Paul didn’t have a BACKSPACE button

I went down to Hagerstown, MD yesterday to have lunch with a blisteringly smart and gifted colleague who also used to happen to be one of my protégées. We were riffing back and forth on the subject of inspiration and how evangelicalism has a strong feel for the ‘divine’ part in Biblical inspiration, but we don’t have a very robust sense of what it means that the human writers were involved. As a result, many folks end up with an operationally Qur’anic view of Scripture (the words falling directly from God’s lips – the human hardly involved at all except as a typewriter). In contrast to this, my friend says “It’s not like Paul had a backspace button.”

In fact, it appears Paul didn’t have his laptop with him a lot of the time – he can’t even look up (nor remember) who all he baptized. And that faulty memory… is part… of Holy Scripture (1 Corinthians 1: 14-16).

And so here’s Paul, pacing back and forth, ripping off a letter (with his secretary writing as fast as he can to keep up), dealing  with whatever church issue he was responding to, ranting at times, and he makes a side comment to further illustrate the point he’s making. He makes it on the fly, not sitting around wordsmithing at a computer screen. We preachers  do this all the time in sermons. Add a line or two spontaneously that we think helps further illuminate what we are saying from a different angle. But after the sermon, if pushed, we might say “Wait, no – that one comment wasn’t the point of the sermon – I was just adding that – don’t try to make that one example carry too much water – it only works if you look at it this way…”

If this is the case, we have a problem when we get a Qur’anic view of Scripture lodged in our heads, (all divine – virtually no human influence) and as a result start acting like all verses are equal. So you end up with Luther grabbing a sentence or two from Paul (made on the fly?) and concluding that the Mosaic law was a bad thing. Later you have Calvin come along, take a much broader look at what the whole New Testament  –including Paul – has to say on the subject, and conclude that the Law was a good thing.

Paul didn’t have a backspace button. And it looks very much like he was ranting in some of his letters – moving fast, making his point, falling into poor grammar and mile-long sentences. In everyday human life we give people the benefit of the doubt and say “Well, he didn’t mean that the way you are taking it. He was just making his point. Don’t take that with the same level of seriousness as when he is calmly, carefully stating his point…”

Is there a way for us to accommodate the human factor in Scripture as well? Paul’s memory in 1 Corinthians 1 isn’t the only place we come across indications there is more to the human aspect of inspiration than simply being flesh-and-blood keyboards. Luke states unapologetically that he did a bunch of research  in order to get the story straight about Jesus (Luke 1: 1-4). The Psalms express a range of very human emotions, including the desire to kill an enemy nations’  infants by smashing them on rocks (Psalm 137:9). Anyone ever heard of the phrase ‘noncombatants’ ? Whatever we are going to do, it seems we ought to be thinking carefully  how to deal with the very human aspect of what we mean by ‘Divine Inspiration.’ What sort of metric can we use to factor this in?

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