by Layton Talbert
This article first appeared in FrontLine • July/August 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
The most effective way to illustrate the importance of context in Bible interpretation—and simultaneously to address an equally important doctrinal issue—is to present a real-life case study.
Gordan Fee and Douglas Stuart have written a mostly helpful little book on hermeneutics titled How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It is instructive on two different levels: (1) it offers some good advice on how to interpret the Bible with an emphasis on context (though I disagree stridently with their approach to certain passages); and (2) it often exposes, quite unintentionally, the flaws in a New Evangelical approach to passages that argue against their positions and practices.
In order to illustrate the importance of reading every passage of the Bible exegetically (i.e., reading with a view to extracting from the text and its context the author’s original intent), they cite the following experience:
For example, one of the authors of this book recently received a letter from a well-known evangelical, who argued that the author should not appear in a conference with another well-known person, whose orthodoxy was somewhat suspect. The biblical reason given for avoiding the conference was 1 Th. 5:22: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” But had our brother learned to read the Bible exegetically, he would not have used the text in that way. For that is Paul’s final word in a paragraph to the Thessalonians regarding charismatic utterances in the community. “Don’t treat prophecies with contempt,” Paul says. “Rather test everything; and hold fast to the good, but avoid every evil form.” The “avoidance of evil” has to do with “prophecies,” which, when tested, are found not to be of the Spirit (pp. 20–21).
The authors make a valid point here. A verse is not an isolated statement; it is a sentence (or part of a sentence) that is part of a paragraph of thought, and that paragraph-context is crucial to interpretation. So let’s examine 1 Thessalonians 5 for ourselves, contextually and exegetically.
Exegetical Overview of 1 Thessalonians 5
Paul has just completed a theological/eschatological section on the rapture and the day of the Lord in chapters 4–5. He begins his closing exhortations in 5:12.
12–13 form a unit of exhortation to the Thessalonians regarding their relationship to those who minister among them and lead them.
14–15 form a unit of exhortation regarding their relationship to one another in particular and to unbelievers as well.
16–18 form a unit of exhortation regarding their relationship to God, as manifested in their own spirit and in prayer.
19–22 form a unit of exhortation regarding their relationship to . . . what? Fee and Stuart say the context centers on “charismatic utterances.” What does that mean? Let’s look at the context.
Verse 19—Do not resist or stifle (literally, pour water on, as if to douse) the Holy Spirit. Why? This is one of Paul’s earliest epistles (ca. A.D. 51). Probably their only access to written Scripture was the OT. So the Holy Spirit was the key Agent in their understanding and growth in NT-age doctrine— as well as the One who empowered and directed them for ministry. Thus, Paul commands, don’t “quench” His ministry among you. How was that ministry manifested? What forms did it take? The next verse elaborates.
Verse 20—Do not despise (i.e., treat with contempt) prophesyings. These are the “charismatic utterances” to which Fee and Stuart refer. But what do they mean by that? Do they mean “tongues”? If so, we immediately have an exegetical problem with that view. Paul never mentions tongues in Thessalonians. In fact, the only place he does mention tongues is 1 Corinthians 12–14.
On the other hand, Paul does mention “prophecy” in a number of passages. He mentions it frequently in 1 Corinthians 12–14, where he emphasizes a distinction between tongues and prophesying.
Fee and Stuart’s undefined reference to “charismatic utterances” is notoriously unhelpful. The untutored reader has little choice but to accept the scholarly authors’ word that 1 Thessalonians 5:22 simply doesn’t apply to the issue of separation.
What Are “Charismatic Utterances”?
In fairness to Fee and Stuart, they do clarify elsewhere (though, regrettably, not in this book) that they do not have merely tongues in mind. In his book Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, Fee identifies “prophesying” as the most frequently mentioned of the “charismata” (grace gifts). Prophesying, he explains, refers to “spontaneous, understandable messages orally delivered to the gathered assembly, intended for the edification or encouragement of the people. . . . [T]he prophet spoke to God’s people under the inspiration of the Spirit” (pp. 170–171). Paul requires in 1 Thessalonians 5 that they “weigh all such Spirit utterances in light of his own apostolic teaching. I would assume that the same holds true for all believers in all generations” (p. 173).
What Is Prophesying?
We generally color that word with the idea of prediction or foretelling the future. But in Biblical usage, prophesying frequently communicates the simpler idea of proclamation or forthtelling of already-revealed truth. “Prophecy” actually has less to do with prediction and more to do with proclamation. Read the OT prophets attentively, and you will discover that though their messages often include a predictive element, most of what they are doing is proclaiming, preaching, or exhorting God’s people. A prophet is a spokesman for God. And the measure of a prophet is his conformity to the Word of God (Isa. 8:20).
Even Fee and Stuart acknowledge this predominant nature of Biblical prophesying: “To see the prophets as primarily predicters of future events is to miss their primary function, which was to speak for God to their own contemporaries” (p. 166). In a different context, they understand and acknowledge this fundamental idea of prophesying. But in the pinch of a passage that would otherwise seem to contradict their position, they either massage the exegetical facts or leave them undefined. This is what the authors themselves refer to earlier as “vested interest” (p. 14).
Back to 1 Thessalonians 5
The context of verses 20–22 flows like this: “Despise not prophesyings”—that is, do not hold revelations/proclamations of truth in contempt nor suspiciously regard them with skepticism (v. 20). Rather, “prove/test all of them”— that is, put all such prophesyings to the test (v. 21). Don’t divorce the “all things” from the immediate context, where it refers specifically to prophesyings.
The verb “prove” here conveys the idea of approving something only after putting it to the test. What is the test? How are one’s proclamations tested? Measure them by their consistency with already-revealed truth of God’s Word. In Fee’s own words above, they were (and, he admits, we are) to “weigh all such Spirit utterances in light of . . . apostolic teaching.”
Then what? “Hold fast to that which is good” (v. 21). And what about the rest? “Abstain from all appearance of evil”—that is, hold at arm’s length any and every semblance of doctrine or proclamation that does not pass the test and is, therefore, evil. Again, do not generalize the principle of verse 22 without first making the direct application that is intended in the context.
So this paragraph (verses 19–22) forms a unit of exhortation regarding their relationship to “prophesyings”—that is, doctrine, proclamation, preaching. They are not to despise it, but they are to assess it and then respond to it accordingly.
So Was He Right or Wrong?
Returning, then, to the unnamed evangelical who wrote the letter to one of the authors, was he abusing the text and violating the context of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 by applying it to the inappropriateness of associating with preacher of unorthodox doctrine? He was using that text precisely in keeping with the contextual meaning of the text—maybe better than he knew. I suspect he was applying it merely as a general principle when, in fact, the whole context of the passage argues that this kind of situation is exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote.
Here is a believer/preacher/teacher going to a conference and appearing with a man “whose orthodoxy” he admits is “somewhat suspect.” Should he go? What should he do? He should, Paul teaches, take this man’s proclamations, teachings, and doctrines, and test them by the Word of God. If what the man says is “good,” hold it fast and support it. But, if what he says doesn’t measure up, it is “evil”; abstain from it, resist it, reject it. In other words, this is not just a possible or even likely application of the principle of 1 Thessalonians 5:22. This is exactly what Paul meant in the context.
Even if 1 Thessalonians 5 didn’t directly address Fee and Stuart’s conference situation, the terminology here warrants a wider application in principle. And it’s not just Fundamentalists who say that. In his commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:21, Leon Morris explains that “all things” refers specifically to the “prophesyings” in the context, but then notes:
At the same time the words he uses are quite general, and they must be held to apply to all kinds of things. . . . It is part of the process of living out the Christian life that constantly the servant of the Lord is called upon to discriminate between the base and the true, and to fashion his conduct accordingly.
Whether you’re talking about the general principle or the exegetical context, both argue decisively for the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation and against associating with anyone “whose orthodoxy is suspect.”
One final note
In the context, what is Paul’s concluding, overriding concern in issuing such instruction? Exclusiveness? Divisiveness? He states it in verses 23 and 24—our sanctification. The goal of the true Fundamentalist is that he may, out of love and devotion to God, be like Him and set apart to Him in both doctrine and deportment. We are to be “separated . . . [in order] to seek the Lord God” (Ezra 6:21).
Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC.