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Principle 3. Limited Scope


We may not ascribe statements or assertions to a biblical author which lie outside his intended scope.

When people speak or write they do so within a specific context and with a restricted purpose. It is not fair to quote authors 'out of context'. The same applies to scriptural authors.

Interpreting Scripture Correctly


What do we mean by 'limited scope'?

Some people imagine that every sentence in an inspired text is an absolute statement. However, that is not true. Sacred Scripture uses ordinary human language, and our everyday speech and writing is full of queries, half-finished thoughts, exaggerations and emotional reflections on reality.

Can God inspire a probable statement, a doubtful remark or a mere opinion? The answer is: yes. And: God affirms no more nor less than what is affirmed by the human authors. In other words: if the human author asserts a doubtful statement, God’s inspiration will not change the nature of the assertion. It will remain an inspired, yet doubtful remark!

It is Saint Paul who provides us with a classical proof. Speaking with great indignation he says to the Corinthians:

“Or were you baptized in the name of Paul ?
(A.) I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius! Lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name.
(B.) I did baptize also the household of Stephanas.
(C.) Beyond that I do not know whether I baptized anyone else."
1 Corinthians 1/13-16

We can follow Paul’s thought. With some vehemence he states that he baptized no one except Crispus and Gaius (statement A). It then comes to his mind that he also baptized Stephanas’ family (statement B). He ends up expressing his mind as in doubt: “I do not know whether I baptized anyone else” (statement C). It is a really human way of speaking. All three statements have to be read together, since the second and third correct the first one. Moreover, the sumtotal of the three statements remains a doubt.

Does the fact of the text’s inspiration change this human aspect? Does it make a dogma of each of these statements? Does it turn the doubt into a certainly? Of course it doesn’t! Paul’s basic affirmation is that it does not matter how many people he baptized, because the important thing is that they were all baptized in Jesus’ name: this basic affirmation with all nuances is what he actually asserted by the Holy Spirit!

Human statements are limited in scope. They have a variety of purposes which limits the extent of what the author really wants to say. It is important to recognise such limitations.

An example from the Old Testament

The author of Kohelet wrestles with a real problem: What is the purpose of life? What gain have we human beings from all the toil and strain with which we toil beneath the sun? (Kohelet 2,22). It is a theme repeated over and over again by the author. Life stands before him as one great question mark: “Who knows what is good for human beings while they live the few days of their flimsy life, which passes like a shadow?” (Kohelet 6/12).

Kohelet even raises questions about life after death:

“For the fate of human beings and the fate of the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” Kohelet 3/19-21

The author does not succeed in finding a complete answer to his question. He affirms faith in God who will punish the wicked and reward the good (Kohelet 8/12; 12/1; etc), but his problem as to the ultimate purpose of this hard life of human beings remains!

What to make of this inspired book ? The answer is simple. God inspired a philosopher, a thinker, not to make statements but to raise questions.

It was his task to make his contemporaries think, to make them realize that indeed suffering and death are - humanly speaking - insoluble riddles. It was only the revelation and redemption brought by Jesus Christ that would provide God’s solution to these problems. Inspiration followed the nature of the book inspired: the author meant to put his finger on a problem without providing a full solution. God inspired him to do precisely that much and nothing more.

The limited scope of Jesus' words and deeds

In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus states: “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho ..." Luke 10/30

What does Jesus want to affirm? Surely the need of fraternal charity (“do you likewise”, verse 37!), and not the historical occurrence of the incident!

Jesus says: “The Son of Man has no stone to lay his head on.” Matthew 8,19

Was Jesus interested in teaching us about stones? Did he mean that he literally could not find nor buy a stone to lay his head on? In fact, we know from John’s Gospel that Jesus possessed a small fund of money (John 13,29). What Jesus wanted to affirm was, consequently, his complete detachment from earthly possessions.

Jesus stated: “ Do not call yourself ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers and sisters. Call no man ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Matthew 23,8-9

Does Jesus really forbid these titles? What did he have in mind?

“I tell you, do not take any oaths . . . . Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” Matthew 5,33-37

Does Jesus ban the taking of sworn statements in court? Was that his real intention? Notice, Jesus himself speaks under oath in Matthew 26,63-64.

“Do not offer resistance to violence. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other too.” Matthew 5,38-41

Does Jesus veto self defence? Does he prohibit a state to have police, or an army? What did he want to say? Note how Jesus himself protests when he is struck on the cheek (John 18,22-23). Read also Romans 13,4.

Jesus' statements often have a limited scope. They should not be interpreted to include more than he wanted to say, but according to the meaning he intended.

Case study: did Jesus endorse slavery?

In the Gospel of Luke we read the following parable:

Suppose one of you has a slave who returns from the fields after ploughing or minding the sheep, will the owner say to him: ‘Sit down now and have your meal’?
Will he not more likely say: ‘Get my supper ready. Tidy up and serve me while I eat and drink. You yourself can have your meal afterwards’?
Will he be grateful to his slave for doing what he was told?
In the same way, when you have done all you have been told to do, say: ‘We are only slaves. We have done no more than our duty.’ Luke 17,7-10

The keeping of slaves was endorsed by theologians and church authorities alike on the basis of scripture texts like the parable in Luke. For the involvement of the teaching authority, see here. In 1866 the Holy Office (precurson of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) declared in an instruction signed by Pope Pius IX:

"Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given".

The decision was, among other texts, based on Jesus' presumed teaching in Luke 17,7-10. But did Jesus intend to endorse slavery?

To begin with, see this video:

For a more detailed explanation, read this document.

After completing the case study, please, return to this lesson.


Exercise: Jesus did not choose a woman among the apostles

The Gospels tell us that Jesus chose twelve men to become leaders in his movement. There was not a single woman among them.

“These are their names: first Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew; James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.”
Matthew 10,1-4; Mark 3,16-19; Luke 6,13-16

The Congregation of Doctrine in Rome and Pope John Paul II have repeatedly stated that, in choosing only men, Jesus laid down a perpetual norm that cannot be broken. Therefore, they state, only men cannot be admitted to ordained ministries.

"In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time." Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994

Try, if you can, to answer these questions:

  1. What was Jesus' intention is appointing the twelve apostles?
  2. How can we determine who Jesus wanted to include or exclude in the future?

Click here to find further clarification




course overview


The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.