If this happened once to me when I was a Christian, it happened a hundred times, so help me God.
It’s before or after service—perhaps coffee hour—and a parishioner, usually a “brother in the Lord,” comes up to me and says he has a Word From The Lord for me. But it’s always prefaced with something like, “I don’t know if this is real or not, but . . .” or, “If this doesn’t make sense, just ignore it.”
And that’s how I took it. I tried to stay open to what the Lord may want to tell me through others, as obeying God was the most important thing in my life at the time—that and scoping out chicks. But I knew I didn’t hear God’s words clearly and assumed their experience was the same.
We all knew we were not foolproof oracles for God. We all knew things might get muddled in transmission. In fact, when someone came out and said they had received a very specific command from the Lord, we’d think they were a nutcase. Or just trying to make themselves look holy. At least I know that’s what I was hoping whenever I would share an overly specific Word From The Lord with a brother.
Now imagine if that “brother in the Lord” comes up to you at coffee hour and says he’s written scripture—as in the very words of God, word for word, as in he took dictation from Jesus—something you can bet the farm on.
We’d chastise him, we would, no doubt citing the New Testament—something like 2 Timothy 3:14-17: But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(That’s nothing. When I was in thickest weeds of my belief, I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount in Matthew—three chapters. That’s right. I’m holy.)
Scripture was something written by someone else, in some place sweltering and grainy, in the Olden Days.
Which gets to what I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been going over the things I used to take for granted as a believer. In this case, why do we cut the authors of the New Testament so much slack? The average evangelical considers the New Testament the inerrant word of God. In fact, it’s an article of faith in most evangelical churches, something you’d find in “What We Believe” on their websites.
We didn’t know how, exactly, practically, God was able to inspire the bumbling authors of scripture to write down what He wanted to say, but we knew it happened—or believed so. You could bet the farm on it.
But the point I want to make here is that all the evidence seems to suggest none of the authors of the New Testament thought they were writing the infallible word or God. They, too, knew how prone they, just everyday, well-meaning men, were to confusing fable for fact.
Sure, they may have felt “inspired”—but that meant the same thing to them that it means to us now. If it doesn’t make sense, just ignore it.
I’m very aware of all the verses that evangelicals point to to insist otherwise. For example, 1 Cor 14:37-38: If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.
But I think that in all those cases, the author is speaking as would your typical evangelical pastor from the pulpit. He’d say, “I’m here today to preach God’s word to you.” And by that, yes, he would mean that he would share one or more verses that he viewed as word-for-word dictation from God. But he would also be referring to his own thoughts on the verse(s)—the narrative of his sermon.
After all, he had prayed mightily while researching and writing that sermon. Speak through me, God, please.
If you had gone up to that pastor and insisted that some word he used was unbiblical, he would probably respond thusly: “Well, I’m just a man. Just stick with what the Bible says.” At least, that’s what he said to me. Yes, I was the schmuck who went up to the pastor after service when I felt his sermon hadn’t been “biblical” at points. (I had listened in between scoping out the chicks at the service.)
The early church ended up declaring the writings of the New Testament were scripture—the plenary words of God—because, well, what choice did they have?
Just like today, everyone had their opinions about what God was “telling them”—and that was the problem. There was nothing authoritative, and they’d pretty much squeezed everything they could out of the Old Testament. They needed a fresh word from God—something you could bet the farm on.
In other words, God wasn’t talking to humans clearly, so they turned to humans—Paul and others—to provide that clear direction.
See the problem?
How can fallible humans produce a perfect book? They can’t.
What did Paul and the other authors of the New Testament think? Did they think they were writing the literal word of God? I’ve already pointed out there are a number of verses that evangelicals trot out to prove that point. Another one: 1 Thessalonians 2:13: You received the word of God, which you heard from us, and accepted it not as the words or men but as what it really is, the word of God.
Think about it, though.
How would Paul prepare himself to act as an infallible oracle for God? Abstain from cruelty-free meat? Eat only angel food cake? Imagine it was you. How would you know you were ready—sufficiently imbued? How would you know when you were “in the zone” and when you had slipped back into your own sinfulness? The sound of strumming harps? How could you write for God and be yourself? You couldn’t. You’d have to get up and pee every so often, after all. You’d get angry at your neighbor playing his stereo too loud. And then there’s all those bloody Mormons who keep knocking at your door.
And even if Paul and the others felt they were writing the very words of God—so what? They were mistaken. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker said God had appeared to them in the sparkling dark of their gilded bedroom and told them every PTL subscriber must buy a timeshare in their Mega Resort Unto The Lord.
Did He? Does that sound like how God speaks to you?
Think about it. If Paul and the other New Testament authors thought they were getting their words directly from the Lord, why did they write in the first person? Paul writes to specific people he knew in the churches that he set up to tell them how to deal with problem he heard had arisen.
I’m sure Paul hoped he was inspired by God. I’m sure he prayed mightily to be “used of God,” as we used to say. Speak through me, God, please. And I’m sure he thought his letters were authoritative for the churches—not because they were the literal word of God but because he was the leader of that church.
In the churches he wrote to, a good number of people, the ones who had been in from the ground floor, knew Paul personally. Nice enough guy. Kinda opinionated. Couldn’t see for shit. Confided that he struggled with the temptation to scope out chicks at Sunday service. Smelled funny. But an infallible oracle of God? Nonsense.
It wasn’t until Paul was dead and gone—beheaded, according to legend, for his faith around 65 A.D.—that he took on heroic status. He became something more than just a guy. He became mythologized. And, slowly, his writings came to be viewed as scripture—because, as I said, what other option did they have? They needed new scripture to navigate this calamitous life—an authoritative word—and Paul was their best option.
By that time, they had forgotten he smelled funny.
So . . . in paintings showing Paul at work, a heavenly light of inspiration beamed down on the haloed Paul.
We see the later veneration of Paul’s writings in in 2 Peter, which was written between A.D. 100 and 150—and not by the Apostle Peter, who was moldering in the grave at the time: Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
(It’s worth noting that the author of 2 Peter, whoever he was, didn’t claim he was writing scripture. He did, however, think that the letter would be seen as authoritative in some sense—because he signed Peter’s name to it. This is the same reason the six or seven Pauline epistles that weren’t written by Paul were forged. These “false apostles,” if you will, had a theological point to make, and they decided to give it some gravitas by making it look like it was coming from somebody In The Know. But that’s for another post.)
(It’s also worth noting that the real Peter never would have said that about Paul’s teachings. That’s one of the reasons we know the real Peter didn’t write it. The real Peter probably was opposed to Paul’s teachings. He wouldn’t have called him a “dear brother.” Peter and the rest of the Inner Circle in Jerusalem preached the same “gospel” that Jesus preached, which was to diligently obey the Torah so that you’re wearing clean underwear when the Son of Man appears. Paul was seen as a renegade with his gospel about salvation by grace through faith. Or is it salvation by faith through grace? Either way, it’s not what the real Jesus preached. Once again, that’s for another post down the road.)
You can’t really blame the church for canonizing Paul and the others. What were they going to do? Write their own scripture?
But Paul would not have stood for such foolishness when he was alive. “I’m just a man myself,” he would have said.
Also—think about it. Why would God inspire Paul? He didn’t even know Jesus. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to inspire one of the dudes who walked around with Jesus for three years? Certainly they would have the inside scoop. Why is it we don’t have letters from Peter and John? As I said earlier, Peter and John didn’t write the epistles ascribed to them. They were too dead.
Which brings up another point. Why would God inspire forgers?
In order for believers to insist that the New Testament is the literal word of God, they have postulate that in the lives of a few select men—always men, for some reason—God bestowed on them the ability to override their humanity. They have to say it was a . . . miracle.
And that’s mainly where they err. We have the New Testament not just because God miraculously transported some authors into momentary infallibility. That’s not how it was done.
Creating the New Testament was an utterly human—and messy—process.
First off, the stories about Jesus were just shared orally—because most of the first Christians couldn’t read or write. Also, they didn’t feel they needed a permanent physical record because Jesus was coming back real soon. (How’d they get that idea? Jesus told the disciples they wouldn’t die before the Kingdom of God arrived.) And as the church spread out geographically, these stories morphed from place to place—perhaps because of some issue they were dealing with locally. It wasn’t like the different churches could fact-check with one another. My story goes this way. What does your story do?
If you insist that the New Testament is the literal word of God, you have to insist that God prevented any error from entering into this process of oral transmission.
But wait. There’s more.
Eventually, these sayings would be written down. For example, through reverse engineering, scholars have shown that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark in front of them when they wrote their gospels—and also a collection of Jesus’ sayings that has come to be known as Q. When you poke into it, it’s obvious something like Q was used. For example, sometimes the exactness in wording is striking—for example, Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 (27 and 28 Greek words, respectively). Or look at Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:11-9-10 (24 Greek words each).
But why would they need a “source” if God were speaking through them?
And what about Luke? Luke seems to speak as if he’s just writing a letter to a dignitary. (Luke 1:3: Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.)
Certainly he stood by the story he tells. But the word of God?
Why would Luke have to investigate anything if God were speaking through him?
And think about what investigation entails. Luke would have to go from person to person and ask what they remembered. How likely do you think it is that everyone’s details would line up? Or that Luke wouldn’t misinterpret what they told him?
If you insist that the New Testament is the literal word of God, you have to insist that God prevented any error from entering into this process of investigating and relying on sources.
I’m not done.
For the New Testament to be the literal word of God, you have to ensure—once all the authors did whatever it was they did to come up with their final draft (do you write drafts if it’s the word of God?)—that the scribes who made copies made no errors. The more popular a particular book became, the more it was transcribed—which, ironically, increased the likelihood of error. C’mon. It’s not a matter of likelihood. It’s a certainty.
If you insist that the New Testament is the literal word of God, you have to insist that God prevented all those hundreds of scribes from mis-dotting any i’s or mis-crossing any t’s.
And that’s only the accidental errors. God would have to prevent the scribes from inserting their own prejudices into the text.
There’s more. Church leaders had to decide from among all the books of the New Testament, with all their varied transcriptions, which of them were, in fact, God’s word and would be canonized and become known as the New Testament. And if you say that God did shepherd that selection process, then why did the church leaders canonize all the books of the New Testament that were forgeries? The answer is they believed the lies of the forgers.
For example, the book of Revelation was debated heatedly by the people choosing the books of the New Testament. It’s so . . . bizarre. What finally won the day for Revelation was the mistaken belief that the Apostle John wrote it.
And that was God working? Really? That’s how He would do it?
It seems to me that if God was really behind the New Testament, it would look a lot different. It would be systematic. It would make sense. It wouldn’t be the hodgepodge of nonsense and occasional correspondence we have. Someone would have sat down and written: OK, here’s what God wants you to know. He says . . .
Knowing all this, are you still going to say that the New Testament is the literal word of God? If you’re believer, the answer’s probably yes.
Why? Because you need an authoritative word of God. You need scripture. We can’t just be left to our own devices.
However, this begs the question, how are fallible humans supposed to interpret a perfect book? It does God no good to prevent error throughout the entire process of creating the New Testament if He doesn’t finally empower each believer to infallibly interpret the New Testament.
And that’s the one thing we know for a solid fact isn’t the case. Want to start a bar fight? Insist you know what the Bible says on a particular topic.
We are left to our own devices.
Ergo, the New Testament is not the word of God. We’d do just as well to use a Magic 8 Ball.