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Intended Scope

Intended Scope

Rule 3. We may not ascribe statements or assertions to a biblical author which lie outside his intended scope.

“The sacred books need not exclude any of the forms of expression which were commonly used in human speech by the ancient peoples, especially of the East, to convey their meaning. Such forms are only then excluded when they would be incompatible with God’s sanctity and truth”.

Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Denz. 2294 (3829-3830).

We explain this rule at the hand of the following famous examples:

  1. half affirmations and opinions
  2. doubts in Kohelet's mind
  3. image and teaching in the creation stories
  4. the intended scope of Jesus' words and deeds
  5. the intended scope of the ‘household codes’

Half affirmations and opinions

Diplomats usually possess an uncanny mastery over speech. In fact, they owe their very name to this quality of careful, if not ambiguous, expression! Have you ever reflected on the infinite variety of affirmation that is at your disposal? Discussing the United Kingdom’s acceptance or rejection of the European currency, British politicians may make remarks as the following:

“Britain will surely enter the European currency !”
“What ! a European currency without Britain”!?
“Britain’s staying out of the Euro is highly improbable. ”
“Britain may, perhaps, join the European currency.”
“Britain might very well join the European currency.”
“It is not excluded that Britain might enter the common currency.”
“I do not know if Britain will ever become member of the European currency.”
“Doubts can be raised as to Britain’s eventual entry into the European currency.”
“It seems unlikely that Britain will ever take part in the European currency.”
“It’s my opinion that Britain will never join the European currency”.

It should be noted how such statements contain much more than simple affirmations or negations. They express a whole range of assertion: from absolute certainty down to probability or opinion.

What happens if such statements are inspired? Could 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 Cor. 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 sum total 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 that it does not matter how many people he baptized, because the important thing is that they were all baptized in Jesus’s name: this basic affirmation with all nuances is what he actually asserted by the Holy Spirit!

Doubts in Kohelet's mind

The author of Kohelet wrestles with a real problem: What is the purpose of life ? What gain has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun ? (Koh. 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 a man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?” (Koh. 6/12). He even raises questions about life after death: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other, They all have the same breath, and man has 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 spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Koh. 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 (Koh 8/12; 12/1; etc), but his problem as to the ultimate purpose of this hard life of man 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. Here again 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.

Image and teaching in the Creation stories

In Gen. 1,1 - 2,4a we read about the creation of the world. The author presents us with a very schematic picture of six days. In the course of these six days God is narrated to have created all things according to the scientific picture of the universe entertained at that time: a flat earth with the dome of the sky as roof and the sun and the moon as lamps ! What did the inspired author want to affirm ? Was he teaching science ? Did he mean us to take the six-day scheme literally ? An analysis of the text makes clear that he only wanted to instruct us in the truths of faith, that God created everything, that he made all things beautiful, that he crowned human beings as kings and queens of the universe, that he wants people to worship him every seventh day. This the author wanted to affirm, and this it is, too, that God wants us to know and believe! Astronomy, science or biology were outside his scope.

Take the so-called contradictions in scripture! They certainly do exist, but not between assertions or affirmations affecting the teaching. Contradictions will be found to adhere to the accidental trappings under which the affirmation lies hidden. Gen. 1,20-28 (in the first creation story) recounts human creation as the last crowning feature of God’s creative work. Gen. 2,7 (in the second creation story) makes God begin with human beings. The contradiction concerns the image used, not the fundamental affirmation intended in both passages. that human beings rank highest among all creatures made by God

The intended scope of Jesus' words and deeds

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

What does Jesus want to affirm? Surely the need of fraternal charity (“do you likewise”, vs. 37!), and not the actual 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 St. John’s Gospel that Jesus possessed a small fund of money (Jn. 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.

Let us proceed further by studying another text. Jesus, we are told, prayed for a whole night. Then he called certain people to himself, ‘those whom he wanted’. They were the twelve apostles, chosen to help him announce the Kingdom of God.

“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).

These were twelve men. There was not a single woman among them! On other occasions, the Congregation for Doctrine argues, Jesus showed great sensitivity to women. ‘More than once he broke with social custom in their regard. But not here. He refused to take even one woman into the apostolic team. It proves that Jesus did not want women to become leaders in his Church! By deliberately not selecting even one woman, he excluded women from priestly ordination for all time to come’.

The argument fails because it goes beyond the intended scope of Jesus' action.

  • For all twelve apostles were Jews; there was not a single non-Jew among them. But does it then follow that Jesus wanted only Jews as bishops and priests?
  • Also, all twelve apostles were free persons; not one among them had been born in slavery. Would that exclude former slaves from ordination?
  • Why then would his choice of men rather than women be a deliberate exclusion?

The truth is that Jesus chose twelve free, Jewish men because in the social conditions of his time that was the most practical thing for him to do. Jesus had only a limited scope: to begin the recruitment of future leaders. In no way did he intend to decide for future generations that certain categories of people should be excluded from leadership. That was clearly outside the scope of his action at that moment.

The intended scope of the ‘household codes’

The same applies to what the New Testament says in the socalled household code passages. They suggest how people in different conditions of life should behave. Here is one typical extract:

“WIVES, be subject to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
HUSBANDS, love your wives. Do not treat them harshly . . .
SLAVES, obey your earthly masters in everything; not only when you are under their supervision, as if you only had to please human beings, but with sincerity, out of respect for the Master. Whatever your job is, put your whole heart into it, as a service to the Lord and not for human beings. For you know that the Lord will repay you by making you his heirs. It is Christ the Lord that you are serving . . . .
MASTERS, treat your slaves justly and fairly. Realise that you too have a Master in heaven”.

Colossians 3,18 - 4,1; see also Ephesians 5,22 - 6,9; 1 Peter 2,18 - 3,7; 1 Timothy 6,1-2.

The scope of such passages is, obviously, to encourage Christian households to live together in harmony. Christian leaders probably copied the practice of having such lists of instructions from the Jews, who used to instruct proselytes in similar ways. The specific form the suggestions take derive partly from a new Christian perspective and partly from the standard expectations of society at the time. The intention is to guide Christian families within the specific situation of the time.

D.DAUBE, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, London 1956, pp. 90-140, 336-351; D.SCHROEDER, Die Haustafeln des Neuen Testaments, Hamburg 1959; J.E.CROUCH, The Origin and Intention of the Colossian Haustafel, Göttingen 1972; W.LILLIE, ‘The Pauline House-tables’, The Expository Times 86 (1975) pp. 179-183.

And that is also their limitation. For the catechists who taught these household codes did not address such fundamental questions as the basic equality of men and women, or the inalienable right of every slave to be a free person. That was simply outside their scope. Such basic matters are touched upon elsewhere, when Paul asserts that there is no distinction between men and women, free person or slave, Greek or Jew (Galatians 3,28; Colossians 3,11; Romans 10,12). Here the purpose is simply immediate, practical advice.

It is, therefore, entirely mistaken to claim that these household texts give inspired backing to slavery or to the subjection of women to men. But this is precisely how they have been used by theologians in the past, and how they are still being used by some fundamentalist Christians today. The mistake lies in imputing an intention to the inspired authors which they did not have.

Costly mistakes have been made by people who read Scripture superficially; who believe it is the sound of the words and not the intention of the speaker that matters; or who infer an intention into a text that was outside the scope of the biblical author.

The rule of the intended scope is closely related to the other rules:

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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