Text and Context
(Is 2 John 9 Limited in Application
Only to Gnosticism?)
Tom M. Roberts
It has been suggested by some that it is a violation of the context to apply the principles of 2 John 9-11 to modern issues since the context of Johns epistles was to combat gnosticism. Thus, the doctrine of Christ had to do with the doctrine about Christ and not the doctrine which Christ taught. Many have concluded that this limited application of 2 John 9-11 does not preclude fellowship with those who introduce unauthorized practices in our time since they cannot be classed as gnostic. Distinction is made between gospel and doctrine, grace and law, the cross and the church in such a way as to restrict salvation to belief in this limited gospel while denying that any doctrine can condemn. Consequently, there is a broadening of fellowship with many that extends to those accepting the humanity and deity of Christ, even though they are guilty of practicing denominational error.
Are we limited in our use of scripture to a very narrow application that has to do only with the immediate context, or does God expect us to apply the principles of context to situations not directly addressed in the text? Certainly, there should never be a violation of context. A passage must never be lifted from its setting and used to prove something that is contradictory or foreign to the principle expressed by inspiration. But Gods word is so constructed so as to be able to fore-know all error and to teach against it in principle, if not specifically. For example, though pornography on the internet did not exist when the New Testament was written, the principle of pornography being sinful is expressed in such a manner that we can know pornography is wrong because the context of Galatians 5 condemns every expression of it. Would it be a violation of context to apply Galatians 5:19ff to internet sins?
A principle of truth, though spoken directly toward a given situation when written, may be a principle that will apply to many different situations in application in future days - even to the end of time. We understand that the New Testament was written to the individuals and churches in the first century, but it was also written for us, "to the end of the ages" (Mt. 28:18-20). While it is true that the ancient words of scripture must retain their meaning in modern language (to have an accurate translation), there were situations in the first century that cannot be duplicated today. Thus, the words (though they mean the same today as when first written) having to do with spiritual gifts cannot apply today. Can one prophesy today? Can one speak in tongues today? Can one work miracles today? While we might agree that this was written for use of spiritual gifts before "the faith" was completely written, the principle of "God is not the author of confusion" would apply today as readily as it did during the age of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:33). Would I be guilty of taking that out of context if I applied it to a disorderly assembly today? Must things be done "decently and in order" (v. 40) only during the exercise of spiritual gifts? If it is not a misapplication of scripture to apply verses 33 and 40 (and others) to modern assemblies, why is it wrong to apply the principles of 2 John 9-11 to any theory that goes beyond the doctrine of Christ?
In the study of Romans 14, for example, the cases under consideration (eating meats and days), though taken in context, do not adequately extend the application to situations that are applicable today, if we limit the principles to the meats and days of the first century. However, it is evident that the principles of truth taught in Romans 14 may be applied to similar and parallel situations today. Must I be of Jewish origin to apply the principles of "eating meats" or "not eating meats" to modern problems? If not, why must one be a Gnostic before violating 2 John 9-11?
Thus, if we maintain that Gnosticism and only Gnosticism is the purview of 2 John 9-11 and that these principles cannot apply to any similar and parallel situations, we unduly limit the application of divine scripture.
Another passage that sheds light on this is Galatians 1:6-9. Paul addressed the zeal of Judaizers who wanted to take the gospel of Christ and turn it into another gospel or a law-gospel by merging it with the Law of Moses. Such was a perversion of the gospel of Christ and brought upon them the anathema of God. Question: Would we be guilty of perverting the gospel of Christ if we attempted to merge the other gospel of Mormonism with the New Testament? What passage would you use to condemn the Mormon missionary who palms off the Book of Mormon as another gospel of Jesus Christ? Would it violate the context of Galatians 1:6-9 to apply it to Mormon error? You see, it is not in the text of Galatians 1:6-9, but does the principle of truth not allow it to apply the context to similar and parallel situations?
As to 2 John 9, I am convinced that the context will force us to a broader application of vs. 9ff than the Gnostic heresy alone. For example, John rejoiced in the disciples "walking in truth, as we received commandment from the Father" (v. 4). He further states that we should "walk according to His commandments, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it" (v. 6). While Gnosticism is one form of rejection of truth, it is not the only rejection. "Walking in truth," and "walking in the commandments" is equal to the language of John in the first epistle, where he speaks of "walking in the light" (1:7). But notice the context of "walking in the light" in 1 John: the "things written" (v. 4), "the truth," (v. 8), "I write" (2:1), "keep his commandments" (v. 3), "not keep the commandments...a liar" (v. 4), "keep the word" (v. 5), "the word which you have heard from the beginning" (v. 7), "I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because ye know it" (v. 21), "no lie is of the truth" (v. 21), "same anointing teaches you concerning all things" (v. 27), "practice righteousness" (3:10). "keeps his commandments" (24), "many false prophets" (4:1); he who is of God "hears us" (the apostles) (v. 6), "this is the commandment" (v. 21) [please notice that this use of "commandment" applies to loving the brethren, not identifying Gnostics], "keep his commandments" (5:2), "this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments" (v. 3), "witness of God" (v. 9), "testimony" (v. 10, 11), "Things things I have written" (v. 13), "the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding that we may know him who is true" (v. 20).
With this full consideration of the context of 1 and 2 John before us (and we could include 3rd John as well), it is obvious that we do a disservice to Gods word to limit it too narrowly. Ancient error has its modern counterpart and Gods word has adequately covered every error for all time if we allow the word of God to express itself.
It is a clear violation of Biblical hermeneutical rules to limit context as many are attempting to do with 2 John 9-11. Truth will always be truth in every age and in similar situations. Error must not be permitted to hide behind a supposed limited context which will permit a modern violation of a contextual principle clearly established in scripture. Those people who are intent on going beyond the doctrine of Christ will not be persuaded by anything we say here. However, as we seek to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent, we will be guided by both text and context that God has given unto the ends of the ages to guide us in our service to him.
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