Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Lapide's Principles for Interpreting the Gospels

I'm sorry it's taken a while for me to finish off my series on 17th century Biblical interpretation in the Low Countries.  In this last post, I would like to present a summary of the "canons" or principles of interpretation for the Gospels espoused by Cornelius à Lapide.  Personally, I find them interesting for the light they shed on how certain textual, literary, and historical cruces were negotiated before the rise of the critical tradition.  So, without further ado:

The Thirty-Nine Canons of Lapide on Interpreting the Gospels

Canon 1: The Evangelists are selective in narration; the principle of selection: to show Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God.
Canon 2: The Evangelists do not preserve chronological order; they join teachings and events together that occurred on different occasions.
Canon 3: The Evangelists disagree in their words, but agree in meaning.
Canon 4: Christ taught in Semitic aphorisms like the wisdom literature; therefore there is not always a common theme in his collected teachings.
Canon 5: Christ applies the same saying, repeatedly, to different subjects.
Canon 6: In conversation, Christ often responds to what his interlocutors are thinking rather than to what they are actually saying.
Canon 7: One God was proclaimed by Moses; a duality of persons by the Prophets; the Trinity by Christ.
Canon 8: In Christ, we must distinguish the divine and human nature; in the Godhead, the three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit
Canon 9: When the Gospels call God the Father the “one and only God”—this is meant to distinguish God from idols, not the Father from the Son and Spirit.
Canon 10: The Vulgate translates the Greek “an” as “forte,” but it actually means “certainly.”
Canon 11: When Christ attributes a healing to the faith of the individual, “faith” should be understood as the faith which is clothed in charity and works through acts of hope, penitence, love, etc. … Christ and Paul understand faith to include all gifts and virtues as their principle.  He contrasts faith not with charity and grace but with the old law and natural powers.  Thus St. Augustine and Trent.
Canon 12: Verbs in Hebrew can have an inchoative, progressive, or perfective sense, and this expresses itself in the New Testament [because the Evangelists thought in or were influenced by Hebrew] in several important passages.
Canon 13: Affirmative propositions often must be understood not absolutely but in a restricted sense.  For example, salvation is attributed, in various passages, to faith (John 3:15, Rom 1:17), prayer (Acts 2:21), love (Luke 7:47, 1 Cor 13:2), baptism (1 Pet 3:21), the Eucharist (John 6:54), or trust (Isa 40:31).  To absolutize any of these passages would result in a distorted soteriology.
On the other hand, negative propositions are to be understood absolutely.
Canon 14:  St. Matthew dwells most on the teaching and sayings of Christ; Luke on his deeds and actions; Mark abbreviates and often interprets Matthew; John constructs his gospel so that Christ’s Divinity is most prominent.
Canon 15: Christ, the Apostles, and the prophets explain spiritual and divine things in corporeal and human terms, because otherwise men could not grasp them.  Thus many anthropomorphisms and striking metaphors are used to describe God, Christ, eternal life, etc.
Canon 16: Although God’s attributes are identical with his nature (Divine simplicity), Scripture describes his attributes with plural forms, speaking of God’s “works,” “mercies,” “wills”, etc. (Ps 144:9; 110:2).
Canon 17: If Scripture seems to enjoin a misdeed, shameful act, impossibility, sin, or something contrary to the Faith, that saying must be interpreted figuratively and mystically, not literally.  On the other hand, when Scripture enjoins something that is not a misdeed, shameful, etc., it should be understood literally.
Canon 18: Hebrew (Jewish) narrative style sometimes omits causes and relates effects, or vice-versa, relates causes but omits effects.  This is especially the case in the Gospel of John.  E.g. in John 1:20, John the Baptist replies “I am not the Christ,” which implies that he had been asked, “Are you the Christ?”, even though that exact question was not recorded in what precedes.  In New Testament Greek style, “to reply” sometimes just means “to begin to speak”; similar examples may be found also in Homeric Greek.
Canon 19: Another Hebraism, common in Mark, is that a verb is given without its subject, which is understood by context.
Canon 20:  In the gospel and Scripture in general, quantities are often expressed in round or symbolic numbers.
Canon 21: Christ frequently employs a Hebraism whereby the comparison of two things is expressed by the affirmation of the greater and the negation of the lesser.  This should not be taken as a literal negation of the lesser.
Canon 22: Beware of extreme interpretations: Quoting St. Jerome, “I always admonish the prudent reader not to be satisfied with superstitious interpretations, nor with the things said by those who imaginatively expound passages piecemeal, but to consider, rather, the beginning, the middle, and the end of things, and to connect everything that is written” (in cap. 25 Matth.).  “Sacred Scripture, therefore, the parts of which are so composed as to be interrelated, is its own best interpreter” (lxxxiii).
Canon 23:  The Evangelists employ word play in which the same word is employed in a different sense.  E.g. Matt 8:22: “Follow me and let the (spiritually) dead  bury their own (physically) dead.”
Canon 24: Jesus follows the Middle Eastern practice of communicating through parables, proverbs, and paradoxes.
Canon 25: With hostile audiences (e.g. the Pharisees), Jesus uses deliberately obscure parables, then later explains them to his disciples.
Canon 26: “The literal sense of a parable is not that which the words ostensibly record, but rather the sense which is expressed through the things signified by the words” (lxxxiv).  In other words, the literal sense of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is along the lines that “all men are potential neighbors,” not that a certain man went to Jericho, etc.
Canon 27: A parable has three parts: an introduction, the parable itself, and a conclusion or application.
Canon 28: “Often in parables the comparison is not between persons nor between the parts of the parable and the parts of the thing signified, but rather between the entire parable and the entire subject or theme” (lxxxv). 
Canon 29: “In parables, just as in comparisons, the resemblance does not extend to all the particulars, nor can they all be applied to the thing signified” (lxxxvi).  Therefore we ought not to over-allegorize every parable.
Canon 30: Some parables have a secondary tropological or allegorical sense., e.g. the Good Samaritan may be an allegory of Christ coming to sick humanity.
Canon 31: “There are two sorts of parables, some based on similarity, others upon dissimilarity.  In the former, the force of the argument is derived from something equal or similar; in the latter, the argument is from the lesser to the greater” (lxxxvii).
Canon 32: Some things mentioned in the Scriptures express common opinion at the time of the events being related, but not the strict truth.  E.g. Joseph is called the “father” of Jesus (Luke 2:48).
Canon 33: “Sacred Scripture, even though things have changed, nevertheless retains the names that they had formerly” (lxxxvii). E.g. Dinah is still called a virgin after being violated (Gen 34:2).
Canon 34: “The Evangelists and Apostles, when citing the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, often do not quote it word-for-word, but according to the sense” (lxxxvii).
Canon 35: “The Scriptures of the New Testament often allude to the Old Testament, because the matter of the New had been foreshadowed in the Old.”  “Marvelous, therefore, and wondrously consonant is the harmony of the New Testament with the Old, the maker and author of which is the Holy Ghost” (lxxxviii).
Canon 36: “The Latin translator [of the Vulgate] renders the same Greek word in different ways, especially when one Latin word does not express adequately the force of the Greek word” (lxxxviii).
Canon 37: The Evangelists often condense narratives or simple stories for the sake of brevity, which produces at times the appearance of contradictions between them.  The interpreter must at times piece together the fuller narrative from the shortened accounts of the various Evangelists.
Canon 38: The “faith” that Christ requires of those he is about to cure is not justifying faith formed by charity—as in Paul—but a more particular and specific faith that Jesus has the power to accomplish the anticipated miracle.
[Canon 39:][1] “Last of all, we should carefully weigh and discern whether what Christ says is a counsel, precept, promise, or only a permission … or a parable, an adage, a motto, etc.” (lxxxix).[2] 

As mentioned before, Lapide's commentaries on the Gospels have been newly translated and handsomely bound by Loreto Publications, available here.

[1] Lapide does not number his last canon, but it would be Canon 39.
[2] For the reader’s convenience, Lapide then appends lists he has compiled of the following genre of dominical statements: (1) Counsels (exhortations by Christ to heroic virtue or supererogatory behavior that is not demanded of all Christians at all times; (2) Precepts (obligatory rules for all Christians not found in the Old Testament); (3) Commandments (a mixed genre, partly counsel and partly precept); (4) Precepts and counsels to the Apostles in particular; (5) Promises; (6) Threats; (7) Miracles of Christ (not properly a genre of dominical saying as the other lists, but included here for convenience); (8) Oracles and prophecies; (9) References to the Seven Sacraments (again, not a genre of dominical saying, but included for convenience); (10) Paradoxes (apparently oxymoronic, self-contradictory or impossible statements); (11) Parables; (12) Maxims (general principles of the Christian life, stated in the indicative rather than the imperative); (13) Enigmas (deliberately obscure sayings of Christ).


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Mr. Bergsma,
Thank you for posting this!
What a great hero Fr. Cornelius a' Lapide is! Personally, I rely on him constantly. +

John Bergsma said...


I appreciate him, too. I wish all of his OT work was translated into English, though!

Anonymous said...

What a great list, thanks for sharing this.

from 35: "Marvelous, therefore, and wondrously consonant is the harmony of the New Testament with the Old, the maker and author of which is the Holy Ghost"
One of my favorite topics...

John Bergsma said...

@fireofthylove.com: one of mine, too!

andrew.jones said...

For anyone who's interested, Logos Bible Software is producing a digital edition of Lapide's commentary. It'll be totally searchable and cross-referenced and scroll with your Bible.