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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
On Christian Doctrine: Chapter 2

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 2.—Rule for Removing Ambiguity by Attending to Punctuation.

2.  But when proper words make Scripture ambiguous, we must see in the first place that there is nothing wrong in our punctuation or pronunciation.  Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to p. 557 be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things.  But if both readings, or all of them (if there are more than two), give a meaning in harmony with the faith, it remains to consult the context, both what goes before and what comes after, to see which interpretation, out of many that offer themselves, it pronounces for and permits to be dovetailed into itself.

3.  Now look at some examples.  The heretical pointing, 1834In principio erat verbum, et verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat,” 1835 so as to make the next sentence run, “Verbum hoc erat in principio apud Deum,” 1836 arises out of unwillingness to confess that the Word was God.  But this must be rejected by the rule of faith, which, in reference to the equality of the Trinity, directs us to say:  “et Deus erat verbum;” 1837 and then to add:  “hoc erat in principio apud Deum.” 1838

4.  But the following ambiguity of punctuation does not go against the faith in either way you take it, and therefore must be decided from the context.  It is where the apostle says:  “What I shall choose I wot not:  for I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better:  nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” 1839   Now it is uncertain whether we should read, “ex duobus concupiscentiam habens” [having a desire for two things], or “compellor autem ex duobus” [I am in a strait betwixt two]; and so to add:  “concupiscentiam habens dissolvi, et esse cum Christo” [having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ].  But since there follows “multo enim magis optimum” [for it is far better], it is evident that he says he has a desire for that which is better; so that, while he is in a strait betwixt two, yet he has a desire for one and sees a necessity for the other; a desire, viz., to be with Christ, and a necessity to remain in the flesh.  Now this ambiguity is resolved by one word that follows, which is translated enim [for]; and the translators who have omitted this particle have preferred the interpretation which makes the apostle seem not only in a strait betwixt two, but also to have a desire for two. 1840   We must therefore punctuate the sentence thus:  “et quid eligam ignoro:  compellor autem ex duobus” [what I shall choose I wot not:  for I am in a strait betwixt two]; and after this point follows:  “concupiscentiam habens dissolvi, et esse cum Christo” [having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ].  And, as if he were asked why he has a desire for this in preference to the other, he adds:  “multo enim magis optimum” [for it is far better].  Why, then, is he in a strait betwixt the two?  Because there is a need for his remaining, which he adds in these terms:  “manere in carne necessarium propter vos” [nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you].

5.  Where, however, the ambiguity cannot be cleared up, either by the rule of faith or by the context, there is nothing to hinder us to point the sentence according to any method we choose of those that suggest themselves.  As is the case in that passage to the Corinthians:  “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.  Receive us; we have wronged no man.” 1841   It is doubtful whether we should read, “mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus” [let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit], in accordance with the passage, “that she may be holy both in body and in spirit,” 1842 or, “mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis” [let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh], so as to make the next sentence, “et spiritus perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei capite nos” [and perfecting holiness of spirit in the fear of God, receive us].  Such ambiguities of punctuation, therefore, are left to the reader’s discretion.



John 1:1, 2.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was.


This Word was in the beginning with God.


And the Word was God.


The same was in the beginning with God.


Phil. 1.22-24.


The Vulgate reads, multo magis melius, omitting the enim.


2 Cor. 7:1, 2.


1 Cor. 7.34.

Next: Chapter 3

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