Is the “Law of First Mention” a Legitimate Interpretive Principle?

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Since the Bible is God’s Word, it is of utmost importance that Christians properly understand its message. To do that, one must learn how to rightly interpret Scripture. Sadly, many believers have never been taught basic principles for interpreting the Bible. This oversight has led to many verses being taken from their contexts and too many aberrant theologies based on other unsound methodologies.

It is often easy to pinpoint erroneous practices held by those who disagree with our positions. For example, it is quite easy for biblical creationists to spot the many interpretive mistakes made by theistic evolutionists when they propose that one can simply add the evolutionary timeline and progression of events over billions of years to the text of Genesis 1. Yet it can be a bit more difficult to spot errors made by those who share our theological views, and even when identified it is often more difficult to point them out to those on “our side.”

Nevertheless, proper interpretation of the Bible must be held in such a high regard that any deviation from sound hermeneutical principles should be corrected. Young-earth creationists are not immune to mistakes in this area. While Bible-believing Christians may occasionally disagree on the correct application of certain interpretive principles, we can all agree that using a demonstrably poor principle to defend a correct position is unnecessary, inappropriate, and unbecoming of those who are committed to upholding the truth of Scripture.

One such principle has found favor among some young-earth creationists, and it is occasionally used by others who disagree with our view. It is known as the “principle of first mention,” or sometimes the “law of first mention.” Not everyone agrees on exactly what it means. Some proclaim that this idea states that the fundamental meaning of a doctrine or concept is found the first time it is mentioned in Scripture. The rationale behind this view is that some expect God’s Word to proceed from the basic to the more complex. So, in teaching doctrine, the Bible is expected to introduce a doctrine in a fundamental or easy-to-understand manner before elaborating on it at a later point.1

Others have applied this concept to the key words in Scripture. That is, the fundamental meaning of an important word can be determined by looking at how it is used the first time in the text. R.T. Kendall explained that the “law of first mention” is “a time-honoured hermeneutical method” stating that “the way a word is first used in the Bible will be the way this word is largely understood thereafter.”2 Similarly, popular pastor David Jeremiah stated the following about this principle:

Those who study the Bible in a serious way sometimes refer to the Law of First Mention. It’s not so much a law, really, as a common principle in the Scriptures. If you select an important biblical word—say, worship—you’ll find that its first biblical appearance sets the tone for all the richness of meaning that will emerge. Through the Word we go on to find many new understandings and many variations on the theme, but the first cut is the deepest; the First Mention gives us the essential picture.3

In his commentary The Genesis Record, Henry Morris stopped just short of claiming that a word’s fundamental meaning is inexorably linked to its first mention. While discussing the Bible’s first use of the word love, found in Genesis 22:2, Morris stated the following:

We have frequently in these pages referred to the “principle of first mention,” pointing out that, when an important word or concept occurs for the first time in the Bible, usually in the Book of Genesis, the context in which it occurs sets the pattern for its primary usage and development all through the rest of Scripture. If this principle really means anything (and, in terms both of the doctrine of verbal inspiration and of numerous clear examples, it assuredly does), then it should certainly apply in a distinctive way to the word “love.”4

Morris repeatedly called attention to the “first mentions” of words in Genesis, using the exact phrase (“first mention”) more than 30 times and including an appendix with over 80 entries citing the “first mentions of important biblical words in Genesis.”5 Since Genesis is the Bible’s first book, it should be quite obvious why it includes so many of these “first mentions.”

While Henry Morris is greatly respected by biblical creationists, as he should be, he was fallible, and as a humble servant of the Lord, he would surely have been the first to admit this. So before accepting this proposed principle as an important part of our hermeneutic, we need to examine whether it is valid.

Problems with the Principle

I could not find a single book on hermeneutics that promotes this idea as a legitimate tool for understanding the text.

There are numerous problems with seeking to apply this principle throughout the Bible. These problems are likely the reason I could not find a single book on hermeneutics that promotes this idea as a legitimate tool for understanding the text. They may also be the reason no biblical writer employs this methodology to determine the meaning of a term they utilized.

Problem #1: It is Demonstrably False

The first major problem is that it fails in so many cases. I recently heard a speaker cite the “principle of first mention” to define the meaning of an important word. In this case, he said that we know the word “day” refers to a 24-hour time period because this is its clear meaning when it is first mentioned in the Bible. The major problem with this claim is that it simply is untrue. The first time the word “day” appears in the Bible is found on the first day of the creation week.

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:5, emphasis added)

The word day appears twice in this verse, and both times it translates the Hebrew noun yom. What does it mean? Well, according to a speaker I recently heard, the word refers to a 24-hour time period because that is how it is used the first time it is mentioned. However, that is clearly not the case in Genesis 1:5. It is easy to see that the first occurrence of day in the Bible refers to a period of less than 24 hours, because it only refers to the daylight portion of the day.

The example given by the speaker failed to support his point. Obviously, the meaning of this word is extremely important for believers involved in debates over the Bible’s teaching about the age of the earth, but using a demonstrably false argument does not help our case. Instead, using such an argument may weaken our case in the minds of our detractors because they can refute such a claim and think that our other arguments are just as invalid.

Let’s look at another example to show why this principle is not very helpful. The third word of the Hebrew text of the Bible is ’elohim, which in this verse is correctly translated as “God.” In fact, this word appears over 2,000 times in the Old Testament and roughly 90 percent of the time it does indeed refer to God. One might argue that this is the word’s fundamental meaning, for it certainly is the most common meaning; but the word also refers to beings who most certainly are not God. For example, the Ten Commandments begin with the command, “You shall have no other gods (’elohim) before me” (Exodus 20:3). Of course, this verse refers to the prohibition of worshiping the gods of the surrounding nations. But the word ’elohim is also used to refer to angels (Psalm 8:5; cf. Hebrews 2:7), demons (Deuteronomy 32:17), and the spirit of Samuel6 called up at Saul’s request by the medium at Endor (1 Samuel 28:13). So even though God is by far the most common and significant translation of ’elohim, it would be inaccurate to say that this is the word’s fundamental meaning. By comparing the four other ways it is used in Scripture (false gods, angels, demons, and the departed spirit of a man), we can reasonably claim that the fundamental meaning of the term is to identify an entity whose primary abode is the spiritual realm.

Problem #2: Context Determines the Meaning

One of the most important principles in hermeneutics, if not the most important, is that the context determines what a given word means in a given setting. If the principle of first mention should be followed, then we could easily make all sorts of interpretive mistakes.

One of the most important principles in hermeneutics, if not the most important, is that the context determines what a given word means in a given setting.

For example, the first mention of the word seed is found in Genesis 1:11, and it refers to the seeds of various plants. Although this is the most common use of the Hebrew noun zera throughout Scripture, most Christians would likely disagree that it is the most significant meaning. Just two chapters later, we read that there is enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, and that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. Since this is generally viewed as a Messianic prophecy, then surely this use of zera is more significant than a seed that is dropped into the ground.

Later in Genesis, we see the word used in another way. God tells Abram [Abraham] that he would give the land to Abraham’s descendants (zera). The Greek word sperma is often used to translate zera in the Septuagint, and it is frequently used in the New Testament in much the same way as zera. Paul cites the promise to Abraham several times. In Galatians 3:16, Paul uses the fact that zera is a collective noun (as is the Greek sperma) to make the point that the promise made to Abraham about his zera was about Jesus Christ. Interestingly enough, in Romans 4, Paul cites the same promises about Abraham’s seed and this time focuses on Abraham’s many descendants.

These two different uses of zera/sperma are very significant, but they do not match the first use of the word in Genesis 1:11. And there is another important use of sperma in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 15:35–45, the planting of seeds is used to set up a metaphor for the nature of man’s resurrection body. How could we ever understand the meaning of these key passages if we resorted to the principle of first mention?

Defenders of this principle certainly agree that context is important in determining the meaning of a word. But this brings up the next problem with the proposed principle.

Problem #3: Too Flexible to Be a Genuine Principle

If the “first mention” is supposed to set the stage for the meaning of a given term throughout Scripture but can be overridden by the context of other passages, then what is the point in even talking about the “first mention”? Why would it even matter how it is used the first time in the Bible if the meaning is determined by the word’s context?

Can we really build a standard hermeneutical principle upon a practice that only works some of the time?

Of course, several examples could be given where the first mention of a word is the primary or most important definition, as we saw with ’elohim earlier. But can we really build a standard hermeneutical principle upon a practice that only works some of the time?

As we have seen, some proponents hold to a softer version of this principle. That is, instead of the first mention providing the word’s primary or most important definition, the first mention at least establishes the tone for all the richness of meaning that will emerge. Putting this version of the principle into practice makes the definition so vague as to strip it of value. Even if the first mention introduces us to a word and hints at some of the deeper meanings of the term, we still need to look at the context in which it is used to determine its meaning. Once again, the first mention principle carries little, if any, interpretive value.

Problem #4: A Word Might Have Multiple Significant Meanings

The principle of first mention also fails to account for the fact that many key biblical terms have multiple significant meanings that are not at all apparent at their first mention. Take the word light, for example. The first mention of this word appears in Genesis 1:3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The word is contrasted with darkness in the following verse. Clearly, the meaning of this word in context refers to something that illuminates a given area to enable sight, and in this case to distinguish between day and night. Keep in mind that this verse does not refer to the creation of the sun, which was created on the fourth day.

Many key biblical terms have multiple significant meanings that are not at all apparent at their first mention.

This is the most common use of the Hebrew word ’or and the Greek term phōs that is roughly equivalent to it. Both are regularly translated as light throughout the Old Testament and New Testament, respectively. Certainly, this an important word, but is this use truly the most important meaning of the term? Does it establish the richness with which the term would later be used? Consider John 1:9, which tells us that Jesus, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” Or what about Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)? While there are similarities between these two uses of light, the former refers to literal physical light while the latter is used metaphorically to refer to the spiritual illumination that God gives to man. Indeed, it would be difficult to demonstrate that the first mention of light in Genesis 1:3 could ever properly introduce the profound meaning described in the Gospel of John.

One final example will drive this point home. Clearly, word is a vital concept in Scripture, which uses this term with different referents. Yet two of these referents are extremely important, and neither one of them matches the first use of the term, as we will see shortly. But this example also raises another crucial problem with the first mention principle. To apply this principle consistently, one must use the original languages of Scripture rather than relying on English translations. But some who tout the first mention do not really use the actual first mention because they are looking at an English translation that used a different English word to translate the same Hebrew word found elsewhere. For example, Morris cites Genesis 15:1 as the first mention of word. In this verse, it refers to the “word of the LORD.” But this is a translation of the Hebrew term dabar, which actually appears for the first time in Genesis 11:1 in which we are told that the whole world had one speech (dabar).7

So the first use of this term for word in Scripture has to do with the one language man shared prior to the Babel event. But the Bible definitely uses this term with much deeper meanings that would never have been guessed given the first mention in Genesis 11:1. For example, the second appearance of dabar is the passage cited by Morris: “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision” (Genesis 15:1). Here and in many other Old Testament passages, word refers to “a message from or about God.”8

Some Christians have suggested that in passages about “the word of the LORD” coming to someone (in some cases, there was more than basic communication from God taking place) that the second Person of the Trinity was making an appearance to that individual. After all, the New Testament identifies Jesus Christ as “the Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). While it is plausible that the preincarnate Christ appeared in some of these cases, there is no reason to insert this idea into each Old Testament passage referring to the “word of the LORD.” Regardless of one’s view of this issue, the fact remains that either view carries a markedly different meaning than the first mention of dabar.

Is it fair to compare the first mention of dabar (Genesis 11:1) with its use in Genesis 15:1 where it appears as part of a phrase? Perhaps not, but this raises two more problems with the first mention principle.

First, those who hold to the principle of first mention as it concerns words or phrases generally agree that this principle holds across both testaments. That is, the first use of the word or phrase in the Old Testament has significant bearing in our understanding of the equivalent word or phrase in the New Testament. But if this is accurate, then remember that Jesus is famously referred to as the “Word” (Greek logos in John 1:1, 14). If one wants to limit the principle to each testament, so that we need to find the first use of logos in the New Testament, then one will be disappointed to learn that the Greek word is first used in Matthew 5:32 where it refers to the “reason” (Greek logou) of sexual immorality as a basis for divorce (the first use with identical form, logos, in the Greek New Testament is in Matthew 5:37). Whether one points to the first mention of the Hebrew or the Greek term for word does not in any way set us up for the rich, profound use of logos in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

The second problem for those who seek to use the principle of first mention for the entire phrase is also a problem for many Christians who use theologically imprecise reasoning at this point.

The phrase “word of God” is used in at least three ways in Scripture. All of them are significant, but many Christians conflate these phrases and introduce serious error. Consider the following verses:

On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. (Acts 13:44, emphasis added)

And he [Paul] continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. (Acts 18:11, emphasis added)

He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. (Revelation 19:13, emphasis added)

The first verse cited above refers to the message Paul was about to give to the crowd of Jews and Gentiles that had gathered in Antioch. Undoubtedly, his message contained references and allusions to Scripture, but he obviously did not read the entire Old Testament to them. The “word of God” in the second verse is closely related to the first use, but it likely refers to the Scriptures as a whole, at least those that were written up to that point. These two uses are tied closely together: one speaks of a message based on Scripture, and the other likely refers to Scripture itself.

The third use above is very different because it refers to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This third use causes many Christians to mistakenly conflate the uses of “the word of God.” This error is not limited to those who use the principle of first mention. Yes, the Bible can be called “the word of God” because it is divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit. Its message is from God though it was penned by human writers. Jesus Christ is also called “the Word of God,” but this does not mean that Jesus is the same as the Bible. Many Christians have mistakenly created a syllogism that looks something like this:

Jesus is the Word of God,
The Bible is the word of God,
Therefore, Jesus is the Bible.

There are two problems with this argument. First, it is not in the form of a valid syllogism, so the conclusion does not follow from the premises. From a logical perspective, the argument tells us only two things that are contained within the idea known as “the word of God,” but these two things do not necessarily overlap. Second, the argument commits the equivocation fallacy. That is, what is meant by “the word of God” when referring to Scripture is very different than what is meant by “the Word of God” when referring to Jesus Christ.

If you are having trouble following this idea, think about these points. The Bible was not born of a virgin—Jesus was. The Bible did not die on the cross for the sins of the world—Jesus did. The Bible did not rise from the dead—Jesus did. Jesus is not made up of 66 divinely inspired books—the Bible is. Jesus has not been burned in book piles by various wicked authorities—the Bible has been. Jesus did not begin to exist when the Holy Spirit inspired the first words of Scripture to be written—the Bible did.

Yes, there are similarities between the Bible and Jesus Christ. For example, both have a human and divine element. Scripture was inspired by God and written by man. In a similar (not identical) sense, Jesus is fully divine and fully human. To help maintain the proper distinction between the two, some theologians have called the Bible “the Word of God written” and Jesus “the Word of God incarnate.”

If the principle of first mention is a legitimate hermeneutic guide, then we are bound to conflate the Scriptures with Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God.

Conclusion

While undoubtedly having good intentions in helping people understand the Bible, many Christians have promoted the principle of first mention. However, this principle is never found in the pages of Scripture.

While undoubtedly having good intentions in helping people understand the Bible, many Christians have promoted the principle of first mention. However, this principle is never found in the pages of Scripture. You never find any statement in Scripture referring back to the first use of a word simply because it is the first use as the basis for understanding its meaning. In addition to this difficulty, we have considered four major problems with this principle: it is demonstrably false in many cases; the meaning of a word is dependent upon context; it is too flexible to be a genuine principle; and a word might have multiple significant meanings.

It may be interesting to consider how the Holy Spirit inspired the text of Scripture to be written and how a word is used the first time it appears. In some cases, this use does carry profound meaning that sets the stage for the way it is used throughout Scripture. However, the instances where this idea might be applicable do not warrant labeling it as a genuine principle of biblical hermeneutics because it will inevitably lead at least to the errors outlined above.

Footnotes

  1. David L. Cooper, “The Law of First Mention,” Biblical Research Monthly, 1947-9, 48, http://www.biblicalresearch.info/page48.html.
  2. R.T. Kendall, Understanding Theology, Vol. 2 (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 178.
  3. David Jeremiah, My Heart’s Desire: Living Every Moment in the Wonder of Worship (Nashville: Integrity Publishers, 2002), 63.
  4. Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1976), 374–375.
  5. Ibid., 687.
  6. Some believe the spirit in this passage was a demonic imposter instead of the departed spirit of Samuel. While we need not be dogmatic to support the point of the paragraph, it is important to point out that the spirit spoke of what would happen. That is, what he predicted actually came to pass—Saul and several of his sons died the next day in battle. More importantly, the narrator of the account identifies the spirit as Samuel multiple times.
  7. Technically, the plural form of this word appears in Genesis 11:1. The text essentially says that the whole earth had the same “words” (debarim). However, this does not invalidate the point being made above. For example, in Exodus 4:30, “Aaron spoke all the words [debarim] that the Lord had spoken to Moses.” Attempting to apply the “first mention” principle would mean that the first use of debarim (man’s language before Babel) is more profound than the words that came from God to Aaron via Moses.
  8. F.R. Ames in Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 913. Ames states that the phrase translated as “the word of the LORD” appears 242 times in the singular and 17 times in the plural in the Old Testament.

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