THE BIBLE AND ITS INTERPRETATION
Dr. B. H. Carroll*
(The following has been excerpted from An Interpretation of the English Bible, the Introduction to Genesis, by B. H. Carroll).
THE GRANDEUR AND POWER OF THE BIBLE
before my conversion, when the Bible was considered merely from the
standpoint of literature, it seemed to me the best and richest of the
classics, and utterly apart from any thought of its alleged
inspiration, to deserve a place in the curriculum of a liberal
education far beyond that assigned Greek and Roman classics, or to the
other acknowledged masterpieces of our own tongue....
literary viewpoint I could see no good reason for excluding from our
schools a study of this Book, while giving so much attention to the
myths, fables, legends, idolatries, philosophies, and sceptical
speculations selected from ancient heathen and more modern foreign
classics. In moral purity and sublimity of thought, grandeur of matter
and loftiness of design, they all fall below the excluded Hebrew
But soon after my conversion, and in the light of it, my reflections
began to take, and continued to take with cumulative power, a wider and
intenser form. In this Book alone I found the origin and destiny of all
created things and beings - here alone the nature of man, and his
relations to God, the universe and fellow man, out of which arise all
of his obligations and aspirations, and in conformity to which lie his
usefulness and happiness. This Book alone discloses man's chief good
and chief end.
I saw it as the only living oracle, replying instantly and freely in
simple, unambiguous language to every inter-rogatory propounded by
life's problems and perplexities. In its presence the double-tongued
oracles of the heathen became dumb, their dubious utterances died into
echoless silence and their idolatries and superstitions were relegated
to the moles and bats.
From this reflection there was an unconscious transition to the
inquiry: Are the people ignorant of the matter of this Book? And if
informed somewhat, how extensive and systematic is their knowledge?
Investigation brought an appalling answer to this inquiry: Very few
were found to be students of the Book. Fragmentarily, here and there,
and from many sources, something of its matter had been picked up by
most men. Much of this in corrupt form.
The inquiry passed from the pew to the pulpit, and here the disclosure was more startling. These men by office and profession were the teachers of the Book. Surely these preachers have studied earnestly, prayerfully, profoundly, and systematically all of the messages they are appointed to teach! And if they have not as yet, in some fashion, gone over the whole ground, surely they are habitually and diligently prosecuting such a study! If every one of the sacred writings is inspired of God, and is profitable for teaching what men ought to know and believe, and for conviction and correction of all wrongdoing, and instruction in all right doing to the end that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped unto every good work, surely a teacher of the Book will neglect no part of it, and will hasten to acquaint himself with it!
But the amazing truth must be acknowledged that few preachers,
or unlearned, actually study the Bible itself, their supreme textbook,
as a complete and well-ordered system of divine truth. It does not
square with the facts in the case to limit this ignorance of the Bible
to uneducated country preachers.
Some of them study the Bible itself
more, and are better acquainted with it, than many educated preachers.
Too many of the latter class confine their studies to the framework and
background of the divine painting, to the human outskirts and spurs of
the mountain of revelation, to the temporary and perishing scaffolding
of the temple of truth. The scholastic spirit drives out the Holy
Spirit; the study of the myriad vagaries of subtle and ever-shifting
philosophies, and of the protean shapes of speculative hypotheses and
hair-splitting criticisms on text or history, becomes their theological
task. And to this task, what are the labors of Hercules? Even searing
with a hot iron does not stop the growth of new heads on this Hydra....
More than twenty-five years ago, before a great audience, I
this question: What would be the power of a man who with only Cruden's
concordance as a help, devotes three entire years to the reverent and
prayerful study of the English Bible? Let this application be as rigid
as a course in mathematics. Let him put aside for the time being all
that he cannot understand from a comparison of scripture
with scripture; then let him construct by his own analysis an orderly
body of divinity.
Would not this man be a theologian? Would he not have an
store of Bible sermons? Would he not, other things being equal, tower
among the preachers like Saul, head and shoulders among his fellows?
Would he not be an original thinker? Would he not know how to handle a Bible? Would he not be approved unto God as a workman, that needeth not to be ashamed, able to rightly divide the word of truth, giving to each hearer his portion in due season? . . . The great majority of the preachers in every age had but little learning except what they gathered from the Bible.
RULES OF INTERPRETATION FOR THE BIBLE
-The usage of common life determines the meaning of a word or
phrase; not that of philosophy.
-The usage of time and place of the writer determines the meaning;
that of any other time; not modern usage.
-If a word or phrase has several meanings, the context determines
meaning it bears in a given passage. The more common meaning of the
writer's day is to be preferred, provided it suits the passage, not
that more common in our day.
-If the author has occasion to employ a new word, or an old word in
new signification, His own definition must be used to determine the
meaning, not any other author's usage.
-The direct or literal sense of a sentence is the meaning of the
author, when no other is indicated, not any figurative, allegorical, or
-Passages bearing a direct, literal or fully ascertained sense go to determine what passages have another sense than the literal, and what that other sense is; not our opinions.
-The Bible treats of God in relation to man. It is obvious that this
circumstance will afford occasion for new words and phrases, and new
applications of the old ones. It brings into view such peculiar figures
of speech as are called anthropomorphism and anthro-popathism. It gives
a new expansion to all the previous rules.
-A word, a phrase, or sentence belonging primarily to the things of
man must be understood, when applied to the things of God, in a sense
consistent with his eternal nature; not in a sense contradictory to any
known attribute of that nature.
-There is a growth in the Bible in two respects:
The Meaning of a word or phrase in a later book of Scripture is not to be transferred to an earlier book, unless required by the context.
The form of a doctrine in a subsequent part of the Bible must not be taken to be as fully developed in a preceding part without the warrant of usage and the context.
-The Old Testament was composed in Hebrew, the New Testament in
Each must be interpreted according to the genius of the language in
which it was originally written. The interpreter must, therefore, be
familiar with the grammar of each in which the particulars which
constitute its genius are gathered into a system. The writers of the
New Testament were, moreover, Hebrews by birth and habit, with the
possible exception of Luke. Their Greek, therefore, bears a Hebrew
stamp and their words and phrases are employed to express Hebrew
things, qualities, customs, and doctrines. Hence they must receive much
of their elucidation from the Hebrew parts of speech of which they are
the intended equivalents. Two rules of interpretation come under this
All Scripture is true historically and metaphysically; not mythical and fallible.
In verbally discordant passages that sense is to be adopted which will explain or obviate the discrepancy; not a sense that makes a contradiction. To explain it positively is to show the harmony of the passage; to obviate it negatively is to show that there is no contradiction.
Scripture explains Scripture. Hence the clear and plain passages elucidate the dark and abstruse; not anything foreign in Scripture to time, place or sentiment; not our philosophy.
Of rules that cross one another, the higher sets aside or modifies the lower.
An inspired, illumined New Testament writer will give the true sense of an Old Testament passage.
Dr. B. H. Carroll (1843-1914) was Founder and President of Southwestern Theological Seminary (Southern Baptist) of Fort Worth, Texas (USA)