Is the Law of First Mention a Proper Biblical Hermeneutic?

By Brian Chilton

Recently, Curtis Evelo (Bellator Christi Podcast co-host) told me about a conversation he had with an individual about biblical interpretation. Apparently, the individual held that the wine that Jesus miraculously brought forth out of water in John 4 was merely unfermented grape juice. When asked why he held this view, he contended that to hold that the wine held fermented content was to argue that Jesus was a sinner because wine is said to be a mocker in Proverbs 20:1. Curtis asked him what this had to do with Jesus’s miraculous transformation of water into wine. The unnamed individual then said that he used the law of first mention. According to the law of first mention, the interpreter first examines the initial place where the term or doctrine is taught in the Scripture. Then, the initial usage of the term and/or doctrine serves as a guideline for interpreting other subsequent passages that teach on the issue.

Let me first say that in all my biblical hermeneutics courses, I have never heard of the law of first mention. I have had some world-class instructors who can read the Bible in its original languages without a translation in hand. To my knowledge, they never mentioned such a law of biblical interpretation. There is simply no good reason to follow the law of first mention for the following reasons. As an aside, the issue concerning the Christian’s use of alcohol is a highly controversial topic. We simply do not have space to deal with the ethical ramifications of alcohol use. For the purposes of this article, we are merely examining the efficacy of the law of first mention, or the lack thereof.

The Law of First Mention Fails to Engage the Individual Text

The first problem with the law of first mention is that the tactic fails to consider the literal interpretation of each biblical text. Considering the topic at hand, earlier texts really do nothing to assist the interpreter with engaging whether a historical event occurred or not. Earlier teachings may assist with understanding the thought process behind a text in question. But it cannot overrule other factors such as social practice and norms, extra-biblical historical events, word studies, and other social matters that come into play. Furthermore, the historical context of the first mention must also be an issue of investigation, as one must remember that the modern interpreter is separated from the biblical times by at least 2,000 years—more like 4–6,000 years from the Old Testament eras. Additionally, the writings of Scripture are not necessarily in chronological order. So, determining when something was first uttered may be far more complex than originally held.

The Law of First Mention Fails to Accommodate Theological Complexities

Second, the law of first mention does not consider the theological complexities found in Scripture. Without considering various theological issues, one may adopt all kinds of absurdities. For instance, the first two instances where wine is mentioned in the Bible come in the book of Genesis. The first reference is in Genesis 9:21, where it is said of Noah that “He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside the tent” (Gen. 9:21) [1]. Does this then imply that each believer should drink wine, become drunk, and uncover oneself? Certainly not! Obviously, this is not what Curtis’s friend was trying to imply.

The second mention is no better for his cause, for it says, “Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest to God Most High” (Gen. 14:18). This is of no help when trying to understand whether Jesus’s wine was fermented or not. Thus, as one can tell, the law of first mention fails to account for the theological complexities of the text. The first instance serves as a warning of a life that strayed from God, whereas the second shows the gift that Melchizedek gave to Abraham, which may have included fermented wine.

Does this then indicate that everyone should drink wine? Of course not! Because other texts serve as warnings, exhorting individuals to avoid drunkenness (i.e., Prov. 23:20; Isa. 5:22; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:18). Yet this shows the ineptitude of the law of first mention when used alone. The law of first mention would seem to indicate that everyone should drink wine and get drunk if the case of Noah is used; but as the specified texts suggest, this is not the case.

Finally, the law of first mention fails to account for the gradual betterment of each subsequent covenant. If one accepts the law of first mention, then the old covenants are inherently better than the newer covenants. However, the new covenant in Christ is superior to all previous covenants. The writer of Hebrews states, “By saying a new covenant, he has declared that the first is obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old is about to pass away” (Heb. 8:13). Not only does the author note that the new covenant is better than the covenants of old, but he also proclaims that the new has made the old obsolete. Therefore, this poses a major difficulty for the law of first mention, as it shows that there may be times when the new supersedes the old. Yes, the new covenant is indeed built upon concepts found in previous covenants. However, the new covenant does not require animal sacrifices, rituals, or the keeping of certain holidays. Rather, it is built upon the sacrifice of Christ himself. The believer is no longer under the law of old. He or she is under the law of grace. The new covenant’s supersession of the old creates a cataclysmic problem for the law of first mention.

The Law of First Mention is Based on a Logical Fallacy

Finally, the law of first mention is seemingly built upon a logical fallacy known as the fallacy of antiquity or the fallacy of tradition. The fallacy of antiquity is a false belief that holds that something must be better if it is older. This is the opposite of what is known as the fallacy of novelty, which holds that something must be better if it is new.

Suppose a person argues that original video games are better than modern video games. If this were so in all cases, then the paddle game Pong would be better than recent sports games, since it is the very first video game developed. However, Pong can in no way match the complexities and graphics found in modern games. For instance, being a football fan, I love the Madden football series. There is no comparison between Pong and the Madden series, as Madden adds realistic graphics, color commentary, and the opportunity to call numerous plays. In contrast, Pong allows you to move a white bar on a black screen to toss a white ball to an opponent who repeats the process. It could be that some aspects of older games are better than newer games. [2] But it is a hard sale to claim that all older games are better than all newer ones.

Another misconception people hold is that times were always better in the 50s and 60s than in modern times. However, one often does not consider the racial tensions of the 50s. If a person was black and lived in some sectors of the South, then the 50s were exponentially worse than modern times. Thus, this view shows the difficulties associated with an appeal to antiquity. The reality is that such a claim is not always true. The law of first things appears to be guilty of the same fallacy. Accepting the first mention of an issue in the Bible as the linchpin for all future references is nothing more than adopting the fallacy of antiquity.

Conclusion

The law of first mention fails as a proper hermeneutic on several fronts. First, it does not adequately handle the hermeneutical complexities of each passage at hand. Second, it fails to examine the theological intricacies throughout the totality of Scripture, especially when concerned with the supremacy of the new covenant over the old. Finally, the law of first mention is built upon the logical fallacy known as the appeal to antiquity. With all this noted, one may still find some benefits in studying the first place where an idea or word is used in Scripture. Some have found it beneficial to examine the first time that the term “light” is used in Genesis. Nevertheless, such a practice should never be used in isolation. It should always accompany linguistic, historical, and theological depths to find authorial intent. The goal of biblical interpretation is to understand what the author is trying to communicate to his/her reader. As such, the law of first mention does not assist in this endeavor and can lead to absurdities if pressed too far.

Footnotes

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman, 2020).

[2] One case being where old hockey games would allow you to shove a player into his team’s bench and allowed you to shatter the glass if you were to hit the puck just right. But does this indicate that the overall game is better? Probably not.

Recommended resources related to the topic:

How to Interpret Your Bible by Dr. Frank Turek DVD Complete Series, INSTRUCTOR Study Guide, and STUDENT Study Guide

How Philosophy Can Help Your Theology by Richard Howe (MP3 Set), (mp4 Download Set), and (DVD Set

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Brian G. Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University. Brian has been in the ministry for over 15 years and serves as a pastor in northwestern North Carolina.

Original Blog Source: https://bit.ly/3bo21og

The post Is the Law of First Mention a Proper Biblical Hermeneutic? appeared first on Cross Examined.

Read More

Cross Examined