General Rules & Principles

Patrick Fairbairn

We must now make the supposition, that the points adverted to in the preceding sections have been duly attended to; that an acquaintance has been formed with the peculiar dialect of the New Testament, and with the collateral sources of information fitted to throw light on its terms and allusions. It by no means follows, however, that when we have become thus furnished with knowledge in such elementary matters, we have all the qualifications necessary to render us safe or skillful interpreters of NT Scripture, capable of unfolding with clearness and accuracy the meaning of its several parts. For this, various other things are requisite, the want or neglect of which may as certainly ensure our failure in the work of interpretation, at least as regards the more select portions of Scripture, as if we had yet to learn the peculiar structure and characteristics of the language. We proceed, therefore, to lay down some general rules and principles, which it is of essential moment that we be in a condition to embrace and act upon, in order to exhibit aright the meaning of Scripture.

Principle #1 – Enter Into Their Spirit

The first we shall notice is one, that bears on the state of mind of the interpreter—he must endeavor to attain to a sympathy in thought and feeling with the sacred writers, whose meaning he seeks to unfold. Such a sympathy is not required for the interpretation alone of the inspired writings; it is equally necessary in respect to any ancient author; and the possession of it, to some extent, must be held to be altogether indispensable. Language is but the utterance of thought and feeling on the part of one person to another, and the more we can identify ourselves with the state of mind out of which that thought and feeling arose, the more manifestly shall we be qualified for appreciating the language in which they are embodied, and reproducing true and living impressions of it. An utter discordance or marked deficiency in the one respect, cannot fail to discover itself in the other by corresponding blunders and defects.
It is the virtual abnegation [denial] of this principle, and the palpable want of the qualification which it presupposes, that has rendered the really available results so inadequate, which have been accomplished by the rationalistic school of interpreters. Not a few of them have given proof of superior talents, and have brought to the task also the acquirements of a profound and varied scholarship. The lexicography and grammar, the philology and archaeology of Scripture, have been largely indebted to their inquiries and researches; but, from the grievous mental discrepancy existing between the commentator and his author, and the different points of view from which they respectively looked at Divine things, writers of this class necessarily failed to penetrate the depths of the subjects they had to handle, fell often into jejune and superficial representations on particular parts, and on entire books of Scripture never once succeeded in producing a really satisfactory exposition.
What proper insight, for example, into the utterances of the apostle John—utterances that are remarkable for the combination they present of simplicity in form, with depth and comprehensiveness of meaning—could be expected from one, who calls, indeed, upon the reader to sympathize with the sacred writer, but how to do so? To sympathize “with the apostle, as being, at the time of his writing the epistle, a weak old man, who had no longer the power of thinking in any connected manner.” Such is the manner in which even Lange speaks, though in many respects greatly in advance of the proper rationalists.
Dr. Paulus of Heidelberg was long one of the leading champions of this school—a man of no ordinary gifts, both natural and acquired, and a man, too, who possessed what many learned and useful commentators have wanted—the power of so far sympathizing with the sacred penmen, as to realize, in a vivid and attractive manner, the scenes of their history, and the circumstances in which they were placed. But all being brought to the test of a so-called rational—namely, an anti-supernatural—standard, the spirit evaporates in his hands, and everything in a sense becomes common and unclean. The most miraculous occurrences shrink into merely clever transactions or happy coincidences; and even when he comes to such a passage as this, “Blessed art thou, for flesh and blood have not revealed it to thee, but My Father that is in heaven,” he can see nothing but a reference to the force of circumstances in awakening the mind to reflection, and giving it a practical direction and impulse toward what is good; or to such another passage as this, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work,” the whole he can extract from it is, “I must heal the diseased eyes before the evening twilight comes on, because when it is dark we can no longer see to work.”[footnote]The entire note on the first of the two passages is: “All circumstances leading to insight and pursuit after the good are, in the New Testament, considered as grounded in the Godhead, educating men in a spontaneous and moral, not juridical manner. When they awaken the mind to reflection, furnish to its activity matters of practical insight, keep these before it, and thereby quicken the energetic working toward what is good, then the paternally inclined Godhead reveals to man something which the groveling and earthly disposition in man could not have discovered to him.”[/footnote] This school of interpretation, however, at least in the extreme shape represented by Dr. Paulus, has become virtually extinct. In Germany itself the tide has long since turned, and been steadily setting in a better direction; nor would it be easy to find anywhere better specimens of a truly sympathetic and congenial spirit in the work of interpretation, than are furnished by some of the later expository productions from that country. There still is, no doubt, and probably will ever be, both there and here, a class of interpreters, who in a certain modified form exhibit a defect in the respect under consideration; but a conviction, as to the real nature of the things which constituted the great aim and substance of the gospel, and to the necessity of a correspondence in belief and spirit between the inspired penmen and those who would engage in the work of interpretation, such a conviction being now more generally diffused and constantly growing, renders it probable, that that specific work will in the future be left more in the hands of persons, whose productions shall manifest a becoming unison of sentiment between the original author and the modern disciple. Hence it is laid down as a fundamental point by a distinguished German theologian—by Hagenbach in his Encyclopedia, that

“an inward interest in the doctrine of theology is needful for a Biblical interpreter. As we say, that a philosophical spirit is demanded for the study of Plato, a poetical taste for the reading of Homer or Pindar, a sensibility to wit and satire for the perusal of Lucian, a patriotic sentiment for the enjoyment of Sallust and Tacitus, equally certain is it, that the fitness to understand the profound truths of Scripture, of the New Testament especially, presupposes, as an indispensable requisite, a sentiment of piety, an inward religious experience. Thus is it ever true, that the Scriptures will not be rightly and spiritually comprehended, unless the Spirit of God become himself the true interpreter of His words, the angelus interpres, who will open to us the real meaning of the Bible.”

The more we take into consideration the distinctive character of Scripture, as a revelation from God, the more shall we be convinced of the necessity and the importance of the principle now stated. That character constitutes a special reason for a harmony of spirit between the interpreter and the original writer, beyond what belongs to Scripture in common with other ancient writings. For, as an authoritative revelation of the mind of God, it unfolds things above the reach of our natural desire and apprehension, and unfolds them, not as things that may be coolly surveyed and thoroughly understood from a position of indifference, but as things affecting our highest interests, and demanding our implicit and cordial acceptance. In such a case something more is evidently required than mere intellectual discernment, or competent scholarship. The heart as well as the head must be right; there must be the delicacy of a spiritual taste, and the humility of a childlike disposition. So true is the sentiment, which Neander took for his motto, Pectus est quod theologum facit (The heart is what makes the theologian).
Our Lord, indeed, declared as much at the outset, when He said, in His address to the Father, “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” It is only with the attainment of such a spiritual condition, that the eye opens to a clear perception of the truth, or that the mind is able to discern the full import of the words which embody it, and catch the nicer shades of meaning they convey. So that what has been said of religion generally, may be specially applied to the interpretation of its sacred records:

“As in all subjects we can understand language only as far as we have some experience of the things it reports, so in religion (by the very same principle) the spiritual heart alone can understand the language of the Spirit. In every book whatever, it is the mind of the reader that puts meaning in the words; but the language of the New Covenant is a celestial language, and they who would give their fullness to its blessed words, must have caught their secret from heaven.” source

Principle #2 – Grammatical/Historical Analysis

Necessary, however, and important as this sympathetic spirit, this spiritus interpres, is, on the part of the interpreter of Scripture, when possessed in fullest measure, it can never entitle any one to use arbitrariness in the explanation of its words, or warrant him to put a sense on these different from that which properly belongs to them. Its value lies simply in guiding to the real import, not in modifying it, or in superinducing something of its own upon it. And we, therefore, lay it down as another principle to be sacredly maintained in Scriptural interpretations, that nothing should be elicited from the text but what is yielded by the fair and grammatical explanation of the language. The import of each word, and phrase, and passage, must be investigated in a manner perfectly accordant with the laws of language, and with the actual circumstances of the writers. Not what we may think they should have said, or might possibly wish they had said, but simply what, as far as we are able to ascertain, they did say—this must be the sole object of our pursuit; and the more there is of perfect honesty and discriminating tact in our efforts to arrive at this, the more certain is our success. For in the words of Bengel:

“It is better to run all lengths with Scripture truth in a natural and open manner, than to shift, and twist, and accommodate. Straightforward conduct may draw against us bitterness and rancor for a time, but sweetness will come out of it. Every single truth is a light of itself, and every error, however minute, is darkness as far as it goes.” source

Nothing is more directly at variance with this principle of interpretation, and more surely fatal to success, than a party or polemical bias, which brings the mind to the examination of Scripture with a particular bent, and disposes it to work for an inferior end. No doubt, it may be alleged, the possession of a spirit in harmony with that of the sacred penmen implies something of this description—as such a spirit cannot exist without the recognition of vital truths and principles common to us with the inspired writers, and in conformity with which our interpretation must proceed. To some extent it must be so. But there is a great, and, for the most part, easily marked distinction, between holding thus with the writers of New Testament Scripture in a natural and appropriate manner, and doing it in a controversial and party spirit—between holding with them so as to give a fair and consistent interpretation of their language, and doing it, or professing to do it, while we are ever and anon putting a constrained or inadequate meaning on their words. If the latter be our mode of procedure, it will not fail to betray itself in the manifest violence occasionally done to the words of the original, and the various shifts resorted to for the purpose, either of evading their proper force, or foisting upon them a sense they cannot fairly be made to bear.
Previous to the Reformation, divines of the Romish Church were wont to carry this style of interpretation to the worst extreme. Individual writers, here and there, gave evidence of a certain degree of candor and impartiality; but, for the most part, the sacred text was treated in abject deference to the authority of Rome, and the most arbitrary expositions were fallen upon to establish her doctrinal positions. It was only such a vigorous and general movement as the Reformation,—a movement basing itself upon the true sense of Scripture, and perpetually appealing to that for its justification,— which would break the trammels that had so long lain upon men’s minds in this respect, and recall sincere students of Scripture to the simple, grammatical sense of its words. To a great extent, it actually did this. Luther, Melancthon, Calvin, and the other leading Reformers, were of one mind here, though they sometimes failed, and differed from each other, in the results to which the principle actually led them. Their fundamental rule was, that “the sense of Scripture is one, certain, and simple, and is everywhere to be ascertained in accordance with the principles of grammar and human discourse.” (Elem. Rhet. II. of Melancthon.) “We must not,” says Luther, “make God’s word mean what we wish; we must not bend it, but allow it to bend us; and give it the honor of being better than we could make it; so that we must let it stand.”
Of this fair, straightforward, grammatical mode of handling Scripture, as characteristic of the spirit of the Reformation, the Commentaries of Calvin are the noblest monument of the period, scarcely surpassed in that respect, as in certain others not equaled, to the present day. It was more, indeed, by what the Reformers did in their exegetical productions, and their comments on Scripture, than by any formal announcement or explanation of their hermeneutical principles, that both they themselves and their immediate followers gave it to be understood what those principles really were.
A hermeneutical work by Flacius Illyricus did appear in 1567—entitled, Clavis Scripturae Sacrae—somewhat cumbrous indeed (comprising, along with his explanation of Scripture figures and expressions, two large volumes,) and in certain parts not a little prolix; but strong and earnest in its advocacy of the great principle now under consideration, and for the period altogether a respectable and useful production. It stood alone, however, in the 16th century, and was not followed up, as it should have been, by Biblical students of a more strictly exegetical and less controversial spirit. The author himself in this, as in his other works, was too much influenced by doctrinal prepossession and interest,—although he justly condemns Papists and sophists on this account, who (he says) “pick out select passages from the sacred books at their own pleasure, and combine them together again in the most arbitrary manner; so that they speak, indeed, in the plain words of Scripture, but at the same time utter their own thoughts, not those of Scripture.”


It is proper to note, however, that on this very point—the point in respect to which the Reformation wrought so beneficial a change—Dr. Campbell pronounces a most severe and caustic judgment against Beza, one of the most learned and able expositors of the Reformation; he charges him with allowing his doctrinal tendencies to impart an improper bias to his translation and notes. It cannot be questioned, we think, that Beza did lay himself open to objection on this ground, and his adversary Castalio proved himself quite ready to take advantage of it. Some of the examples produced by Castalio, and reproduced by Campbell, are certainly instances of wrong translation and false exposition, such as but too clearly originated in undue doctrinal bias. But neither is it quite fair, with Campbell, to ascribe them all to this source, nor are they such as to merit that bitter acrimony which pervades the critique, and which looks more like the expression of personal antipathy to Beza for the kind of doctrines he espoused, than for occasional indiscretion in the way of introducing them. That something of this sort did mingle in Campbell’s animadversions, one can scarcely doubt, not only from the pungency of their general tone, but also from the evident desire betrayed in some of the examples to aggravate as much as possible the charge of bad faith:—As when, in regard to Beza’s rendering ψυχη, in Acts 2:27, by “cadaver” in his first edition, he is represented as quite singular and arbitrary, while for that sense (though in itself, we believe, a wrong one) Beza produces the authority of Jerome; and Suicer, in his Thesaurus, says of it, Qua Beza in prima editione sua recte interpretatus erat (Beza, in his first edition, was wrong in his interpretation…),— referring, as Beza had done before him, to Virgil Ane. iii., Animamque sepulcbro condimus. So, again, in regard to the word χειροτονησαντες, in Acts 14:23, which Beza renders per suffragia creassent (created by vote…), Dr. Campbell can see nothing in the per suffragia (by votes) but Beza’s desire to thrust in his own views respecting the popular election of ministers. Beza, however, only professes to give what he held to be the full and proper import of the word, and what was undoubtedly its original meaning; as Suicer also admits, when he says, it designates, according to its primary signification, “an election, quae fit per suffragia manuum extensione data”—eligere per suffragia ad Episcopatum—a practice, he truly remarks, which long survived in the Church. It may be questioned, whether the word should have this definite meaning ascribed to it in the passage under consideration, as the word was often used in the more general sense of designating or appointing. Suicer himself thinks it does not; but Erasmus had already translated cum suffragiis creassent, and the same sense is vindicated by Raphelius, who supports it by examples from profane writers; to say nothing of Doddridge and others in later times. There is, therefore, no just reason for charging Beza with bad faith, as if, in ascribing such a sense to the word, he deliberately tampered with the integrity of Scripture. These remarks have been introduced merely for the purpose of guarding against what appears an exaggerated representation of Beza’s partiality, and of correcting the too depreciatory estimate formed by Dr. Campbell of his merits as an interpreter of Scripture.


It may be confidently affirmed, that the parties, who, next to the Papists, have erred most through doctrinal bias in perverting and narrowing the proper import of Sacred Scripture, have been the elder Socinians and the modern Rationalists. These, if not the only, are at least the chief parties who from the ranks of Protestantism, and under a show of learning, have systematically tampered with the sense (sometimes even with the text) of Scripture; and have sought to obtain from it something else or something less than that which the words by a natural interpretation yield. But the arts plied for this purpose have signally failed. The forced interpretations and arbitrary methods of the Socinian party have been obliged to give way. By the establishment of a more accurate criticism, by sounder principles of interpretation, and a more intimate acquaintance with the original languages, it has been found that Scripture will not surrender up any of its peculiar doctrines; so that, as has been remarked by Winer, “the controversies among interpreters have usually led back to the admission, that the old Protestant views of the meaning of the sacred texts, are the correct ones.” source  These views are there, the Rationalists of a past generation confessed, though only by way of accommodation to the antiquated notions and doctrinal beliefs of the Jews, not as being in themselves absolutely true or strictly Divine:—they are there, the Rationalists of the present day still admit, but only as the temporary and imperfect forms of the truth, suited to an immature age, now to be supplanted by higher and worthier conceptions. We thank them both for the admission; in that we have the confession of those whom nothing but the force of truth could have constrained to own, that the doctrines of the orthodox faith are those which are elicited from Scripture by the grammatical rendering and fair interpretation of its words. And by this faith it behooves us to abide—till, at least, He who gave it may be pleased to give us another and better.
The principle, however, of abiding in interpretations of Scripture by the grammatical sense, not only requires a spirit of fairness, as opposed to a doctrinal bias or polemical interest, but also a spirit of discrimination in regard to the various elements, the Lexical and Syntactical peculiarities, by the observance of which the real grammatical sense is to be ascertained. It is obvious, that if no proper discrimination is made between the later and the more classical Greek—if due respect is not had to the Hebraistic element, which appears in some of the phrases and constructions of New Testament Scripture—if either the more distinctive meanings of particular words, or the characteristic peculiarities of individual writers are overlooked, failures and mistakes in a corresponding degree will inevitably be made in the exhibition of the correct meaning. From deficiencies in one or more of these respects it is possible to give an unfair and erroneous view of a passage, not only without any improper bias prompting one to do so, but even with the most honest purpose of attaining to correctness, and many qualifications to aid in accomplishing it.

χατα αποχαλυψιν

When the Apostle Paul, for example, in Gal. 2:2, speaks of going up to Jerusalem χατα αποχαλυψιν [according to revelation]—if, from undue regard to classical analogy, we should interpret with the learned Hermann, explicationis causa—for the purpose, that is, of rendering certain explanations to parties residing there, we should certainly not give what is either the grammatical sense of the expression, or what accords with the Apostle Paul’s use of the term αποχαλυψιν [revelation]; by whom it is always employed in the higher sense of a Divine communication. And in such an expression it is not so much classical analogy, as scriptural, and we may even say Pauline, usage, that must determine the exact import.
It is in fact, as formerly stated, very much from the more careful and discriminating attention, that has latterly been paid to the various peculiarities both of the Greek language generally, and of the New Testament style and diction in particular, that advances have been made in precision and accuracy of interpretation. Nor should it be forgotten, in strictly critical expositions, what has been justly remarked by Mr. Ellicot in his preface to the Epistle to the Galatians, that

“in the Holy Scriptures every peculiar expression, even at the risk of losing an idiomatic turn, must be retained. Many words, especially the prepositions, have a positive dogmatical and theological significance, and to qualify them by a popular turn, or dilute them by a paraphrase, is dangerous in the extreme.”

Assuming, however, what has been stated

  • assuming that our primary object in interpreting Scripture, should be to ascertain what sense the words of every passage may, by a fair and grammatical interpretation, and in reality do yield;
  • assuming, moreover, that we both know and are disposed to keep in view the more distinctive peculiarities belonging in whole or in part to the language of the New Testament,

there are still guiding principles of great importance to be remembered and followed, especially in those parts that have some degree of difficulty about them.


One of these, which we therefore specify as the third point to be noticed in this connection, is the regard that should be had to the simplicity which characterizes the writings of the New Testament. “The excellence of an interpreter,” says Ernesti, justly, ” consists much in simplicity; and the more any interpretation bears the mark of facility, and it appears as if it ought to have struck the reader before, the more likely is it to be true. Παιδιον το αληθες, says Lycurgus; and Schultens, in his Preface to Job, well remarks that the seal of truth is simple and eternal.”
It is necessary, however, to explain here. The simplicity that should characterize our interpretations of Scripture is very different from shallowness, or from what lies entirely on the surface and is found without difficulty. On the contrary, great skill and study may often be required to come at it. The simplicity we speak of is the proper counterpart of the simplicity of Scripture itself—a simplicity that is compatible with the most profound thought and the most copious meaning—and which had its ground partly in the circumstances, and partly in the design of the sacred penmen. In respect to their circumstances, the position they occupied was that of the comparatively humbler ranks of life; they lived and thought in a simple, as contra-distinguished from an artificial state of society. Their manners and habits, their modes of conception, and forms of speech, are such as usually belong to persons similarly circumstanced; that is, they partake, not of the polish and refinement, the art and subtlety, which too commonly mark the footsteps of high cultivation and luxurious living, but of the free, the open, the natural—as of persons accustomed frankly to express, not to conceal their emotions, or to wrap their sentiments in disguise. On this account—because written by persons of such a type, and depicting characters and events connected with such a state of society, the narratives of Scripture are pre-eminent above all other writings for their simplicity; they are nature itself, in its unvarnished plainness and clear transparency; and from this they derive a charm, which is more or less felt in every bosom. But what so strikingly characterizes the narrative portions of Scripture, has also given its impress to the others; the whole are pervaded by the direct, the guileless simplicity of men, who had to do with the realities of life, and were wont to speak as from heart to heart.
But if the circumstances of the sacred writers tended to produce, the design with which they wrote expressly called for, this simplicity in writing; and, indeed, secured it. It was to inform, to instruct, to save, that they wrote—this was their one grand aim. They had no personal, no literary ends in view; they were simply witnesses, recording the wonderful things they had seen and heard, or ambassadors conveying messages from another, not on their own behalf, but for the interests of their fellow-men. Hence, they naturally lost themselves in their subject. Having it as their one object to unfold and press this upon the minds of others, they used, as the apostle says, great plainness of speech—language the most natural, the most direct, the most fitted to convey in appropriate and impressive terms the thoughts of their heart. The simplicity which thus characterizes their writings is that of men, who had a single aim in view, and so went straight to the mark.
Such is the kind of simplicity which the writings of the New Testament possess; and corresponding to this is the simplicity which should appear in our manner of interpretation.
How, then, should it appear? Primarily, no doubt, and mainly, in putting a natural construction on their words, and ascribing to them, precise indeed and accurate, yet not recondite and far-fetched meanings. As in writing what they were moved to indite by the Holy Spirit, the sacred penmen were guided by the simplicity of an earnest purpose and a lofty aim, so we should prescribe to ourselves (as Titmann has said) this quality of simplicity as a rule, and not recede, except for grave reasons, from that sense, which seems to be the nearest and most direct.
It may be quite possible, in certain cases, by the help of lexicons and other appliances, to bring out interpretations of an ingenious nature, and display a good deal of skill in supporting them; but no satisfactory results shall thus be obtained, unless the meanings put upon the different words, and the sense extracted from them, are such as might seem appropriate to men using the language of ordinary life, and using it with the view, not of establishing subtle distinctions, but of unfolding in the most effective manner the great principles of truth and duty.
This, however, has respect only to our treatment of the language; the kind of thoughts and feelings of which that language might be expressive is another thing. Here there was room for infinite depth and fullness. It is of the nature of grace, in all its operations, to give a subjective elevation to the soul—to increase, not only its appetency, but its power of discernment also, for the inward and spiritual; and by the help even of common things, through the instrumentality of the simplest language, to open veins of thought, and awaken chords of feeling, which lie beyond the reach of those who are living after the course of nature. In the spiritually enlightened mind there is, what may be called, a divine simplicity, which, by drawing it into closer connection and sympathy with the mind of God, discovers to it views and meanings, which would otherwise never have suggested themselves. So, we see with the inspired writers of the New Testament themselves, that not infrequently they discern an import in the earlier dispensations of God, or indicate thoughts in connection with the facts of later times, such as would not have occurred to persons, even of superior and cultivated minds, looking from a merely natural point of view. Yet not the less in what they thus discern and indicate—in the inferences they deduce, and the conclusions they build, as well as in the more substantive part of their announcements, are there to be found the proper characteristics of simplicity—a style of thought and expression, direct, plain, natural.
We simply add further, that in endeavoring to preserve and copy this simplicity, we are in no respect precluded from the necessity of applying careful thought and the resources of solid learning to the work of interpretation. It is only through these, indeed, that we can hope to surmount the difficulties which lie across the path of a thoroughly successful exegesis of Scripture. In aiming at this we have to throw ourselves back upon the times and circumstances of the sacred penmen—to realize their position—make ourselves familiar with their modes of thought and forms of expression, so as to be able to judge what would have been for them a natural and fitting mode of representation—what forced and unnatural. And this we can only expect to do by close study, and the judicious employment of the resources of learning. Not the learning merely which is confined to the use of grammars and lexicons, but all that can serve to throw light on the language, the manners, the opinions and habits of those, among whom Christ and His apostles lived and spoke. Whatever is calculated to aid us in arriving at such intimate knowledge, must also be serviceable in enabling us to attain to a proper simplicity in our interpretations of Scripture.
It is only following out the same line of thought, and rendering the principle it involves specific in a particular direction, when we mention as another, a fourth rule to be attended to in scriptural interpretations, that in settling the meaning of words we must have respect chiefly to the usus loquendi, the current sense, or established usage at the time— to this more than to their etymology. The reason for such a rule is no further peculiar to the writings of the New Testament, than that they are of a popular and practical nature; which rendered it expedient, and, in a sense, necessary, that words and phrases should be taken in their prevailing signification. But this signification often differs greatly from what might be conjectured by looking simply to their etymology. For the spoken language of a people is ever passing through certain processes of change and fluctuation. Many of its terms depart considerably, in the course of time, from their original import, acquire new shades of meaning, and sometimes even become so entirely transformed in their progress, that the ultimate use scarcely exhibits a trace of the primal signification.


A familiar example of this from our own language is to be found in the word villain—the English form of the Latin villanus—originally, the poor serf attached to the villa or farm of a proprietor—then, from the usual condition and manners of such, the low, selfish, dishonest peasant—and, finally, when villenage in the original sense became extinct, those capable of the most base and dishonorable actions—the morally vile and mean.


Another instance is furnished by a word, which by a strange coincidence has had the like fortune in its English, that it seems formerly to have had in its Greek form. Sycophant in the earlier stages of our literature meant simply an accuser—then a false accuser—but in process of time it lost this sense, and came to signify a, fawning flatterer, one who speaks, not ill of a person behind his back, but good of him before his face, though only for a sinister and selfish purpose—the only sense now retained by the word. In like manner, the Greek συχοφαντης, according to the ancient grammarians, and according also to its apparent composition, originally a “fig shower”—an informer (as is said, though there is no certain proof of such a use) against persons exporting figs from Attica—then a common informer— and ultimately a false accuser, or a false adviser, its only signification in classical writings—while in the New Testament it bears the still further, but collateral sense, of extorting money under false pretenses (Luke 3:14).

Foresight and Provision

Not only do words thus in current use sometimes escape altogether from their original meaning, but there are also words, which, etymologically considered, ought to be identical in their import, and should admit of being interchanged as synonymous, which yet come to differ materially as to their actual use. To refer only to one example: our two terms “foresight” and “provision” are each made up of two words precisely similar in meaning—only the one pair of Saxon, the other of Latin origin. Undoubtedly “fore-”  by itself answers to “pro-”, and “-sight” to “-vision”; yet usage has appropriated the two words to different ideas—the one to indicate what is anticipated in the future, the other to what is laid up or done with a view to the future. A foreigner not acquainted with the usage, and guided merely by the etymology, might readily substitute the one for the other. And it is but lately that I noticed in a letter written from abroad the expression used respecting someone, that his ”provisions were disappointed,” evidently meaning by “provisions” what should have been expressed by “foresight”—the anticipations that had been formed in respect to the future.
A similar sense of incongruity, as in this case, is occasionally produced in one’s mind, when a word occurs in some of our older writers, which since their day has undergone a considerable change of meaning—especially if, as sometimes happens, it is employed by them, not only in its original acceptation, but also in conjunction with an epithet, which seems to indicate what is incompatible with the other. Thus in one of Caxton’s prefaces, his preface to a translation of a Life of Charles the Great, printed by him in 1485, beseeching the reader’s indulgence toward his translation, he says, “Though there be no gay terms in it, nor subtle, nor new eloquence, yet I hope, that it shall be understood, and to that intent I have especially reduced (translated) it after the simple cunning that God hath lent me,”—the simple cunning, two words that now bear antagonistic meanings, and seem incongruously united together. Certainly, as now understood, a man of cunning is anything but a simple person; simplicity and cunning cannot exist together. But cunning originally implied nothing of a sinister kind. It has its root in the German kennen, to know, from which our ken comes, and merely denoted the kenning, or knowing, which one might have of anything in art or science. Applied to works of art, it became nearly synonymous with skill or power—approaching to another cognate German word, koennen, “canning”, having the power or ability to accomplish anything—in which sense it occurs in our English Bible, “Let my right hand forget her cunning,” namely, her acquired skill to play upon the harp. It is only in comparatively late times, that the word lost this meaning, and came to denote that sort of deceit, which is united with a low kind of skill or cleverness.
Such examples show how cautiously etymology should be applied in determining the sense of words, as these come to be used in a living tongue. As our examples have been chiefly taken from our own language, it may be added in passing, that the person, who did most to turn the attention of English scholars in this direction, and who originated inquiries which have led to many interesting and profitable results—Horne Tooke—has also exhibited in some of his deductions one of the most striking examples of the danger of pushing such inquiries to excess, and of being guided simply by the etymological element in ascertaining the import of words.
In the spirit of a thorough-going Nominalist, he maintains, in his “Diversions of Purley,” that as words are merely the signs of ideas, and as all our words, not excepting the most abstract, are ultimately traceable to a meaning derived from sensible impressions, so words must be understood not in their acquired or metaphorical, but always substantially in their primitive and sensational meaning:—consequently, as we have no words, neither have we any ideas, of a properly absolute description— both alike cleave inseparably to the dust. So in regard even to truth:
“Truth is nothing (he says) but what every man troweth [knows]; whence there is no such thing as eternal, immutable, everlasting truth; unless mankind, such as they are at present, be also eternal, immutable, and everlasting; and two persons may contradict each other, and yet both speak truth, for the truth of one person may be opposite to the truth of another.”
This is carrying the subjective principle in our natures to an extravagant height, and making words govern ideas in a manner, which few, we should think, will be disposed to accredit. We refer to it merely as a proof of the folly of pushing such a line of investigation to the utmost, and making what is the primary ground of our words and ideas also their ultimate standard and measure. Even with soberer inquirers and safer guides we sometimes perceive an excess in the same direction. It may be noticed occasionally in a work, which as a whole is marked by just thought and fine discrimination, and will repay a careful perusal—Dr. Trench on “the Study of Words.” Thus, when treating of kind, he says,

“a kind person is a kinned person, one of kin, one who acknowledges and acts upon his kinship with other men. And so mankindis mankinned. In the word is contained a declaration of the relationship which exists between all the members of the human family; and seeing that this relation in a race now scattered so widely and divided so far asunder can only be through a common head, we do in fact, every time that we use the word mankind, declare our faith in the common descent of the whole human race,” (p. 42.)

We would, indeed, declare it, if, as often as we used the word, we had respect to that derivation, and assented to the principle implied in it; but how few in reality do so! In the language of everyday life, we employ the word simply as current coin—we take it as expressive of the multitude of beings who possess with ourselves a common nature, but at the same time, perhaps, thinking as little of their common origin, as, when speaking of truth, we have respect to what every individual troweth.
But in all this we point only to the excess. There can be no doubt, in regard to the thing itself, that it is of great importance to attend to the derivation of words, and that without knowing this we cannot get at those nicer shades of meaning which they often express, or make a thoroughly intelligent and proper use of them. In the great majority of cases, the etymological is also the actual sense of the word; and even when the acquired or metaphorical use comes materially to differ from the primary one, the knowledge of the primary is still of service, as most commonly a certain tinge or impress of it survives even in the ultimate.


How often does a reference to the original import of some leading word in a phrase or sentence, enable us to bring out its meaning with a point and emphasis that we must otherwise have failed to exhibit! How often, again, when terms nearly synonymous are employed—so nearly, perhaps, that in rendering from Greek to English we can only employ the same word for both,—does a glance at the fundamental import disclose the difference between them! Thus, in Gal. 6:2, we have the exhortation,

Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ;

and presently afterwards, in ver. 5, we have the announcement,

For every one shall bear his own burden.

Even an English reader may see, by looking at the connection, that the burden in the one case cannot be the same with what is meant by it in the other; that the one, as Augustine long ago remarked, is the burden of one’s own trials or infirmities, which may be shared in by others, while the other is something altogether proper to the individual—the burden of his personal responsibility, or rather, perhaps, the burden of his personal state and destiny—which he must bear himself alone.
But the difference at once presents itself when we turn to the original, where we find two distinct words employed, each having their respective shades of meaning. The burdens we are to bear one for another are τα βαρη, the weights, the things which press like loads upon those who come into contact with them, and in a manner call for friendly help; but the burden each one has to bear for himself is το ιδιον φορτιον, that charge of what is more properly his own, which is indissolubly linked to his personal consciousness and rationality, and of which no one can relieve another.

Mercy or pity

Again, in Rom. 9:15,

τῷ Μωϋσεῖ γὰρ λέγει· ἐλεήσω ὃν ἂν ἐλεῶ καὶ οἰκτιρήσω ὃν ἂν οἰκτίρω.

we have two verbs, which are of such cognate meaning, that they are often loosely interchanged, and sometimes the one, sometimes the other, is held to be the stronger expression. Even Titmann (Synon. I. p. 122,) and after him Robinson, in Lex., designates ελεος and ελεειν as stronger than οιχτιρμος and οιχτειρειν, because the former carry along with them the additional notion of beneficence, a desire to relieve the miserable. But if the greater strength had been there, we should rather have expected the clauses in this passage of the Epistle to the Romans to be in the inverse order—the weaker to be first, and the stronger last. A more exact analysis justifies the existing order; for, as Fritzsche has justly remarked on the passage, the words οιχτιρμος and οιχτειρειν signify more than ελεος and ελεειν. The latter stand related to ιλαος, ιλαομαι, ιλασχομαι (the being propitious, kind, or gentle;) the other to οι (the oh! the cry of distress or sympathy,) and οιχτος (the tender pity or compassion, of which that cry is one of the first and most natural expressions.) Hence ο ελεος denotes that sorrow which a kindly disposition feels at the misery of another, and is the proper word to be used when the general notion of mercy is to be expressed; ο οικτερμος, however, denotes the sorrow awakened by the sense of another’s misery, which calls forth tears and lamentations—not pity merely, but pity in its keener sensibilities and most melting moods. So that the passage referred to has in it a real progression: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and will have pity on whom I will have pity.”

ἐπισκηνώσῃ (tabernacling)

An expression in 2Cor. 12:9, may be referred to as an example of a somewhat different kind.

καὶ εἴρηκέν μοι· ἀρκεῖ σοι ἡ χάρις μου, ἡ γὰρ δύναμις ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ τελεῖται. Ἥδιστα οὖν μᾶλλον καυχήσομαι ἐν ταῖς ἀσθενείαις μου, ἵνα ἐπισκηνώσῃ ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ ἡ δύναμις τοῦ Χριστοῦ.

The apostle there says that he would most willingly rather glory in infirmities, ἵνα ἐπισκηνώσῃ ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ ἡ δύναμις τοῦ Χριστοῦ the full import of which is but imperfectly conveyed by the common rendering, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The verb employed belongs to the later Greek, and is found in Polybius in the sense of dwelling in a tent, or inhabiting. This, however, is not sufficient to explicate the meaning of the word here; nor is any aid to be obtained from the Septuagint, since it does not occur there. It can only be explained by a reference to what is said in Old Testament Scripture of the relation of the Lord’s tabernacle or tent to His people; by such a passage, for example, as Isa. 4:6, where it is written, “And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the day time from the heat;” that is, the Lord’s gracious presence and protection spread over them as a shelter. So in Rev. 8:15, the Lord is represented as “tabernacling upon” the redeemed in glory. In like manner, the apostle here states it as the reason why he would rejoice in infirmities, that thereby Christ’s power might tabernacle upon him—might serve, so to speak, as the abiding refuge and confidence in which he should hide himself.


We need not multiply examples further of this description. But we may add, that for those who would know generally how much may be gained in drawing out the more precise and delicate shades of meaning, by a reference to the radical and primary sense of words, one of the best helps will be found to be Bengel’s Gnomon, which, notwithstanding occasional failures, is in a short compass the happiest specimen extant of this kind of interpretation. This should be taken as an habitual companion.


But occasionally, also, in writers of a more popular cast, good examples are to be met with of the same tact— in none, perhaps, more than in Leighton, who, if he sometimes strains rather unduly the original meaning, more commonly turns it to good account, and that in a natural and happy manner. As in the following example: “God resisteth the proud—αντιτασσεται—singles it out as His grand enemy, and sets Himself in battle array against it; so the word is. It breaks the ranks of men, in which He hath set them, when they are not subject—υποτασσομενοι—as the word is before; yea, pride not only breaks rank, but rises up in rebellion against God, and doth what it can to dethrone Him, and usurp His place; therefore, He orders his forces against it;” and so on.
On the other hand, in passages presenting some difficulty, or affording scope for the display of fancy on the part of the interpreter, it is quite possible, and, indeed, very common, to err by pressing unduly the etymological import of words. Horsley, for example, gives a marked somewhat ludicrous exhibition of this, when rendering, as he occasionally does, the Greek word ιδιωται by the English word derived from it, idiots,—a word, no doubt, bearing much the same signification with its Greek original—denoting, first, the merely private man, as contradistinguished from one conversant with affairs and offices of state; then a person of rude and unskilled condition—in manners and intellect unpolished; and, finally, one altogether destitute of the ordinary powers of human intelligence—bereft of reason, to which last sense it has long been confined in the common intercourse of life. So that, with Horsley, to turn the expression used of the apostles in Acts 4:13, “unlearned men and idiots,” is only, by a misplaced literalism, to give a false representation of the meaning. Not much better is his rendering and interpretation of Luke 1:4, “That thou mightest know the exact truth of those doctrines wherein thou hast been catechized”—περι ων κατηχηθης— on which he remarks,

“St. Luke’s own Gospel, therefore, if the writer’s own word may be taken about his own work, is an historical exposition of the Catechism, which Theophilus had learned when he was first made a Christian.  The first two articles in this historical exposition are, the history of the Baptist’s birth, and that of Mary’s miraculous impregnation. We have much more, therefore, than the testimony of St. Luke, in addition to that of St. Matthew, to the truth of the fact of the miraculous conception; we have the testimony of St. Luke, that this fact was a part of the earliest catechetical instruction; a part of the catechism, no doubt, which St. Paul’s converts learned of the apostle.”

We see here, too plainly, the polemical interest, endeavoring to make the utmost of an argument, but overreaching its purpose by putting an undue strain on the principal word in the passage. That our word catechize might originally correspond to the Greek word κατηχεω, from which it obviously comes, may be certain enough; but it does not follow, that that κατηχεω imports, as used by St. Luke, is fairly given by “catechize”, in its current acceptation. The Greek word did not originally bear the technical import of catechize; it meant, to sound out towards, to resound, or sound in one’s ears; then more specially to do this by word of mouth, to instruct, and ultimately to instruct by way of question and answer. As used in the New Testament, and Greek writers generally, except the Fathers, it indicates nothing as to the specific mode of instruction; and to represent it by the word catechize, would only render our translation in most cases unintelligible or ridiculous. Thus, at Gal. 6:6, it would run,

Let him that is catechized in the word communicate to him that catechizeth in all good things;

and at Acts 21:21,

But they have been catechized concerning thee, that thou teachest all the Jews to forsake Moses.

To sound forth, or communicate instruction, in the active voice, and in the passive, to hear by way of rumor, or be instructed anyhow,—these are the only senses which the word bears in the New Testament. In later times the κατηχουμενοι were those who were under special instruction for admission to the Church, and, as we might say, the catechized portion in Christian communities.
In Dr. Campbell’s Fourth Preliminary Dissertation will be found some good remarks and apposite illustrations on the subject before us. Not, however, without some grounds for exception. His jealousy in respect to etymological considerations is carried to excess, and in some of the instances he produces, leads him, more or less, into error. We formerly alluded to his remarks on χειροτονεω, as used in Acts 14:23, and his severe denunciation of Beza for so far giving heed to its etymological formation, as to express in his translation a reference to the mode of appointment to church offices by popular election, signified by holding up the hand. He would exclude everything from its import but the simple idea of appointment, although in the only other passage in the New Testament, where it is similarly used of appointment to church offices (2Cor. 8:19,) it plainly does include the element of popular suffrage.


We shall rather point, however, under the present division, to another example, in which Dr. Campbell is still less successful, though he labors hard to make good his point. It turns on the word προγινωσκω, whether this should be rendered, as its component elements would lead us to expect, by “foreknow”, or by some more general mode of expression. Dr. Campbell holds, it should be less strictly taken in Rom. 11:2, where we read in our common version, “God hath not cast away His people, whom He foreknew” (ὃν προέγνω) he would separate the preposition, προ, from the verb, and also impose on the verb itself a somewhat different meaning,—that, namely, of acknowledging or approving; and thus he obtains a, no doubt, very plain and intelligible sense: “God hath not cast off His people, whom heretofore He acknowledged.” But is this really the sense intended by the apostle?
We find him using the same compound verb a little before at chp 8:29, “Whom He did foreknow (οὓς προέγνω) them He also did predestinate;”—and there it is scarcely possible to understand it otherwise than in the sense of foreknowing given to it by our translators, being plainly used of an act of the Divine mind toward His people, prior to that of their predestination to blessing: He foreknew, then He foreappointed. Is there any necessity for departing from the same literal sense in the passage before us? None that appears worthy of notice. Dr. Campbell has, indeed, said, that to speak there of God’s people as those whom He foreknew, “conveyed to his mind no meaning whatever;” and, by a strange oversight in so acute a mind, he founds his statement on the assertion, that to foreknow “always signifies to know some event before it happens”—as if it might not equally import, when used in reference to an act of God, to know a person before he exists. Presently, however, he resorts to another consideration, which implies a virtual abandonment of the other, and objects, that “God knew Israel before, in the ordinary meaning of the word “knowing”, could never have been suggested as a reason to hinder us from thinking, that He would never cast them off; for, from the beginning, all nations and all things are alike known to God.” True, indeed, in one sense, but not in another. They were not all alike known to God as destined to occupy toward Himself the same relation, and to receive the same treatment; and that is precisely the point in the eye of the apostle. God could not cast away His own people, whom He foreknew as His own. Their friendly relation to Him being descried [looked at] as among the certainties of the coming future, nothing in that future could arise to hinder its accomplishment.
In another passage (2 Tim. 2:19) of quite similar import, the apostle finds the ground of the believer’s security from perdition in the simple fact, which he calls a seal, that “the Lord knoweth them that are His”—a thought which had consoled the Psalmist ages before, as appears from the words in the first Psalm, “The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous.” For such knowledge necessarily implies a corresponding treatment.
If the way of the righteous is known by God as the omniscient, it cannot but be blessed by Him as the righteous. Hence, there is no necessity to ascribe to “know” the sense of having care and affection for, loving, which it never properly possesses. It is enough, if only God with His foreknowledge is not shut up in the heavens; the rest flows spontaneously from His nature, and does not need to be particularly mentioned. source


We have referred under this division to so many illustrative examples, on the one side and the other, because it is chiefly through these, that the danger of running into an extreme is made apparent; and along therewith the necessity of care and skill in avoiding it. It is, no doubt, one thing to know, in what direction a tendency to excess in such a matter lies, and another thing to keep clear of it. Yet it will be of importance to remember, that while one should always seek to be acquainted with the etymological import of words, this cannot in every case be taken for the actual meaning; this is determined by the current usage, which must be ascertained and adhered to.
So far as concerns the language of the New Testament, or the precise meaning and interpretation of its words, the general rules and principles now given appear to comprise all that is necessary. They will serve to mark out the course of inquiry that must be pursued, if any measure of success is to be attained. For the actual result, much will necessarily depend upon the greater or less degree of exegetical tact possessed by the student, and the extent to which it has been cultivated by personal application and proper exercise.  Hermeneutical skill, like skill of other kinds, must not only have something in nature to rest upon, but have that also matured by diligent and well-directed practice, without which no proficiency can be expected.
For those cases, in which some more peculiar difficulty is felt in getting at the precise sense of a passage, there must, first of all, be brought into play the requisite qualifications connected with the application of the rules and principles already laid down.
There must be an acquaintance with the original language, in its proper idioms, the etymology and usage of its words—a knowledge of the distinctive peculiarities of the writer, in whose productions the passage occurs— of the circumstances of the time in which he wrote, its manners and customs, modes of thought and principles of action —in a word, an insight into the nature of the language employed, and the various things, of a circumstantial description, fitted to tell upon the views of the writer and his more immediate circle.
It is clear, that without knowledge of such compass and variety, no one can reasonably expect to succeed in dealing with a passage, which involves any difficulty in respect to the proper construction of its words, or the real meaning which they bear. But it is possible, that where so much is possessed and used, the difficulty may still fail to be overcome.
In that case, the next, and more special thing that should be done, is to look very carefully and closely to the connection in which the passage stands—which will often do much to remove the darkness or uncertainty that rests upon its import. Then, let the peculiar phrase or construction, which occasions the difficulty, be examined in connection with others of the same, or nearly the same description, in what remains besides of the individual writer;—or if none such may occur, then in other parts of Scripture; and, still again, in other writings of the apostolic age, and periods not remote from it. The nearer to the passage itself, then the nearer to him who indited [wrote] it, that any light can be found, the more likely to prove satisfactory.
So that the examination should usually be made in the order of:

  1. his own writings first,
  2. next of the other inspired productions, and,
  3. finally, of writings as near as possible to the age and circumstances in which he wrote.

In such investigations, we need scarcely say, all available helps, whether ancient or modern, should be brought into requisition. Access to these in any considerable degree must always be a special advantage to those who enjoy it. But even where it is very imperfectly possessed, no inconsiderable progress may be made in the exact knowledge and interpretation of Scripture, if this Scripture itself is but carefully studied, with a few good grammars and lexicons; as, when so used, it will be found to supply many materials for interpreting itself. Let no one, therefore, wait till he has all requisite means within his reach; but let each rather endeavor to make the most profitable use of what he can command—in the persuasion, that though he may be far from accomplishing all he could wish, he will still find his labor by no means in vain. And, however he may stand as to inferior resources, let him never forget to seek the enlightening and directing grace of the Holy Spirit, who to the humble and prayerful mind will often unlock secrets, which remain hid to the most learned and studious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top