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Milton S. Terry and the grammatico-historical principle

July 14, 2012

Israel’s promised land, described as a land of milk and honey, and the seventh day sabbath, are both types of the rest that Hebrews 3-4 encourages believers to enter. Entering this rest requires belief. 

After the children of Israel were delivered from Egypt, they endured 40 years wandering in the wilderness. At the end of that period Joshua addressed them, and he spoke of their promised inheritance as rest. “Remember the word which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, The Lord your God hath given you rest, and hath given you this land.” [Joshua 1:13]

The people were told that not until they had taken possession of all the land, would they enjoy rest. They had to fight for their inheritance. The book of Joshua describes the battles by which they obtained possession of the promised land. In these battles, God fought for Israel.

Joshua 10:42
And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel.

After seven years of war, the land enjoyed rest. The seven years correspond to the week in which Christ confirms his covenant with the saints, Daniel 9:27. The discussion in Hebrews 3:15 to 4:12 points out that possessing the land, as Israel did in the time of Joshua, was not the ultimate rest, because later, when Israel dwelt in their land, Psalm 95 alludes to entering yet another rest.

In Hebrews 4:11-12, this rest is identified with believing the word of God.

Hebrews 4:11-12
Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

After they had possessed the promised land for several centuries, Israel was taken into captivity, and exile. Then Judah too suffered captivity as the prophets had said. The line and the kingdom of David ceased. When the Jews returned from exile it was to a state subject to Gentile authorities. The dimensions of the temple they were allowed to build were decreed by a Persian king.

In the writings of the prophets, possessing the land was a type and a figure of the true rest, which is associated with understanding and believing the word of God. Isaiah 28 explains how the word should be understood; “here a little, there a little” (God’s revelations are partial);  “precept upon precept” (they depend on previous revelations); “line upon line” (they add to what was already revealed); “stammering lips” (they are uttered over a lengthy period); “another tongue” (they are not expressed in normal speech, but in the language of metaphors, riddles, and parables, that require interpretation).

Isaiah 28:9-13
Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.
To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.
But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

These verses reveal how the scriptures may be understood, but Isaiah said they would not hear. Men prefer to devise their own ways and methods of interpretation. One of the hemeneutical methods touted by dispensationalists and preterists alike is called the grammatico-historical principle. It is typically invoked, while the words of Isaiah above are set aside. Milton S. Terry described this principle as follows in his Biblical Hermeneutics: [Revised Ed., New York: Eaton & Mains; Cincinnati: Curts & Jennings. 1890. pp. 101-103.]


Milton S. Terry

Having become familiar with the meaning of words, and thoroughly versed in the principles and methods by which their signification and usage are ascertained, we are prepared to investigate the grammatico-historical sense. This phrase is believed to have originated with Karl A. G. Keil, whose treatise on Historical Interpretation and Text-Book of New Testament Hermeneutics furnished an important contribution to the science of interpretation. We have already defined the grammatico-historical method of interpretation as distinguished from the allegorical, mystical, naturalistic, mythical, and other methods, which have more or less prevailed. The grammatico-historical sense of a writer is such an interpretation of his language as is required by the laws of grammar and the facts of history. Sometimes we speak of the literal sense, by which we mean the most simple, direct, and ordinary meaning of phrases and sentences. By this term we usually denote a meaning opposed to the figurative or metaphorical. The grammatical sense is essentially the same as the literal, the one expression being derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin. But in English usage the word grammatical is applied rather to the arrangement and construction of words and sentences. By the historical sense we designate, rather, that meaning of an author’s words which is required by historical considerations. It demands that we consider carefully the time of the author, and the circumstances under which he wrote, “Grammatical and historical interpretation, when rightly under stood,” says Davidson, “are synonymous. The special laws of grammar, agreeably to which the sacred writers employed language, were the result of their peculiar circumstances; and history alone throws us back into these circumstances. A new language was not made for the authors of Scripture; they conformed to the current language of the country and time. Their compositions would not have been otherwise intelligible. They took up the usus loquendi as they found it, modifying it, as is quite natural, by the relations internal and external amid which they thought and wrote.” The same writer also observes: “The grammatico-historical sense is made out by the application of grammatical and historical considerations. The great object to be ascertained is the usus loquendi, embracing the laws or principles of universal grammar which form the basis of every language. These are nothing but the logic of the mind, comprising the modes in which ideas are formed, combined, and associated, agreeably to the original susceptibilities of the intellectual constitution. They are the physiology of the human mind as exemplified practically by every individual. General grammar is wont to be occupied, how ever, with the usage of the best writers; whereas the laws of language as observed by the writers of Scripture should be mainly attended to by the sacred interpreter, even though the philosophical grammarian may not admit them all to be correct. It is the usus loquendi of the inspired authors which forms the subject of the grammatical principles recognized and followed by the expositor. The grammar he adopts is deduced from the use of the language employed in the Bible. This may not be conformed to the practice of the best writers; it may not be philosophically just; but he must not, therefore, pronounce it erroneous. The modes of expression used by each writer the utterances of his mental associations, constitute his usus loquendi. These form his grammatical principles; and the interpreter takes them as his own in the business of exegesis. Hence, too, there arises a special as well as a universal grammar. Now we attain to a knowledge of the peculiar usus loquendi in the way of historical investigation. The religious, moral, and psychological ideas, under whose influence a language has been formed and moulded; all the objects with which the writers were conversant, and the relations in which they were placed, are traced out historically. The costume of the ideas in the minds of the biblical authors originated from the character of the times, country, place, and education, under which they acted. Hence, in order to ascertain their peculiar usus loquendi, we should know all those institutions and influences whereby it was formed or affected.” [Davidson, Sacred Hermeneutica, pp. 225, 226.]

The general principles and methods by which we ascertain the usus loquendi of single terms, or words, have been presented in the preceding chapter. Substantially the same principles are to serve us as we proceed to investigate the grammatico-historical sense. We must attend to the definitions and construction which an author puts upon his own terms, and never suppose that he intends to contradict himself or puzzle his readers. The context and connection of thought are also to be studied in order to apprehend the general subject, scope, and purpose of the writer. But especially is it necessary to ascertain the correct grammatical construction of sentences. Subject and predicate and subordinate clauses must be closely analyzed, and the whole document, book, or epistle, should be viewed, as far as possible, from the author’s historical standpoint.

A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have but one signification in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift out upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture. It is commonly assumed by the universal sense of mankind that unless one designedly put forth a riddle, he will so speak as to convey his meaning as clearly as possible to others. Hence that meaning of a sentence which most readily suggests itself to a reader or hearer, is, in general, to be received as the true meaning, and that alone. Take, for example, the account of Daniel and his three companions, as given in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel. The simplest child readily grasps the meaning. There can be no doubt as to the general import of the words throughout the chapter, and that the writer intended to inform his readers in a particular way how God honoured those young men because of their abstemiousness, and because of their refusal to defile themselves with the meats and drinks which the king had appointed for them. The same may be said of the lives of the patriarchs as recorded in the Book of Genesis, and, indeed, of any of the historical narratives of the Bible. They are to be accepted as a trustworthy record of facts.

Terry discussed several examples that seem to require a straightforward reading.  An alternative approach to the grammatico-historical principle described by Terry was suggested in a discussion of Revelation 20:1-6 by Don Garlington, former professor of New Testament at Toronto Baptist Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. [Donald Garlington, “Reigning with Christ: Revelation 20:1-6 and the Question of the Millennium,” Reformation & Revival 6.2 (Spring 1997): 53-100.] He argued from Luke 24:25-27 that Christ and his saints are the focus of Old Testament prophecy, which is also confirmed by 1 Peter 1:10-12. These scriptures provide the paradigm for an alternative approach to the interpretation of prophecy. Referring to this alternative approach, Garlington stated: “the NT always uses the OT in such a salvation-historical (typological) manner and never employs ‘historical-grammatical exegesis’ as such.” He wrote:

Fundamental to the exegesis herein presented is that the NT serves, as it were, as the “lexicon” of the OT’s eschatological expectation. To put it as succinctly as possible, the OT anticipates realities which are unpacked and explicated by the apostolic writings from the vantage point of salvation-historical realization in Christ. This means that symbols, images, and prophetic language more broadly considered are to be understood as interpreted by those who were one with the sending of Christ by the Father (Matt 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20; 17:18; 20:21). Of particular importance is the principle that Christ and his (latter day) people are the sum and substance of the OT. In arguing this, we turn first to Luke 24:25-27 and thereafter to 1 Pet 1:10-12.

According to Luke 24:25-27, 44-47, Christ is in all the Scriptures. As the author of Hebrews (1:1) later, Jesus speaks of the pre-Christian revelation as one which came through “the prophets,” implying that the whole of the OT is prophetic (cf. Rom 1:2; 16:26). The problem with the disciples, however, was that they were slow to believe everything the prophets had said, because, as they interpreted the prophets, it was incomprehensible that the Messiah should hang on a tree (Deut 21:23). Jesus responds to their sluggishness by reducing the totality of the prophetic Scriptures to the suffering and consequent glory of the Christ (vv. 26, 46), the two indispensable elements of their proclamation, to which everything else is subordinate. This, in short, is the message of the OT. Henceforth repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached to the nations in his name (v. 47).

Especially noteworthy is the fact that in v. 27 Jesus assumes the role of the interpreter of the OT, and, in so doing, sets the standard for all subsequent interpreters. He, in other words, provides the model for the way in which we are to approach the OT text. Luke singles out several matters of importance in Jesus’ treatment of the Scriptures.

(1) He began at the beginning, i.e., “from Moses.” To begin with Moses means that he commenced his exposition with those books composed by Moses, the Pentateuch or the first division of the Hebrew Bible. In principle, then, Jesus acknowledges that the earliest stages of revelation contain in a nutshell everything to be elaborated by subsequent revelation. In particular, it is arguable that Genesis 1-3 is the fountainhead of the remainder of the Bible and that the protevangelium of Gen 3:15 is the seed which the whole of the OT nourishes and waters in preparation for the appearance of the Son of God in the flesh.

(2) He carried on through the rest of the “prophetic Scriptures.” What was stated more or less in seminal form in the books of Moses is developed in the later stages of revelation; the initial announcements of the salvific plan are expounded, clarified and expanded, thereby preparing the way for the Christ himself. Consequently, there is to the OT a sensus plenior (a “fuller meaning” than the historico-grammatical sense), i.e., an ultimate salvation-historical purpose of God which is fulfilled in the advent of Jesus Christ. In fact, I would submit that the NT always uses the OT in such a salvation-historical (typological) manner and never employs “historical-grammatical exegesis” as such.

(3) He made himself the terminal point of the entirety of the OT revelation: “He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

(a) Information concerning him is to be found “in all the Scriptures.” Every division of the Hebrew Bible contains information about him, and there is no portion which does not: either by prophecy or prefigurement, he is the subject matter of the whole Torah. All the promises of God were meant to find their yes in him (2 Cor 1:20).

(b) “The things concerning himself” receive in this context an important qualification, because v. 27 cannot be detached from v. 26 (46), according to which the Christ had to suffer and then enter into his glory. In other words, when “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” he set before them what we nowadays call “salvation history.” Of crucial significance for us is that “the things concerning himself” can never be abstracted from God’s purpose to save a people and place his name upon them (cf. Rev 3:12). Any conception of Israel which fails to do justice to the OT’s christological focus is illegitimate by definition.

1 Pet 1:10-12 complements the picture sketched by Luke 24:25-27 by informing us that the terminal point of the whole of prophecy is Christ and his church. The opening portion of Peter’s letter, 1:1-9, relates that perseverance in trials eventuates in the (eschatological) salvation of the soul. Peter then adds the further encouragement that this salvation was a matter of investigation on the part of the prophets, who, according to vv. 10-11a, searched and inquired into the particulars of the messianic work. However, of more importance to us is Peter’s focus on two issues.

First of all, there is the suffering and glory of the Messiah, v. 11. The point here is the same as Luke 24:26, 46: the whole of the OT can be reduced to the testimony of “the Spirit of Christ” that he should suffer and then be glorified. Second, the people of Christ are central in the prophetic preaching. According to v. 10, the prophets prophesied concerning the grace “directed to you” or “which had you in view.” Peter stresses, consequently, that to the prophets it was revealed that they were not serving themselves in these things but “you;” such things have been proclaimed to “you” through those who preached the gospel to “you” (v. 12). This is where vv. 10-12 link up with vv. 1-9: the church itself, as it bears the image of Christ, must pass through the pattern of suffering followed by glory; and it was the prophets who foretold this.

It goes almost without saying that such teaching places the church of Jesus Christ – Gentile as well as Jew – in a position of unprecedented privilege. The people of God have always been his special possession (e.g., Exod 19:5); but this text explicitly states that the people of the new age occupy a place of unparalleled importance: they are the subject of biblical prophecy, and their future is inseparable from that of Christ himself. Hence, the christological principle of hermeneutics is inconceivable apart from the ecclesiological principle: where Christ is found, his people are found also. Accordingly, the history of Israel is to be viewed as the preparation for that people “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), the “one new man” in Christ (Eph 2:15).

In sum, Luke 24:25-27, 44-47, and 1 Pet 1:10-12 provide the paradigm for our approach to the prophetic Scriptures by: (1) establishing a time-line of salvation history, which is initiated in the earliest stages of the OT and achieves its climax with the advent of Jesus Christ; (2) specifying the suffering and glory of the Christ as the sum and substance of OT proclamation; (3) marking out Christ and his church as the subject matter of the whole of revelation; (4) suggesting that God’s prior dealings with his chosen people were anticipatory of the time when, in Christ, he would bring to consummation his plan of salvation.

The principles of interpretation discussed above by Garland, which focus on Jesus, and the gospel, are incompatible with the grammatico-historical approach outlined by Terry which represents but one of several “human viewpoints,” whereas Garland appeals to the teachings of Christ and the apostles.

Jesus promises us rest; he said, “come unto me and I will give you rest.” [Matthew 11:28] He has inherited all things, which includes an understanding of the prophecies of Scripture. He said he will prepare a place for us. [John 14:1] In Revelation 12:6 and vs. 14, the woman’s place is the wilderness, where she is nourished, and her place is prepared by God. The woman’s place is associated with her being fed, which alludes to the manna in the wilderness. Jesus identified himself with the true bread from heaven. [John 6:32] In 1 Corinthians 10:11 Paul said Israel’s experiences in the wilderness occurred for our examples. Similarly, both the Old and New Testaments were written to prepare the woman’s place, her spiritual environment.

Initially, Israel could not enter the promised land because of unbelief, and the church is also in a spiritual wilderness, which is her environment in the present world. In Revelation 14:1, the 144,000, who are those sealed of each of the twelve tribes of Israel, stand with Jesus upon mount Sion. They follow wherever he goes (he reigns in heaven); they are not defiled with women, but are virgins; they are firstfruits to God and the Lamb; they do not worship the beast, whereas in contrast, those who worship the beast have no rest, and are “tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb.” [Revelation 14:10-11]

As for the saints, Hebrews 12:22 says, “ye are come to mount Sion, and the heavenly Jerusalem.” It is called a better country. It represents the spiritual inheritance of those in Christ, including the knowledge of God, and understanding his word.