Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beyond the Looking-Glass: Exegesis and Humpty Dumpty

One of my favorite works of fiction for children is the Alice pair: "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass." Although there is a lot of silliness in the work, a few of the points that are made have worked their way into popular thought. One of the characters in the work is Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty, as you ought know, is the fairy-tale egg that sat on the wall, but in "Through the Looking Glass" he has a conversation with the main character Alice:
`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs, they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

`Would you tell me, please,' said Alice `what that means?`

`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

`That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'

`Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

`Ah, you should see `em come round me of a Saturday night,' Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: `for to get their wages, you know.'

(Alice didn't venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can't tell YOU.)
- Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter VI

In this dialog, Humpty Dumpty is using words in a sense that is quite far from their ordinary sense and insisting that he is perfectly within his rights to do so. It would be problematic if people spoke this way, since we would always have to ask them to explain what they mean. Thankfully, normal people are not so obtuse as to use "glory" to mean "a nice knock-down argument" or "impenetrability" to mean "we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life."

Humpty Dumpty is an obviously silly character, who pays off words to mean what he wants them to mean. As silly as he is, though, one can imagine a still sillier character: one who pays off words used by someone else to mean what he wants them to mean. This reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ism is sadly far too common - and it comes in two forms.

The first form of reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ism comes in the form of those who eisegete a disputed text. Thus, for example, there are those who practice reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ism in the discussion of John 3:16. The reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ist will insist that "so" in "For God so loved the world" is intensive (rather than demonstrative) and that "world" means "each and every person." Why? Well, apparently this reverse Humpty Dumpty paid off the words to mean what he wants them to mean. That's not the sense the author (or translator) of the words intended, but that doesn't matter to the reverse Humpty Dumpty.

The second form of reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ism finds itself expressed in folks who refuse to accept someone else's explanation of his own words. We see this from time to time from the papists who insist that we mean "papist" as an insult or that we mean "pope-worshiper" by "papist" even when we provide explanation that this is not the case. These are the sorts of easily-ridiculed folks who insist not only that they are the masters of language but that they are the masters of our language: that they (not we) determine the meaning of the words that come out of our mouths.

It is one thing to object with Alice that "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument," and it quite another to insist that Humpty Dumpty means glory in the usual sense. The former is a quirky obtuseness, the latter is an antisocial bullheadedness. After all, it is simply a part of honest dialog to let the person with whom one is conversing speak for themselves: putting words in their mouth via reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ism is simply nefarious.

Thankfully, again, such persons are few who will not accept the explanation of what a person means. There only a few buffoons who will continue to insist "Oh no, you mean 'x'" after you have explained that you mean 'y'. Not so with those who eisegete Scripture.

Sadly there are many who would never do this with another person's words, but will do this with the text of Scripture. The investigation with such people ceases to be an honest inquiry into what the author (or translator) meant by the word but an exercise in power:
`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'
When we investigate Scripture, we need to let the Scriptures themselves be the guide and master as to their meaning, just as we would do for someone with whom we are speaking.

We cannot with Alice directly interrogate the text:
`Would you tell me, please,' said Alice `what that means?`
Nevertheless we can seek out that answer with a variety of tools, such as looking to the context, the original languages, and the other usages of a particular word by the same author.

Thus, in the case of John 3:16 we will discover that "so" is demonstrative and that "world" is never specifically personal in John's writings. Thus, through careful study of what John meant, we can ascertain the sense of his words, rather than pulling a reverse-Humpty-Dumpty-ism.

To do this, we need to be careful not to let our preconceptions be the guide. We need to assiduously avoid approaching the Bible as though it were there for us to extract support from. Instead, we should treat the Bible as the Word of God: even if we do not respect our fellow men enough to let them speak for themselves, we should respect God enough to let his Word speak for itself.



Anonymous said...

I don't know of any interpretation that takes "world" in John 3,16 to be specifically personal. The term is clearly collective. The corporate nature of God's people is prevalent throughout the scriptures, shown by various terms like sheep, fold, church, people, body, Israel, elect -- all corporate terms that don't respect specific persons.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and this type of thinking generally leads one to "reason" like the Queen:

"There is no use trying," said Alice; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

--john cottonpicker

Turretinfan said...


Since you've never heard of it, you'll just have to take my word that some people interpret John 3:16 as saying "Jesus loves you" to each and every person.

If you're simply pointing out that this is a very wrong understanding of the verse, I agree.


Anonymous said...

Here's how I respond to someone who says that "Jesus loves you". "Well, He may well have "loved" you....".

"Jesus loved Lucifer before he did what he was permitted to do". God doesn't love him and he doesn't love God anymore! The lake of fire is appointed for Satan and his angels, which is "Eternal damnation".

I have received "Eternal" Life as a Gift because of His Faith at work in me now.

There is an area of "creative" reproduction that needs to be gotten at I believe.

Just as I married and we have sons, so it seems from Scripture the door is opened to the idea or rationale of fallen angelic beings conjugating or joining with the daughters of men and producing offspring. There is no mention of fallen angels being destroyed during the days of Noah and the flood! In fact, I wrestle continually now with principalities and powers of spiritual wickedness. Don't you?

I believe here is the origins of the reprobation and there are some among us who exist who do not have their name written in the Book of Life because their origin is not of God, but of the devil himself or one of his own.

It is these that I believe the Angel points too when he was sent to reveal to John Jesus in the Book of the Revelation and these are those from every generation who will also be cast into the lake of fire:::>

Rev 20:15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

What the select Elect can do is take their shelter in the Names of God and receive all the help necessary to make it out of this world alive. It is "His Faith" in me that overcomes the world that hates me and is against Christ in me, the Hope of Glory:::>

Psa 124:1 A Song of Ascents. Of David. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side-- let Israel now say--
Psa 124:2 if it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us,
Psa 124:3 then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us;
Psa 124:4 then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us;
Psa 124:5 then over us would have gone the raging waters.
Psa 124:6 Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth!
Psa 124:7 We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!
Psa 124:8 Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.