Principles of Interpretation: The “Expansion” Concept
It is rarely the case (if ever) that the entire body of truth, relative to a doctrinal matter, is found neatly compacted in one contextual location. In researching a biblical theme, therefore, one must gather the available data pertaining to an issue from various sources, systematically harmonize whatever the Scriptures say about the subject, and then take the whole. One is not permitted to pick-and-choose from isolated texts here and there, selecting only what conforms to his theological preference.
A failure to recognize this “unity-of-doctrine” principle can lead to devastating consequences.
One aspect of this concept is this: One passage, dealing with a particular theme, may supplement or expand the scope of another. An awareness of this reality assists in resolving what otherwise might be perceived as a discrepancy.
Consider, for example, the case of the miracle Jesus performed near Jericho towards the conclusion of his preaching ministry (cf. Mt. 20:29-34; Mk. 10:46-52; Lk. 18:35-43). According to Mark’s account, Christ encountered a blind man whose name was Bartimaeus, and the Lord healed the gentleman of his infirmity.
On the other hand, Matthew, dealing with the same episode, says “there were two blind men sitting by the way side . . . .” He notes that the Savior healed both of them (20:30,34). Matthew does not contradict Mark; rather, he merely expands the narrative.
Obviously Mark, by mentioning only one man, and supplying his name, gives prominence to the fellow. Perhaps the man continued to live for a considerable time following the miracle, and, therefore, when Mark penned his narrative, Bartimaeus (and the sign associated with him) was still the subject of extensive conversation. This may well explain the uniqueness of Mark’s record (see W. Arndt, Does the Bible Contradict Itself?, St. Louis: Concordia, 1955, p. 65).
Let us now give further consideration to the “expansion” or “supplementation” principle, as applied to several doctrinal areas.
(1) Many Protestants encounter passages which mention only “faith” as a requisite for salvation. For example, Romans 5:1 says, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God . . . .” The superficial student will read this text and, with a preconceived theological bias, assume that the sole condition for redemption is faith. Overlooked, however, is the fact that other inspired texts explicitly mention additional items which are required as well.
Certainly repentance is mandated (Acts 2:38; 17:30), as is immersion in water (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). Would one dare to argue that “faith” is not a requisite in the plan of salvation, simply because it is not specifically mentioned in Acts 11:18 (where only repentance is cited), or in 1 Peter 3:21 (where only baptism is mentioned)? Parallel thematic texts compliment one another on the subject of salvation; they do not contradict.
(2) On his third missionary campaign, Paul and his companions came to the city of Troas. Luke, who records the event, writes: “And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread . . . .” (Acts 20:7).
The most natural sense is that this is an allusion to the communion supper (cf. 2:42). But does the language suggest that the Lord’s supper in the first century consisted solely of “bread.” No it does not. In this context “bread” stands for the entire communion service. The “fruit of the vine,” is a required component as well. This fact is learned from information supplied elsewhere (see Mt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:23ff). Some passages amplify others.
(3) In his letter to the saints in Rome, Paul declared: “For the woman who has a husband is bound by law to the husband while he lives; but if the husband dies, she is discharged from the law of the husband” (Rom. 7:2).
If one had no further knowledge than that contained in this passage, he would be obliged to conclude that only death could dissolve a marriage. This would suggest that there is no cause at all for a valid divorce.
In fact, the Roman Catholic Church takes this position. One authority says: “A valid Christian marriage, if consummated, cannot be dissolved (as to the bond) by any human power or for any cause except death” (Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary, New York: Macmillan, 1961, p. 153).
However, when one considers Matthew 5:32, and a companion passage, Matthew 19:9, it becomes clear that the law of Christ does allow divorce, and even a subsequent remarriage, for the innocent victim in a marriage that has been breached by fornication.
(4) On his third missionary journey, Paul collected funds from a number of churches which, ultimately, were to be conveyed to Jerusalem for the poor. In the Roman letter, the apostle alludes to this matter. “For it has been the good pleasure of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem” (15:26).
There are two important points here to which we would call attention.
First, if the Bible student had just this passage at hand, he might assume that only the churches of Macedonia and Achaia contributed to this cause. However, a comparison of this text with 1 Corinthians 16:1 reveals that the Galatian brethren participated as well. Other evidence hints that Christians in Ephesus and elsewhere also shared in the benevolent endeavor (cf. Acts 20:4; 21:29). And so other texts expand the scope of contributors mentioned in Romans 15:26.
Second, because the contribution is said to have been for “saints” (Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1), some misguided souls have concluded that the church, as such, can contribute only to Christians for benevolent purposes. And yet, as noted above, the order given to the Corinthians had been given to the Galatians also (1 Cor. 16:1). Moreover, in Paul’s letter to the “churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2), those congregations were authorized to provide benevolent assistance for others, beyond the scope of “the household of faith,” whenever opportunity presented itself (Gal. 6:10). Hence, Galatians 6:10 expands the parameters of what may appear to be a restricted group in 1 Corinthians 16:1 and Romans 15:26.
Finally, in referring to this very collection, Paul, defending himself before Felix, explicitly states that these “alms” were for the Jewish “nation” as well (Acts 24:17). The purpose of the apostle’s claim was to convince the governor that he was not biased against the Hebrew people. The argument would hardly have been sincere if the apostle had, with some sort of secret “mental reservation,” preserved the notion in his heart that it was for Christians only. For a further discussion of this matter, see my booklet,A Church Divided (Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 2000, pp. 7-10).
These examples, and numerous others, clearly illustrate the principle set forth at the commencement of this piece. The scope of a biblical verse may be expanded by supplementary information on the same subject in related passages. An understanding of this hermeneutical principle would prevent many an error.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.