The Ancient Faith

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Alexander Campbell / Moses Stuart

A more essential service, in our judgment, no man can render the present generation, than to call the attention of the readers of the Sacred Scriptures to the standard rules of interpretation. We are daily more deeply convinced that the confusion, ignorance, enthusiasm, and superstition of this generation are attributable more to false principles, or, perhaps, to the lack of all principles of interpretation, than to all other causes combined. It is the teachers that cause the people to err more in this respect than in any other. One says the Bible means what it says; another says it means not what it says. One denounces the literal, another the spiritual meaning of the book. One is all for the spirit, another all for the letter; and some are always in quest of the recondite and hidden meaning. Thus the people know not by what star to steer their course, and are in worse circumstances than if they acknowledged no other guide, overseer, or ruler, than plain, honest common sense.

Commentators are as much to blame for this confusion as the sermonizers. All, with a very few exceptions, have a system of religion already perfected before they undertake the interpretation of the book, and that decides more than all the rules of interpretation the true meaning of the words of the book.


Demosthenes, Cicero, Tacitus, Homer, Horace, Virgil, can be translated, commented on, and with the exception of some allusions to ancient places, persons, and customs, universally understood by all readers, and with the most exact concurrence in almost every sentence. How comes this to pass? Were they more familiar, plain, and intelligible writers than the Evangelists and Apostles of Jesus Christ? Are the flights of Homer, the fancies of Hesiod, the odes or satires of Horace, the Æneid or Georgics of Virgil, the orations of Demosthenes or Cicero, less figurative, more perspicuous than the pleadings and preachings of Jesus, of Paul, of Peter, or of John? All christendom will respond, No. Have not these writings of the Greeks and Romans passed through as many hands, come down through as many generations as the writings of the One Volume? Most of them are of higher antiquity than the New Testament, and most of them have been translated into many languages, and read by an equal proportion of educated readers in all generations, with the exception of the present and one or two centuries back. Why is it, then, that a concurrence so general, an agreement so universal obtains in regard to the meaning of these poets, philosophers, orators, and historians, and so great a discrepancy, so general a disagreement as to the meaning of these sacred writings? The secret is this: All writers, commentators, and critics upon the classic authors of Greece and Rome are governed by the same rules of interpretation, and expect to find the sense by the aid of dictionaries, grammars, geographies, and histories pertaining to the countries, times, and languages in which these books were first written. And when translated, the reader of the translation, except through the use of the dictionary and grammar, or if he understand not the system called grammar, the current usage of the words which has obtained in his mother tongue, expects not to understand them; and by these alone he hopes to come at the meaning. In this course, too, all who make a rational effort arrive at the full assurance of understanding.


Not so the readers of the sacred writings. Grammars, dictionaries, geographies, and contemporary historians are regarded as carnal weapons, and the meaning of the words as mere letter–of no account in arriving at the true meaning. A person will be ridiculed by a Quaker, mocked by a Swedenborgian, and denounced by some Calvinists for presuming to understand the “true doctrine” of the Bible by the aid of such means and rules as enable him to understand any other book. The very reason which he employs, and to which God speaks, is called natural or carnal reason; and the person who presumes by such means to understand these writings is a mere natural man, without the Spirit, and without religion. Some person must bear these reproaches, or the world will continue to grope on in the dark three hundred years behind itself in everything else, and I know not why we should not bear a part of this reproach.

We do not, in saying this, make light of the Spirit of God. And, indeed, we discover that the more intelligent of all societies abandon their own system of spiritual aids when they come to defend the common or any other version of the Bible. They draw their first argument from the number, erudition, and talents of the translators. I have not met any person so visionary as to pretend to think that the Spirit of God ever aided a translator in finding the meaning of a word in the dictionary, in determining the proper application of a rule of grammar, or in revealing the import of any allusion to any geographical, historical, or political facts or things. None pretend that his translation was perfected by the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Now if the Holy Spirit aided not the translator, he surely aided not the commentator nor the sermonizer in finding out the meaning of what is written: for surely all will agree that the work of a translator is incomparably more important, more useful to mankind, than the work of either the commentator or the sermon-maker. All depends upon the translation, and nothing but the ordinary rules of interpretation which are applied to Xenophon, Demosthenes, or Plutarch, can open a single period of the New Testament to any nation or people. Here we stand upon a fact universally admitted; but, alas! how soon lost sight of in the polemic theology of the day; and what is still worse, in the practical reading and examination of God’s book.

Any visionary, dreamer, or enthusiast may exclaim, “You heretic! I am sound in the faith. I have got the spiritual meaning.” But, pray, from what copy–the original or the translation? From the translation. Then your guide is better acquainted with English than with Greek, and chose to reveal to you English words rather than Greek words! But here we shall not contend with the mystics nor the spiritualizers. We all agree in one great fact, and that proves all I ask, and disproves every false system of interpretation; and that great fact is, That all translators, in transferring the Revelation from one language to another, depend upon, and are governed by, the dictionaries, grammars, histories, &c. of the language from which, and of the language into which the translation is made. And by these alone can the ideas be communicated.

I hail one of the signs of the times with more than ordinary welcome, because it is one that augurs much good to the coming generation. The most distinguished men for talents, erudition, and veneration for the Holy Oracles, in all denominations, are awaking to the importance of fixing and working by the established rules of interpretation. It is becoming a favorite saying with even some of the most learned Rabbis of this and other lands, that “true orthodoxy is the right interpretation of the words of the New Testament;” or, as expressed by others, “the doctrine of Christ is the meaning of the words of the Saviour and the Apostles.” I feel myself authorized to marshal Michaelis of Gottingen, Horne of Cambridge, and Stuart of Andover, on this side of the question. But I only name these for their high standing and notoriety. I might add a hundred names of high renown: but the writings of these three will do more to direct the generation to come, than perhaps any other three men in Europe or America. Their reputation for orthodoxy, their literary eminence, their connexion with the most flourishing theological institutions, and the force, vivacity, and elegance of their various writings, omen well on this subject.

I am not to be understood as alleging that the rules of interpretation, or of translation, applied to authors of the same antiquity, did not regard words as having not only different meanings, but different sorts of meanings, such as the literal, figurative, typical, parabolic. All these varieties of meaning are found in the scriptures, and in many other works, ancient and modern. We plead for no special rules for the Bible. We take all the rules necessary for translating or expounding any ancient human composition.

Nor would I be understood as intimating that the doctrine of the New Testament, which is the proper meaning of its words, whether regarded as literal, allegorical, typical, or parabolical, does not exert a moral or spiritual influence upon the mind which understands and believes it. Nor that Christians do not receive and enjoy the Holy Spirit promised in the New Institution; that the Heavenly Father will give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him. This is all true in its place: but this is a different subject, and here we should not have mentioned it but because of the fastidious jealousy of some, and the avowed hostility of others, to anything and everything we may say on this subject.


Before introducing these rules, it will be necessary to premise still farther on the various senses of words. To do this with the most effect, we shall examine and apply a favorite saying among the reformers–“The Bible means what it says” This ought to be true of every other book in the world. If any book says what it does not mean, who shall find out what it does mean? Not by its words. By what then? by some interpreter? But what does he interpret? The words, we suppose. If the words are explained by the Dictionaries and Grammars of the language, they mean what they say; if not, then it is not human language at all. And so the maxim applies equally to all books: for a book that means not what it says, means nothing at all.


But some carry this maxim so far as to say, that there is but one meaning in every passage, and that is the literal. Now while we agree that there is but one meaning in every passage, we are not prepared to say that that meaning is always the literal. Take a few examples: Zechariah vii. 12, “Yea, they made their hearts an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law.” Luke xiii. 32, “Go and tell that fox Herod.”–John i. 29, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” None will say that the literal is the true meaning of these phrases. The hearts of the Jews were not adamant stone; Herod was not a fox, nor Jesus a lamb. Many such expressions occur in both Testaments. In these the figurative sense is the true meaning. Yet still it must be remarked that the literal import of adamant stone, fox, and Lamb, is virtually the import when used figuratively. It is transferred from a physical to a moral quality. A “heart of stone” denotes a hard heart; but hard is itself a metaphor, equivalent to obdurate, unfeeling: a “heart of flesh signifies a tender heart. A “heart of adamant stone” means a very hard heart. Herod was very cunning, and Jesus was the innocent and harmless person represented by the atoning lamb of the Jewish Institution.

In the scriptures there are parables, allegories, and types. Hence we have the parabolic, allegoric, and typical sense. This has been called the mystic, and sometimes the spiritual sense. Mystic comes from a Greek word, MUO, to shut up, or hide. In allegories and parables the sense is hidden; the mystic import is the sense concealed in the allegory, type or parable. Spiritual has frequently been used, of ancient times, to denote this sense. Babylon is spiritually called Sodom, and Egypt. But a species of sermonizers, of the school of Origen, or rather of Ammonius Saccas, found out that every word in the book had a spiritual sense, and this caused the term spiritual to be taken in malem partem, and to be discarded even where it might have been tolerable.

When carried so far as to make Joshua the son of Nun denote spiritually Jesus the son of man, and “seven women taking hold of one man” seven converts coming to Christ, it was full time to lay it aside!

John Cocceius, of Leyden, about two hundred years ago, perfected this system. His fundamental rule of interpretation was this: “The words and phrases of scripture, are to be understood in every sense of which they are susceptible;” or, “that they signify everything which in effect they can signify.” He is the parent of a numerous progeny of spiritualizers.


We object not to the allegoric, parabolic, and typical sense; or, to express it in one, word, the figurative sense. But we do not expect to find any other than the literal sense except where figures are used. We shall conclude this introductory essay with a sentence or two from Horne’s Introduction, vol. 2, p. 492, and from Mosheim:–

“Although in every language there are very many words which admit of several meanings, yet in common parlance there is only one true sense attached to any word, which sense is indicated by the connection and series of the discourse, by its subject matter, by the design of the speaker, or by some other adjuncts, unless an ambiguity be purposely intended.”

We could wish that the Quakers, Regular Baptists, and the Wesleyan Methodists, would read twice, if not three times, the following extract from Mosheim, History of the Reformation, vol. 4, p. 296. Speaking of the change introduced by Luther and his coadjutors, he says:–

“All these expositors and commentators abandoned the method of the ancient interpreters,” (not fully, I say) “who, neglecting the plain and evident purport of the words of scripture, were perpetually torturing their imaginations in order to find out a mysterious sense in each word or sentence, or ever hunting after insipid allusions and chimerical applications of scriptural passages, to objects which never entered into the views of the inspired writers. On the contrary, their principal zeal and industry were employed in investigating the natural force and signification of each expression,” (I wish they had been more successful) “in consequence of that golden rule of interpretation inculcated by Luther, ‘That there is no more than one sense annexed to the words of scripture, throughout all the books of the Old and New Testaments.‘”

The Westminster Divines sanctioned this, and therefore decided, “that the sense of scripture is not manifold, but one.

 [This is from The Millennial Harbinger Volume II  November 1831]

 [After writing the above article, Alexander Campbell, rather than write a follow up article, chose to include the article of Moses Stuart appeared in the February 1832 and March 1832 issue of The Millennial Harbinger]

SINCE writing my first essay on this topic, I have met with an essay from the pen of Professor Stuart, of the Andover Theological School, on the same subject. Indeed, his essay only reached me today, January 12, in the Biblical Repository for January, 1832. It is an excellent essay, and as it exhibits the views which I entertain on this subject, and intended to develope, I am pleased with the opportunity of substituting an essay (which will make two in our series) from the pen of one so high in authority with the more learned sects in this country, and from one who, in my judgment, stands at the head of biblical literature and criticism in these United States. The essay appearing in two parts, will require to be read again, after we shall have given the whole of it. – Alexander Campbell


By Moses Stuart

A QUESTION this of deeper interest to religion and sacred literature, than most persons would be apt at first to suppose. In fact, the fundamental principles of scriptural theology are inseparably connected with the subject of this inquiry; for what is such theology, except the result of that which the Scriptures have taught? And how do we find what the Scriptures have taught, except by applying to them some rules or principles of interpretation? If these rules are well grounded, the results which flow from the application of them will be correct, provided they are skillfully and truly applied; but if talc principles by which we interpret the Scriptures are destitute of any solid foundation, and are the product of imagination, of conjecture, or of caprice, then of course the results which will follow from the application of them, will be unworthy of our confidence.

All this is too plain to need any confirmation. This also, from the nature of the case, renders it a matter of great importance to know, whether the principles by which we interpret the sacred books are well grounded, and will abide the test of a thorough scrutiny.

Nearly all the treatises on hermeneutics,1 which have been written 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, i. e. by the same principles, as all other books. Writers are not wanting, previously to the period in which Ernesti lived, who have maintained the same thing; but we may also find some who have assailed the position before us, and labored to show that it is nothing less than a species of profaneness to treat the sacred books as we do the classic authors, with respect to their interpretation. Is this allegation well grounded? Is there any good reason to object to the principle of interpretation now in question?

In order to answer these inquiries, let us direct our attention, in the first place, to the nature and source of what are now called principles or laws of interpretation. Whence did they originate? Are they the artificial production of high-wrought skill, of labored research, of profound and extensive learning? Did they spring from the subtilties of nice distinctions, from the philosophical and metaphysical efforts of the schools? Are they the product of exalted and dazzling genius, sparks of celestial fire which none but a favored few could emit? No; nothing of all this. The principles of interpretation, as to their substantial and essential elements, are no invention of man, no product of his effort and learned skill; nay, they can scarcely be said with truth to have been discovered by him. They are coeval with our nature. They were known to the antediluvians. They were practised upon in the garden of Eden, by the progenitors of our race. Ever since man was created, and endowed with the powers of speech, and made a communicative, social being, he has had occasion to practise upon the principles of interpretation, and has actually done so. From the first moment that one human being addressed another by the use of language, down to the present hour, the essential laws of interpretation became, and have continued to he, 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.–Just as truly as one human being was formed so to address another in language, just so truly that other was formed to interpret and to understand what is said.

I venture to advance a step farther, and to aver that all men are, and ever have been, in reality, good and true interpreters of each other’s language. Has any part of our race, in full possession of the human faculties, ever failed to understand what others said to them, and to understand it truly? or to make themselves understood by others, when they have in their communications kept within the circle of their own knowledge? Surely none. Interpretation, then, in its basis or fundamental principles, is a native art, if I may so speak. It is coeval with the power of uttering words. It is of course a universal art; it is common to all nations, barbarous as well as civilized.

One cannot commit a more palpable error in relation to this subject, than to suppose that the art of interpretation is one which is like the art of chemistry, or of botany, or of astronomy, or any of the like things, viz, that it is in itself wholly dependent on acquired skill for the discovery and developement of its principles. Acquired skill has, indeed, helped to an orderly exhibition and arrangement of its principles; but this is all. The materials were all in existence before skill attempted to develope them.

Possibly it may excite surprize in the minds of some, to be told that, after all, hermeneutics is no science that depends on learning and skill, but is one with which all the race of man is practically more or less acquainted. Yet this is true. But so far is it from diminishing the real value of the science, that it adds exceedingly to its weight and importance. That it is connate with us, shows that it is a part of our rational and communicative nature. That it is so, shows also that it is not, in its fundamental parts, a thing of uncertainty, of conjecture, of imagination, or of mere philosophical nicety. If it were a far-fetched science, dependent on high acquisitions and the skilful application of them, then it would be comparatively a useless science; for, in such a case, only a favored few of the human race would be competent to understand and acquire it; still fewer could be satisfactorily assured of its stable and certain nature.

An interpreter well skilled in his art, will glory in it, that it is an art which has its foundation in the laws of our intellectual and rational nature, and is coeval and connate with this nature. He finds the best assurance of its certainty in this. It is only a quack (if I may so speak) in this business, that will ever boast of anything in it which is secret, obscure, or incomprehensible to common minds.

All which has ever led to any such conclusion, is, that very few men, and those only learned ones, become critics by profession. But the secret of this is merely, that professed critics are, almost always, professed interpreters of books in foreign languages, not in their own mother-tongue. Then again, if they are interpreters of their own vernacular language, it is of such exhibitions of it as present recondite and unusual words. Now in order to interpret a foreign language, or in order to explain the unusual words of one’s own vernacular tongue, a good degree of learning becomes requisite. This is not, however, because the rules of interpretation, when applied either to foreign languages, or to unusual words or phrases in one’s own language, are different from the rules which all men every day apply to the common language employed by them in conversation. Learning is necessary to know the meaning of foreign words, or of strange vernacular words, on the same ground, and no other, as it was necessary for us to learn originally the meaning of the circle of words which we usually employ in speaking or writing. The same acquaintance with foreign words that we have with our every-day ones, would of course make them equally intelligible, and equally supersede any studied art of hermeneutics, in order to interpret them.

When a man takes up a book, which contains a regular system of hermeneutics all arranged and exhibited to the eye, and filled with references to choice and rare volumes, he is ready to conclude that it contains something almost as remote from the common capacity and apprehension of men as Newton’s Principia. But this is a great mistake. The form of the treatise in question, it is true, may be altogether a matter of art. The quotations and references may imply a very widely extended circle of reading and knowledge. But after all, the principles themselves are obvious and natural ones; at least if they are not so, they are worth but little or nothing. The illustration and confirmation of them may, indeed, be drawn from a multitude of sources widely scattered, and some of them very recondite, and a great display of learning may be made here; but still the same thing is true, in this case as in many other departments of learning and taste. Nature first teaches rules; art arranges, illustrates, and records them. This is the simple truth as to hermeneutics. Systems have digested and exhibited what the rational nature of man has taught,–of man who was made to speak and to interpret language.

I may illustrate and confirm this by a reference, for example, to epic or lyric poetry. Men did not first invent rules by the aid of learned art, and then construct epic and lyric poems by the aid of these rules. Nature prescribed these rules to a Homer, a Pindar, and to others. They followed nature; and therefore wrote with skill and power. That they have become models for all succeeding epic and lyric writers, can be accounted for only from the fact, that they followed the promptings of nature in their respective kinds of composition; and others cannot swerve essentially from their course without swerving from nature; and of course they will offend against what we may truly call the common sense of mankind.

It is the same in hermeneutics. Many a man has, indeed, laid down rules in this science, which were a departure from the principles taught us by our reasonable nature; and where he has had personal influence, he has obtained disciples and imitators But his popularity has been short-lived, or at least he has sooner or later been taken to task for departing from nature, and has been refuted, in the view of sober and unprejudiced men, in regard to such principles as violate the common rules of interpretation which men daily practice.

There are only two ways in which men come to the knowledge of words; the one is by custom, education, the daily habit of hearing and speaking them; the other is, by studying them in books, and learning them in the way that philology teaches. Now the first method supersedes the second. But as the second is the only way left for all such as wish to understand the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, so the thorough study of those books which are necessary to impart the knowledge in question, renders a good degree of learning a matter which of course is necessary. All this occupies time, and costs labor and effort. Few succeed, after all, to any great extent, in making the acquisition under consideration; and hence the general apprehension of its difficulty. Hence, too, the idea that the art of interpretation is the result of learned skill, rather than the dictate of common sense.

I do not aver, indeed, that a man destitute of learned skill can well interpret the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. But this I would say, viz. that his learning applies more to the proper knowledge of Greek and Hebrew words in themselves considered, than it does to the principles by which he is to interpret them. In the estimation of men in general, however, these two things are united together; and it is in this way that hermeneutics comes to be looked upon as one of the more recondite and difficult sciences.

I certainly do not wish to be understood as denying here, that the practice of the hermeneutical art in a successful manner does require learning and skill. Surely this must be true, when it is applied to the explanation of the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures; because no one can well understand these languages, without some good degree of learned skill. But I say once more, that the learning necessary to understand the meaning of particular words in these languages, and that which is employed in the proper interpretation of them, are not one and the same thing. When the words are once understood, the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures are interpreted by just the same rules that every man uses, in order to interpret his neighbor’s words. At least this is my position, and one which I expect to illustrate and confirm, by showing more fully still, that from the nature of the case it must be so, and moreover that it is altogether reasonable and proper.

I have urged at so much length, and repeated in various forms, the sentiments contained in the preceding paragraphs, because I view them as of essential importance in respect to the subject before us. If God has implanted in our rational nature the fundamental principles of the hermeneutical art, then we may reasonably suppose that when he addresses a revelation to us, he intends and expects that we shall interpret it in accordance with the laws of that nature which he has given us. In showing that the science of interpretation is not a production of art and learned skill, but that it is merely developed and scientifically exhibited by such skill, I have shown that the business of interpreting the Bible need not necessarily be confined to a few but may be practiced, in a greater or less degree, (if we except the criticism of the original Scriptures,) by all men who will attentively study it. It is true, that all men cannot be critics upon the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures; for the greater part of them never can obtain the knowledge of the words necessary for this purpose. But still, there is scarcely any man of common understanding to whom a truly skillful critic nay not state and explain the principles of interpretation, by which he is guided in the exegesis of any particular passage, in such a way that this man may pass his judgment on the principle and make it the subject of his approbation or disapprobation. This proves incontrovertibly that the principles of the science in question are in themselves the dictates of plain common sense and sound understanding; and if this be true, then they are principles which may be employed in the interpretation of the word of God; for if there be any book on earth that is addressed to the reason and common sense of mankind, the Bible is pre-eminently that book.

What is the Bible? A revelation from God. A REVELATION! If truly so, then it is designed to be understood; for if it be not intelligible, it is surely no revelation. It is a revelation through the medium of human language; language such as men employ; such as was framed by them, and is used for their purposes. It is a revelation by men (as instruments) and for men. It is made more humano, because that on any other ground it night as well not be made at all. If the Bible is not a book which is intelligible in the same way as other books are, then it is difficult indeed to see how it is a revelation. There are only two ways in which the Bible or any other book can be understood; the one is by miraculous illumination, in order that we may have a right view of contents which otherwise would not be intelligible; the other is, by the application of such hermeneutical principles as constitute a part of our rational and communicative nature.

If you say, now, that the first of these ways is the true and only one; then it follows that a renewed miracle is necessary in every instance where the Bible is read and understood. But, first, this contradicts the experience of men; and secondly, I cannot see of what use the Scriptures are, provided a renewed revelation or illumination is necessary, on the part of heaven, in every instance where they are read and understood, It is not the method of God’s wisdom and design, thus to employ useless machinery; nor does such an idea comport with the numberless declarations of the Scriptures themselves, that they are plain, explicit, intelligible, perfect–in a word, all that is requisite to guide the humble disciple, or to enlighten the ignorant.

I must then relinquish the idea of a miraculous interposition in every instance where the Bible is read and understood. I trust that few enlightened Christians will be disposed to maintain this. And if this be not well grounded, then it follows that the Bible is addressed to our reason and understanding and moral feelings; and consequently that we are to interpret it in such a way as we do any other book that is addressed to these faculties.

A denial of this throws us at once upon the ground of maintaining a miraculous interposition, in all cases where the Bible is understood. An admission of it brings us to the position that the Bible is to be interpreted in the same way as other books are.

Why not? When the original Scriptures were first spoken or written, (for very much of them, in the prophets for example, was spoken as well as written,) were they designed to be understood by the men who were addressed? Certainly you will not deny this. But who were these men? Were they inspired? Truly not; they were good and bad, wise and foolish, learned and ignorant; in a word, men of all classes both as to character and knowledge.

If now the prophets, in addressing such men, expected to be understood, intended to be so, (and clearly they did,) then they expected these men to understand them in a way like to that in which they understood anyone else who addressed them, i. e. by means of applying the usual principles of interpretation to the language employed. Anything which denies this, of course must cast us upon the ground of universal miraculous interposition.

Let us now, for a moment, imagine ourselves to stand in the place of those who were addressed by the prophets. Of course we must suppose ourselves to have the same understanding of the Hebrew language, to have been educated within the same circle of knowledge, and to be familiar with the same objects both in the natural and spiritual world. Should we need lexicons, grammars, and commentaries, in order to understand Isaiah, or any other prophet? The supposition is, upon the very face of it, almost an absurdity. Are our common people, who have the first rudiments of education, unable to understand the popular preachers of the present day? If it is so, it is the egregious fault of the preacher, and not of his hearers. It is because he chooses words not contained in the usual stores of language from which most persons draw, and which he need not choose, and should not select, because he must know that such a choice will make him more or less unintelligible. But who will suppose the prophets to have acted thus unwisely? The inspiration by the aid of which they spake and wrote, surely enabled them to speak and write intelligibly. If so, then were we listeners to them, and in the condition of those whom they actually addressed, we could of course understand them, for just the same reasons, and in the same way, that we now understand the popular preachers of our time. All our learned apparatus of folios and quartos, of ancient and modern lexicographers, grammarians, and critics, would then be quietly dismissed, and laid aside as nearly or altogether useless At the most we should need them no more than we now need Johnson’s or Webster’s Dictionaries, in order to understand a modern sermon in the English language.

All this needs only to be stated, in order to ensure a spontaneous assent to it. But what follows? The very thing, I answer, which I am laboring to illustrate and establish. If the persons addressed by the Hebrew prophets, understood them, and easily and readily understood them, in what way was this done? Plainly by virtue of the usual principles of interpretation, which they applied in all the common intercourse of life. They were not held in suspense about the meaning of a prophet, until a second interposition on the part of heaven took place, i. e. a miraculous illumination of their minds in order that they might perceive the meaning of words new and strange to them. Such words were not employed. They were able, therefore, at once to perceive the meaning of the prophet who addressed them, in all ordinary cases; and this is true throughout, with exceptions merely of such a nature as still occur, in regard to most of our preaching. Now and then a word is employed, which some part of a common audience does not fully comprehend; and now and then a sentiment is developed, or an argument employed, which the minds of some are not sufficiently enlightened fully to comprehend. But in such cases, the difficulty arises more from the subject than it does from the language.

The prophets indeed complain, not unfrequently, that the Jews did not understand them. But this complaint always has respect to a spiritual perception and relish of the truths which they delivered to them. ‘They heard, but understood not; they saw, but perceived not.’ The fault, however, was the want of spiritual taste and discernment; not because the language, in itself, was beyond human comprehension.

Admitting then that the prophets spoke intelligibly, and that they were actually understood by their contemporaries, and this without any miraculous interposition, it follows of course, that it was the usual laws of interpretation which enabled their hearers to understand them. They applied to their words, and spontaneously applied the same principles of interpretation which they were wont to apply to the language of all who addressed them. By so doing, they rightly understood the prophets; at any rate, by so doing, they might have rightly understood them; and if so, then such laws of interpretation are the right ones, for those laws must be right which conduct us to the true meaning of a speaker.

I can see no way of avoiding this conclusion, unless we deny that the prophets were understood, or could be understood, by their contemporaries. But to deny this, would be denying facts so plain, so incontrovertible, that it would argue a desperate attachment to system, or something still more culpable.

In view of what has just been said, it is easy to see why so much study and learning are necessary, at the present time, in order to enable us correctly to understand the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. We are born neither in Greece nor Palestine; we have learned in our childhood to read and understand neither Greek nor Hebrew. Our condition and circumstances, our course of education and thought, as well as our language, are all different from those of a Jew in ancient times. Our government, our climate, our state of society and manners and habits, our civil, social, and religious condition, are all different from those of Palestine. Neither heaven above nor earth beneath, is the same in various respects. A thousand productions of nature and art, in the land of the Hebrews, are unknown to our times and country; and multitudes of both are familiar to us, of which they never had any knowledge. How can we then put ourselves in their places, and listen to prophets and apostles, speaking Hebrew and Greek, without much learning and study? It is plainly impossible. And the call for all this learning and study is explained by what I have just said. All of it is designed to accomplish one simple object, and only one, viz. to place us, as nearly as possible, in the condition of those whom the sacred writers originally addressed. Had birth and education placed us there, all this study and effort might be dispensed with at once; for, as has been already stated, we could then understand the sacred writers, in the same way and for the same reason that we now understand our own preachers. When we do this, we do it by spontaneously applying the laws of interpretation which we have practiced from our childhood; and such would have been the case, had we been native Hebrews, contemporary with the prophets and apostles.

When the art of interpretation, therefore, is imagined or asserted to be a difficult and recondite art, dependent on great learning and high intellectual acuteness, the obvious mistake is made of confounding with it another sort of learning, which is only preparatory and conditional, but does not constitute the principles themselves of hermeneutics.

It seems to my own mind, that we have arrived at the conclusion which it was proposed to examine and confirm, in a very plain, natural, and simple way. The substance of all is, the Bible was made to be understood; it was written by men, and for men; it was addressed to all classes of people; it was for the most part understood by them all, just as our present religious discourses are; and of course it was interpreted in such a way, or by the aid of such principles, as other books are understood and explained.

But there are objectors to this position. Some of them, too, speak very boldly, and with great zeal and confidence. Candor requires that we should listen to them, and examine their allegations.

Objection 1 – ‘How can the common laws of interpretation apply to the Scriptures, when confessedly the Bible is a book which contains revelations in respect to supernatural things, to the knowledge of which no human understanding is adequate to attain?’

The fact alleged I cheerfully concede. But the inference drawn from it, I do not feel to be at all a necessary one, nor in fact in any measure a just one. So far as the Scriptures are designed to make known a revelation to us, respecting things that are above the reach of our natural understanding, just so far they are designed to communicate that which is intelligible. If you deny this, then you must maintain that to be a revelation, which is not intelligible; or, in other words, that to be a revelation, by which nothing is revealed.

If you say that a new interposition on the part of heaven is necessary, in order that any one may understand the Scriptures, then you make two miracles necessary to accomplish one end; the first, in giving a so called revelation, which after all is unintelligible; the second, in supernaturally influencing the mind to discern what is meant by this revelation. The reply to this has been already suggested above, viz, it contradicts experience, and it is contrary to the analogy of God’s dealing with us in all other respects.

As far then as any revelation is actually made in the Scriptures, so far they are intelligible. But, perhaps, someone will here make another objection, viz.–

Objection 2 – ‘Intelligible to whom? A man must be enlightened in a spiritual respect, before he can understand the Scriptures. How then can the usual laws of interpretation enable him to understand and to explain them?’

The fact here alleged is rather over-stated; I mean to say, the assertion is too general. That there are parts of the Scriptures which no unsanctified man can fully understand and appreciate, is and must be true, so long as the fact is admitted that there are parts which relate to spiritual experience. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Most freely and fully do I concede what is here meant to be affirmed. How can any man fully understand what is said of religious experience and feelings, who is not himself, and never has been, the subject of such experience and feelings?

After all, however, there is nothing new or singular in this, at least so far as the principle itself is concerned. The same principle holds true, in regard to other things and other books. Before a man can understand them, he must be in a condition to do so. Who can read Newton’s Principia or Mecanique Celeste of La Place, and understand them, unless he comes to the study of them with due preparation? Who can read any book of mental or moral science, and enter fully into the understanding of it, unless he is himself in a state which enables him throughout to sympathize with the author, and to enter into all his feelings and views? Who, for example, can read and fully understand Milton and Homer, without the spirit and soul of poetry within him which will enable him to enter into their views and feelings? Who can read intelligently even a book of mathematics, without sympathizing with the writer?

The answer to these questions is too plain to need being repeated. How then does the principle differ, when I ask, ‘Who can read the Scriptures intelligently, that does not enter into the moral and religious sympathies of the writers?’ I agree fully to the answer which says, ‘No one.’ The thing is impossible. But is equally impossible in all other cases to read intelligently, without entering into tile the sympathies of the writers.

Those then who are solicitous for the honor of the Scriptures, have in reality nothing to fear from this quarter, in respect to the principle which I have been advocating. A demand for religious feeling, in order fully to enter into the meaning of the sacred writers, rests on the same principle as the demand for a poetic feeling in order to read Milton with success, or a mathematical feeling in order to study intelligibly Newton and La Place. How can any writer be well and thoroughly understood, when there is not some good degree of community of feeling between him and his reader? This is so obvious a principle, that it needs only to be stated in order to be recognized.

But still, it would be incorrect to say that Newton or Milton is unintelligible. They have both employed language in its unusual way: or if not always so, yet they have furnished adequate explanation of what they do mean. The laws of exegesis are the very same, in reading and explaining, Milton, as they are in reading and explaining Pope or Cowper; they are the same in respect to La Place, that they are in respect to Day’s mathematics. But in both these cases, higher acquisitions are demanded of the reader in the former instance than in the latter.

It is incorrect, therefore, to say that the Bible is unintelligible, or to say that the usual laws of interpretation are not to be applied to it, because an individual’s feelings must be in unison with those of the writers, in order to understand all which they say.

Let me add a word also by way of caution, in regard to the subject now under consideration. There is a way of inculcating the truth, that “the natural man receiveth and knoweth not the things of the Spirit,” which is adapted to make a wrong impression on the minds of men. They are prone to deduce from certain representations of this subject which have sometimes been made, the conclusion that natural men can understand no part of the Bible, and that they must be regenerated before they can have any right views of the Scriptures. But this is carrying the doctrine much beyond its just limits. A great part of the Bible is addressed to intelligent, rational, moral beings as such. All men belong to this class; and because this is so, they are capable of understanding the sacred writers, at least so far as they designed originally to be understood by all, and so far as the great purposes of warning and instruction are concerned. It is the condemnation of men, that “light has come into the world, and they love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil.” Our Saviour could not have said, that if ‘he had not come and spoken to the Jews, they would not have had sin,’ except on the ground that the light which he communicated to them, rendered them altogether inexcusable. Let the preachers of the divine word take good care, then, that they do not so represent the ignorance of sinners as to diminish their guilt. When this ignorance is represented as involuntary, or as a matter of dire necessity, then is this offence committed.

Objection 3 – ‘But is it not God who speaks in the Bible, and not man? How can we expect the words of God himself to be scanned by the rules of human language?’

The answer is brief, and like to that which has already been given. When God speaks to men, he speaks more humana, in human language; and this, in condescension to our wants. Does he expect us to understand the language of angels? He does not. The Bible is filled with the most ample illustrations of this. Every where human idioms and forms of speech, common to the Jewish nation and to individuals, are employed by the sacred writers. All the varieties of style and expression are observable in these writers, which we see any where else. The same figures of speech are employed; the same modes of address and instruction. We have historic narration, genealogical catalogues, prose, poetry, proverbs, addresses, sermons, parables, allegories, enigmas even; and all this in a way similar to that found in the works of uninspired writers. It is the matter rather than the manner, which characterizes the superiority of the Scriptures. The manner indeed is sublime, impressive, awful, delightful. But this is intimately connected with the elevated matter, the high and holy contents of the Bible. After all due allowances for this, we may say, that the manner is the manner of men; it is by men and for men.

We come, then, after canvassing these principal objections against the position which has been advanced, to the conclusion before stated, viz. that the rules of interpretation applied to other books, are applicable to the Scriptures. If their contents are peculiar, (as they are,) still we apply the same laws to them as to other books that are peculiar, i. e. we construe them in accordance with the matter which they contain. If there are peculiarities belonging to individual writers, as is the fact with respect to several of them, we still apply the same principles to the interpretation of them which we do to other peculiar writers, i. e. we compare such writers with themselves, and illustrate them in this way. In short, no case occurs to my mind, in which the general principle above stated will not hold good, unless it be one which has been often proposed, and strenuously asserted, and which still has deep hold on the minds of some in our religious community; I mean the position that some of the Scriptures has a double sense, a temporal and a spiritual meaning at one and the same time. If this he true, it is indeed an exception to all the rules of interpretation which we apply to other books. But whether it be well grounded, in my apprehension may be doubted, salva fide et salva ecclesia. The discussion of the question respecting this, however, would occupy too much room for the present. If Providence permit, it will be made the subject of examination at some future period.

[This is by Moses Stuart published in the February/March 1832 issues of The Millennial Harbinger.]

 Recommended articles:

Introducing the Church of Christ – Ronny Wade

God’s Sevenfold Unity – Jerry Cutter

Repentance – J. W. McGarvey


The Ancient Faith website is a thematic collection of scholarly yet simple Bible essays and sermons, many of which were composed by Restoration preachers such as J.W. McGarvey, Moses Lard, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Campbell. These courageous men of faith through hours of Bible investigation studied themselves out of denominationalism, asking for “the old paths” (Jer. 6:16) and seeking to return to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We hope you will join with these men in their fervent plea to restore “the ancient order,” “the ancient gospel” or, as it was sometimes called, “the ancient faith.”