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PART II.


[Pg 74]
[Pg 75]

SOME GENERAL RULES FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST. JOHN.

I. Subject Matter.

(1) The Epistle is to be read through with constant reference to the Gospel. In what precise form the former is related to the latter (whether as a preface or as an appendix, as a spiritual commentary or an encyclical) critics may decide. But there is a vital and constant connection. The two documents not only touch each other in thought, but interpenetrate each other; and the Epistle is constantly suggesting questions which the Gospel only can answer, e.g., 1 John i. 1, cf. John i. 1-14; 1 John v. 9, "witness of men," cf. John i. 15-36, 41, 45, 49, iii. 2, 27-36, iv. 29-42, vi. 68, 69, vii. 46, ix. 38, xi. 27, xviii. 38, xix. 5, 6, xx. 28.

(2) Such eloquence of style as St. John possesses is real rather than verbal. The interpreter must look not only at the words themselves, but at that which precedes and follows; above all he must fix his attention not only upon the verbal expression of the thought, but upon the thought itself. For the formal connecting link is not rarely omitted, and must be supplied by the devout and candid diligence of the reader. The "root76 below the stream" can only be traced by our bending over the water until it becomes translucent to us.

E.g. 1 John i. 7, 8. Ver. 7, "the root below the stream" is a question of this kind, which naturally arises from reading ver. 6—"must it be said that the sons of light need a constant cleansing by the blood of Jesus, which implies a constant guilt"? Some such thought is the latent root of connection. The answer is supplied by the following verse. ["It is so" for] "if we say that we have no sin," etc. Cf. also iii. 16, 17, iv. 8, 9, 10, 11, v. 3 (ad. fin.), 4.

II. Language.

1. Tenses.

In the New Testament generally tenses are employed very much in the same sense, and with the same general accuracy, as in other Greek authors. The so-called "enallage temporum," or perpetual and convenient Hebraism, has been proved by the greatest Hebrew scholars to be no Hebraism at all. But it is one of the simple secrets of St. John's quiet thoughtful power, that he uses tenses with the most rigorous precision.

(a) The Present of continuing uninterrupted action, e.g., i. 8, ii. 6, iii. 7, 8, 9.

Hence the so-called substantized participle with article ὁ has in St. John the sense of the continuous and constitutive temper and conduct of any man, the principle of his moral and spiritual life—e.g., ὁ λεγων, he who is ever vaunting, ii. 4; πας ὁ μισων, every one the abiding principle of whose life is hatred, iii. 15; πας ὁ αγαπων, every one the abiding principle of whose life is love, iv. 7.

The Infin. Present is generally used to express an action now in course of performing or continued in itself77 or in its results, or frequently repeated—e.g., 1 John ii. 6, iii. 8, 9, v. 18. (Winer, Gr. of N. T. Diction, Part 3, xliv., 348).

(b) The Aorist.

This tense is generally used either of a thing occurring only once, which does not admit, or at least does not require, the notion of continuance and perpetuity; or of something which is brief and as it were only momentary in duration (Stallbaum, Plat. Enthyd., p. 140). This limitation or isolation of the predicated action is most accurately indicated by the usual form of this tense in Greek. The aorist verb is encased between the augment ε- past time, and the adjunct σ- future time, i.e., the act is fixed on within certain limits of previous and consequent time (Donaldson, Gr. Gr., 427, B. 2). The aorist is used with most significant accuracy in the Epistle of St. John, e.g., ii. 6, 11, 27, iv. 10, v. 18.

(c) The Perfect.

The Perfect denotes action absolutely past which lasts on in its effects. "The idea of completeness conveyed by the aorist must be distinguished from that of a state consequent on an act, which is the meaning of the perfect" (Donaldson, Gr. Gr., 419). Careful observation of this principle is the key to some of the chief difficulties of the Epistle (iii. 9, v. 4, 18).

(2) The form of accessional parallelism is to be carefully noticed. The second member is always in advance of the first; and a third is occasionally introduced in advance of the second, denoting the highest point to which the thought is thrown up by the tide of thought, e.g., 1 John ii. 4, 5, 6, v. 11, v. 20.

(3) The preparatory touch upon the chord which announces a theme to be amplified afterwards,—e.g., 78 ii. 29, iii. 9iv. 7, v. 3, 4; iii. 21v. 14, ii. 20, iii. 24, iv. 3, v. 6, 8, ii. 13, 14, iv. 4v. 4, 5.

(4) One secret of St. John's simple and solemn rhetoric consists in an impressive change in the order in which a leading word is used, e.g., 1 John ii. 24, iv. 20.

These principles carefully applied will be the best commentary upon the letter of the Apostle, to whom not only when his subject is—

"De Deo Deum verum

Alpha et Omega, Patrem rerum";

but when he unfolds the principles of our spiritual life, we may apply Adam of St. Victor's powerful and untranslatable line,

"Solers scribit idiota."

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