Confusing General with Universal Statements

This except from Dr. Norman L. Geisler’s article Bible, Alleged Errors in, from his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, explains the difference between general and universal statements:

Confusing General with Universal Statements. Critics often jump to the conclusion that unqualified statements admit no exceptions. They seize upon verses that offer general truths and then point with glee to obvious exceptions. Such statements are only intended to be generalizations.

The Book of Proverbs has many of these. Proverbial sayings, by their very nature, offer general guidance, not universal assurance. They are rules for life, but rules that admit of exceptions. Proverbs 16:7 affirms that “when a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” This obviously was not intended to be a universal truth. Paul was pleasing to the Lord and his enemies stoned him (Acts 14:19). Jesus was pleasing the Lord, and his enemies crucified him. Nonetheless, it is a general truth that one who acts in a way pleasing to God can minimize his enemies’ antagonism.

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” However, other Scripture passages and experience show that this is not always true. Indeed, some godly persons in the Bible (including Job, Eli, and David) had wayward children. This proverb does not contradict experience because it is a general principle that applies in a general way, but allows for individual exceptions. Proverbs are not designed to be absolute guarantees. Rather, they express truths that provide helpful advice and guidance by which the individual should conduct his daily life.

Proverbs are wisdom (general guides), not law (universally binding imperatives). When the Bible declares “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45), then there are no exceptions. Holiness, goodness, love, truth, and justice are rooted in the very nature of an unchanging God. But wisdom literature applies God’s universal truths to life’s changing circumstances. The results will not always be the same. Nonetheless, they are helpful guides.

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[1]Geisler, Norman L.: Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.Grand Rapids,Mich. : Baker Books, 1999 (Baker Reference Library), S. 79