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Sometimes, as I read the bible or listen to a speaker in church, I can't help but feel that while Paul's letters are full of well-grounded Christian wisdom and advice, they can also contain what seems to me like Paul's human opinions, as opposed to God's own word. I do believe Paul is a true apostle, spoken to by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and an important figure, but he's also just a human man, right?

For me, as a Christian, I would never question or disagree with the words spoken by Jesus in the Bible, no matter how challenging they are, or unpopular they can be in mainstream society. Really, I 100% accept them as the direct word of God, as part of His New Covenant.

But Jesus did not talk about every topic. While answers to the questions that really matter can be found in Jesus' words, the answers to every possible question cannot. And so, I often see an individual, or a church, or a whole denomination establish doctrines and views on certain topics solely by studying the words written by Paul (or other New Testament authors). But how can they be certain in these views, if it's Paul's word they are reading and not God's? How is it any different to reading the words of any other human being, past or present, and using them to form their doctrines?

I've come across the view that Paul's letters are God's word because in 2 Peter 3:14-16, they are referred to as Scripture. But that just begs the same question - who gave Peter the authority to define such a thing? He's human too.

I've also come across the view that Paul's experience on the road to Damascus was an act of validation by God of Paul's authority, and so Paul's letters can be seen a validated by God, and so practically God's own words. But surely that's an opinion - a supposition, not an unequivocal fact.

Some also say that Paul's letters were validated as God's word by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. But again, those guys were humans.

Some just have the faith that God must have intervened in the process of compiling The Bible over the centuries, and so we should assume everything in it is validated as God's own word. But again, Jesus never stated this, it's not a Commandment - it's a human supposition.

  1. When I read Jesus' words in the Gospels, I believe I am reading the unquestionable Word of God.

  2. When I read a Christian book by a modern author, I do so appreciating and learning from the wisdom and advice contained within, but I feel entitled to disagree (or at least not entirely agree) with any of the content.

So my question (and struggle) really is: when I read Paul's letters, should I treat them as (1) or (2) above?

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I agree, Jesus himself said, "you are to call no man teacher but the Christ". –  Hammer Mar 15 '12 at 23:14
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With regard to Peter's authority, see Matthew 16:18. –  Andrew Leach Mar 15 '12 at 23:29
    
@Hammer - thanks for that - that really answers it for me to be honest. –  Nigh Mar 15 '12 at 23:52
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@Andrew - right He said, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church". I don't think humans will ever agree on what Jesus truly meant there. There are multiple reasonable interpretations in my view. It's pretty huge that the papal supremacy in the Roman Church is based on one of those interpretations. In my view, I don't accept that it can be unequivocally interpreted as including "Therefore, Peter, what you say goes, and who you give authority to, gets it." –  Nigh Mar 16 '12 at 0:15
    
By the way, this really is an excellent question. How we come to the text really does determine what we will come away with. I really applaud your honesty and sincerity in asking how we should come to the text in the first place. –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 12:11

9 Answers 9

I won't give a long and extensive answer as I think others have covered adequately a lot of what I would say.

However I would point to the fact that Paul's letters show clearly and accurately how God works both through and with His children. Paul's statements that are noted as from him and not from God are no less "God's Word" (meant to be part of the Bible), but are at the same time "Paul's" words. This is similar to how in various parts of the word Paul says "If anyone preaches another gospel other than the one we preach to you let them be accursed".

Paul could say this because not only does he have a reborn spirit (born of God), but he is baptised with the Holy Spirit as well (Acts 9:17), and because this gospel was verified as true by the other Apostles. Paul had authority to speak and write for God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Also, the Bible says that all scripture is given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is profitable (II Timothy 3:16). Some parts of scripture (such as when Paul says to bring parchments), may same useless, but they are somehow just as powerful - because they are God breathed.

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In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul says "For we know in part and we prophecy in part...For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then...Now I know in part..." He said these to people to help them understand his letter. Since Paul, the author said that his understanding is not without limitation; we should not take it beyond what he acknowledged. In contrast, when Jesus spoke to people, He spoke with full authority all the time since “the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh…” as indicated by John 1.

In Galatians 1 Paul made it clear and specific that “the gospel he preached” is not something that man made up; rather, he received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. He didn’t claim that everything he preached was based on revelation. 1 Corinthians 7 also indicates that he had expressed his judgment in his letter without command from the Lord. So, the letters of Paul are the Apostle’s words. Within the Apostle’s words, however, there are precious revelations of the Word.

So, should we treat Paul’s letters as Jesus’ words in the Gospels (as unquestionable Word of God) or as a Christian book by a modern author (thus entitled to disagree)? Clearly the second option is unacceptable. Books of modern authors do not have equivalent credibility as Paul‘s letters and other Apostles’ documents in proclaiming Christ and preaching the Gospel. No modern books can match the writings in New Testament for preserving Jesus’ words and teaching. But, should we then treat Paul’s writing equivalent to Jesus’ words? Paul has the answer for us in his own writing. The Gospel preached by him was directly from God, thus the message should be treated as Jesus’ words. However, for those teachings with some uncertainty and/or personal influence as noted by Paul within the letters, we should not treat them as Jesus’ words in the Gospels. Instead, we should let the Holy Spirit to guide us to understand them.

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Welcome to C.Se, looking forward to more. I like where you are heading with this, but in order to answer the question, I think you need to show how this answers it. –  Affable Geek Feb 17 '13 at 17:44
    
Could you please explain how this answers the question? Thanks! –  Affable Geek Feb 20 '13 at 4:21

1 Corinthians 7:12 has an interesting phrase (emphasis mine)

Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her.

The interesting bit here is that Paul seems to assume that everything else he is writing is from the Lord. Historically, all Chalcedonian Christians (+/- 0.1%) up to the time of Schleiermacher have agreed. Even heretics like the 2nd century Marcion accepted Paul as being part of the canon.

Indeed, to single out the Gospels as a somehow being "more Scriptural" is a fallacy (I think heresy would be too sharp a term) called "canon within the canon". Iraneus of Lyons in particular taught that all of Scripture was one organic whole, and to treat it otherwise runs contrary to the prevailing Orthodoxy of the time.

In modern times, this view has come about that Paul is somehow secondary to the words of Jesus, but it is not a form of Christianity that any of the Patrisics would have accepted.

In general, once something is considered "canonical," it literally means that it "measures up" to being God's revealed word. You can discount Paul if you want, but it is definitely what the ancients would have derisively called "novel."

Historically, that is also part of the reason that canon was reserved to those who were apostles. To clarify, Paul considered himself "the least of the apostles," but an apostle nonetheless. He was an eyewitness of Jesus after the resurrection, per Acts 9. Historically the church Fathers saw him as the legitimate heir to Judas (as opposed to say, Matthias), and a full apostle. As such, he was considered canonical.

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Very interesting, thanks for that. The Patristics et al were human beings. If they believed and advocated Paul's letters to be taken as God's own word, then it goes in circles - who gave them authority to pronounce such things? Regarding your 1 Corinthians quote, I don't actually take that to mean that Paul assumed that everything else he is writing is from the Lord. I would simply say that in the first half of the verse, Paul says he is reiterating what Jesus already said, and in the second half, he is adding his own personal thoughts and advice on the matter. No? –  Nigh Mar 16 '12 at 13:36
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So, (and this is coming from someone really conservative), in the end you have to trust some other human's word about what the words of God are. Fundamentally, I've chosen to put my faith in the accepted canon, because it has a pretty good track record of cohesion. To selectively pick and choose means you have to go back and redefine that for all of Christendom. I'm not arguing that anybody needs to accept the words of Paul as Gods word, but if you are going to accept Jesus and not Paul, you need to figure out what to do with all of your theology. –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 13:40
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I don't feel such an objective view of Paul's letters would affect all of one's theology. Surely the core of Christianity is simple: to believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah who died and rose again for our sins as a New Covenant between God and mankind, and to partake in that Covenant . Questioning whether Paul's letters are his own words and so subject to human error and opinion does not change or effect that core Christian belief, in my opinion. –  Nigh Mar 16 '12 at 16:40
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But, you've just used Paul's argument to prove that. Jesus never said that his death would pay the penalty for our sins, or that we would enter the covenant as a result. –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 17:20
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Wow never thought of that. Jesus did have a lot to say about himself (believers.org/whodid.htm), but much of what we tend to say and believe about Him is indeed based on things Paul said - interesting. –  Nigh Mar 16 '12 at 17:33

Abstract

Whether Paul's letters are God's Word to us depends entirely on the criteria you use. I will list a number of criteria and evaluate the letters.

Did Paul think he was writing God's Word?

I asked and answered the above question separately (it was getting to long for this space). In summary, I think Paul had some inkling that he was writing significant work that might stand beside or even against Jewish Scripture. But since the Jewish canon had not yet been finalized, it's possible (even likely) that Paul didn't believe his letters would be singled out from other, later Christian writings.

Did the letter's recipients think they were God's Word?

The primary indication against is that Paul argues mostly from reason and tradition rather than merely asserting authority. For instance, Paul addresses the division in the nascent church at Corinth:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?—1st Corinthians 1:11-13 (ESV)

We get the idea that Paul's audience didn't know who to believe.

On the other hand, the recipients of Philemon took care to preserve that relatively inconsequential letter (as did the recipients of 2nd and 3rd John). That shows they valued Paul's words more than just as a friend. Since Paul references letters sent to him that we no longer have, we must assume it wasn't a case of packrat syndrome. (To be fair, Paul references other letters that he wrote, but which do not seem to be preserved, so not everything he wrote was Scripture.)

Did the early church think they were God's Word?

Yes! In addition shortly after Clement of Rome (late 1st century), the church seems to have agreed that Paul's letters and the fourfold gospel were authoritative. Even Clement quoted favorably from Paul, though he still was in the mindset of calling only the Septuagint Scripture. By the late 2nd or early 3rd we have manuscript evidence that Paul's letters were in circulation as a collection. Most of the early arguments about the Christian canon focus on texts outside of Paul, such as James, Hebrews, The Shepherd of Hermas, and etc. For many Christians, the list produced by Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 AD represents the final Canon of the New Testament. (But note that the list is not terribly different than the list of texts Clement relied on.)

To be honest, Paul's credentials as an author of Scripture are impeccable and I must now turn the question back to you:

Why do you think Paul's letters are not God's Word?

Here's what you wrote:

Sometimes, as I read the bible or listen to a speaker in church, I can't help but feel that while Paul's letters are full of well-grounded Christian wisdom and advice, they can also contain what seems to me like Paul's human opinions, as opposed to God's own word. I do believe Paul is a true apostle, spoken to by Jesus on the road to Damascus, and an important figure, but he's also just a human man, right?

First, I agree that at times Paul speaks from his own wisdom. But we need to be careful to not fall in to the trap of tailoring God's Word to our own preferences. That path leads to intellectual dishonesty and spiritual immaturity. Paul was an intellectual, spiritual, theological and evangelical giant. What's more, he was bursting with the authority of the Holy Spirit. It's not for nothing that Jesus is the hero of the first volume of Luke's two-part history of the church, and Paul is the hero of the second. Personally, it makes me humble when I read Paul's letters. There's more wisdom in the points I disagree with Paul then in the entire corpus of many other authors.

Second, the Church universal has been given significant authority by Jesus:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”—Luke 24:44-49 (ESV)

The final sentence was a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. You can read about what happened next in Acts. The point is God didn't step out of the picture when Jesus ascended. Rather, Jesus transferred His authority to the Church empowered by the Holy Spirit. In turn, the Church recognized Paul's letters and the rest of the New Testament as "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."—2nd Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

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Peter thought Paul's writings were scripture –  warren Sep 27 '12 at 14:34

Simple answer of no use to you:

At Mass when Paul's epistles or any other non-gospel reading is read or sung, the lector says.

the word of the LORD

To which the people respond.

thanks be to God

We say this even when the reading is some bummer out of Job or Lamentations or all the Maccabees just got killed.

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never heard "some bummer out of Job or Lamentations" before :) –  warren Mar 16 '12 at 14:59
    
My church does something similar. The lector says, "The word of God for the people of God," and the people respond, "Thanks be to God". But this is only after the final Bible reading of the day. –  Bruce Alderman Mar 16 '12 at 19:33

Peter himself considered Paul's writings to be scripture in 2 Peter 3:15,16:

and consider [that] the longsuffering of our Lord [is] salvation--as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable [people] twist to their own destruction, as [they do] also the rest of the Scriptures.

Note how Peter says the rest of the Scriptures? He is telling us that he considers Paul's writings (which some find hard to understand) as part of the Scriptures.

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The Apostle Peter certainly treated Paul's letters as God's word, elevating them to the status of written scripture:

He [Paul] 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.

2 Peter 3:16, with my emphasis.

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BTW, good to know that even one of Paul's contemporaries, with Peter's knowledge of the subject and culture, found Paul's letters "hard to understand"! –  Wikis Mar 16 '12 at 10:58
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"...elevating them to the status of written scripture" Well, what does the status of written scripture actually signify? Does it really and clearly mean "God's written word"? Dictionary definitions of the word don't suggest so. Jesus often talks about the Scripture being fulfilled, or quotes the Old Testament referring to it as Scripture. By this, I understand him to be validating the authority and truthfulness of what the Psalmist or Prophet writes, not saying that His Father wrote it. And Jesus is qualified to authorise writings this way. Is Peter? –  Nigh Mar 16 '12 at 13:20
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@Nigh: Jesus never questioned Scripture. Rather, He used it as His authority, e.g. when arguing with the devil. –  Wikis Mar 16 '12 at 14:19
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Wikis That's a good point –  Nigh Mar 16 '12 at 16:15
    
@Nigh, thanks very much! –  Wikis Mar 16 '12 at 18:41

It is possible to believe that the Epistles where actual letters written by Paul, and at the same time believe that the Gospels are accurate accounts of what Jesus did and spoke.

And then further, if you believe you should follow Jesus's words alone, you can still call yourself a Christian, if you define "Christian" as "follower of Christ".

Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.

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Either you believe in the complete and total inerrancy of scripture, or the entire Christian faith has absolutely no basis, whatsoever. Therefore, I would submit that nothing can be discredited, or everything can. After all, do we believe what John and Peter wrote?? If them, why not Paul?? For that matter, how do we know that Moses or Samuel of the Old Testament were speaking the Word of The Lord?? Either we believe in the foresight of God and in the perfection of His Word, in its entirety, or Christianity is a fallacy.

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The question is not "were those letters Paul wrote really written by Paul?". The question is do we ordain Paul as someone who spoke the "word of God" and therefore his teaching was infallible. –  Hammer Mar 16 '12 at 8:27
    
@Hammer, we don't "ordain" Paul as such, the early church fathers with MUCH counsel and discussion considered him as such. While we should thoroughly study for ourselves, we can also rest in the work done by those gone before us. –  davidethell Mar 16 '12 at 10:53
    
Just an FYI, you're going to find that I'm about as conservative as they come, but could I warn about the logical fallacies you are taking up by saying that you must believe in inerrancy or else the entire faith is without basis? –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 11:59
    
1. By putting full faith in the canon, you are necessarily putting your faith in men- good men grant you, but men- whose opinions of what is and is not canonical form the books we call the Bible. God did not see fit to give us a full list. –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 12:00
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3. And this is a more controversial point- doesnt God start with us where we are? He loves us, even if we aren't 100% on board with how he would shape us. As such, if a person were to reject, say, A literal Garden of Eden (I do believe it was literal, but that's beside the point), that doesn't make the whole edifice of Christianity crumble. I can still accept total depravity, and more importantly accept Gods grace. In time, he can correct me, through the Scripture, but that doesn't mean that I have to start at 100% right belief. God is stronger than that. –  Affable Geek Mar 16 '12 at 12:07

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