Sunday, April 15, 2007

Let's Ask My Friend, The Pope: Part II

Note: This is the second part of this essay. If you haven't read the first half, you should. It's HERE. For those of you that ignore my suggestion, please excuse the abrupt beginning. Here goes:

But what about the first century, when the bible was being written? What happened if the folks at Corinth didn't wuite get what Paul was saying about, for example, lawsuits among the brethren? The answer is simple: like the Catholics today, they simply asked the guy in charge. And the closer you are were to the author of a particular epistle, the better your chances as getting a definite answer. Conversely, your odds of misunderstanding increases with distance. Luke, to name one, probably had no misgivings about Paul's conversion story. Mark and Bartholomew could have setted any dispute by pulling Paul aside and double-checking themselves. Sometimes, as was the case with Peter, in Galatians, Paul didn't wait for someone to ask. He made a clarification when he saw one had become necessary (1).

Likewise, it seems unlikely that someone a thousand years after Christ and Paul could be the first person to understand one of their statements. Imagine a professor of Western Civilization publishing a book that attempted to "prove" something previously unknown about Abraham Lincoln. Pretend that this professor suggested that our sixteenth president was actually our twenty-fourth, or that he was gay, or female, or black. I hope it can be said of Americans that we are not so gullible. Hundreds of books have been written on Lincoln, many by people who knew the man. Lincoln himself put quite a lot into print. Portraits exist. Lincoln's clothing--men's clothing--is on display in at least one museum that I know of. All of these things testify to the fact that Abraham Lincoln was our sixteenth president, male, white, and straight. Someone, however, could manipulate this data with a quote from Lincoln's pen:

"If any personal description is thought desirable, it may be said that I am [of] dark complexion, with coarse black hair. (2)"

From this, they could argue that he was black, but despite what we read, we possess a couple hundred years of scholarship to correct our faulty assumptions.

And so, the proper interpretation of a scripture should be found close to the actual author of that scripture. Barring the existence of an extremely astute (or lucky) scholar, novel interpretations of scripture that contradict traditional interpretations are likely wrong, especially if they pop up without any pre-existing authority, or any authority at all, besides the interpreting author's say-so. As Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun."

All of this rests upon the rather reasonable assumption that when an author penned a letter, they themselves knew what they meant. This seems like common sense, even without scriptural support, but for skeptics and Bereans, Paul puts it plainly in I Corinthians 2:13 that his spoken word was given to him by the Holy Spirit, when he says the following:

"This is what we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit."

Also II Thessalonians 2:15 (italics mine):

"So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."

The words that Paul spoke, his lessons and explanations, were of the same inspiration, or were at least as reliable, as the epistles he wrote, and the fact that he was inspired to include that little fact proves to us that he was aware of it.

All of this isn't to say that every belief in the first and second centuries was free from heresy. To cite just a few, Paul warned of false teachers in II Corinthians 11:13 and Galatians 2:4; Peter spoke of them in II Peter 2:12-22; and Jude echoes his warning in the fourth verse of his very brief epistle. A teaching's presence in the early centuries isn't a guarantee against error, but a complete absence of it is an indictment. Truth should have precedent. It should have a pedigree.

1. Galatians 2:11-13
2. Lincoln's second autobiography

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