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BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (2): The Doctrine of Christ


One passage cited by some as “proof” that we must have specific “authority” for everything we do in the service of Christ is 2 John 7. The pertinent passage has a variant reading in the Greek texts. As follows:

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. [NIV]

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. [KJV]

Going Ahead or Transgressing?

The KJV follows one variant while the NIV follows the other. One variant has προαγων (proagon), which means “to go before, to go first” or (as a participle, which it is here) “to be in advance of.” The other textual variant has παραβαινων (parabainon), which means “to step by the side of; to deviate; metaphorically, to transgress.”

There is no significant difference in the meanings when applied to the doctrine or teaching of Christ. Each of these means to deviate from teaching of Christ, either by running ahead of where He leads or by crossing a line laid down in the teaching.

Teaching of Christ or Doctrine of Christ?

There are, however, two ways of understanding “the teaching of Christ” or “the doctrine of Christ.” These two expressions come from the same Greek phrase, as teaching is also doctrine, which is also teaching.

When you teach, what you teach is doctrine. In English, we sometimes call this the teaching. Greek has one word for either of these; this word is translated either the doctrine or the teaching. Either is correct, for they mean the same thing.

Doctrine/Teaching By Christ or About Christ?

There are two ways we can understand the phrase, “the doctrine/teaching of Christ.” It can either be “the doctrine about Christ” – that is, the teaching about who He is as the Son of God or Word of God that became flesh and dwelt among us. Or, it can mean “the doctrine that comes from Christ” – that is the doctrine Christ taught. This would also include the doctrine taught by His apostles, whom He sent and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The Greek allows either of these ways of understanding the phrase. One is called “the objective genitive,” which would mean Christ as the object of the teaching – or the one of whom the doctrine speaks. The other is called “the subjective genitive,” which means that Christ is the one doing the teaching, whether He Himself teaches or through His apostles and prophets.

You must look at the context to see which of these is meant any time this phrase occurs.

In context, 2 John 7-8 says:

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the anti-christ. Watch out that you do not lose what you hvae worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. [NIV; the KJV is not significantly different]

This is a teaching about who Christ is. He is the one who is come in the flesh. The text is a warning against those who do not acknowledge Jesus is the Christ who is come in the flesh. They deny the teaching of the gospel about the Christ. This would suggest that the doctrine of Christ is an objective genitive.

However, verses 5 & 6 read:

And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. [NIV; again, the KJV is not significantly different]

These verses speak of a specific command that Jesus gave. It is His command that you walk in love. He said,

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. – John 13:34-35

This part of the context would suggest that the doctrine of Christ is the teaching that comes from Christ. This would mean this phrase is a subjective genitive.

The Greek construction allows us to understand this phrase either way, depending on the context. In this instance, the context does not settle the question one way or the other.

So, how are we to decide? Much ink has been used on both sides of the issue. There are noted scholars that believe each way.

Albert Barnes in his Notes on the Bible has this to say:

The language is somewhat ambiguous, like the phrase “the love of Christ,” which may mean either his love to us, or our love to him. Compare John 15:9. It is difficult to determine here which is the true sense – whether it means the doctrine or precepts which he taught, or the true doctrine respecting him.

Does It Make Any Difference?

I believe that the argument here is much ado about nothing.

If you take the doctrine of Christ to mean the true teaching about Jesus, you will want to obey everything that He and His apostles have taught. To do otherwise would be extremely foolish.

If you take the doctrine of Christ to mean what Christ taught, you will need to accept what He and His disciples taught about Himself. You will believe He is the incarnate Son of God.

So, What’s the Point?

What does make a difference, however, is that in either case we limit ourselves to what Christ taught.

There is a difference between what Christ taught and what many say He taught.

For example, some quote John 3:16 to “prove” that people are saved by faith without baptism. That is not what Christ taught.

Peter said:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. – 2 Peter 3:16.

How do we distort the Scriptures? When we allow our inferences and assumptions to take the place of the simple Word of God given for our instruction. How many times do we have assumptions that determine our doctrine – where God has not spoken clearly.

For example: Some brethren honestly believe that the fruit of the vine used in the Lord’s Supper must be alcoholic. They assume, perhaps rightly, that Jesus used wine (alcoholic) at the Last Supper; they point to the Corinthian church where some were becoming drunk during the Lord’s Supper. God says nothing about what the cup is to contain other than that it was “the fruit of the vine.”

Did you notice the assumptions in this conclusion? First, they assume that Jesus used alcoholic wine. Second, they assume that we must use the same physical element He used or we sin, that the kind of physical element (which is not described, but inferred) is more important than the heart of the worshipers.

Is it right to use assumptions and inferences to say those who use non-alcoholic juice from the fruit of the vine are sinning? Some do say that. Are they teaching the doctrine Christ taught? Or do they go beyond what He said with their inferences and assumptions adding to His Word?

The same can be said of many doctrines held dear by many good people. It is not that it is wrong to do the things they do in the way they do them – just as it is not wrong to use alcoholic wine at the Lord’s Table.

It becomes wrong when we make our inferences and assumptions about the things in the Scripture equivalent to the doctrine of Christ.

This is what the Jews did concerning the Law of the Sabbath. Their traditions about the Sabbath defined every conceivable action as either acceptable or not acceptable on the Sabbath. They had “logic” behind most of their traditions. Yet, at the end of the day, they did not understand the Sabbath rest God gave them to be a blessing for them. They made the Law what Peter called “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10).

We need to take care that we do not fall into the same trap. Does our zeal to obey all of God’s commandments lead us to “discover” commandments that do not come from God, but from our own imaginations? When we, then, “bind” such commands on all, on pain of withdrawing fellowship from those who do not obey these “commands,” we transgress and do not abide in the teaching of Christ.

Hence, we must rigorously examine our teaching to see if it is really from God – or if we have supported our teaching with unspoken assumptions and un-necessary inferences.

NEXT (3): Contrary to the Doctrine

PREVIOUS (1): Beyond What Is Written

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2 Responses

  1. Jerry,

    I think this is a very fair handling of this text. This is funny: While reading your post, I googled the term “subjective genitive” to see if it only applied to Greek or if it also applied to English. On the first page of google for “subjective genitive” were Al Maxey’s and Wayne Jackson’s respective discussions of this text! So I guess I can assume (within the COC, at least), that this passage is the very embodiment of “subjective genitive.”

    Jackson’s analysis was the same of yours (perhaps surprising)–the only difference was, he didn’t conclude by talking about binding our inferences and assumptions, rather, he just says that while the scripture is subj. genitive, total context would require that we’d still follow all “teaching done by Christ.”

    Of course, Jackson also doesn’t like the idea that us agreeing on “teaching Christ in the flesh” with others would mean that we’d fellowship with them. He writes:

    “The professor [JMF: professor is Carroll Osburn of ACU] makes it clear that, in his judgment, the threshold for Christian fellowship is merely the conviction “that Christ is the Son of God” (p. 90). Such matters as observing weekly communion, the use of instrumental music in worship, the dogma of premillennialism, or, for that matter, whether baptism is “for,” or “because of,” the remission of sins, are issues of no serious consequence to him. He would throw wide open the doors of Christian fellowship to those who subscribe to any of these notions. And he is a teacher of our youth!”

    This is definitely an interesting subject.

    (BTW: Thanks for taking on my elephant-of-a-question yesterday! I am preparing a response tomorrow. Thanks for all your help, Jerry.)

  2. Yes, I am sure that Wayne Jackson and I part ways on the issue of not including our inferences and deductions from the Scripture as being included in the teaching of Christ. Actually, I also have read his article on this text – as well as that of Al Maxey. I do not remember what conclusion Al reaches on whether this is a subjective or objective genitive – but I do not (and did not) in my post take a position. Both the grammar and the context permit either conclusion. My chief point was that it does not make any difference for the practical result of either is the same. If the teaching is that which Christ does (subject doing the teaching, hence a subjective genitive), we will certainly believe what He teaches about Himself. On the other hand, if we believe the teaching is about Christ (i.e., the teaching has Christ as its object, which makes it an objective genitive), if we believe that Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh, we will want to believe and obey all that He teaches because of who He is. So, there is no practical difference.

    My ending observation was that we should make sure we teach what the Bible teaches – and not contaminate the teaching of the Bible with our own conclusions that spring from unnecessary inferences and deductions of our own very subjective minds. This, I believe, is the classic restoration hermeneutic. There is nothing “new” about this – except in insisting that we actually follow what we have, as long as I can remember, insisted on others doing. Any study of the history of hermeneutics in the Church of Christ will be able, I believe, to verify this.

    I look forward to your comment on my reply to your “elephant-of-a-question,” as you put it, on the Holy Spirit!

    Jerry

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