‘A universal proverb among Christians’

Driving one Sunday morning up US Highway 45 in Tennessee, on our way to report on our work to a congregation outside of the town of Dyersburg, we passed a denominational church building with a sign posted near the right-of-way. It was simple, with three words, one on top of the other: Scripture, Tradition, Reason.

In truth, in order to reflect that group’s positions, the order ought to be reversed: reason, tradition, scripture. The denomination could not exist were it not for human reasoning and religious tradition, because its name and its teachings do not appear in Scripture in any form.

Division among people who call themselves Christians is a serious problem. Religious leaders not only justify it, but promote it. They glory in human names and creeds. They impose their doctrines and, like the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, make their followers “twice as much a child of hell as” themselves, Matthew 23.15.

The apostle Paul thought division to be the destruction of the gospel of peace. When it occurred within the church in Corinth, he attacked it fiercely. Among the many problems there, it was the first to be addressed. He spent more space in his letter devoted to division than any other.

At one point in his several arguments to restore unity in Corinth, Paul appealed to a saying current among Christians. The saying was so widely used among them that he knew they would immediately recognize it and understand its application to their situation.

Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying: “Nothing beyond what is written.” The purpose is that none of you will be arrogant, favoring one person over another, 1 Corinthians 4.6 CSB.

Burton Coffman wrote,

Not to go beyond what is written … is in the Greek literally, “Not beyond what is written.”[21] “These words must be a sort of quotation, or in any case a standing expression,”[22] associated with the preaching of Paul and all the apostles. It has the effect of a universal proverb among Christians, “well known to the Corinthians, so that Paul could assume the words to be clear.”[23] Russell declared the meaning to be: “The things which are written … no special text, but the teaching of the scriptures as a whole, which no leader, however gifted, may supersede.”[24] “This was a catch-cry familiar to Paul and his readers directing attention to the need for conformity to scripture.”[25] There is no need to multiply scholarly support of the usual view of this place; no other explanation is tenable. [See the link, below, to the original post for references.]/1

Coffman rightly says that the compressed saying “has the effect of a universal proverb among Christians.”

  • The point of the proverb: If it’s not in the Bible, don’t teach it, don’t practice it, don’t promote it; follow only what is written in Scripture.
  • Paul’s application: Scripture says nothing about exalting human figures as a means of creating and pushing your party, so stop preferring one servant of God over another.
  • Our implementation of it: Unity comes from requiring only what the Bible requires, teaching only what the Bible teaches, practicing only what the Bible enjoins.

In modern times, Christians have used other proverbial statements to capture the nature of faith.

  • Speak where the Bible speaks, be silent when it is silent.
  • Do Bible things in Bible ways; call Bible things by Bible names.
  • No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible.
  • In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.

These are all good sayings, useful as jumping-off points for teaching about the gospel. Even better, however, are proverbs that rise from Scripture itself. And few are more useful and needed today than the ancient proverb: “Nothing beyond what is written.”

1/ James Burton Coffman. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:4”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament“. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999. Accessed 2019-08-05.

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