Over the course of several articles I have been thinking with you about the manner in which Jesus reasoned from the Scriptures. We looked at cases of Jesus arguing on the basis of commands (Mark 12:28-31), examples (Matthew 12:1-8), and implication (Matthew 22:23-33). In this final article in this series, I want to add a few observations regarding some of the discussions I have seen over the last few years regarding these ideas.
In the first place, no one really objects to the idea that we learn from Scripture through its commands, precedents, implications. Even those who are the most vocal in their criticisms of these ideas are not truly opposed to them, for the simple reason that they invariably employ the same lines of reasoning themselves – often while arguing against them! Instead, I think critics of the command/example/implication model fall into two categories.
In the first category are those who see the legitimacy of command/example/ implication in principle, but who are concerned about its abuses. Some of those abuses include:
- Ignoring the biblical and cultural context of specific passages and cherry-picking proof-texts to support a pre-conceived notion.
- Drawing inferences that are possible but not truly necessary and binding them as if they have the same authority as explicitly stated truths in Scripture.
- Emphasizing some biblical examples but ignoring others simply because they run contrary to traditional practice.
In each case, the issue is not command/example/implication per se. The issue is bad Bible study. And there is a solution to each abuse.
- Instead of treating the Bible as a collection of disconnected bits of data, we need to read the Bible for what it is – a grand story of God’s redemptive love for His creation. The Bible has an overarching plot, and we need to read it as Paul did, when he commented on the wilderness wandering to the Corinthians: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). We also need to study passages in their literary context, and I don’t know of any better way to do this than by systematically preaching and teaching through the books of the Bible (1 Thessalonians 5:27).
- Instead of presuming upon the mind of God and binding mere inferences as if they were necessary inferences, we need to humbly acknowledge the limits of what God has actually revealed. I used to think that the Bible taught that Jesus was 33 years old when He was crucified. But of course all that Scripture tells us is that Jesus was “about thirty years of age” when He began His ministry (Luke 3:23). From the Gospel of John we can roughly estimate how many years this ministry lasted based on the number of Passover trips Jesus made to Jerusalem (possibly three – but even this is uncertain). So “about thirty” combined with approximately three years leads to an age of around 33, but nothing more definitive than that. It is so easy for the educated guess of one generation to become the inviolable dogma of the next, and when that happens, we are binding where God has not bound. The solution is to follow the counsel of James, to “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21).
- And instead of marshaling only the examples that suit us, we need to examine all of the precedents found in the New Testament and do our best to understand what God intends for us to emulate. Bible students have long wrestled with the extent to which the original cultural context of the biblical precedents does and does not apply to modern readers. But to assume (or necessarily imply!) that because some examples may not apply to us then none do is like saying since some commands in the New Testament do not apply to us (like 1 Corinthians 14:27) that therefore no commands apply to us. Surely a more thoughtful approach is needed. We just need to make sure we don’t arbitrarily rule things out just because they aren’t in our traditional comfort zone.
Those who fall into this first category of critics who have a beef with the shoddy handling of the Bible’s commands, examples, and implications would be better served by not bashing command/example/implication (which as I said in the first lesson is merely one way of describing how everyone reasons, regardless of the terminology they use), and instead pinpointing the real underlying problem. Otherwise, misunderstanding and dissension are inevitable.
There is a second category of critics of command/example/implication that I see. But the real issue these critics have is not really with the concept of command/example/implication. Instead, it is with the very concept of the sufficiency of Scripture. When the Protestant reformers argued that Scripture is the sole and final infallible authority for Christians (sola scriptura), they sharply distinguished what God has revealed in the Bible with human tradition and authority. For many of those reformers, the sufficiency of Scripture had a necessary corollary: if we are to confine ourselves to what God has revealed in Scripture, then we should refrain from what God has not revealed. This approach to the silence of the Scriptures came to be known historically as the regulative principle. One classic expression of it may sound familiar: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession of Faith I.6).
I fear that some of the critics of command/example/implication understand that such a formula is just one way of describing what it means to confine faith and practice to what is found in Scripture, and not to act when Scripture is silent – and they do not agree with this. The real issue for them is sola scriptura itself. And rejection of that principle usually leads to one of two extremes: either the embrace of external authority in the form of apostolic succession (such as the Orthodox Church), or an inner, subjective, “The-Lord-is-laying-it-on-my-heart” authority.
My approach in this series has been to look at the model of Jesus. Jesus clearly taught that human tradition must be measured against Scripture (Mark 7:1-15), and I have tried to do my best to look at these issues in light of the mind of Christ. Let us not forget that our Lord Himself only spoke when God gave Him commandment to speak (John 12:49), and only acted when God showed Him what to do (John 5:30, 36). And the reason for this was simple: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Jesus came to do God’s will, and not His own. We must do the same.
Shane Scott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For a thoughtful approach to dealing with biblical examples, see this article by Jeff Smelser.
For a sermon I recently preached that applies the principle of sola scriptura to the issue of instrumental music, click here.
For an introductory article on the “regulative principle,” click here.