The Literal Interpretation Of Scripture

By Sylvester Hassell

The Gospel Messenger–February 1893

It seems to me that there is among Primitive Baptists an urgent need of a recurrence to the true principles of Scripture interpretation. The greatest dangers to the Church of Christ have always been those from within, and not those from without. Our enemies cannot really hurt us if we do not hurt ourselves. It is a matter of painful interest to the thoughtful minds among us to notice the widespread and profound operation of the elements of doctrinal and practical disintegration in our ranks. In various sections of our extended country we see–some of these errors more operative in one section, and some in another–a tendency to dualism and fatalism, and to relapse into something like old heathen pantheistic Hindoo, Egyptian, Greek, Gnostic, Cabalistic doctrine of the pre-existence, metemphycosis, or transmigration of souls; to deny the immortality (in the sense of everlasting duration), the regeneration, and even the very existence of the soul, the responsibility of man, and the Second Personal Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the body, the general judgment, and hell, and heaven; a tendency to eliminate from the Scriptures the essential distinction between the elect, the believing, the saved, on the one hand, and the non-elect, the unbelieving, the lost, on the other hand; a tendency to evacuate the Scriptures of their future eternal meaning, to confuse the divinely established order of events, to push back all the events of time into the past eternity, and the events of the future eternity into time; to evaporate Christianity into a futile and barren philosophy, and pass it off in a dissolving view; and a tendency to return to the medieval darkness of conditionalism and instrumentalism, and to degrade the religion of pure and living love into pharisaic ceremonialism.

If these are not elements of danger and ruin, existing and working among us, I confess that I do not understand the situation, and that I do not know what danger and ruin are. And it becomes every true soldier of the cross, who loves and fears God more than man, and who subordinates temporal to eternal things, not to join in the deceptive cry of “Peace, peace, when there is no peace;” {Jer 6:14; 8:11} but, putting on the whole armor of God, the girdle of truth, the breast-plate of righteousness, the shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, with all prayerfulness and watchfulness, to stand in “the imminent deadly breach,” and wrestle, with spiritual and not carnal weapons, “against strong and high imagination, against principalities and powers,” in his own heart as well as in those of others, {Eph 6:10,19; 2Co 10:4-5} and “contend earnestly for the faith which was once (for all) delivered unto the saints,” and not yield a single bulwark of the citadel of eternal truth (Jude 1:25). The Church of Christ grows strong, not as it compromises with the elements of unbelief, but as it eliminates them. Error, like sin, if indulged and unreproved, becomes, not weaker, but continually stronger and more dangerous.

The advocates of these various forms of error, like the two hundred denominations now professing Christianity, claim to derive their views from the Scriptures. The all-important question, therefore, arises, What is the proper interpretation of the Scriptures?

In order to emphasize the supreme importance of the fact, I will say, under my treatment of this subject, both at the beginning and the close, that, as the Scriptures were originally written by the inspiration of God, the illumination of the Divine Spirit is, incomparably above all else, indispensable for their correct interpretation. {2Ti 3:16; Lu 24:45; Joh 16:13-15; Ac 1:4-5,8}

Of the numerous names and systems of Scripture interpretation in ancient and modern times, I think that the following three-fold classification is the simplest and best:

1. The literal interpretation.

2. The spiritual interpretation.

3. The practical interpretation.

Each of these methods of interpretation is of invaluable importance in its own place; no one of them is to be sacrificed for another.


The literal interpretation is also called the verbal, somatic, natural, obvious, realistic, common-sense, objective interpretation, and it includes the grammatical, lexicographical, philological, critical, contextual, historical, and archaeological interpretation, and the facts, the doctrines, the commandments, the promises, and the larger portion of the prophecies of the Scriptures, while the most of the prophecies have also a spiritual fulfillment or application–but the literal interpretation of prophecy, which is demonstrably true of the great body of Scripture predictions, although disparaged and to a large extent denied by modern religious philosophy, is just as certain and just as important and just as much to be insisted upon in its place, where Infinite Wisdom has put it, as the spiritual interpretation is in its place.

The literal or historical sense of the Scriptures is the solid basis upon which both the spiritual and the practical senses are founded, and that foundation is one of impregnable rock, and not of shifting sand. When it is assaulted and undermined, the whole structure of religious truth tumbles into ruins, the statements of the Scriptures vanish into airy nothingness, and the human race is left, in impenetrable darkness, to grope its wretched way into eternity.

The Greek word gramma, rendered letter in 2Co 3:6 (“who hath made us able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the Spirit, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life”) denotes, as shown by the third and seventh verses and the whole context, the ten commandments written by the finger of God on the two tables of stone, the ministration of condemnation and death, bringing home the knowledge of guilt and it punishment, death, as contrasted with the Spirit of the living God, who gives divine life to the subject of grace, and writes God’s law of love on the fleshly tables of his heart. And, while the inference here and elsewhere (as in Ro 2:29 and Ro 7:6) is that no mere written document or outward ordinance can impart spiritual life, yet the inspired apostle does not and can not possibly mean that the words which were “given by inspiration of God,” {2Ti 3:16} which “not man’s wisdom, but the Holy Ghost taught,” {1Co 2:13} which “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” {2Pe 1:21} are, in the lightest degree, untrue or unimportant in the place where God has put them, or are to be denied or neglected by His people. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself always refers to the Scriptures in the most reverential manner, as the infallible, the literally and perfectly true testimony of God. Not only is He the chief substance, but He is the chief witness of their literal and eternal truth, both by His teachings during His earthly ministry, and His teachings in our hearts. And He commands even the unbelieving Jews to “search the Scriptures, for they testify of Him;” {Joh 5:39} the Greek verb rendered search in this passage is ereunao, and denotes minute and profound investigation, as in other passages where it is used {Ro 8:27; 1Co 2:10; 1Pe 1:11; Re 2:23} –an investigation of the true meaning of the letter, as leading to the true inner meaning which the Spirit designed to convey by the letter.

To rescue the true meaning of the Scriptures from the ruinous despotism of Roman Catholic dogmatizers and allegorizers, the Protestant Reformers, Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and others, in the sixteenth century, under the direction of the Spirit who indited the sacred volume, insisted upon the critical examination of the original text, and a faithful adherence to the natural and grammatical sense, and recognized the Bible as “God’s message to their souls, as the only rule of faith and life, which was to be interpreted by itself–a message conveyed in historical form, and needing the appliances of language and history in order to read it, and yet a spiritual message, the full reception of which could come only by spiritual enlightenment.” Luther says: “Mystical and allegorical interpretations are trifling and foolish fables, with which the Scriptures are rent into so many and diverse senses that silly, poor consciences can receive no certain doctrine of anything. When I was a monk, I allegorized everything; but now I have given up allegorizing, and my first and best art is to explain the Scriptures according to the simple sense; for it is in the literal sense that power, doctrine, and art reside.” Calvin says: “The true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning, by which we ought resolutely to abide; the licentious system of the allegorists is undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage.” And Melanchthon says: “The one and certain and simple sense of the Scriptures is everywhere to be sought according to the precepts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.” The Protestant Reformation emphasized “the exclusive sufficiency of Scripture, its perspicuity under the use of the ordinary methods and with the teaching of the Holy Ghost, its possession of a sense which is one and not manifold, and its interpretation by itself.”

As there are more than 300 different interpretations of some texts, it is evident that the true principles of interpretation are either not much known or not much observed. Next to the Holy Spirit, Scripture is its own best interpreter. The exact meaning of the original words should, therefore, be ascertained; the context and similar passages elsewhere in the same book and other books examined; the design of the writer and the character of the persons addressed, should be regarded; and the general tenor of Scripture teaching, as bearing on the subject in question, carefully considered. What we need for our food and guidance is not the phosphorescent foam of beautiful phraseology and the brilliant but evanescent fire-works of bold imaginations shot up in the dark night of carnal ignorance, but the solid nourishment of Scriptural truth and the steady and undeceptive illumination of the Sun of Righteousness shining by His Spirit through the declarations of His written word in the glorious brightness of the gospel day. Among the most valuable aids to the understanding of the literal meaning of the Scriptures (from which literal meaning the true inquirer should, under the tuition of the Holy Spirit, deduce the spiritual meaning), I would recommend Cruden’s Complete or Condensed Concordance; James Strong’s Bible Concordance (the only complete Concordance of the Scriptures, placing the entire text of the Bible, English, Hebrew and Greek, at the command of every intelligent reader of English; published, for five dollars and postage or expressage, by John B. Alden, 57 Rose street, New York City); the Oxford or Bagster’s Teacher’s Bibles (from one dollar and upwards, according to size and binding); the Revised Version of the Bible; James Murdock’s English Translation of the Syriac version of the New Testament (the oldest extant version of the New Testament); Gesenius’ Hebrew Lexicon; Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (seventh edition); Hudson’s Critical Greek and English Concordance of the New Testament; Buck’s Theological Dictionary; William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible; A. R. Fausset’s Critical and Expository Bible Cyclopedia (much more spiritual than Smith’s Bible Dictionary; published, for about five dollars, by J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia); Schaff’s History of Apostolic Christianity; the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge; John Gill’s Body of Divinity (one of the deepest Primitive Baptist preachers of this country earnestly and wisely recommended this work to me some twenty years ago); Thomas Scott’s Bible (devotional and practical, and enriched with the most copious marginal references); Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s Critical, Experimental and Practical Commentary on the Scriptures; and the Speaker’s Bible Commentary. C. H. Spurgeon’s Treasury of David (in seven volumes) is the fullest and finest exposition of the Psalms that has ever been made. R. C. Trench’s Notes on the Parables and the Miracles of our Lord (now issued in one volume) is probably the most instructive work ever published on those important subjects. I do not, or course, endorse all the doctrine of all these books, but I do say that all or any of them are of great value for the correct understanding of the literal meaning of the Scriptures, and that this meaning directs the mind of the subject of grace towards the true spiritual meaning. Many of our most able and useful ministers have one or more of these or similar works. It is right to get true information from any source. The Holy Spirit does not encourage us in our laziness or covetousness or pride by inspiring us with a supernatural knowledge of English, Greek, or Hebrew, or of ancient customs. The above named writers were scholars and truthful men, and some of them were enlightened, I believe, by the Spirit of God; and, even if they were not spiritually enlightened, their works may be useful to us just as the Gibeonites were hewers of wood and drawers of water for Israel. {Jos 9:21} Spiritual enlightenment on some texts and subjects does not protect men from great and pernicious mistakes on others.

John Gill wrote, 123 years ago, and the same may be said truthfully to-day: “The doctrines of pure revelation are almost exploded; and some are endeavoring to bring us, as fast as they can, into a state of paganism, only somewhat refined; it is a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness; the darkness is growing upon us, and night may be expected; though for our relief it is declared that ‘at evening time it shall be light.’ Almost all the old heresies are revived, under a fond and foolish notion of new light; when they are no other than what has been confuted over and over; and men please themselves that they are their own inventions, when they are the devices of Satan, with which he has deceived men once and again; and when men leave the sure word, the only rule of faith and practice, and follow their own fancies and the dictates of their carnal minds, they must needs go wrong, and fall into labyrinths, out of which they cannot find their way: ‘To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.’ Let us, therefore, search the Scriptures, to see whether doctrines advanced are according to them or not;” and the exact meaning of the inspired writers, especially on disputed points, it is of course highly important to understand, as may be done by the use of some of the works that I have mentioned. (I will here say, parenthetically, that, while human learning, in its place, is a useful handmaid to religion, all the learning of the world, in the matter of salvation, is less than nothing in comparison with the heavenly wisdom of the most illiterate child of God enlightened by the Divine Spirit. Or, as expressed in the old London Confession of Faith: While “in all controversies of religion the church is finally to appeal to the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.)

If the literal truth of the Scriptures is to be abandoned, then we must give up all the historical facts, all the points of doctrine, all the commandments and exhortations, nearly all the promises, and the most of the prophecies; and we shall have nothing worth contending for, or worth speaking or writing about left. It would be just as well to give up the whole Bible, and look for truth and guidance, in regard to the solemn and fearful mystery of our being, to the darkened lights of Nature, Reason, Conscience, History, and Experience. If the facts and promises and prophecies of Scripture are nothing but metaphors, so also are all the doctrines. A very learned and able series of lectures, by Joseph Henry Allen, on Christian History, at Harvard University, now before me, declares that, under the powerful analysis of the Modern Science of Thought, “the old metaphysical fictions of predestination, divine decrees, and the bondage of the human will, have dissolved into the metaphors and symbols which in fact they are.” And he tells us that “under the mellow and tender atmosphere of the German speculative theology,” F. D. D. Schleiermacher (1768-1834), “the son of a good, old-fashioned Calvinistic preacher,” the typical and most influential theologian of the nineteenth century, who, though he rejected the literal truth of the Scriptures, yet professed to believe in them and in Christ, and who held that every human being is a mirror of the universe, and that, while some are elect in time, they are elect to help save all the non-elect in eternity, and thus all will be saved at last, and who founded all religion on experience, and philosophized so deeply that he reconciled all creeds and all religions–that Schleiermacher “substituted speculation for dogma; that for a cruel and despotic creed he gave us its insubstantial and harmless reflection in the mirror of Christian experience, a revolution such as the early Reformers could never have dreamed of. It is,” says Mr. Allen, “all there: the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Atonement, Election, and the Judgment; but as different from the menacing and imperious dogmas of the past as the fair reflection in a lake, or the bright landscape on canvas, is from the bleak precipices and horrible chasms of an Alpine range. In color and shape, you could not tell the difference. That difference is in lack of substance and life. No mobs, like those at Ephesus, will fight for the honor of the spectral Second Person of this spectral Trinity. No fires, like those of Seville and Geneva, will be kindled to suppress the heresies that may assail the dim phantasmagory. The dogma has become simply a fact of religious consciousness; and as such, a constituent part of modern philosophic thought. Here is its harmlessness; for nobody is afraid of a reflection in a mirror. Here, too, is its security; for nobody can hurt a shadow.” This method of annihilating the great doctrinal truths of the Scriptures is of course legitimate if the Bible is not literally, and is only figuratively true. Schleiermacher died partaking of the Lord’s Supper; and yet his best friends were not certain that he really believe a word in the Bible.

In regard to the interpretation of prophesy, I must add, on account of its uniqueness, some special paragraphs.

Anthony Collins (1676-1729), a leading deistical writer of the 18th century, sought to undermine the whole system of revealed religion by arguing that the fulfillment of prophecy is the only valid proof of Christianity, and that, as all the prophecies are allegorical, and not even one of them literal, the whole argument from prophecy, and with it the whole system of Christianity, falls to the ground; just as his successor, Thomas Woolston (1669-1733), assailed the literal truth of the miracles of Christ as incredible and absurd, in order, as he claimed, to vindicate their allegorical and spiritual meaning as representing the course of natural religion in the soul of man–denouncing the opponents of his views as “slaves of the letter,” “Baal priests,” “blind leaders of the blind.”

The obscurity in the language of prophecy is meant to veil as well as reveal the future, to keep believers in a state of humble expectancy, and to apply to several analogous fulfillments. Some good rules of interpretation are, to “interpose distances of time not noted in prophetic visions, and interpret by past events and the analogy of faith, and the explanations of prophecies in Scripture.” It seems to me that the prophecies of Scripture have, in general, the following fulfillments:

Those given before the birth of Christ, that is in the Old Testament:

1. A primary literal or historical fulfillment (type).

2. A secondary literal or historical fulfillment at the First Personal Coming of Christ (preliminary temporal antitype).

3. A tertiary literal or historical fulfillment at the Second Personal Coming of Christ, at the end of the world, pre-eminently the Day of Judgment (final eternal antitype).

4. A manifold providential or spiritual application in Christ’s visitation of judgment or mercy upon individuals.

Those given after the birth of Christ in the New Testament:

1. A primary literal or historical fulfillment (type).

2. A tertiary literal or historical fulfillment at the Second Personal Coming of Christ, at the end of the world, pre-eminently the Day of Judgment (final eternal antitype).

3. A manifold providential or spiritual application in Christ’s visitation of judgment or mercy upon individuals.

Thus: Isaiah’s prophecy of the deliverance of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. This prophecy was (1) literally fulfilled by Cyrus, and this fulfillment was the type of the (2) literal work of Christ’s ministry on earth for the salvation of sinners (preliminary temporal antitype), and of the (3) complete manifestation of that salvation at His second personal coming (final eternal antitype); and this prophecy is spiritually fulfilled (4) in every delivering mercy to His people. And so Christ’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem was (1) literally fulfilled by the Romans under Titus, and this fulfillment was the type of the (2) literal destruction of the wicked world at the second personal coming of Christ (final eternal antitype); and this prophecy is spiritually fulfilled (3) in every judgment upon the ungodly.

Even the sublime and appalling prodigies foretold in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem not only indicated the utter subversion of the Jewish Church-state, but were literally fulfilled (initially and partially), according to the testimony of sacred and profane historians (Joe 2:30-31; Mt 24:29; Mr 13:24-25; Lu 21:25-26; compare with Mt 21:33; 27:45,51-54; Mr 15:33; Lu 23:44-45; Ac 2:19-20; Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, book vi. chapt. v; Tacitus’ History, book v. chapt. xiii.), and this never-before-equaled catastrophe was the type of the final destruction of this sin-polluted world by fire, when those awful prophecies will be literally fulfilled (finally and fully) with a terribleness, and universality, and irreparability never experience before. (See Church History, page 590, footnote.) Very much to be commiserated is the mental haziness and philosophism which sees in such tremendous scenes as those described in Mt 25:31-46 and in 2Pe 3:7-14, merely the separation in the feelings of believers and unbelievers as they hear the gospel, and the superseding of the gospel by the law in the believer’s experience (of which these passages may be somewhat illustrative), and refuses to see the literality and futurity and finality of the events predicted, which are as plain to the informed and stable mind {see 2Pe 3:16} as the unclouded sun in the noonday sky. And even more to be deplored is the astounding speculativeness which attenuates and etherealizes, into the events and feelings of the present momentary life, those passages of Scripture that affirm the stupendous and eternal realities of hell and heaven.

For an unanswerable proof of the literal truth of the Scripture prophecies, see Alexander Keith’s “Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion, Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy,” and his “Demonstration of the Truth of Christianity,” (or Hastings’ “Witness of Skeptics to the Truth of the Bible,” a pamphlet mailed to any address for five cents, by H. L. Hastings, 49 Cornhill, Boston, Mass., presenting a condensed abstract of Keith’s “Demonstration of the Truth of Christianity,” in which 170 Old Testament prophecies, and their literal fulfillment as testified unwittingly, many of them, by even infidel travelers and historians, are arranged in parallel columns). I have shown in the Church History, pages 177, 178, and 179, eighty of the Old Testament prophecies in regard to Christ, literally fulfilled.

Of course the literal interpretation of the Scriptures, like all other proper things, may be carried to an idolatrous excess, as was done by the Jewish Rabbis, both before and after the coming of Christ, pretending to find everything they wished to find in the Old Testament, by their subtle, absurd, and outrageous permutations, combinations, transpositions, substitutions, and numerical equivalents and power of letters. But whoever would disparage or deny the proper literal interpretation of the Scriptures should remember the dreadful anathema at the close of the sacred volume:


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