Review of Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton S. Terry

Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton S. Terry, 1883, Reprint by Zondervan Publishing House, n.d., 782 pp.

Though I’ve titled this post a “review” it is more accurately just some notes on Milton Terry’s rather lengthy book Biblical Hermeneutics.

While Biblical Hermeneutics has been recommended to me by some Reformed persons, whether Milton Spenser Terry (1840 – 1914) was himself Reformed seems not to be the case. He was an ordained Methodist Episcopal minister and a professor at a Biblical Institute in Illinois. Methodists generally are not Reformed, and neither are Methodist Episcopalians. It is some wonder then that Reformed persons would recommend Terry. Perhaps that attests to the quality of the volume that it is embraced across denominational lines. Or it might be that some have promoted Terry as he supports their preterist views. (pp. 237-242, 492)

It is a thorough book but contains many discussions that could be omitted if the volume were merely to enumerate and prove various principles of hermeneutics. It was my goal to pull out of the volume the various principles so that I might consider them individually. In my own thoughts on hermeneutics I’d like to consider which hermeneutical principles are explicit in Scripture or might be deduced from Scripture. Principles not meeting that criteria are, in my mind, quite suspect.

So what are Terry’s principles? The following is a list of some principles of hermeneutics given in this volume:

1. “A thorough acquaintance with the genius and grammatical structure of the original languages of the Bible is essentially the basis of all sound interpretation.” (p. 69)

2. As for textual criticism Terry supports the eclectic approach over the majority text. “The authority and value of manuscript readings consist not in the number of manuscripts in which a given reading is found, but, in the age, character, and country of the manuscript.” (p. 132)

3. For “internal evidence” on textual criticism he provides some principles that seem more rationalistic than Biblically chosen. They include: “The shorter reading is to be preferred to the longer.” (p. 184) And, “The more difficult and obscure reading is to be preferred to the plainer and easier one.” (p. 184)

4. “The use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture is everywhere to be assumed.” (p. 153) It is to be “sound and self-consistent.” (p. 153)

5. The interpreter “needs stores of information in the broad and varied fields of history, science, and philosophy.” (p. 154)

6. “In determining the sense of such hapax legomena, or words occurring only one, we have to be guided by the context, by the analogy of kindred roots, if any appear in the language, by ancient versions of the word in other languages, and by whatever traces of the word may be found in cognate languages.” (p. 179)

7. Scriptural interpretation is aided by understanding “the facts of history.” (p. 203) Similarly, he states, “A knowledge of geography, history, chronology, and antiquities is an essential qualification of the biblical interpreter.” (p. 231)

8. “A fundamental principles in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one signification in one and the same connection.” (p. 205)

9. “The meaning of particular parts of a book may be fully apprehended only when we have mastered the general purposes and design of the whole.” (p. 210)

10. “It is scarcely necessary, and, indeed, quite impracticable, to lay down specific rules for determining when language is used figuratively and when literally. It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity. It should be observed, however, that this principle, when reduced to practice, becomes simply an appeal to every man’s rational judgment. And what seems to one very absurd and improbable may be to another altogether simple and self-consistent.” (p. 247)

11. “If we would know how to interpret all parables, we should notice what our Lord omitted as well as what he emphasized in those expositions which are given us as models; and we should not be anxious to find a hidden meaning in every word and allusion.” (p 284)

12. “There must be evidence that the type was designed and appointed by God to represent the thing typified.” (p. 337) Yet, “we should guard against the extreme position of some writers who declare that nothing in the Old Testament is to be regarded as typical but what the New Testament affirms to be so. We admit a divine purpose in every real type, but it does not therefore follow that every purpose must be formally affirmed in the Scriptures.” (p. 338) I’m left wondering how the type would be identified if not explicitly done so by the New Testament itself. Terry later writes, “The persons and events which are expressly declared by the sacred writers to be typical are rather to be taken as specimens and examples for the interpretation of all types.” (p. 345-346) But it seems to me that expressed examples do not imply others. That is, this does not give one a principle by which to distinguish valid from invalid typologies. That types are to be discerned “by the good sense and sound judgment of the interpreter” (p. 346) is begging the question.

Does Terry find his principles explicit in Scripture or might he deduce them from Scripture? While he provides many Scriptural examples to apply his principles I can’t say that in most cases he finds the principles explicitly stated in scripture nor does he provide strict deductions of the principles. As such, his Biblical hermeneutics is not all that distinguishable from general hermeneutics, informed as much by rational or empirical (p. 17, p. 244) considerations as by the Bible. Terry does know better for he states in one place, “How may we determine what is true and what is false in the various methods of exposition? We must got to the Scriptures themselves, and search them in all their parts and forms. We must seek to ascertain the principles which the sacred writers followed.” (p. 162)

Biblical Hermeneutics is not a book I’d recommend reading to help clarify and defend principles of hermeneutics, but in Terry’s thoroughness in interpreting example passages it might be of some value as an occasional reference volume.

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About douglasdouma

I am a husband to beautiful wife, an ordained minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church - Hanover Presbytery, and founder of Sola - Appalachian Christian Retreat (www.discoversola.com). In addition to blogging at this site I am the author of The Presbyterian Philosopher - The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark (Wipf&Stock, 2017) and compiling editor of Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark (Trinity Foundation, 2017). I have a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering (University of Michigan), a master's in business administration (Wake Forest University) and a master of divinity (Sangre de Cristo Seminary). I'm an avid hiker, having completed a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian trail in 2013 and the first 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016.
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