On one hand Paul in 1st Corinthians instructs us to “not go beyond what is written”:

1 Corinthians 4:6 (NIV)

6 Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other.

Yet in the next book (the same author) says “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”:

2 Corinthians 3:6 (NIV)

6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant —not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

How can the contradiction between the sayings "Don't go beyond what is written" and "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" be explained?


4 Answers 4


You indicate that the Bible you are using shows 1 Corinthians 4:6 as Do not go beyond what is written

That is the way the verse is rendered in the NIV, ESV, and other editions, but it is not exactly what the Greek states. A more literal translation is:

That in us - ινα εν ημιν
you may learn - μαθητε
not above what has been written - το μη υπερ ο γεγραπται
to think - φρονειν

The reason for this is given in the same verse:

... that no one of you be puffed up for one against another.

Another way to phrase it is perhaps, "not to be wise above what is written". The admonition of not to be puffed up for one against another is a warning to believers to keep humble. One ancient commentary comments on this verse:

But what is the meaning of, "not to be wise above what is written?" It is written, Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brothers's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? and Judge not, that ye be not judged [Matthew 7:3]. For if we are one and are mutually bound together, it behooveth us not to rise up against one another. For "he that humbleth himself shall be exalted," saith he. And "He that will be first of all, let him be the servant of all." [cf. Luke 14:11; Matthew 20:26,27; Mark 10:43]. These are the things which "are written."

John Chrysostom, Homily XII on 1 Corinthians

On the other hand, the second passage relates to the obsolescence of the old Mosaic Law, in light of the Gospel.

  • What writing would you say "written" in the words "what is written" refere to? Dec 11, 2016 at 0:06
  • Aha. I see now that you answerd that by quoting John Chrysostom's understanding of this full text. Dec 11, 2016 at 1:23
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    cf breitas in Babylonian Talmud tractates Baba Batra ("Last Gate") Vilna Rom page 15b and Arachin ("Valuations") Vilna Rom page 16b: "תְּמֵהַנִי אני אם יש בדור הזה שמקבל תוכחה. אם אמר לו "טול קיסם מבין שִׁנֶּיךָ" אמר לו "טול קורה מבין עֵינֶיךָ"! - "I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who can accept a rebuke. Anyone to whom you say "You have a splinter between your teeth" [a minor rebuke] replies "and you have a two-by-four between your eyes!". So there is a lot of history behind this wonderful little imagery in Matthew that has been used in various forms, and in modern Hebrew.
    – user17080
    Dec 11, 2016 at 7:03
  • The way you start this answer makes it sound like this is a mistranslation, but I would argue than is not the case. In fact I think the "do not go beyond" wording actually more clearly makes your point about what this passage means than your suggested rendering because that's exactly what the phrase means in common English usage, whereas your alternative might reveal something about the way the original language structure but leaves an English reader hanging with ‘okay so what is that supposed to mean’ because in ordinary parlance it would be unclear what the intention was.
    – Caleb
    Dec 11, 2016 at 7:16
  • In my first Bible passage; "Don't go beyond what is written"; Paul implies that this is an old saying that he is quoting. If so, then we are dealing with something bigger than Paul, and it is to this axiom that I am referring. Dec 11, 2016 at 8:04

NOTE: Feel free to edit - I know I just translated this chapter, somewhere. Will fix tomorrow, I hope!

1. Question - Resolving a Contradiction :

In 1 Corinthians, Paul says to "not go beyond what is written", but elsewhere speaks of the "Dead Letter of the Law" ...

How is this contradiction resolved?

2. Alternate Answer :

I consider what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4, to be a reflection of one of Jesus' commandments :

Act on his word, (establishes you in faith); but, acting beyond that, in the futility of your own mind, is like building a house on the sand :

NASB, John 21:23 - Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say [this] to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”

NASB, Matthew 7:24 - “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. ... 26 Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.

This is the first rule of Biblical Interpretation : Discern the difference between what is written, your mind, and another's mind.

3. Context - Not pre-judging each other beyond what is Written/said, in order to avoid wrong inferences :

1 Corinthians 4 has nothing to do with Scripture, but rather : judging the "Mysteries" they were sharing among themselves. And since Paul is talking about a very different thing in 2 Corinthians 3, then this passages cannot reasonably be compared.

Context - Paul is Speaking about Judging Stewards of Mysteries :

NASB, 1 Corinthians 3:10 - ... like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.

NASB, 1 Corinthians 4:1 - Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 ... moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts;

NASB, 1 Corinthians 4:6 - Now these [same requirements], brethren, I have [undertaken] [for] myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may ascertain this :[Discern/Judge] Not above what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other.


I think that what looks like a contradiction between the two mentioned axioms "Don't go beyond what is written" and "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" is not a contradiction but a paradox. A Paradox is a seeming contradiction. A Paradox usually reveals a synthesis between two seemingly contradictory statements, that can be called: thesis and antithesis.

The synthesis between the thesis: "Don't go beyond what is written" and the antithesis "The letter kills but the spirit gives lives" is, I believe, that the letter of the Bible (the written word of the Bible) is important and should be considered, but is dead (can't be understood properly) without the interpretation of the interpreter, the Holy Spirit. Thus, the unenlightened letter leads us wrong, but the Holy Spirit can enlighten the letter for us, and afford us proper guidance.

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    +1 IMO, the answer to your question is correct -it is a paradox. And I agree with you, 100%. The part about needing the holy spirit in order to interpret scriptures correctly -this is the provocative part. This site prides itself on the idea that anyone that uses hermeneutics properly can interpret scriptures accurately. This is a complex issue, and IMO, there are more so-called "Christians" that are liars and hypocrites than there are representations of Christ and the holy spirit. So the truth is hidden behind those complications -but that doesn't mean the holy spirit isn't needed. Mar 11, 2017 at 17:21
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    The context of Pauls writing is the interpretation of the mystery (sensus plenior). 1Co 2:7, 4:1, 13:2, 14:2, 15:51. He is giving the rule that outside sources are not to be used as the Gnostics did. Their pride lead them astray in wild imaginings. It is the Spirit that leads one in all truth, and guides the correlation of scripture, bringing it to life.
    – Bob Jones
    Jan 7, 2021 at 2:31

“That which is written”, and “the letter”, are two very different things. In Matthew 22:31-32, Mark 12:26-27, and Luke 20:37-38, for instance, Christ is neither “going beyond what is written”, nor is He a slave to “the letter” either.

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