Carson on the “Historic Canon”

In Biblical Interpretation (1836), Alexander Carson (1776-1844) engages the work of the German critic Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781) and his English translator, Charles Hughes Terrot (1790-1872). In the fourth chapter, entitled “The Historic Canon,” Carson deals with how to determine the meaning of a word or term in an ancient text. The term “historic canon” that Carson refers to is slightly misleading–he is not referring to the sixty-six canonical books of the bible. Rather, the nomenclature refers to the method of interpretation that determines the meaning of a word or phrase from Scripture based only on historical usage. This method, developed in Germany amongst the “higher critics” and later carried into Britain, Carson also refers to as the “neological canon.” He summarises the view thusly,

It teaches that the interpretation of the doctrine of Christ and his Apostles is to be regulated by the history of the opinions generally current in the times in which they lived. The substance of this canon is, that if Christ and his Apostles used certain words, as applied to their doctrine, which were applied at the time to the doctrine of other sects, the doctrine of the former must coincide with that of the latter. The business, then, of the interpreter is, to find out the theology of the Jewish sects (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 310; emphasis his).

In his critique, Carson affirms that accommodation is an integral part of the doctrine of inspiration. He readily admits that the inspired speakers/writers used language that was understood by the culture they were addressing. His concern, however, is that this hermeneutical approach confounds two things that differ: “It confounds the meaning of a term with the nature of the doctrine to which that term refers. A word may be intelligible as a term, while the doctrine to which it refers may not be understood” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 310). For Carson, “Agreement in the meaning of the term is no evidence of agreement in the nature of the doctrine” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 311).

Carson is particularly interested in taking Terrot to task, a man he calls “so very sensible and learned.” He quotes Terrot: “Nothing but an accurate knowledge of the history of opinion at the time can enable us to judge of what notions such terms were originally intended to convey” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 311). The concern that Carson has with this view is that the meaning that extra-biblical writers give to a word take precedence over that of Jesus and the apostles. As well, the “German Neologists” err by failing to note the difference between the meaning of a term and views of its doctrine.

Following Terrot, Carson takes the word “regeneration” as an example. Terrot said, “How many authors, for instance, have written controversially upon regeneration without examining whether any particular sense was attached to the expression born again, in the technical system of the Jewish theology” (cited in Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 311). Carson argues “It is not the term regeneration, or new birth, that expresses the nature of the doctrine to which it refers. It is the explication of the inspired writers” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 311). The bare term, in this case “regeneration,” does not give primary meaning to the doctrine, rather it is the how the biblical authors use the term. The word is merely a designation and it takes Jesus’ explanation of what regeneration or new birth is for a doctrine to be determined.

Carson proceeds to a further example that is particularly indicting against the “neologists”: the kingdom. Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, but the Jewish expectation of the Messianic kingdom was entirely worldly. If the canons of interpretation expressed by the higher critics stand, then Jesus’ words are emptied of their meaning–his kingdom indeed would be of this world.

To demonstrate the absurdity of the method, Carson asks what would happen if this principle was applied in other geographical locales. For instance, if an Apostle was to speak of “regeneration” in India, would Indian definitions of the term take precedence? In that country, regeneration can refer to “the regeneration of a holestone;” should this be taken into account? The historical background of a word is no guarantee that the way one speaker/writer uses it is the same as another. “The fact that the ancient Jews,” says Carson, “held such a view of regeneration is no evidence that Christ must have taught the same doctrine when he used the same word. A word may be used in the sense of a language, when the doctrine to which it refers is different from that of those addressed” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 313).

Further on this point, Carson points out that even when a speaker/writer uses a particular term with his own fixed meaning, the hearers of that term may not apply the same meaning to it. For instance, the disciples regularly misunderstood Jesus. “What ought to be said,” according to Carson, “is that every text and every word are to be understood in the sense in which the original hearers and readers should have understood them, according to the rules of language” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 313). The speaker is required to use proper language and if it is not understood then the fault lies elsewhere.

For Terrot, the apostles are to be understood in light of their Jewish background, not only the Old Testament, but Rabbinic writings as well. Carson charges Terrot with failing to account for the fact that the apostles were Christians and their Jewish background no longer played as significant a role: “Shall we, then, make Paul, an Apostle, speak the sentiments of Saul, a Pharisee?” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 314).

Carson admits that the method is not always used against Scripture, but even when it is employed in the defense of orthodoxy, it still fails. Terrot offers John 1:1 as an example where logos is sometimes translated by grammarians as ho legon or ho legomenos, but the “historical interpreter” recognised that Jews expressed something of “divine substance” by the term. Carson glibly replies that were an argument like this set before a Unitarian, they would not be silenced. For Carson, “Had the Jews believed the person whom they thus designated to be merely human, it would not in the least disturb me” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 315); because he relied on the meaning given by the New Testament authors instead. “Let us rest neither on the logos of the Jews, nor on the logos of Plato, but on the logos of the Scriptures” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 315).

Ernesti did not go as far with this historical criticism as his translator may have wished, as he believed that historical investigation was only a part of the grammarian’s work. This chapter is part of a larger work that interacts with Ernesti, of which Carson could say, “From anything that I have observed in this treatise, there is no reason to charge Ernesti with at all favouring this Neological canon” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 315).

Using Aristotelean language, Carson accuses Terrot (and Karl Gottleib Bretschneider [1776-1848], who espouses a similar view) with a failure to distinguish “between the signification of a term and the nature of the thing signified” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 316). He concludes by saying, “The historical interpreter is misled by unphilosophically supposing that the nature of an object must be expressed by the term that designates it” (Carson, Biblical Interpretation, 317).

It is worth observing that Carson does not give an account of the way words can have multiple, or different shades of meaning. This may be included by his reference to “rules of language,” but it does not tell us how the hearer is responsible if a speaker uses a word with a particular nuance that is misunderstood. Carson also fails to explain how words can be understood in translation apart from historical considerations. His arguments would be more palatable if he placed historical background in its proper, subservient (but none-the-less important) role to authorial intent. No lexicon of any language would exist if historical considerations of original usage by a particular sect was disregarded. So while Carson offers some helpful correctives to the higher critics, he leaves himself with no plausible explanation as to how one can rely on English translations, lexical aides, and other such tools. The German critics were partially right; although they greatly erred in giving preeminence to the “historic canon,” they were right to observe how the cultural context of a language helps determine meaning.

There are other arguments that could be employed, but Carson does not make use of them. For one, the historical method denies the sensus plenior of Scripture. The average lay-person would not have recourse to all of the resources that would make such biblical interpretation necessary. Quite frankly, neither did the trained exegete. This method would require an exhaustive knowledge of all cultures at the time under review in order to accurately ascertain whether the word was used in a particular way. While insight into historical background is indispensable for honing our view of a text, it is not so important that the plain reading of Scripture is rendered unnecessary.


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Filed under alexander carson, bible, higher criticism

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