The Canons of Interpretation

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THE CANONS OF INTERPRETATION


WALLACE N. STEARNS, B.D., PH.D.
Fargo College, Fargo, N.D.


To one seeking the right interpretation of any writer, secular or sacred, a proper mode of procedure cannot fail to be of interest. How then shall one determine aright the sense of a text, as for example, a portion of Scripture? Five simple rules well observed will do the business.


1. Interpret lexically, that is, consult some standard lexicon. Such a book is for us laymen a last court of appeal. What scholarship has agreed upon as the meaning of a word, that must be its meaning for us. Words come and words go, and change with the passing of time. We must seek, then, the sense of the word as used at the time of the work or writer studied. We must, further, determine the classification of the document concerned, whether technical, scientific, or literature for art's sake. The reader of "The Traveler" may feel a trifle disturbed by the words:

But small the bliss that sense alone bestows,
And sensual bliss is all the nation [i.e., Italy] knows.

But sensual here is to be explained in the light of the preceding sense.

Equally puzzled are we by the words of the Psalmist to the effect that "The God of my mercy shall prevent me"; "Thou preventest him with blessings of goodness"; and the declaration of the apostle that "we shall not prevent them who are asleep."[1] But traced to the Latin root this word becomes sun-clear, i.e., "to meet" (Pss.), "to precede" (Th.). A similar though different history underlies the word penance. From Jerome to the Reformation the Vulgate was the Bible of the western church. From "penitence" to its Latin origin, poenitentia (poena) was only a step. It was when the German scholars tracked out the passages in dispute, that they found the original to be not poenitentia but metanoia (μετάνοια), and the new teaching found a foothold.


Rom. 8:29 has long been a battleground. Quite opposite sects have found refuge here, oftentimes finding themselves standing under the eaves to get out of the rain. Truth is, the word "know" (γιγνώσκειν) here signifies to take note of, "fix the regard upon," and the preposition (προ-) does no more than to refer a historic act to the divine counsel that preceded it.


Further, following the use of the Septuagint, in later Greek the distinction between simple and compound verbs is blurred and prepositions are piled up without particular effect.[2] Again, the angel that stood on land and sea declared that "time" should be no longer.[3] This suggests the end of the world, and accordingly, fear and terror have at more or less regular intervals possessed the faithful. But χρόνος need not necessarily mean time, but, as in R.V.,[4] may mean simply "delay." Likewise, whoever will find in history the background of Jas. 1:17 will confer a great boon by solving the crux of this letter. Just what is here referred to as "lights" it is difficult to say, for the word used (φωτών) may include a variety of objects from the heavenly bodies to mortal man.[5]


2. A second law for our guidance is, interpret grammatically. In the story of the storm at sea,[6] Jesus was found asleep. "Asleep on a pillow," reads A. V., changed by R.V. to "asleep on the cushion" (τό προσκεφάλαιον). The cushion in question was the familiar boat-cushion, and even if only a bag filled with husks, was a recognized item in a boat's outfit. Now by a touch quite overlooked by the revisers of 1611, the Greeks signified particulars by what grammarians are pleased to call "the article of recognition." The cushion was the ever-familiar boat-cushion. The locus classicus is found in the Book of Acts.[7] But here the A.V. has put in what the Greek expressly and purposely omitted. This is not a picture of heathen groping after the God of Israel, but an effort to render homage to an unknown benefactor. Likewise, the crux of the Epistle to the Hebrews swings on a point in grammar.[8] Renewal for the lapsi (those who under pressure or torture recanted) was a sore problem. The verb here signifying renewal (άνακαινίξειν) is clearly used in the active voice. To attempt escape by reference to Matt. 19:26 is to cite something not germane to the question in hand. To attempt to make it a middle voice in sense and thus declare self-renewal impossible is arbitrary.[9] In the light of chap. 10 there seems only one way of escape, namely, to take the evident meaning, i.e., lapse cannot be followed by renewal, and then seek a way of escape by some other route. Nor are such puzzles peculiar to Scripture. Turning again to our "Traveler," we find similar problems.

Each wish contracting, fits him to the soil.[10]

The mystery here is solved by finding the subject of the verb in the man himself, and by expanding "him" to "himself"; that is, the peasant, remote from the causes of extravagant desires, originating within his own simple mind his needs, adapts himself to his place in the hamlet he calls his home.


3. Our reference to the Epistle to the Hebrews brings us to another rule, interpret contextually. A passage must be construed consistently with its context, since it is likely that the writer at least intended to send out a harmonious, rational document. Thus, the action of fire as indicated in vs. 8 would, according to this writer's mind, preclude restoration — in vs. 6 — and further, the meaning in chap. 10 is obvious beyond question. Also in Rom. 1:17 we have a classic instance. Shall we read, "The just will live by [their] faith," or "The just by faith will live"? In the latter case, it is argued, there are two classes of just ones — those who have done works whereon they may rely, and those who must rest on their faith, but this calls to mind the Old Testament passage cited,[11] where the meaning is evident, and if we further compare our verse with the opening paragraph in chap. 4, we shall find that even Abraham, prince of those supposed to be justified by works, is reckoned among those justified by faith.


4. But the passage from Hebrews calls up still another law, interpret historically. The historical background is often the best if not the sole method for getting at the meaning of a passage. The covert references in any considerable piece of literature, whether the Divine Comedy, the tracts of Milton, the letters of Burke, Hudibras, or the Dunciad, all stand revealed in the light of history. The student of Paul must first know of the world of Paul, the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean— Jerusalem to Rome, for that matter.[12] Further, Christianity sprang from the lap of Judaism. Much of the setting is Jewish, and only from that setting are many passages to be successfully construed. And, further still, Christianity grew up in the midst of that bewildering Greco-Roman civilization and becomes clear only in the light of that bewildering complex thought of the first century.


Accordingly, the reference to angels in Acts 12:15, Matt. 18:10, and similar passages, roots back in Jewish theology. To quote Professor J. H. Moulton, angels are "spiritual counterparts of human individuals or communities, dwelling in heaven, subject to changes depending on the good or evil behavior of their complementary beings on earth."[13] Hence the reply to the damsel Rhoda's query, though so blind to us Occidentals, was a then familiar allusion to a universally accepted belief. In I Cor. 10:4 occurs a strange allegory concerning the Rock that was Christ. According to rabbinic tradition, a rock followed Israel in their Wilderness journey — providentially arranged — moving as they moved and halting when they camped. This rock when smitten was a never-failing fountain ("Cum vexilla castra ponerent, et tabernaculum staret, ilia petra venit; et consedit in atrio tentorie"[14]).


In I Tim. 1:4 we find a warning against "endless genealogies." Here it is the bewildering blend of Greco-Oriental thought that must illuminate the way. The Gnostics sought to combine philosophy with — or to seek a philosophic basis for — Christianity. World-creation was by a series of emanations of and from the divine original ground, source, or basis. This interpretation is familiar to students of the church-writers of the second century. The allusion is ambiguous, but either way equally apt for illustration here.[15] Arguing from I Tim. 1:17, however, others see here an allusion to speculations based on the legendary history of the Patriarchs and their descendants, as, e.g., in the Apocalyptic literature.


5. The last of these five canons for interpretations is interpret analogically. It is a safe rule to interpret an author by himself wherever possible, and a document by itself or other contemporary documents. It stands to reason that any sane writer will seek uniformity-barring changes for growth, development, or different conditions.


Again, our interpretation of Heb. 6:6 (Rom. 1:17; cf. chap. 4, might be referred to this canon) finds further help by reference to chap. 10. Surely, in four short chapters the most rhetorical writer in the New Testament would hardly contradict himself so utterly, especially since he of all the writers was appealing to a critical, possibly hostile, audience. Hence chap. 6 must be interpreted, wherever in doubt, in harmony with the indubitable meaning of chap. 10. Further light appears by reference to the Jewish theological background. From Deut. down to IV Esdras we find a chain of references witnessing to the idea of purgation by fire, the finality of the act, and, further, it is evident that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews had not come to the fulness of the knowledge of the gospel as taught by Paul.


This last canon should be applied with caution, for progressive spirits like a Paul, a Luther, or a Wesley never hesitate to revise their opinions in the light of new evidence.[16]

  1. A.V. 21:3; 59:10; 79:8; I Th. 4:15.
  2. Cf., e.g., Sanday and Headlaw, Romans, pp. 216.
  3. Rev. 10:6 A.V.
  4. 1 So A.R.V. and Br. m.
  5. Cf. Suicer, Thes. Eccles., II, 1480 (φώς).
  6. Mark, A.V., reads "a cushion"; R.V., "the," i.e., a particular cushion.
  7. 4 17:23; cf . Deissmann, Paulus, pp. 178 ff.
  8. 6:6.
  9. Westcott, Hebrews, p. 150.
  10. L. 184. This is practically our problem in Hebrews turned around.
  11. Hab. 2:4.
  12. Cf. Deissmann, Paulus, chap. ii.
  13. Cf. Berry in Expos. Times, January, 1912, p. 182.
  14. Cf. Schoettgen, Horae Heb. et Talm., I, 623.
  15. Cf. HDB., IV, 770; Schoettgen, Horae Heb. et Talm., I, 855 ff.; Encyc. Bib., II, cols. 1659 f.; Jew. Encyc., V, 596 f.
  16. Cf. Paul's change of view on the question of the Parousia, and the changing viewpoint in Wesley's Christian Perfection.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1934, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.