Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Spurgeon on Hermeneutics

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a very sagacious writer, and a gifted preacher. His commentaries on the Psalms and on the Gospel of Matthew are still very useful. Therefore we would like to give two quotations from Spurgeon dealing with the question of Bible interpretation. In both of these quotations Spurgeon’s main target is the early Plymouth Brethren. The original dispensationalists, they taught the famous Dispensationalist catchphrase, “if the plain sense makes sense seek no other sense”, and the notorious ‘law of first use’, which meant that a word was always to be understood in the Scriptures in the sense that it bore in its first use chronologically.

These have a show of wisdom, but both are false. Spurgeon explains below:

“In Holy Scripture the same word does not always mean the same thing. The Bible is a book meant for human beings, and therefore it is written in human language; and in human language the same word may signify two or three things. For instance, “a pear fell from a tree;” “a man fell into drunken habits.” There the meaning of the second word “fell,” is evidently different from the first, since it is not literal, but metaphorical. Again, “the cabman mounted the box; the child was pleased with his Christmas box;” “his lordship is staying at his shooting box.” In each case there is the same word, but who does not see that there is a great difference of meaning? So it is in the Word of God. You must explain the difference between a word used in a peculiar sense, and the ordinary meaning of the word, and thus you will prevent your people falling into mistakes. If people will say that the same word in Scripture always means the same thing, as I have heard some assert publicly, they will make nonsense of the Word of God, and fall into error through their own irrational maxims. To set up canons of interpretation for the Book of God which would be absurd if applied to other writings is egregious folly: it has a show of accuracy, but inevitably leads to confusion.

“The obvious literal meaning of a Scripture is not always the true one, and ignorant persons are apt enough to fall into the most singular misconceptions: a judicious remark from the pulpit will be of signal service. Many persons have accustomed themselves to misunderstand certain texts; they have learned wrong interpretations in their youth, and will never know better unless the correct meaning be indicated to them.”

CHS - The Swords and the Trowel’ Vol. 2, P. 293

The trouble is, the understanding of a text that is the ‘obvious literal meaning’ to me may be false. It may be anachronistic, so that some have understood ’through a glass darkly’ as having reference to a telescope - which had not been invented yet. The word ’mill’ may conjure up a false image to me. In my home county of Norfolk, we historically used water mills. In Kent and Sussex most mills were wind-powered. But in Biblical times they were either hand-driven or driven by an animal. Or take the word ‘corn’. In America that is usually understood of maize, but in Europe in the past it was used to describe wheat and Barkley and other cereal crops. We have laughed out loud when we have heard atheists use the mention of ‘corn’ in the Bible as evidence that the Bible is in error (what do they think, that it was made up in the last five hundred years?).

Again, in Apocalyptic and figurative language, the ‘obvious literal meaning’ as I might take it is false, because the author’s intent was to use language symbolically. What we seek in Biblical interpretation is not my ‘obvious literal meaning’, but what the Holy Spirit sought to communicate in the text.

Another caution that Spurgeon gives is against those who try to find new meanings for texts. This is always a very hazardous enterprise:

“Do not be carried away with new meanings. Plymouth Brethren delight to fish up some hitherto undiscovered tadpole of interpretation and cry it round the town as a rare dainty. Let us be content with more ordinary and more wholesome fishery. No one text is to be exalted above the plain analogy of faith, and no solitary expression is to shape our theology for us. Other men and wiser men have expounded before us, and anything undiscovered by them it were well to put to test and trial before we boast too loudly of the treasure-trove.”
- ditto, P. 296

It should be noted that Spurgeon was pre-millennial and held to a future restoration of the Jews. He was NOT, however, a Dispensationalist, and some of his harshest words about misinterpreting the Bible are reserved for the disciples of John Nelson Darby.


Ben said...

My Sunday School class wants me to teach a series on the Book of Psalms, I have Spurgeon's book but wonder if you could recommned a good resource that i could look into to help prepare me for this series?


Paul E said...

"some of his harshest words about misrepresenting the Bible are reserved for the disciples of John Nelson Darby"

Being a dispensationalist (of types), I also would have strong differences of opinion with some of Darby's views. I don't know of any dispensationalist today who is a Darbyist.
On a different note, Spurgeon's comments regarding Darby are next to nothing compared to his preaching against hyper-calvinism.

Highland Host said...

Ben. I'd say Calvin's commentary on the Psalms is still one of the best ever.

Paul. I do know Darbyites. Many of the older Plymouth Brethren are, and they are of course much more common in England than in America. I have personally sat under Darbyite preaching, so I know that it's still relevant.

As Spurgeon was a Calvinist, he viewed hyper-Calvinism as something on his watch. In the same way, as he was a pre-mil of the school of Bonar, he viewed Darbyism as something on his watch as well.

Frankly, modern Dispensationalism is so fragmented that all anyone can say (apart from the Darbyites, perhaps) is that they are a Dispensationalist 'of types'. I'm not even sure that it's a useful term anymore. Rather like 'evangelical'.