Paul vs. His Modern Inerrantist Interpreters

Paul vs. His Modern Inerrantist Interpreters June 5, 2013

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.


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