We always remember our firsts in life. Your first car, your first date; maybe even your first kiss. I remember the first kiss between my wife and I. It was on our wedding day. One of us wanted to go wide and the other wanted to go narrow. There was a little bobbing and weaving of the heads as we figured out what we were doing. Things that occur first often stick in our minds in a special way. When it comes to bible interpretation, one principle that is often the first one taught to many young bible students is the Principle of First Mention. Peter Wade quotes B.W Newton, one of the most prominent scholars of the Plymouth Brethren and a compatriot of Tregelles, known for his textual criticism. Newton spoke of this principle:
"I find in Scripture a principle of interpretation, which I believe if conscientiously adopted will serve as an unfailing guide as to the mind of God as contained therein. The first mention of a thing, the very first words of any subject of which the Holy Spirit is going to treat, are the keystone of the whole matter.”
The basic premise behind the Principle of First Mention is that the root meaning of a doctrine or meaning of a word will be found in the first time it is mentioned in the bible. This principle is generally consistent with the idea that God reveals truth progressively, giving us more detail and building off of truths over time. An example of this principle in use can be found in the usage of the word blood throughout scripture. The first mention of blood is found in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:10, "And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground." In this verse, blood references the life of Cain's brother and so the principle of first mention says that the root concept behind blood is the life of a person. As we get to the New Testament, we see this concept continued in the references to Jesus shedding His blood. It wasn't enough to just stick an IV in and drink the blood of Jesus to save us. The shedding of Christ's blood included not just the spilling of His blood, but the giving of His life. 1 John 1:7 says, But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. Christ's sacrifice for our sins of his blood and life cleanses us from sin. So from this passage we can see the concept of blood being tied to life throughout scripture, but is the Principle of First Mention a reliable method for interpreting scripture? Or can we come to the conclusions in a more reliable way?
Problems with the Principle of First Mention
I. Who defines "first"?
One of the difficulties with the Principle of First Mention is defining what first means. The books in our English bibles do not follow the same order as those found in the Hebrew bible and even then, the books are often lumped together according to type of book rather than chronology. Defining "first" can become difficult without an understanding of the chronology of the bible and so a chronological bible might be necessary for such a task.
One must also ask themselves whether it is enough that the first is mentioned in the Old Testament and not consider how it is used first in the New Testament. There are certain concepts that took on new meaning as we came to the New Testament that they did not carry in the Old Testament. At the very least their meaning was expanded in the New Testament and so to reference the Principle of First Mention could lead to a form of reductionism. This falls prey to the Diachronic priority fallacy which assumes that if a word meant on thing at one time it must mean that thing at all times. Imagine 100 years from now, someone is reading a document from a teenage guy from the 90's and comes across the word "cool." Cool in today's usage carries the meaning of "acceptable to the popular crowd." Has "cool" always had that meaning and is it logical to conclude that it will have that meaning in the future? Words gain and lose meaning in their semantic range over time while still being anchored to a root meaning.
One biblical example of this is the word κοινωνία (koinonia) in the New Testament. This word is often portrayed as a positive thing in the New Testament because of our relationship with Jesus through the Cross. According to an article by George Jourdan in The Journal of Biblical Literature, κοινωνία (koinonia) meant different things depending on who was using it. In secular Greek society, the word meant an intimate relationship or matrimonial bond, but was expanded by Philo to teach "the fellowship-relation between God and man as a complete unity." Basically, we are united with God and become one. The Hebrews obviously did not hold to such a concept. In the translation of the Hebrew word Haber κοινωνία (koinonia) was often used to mean associates in an evil work or between worshipers of a God. The emphasis according to Jourdan is on the relationship of man to man and never God to man in the Greek translation of the Old Testament the Septuagint (Jourdan). The New Testament usage of κοινωνία (koinonia) took on a different aspect in the New Testament than it did in the Old Testament.
II. It isn't consistently true
Tim Chaffey in his article Is the "Law of First Mention” a Legitimate Interpretive Principle? with Answers in Genesis mentions a common usage that seems to contradict the Principle of First Mention. According to his article, many look to the first chapters of Genesis to define the word day as a literal 24 hour period of time using this Principle of First Mention. Now, argument for a 24 hour day from Genesis 1 can be presented on other grounds, but a careful look at the text shows that the Principle of First Mention does not hold in this text. Genesis 1:5 says And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. According to this passage, Day refers to the light and not necessarily a 24 hour period of time. Depending on the Principle of First Mention to prove 24 hour days of creation will lead you down a path from which you will discredit your argument. The Principle does not hold up here.
III. Context Determines Meaning
I have mentioned this over and over again throughout this series of articles. Context determines meaning. You cannot divorce a word or doctrine from the surrounding words and paragraphs. Imagine reading that letter from the 90's kid talking about how cool Jon was because he got a pair of orange pants. Did his pants make him feel cool? Is that the meaning here? No. A contextual and historical understanding of the usage of the word is important to know the proper meaning.
So if context is so important and the Principle of First Mention is not consistently true and difficult to ascertain anyways, why do we depend on it for an understanding of bible words and doctrine. Would it not be better just to view scripture as progressive revelation and look at the whole development of a word or concept in scripture rather than depend on its first mention. Also wouldn't a deeper study of the context lead us to a proper understanding anyways? It may be time for bible teachers to reconsider the use of the Principle of First Mention.
Jourdan, George V. “ΚΟΙΝΩΝΙΑ in I Corinthians 10:16.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 67, no. 2, 1948, pp. 111–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3261768. Accessed 12 Aug. 2021.
Chaffey, T. (2018, October 20). Is the "law of First Mention" a Legitimate Interpretive principle? Answers in Genesis. https://answersingenesis.org/hermeneutics/law-first-mention-legitimate-interpretive-principle/.