Paul the Apostle is the traditional author of most of the New Testament letters. Paul argues in Galatians 1:11-24 that he has extraordinary authority and that he received his teachings from God. What are we to make of this? There are problems and possibilities with such a claim. What we know for sure is that Paul’s writings continue their decisive influence on Christianity. Because of this, we must consider how Paul’s writings impact biblical authority.
Paul claims that he had a revelation from God, and he is arguing as hard as he can that his teachings are special. Paul is struggling to push his views and the strain is evident. Paul’s context is interesting. In the decades after Jesus’ death, Jews and Christians were most often enemies. Paul emphasizes his conversion to Christianity by contrasting it to his previously strict Judaism. Paul’s use of irony is brilliant, and he is saying something like this: “Isn’t it remarkable that such a well-educated, devoted Jew as I could be commissioned by God as a great Christian teacher?” Paul’s transformation into the chief Christian missionary is miraculous given that he was previously a zealous Jew persecuting Christians.
Paul’s biography aside, huge issues are raised by his authority. Who has a right to assert that their revelation is universally binding? Because of their nature, revelations are slippery and controversial. Yet, we’d be hard-pressed to argue against the helpfulness of Paul’s writings if for no other reason than the power of tradition. The stakes are high and we’d better have good reasons for either accepting or rejecting whatever teachings we find in our Bibles. Tradition alone never guarantees that something is truthful. But we also must be careful, because tradition often has some good reasons behind it.
The questions of authorship and revelation are key to biblical authority, inerrancy and inspiration, relevant topics given ongoing controversies between fundamentalists and progressives about what the Bible is, how much of it is God’s word, etc. Biblical writer or not, people are a splendid and frustrating mix of biases and prejudices, all of which influence how they think and write. Paul is no different. Hence we are challenged to read Paul’s writings both critically and devotionally, sifting for spiritual insights while being wary of less helpful material. Two extremes are avoidable: to either blindly accept or reject teachings only because they are written in the Bible. God gives us minds to help sort reality; faith is not the enemy of reason. Even fundamentalists don’t consistently accept all biblical teachings. There’s so much wiggle room with interpretations that even among die-hards who proclaim that the Bible is absolutely God’s word there’s conflict about what this or that section means. Similarly, progressives may avoid accepting a Bible teaching by giving-in to the same temptation as their more conservative brethren. The danger in this latter point lay in accepting only those teachings which are convenient and don’t challenge for change. We can argue all day about how much the Bible represents absolute Truth only to pick and choose a message that simply reinforces the status quo, which is less than God’s best. Thankfully, there are enough Bible teachings from which we may gain tremendous joy and guidance. Don’t become discouraged. Claim God’s blessings and steer clear of those who choose to argue about the Bible more than they are willing to demonstrate love.
It’s one thing to discuss an ancient biblical author like Paul but the stakes become higher when we enter the frame. Think about this: God wants you to do what Paul did. Yes, we are supposed to be God’s representatives as was Paul. Sure, we are each individually different from Paul but the point is that we must also share the gospel with power and passion. What? You say that you’re not worthy nor equipped? Balderdash! God’s magnificent Holy Spirit is able to do through you the same transformation as done through the ancient faithful, and perhaps even more so. A problem is that some folks have such low expectations that they seldom know or claim God’s promises. Are you ready to step forward and leverage your faith?
Raise your hopes, stoke the fires of your expectations and rise to the occasion. God is able to proclaim truth through you, but only if you are willing. God will not cajole or force it on you. We must accept God’s gift of spiritual life and the remainder will follow. Too many people think that they are insignificant and anonymous and unfit to make any positive difference in the world. God disagrees! And once you are connected to God the cycle is complete and you can act with decisive power and conviction. Accept God’s invitation and become spiritually awakened. This way, you’ll be on course to obtain everything necessary to live a joyful, victorious life. Don’t you deserve fulfillment?
As far as what God is writing in our hearts, let’s return to the informal St. John church motto of “We can DO it!” The “D” refers to discipleship, which is partnering with God to become a stronger Christian. The “O” references outreach, which is partnering with God to help make new Christians. Each and every church must embrace a version of these two overarching goals. There is no legit option to pass this up, no escape clause letting any church off the hook. No, if we are to act and call ourselves a church then we are both obligated and privileged to speak authoritatively and authentically, like Paul, about how we represent God’s message. Are you ready for this splendid challenge? Hurting people are counting on us for hope and inspiration. –Reverend Larry Hoxey