figures of speech exist in the Scriptures. This does not mean that certain passages are to be interpreted literally AND figuratively. In all instances there is but one sense, the real sense. The real sense of any figure of speech is not the primary meaning of the word or words involved, but rather the sense intended by the use of the figure. "Revelation.. .has been clothed with popular forms strongly impressed with the habits of the East, that is to say, with metaphorical, poetical, and parabolical forms, which convey a meaning different from that of the literal sense of the words. But even then, there are not two senses, the literal and metaphorical. The meta-phorical is alone the real sense; the literal does not exist as a sense; it is only the vehicle of the former; it contains in itself no result, no truth. There is therefore only one true sense." (Cellerier)

          To admit that the Bible contains a double or multiple sense is to involve oneself in the following difficulties:

          1. It becomes difficult to determine the correct meaning of a passage.

          2. In this case the Bible is not considered as given to man to instruct, to edify, and direct him; but as given to the theologian to furnish a field for the display of his wit and vanity.

          3. It supposes and establishes a profound and radical distinction between the logical methods which God has given us in order to discover the truth, and the methods to be followed in the interpretation of Scripture.

          4. The Bible becomes a changeable, doubtful rule of faith, flexible at the will of the fancies or the passions of men.

          5. The simple and transparent beauty of the Sacred Book gives place to a mass of human fancies, and of mystical, allegorical, scholastic, philosophical, physical, and astronomical glosses, sometimes ingenious and witty, but not the simple, clear, and edifying truth of God's Word. (The points above are from Weidner.)

        2. Various kinds of figures of speech (sometimes called tropes) There are several kinds of figures of speech with which one should be acquainted in order properly to interpret the Scripture.

          1. Metonymy (from Greek meta - change, and onoma - name)
            A figure of speech in which one word is used for another which it suggests. An effect is sometimes substituted for its cause and vice versa. Compare Job 34:6; Lk. 16:29; Prov. 12:19; Lev. 19:32; Isa. 22:22.

          2. Synecdoche
            A figure of speech by which the whole is put for a part, or the part for the whole. Compare Lk7 2:1; Acts 27:37; Jud. 12:7.

          3. Personification
            By this figure of speech all objects of nature, inanimate things, and even abstract ideas were viewed as if instinct with life, and spoken of as masculine or feminine. Compare Num. 16:32; Mt. 6:34; Ps. 1l4:3-4.

          4. Apostrophe (closely allied to personification)
            By this figure of speech the speaker turns from his immediate hearers and addresses an imaginary person or thing. Compare Ps. 114:5; Jer. 47:6; 2 Sam. 18:33; Isa. 14:9-20

          5. Interrogation
            Interrogatory forms of expression are often the strongest possible way of enunciating important truths. (Sometimes called "rhetorical questions, " which obviously require no answer.) Compare Heb. 1:14; Rom. 8:33-35; Job 38-41.

          6. Hyperbole
            A figure of speech which consists in exaggeration or magnifying an object beyond reality. Compare Jud. 7Tl2; 2 Sam. 1:23; Ps. 6:6; Jn. 21:25.

          7. Meiosis
            A figure which conveys in reality much more than it seems to express. This is the opposite of hyperbole. Compare Heb. 13:17; Rom. 1:16.

          8. Irony
            A mode of speech conveying the opposite of what is meant. Compare 1 Ki. 18:27; Job 12:2; 1 Cor. 4:8; Zech. 1l:13; Mt. 27:30; Mk. 15:32.

          9. Simile
            A formal comparison made between two different objects so as to impress the mind with some resemblance or likeness. Compare Isa. 55:10-11; Jer. 23:29; Isa. 1:8; Mt. 17:2.

            "Similes are of frequent occurrence in the Scriptures and, being designed to illustrate an author's meaning, they involve no difficulties of interpretation." (Terry)

          10. Metaphor
            "An implied comparison, and is of much more frequent occurrence in all languages than simile. It differs from the latter in being a briefer and more pungent form of expression, and in turning words from their literal meaning to a new and striking use. The passage in Hosea 13:8, "I will devour them like a lion," is a simile or formal comparison; but Gen. 49:9, "A lion's whelp is Judah," is a metaphor." (Terry) Compare Jer. 2:13; Job 9:6; Gen. 49; Mt. 5:13.

          11. Fable
            "It consists essentially in this, that the individuals of the brute creation, and of animate and inanimate nature, are introduced into the imagery as if possessed with reason and speech, and are represented as acting and talking contrary to the law of their being. There is a conspicuous element of unreality about the whole machinery of fables, and yet the moral intended to be set forth is usually so manifest that no difficulty is felt in understanding it." (Terry)

            There are only two fables in the Bible—Jud. 9:7-20 and 2 Ki. 14:9. In both of these, as is true of all fables, the interpreter is to be cautioned against the supposition that every word and allusion has some special meaning. "We should always keep it in mind that it is the one distinguishing feature of fables that they are not exact parallels of those things to which they are designed to be applied." (Terry)

          12. Parable (an extended simile)
            A parable is formal comparison limited in its range and confined to that which is real. "It moves in an element of sober earnestness, never transgressing in its imagery the limits of probability, or of what might be actual fact." (Terry)

            The purpose of the parable usually is. to emphasize truth by placing it in an impressive form. Christ had a special reason for its usage. That was to conceal truth from antagonistic hearts and minds. Trench writes of the parables, "His words laid up in the memory were to many who heard them like money of another country, unavailable, it might be, for present use, of which they knew not the value, but which yet was ready in their hand when they reached that land and were naturalized in it. When the Spirit came and brought all things to their remembrance, then He filled all the outlines of truth which they before possessed with its substance, quickened all its forms with the power and spirit of life."

            Terry gives the following rules for the interpretation of parables:

            1. Determine the historical occasion and aim of the parable.

            2. Make accurate analysis of the subject matter, and observe the nature and properties of the things employed as imagery in the similitude.

            3. Interpret the several parts with strict reference to the general scope and design of the whole, so as to preserve a harmony of proportions, maintain the unity of all the parts, and make prominent the great central truth.

              Concerning the discernment as to what parts of the parable are significant, Terry has this to say: "No specific rules can be formed that will apply to every case, and show what parts of a parable are designed to be significant, and what parts are mere drapery and form. Sound sense and delicate discrimination are to be cultivated and matured by a protracted study of all the parables, and by careful collation and comparison. Our Lord's examples of interpretation show that most of the details of His parables have a meaning; and yet there are incidental words and allusions which are not to be pressed into significance... In general it may be said that most of the details in a parable have a meaning; and those which have no significance in the interpretation serve, nevertheless, to enhance the force and beauty of the rest. Such parts, as Boyle observes, are like the feathers which wing our arrows, which, though they pierce not like the head, but seem slight things, and of a different matter from the rest, are yet requisite to make the shaft to pierce, and do both convey it to and penetrate the mark."

              Trench leaves this advice: "It is tolerable evidence that we have found the right interpretation of a parable if it leaves none of the main circumstances unexplained. A false interpretation will inevitably betray itself, since it will invariably paralyze and render nungatory some important member of the entire account. If we have the right key in our hand, not merely some of the words, but all, will have their corresponding parts, and moreover, the key will turn without grating or overmuch forcing: and if we have the right interpretation it will scarcely need to be defended and made plausible with great appliance of learning, to be propped up by remote allusions to rabbinical or profane literature, or by illustrations drawn from the recesses of antiquity."

              Note Mt. 13; 21; 25; Lk. 19; Isa. 6:9-10; etc.

              To summarize, the three parts of a parable are:
              (1) The occasion and scope
              (2) The similitude
              (3) The moral and spiritual lessons

          13. Allegory (an extended metaphor)
            It bears the same relation to the parable as does the metaphor to the simile.

            The allegory is a figurative use and application of some supposable fact or history, whereas the parable is itself such a supposable fact or history. The parable uses words in their literal sense, and its narrative never transgresses the limits of what might have been actual fact. The allegory is continually using words in a metaphorical sense, and its narrative, however supposable in itself, is manifestly fictitious." (Terry)

            Except in the case of the mystic "allegory" of Galatians 4:21-31. it will be found that the allegory has but one meaning. Compare Ps. 80:8-15; Eccl. 12:3-7; 1 Cor. 3:10-15; John 10.

            The same principles that apply to the interpretation of parables apply to the allegories. "The great error to be guarded against is the effort to find minute analogies and hidden meanings in all the details of the imagery. Hence, as in the case of the parables, we should first determine the main thought intended by the figure, and then interpret the minor points with constant references to it. The context, the occasion, the circumstances, the application, and often the accompanying explanation, are, in each case, such as to leave little doubt of the import of any of the allegories of the Bible." (Terry)

            Concerning the allegory used by Paul in Galatians 4:21-31, some have used this passage to support the allegorical interpretation of the OT. To this position Schmoller has replied, "Paul to be sure allegorizes here, for he says so himself. But with the very fact of his saying this himself, the gravity of the hermeneutical difficulty disappears. He means therefore to give an allegory and not an exposition: he does not proceed as an exegete, and does not mean to say (after the manner of the allegorizing exegetes) that only what he now says is the true sense of the narrative."

          14. Type
            "As an allegory is a double representation in words: a type is a double representation in action; the literal being intended and planned to represent the spiritual." (Angus-Green, Handbook of the Bible)

            A type is essentially a prefiguring of something future from itself. That which is prefigured is called the antitype.

            Three things are essential to make one person, thing, or event the type of another:
            (1) There must be some notable point of resemblance between the two, although there may be many dissimilar points. Also, the antitype is always something higher and nobler than the type.
            (2) There must be evidence that the type was designed and appointed by God to represent the thing typified.
            (3) The type must prefigure something in the future.

            Principal types in the OT may be divided into the following classes:
            (1) Typical persons. Compare Adam a type of Christ (Rom. 5:14).
            (2) Typical institutions. Compare sacrificing of lambs a type of the sacrifice of Christ (1 Pet. 1:19).
            (3) Typical offices. Compare the high priest a type of Christ (Heb. 4:14).
            (4) Typical events. Compare the lifting up of the brasen serpent a type of the death of Christ (Jn. 3:14).

            Rules for the interpretation of types:
            (1) Apprehend clearly the real point of resemblance between the type and antitype.
            (2) Note the difference and contrasts between the type and antitype. The antitype is always superior.
            (3) OT types are completely interpreted only in the light of the NT.

          15. Symbol
            A symbol differs from a type in being a suggested sign rather than image of that which it is intended to represent. A symbol may represent a thing either past, present, or future; a type is essentially a prefiguring of something future from itself.

            "Generally speaking, the type is prefigurative, the symbol illustrative of what already exists. Baptism is thus an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace; and the bread we eat in the holy Supper, and the wine we drink, are symbolically the body and the blood of the Lord... Some things, as the Passover, were both symbols and types. They commemorated one event and they prefigured another."

            Compare 1 Ki. 11:30; 2 Ki. 13:14-19; Jer. 27:2; 13:1-7; 18:2-10; Dan. 2:31-35; etc. (Many of the details of prophecy are given in symbols.)

            Three fundamental principles of symbolism: (Terry)
            (1) The names of the symbols are to be understood literally.
            (2) The symbols always denote something essentially different from themselves.
            (3) Some resemblance, more or less minute, is traceable between the symbol and the thing symbolized.

            To interpret symbols:
            (1) Regard the historical standpoint of the writer.
            (2) Give due consideration to the scope and context.
            (3) Compare with similar symbols and figures used elsewhere.


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