The Irreducible Minimum. -- By: John Franklin Genung

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 071:283 (Jul 1914)
Article: The Irreducible Minimum.
Author: John Franklin Genung


The Irreducible Minimum.

A Study Of Gospel Study

John Franklin Genung

Nature,” reports the genial Tristram Shandy, “had been prodigal in her gifts to my father beyond measure, and had sown the seeds of verbal criticism as deep within him as she had done the seeds of all other knowledge, so that he had got out his penknife, and was trying experiments upon the sentence, to see if he could not scratch some better sense into it. ‘I’ve got within a single letter, Brother Toby,’ cried my father, ‘of Erasmus his mystic meaning.’ ‘You are near enough,’ replied my uncle, ‘in all conscience.’ ‘Pshaw!’ cried my father, scratching on, ‘I might as well be seven miles off.’ ‘I’ve done it,’ said my father, snapping his finger. ‘See, my dear brother Toby, how I have mended the sense.’ ‘But you have marred a word,’ replied my uncle Toby. My father put on his spectacles—bit his lip—and tore out the leaf in a passion.”

One suspects that Tristram, with his subtle sense of humor, is poking fun at something larger than his father’s naive erudition. A hint more serious than mockery lurks beneath the fun. The story reads, in fact, like a clever parable, in which

not the whimsical Tristram Shandy but his creator, the Rev. Laurence Sterne, whose genius for insight we know, touches with keen yet kindly satire upon a thin spot in scholastic research. There is no call here to draw its moral. Its appeal, like that of all parables, is to those who have ears to hear; and like all humorous exposition it is a caricature. But it lays bare all the more clearly for that the core of the thing it travesties. It clears the air. It deals a subtle jolt to the desperate solemnity which besets some pursuits, and gives play to the more genial human sense. And as soon as the tolerant sluiceways of humor are thus opened, one can see for oneself, without being told, that interpretative methods whose essence is erasure, like Father Shandy’s penknife, and whose net proceed is not a creation but a residuum, may still leave “Erasmus his mystic meaning “as untouched, as free to make its intrinsic way, as ever.

Erasmus his mystic meaning is no longer a burning question, if it ever was; but there still remain questions just as weighty and meanings just as mystic. To each generation come new needs, new problems, new outlooks; and the solvent, the interpretative method, prevailing in each era is, adapted to the mood and temper of the time. To praise the method in vogue is superfluous. Its dominance, and its indispensable service to its age, is its own praise. But as soon as one service is fully rendered, forthwith another falls due; ano...

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