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written concerning the interpretation of language, and in a large portion of the specimens of criticism which we meet with, especially upon the Scriptures, this fundamental truth, this fact which lies at the very bottom of the art of interpretation, has either been overlooked, or not regarded in its relations and consequences. It may be illustrated by a single example. St. John thus addresses the Christians to whom he was writing, in his first Epistle, ii. 20.
“Ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and know all things."
'If we consider these words in themselves merely, we shall perceive how uncertain is their signification, and how many different meanings, they may be used to express. pp. 90, 91.
Having shown that the first clause, 'Ye have an anointing from the Holy One,' is in itself indefinite, and may be understood in several different senses, he adds :
I forbear to mention other meanings, which the word anointing might be used to express. These are sufficient for our purpose.
• The term Holy' One, in such a relation as it holds to the other words in the present sentence, may denote either God, or Christ, or some other being.
' Yé know all things, literally expresses the meaning, Ye have the attribute of omniscience. Beside this meaning, it may signify, Ye are fully acquainted with all the objects of human knowledge; or, Ye know every truth connected with Christianity; or, Ye have all the knowledge necessary to form your fajth, and direct your conduct; or the proposition may require some other limitation; for all things is one of those terms, the meaning of which is continually to be restrained and modified by a regard to the subject present to the mind of the writer.
'This statement may afford some imperfect notion of the various senses which the words before us may be used to express; and of the uncertainty that must exist about their meaning, when they are regarded without reference to those considerations by which it ought to be determined. I say, imperfect, because we have really kept one very important consideration in mind, that they were written by an Apostle to a Christian community. Putting this out of view, it would not be easy to fix the limit of their possible meanings. It must be remembered that this passage has been adduced. merely by way of illustration; and that, if it were necessary, an indefinite number of similar examples might be quoted.
'I will mention, and I can barely mention, some of the principal causes of the intrinsic ambiguity of language. 1. Almost every word is used in a variety of senses; and some words in a great variety. Now, as we assign one or another of these senses to different words in a sentence, we change the meaning of the whole sentence. If they are important words, and the different senses which we assign vary much from each other, we change its meaning essentially. 2. But beside their common significations, words may be used in an undefined number of figurative
A large proportion of sentences may, therefore, be understood either figuratively or literally. Considered in themselves, they present no intrinsic character that may enable us to determine whether they are literal or figurative. They may often be understood in more than one literal, and in more than one figurative sense; and a choice is then to be made among all these different senses. 3. A very large proportion of sentences which are not what rhetoricians call figurative, are yet not to be understood strictly, not to the letter, but with some limitation, and often with a limitation which contracts exceedingly their literal meaning. “I do not,' says Mr. Burke, addressing the friend to whom he is writing, in his Reflections on the French Revolution, 'I do not conceive you to be of that sophistical, captious spirit, or of that uncandid dullness, as to require, for every general observation or sentiment, an explicit detail of the correctives and exceptions, which reason wi
presume to be included in all the general propositions which come from a reasonable man.' Sentences that are general or universal in their terms, are often to be regarded merely in relation to the subject treated of, or the persons addressed; and their meaning is often to be greatly limited by a regard to one or another of these considerations. 4. In eloquence, in poetry, in popular writing of every sort, and not least in the Scriptures, a great part of the language used is the language of emotion or feeling. The strict and literal meaning of this language is, of course, a meaning which the words may be used to express; but this is rarely the true meaning. The language of feeling is very different from thaťof philosophical accuracy. The mind, when strongly excited, delights in general, unlimited propositions, in hyperboles, in bold figures of every sort, in forcible presentations of thought addressed indirectly to the understanding through the medium of the imagination, and in the utterance of those temporary false judgments which are the natural result, and consequently among the most natural expressions, of strong emotion. Different senses in which such language may be understood often present themselves; and it is sometimes not easy to determine which to adopt.' pp. 91–94.
Now, if these several causes of ambiguity pervade, as they evidently do, the common use of language, the reader of the Bible ought to keep them in mind, that he may not press too severely the verbal sense of particular expressions. Our author, before he concludes, will furnish us with some general directions for these cases, and for others yet to be mentioned ; but it may be well to observe here, that so far as regards the considerations already stated, it is of the highest importance to follow the current of thought which runs through the context, in order to determine the meaning of almost any given passage. Indeed,' says a distinguished orthodox writer, ‘I doubt whether there is any one rule in the whole science of hermeneutics [interpretation) so important, and of so much practical and actual use, as the one in question. Great care, indeed, is necessary, to decide with certainty what sense the context requires that a word should have ; especially when the immediate subject is briefly stated. But this care is as easily practised as any other rule is, which hermeneutics prescribes in different cases. Violence must not be done to words, by forcibly subjecting them to the context, against etymology, analogy, the rules of grammar, and the nature of language. But in everything short of this, all good lexicographers and commentators adapt the meaning of words to the context, in cases too numerous to need any specification.' A proper attention to this rule will serve to remedy much of the natural uncertainty of language; and if, in addition, we carefully distinguish the different kinds of composition, the peculiar characters of style which belong to prophecy, to poetry, to vehement expression, to popular harangue, as well as to simple and studied instruction, we shall, in most cases, feel no perplexity in determining the true meaning. Let us, however,
‘But further,' continues Mr. Norton, 'language is conventional; and the use of it varies much in different ages and nations. No uniform standard has existed by which to measure the expressions of men’s conceptions and feelings. In one state of society, language assumes a bolder character, more unrestrained, and more remote from its proper sense; in another, the modes of speech are more cool and exact. The expressions of compliment and respect, for instance, in France or Italy, and the expressions of the Orientals generally, are not proportional to
A sentence translated verbally from one language
into another, will often convey a stronger or more unlimited meaning than was intended by him who uttered it. John,” says our Saviour, "came neither eating nor drinking.". These words, as spoken by him, had nothing of the paradoxical character which would belong to them, if now uttered for the first time in our own language. They meant only that John, leading an ascetic life, refrained from taking food after the common fashion, at regular meals. — “Work out your salvation,” says St. Paul, with fear and trembling."2 The Apostle, who elsewhere exhorts Christians to “rejoice always," did not here intend that their life should be one of anxious dread; and we may express his purpose by saying, 'with earnest solicitude.' He tells the Corinthians that they had received Titus with “fear and trembling;"3 by which words, in this place, he means what we might call respect and deference.' — Christ says, that he who would be his follower, must“ hate father and mother." The genius of our language hardly admits of so bold a figure, by which, however, nothing more was signified, than that his followers must be prepared to sacrifice their dearest affections in his cause.But even where there is no peculiar boldness or strength of expression in the original, we are liable to be deceived by a want of analogy to our modes of speech. Figures and turns of expression familiar in one language are strange in another; and an expression to which we are not accustomed strikes us with more force, and seems more significant, than one in common use, of which the meaning is in fact the same. liable 10 mistake the purport of words which appear under an aspect unknown or unfrequent in our native tongue. The declaration, “I and my Father are one,' may seem to us, at first sight, almost too bold for a human being to use concerning God, merely because we are not accustomed to this expression in grave discourse. But in familiar conversation, no one would misunderstand me, if, while transacting some business as the agent of a friend, I should say, 'I and my friend are one;' meaning that I am fully impowered to act as his representative.' The passage quoted is to be understood in a similar manner; and the liability to mistake its meaning arises only from our not being familiar with its use on solemn occasions. .“ The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many."6 We do not express the intended figure in this particular form, the noun ransom' being commonly employed by us only to denote a price paid to him who has had power over the ransomed. The passage has, consequently, been misunderstood; but the verb
We are very
1 Matth. xi. 18. 4 Luke xiv. 26.
2 Philippians ii. 12. 3 2 Cor. vii. 15. o John x. 30.
O Matth. XX. 28.
'ransom' has a wider significancy, corresponding to the sense of our Saviour; and, by a very slight change in the mode of expression, the occasion of mistake is removed : “ The Son of Man came to give his life to ransom many;" that is, to deliver them from the evils of ignorance, error, and sin. — “Whatever,” said our Saviour to St. Peter, “thou shalt bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.". This passage and another corresponding to it, in which the same authority is extended to the Apostles generally, 8 have been perverted to the worst purposes. The figure in which our Saviour expressed his meaning is not found in modern languages, but was familiar to the Jews. "To bind,' with them, signified' to forbid;' and 'to loose' signified 'to permit;', and the meaning of Christ, was, I appoint you to preach my religion ; by which, what is forbidden, is forbidden by God, and what is permitted, is permitted by God. As its minister you will speak in his name and with his authority, forbidding or permitting on earth what is forbidden or permitted in heaven.' It is further to be remarked, that in some cases where there is this want of correspondence between languages, the verbal rendering of a passage may be unintelligible and even offensive; as in the address of St. Paul to the Corinthians, thus translated in the Common Version : “Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels." 10 The meaning of St. Paul, which a reader of those words might hardly conjecture, is this : * You do not suffer from any deficiency in us, but you are deficient in your affections.'— Sometimes a verbal rendering gives a sense altogether false : “Now I beseech you, brethren, that ye all speak the same thing.”! So St. Paul is represented as addressing the Corinthians in the Common Version. But 'to speak the same thing' was a phrase used in Greek in a sense unknown in English, to denote agreeing together;' and the exhortation, in fact, was, that they should all agree together.'— These examples, few as they are, may serve to illustrate the mistakes to which we are exposed from the want of analogy between languages; and to show that the true meaning of a passage may be very different from the sense which, without further inquiry, we should receive from a verbal rendering of it
7 Matth. xvi. 19. 8 Matth. xvii. 18. 9 See Wetstein's note on Matth. xvi. 19.
10 2 Cor. vi. 12–To one acquainted with the French language, the character of the rendering in the Common Version may be illustrated, by supposing a verbal translation of the following account of a tragic actress :
Elle sait érnouvoir et toucher : jamais comédienne n'eut plus d'entrailles.'
11 1 Cor. i. 10.