17th August 2013

Extra-Biblical Language 

“For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:16, 22 (NIV)

From the Reformation onwards, some Christians have been wary of using words and expressions in theology that are not found in the Bible, for example, the Trinity. When the Apostle Paul preached the gospel in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire or when he was writing the epistles that later became part of the New Testament canon, he often quoted from the only scriptures available at that time, the Old Testament. 

But in his preaching and writings Paul recognised the need to build bridges with people of different cultures and, therefore, he did not feel restricted to using only quotes and words found in the Old Testament. One example is when Paul addressed a meeting at the Areopagus, the court in Athens, and quoted from what could be termed extra-biblical sources. It is generally recognised that the expression, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:28) is derived from the Cretan poet Epimenides. In this same verse Paul also states, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘we are his offspring.’” Here Paul quotes from the opening section of a poem in which his fellow countryman, the Cilician poet, Aratus, writes of the omnipotent and omnipresent power of Zeus. 

Elsewhere, in a letter to Titus, Paul gives a rather unflattering extra-biblical quote, again attributed to the Cretan Epimenides, “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’” (Titus 1:12).  Paul had no qualms about using extra-biblical quotes and language to explain and corroborate biblical themes and truths. The message itself was thoroughly biblical and Christian. Luke, also, had no qualms about recording for posterity the extra-biblical words of Paul in the book of Acts. 

As the gospel progressively spread out from the Jewish sphere of influence (Judea) into the Roman Empire at large, it did not penetrate into an ideological vacuum; there were already many competing, and sometimes contradictory, worldviews. Among the most prominent was Greco-Roman paganism and Greco-Roman philosophies (including Platonism, Aristotelianism, and the two philosophies Paul encountered at Athens, Stoicism and Epicureanism, (Acts 17:18). Some, influenced by these ideologies, raised many issues about the Gospel message. Was God the Unitarian God of Orthodox Judaism? Was he the impersonal force, the unmoved mover, of Aristotle? Was Christianity a pantheistic religion where Christians worshipped three separate Gods, (Father, Son and Spirit) as some pagans claimed? 

As a response to these challenges, the church had to review the scriptures and provide clearer, deeper and more comprehensive explanations, particularly about the nature of Jesus and of God. In so doing, it had to invent words or modify the meaning of existing words to convey Christian concepts. The word Trinity is simply a shorthand expression for a much longer definition of the nature of God derived from the Bible.

In an age where many are much more familiar with the word ‘justification’ as a computing term rather than an expression of Christian theology, the church may well need to follow the example of Paul and consider how to build bridges with today’s increasingly secular world, and how to express the Gospel in such a world without distorting its message. 

Father, we thank you for the gospel of grace and we ask for your guidance on how to express the good news in today’s secular world.

Study by Eddie Marsh


eddiemarshAbout the Author:
Eddie Marsh attends the Sheffield congregation of the Worldwide Church of God UK.

Local Congregation:
Worldwide Church of God Sheffield
Please phone or email for Meeting Place

Meeting time:
Saturday 10:30am

Local Congregational Contact:
Email: sheffield@gracecom.org.uk

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One Response to “17th August 2013”

  1. Ian Woodley on August 27th, 2013 7:36 am

    Hello Eddie
    Very thoughtful article. Thank you for sharing this in Day By Day.
    Kind Regards

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