Don’t Go beyond What Is Written

Don’t Go beyond What Is Written

The insights of Christian tradition, and the discernment and critique of fellow believers today are both valuable safeguards for us as we seek to do theology and biblical interpretation. For we must go about the task with reverence, caution and diligence, so that even as we draw out the good and necessary consequences, we do not go beyond what is written and drift too far into mere human speculation.

The Scriptures are fully sufficient to guide us to salvation, the worship of God and the godly life. We do not need to supplement Scripture with human traditions or philosophy, as if it were incomplete. However, it is important to understand that Sola Scriptura does not demand a simple kind of biblicism—believing nothing but what individual texts explicitly teach—as if that were ever actually possible. As the Westminster Confession of Faith describes:

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. (I.VI.)

In that sense, as we read Scripture, explain Scripture, synthesise the teachings of Scripture and apply Scripture, we go beyond the words of the individual texts. We need to pull together what is “expressly set down in scripture” and drawing out what may, “by good and necessary consequence…be deduced from scripture.” But there lies the risk. It is very easy, in the process of doing theology, to run afoul of one possible interpretation of the maxim “Do not go beyond what is written” (1Cor. 4:6).[1] For example, the Confession recognises that not all of Scripture is equally clear in its details (I.VII) and so those parts which are more mysterious should be understood in the light of those which are more plain (I.IX).

Biblical Language about God

This is especially true for language about God. The Scriptures use human language and human concepts to help us understand God. However, God the Father is neither biologically male nor is his relationship to God the Son anywhere near human procreation. This is the mistake that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints makes, teaching that Christ is the actual progeny of Father God. Or some discussions about the persons of the Trinity rely too heavily on human social relationships and so risk implying that each person of the Trinity were a god in community with the others. Even descriptions of God’s love or grief are distinct from the human experience of emotions which is tied to our uniquely human psycho-somatic existence. As we handle any part of God’s word, and especially those parts which speak about God himself, we need to be careful not to stray too far from that which God has said. We need to be very, very confident that we are proceeding from “good and necessary consequence”.

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