1 Corinthians 4.6:
I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying, “Nothing beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.
This little phrase by Paul, “Nothing beyond what is written” is a curious phrase that has garnered multiple interpretations. Anthony Thiselton notes seven different interpretations of it: (1) it pertains to a misunderstood scribal gloss, (2) the OT in general, (3) what is written in the epistle, (4) what Paul has quoted as Scripture, (5) what was written in earlier church regulations, (6) a familiar or general maxim, and (7) a reference to the inappropriate way the audience reads letters.1 It is difficult off-hand to figure out what precisely Paul is referring to because of the lack of expansion upon the saying. To that end, whatever Paul is referring to, it is something that the Corinthians would have understood as relating to some practice they were familiar with.
Another interpretation that is related to 2, 4, and 6 can be formulated if we accept that Paul is addressing a Stoicized version of Christian teaching in 1 Corinthians.2 Among Stoics in the ancient world, it was common for them to attempt to glean some wisdom by finding some ideas that were ‘hidden’ behind the words of ancient myths such as Homer. Stoic philosophy attempted to derive some deeper sense of wisdom by finding meanings behind texts, some indirectly referred to ideas and wisdom. Undergirding this philosophy is the idea that there meanings behind the text that one is to mine and discover.
If this attempt at obtaining wisdom has pervaded the Corinthian church, then Paul’s expression of the saying has the effect of calling people away from this Stoic practice. How readily would people be tempted to try to find deeper doctrines and wisdom behind the Scriptures in an attempt to demonstrate the possession of some deeper wisdom or insight. It is probably not accidental that the other time Paul talks about people being “puffed up” in 1 Corinthians is when he talks about knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8.1. There, Paul describes an ontological account that people held about the nonexistence of idols or other gods. One could envision people reading the OT Scriptures, such as Deuteronomy 6.4, and deriving an ontological doctrine about the non-existence of other gods. Yet, Paul’s point is that to act based upon such ‘knowledge’ without regard for how one’s actions affect those who do not possess such knowledge is to go against Christ’s purposes, who died for those who did not possess knowledge (1 Cor. 8.7-13).
When Paul describes how Apollos and he speak wisdom among the mature in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16, he puts forward a different account of language and wisdom. God’s wisdom is not spoken of by the words instructed in human wisdom, but rather it is words instructed by the Spirit (2.13). To this end, it is God’s Spirit that provides insight into God’s wisdom by combining spiritual teachings with spiritual teachings, not labored reflection on the words of some Scripture to get to some meaning that is hidden behind the veil of the text. The one place where we see Paul engaging in the direct interpretation/application of Scripture in 1 Corinthians 9.8-12, Paul’s understanding of the Scripture is determined by his sense of God’s purposes, not deeper analysis of the words of the text themselves. For Paul, the application of the Torah is determined by God’s purposes, which stand at the center of God’s wisdom (1 Cor. 2.9).
To that end, we see two contrasting pictures of wisdom as it relates to the Scriptures. A Stoicized picture of wisdom sees the Scriptures as containers of deeper doctrines and ideas that are gleaned behind the text. Yet, Paul puts forward a different hermeneutic that sees God’s purposes, not doctrines and ideas, standing behind the Scripture. The Scriptures come from the Spirit of God (Cf. Rom 7.12) and one comes to understand what the Spirit is speaking by combining it with other words that the Spirit instructs a person in.
How often such a Stoic form of wisdom and interpretation pervades the Church even today! How readily do we find people trying to derive doctrines and ideas from various passages of the Bible? When teachers readily perform these feats of “wisdom” with the Bible, people look to them as intelligent, inspired, and even godly for understanding such deeper matters. Yet, perhaps Paul would say to such people “Stop being puffed up” and learn to not go beyond what is written. Without God demonstrating Himself and teaching His wisdom to those who genuinely love Him, including by loving those who Christ died for, the use of the Scriptures to pursue deeper insight and wisdom is like an inkblot test, where the purposes, desires, and values of the person determine what “wisdom” is found.
At this point, then, what doctrines we adhere to becomes largely due to the combination of personal experiences and the credibility we assign to esteemed interpreters. Personal experiences with the Scripture and the credibility of esteemed interpreters can then reinforce each other, as we give preference to the interpreters of Scripture who are more like us. So then, the Bible readily becomes culturally appropriated by cultures, while the dominant culture tends to dominate the other cultures in how the Scriptures are used, such as what we see in white evangelicals and white progressives. While they have different relationships to the “literal” reading of the Scriptures, both wings of white, Western Christianity has a predilection towards findings ideas behinds the Scriptures (whether through “literal” or “non-literal” approaches) to which their theology and ethics are built upon, that then influences, if not controls, how people within their sphere of influence are trained to read and understand the Bible. To this end, the “wisdom” of these intersections of theology and culture is largely derived from the minds of the interpreters, formed as they are by culture.
The point I am alluding to is this: whenever we think there are deeper ideas and doctrines that are being communicated behind the Scriptures, we are at risk of creating ethnocentric theologies. This then amplifies the racial tensions and divisions we see in the Church today, as people become increasingly confident in their theological interpretations, especially those people belonging to the hegemonic cultures.
On the other hand, if the leaders and teachers of the faith were not so eager to find some wisdom and theology behind the Scriptures, but to instead focus simply on what is said, it would make room in their hearts for the inspiration of God. As the Scriptures ultimately point to Christ (John 5.39), it behooves people to be instructed by the Heavenly Father by focusing on what is said, rather than gleaning something deeper meanings and doctrines behind the Scriptures. Then, they will come to Christ, not simply believing in His name but believing in Him, and let His words that are Spirit be the guide to understanding the thoughts of the Spirit when one continues in Jesus’ word. However, insofar as we place value on the ideas behind the Scriptures, to which we rely upon figures of wisdom to train us to see, the less we are trained by God and the more we become trained by human wisdom, which itself is a reflection of culture to which we grew up in.
To be clear, this is not a disregarding of scholarly study. Certainly, a study of the meanings of words and the historical culture of the time can help to narrow what various Scriptures may be speaking to. Yet, in the end, the understanding of God and His wisdom does not ultimately rest upon scholastic endeavors. God’s purposes in the Scriptures are not known by studying history and language, but they are demonstrated and made clearer to us in the person of Jesus Christ and through demonstration and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The human mind does not itself pierce behind the veil of God, but it may learn from what God unveils of Himself.
Yet, the human mind can put up a veil when God has otherwise unveiled Himself. When Paul talks about the god of this age veiling the gospel, Paul is most likely referring to the Stoic theological representation of god that prevented people from perceiving the glory of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4.3). Just as the reading of Moses leads to a veil over the minds of Jews (2 Cor. 3.15), so too does the Stoic “wisdom” about God veil people’s eyes from the glory to be seen in the face of Jesus Christ. Likewise, today, when an understanding of God is assumed to be correlated with the ability to exegete a text to propound theological doctrines expressed behind the SCriotures, the veil of human wisdom is put up in service to the implicit idol of the mind.
The theology of the Church today reflects human wisdom and understanding than many have realized. When the Church made an appeal to the categories of Greco-Roman wisdom and philosophy to put to an end heresies that had invaded the Church, it began to place greater and greater value upon the philosophical style of the Greco-Roman world to explicate the Christian faith. What better demonstration of this than the logically precise structure of Thomas Aquinas’ theology, bathed in Aristotelean philosophy (to which Aquinas at the end of life admitted was but straw).
To that end, to the degree to which Biblical exegesis and theology conform to the particulars of specific cognitive styles of analysis and observation to derive deeper and more expansive meanings, we are more like the Stoicized Christians that Paul addresses in the Corinthian correspondence than people would be comfortable to admit. Yet, praise God that even in our ignorant faithlessness, He is faithful to forgive, love, and make Himself known to us, even when our thoughts about Him have been influenced by the subtle yet powerful idolatry of the human mind and found so frequently to be in service to human wisdom!