Saturday, July 25, 2015

Crazy Uncle

Normally, I’d leave something like this alone. It is, after all, the Huffington Post, and anything they have to say on the subject of Christianity is almost guaranteed to be dismissive, frivolous and poorly informed.

But hey, it provides a useful lead-in to something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In an article entitled “3 Reasons Why Apostle Paul Is the Crazy Uncle No One Wants to Talk About”, Pete Enns argues that “Paul’s handling of his Bible makes him look like the crazy uncle you make excuses for or avoid entirely”.

The Apostolic Embarrassment?

Enns’ contention is that Paul read the Bible out of context, pitted one verse against another and accepted the odd, traditional renderings of generations of rabbis before him. In other words, on occasion Paul did things interpretively to the Old Testament that would be completely unacceptable to the modern seminarian.

I could point out that Enns wants to have his cake and eat it too: he’d like to write Paul off for offering what appear to be original interpretations in some places and then dismiss him just as speedily for following the traditional rabbinical line of thinking elsewhere. Or I could go through the Enns article line by line and simply point out where he mischaracterizes and perhaps unintentionally misreads the apostle. Either would be legitimate approaches to rehabilitating Paul (not that he needs it, and not that the readers of the HuffPo would likely care anyway).

Instead I’m going to say something a little bolder: Let’s say Enns is right.

Let’s say Paul did read the Bible out of context or found meanings in Old Testament passages that were alternatively traditional and radical. Even if he did, there’s one question Enns never addresses and it is the only one that matters:

Are Paul’s Epistles “Scripture”?

Peter certainly thought so. This is what he said about Paul (with whom, it should be noted, Peter did not always agree when they crossed paths):
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
(The word “other” here is loipos. A quick scan through a concordance demonstrates that it is most frequently used in the New Testament to refer to others of the same sort. So in calling Paul’s letters “scripture”, Peter puts them in the same category as the Law and the Prophets.)

Three points stand out: (1) the apostle Peter believed what the apostle Paul wrote was scripture; (2) he believed that the wisdom with which Paul wrote was “given to him”; and (3) he believed ALL the letters written by Paul fell into this category. That’s plenty good enough for me.

There is a qualitative difference — a difference in kind — between what Paul was doing as an apostle and a prophet who was carried along by the Holy Spirit as he read his Old Testament and what happens when you and I read, study and perhaps teach it.

The Responsibility of the Bible Student

As students of scripture today, we try to figure out what God said and pass that on. On our very best day all we do is reproduce accurately a message God has already previously communicated. On our worst day we misread or misstate that message and put hurdles in the way of those who read what we have written or hear what we say. Those of us who have a clue what we are doing try not to flavor God’s message with our own opinions and assumptions. As Peter puts it:
“… whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God …”
Peter is not saying that when we blather uninformed, poorly stated nonsense about scripture, it is somehow mystically converted into a message from God simply because a Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God is the one doing the speaking. He’s not telling us that we should assume any sort of false dignity about what we are doing or put on airs. Rather, he is reminding us of our solemn obligation to ensure we are faithfully reiterating what God has already said. They are his oracles. Our job is to get out of the way and let them speak through us, not reshape them around our own preconceptions.

This being the case, the job of those who disciple gifted Bible students is to teach them to handle the word of God respectfully, carefully and consistently. To that end, we discover the importance of rules such as interpreting contextually, comparing scripture with scripture, asking how a statement would be understood by its original audience and so on, all of which methods may be deduced from scripture itself.

The Apostles and the Old Testament

Paul (and the other apostles, for that matter) did not always have to deal with such methodological limitations in their approach to the Old Testament scriptures. The apostles actually spoke and wrote original words of God. They did not simply restate and reframe the Old Testament. We have already established that Peter taught that Paul spoke wisdom communicated to him directly by God, not simply mediated to him through the written word of the Old Testament scriptures. But I should add that Paul believed this too. At one point he reminds the Corinthians:
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you …”
He didn’t make it up. He didn’t assume it. He received it from the Lord.

“Not I, But the Lord …”

This principle is stated in numerous ways throughout Paul’s letters. We can choose to believe it or reject it, but we cannot pretend the epistles are not full of such claims and assumptions. And Paul was neither carried away by this reality nor deluded into thinking that every notion that popped into his head was the word of God. He was not in the least confused about which thoughts were his and which were the Lord’s. The fact that he takes pains to draw clear distinctions between revelation the Lord gave him directly and things which he merely believed to be true demonstrates him to be an honest man who did not simply shout “Inspiration!” every time someone disagreed with him. (Wouldn’t you have been tempted in his position?)

This series of claims and disclaimers throughout 1 Corinthians 7 is notable:
“To the unmarried and the widows I say …”

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord) …”

“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) …”

“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy …”

“Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.”
Paul was scrupulous about not claiming inspiration for things that were merely his opinion, even if he was very convinced of them. The care with which he distinguishes between the two things should give us great confidence when we find him speaking authoritatively (that is to say, without such disclaimers in the text, which would be most of the New Testament).

The Difference Between Me and Paul

As a prophet and apostle, Paul wasn’t merely sitting there like us with Scofield Reference Bible, concordance and quill pen trying to follow the line of thought of Jeremiah or Hosea. Rather, Paul was carried along by the Author of all scripture into whatever line of reasoning the Holy Spirit saw fit. Thus it was possible for him to take something stated by an Old Testament writer and use it in an entirely different way than we might dare to. And why not? If that writer had given voice to an eternal truth in words with which Paul’s audience was already familiar, why would we expect the Holy Spirit — to whom the very words themselves belong — to be subject to the same strictures of meaning to which we wisely and necessarily limit ourselves?

In other words, as a prophet Paul was not limited to restating and reframing existing truth, as we are today. We should not expect him to prove his points as if he had attended Dallas Theological Seminary (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

To impose such restrictions on the apostle is to fail to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in the creation of the New Testament and Paul’s unique ministry: setting out the distinctions between Law and Grace, the Church and Israel and so many other previously unexplained truths.

I can’t say for sure whether the popular line about “any sufficiently advanced intelligence” being “indistinguishable from insanity” is the truth, but Paul was no “crazy uncle”.

Anyone who is embarrassed by the way he handled scripture has major gaps in their own understanding.


  1. Thanks for bringing this issue up, I think it's very important especially with the recent attacks on Paul. However, I think that all of 1 Corinthians 7 is inspired scripture. What Paul is saying by "I, not the Lord" etc. is that these are teachings that are not based on the Lord Jesus ministry on marriage. 1 Cor. 7:10 is based on the Lord's teaching in Matt. 19:6 and Mark 10:9.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Yes, that is certainly one possible interpretation of v12-16 and I wouldn't argue it since the Lord clearly teaches it. The one in v25, however, does not seem to be based in the Lord's words as recorded in the gospels ("Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think ...").

      It's an unusual formulation for Paul, and I think it demonstrates both his care in distinguishing between that which was directly revealed to him and that which he concluded on his own and caution about putting even his own wise thoughts on a level with those of the Spirit of God. It makes the rest of what he says all the more powerful for it.

      I think we have to consider (as you do) that where such a disclaimer is absent in the writings of any apostle (that being most of the NT), such instruction must be considered both inspired and binding.

    2. With a few hours to think further about it, Mike, I wonder if your reading can be correct. If by "I, not the Lord", Paul meant only that what he was about to say was not based on the ministry of the Lord Jesus, why does he not feel the need to pepper his epistles with similar expressions? For much, perhaps most, of Paul's teaching, especially about the church, goes far beyond anything explicitly laid down by the Lord while on earth.

      Unless he intended here to clearly distinguish between his own wise opinion and the direct revelation of the Spirit of God to him, I'm not sure what he can have meant.