August 26, 2017
Inspiration and the Occasional NT Epistles
First I would like to thank you for your tireless efforts to propel Christianity toward intellectual relevance for so many of the lost. I have always found it so helpful and encouraging.
I have no doubts regarding Jesus. He is my Lord and Savior, and I have entrusted my life to him. I am, however, starting to question the common church teaching that every word in the New Testament is to be regarded as "Scripture".
It is worth noting that I did not grow up a Christian. The child of two atheists (who, praise God, have also since given their lives to Christ), I have no preconceived notions about Christianity, concept of traditions, etc. - all I know is what the Bible (and sermons) tell me, so I often question many assumptions lifelong Christians seem to hold.
In short, my doubt is with the Epistles. To be clear, I do not doubt their authenticity, and I do believe they are generally useful and not heretical. My question is with intent.
To explain my reasoning, I must contrast the Epistles with Acts and the Gospels. In regards to Acts, we are not told this, but I imagine after the Resurrection, one of the disciples was nominated by his peers to write the first book of the New Testament. Luke, ever the fastidious note taker, knew the gravity of this particular written work. Likewise, many years later, the Gospel writers knew that their writings would substantially influence the Christian world as Scripture since it contained dialogue from the Word Himself. These men knew what they were about to do, and likely did it with great fear and self-preparation, as they grew up seeing the reverence with which Old Testament Scripture was treated.
When I consider Paul's letters, however, the intent appears different. We cannot know this for sure, but Paul was not sitting down to write a book for generations of Christians to come, he was writing to his friends and writing to individual churches to encourage/rebuke through different situations. Of course Paul is striving for accuracy, but he is also addressing individual people and churches, but compared to Acts recording the first Church history and the Gospels recording universal truths from our incarnate Creator, Paul's letters seem to merit less focus and less universal applicability. Perhaps an illustration is in order.
I have a bookshelf at home loaded precariously full. The top bookshelf is dedicated to my Bibles. The bookshelf directly beneath it, also a dedicated place of honor, is home to works of Christian authors like C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and you of course! The top two shelves are my prized possessions. But when I think about the Epistles, I would want a new shelf, below the Bibles (sans Epistles), but above the other Christian writers. These were written by Apostles after all, and written during the time period in question. But most of my Christian friends would view this as heresy, not willing to entertain my reasons above.
Do you think there is any merit to my points above? Thank you for providing a safe space to pose my question.
There is definitely merit in your observations about the nature of the New Testament epistles, Mark, but I think you are hasty in the inference you draw.
It is certainly true that the NT epistles are often intensely personal and address concerns specific in certain local churches (though these letters were also sometimes intended to be circulated and read in multiple congregations [Colossians 4.16]). Indeed, this is a truism, such that the epistles are called by scholars “occasional letters.” Everyone recognizes that they were written to specific people and address concerns relevant to those persons. You probably, in fact, exaggerate the degree to which the Gospels and Acts are themselves free of such occasional features.
The problem I see is your inference that the occasional nature of the epistles somehow implies that they are not divinely inspired. Unfortunately, you don’t give any argument for this conclusion, apart from saying that it is a matter of “intent.” Your unspoken assumption seems to be that a necessary condition of divine inspiration is that the author of the divinely inspired writing must be consciously aware that he is writing something that is not merely occasional. I think you’d agree that that assumption is far from obvious and needs some supporting argument. Those who think that God sovereignly superintended the writing of the epistles do not think that the human authors had to be aware of divine guidance or even of the enduring significance of what they were writing.
Fortunately, I have addressed this question at some length in my Defenders’ lectures on the inspiration of Scripture (parts 5 and 6) and so can refer you to what I have said there. In a nutshell, I argue that given divine middle knowledge of what any person would freely do in any circumstance in which he might find himself, God can supervise the writing of occasional letters by knowing what a person (say, Paul) would freely write if he were placed in certain circumstances. Such an occasional letter then becomes God’s word to us. Such a middle knowledge perspective gives us an authoritative, divinely inspired word of God without infringing upon the freedom of the human authors to write as they wished.