The Danger of Going Beyond
Paul writes (4:6), “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written ...” In the NRSV this reads, “... so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, ‘Nothing beyond what is written.’”
John writes of this same danger in his Second Epistle, v.9: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” The NRSV: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”
The AV/KJV is most unhelpful in its rendering of Paul’s meaning in 4:6: it reads, “... that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written” - which misses the point.
The danger that Paul and John are pointing out, in its most basic form, is a dissatisfaction with the silences of Scripture, and an attempt to “add in” the information which Scripture does not give.
In many cases this is completely harmless: as when a Sunday School teacher embroiders one of the stories of Scripture to make it more vivid for her Sunday School class. Harmless, that is, provided the details she adds are validly taken from what we know of the situations in Bible times, and are not misleading.
And there are many “traditional” details which have been added to biblical narratives to the point where most people would believe that they are part of the original account. One example would be that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate an apple (Genesis does not name a fruit, calling it “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” [Genesis 2:17; 3:3].). Another would be that the wise men who visited Jesus as a babe were three in number (Matthew 2:1 simply calls them “wise men from the east”, their number unspecified).
In the early church many people felt that the information about the life of Jesus given in the Gospels was a little too sketchy, and so various accounts were written which “filled in the details”: the different infancy stories. In similar fashion numerous “Acts” were written to tell of other experiences of Paul and the rest of the apostles. Some were merely speculative fictions; some contained heterodox teaching.
Somewhere here we should draw the line as to what is acceptable. Paul says, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Certainly we should not be more strict or less strict than Scripture in its moral code. This would certainly be encompassed within the prohibition of Revelation 22:18-19 about adding to or taking away from the words of this book. And however one interprets precisely the binding and loosing of Matthew 18:18, it can be agreed that this verse forbids both the “tightening” and “loosening” of what the laws of God allow or proscribe.
Yet this is precisely what some in the church of God have done down the ages. This is one of the things for which Jesus castigated the Pharisees, who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). And this is still what some Christian leaders and teachers do today: adding requirements for the Christian life or godly behavior for which the Bible gives no warrant. And forbidding things where no such prohibition is found in Scripture, neither explicit or implicit: in fact, there are quite a few sins which the church has invented - they are nowhere found in the Bible. Some such issues will arise in the course of our consideration of this Epistle, and I will draw attention to them at that time.
Then on the other hand there are matters explicitly disallowed in Scripture which some churches today will permit; or else commanded in Scripture which some churches today will not require of Christians. In some such instances, the apologists for differing from Scripture will say, “It is because the biblical teaching on this matter was culturally conditioned, and culture has changed.” Now, there can be a considerable extent to which this is so: but even when a biblical command or prohibition is expressed in a cultural context there is normally an eternal truth in it which we need to understand and apply even in our different culture. But often it is simply a situation where biblical standards differ from the patterns of behavior of our present world, and the temptation is always to conform those biblical standards to what is to be found in the world around us.
Instances of all these situations are to be found in this Epistle, and will call forth careful consideration.
But we have this word of warning from John: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” And this instruction here from Paul: “learn through us the meaning of the saying, ‘Nothing beyond what is written.’”
For down that path lies danger.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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