So let’s say you’re Paul. For argument’s sake, let’s say you had a “Damascus Road” experience and were clobbered off your horse and heard the audible voice of Jesus. Something like that is bound to make an impression. Let’s say you’re sitting down to write a letter to one of the churches you founded. This church means a lot to you personally, and you want to share your affection for it, along with some loving rebukes.
Do you feel the influence of the Holy Spirit—at least an afterglow from the Damascus Road? Maybe. Maybe a tingling or a warm feeling. But do you hear the exact words you should write? Probably not. We “see through a glass darkly,” you’ve said elsewhere.
You go through your memory to think of the thoughts you’ve had about the church so you can say something cogent.
In a few places, you say you can’t remember whom you baptized. You send greetings to many but worry you’re leaving someone out. Oh well.
How would you view the finished product? Would you view it as The Word of God? Infallible? Unlikely.
You would probably view it as authoritative for the church—because you’re in charge. (They no doubt will eagerly gather around when the letter is read in their home church.) But the Word of God? Unlikely, unless you suffered from delusions of grandeur.
The toothbrush in the toilet
I don’t think Paul or the early church saw his letters as scripture. First off, they already had all the scripture they needed—the Hebrew Bible. What’s more, the world was about to end—as in don’t-worry-if-you-left the-iron-plugged-in. No need for more scripture.
But then the temple was razed to the ground in A.D. 70, and suddenly the church realized it had no idea what God wanted them to do next—so they took the much-loved letters of Paul and declared them holy writ. (Side note: This begs the question: Why didn’t any of the original apostles, the guys who learned at Jesus’ feet, write any scripture—or at least dictate it to a literate scribe?)
So what’s my point? My point is Paul was no more inspired than we are when we set out to do the Lord’s word, brimming with virtuous intentions—which is to say he was flying by the seat of his pants. That means some of Paul’s thoughts may have been correct, some may have actually been from God, and some might just be him. Some could even be white lies. How can we tease them apart?
Divine inspiration, to the extent it exists, is always mingled with our prejudices. Contaminated beyond usefulness—like when you drop your toothbrush into the crapper. Shit.
For example, I find it unlikely in the extreme that Paul would jettison everything he learned growing up about homosexuality—that it’s an “abomination,” as Leviticus says—when he became a follower of Jesus. Those lessons go deep. When Paul says homosexuals won’t get into heaven, he means it. To my experience, religious conversions don’t change people instantaneously in that way. If someone’s a jerk when they convert, they’ll probably still be a jerk many years hence—maybe forever. Religion doesn’t make better humans.
For example, fundamentalists care deeply about living for Christ. Most would gladly die for Christ. I’m sure they want to “take captive every thought for Christ,” as Paul advises But most of their thinking is just plain wrong and probably unchangeable for the most part. Are they loving people? Yes. Do they believe some stupid stuff? Yes.
That’s why we should always proceed with caution when anyone says they speak for God. Specifically, approach Paul critically. Jettison things that don’t measure up to our modern sensibilities. Goodbye.
Conservative Christians protest that such an attitude puts oneself above scripture. But nobody comes to scripture as a blank slate. Everyone cherry picks, stressing certain verses or interpretations and downplaying others.
Everyone already uses their brain to read the Bible. What choice do we have?
The real question is why stress over what God thinks? It’s not possible to know, for all practical purposes. The good news is it’s not required. God exists, but we don’t need Him “in our lives” to be happy or productive or moral.
Photo: Eraser by Sideways Sarah CC BY 2.0