Chapter One


"His (Burnett's) work is a tour de force, and stands as a worthy predecessor to many fine works of Catholic apologetics being authored by lay people of our time." - Cardinal William J. Levada

1. A proper method of inquiry

"The investigation of truth, the art of ascertaining that which is unknown from that which is known," says the profound and philosophic Starkie, "has occupied the attention and constituted the pleasure as well as the business of the reflecting part of mankind in every civilized age and country."

This has resulted, not only from the ineffable beauty of the object sought, but also from the transcendent importance of this knowledge to our happiness. Inquiries into truth in no case can be so important as those that relate to knowledge of our duty, our destiny, and ourselves. For the knowledge of these truths that affect us in this life only, can bear no greater proportion to those relating to our future state, than does the limited period of human life to eternity itself.

To form a clear, accurate, and just conception of a subject is the legitimate end of all fair and honest investigation. And no end can be attained without the use of proper means, and no correct solution of any question arrived at, but by adopting the proper method. "The human mind is so limited," says Dr. Johnson, "that it cannot take in all parts of a subject; so that there may be objections raised against anything." This being true of our limited capacity, it is only by confining our attention to one particular at a time, and carefully estimating its force, and then passing to others in succession, that we can arrive at any clear conception of a subject. The mechanic who constructs a chain, makes each link separately!

It is not only necessary to use the proper means, and pursue the proper method, but we should carefully remove all obstacles that may weaken the legitimate force of any argument that may be presented to the mind. Nothing is more important for this purpose than calm impartiality. All prejudices should be manfully cast aside, and no one should enter upon the investigation of any subject with any preconceived antipathies against it. He that has preconceived antipathies had better not investigate at all, for then he will at least save his labor.

The ingenious mechanist, seeking to invent a machine for a particular purpose, enters upon his project with a mind perfectly open to conviction. He is ready to adopt a good suggestion from any source. He knows that all his fond attachments to a particular theory, if wrong, will avail nothing. All the world may desire his success, and yet his machine will not go. He cannot force the laws of nature. Equally inflexible are the laws of truth – they cannot be forced. And so it must be with the inquirer after truth. He must be impartial, just, and determined, to be successful.

The great art of investigation is to begin at the beginning, to keep our minds attentively fixed, in succession, upon the main points of the controversy – those essential elements that make up its very essence. Then with impartially, and with just discrimination, apply the leading principles of the system to cases as they arise. In most controversies, there are certain great leading and essential principles, either conceded by the candid approval of both parties, or satisfactorily proven, which, if fairly and legitimately carried out will lead, by a certain and sure process, to the right conclusion.

It is well known to every jurist and lawyer, that almost every new and at first perplexing case, not governed by statutory law, arising in our courts of justice, is eventually decided by legitimate extensions and applications of well-known and familiar principles. The difficulty that exists is in the extension and application of the principle to new predicaments of fact. The judge who possesses discrimination and impartiality in the highest degree, is most certain to arrive at the correct conclusion. The power to discriminate between a just and a false application of a principle belongs to the highest order of mind.

All the parts of every system of truth must be perfectly consistent with each other. All the facts, and series of facts that have existed at any time from the beginning of the world to the present age, were consistent and harmonious in every particular. The existence of one does not displace that of another. They no more conflict with each other, than do the stars of heaven. Each occupies its place in the vast chain of events.

All the parts of a true system, as well as all facts, are not only thoroughly consistent one with another, but they all bear a certain relation to each other, more or less intimate. As all the events that ever did occur were connected with certain other events – with some as their causes, with others as their effects – so, all the truths of a true system are, in the same way, connected with each other.

If in the investigation of a certain system, we can find its leading principle, then by patient and honest application and extension of this principle, we shall be led, step-by-step, to the discovery of other principles. And finally we shall be enabled to arrive at the whole truth.

Language is but a medium through which a writer or speaker conveys to his readers or hearers, such ideas existing in his own mind as he intends to communicate to them. The character of this medium, which is simply artificial and arbitrary, is fixed by the existing usage at the precise time the words are written or spoken. This usage may give the words a figurative or literal meaning.

The object of every fair writer or speaker is to place, in the minds of others, an exact copy of his own thoughts. In doing this, he selects words and phrases best adapted, in his opinion, to accomplish the end intended. If the writer or speaker understands the existing usages of the language he employs as a medium of thought, he selects those terms, which will most accurately convey his true meaning to others. For this reason, the construction put upon the words of a writer or speaker by his contemporaries, is generally the correct one. There are exceptions to this general rule, for the meaning may be misapprehended. These exceptions are special cases, to be judged by the special circumstances of each particular case.

The philosophic author Georg Hermes, has expressed his views upon this subject in the following beautiful terms:

For what is conversation between man and man? 'Tis a mutual intercourse of speaking and hearing. To the speaker, 'tis to teach; to the hearer, 'tis to learn. To the speaker, 'tis to descend from ideas to words; to the hearer, 'tis to ascend from words to ideas. If the hearer in this ascent can arrive at no ideas, then he is said not to understand; if he ascends to ideas dissimilar and heterogeneous from the speaker's, then he is said to misunderstand. What then is requisite that he may be said to understand? That he should ascend to certain ideas treasured up within himself, correspondent and similar to those within the speaker. The same may be said of a writer and reader.

2. Inclusive reference rule, in interpreting Scripture

Construction should be upon the entire Scriptures, taken and construed together, so as to give free force and effect to all the passages.

The rule at law for the construction to be placed on statutes and written instruments is substantially the same as the construction to be placed on Scriptures, with one exception, which will be stated in its proper place.

One part of a statute must be so construed by another, that the whole may (if possible) stand.

It is an established rule in the exposition of statutes, that the intention of the lawgiver is to be deduced from a view of the whole, and of every part of a statute, taken, and compared together.

The construction ought to be upon the entire deed, and not on any particular part of it. And such construction should be given, that, if possible, every part of the deed may be operative.

The reasons for this sensible rule are very simple. It is presumed that the lawmaker intended something by each and every provision of the statute, and that he also intended to be consistent with himself. As a mere human legislator may, and often does, contradict himself, the courts will only give force and effect to the different provisions so far as possible. Such a limitation will not apply to the divine law, which is consistent, and not contradictory.

There are many examples in the Scriptures that show the necessity and propriety of this rule. In one place we are substantially told that we are saved by keeping the commandments – in another, by grace – in another, by the blood of Christ – in another, by baptism – in another, by faith. These different provisions are not at all in conflict with each other, and may, therefore, be so construed together as to give force and effect to all. The correct construction would be that we are saved by the agency of all these requisites taken together.

The violation of this fundamental rule has, perhaps, led to more errors than any other. We have a notable instance in the temptation of our Lord by Satan, when he said:

If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down; for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.

This proposition was very acutely made, and the quotation to sustain it seemed very appropriate. But the poor devil had forgotten that another passage of Scripture must also be construed with it, and, consequently, his learning was completely put down by the reply of our Lord: "It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."

3. Single author rule, in interpreting Scripture

All the texts relating to the same subject must be considered as written by the same person, having a perfect knowledge of all that has been written before, the reader making fair allowance for the difference in the style of the writer, and the different character of the existing circumstances.

The rule of law that requires all statutes relating to the same subject, though passed at different times, to be taken and construed together, is substantially similar to the above rule. The rule at law is based upon the presumption that the lawgiver was competent, and therefore acquainted with the state of the law as it existed at the passage of the act, and had the previous laws in his mind when framing the statute.

These laws being in pari materia, and referred to in the one giving us jurisdiction, must be taken as one law.

The framers of statutes may be, and are sometimes ignorant of the existing state of the law. This fact may possibly render the rule subject to exceptions in special cases.

But the rule I have laid down in reference to the proper construction of Scripture is not subject to such exceptions. The whole having been dictated by the same infallible Spirit must be held equally entitled to our confidence. The prima facie presumption of competency in a human becomes conclusive when applied to a Divine Lawgiver.

4. Meaning in context rule, in interpreting Scripture

Words of unlimited meaning are yet to be restricted by the general scope and intent of the system.

Among the examples to be found in the Scriptures, coming within this rule, it will be sufficient to mention the one found in the sixteenth chapter of Saint John's Gospel, where our Lord tells His Disciples that, "when he, the Spirit of Truth, is come, he will teach you all truth." The phrase all truth is exceedingly broad, yet it must be restrained by the general scope and intent of the system Christ came to establish. It was no part of His system to teach mere truths of science. The latter class of truths cannot be embraced in the phrase "all truth."

The rule is founded in the principles of sound interpretation. At law it is substantially the same. A statute may contain very broad and sweeping terms, and yet they are restrained to the scope and intent of the act. The provisions of the seventh amended article of the Constitution of the United States, which, in general terms, secures the right of trial by jury in all cases where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum of twenty dollars, is confined to trials in the Federal tribunal. It does not prevent the States from restricting the right of trial by jury to controversies involving a larger sum than twenty dollars.

5. Principles apply in the widest sense rule, in interpreting Scripture

When a general principle is laid down in general terms, and without exceptions stated at the time, or in any other portions of the Scriptures, it must be taken in its widest sense compatible with the general scope and intent of the system.

It is the practice of all lawgivers to state general principles embracing a whole class of cases, in general terms, and then to state the exceptions to the general principle specially. The form or manner of the statement of these exceptions is not at all material. They are often stated expressly as exceptions, and defined to be such; but they are often stated simply as special provisions in reference to special cases, without any express statement that they are express exceptions. In either case they limit the meaning of the general clause. There are some principles embracing all cases, and without exception; while there are other principles that embrace only a great majority of cases, and are, therefore, subject to some exceptions.

In regard to the latter class of principles, it is matter of convenience first to state the general principle in general terms, and then afterwards to state the exceptions specially. We will suppose that the general principle would embrace ninety-eight out of each hundred cases. It would then be very difficult to state each of the ninety-eight cases separately, while it would be very easy to state the two cases as exceptions.

6. Limitation of exceptions rule, in interpreting Scripture

When such exceptions to the general rule are stated in any part of the Scriptures, they are to be taken out of the operation of the general principle as exceptions, leaving the general principle to govern all the other cases coming fairly within the import.

This rule is properly but a branch of the fourth rule, but it will be found useful in practice. Both these rules are substantially the same as those applied in similar cases at law. There are often general statutes passed, embracing a great many cases, and yet liable to exceptions. These exceptions are often stated in the body of the act as exceptions – they are often stated in the same act, but not in the form of exceptions, but as provisions for particular cases, and they are often found in separate acts relating to special cases, which would otherwise come within the general principle. These special acts, as a general thing, have no express reference to the general act, but their provisions in their very, nature are special, and must be taken out of the general principle, because they conflict with it.

To state a case in point: There was a general act passed by the legislature regulating the Practice at Law. In this act there was a general provision requiring all process to be served upon the defendant by reading the same to him. There were many different forms of action, and in reference to one form of action, "Petition in Debt," there was a special act, and a clause in this act requiring the process to be served by delivering a copy of the writ to the defendant. There was no express reference in this special act to the general Practice Act, and yet there was no doubt as to the correct construction. In "Petition in Debt" the process had to be served by copy, and in all the other cases by reading.

Among similar examples in Scripture, it will be sufficient to mention one or two as illustrative of these two rules. It is said that we are saved through the merits of Christ. This is a general principle without any exception. Again, it is said that "All things are possible with God," but Saint Paul says that, "God cannot lie." This is a case of exception to the general rule. Consider also, "Ask, and you shall receive," and "You do not receive because you ask amiss."

7. Natural construction rule, in interpreting Scripture

The natural, simple, and literal construction is to be preferred, unless there be something, either in express words or in the context, to show a figurative meaning.

The rule at law is substantially the same. "The words of a statute," says the learned Commentator on American Law, "are to be taken in their natural and ordinary signification and import; and if technical words are used, they are to be taken in a technical sense."

The rule I have laid down is founded upon the grounds of reason and experience. That construction which is most obvious, simple and natural, is generally the most correct in reference to any writer; and before this rule should be departed from, there should exist good reasons for such a departure. As every writer and speaker is supposed in simple justice to himself, his subject, and his readers or hearers, to select the most natural and simple terms, so the general rule must be in accordance with that presumption.



Peter H. Burnett. "Chapter 1." from The True Church: The Path Which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church (Antioch, CA: Solas Press, 2004).

This article reprinted with permission from Solas Press.


Peter Hardeman Burnett (1807-1895) was an American politician and the first state Governor of California, serving from December 20, 1849 to January 9, 1851. He was the author of The True Church: The Path Which Led a Protestant Lawyer to the Catholic Church.

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