Last time, we discussed the nature of the Bible by focusing on the Old Testament. I concluded that the books of the Old Testament were written by people who felt a special relationship with God and that these people developed increasingly insightful ideas about God. Their writings are very useful, and God may have inspired some writers to an extent, but their writings are not the authoritative, inerrant word of God.
Is the New Testament Inerrant?
If the Old Testament writings are not the inerrant word of God, then what about the New Testament? Is the New Testament authoritative in a way that the Old Testament is not? What is the nature of the New Testament?
I believe we should approach the books of the New Testament essentially the same way we approach any writing; they were written by people just as today’s histories, biographies, and other writings are written by people–but these New Testament books were written by people of great conviction who were energized by the person of Jesus. They spread the good news of God’s love and of the kingdom from their encounters with Jesus.
They were inspired by Jesus. However, their writings are not inerrant or authoritative in themselves; they are only reflections and elaborations of their experience with the man who changed everything about their lives.
So we must assess what these writers say — what were the contexts of their writings; who were their audiences and what did those initial audiences understand from the writings? How do we personally relate to the writings–as reservoirs of eternal truth statements or valuable insights from which we can often benefit?
The writings of the New Testament are extremely valuable, but they are not inerrant sources of doctrinal truth statements. Rather they show the dynamic reaction of people to Jesus and the application of his good news to their lives. Often we can identify powerfully with the writers and their audiences, but other times we do not.
Jesus as the Foundation of the New Testament Books
I was raised as an evangelical and accepted all the assumptions and beliefs of evangelicalism, including biblical inerrancy. When I concluded in mid-life that claims of New Testament inerrancy did not hold up, I began reading the New Testament from a different and improved perspective.
What I found was that the portrait of Jesus presented in the gospels from the memories of his earliest followers is very compelling. I saw Jesus reflected in their memories and saw his impact on them. Their reports might not be accurate in every detail or historical sequence, but the person of Jesus shows through quite clearly—and he is compelling. I was drawn to this Jesus. He is a person I can believe in; he is a person I can trust. His person and message, reflected in the memories of his earliest followers, changed my life as it changed the lives of his earliest followers.
I do not believe in Jesus because the New Testament is the inerrant word of God but because of the person of Jesus, himself, as presented from the memories of his followers. I want to know as much as possible about Jesus and what he said and did. There is a great deal of information about Jesus from his earliest followers, and the essential portrayal of Jesus is consistent even though they differ on details and approaches.
New Testament Writers Who Never Personally Heard Jesus
Not all New Testament writers had the opportunity to hear Jesus personally, but they too were energized by the message of his earliest followers. They shared the good news of Jesus they had received, but we also see in their writings their attempts to digest what Jesus had done, understand what it means, and contemplate how it applied to the newly formed believer communities.
One writer in particular who wrestled with these issues, and was not among Jesus’ personal followers, impacted the world with his insights into the work of Jesus. As an unsympathetic observer who then came to find Jesus to be compelling, he became energized both in promoting Jesus and in trying to grasp the implications of Jesus’ work.
His name was Paul, and he made invaluable contributions to the spread of Jesus’ message and to our understanding of it. However, Paul is not authoritative or inerrant either. He was creative and inspiring, and he shared with us his insights about Jesus, but in some cases I believe Paul was mistaken.
Next time, we will further investigate some of Paul’s ideas.
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