Christianity 201

August 29, 2017

Precept Upon Precept

When I wrote this article for Thinking Out Loud, I was expecting to write about three paragraphs. When I was finished it was much longer, and something that I felt would have been a good of not better fit here…

It began with a  conversation I had last week at the local Christian bookstore concerning Bible features. As the guy was looking at one in particular, he said, “Oh good, it’s got the precepts.”

The first time, it didn’t really register. Then he looked at another and said something like, “Does it have the precepts?”

Huh?

It turned out he was talking about what most of us would call cross references; the notations of other passages either in a center column or at the end of the verse where something related may be found.

The idea of ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ is taken from Isaiah 28:, 9-10 in the KJV. The NASB has:

To whom would He teach knowledge, And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast?  “For He says, ‘Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.’”

The NLT is really contradictory to this idea on its rendering of this:

He tells us everything over and over–one line at a time, one line at a time, a little here, and a little there!”

implying that the learning or teaching or knowledge is linear, but not necessarily cumulative. In other words, one line at a time, doesn’t mean that line B is necessarily building on line A, but to say upon is to imply that it is or does.

(In case you’re wondering if there’s any irony to be found, you’re wrong; the verse itself is reiterated in scripture, albeit 3 verses later in verse 13.)

As we discussed this the idea of “Out of the mouth of two [or three] witnesses was brought into the conversation. This is found in the Old Testament twice.

The one condemned to die is to be executed on the testimony of two or three witnesses. No one is to be executed on the testimony of a single witness. (Deuteronomy 17:6, Holman)

A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15, CEB)

Those OT passages are cited in the NT by Jesus and by Paul.

But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Matthew 18:16, NIV)

This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  (2 Corinthians 13:1, ESV)

In the Corinthian example, you have to go back to the previous chapter to get the context. Paul is speaking about sorting out matters concerning people who have been found in sinful practices.

Capital crime. Wrongdoing. Sin. Denial of Sin. Nowhere do these passages suggest something related to “the establishing of doctrine.” But don’t get me wrong:

I believe the Bible always corroborates itself on matters of important doctrine.

In other words, it’s internally consistent. I’m just not sure that we need to force it [scripture] into a situation where everything has to be said twice or three times in order to establish a doctrinal pattern, or make it conform to an overarching systematic theology. Or, to come at it differently, it may reinforce something but in an entirely different way than our Western way of thinking can process too simply.

I think to do so is to doubt the value of what we read the first time. It’s saying to God, ‘Now, if you’ll just show me one more time where you say this, then I’ll obey.’ I think that undermines the text somehow. That doesn’t mean to imply that at a crossroads of life we don’t ask God for confirmation of what we are to do. There is the example of Gideon, who put out a second fleece.

So what are precepts? Yourdictionary.com says

precept pre·cept. … The definition of a precept is a guiding principle or rule that is used to control, influence or regulate conduct. An example of a precept is a commandment found in the Ten Commandments.

At that we would need to get into the differences between a rule and a principle. Principles are timeless, never location-specific, widely applicable. Rules apply to one group of people in one particular situation at one unique point in time. The rest of that we need to save for another day.

A cross-reference is simply:

•noun: cross reference; plural noun: cross references
–a reference to another text or part of a text, typically given in order to elaborate on a point.

Anyone who has been reading the Bible for any length of time knows that sometimes the Bible editors have chosen to take us to a reference to a rather obscure part of the verse, not something which indicates its overall meaning. There are times when I have been completely mystified as to the inclusion of a particular reference. Many of you know the danger of over-spiritualizing things, and I don’t want to be guilty of under-spiritualizing something, but… They’re. Just. Cross-references.

Here’s my concluding statements on this:

We read scripture not so much because we’re trying to learn precepts as we are recognizing the importance of understanding the ways of God.

and

If God is saying something to us with unmistakable clarity through a scripture passage, we don’t need to start hunting around looking for a second verse.

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