When St Paul is Wrong

Your view of Scripture is paramount -- it dominates even your interpretations of every passage. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. David Dockery, from the opening statements in the first chapter of his book on the subject of the Christian scriptures, when he states that there is "an ongoing crisis centered around the nature, authority, and interpretation of the Bible."1 Despite the opinions of evangelicals, Episcopalians adhere to the primacy of biblical authority, as the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are the inspired Word of God. In the Catechism of The Episcopal Church we find:
Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
Q. How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?
A. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
Episcopalians do not question biblical authority: hermeneutics and epistemology are of utmost significance. Vicki Black and Peter Werner state that the difficulty
for us in comprehending what the Bible says lies in the fact that the stories and sayings that eventually became the Bible were first handed down in oral form, and then written and copied by hand, edited, and interpreted for many thousands of years. Furthermore, the texts we read in English were originally spoken and written in languages very different from those we know today, and with every translation, decisions are made that affect the meaning of the texts, often in profound ways.2
So, we are not permitted to merely decry the various opinions of a culture, and then insist that the Bible directly addresses each one of those issues and insist that anyone who disagrees with our particular declarations do not adhere to biblical authority. Dockery states further: "Questions dealing with wide-ranging issues such as abortion, homosexuality, feminist theology, and inclusive language for God, postmodern concerns or New Age ideas point to the wide-ranging gap between the message of Scripture and the controversies ranging in our society."3 But we are obligated to note that the issues raised within any given culture are inevitable, as it was in biblical times, and that the authors of the Bible do not always speak to, if you will, those very issues.

Consider the subject of homosexuality, raised by Dockery, and take into account that the word "homosexual" itself is a twentieth-century innovation that is, more than merely potentially, divorced from the concept(s) of the biblical authors on the subject. In other words, Dockery and his ilk cannot be permitted, without protest, to insist that the authors of Scripture, namely Moses and St Paul, address homosexuality as we understand homosexuality today, not when the contexts within their passages fail to address homosexual persons within a framework of desiring loving and committed unions but highlighting sexual acts, excessive lust, and even male power-rape.

I have for several years maintained a nagging question in the back of my mind regarding the apostle Paul. He is considered a giant among the apostles, writing much of the Christian scriptures, and has helped countless millions of people throughout the centuries think about Christ, salvation, and how to live one's life in Christ. But is every notion that St Paul maintains true? He is, after all, only human; certainly he holds to some errant (perhaps even errant theological) views to some degree, given his own fallen humanity, as inevitably shared by us all. Is St Paul ever wrong? Dare we even ask such a question? I can think of one error he perpetuates; that is, if pre-tribulationism is correct, then St Paul is wrong, at least regarding imminence.

The apostle Paul is convinced, as noted from pre-tribulationists, that Jesus will physically return during his own lifetime. That is wrong. Is this semantics? Dr. Gerald Stanton, from the Pre-Trib Research Center, notes that the "primary thought expressed by imminency is that something important is likely to happen, and could do so without delay. While it may not be immediate, nor necessarily soon, it is next on the program and may take place at any time." (link) (emphases added) I appreciate his careful attention to the doctrine of imminency not maintaining an insistence that the event be "immediate, nor necessarily soon," but "next on the program and may take place at any time." First-century culture adopted this very sentiment regarding time.

While we, in the West, think of time in terms of successive chronological events (chronos), those in the first century did not, but conceived of time as a series of events (kairos).4 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O'Brien suggest that people in biblical times were "more concerned with timing than with time."5 However, even if we concede that St Paul believes that Christ's return is the next major event that shall occur, that idea is still a mistake. The next major event is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.



Jesus warns that a time of judgment is approaching: "Truly I tell you, not one stone [referring to the buildings of the temple, cf. Matt. 24:1] will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." (Matt. 24:2) He also mentions the event of His return when His disciples question Him concerning both occurrences. Jeannine Brown suggests that Matthew 24:1-35 addresses the soon-coming event of the destruction of the Temple; meanwhile, Matthew 24:36-51 and Matthew 25:1-36 address His return:
Jesus' words concerning the temple's destruction [Matt. 24:4-35] begin by warning his disciples that they will be tempted to misinterpret various events as signaling the temple's destruction when those signs are actually precursors to it [again, the destruction of the Temple, not His return]. Matthew's reference to "the end" (Greek telos) at [Matt. 24:6, 13-14] uses language distinct from his Greek phrase for "the end of the age" [Matt. 24:3; cf. Matt. 13:39-40, 49; 28:20], possibly indicating that with telos he is referring to a more immediate "end" -- namely, the temple's destruction.6
St Paul, according to pre-tribulationists, tends to focus primarily upon Christ's physical return (e.g., the rapture and the second coming), for the benefit of His people, than on the soon-approaching judgment on Israel via the destruction of the Temple. Pretribulationists, among most other advocates of any respective eschatology, highlight the apostle's alleged doctrine of imminence (or the pre-trib rapture): "we see clearly that the Rapture is not identical with the Revelation, commonly called the Second Coming of Christ," writes Gerald Stanton. "There are some obvious differences. The Rapture relates to the Church, when the dead in Christ shall rise and the living will be translated to meet the Lord in the air (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). It expresses hope, and a warm spirit of expectancy (1 Thess. 1:10), all of which should result in a victorious and purified life (1 John 3:2-3)." (link) Let us make some notes.

First, the so-called distinction between the (pre-tribulational) rapture and the second coming of Christ is created by the Pretribulationist, since the authors of the Christian scriptures never explicitly name such a distinction. Second, neither 1 Corinthians 15:52 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 explicitly note that the occurrence mentioned is the rapture of the Church as distinct from the second coming. This is a hermeneutical issue. Third, the passage of 1 Thessalonians 1:10 used to support a pre-tribulational rapture is problematic at best, especially as one considers that the mention of "wrath" is ambiguous: is the referent of "wrath" that of man's wrath (Rev. 6:9), that of the devil (Rev. 12:12), or that of God (Rev. 6:16)? Where the apostle is silent the pre-tribulationist fills in the gap. Fourth, the proof-text of 1 John 3:2-3 can just as easily be used to refer to an amillennial interpretation, for example, of the second coming: the second advent of Christ maintains a purifying effect for those longing to see Him.

Of course, there is another Achilles' heel with a pre-tribulational understanding of the end times, and that involves the doctrine of imminency itself. If Christ could have returned in the pre-tribulational rapture during the era of St Paul, then such would have occurred prior to the destruction of the Temple, since he died prior to 70 CE (when the Temple was destroyed). Even if the pre-tribulational rapture could have occurred just subsequent to the destruction of the Temple, are we suggesting, then, that God would have somehow re-birthed the nation of Israel, given that pre-tribulationalists insist that a sign of the return of Christ -- whether one considers the return of Christ for the Church in the pre-tribulational rapture or the second advent -- is the re-birth of Israel? But if this re-birth must precede either event then the doctrine of imminence is rendered entirely false. This is my main point.

If St Paul is teaching believers that Christ will return within his own lifetime, that the return of Christ is the next major event to occur, then he is, clearly, wrong. The next event to occur is the judgment of Israel and her Temple in Jerusalem; the succeeding event is the building of the Church catholic; the succeeding event is the re-birth of Israel; all of which culminate at the end of the Church era with the return of Christ. Perhaps the pre-trib perspective of the words of St Paul regarding imminency are errant. But what if pre-tribulationists are correct on this issue? This requires we acknowledge that the apostle is wrong. Is that, in itself, a problem if he is wrong?

Recall that the views of St Paul concerning inspiration regard the Hebrew scriptures (1 Tim. 3:16), since his Bible is the Jewish Old Covenant, and that he is not insisting a theory of inspiration and inerrancy for his own letters (cf. 1 Cor. 7:25). How does this inform our understanding of the scriptures? Many of us argue that St Paul can actually defend his errant view that the return of Christ will occur in his lifetime without undermining the integrity of Scripture. How? Because he is right that Christ will return (cf. John 14:1-3; Acts 1:11; 1 John 3:2-3). That he mistakenly conceives of Christ's return during his own lifetime does not diminish the fact that He will return.

For the inerrantist, however, the apostle being wrong -- even wrong once -- is more than merely problematic: it is destructive of the theory of inerrancy. If even one notion within Scripture is in error then the doctrine of inerrancy is not only undermined but is proven false. Many of us, however, do not equate inspiration with the theory of biblical inerrancy. (link) Nor are we committed to adopting any semblance of a notion that the Spirit of God would "inspire" anyone to feel in her or his heart: "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Ps. 137:9 ESV) What we can confess, regarding inspiration, is that the words are recorded as penned by any given author, or via a secretary (amanuensis), and are the thoughts of the individual without necessarily attributing said thoughts to the thoughts of God.7

For example, within the patriarchal culture of biblical times, we are not obliged to perpetuate such demeaning and degrading views of women as property, as stupid and weak, and as entirely compliant to their husbands (or men in general). The Bible is culturally-sensitive and culturally-relevant. Some views perpetuated by authors of Scripture are entirely irrelevant today. Moreover, an error of imminency, as seemingly maintained by St Paul, at least according to the views of pre-tribulational rapturists, should not deter us from the reality of the second advent. Jesus will return; He will gather His people; He will render judgment and consequences; and He will rule with justice and love forever. We can read Scripture critically, honestly, and still retain eternal truths in spite of certain discrepancies and errors if they are encountered.

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1 David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Response on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004), 1.

2 Vicki K. Black and Peter W. Werner, Welcome to the Bible (New York: Morehouse Publishers, 2007), 37.

3 Dockery, 1.

4 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 145; see pp. 137-51.

5 Ibid., 145.

6 Jeannine K. Brown, "Matthew," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 997.

7 For example, we would not suggest that the words penned by all involved in Song of Songs are the immediate thoughts of God. Nor would Solomon's ruinous end represent the heart or disposition of God. But we have the history of such individuals recorded for our benefit.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.