Paul vs. His Modern Inerrantist Interpreters

There is an interesting contrast between the way Paul wrote about the content of his own writings, and the way modern-day inerrantists talk about them. Paul is relatively humble, even while claiming authority, compared with the claims of inerrantists, and he nuances things differently than they do.

If we focus just on 1 Corinthians we have ample material to see this. In 1 Corinthians 7:40, Paul offers his judgment on a matter as one who has the Spirit of God. He is not claiming that he is writing something that has unique authority – quite the opposite, he is emphasizing that, as someone who has God’s Spirit and seeks God’s guidance, his views should not simply be dismissed. It is to be noted as well that he didn’t think that he could simply assume that his words would be viewed as authoritative. And if you make his words the words of the Spirit of God, then you get the paradox of having the Spirit of God say “I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”

1 Corinthians 14:36-38 is likewise instructive. We can fortunately leave to one side the question of what immediately preceded the words (vv33-35 may be an interpolation). Whatever the point it is in relation to, Paul emphasizes that the Word of God did not originate with the church in Corinth, and so it would be inappropriate for them to insist that the Spirit is guiding them into disruptive practices that are rejected by those who brought the word of God to them. He is using his role in bringing the gospel to them in order to counter their spiritual arrogance (a message that many modern-day readers seem to miss, and it makes one wonder whether the first-century Corinthians were more receptive).

And so, Paul puts forward his own emphasis on order as something that is ultimately of divine origin, precisely to make the point that appealing to the Spirit to justify whatever one does is an unacceptable practice. He is beating the Corinthians at their own game, since he had the Spirit first and brought the message to them. He is clearly not claiming that everything that he writes is “the Lord’s command,” since he explicitly said otherwise earlier in the letter. If anything, he is emphasizing that what he writes is the Lord’s command precisely because it does not originate with him any more than the Lord’s command originates with the Corinthians.

Moreover, the context contains a strong emphasis on the fact that prophetic utterances do not involve the complete overwhelming of the will and control of the human prophet – the spirits of the prophets are under the control of the prophets!

And so there is a marked contrast between (on the one hand) Paul’s humility (not consistently demonstrated, as we all know), recognition that he is offering his own judgment on occasions, appeal to the Spirit of God’s work to bolster what clearly remains his own argument, and his pointing away from his own views and writings when he speaks of the word or teaching or command of the Lord, and (on the other hand) the modern-day inerrantists who treat Paul’s writings in a manner that is at odds with what those writings actually and the attitude of Paul towards his writings conveyed through them.

It is instructive to compare Paul’s letters with the rampant authoritarianism in Christian fundamentalism. Not only is the difference telling, but the modern phenomenon of authoritarian fundamentalism exposes the reason why fundamentalists want and claim to have an inerrant Bible: so that they can believe and tell others that they are always right.

Those interested in the topic of the Bible and its inspiration should also see Chris Heard’s post on inspiration as devotion.

  • TiffanyinTexas

    Paul, like modern fundamentalists, thought the message of Christ was too easy so he made up rules and restrictions so just anyone couldn’t get in. When I read Paul’s letters my impression was that he was using the same false modesty that modern “spiritual authorities” use…It’s not me who says this but the Spirit of God and you don’t want to disobey the Spirit of God.

    • jeriwho

      Of course, Paul was repeatedly imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately beheaded for his faith, so that makes quite a bit of difference between him and modern church leaders.

      • Olga Evans

        Not to mention, Paul’s words are in the Bible and, after all this time, God still hasn’t seen fit to edit them out. So that’s different, too.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I am not aware that we have any Bible the contents of which were edited by God as opposed to the church.

          And while modern fundamentalists tend to be champions of exclusion, Paul was arguing for the inclusion of those excluded by conservatives and not treated as equals by moderates in his own time. So there are important differences.

          • Olga Evans

            How would God edit the bible, if not through the church?

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Well, your comment didn’t sound as thought it was talking about the church editing the Bible and removing what Paul wrote. Sorry if I misunderstood you.

              • Olga Evans

                No worries. I believe the bible is exactly the way God wants it, and that he has worked through people and the church and history to write as well as edit it.

                I can also see how tit wasn’t clear that that was what I meant in my original comment.

        • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

          Olga, perhaps God has been waiting for the proper time to edit the Bible. If, later this year, he sees fit to edit out some of Paul’s writing, how would you respond to that? How would we know?

          • Olga Evans

            If somehow Paul’s writings were removed from the Bible, I would view them the way I view texts like the Apocrypha. Interesting, worth studying, but always tested against the Scriptures.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    While the phrase, ‘The Bible clearly says…’ is almost always followed by something that is not at all clear, I must say in this case that Paul clearly indicates that he does not consider himself an inerrant authority.
    So I must agree with you and Paul that Paul is not inerrant. The sad truth is that Paul’s personal opinions drive so much controversy today.

  • Nate Johnson

    Two comments:

    First, there is a fine line between generalizations and ad hominems. Rampant authoritarianism in Christian fundamentalism is which one? Am I to glean from this that J.I. Packer, Oxford scholar, is a rampant….you know what simply because he holds to inerrancy? I find this kind of name calling distracting. Rather, make your point, argue it, and yes, some examples could be in order, but blanket, sweeping generalizations, especially when attacking a position are usually unhelpful.

    Second, it is always easier to point out weaknesses than to provide solutions, and even easier to engage in SELECTIVE DATA. Here, Paul’s own occasional admission of ‘his words’ vs. ‘God’s words’ (and we know there are other interpretive options here, e.g., no direct command, etc), are given all the emphasis. What of Peter’s words, i.e., 2 Peter 3:15-16 where Peter (oops that’s a rampant authoritarian fundamentalist’s view, so I better say, ‘the writer’), says the “beloved Paul writes…as the rest of Scriptures” and so includes Paul’s writings as Scripture.

    I would encourage those who so hate inerrancy (even Packer thinks it is a regrettable but necessary term) to write about Scripture’s authority, to focus on building faith rather than tear it down. In this instance, if rampant…blah, blah, blah is way off the mark, leave the golden nuggets that call upon faith to trust Scripture, and summarize your position that does this; tearing down with ad hominems is easy.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thank you for your comment. As you at least hinted, if 2 Peter is a later pseudonymous author, it doesn’t really help make the case for inerrancy. But even if it were earlier, regarding texts as scriptures (the Greek term is simply the equivalent of “writings”) does not mean that they are viewed as inerrant.

      My point is that the rampant authoritarianism feeds off of and builds on inerrancy, not that all adherents to inerrancy are by definition arrogant and lacking in humility. Such generalizations are indeed unhelpful, and I am sorry that you got the impression I was making one.

      As for “hating” inerrancy, I don’t really. I hate the twisting and misrepresentation of the Bible that is engaged in to try to support it. If it fit the Biblical evidence, I would have nothing against it in principle.


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