The Fallibility of Paul

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to approach Scripture. When I was discipled in my present church, I was taught a very specific hermeneutical method which became the eyeglasses through which I read the Bible. I described that method in my last two articles here and here. That method did help me to grow for a while, but as the years passed it lost its effectiveness. I stopped asking the creative, fundamental and tough questions about Scripture that would cause me to wrestle with deeper issues of life and faith.

Basically, I was taught to examine short portions of Scripture – a few verses or a chapter at a time – and then carefully notice the details, deduce the meaning, and strive for personal application. It was assumed that every passage had a self-contained message aimed directly at my situation today. I was supposed to ask myself: Are there promised to claim? Commands to obey? Sins to be repented of? The outcome of every Bible study was supposed to be some kind of revelatory, life-changing experience (accepting “one word”) that could be shared in a written testimony. If that experience didn’t happen, it was because something was wrong with me, because I hadn’t tried hard enough, gone deep enough, repented sincerely enough, and so on. To strive for anything less than a personal revelatory experience in each Bible study was to demonstrate a lack of faith in the Bible as the inspired word of God.

I don’t think this method is categorically wrong. It can sometimes produce useful results, especially when applied to portions of the New Testament. But it is not the sole, divinely-ordained and God honoring way to approach Scripture. This method has plenty of shortcomings. For example, it ignores the fact that Scripture was written as books, and focusing on short passages tends to obscure the message of the book. And the focus on personal interpretation tends to neglect the role of Christian tradition. In effect, it substitutes one’s local community tradition for the understanding and testimony of saints through the ages.

This method can be unhealthy when applied to parts of the Old Testament. When studying the OT, the temptation to treat every passage as timeless commands and principles must be resisted. No Christian can sensibly treat the OT as commands to be obeyed today. To do so would create a religious system full of legalism, nationalism (us-versus-them thinking) and violence. I was taught to interpret the OT commands allegorically, adapting them to my church’s understanding of its present mission in the world. For example, God’s commands to Israel to conquer the land of Canaan became a metaphor for conquering college campuses with the gospel and our church’s specific brand of discipleship. At the time, I thought this was a reasonable way to honor the OT as the inspired word of God while making it relevant to my immediate situation. But now I believe that there are much better ways to approach the OT that are more consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Now I am striving to read the OT not as a series of commands and principles, but as the colorful, beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of how God interacted with the nation of Israel. I try to remember that the OT story is a progressive revelation that reaches its fullness in Jesus. The religion of the OT is only a murky shadow of the reality of God revealed in Christ (Col 2:17, Heb 10:1). God’s full, authoritative self-revelation is not contained in written words of the OT but in the living person of Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-3)

In the remainder of this article, I’d like to explore some ideas about how to read the Pauline epistles in a way that is both realistic and honoring of their central place in the theology and life of the church. Specifically, I want to ask these two questions.

First: Did Paul possess some kind of infallibility that came from his God-given position as an apostle? Or was he a sinful, fallible leader who often made mistakes?

Second: If we accept that Paul did make mistakes, how would that influence our approach to reading his Epistles and applying his apostolic teachings to modern life?

To me, that first question seems straightforward. Jesus Christ lived a sinless life, but his followers did not. The four gospels paint an honest, transparent and somewhat embarrassing portrait of the apostles during the three-year ministry of Jesus, highlighting their numerous mistakes and failures. After the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples (on all of the disciples, not merely the apostles) and empowered them to be living witnesses of the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit worked through them but did not wipe out their sinful nature. The apostles’ positions of leadership did not give them any special exemption, and throughout their lives they needed to learn and receive correction. One obvious example is described in Galatians 2:11-14, where Peter was distancing himself from Gentile Christians and Paul publicly rebuked him for it.

Paul too must have made mistakes. Despite his best efforts and intentions, he remained a sinful man living in sinful times. When God appointed him as an apostle, he did not magically wipe out Paul’s failings but worked powerfully through Paul despite his failings as a testament to grace.

The Roman Catholic church maintains a doctrine of papal infallibility. In that view, the pope’s pronouncements are considered reliable and true when he is making decisions in his official capacity as leader of the church. Protestants reject the notion of infallibility. However, it is worth pointing out that even in the Catholic view, infallibility pertains to only one person, the bishop of Rome, and only when he is speaking ex cathedra, in his official capacity as pope. Moreover, Catholics claim that the first bishop of Rome was Peter, not Paul. So even if one were to accept the Catholic view, Paul would not have any special infallibility.

The book of Acts presents Paul as a strict Pharisee who persecuted Christians but then underwent a profound conversion on the road to Damascus. Almost immediately, within a few days, he began to zealously preach in the name of Jesus, but is preaching stirred up a great deal of opposition. Paul retreated into a quiet period of personal growth. Some years later, Barnabas brought him to Antioch where he became a prominent teacher. From there, he and Barnabas received a special calling and commission from the Holy Spirit and were sent out on their first missionary journey. I believe that Paul’s walk with Christ was always a work in progress.  There was no point at which he magically became an infallible leader. Rather, he must have been actively growing throughout his life, seeking God’s guidance in his weakness and continually learning from his mistakes.

That first question was easy to answer, but the second one is more thorny. If we acknowledge that Paul was a sinful human leader who made mistakes, how should that influence our reading of the Epistles and their application to us today?

One possible answer is to ignore this and act as though the limitations of Paul didn’t impact his Epistles at all. For many conservative evangelicals, admitting Paul’s limitations would be a scary thing, as it would seem to undermine the authority of the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God.

For the record, please understand that I believe the Bible is authoritative and that it testifies to its own authority. Scripture says that it is Spirit-inspired, a God-breathed living system capable of dynamically speaking with Christian individuals and communities (2Ti 3:16, Heb 4:12). I believe that God continually breathes new life into us as we seek to hear his voice through Scripture.  I believe that if we approach the Bible in a reverent, careful and honest fashion, that what it can teach us is truthful and trustworthy. But I do not believe that Scripture claims that it is inerrant in the plain English meaning of that word. To plausibly argue that Scripture is inerrant requires a great deal of nuanced and careful explanation of what that word actually means.

To suggest that Paul’s sinfulness and human limitations did not make their way into the Epistles is, in my opinion, not a plausible stance. To believe this, we would have to think that Paul operated in two different states or modes. We would have to think that, most of the time, as Paul went about his daily business and spoke and interacted with people, he would exhibit the characteristics of a fallen sinner in need of God’s redemptive grace. But on the few occasions when (unbeknownst to him) he was composing a letter that would later become part of the canon of Scripture, God miraculously covered up all his sinful or mistaken tendencies and produced written works with no marks of human fallibility. In effect, there would be two versions of Paul: the fallible human Paul who lived in a fallen world serving in a fallen church,  and the infallible superhuman version of Paul who spoke through the Epistles.

If we imagine that Paul spoke through the Epistles without error, it would suggest that the all the teachings he gave to his readers were (unless he specifically stated so) coming directly from the mouth of God, as if they were spoken by Jesus himself. There would be no question that all his teachings were absolutely binding on the early church. Then the only question would be, “Are all of these teachings equally binding on us today?” To my knowledge, there is no sensible Christian who would answer yes and keep that with any degree of consistency. For example, I know Christians who believe, based on 1 Timothy 2:12, that women should never be allowed to teach men. But these same people do not insist, based on 1 Corinthians 11:13, that women must keep their hair long or cover their heads when they pray. Everyone who reads Paul’s instructions as God-given teachings makes judgments that some teachings are local, limited to Christians in specific times and places, whereas others are universal, meant to be obeyed by all Christians for all time. Many of these decisions appear to be subjective and haphazard. The impulses and standards by which they make these decisions are rarely explained and usually come down to gut instinct.

It seems to me that, if we imagine that when Paul is writing the Epistles that he is issuing instructions to his readers directly from the mouth of God, then we are immediately placing ourselves in the position of having to decide which instructions we are to keep and which ones we are allowed to discard. This is a position that I find awkward and uncomfortable.

Is there a way to read the Epistles that is less awkward and more realistic, a way that recognizes Paul is an imperfect man weakened by his own sinfulness and by the limitations of his culture, and yet still honors those writings as canonical and God-breathed?

I believe there is. I suggest that we can approach the Pauline epistles in a way that is not radically different from how we ought to be reading the narratives of the Old Testament. The Epistles are something like narratives. They are letters from an apostle to the churches of his day. These letters open for us a window into the life of the first-century Christian community. We can treat them as divinely inspired first-person accounts of how one man, who is a great apostle and yet a fallible sinner, is doing his best to faithfully shepherd the flock that God has entrusted to his care.  God is working powerfully through Paul, but he is never speaking through him in a way that overrides Paul’s humanity. In some respects, Paul is unique. As the first apostle to the Gentiles, God has given him special insight and a special task of helping to define many of the basic doctrines of the early church. But in other respects, Paul is not so different from other church leaders at other times. He makes mistakes. He has personal opinions, cultural biases and character flaws.  As we read the Epistles, we strive to keep in mind both his uniqueness and his ordinariness. The main question on our minds is not, “Do these God-given teachings apply only to Paul’s audience, or do they also apply to us?” Rather, we continually ask ourselves, “What do these dialogues between Paul and the first-century church teach us about the character of God, the nature of the gospel, and the purpose of the church?”

Maintaining a primary focus on God, the gospel and the church does not mean that we will never have to face tough questions about what the implications are for us today. Those questions will eventually have to be asked. But it seems to me that they are secondary and should be brought up later, after we meditate long and hard about the first things first.


  1. Joe Schafer

    My wife pointed out that the last paragraph of my article is rather cryptic. What I meant to say is this. When reading the Epistles, it is not a good idea to think of Paul as speaking the direct words of God to the first century church. Rather, think of the Epistles as the story of the Triune God, the apostle Paul, and the church community interacting with each other. Ask the big, fundamental questions about what this interaction reveals about God, the gospel, and the church. And then, only then, after wrestling with those big fundamental questions, should we start to ask about the specific implications for us today.

  2. Thanks, Joe. As always, I enjoyed reading what you wrote. You have raised the issue of infallibility of the Scriptures which I have barely looked into and concluded that the arguments are voluminous and it is beyond my scholarship, and likely not an area I want to pursue. But like you, I accept the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures, though I will not be able to defend or explain it adequately.

    I am in total agreement with you about the way you and I have been taught to study the Bible, as described in every UBF Daily Bread booklet. Though not wrong, it is certainly not complete and comprehensive, as though that is the only way or the main way of looking at Scripture. I embrace 2 phrases regarding what Bible study and preaching should always be: Christo-centric and Christo-telic (Jn 5:39, 46; Lk 24:27, 44), which I believe is what you alluded to.

    If we do not do this, we will inevitably and invariably manifest many of the cult-like, sectarian, tribal, exclusive, elitist, offensive, uncontextualized tendencies that many people are beginning to start addressing in our ministry.

    You may be interested in this book that Scot McKnight has blogged about ( regarding 4 Christians from 4 different traditions in their evaluation of Paul, edited by Michael Bird. The 4 traditions are Reformed, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish:

  3. Joe Schafer

    Ben, thanks for the reference on Paul edited by Michael Bird. I’ll take a look.

    During the mid- to late 20th century, declaring that Scripture is inerrant and infallible (usually stated in terms of original manuscripts) became a de facto litmus test for orthodoxy among conservative evangelicals. It was a stance that was prompted by the desire to protect core doctrines from being eroded by classic liberalism and atheism. In my opinion it was an overreaction. I see it as a peculiar byproduct of the 20th century American fundamentalist mindset. It was not what the early Church fathers believed. Major reformers, including Luther and Calvin, didn’t believe it either. In my opinion, Christians tend to use those words “inerrant and infallible” to indicate that they belong to a tribe that should be considered okay. It’s shorthand for “you can trust me, I’m not one of those dangerous liberal guys.” But when they verbalize what they actually believe, you find that it has very little correspondence to those in- words.

    When I speak of my own views, I say that I maintain a high view of Scripture. I believe in divine inspiration. But I’m not sure exactly what that means. I avoid using those two in- words because I don’t think they describe the Bible that we actually have. The Bible contains a fair amount of material that could be considered factual error. For example, Mark 4:31 says, “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.” Ask any botanist and you will be told that there are plenty of seeds smaller than a mustard seed. In my mind, this is not a big deal. It has no impact whatsoever on the veracity of what is being taught in that parable. But it violates the plain English meaning of those in- words. To come up with reasonable definitions of those in- words to apply to Scripture requires so much nuance and qualification that I don’t think those words are useful. When people stand up to argue for the inerrancy and infallibity of Scripture, I don’t know what they are fighting for. I sense that they are still fighting the old liberal versus conservative culture war of the last century, unaware that the landscape and culture have changed to the point where those battles are now irrelevant and quite damaging to the Christian witness.

    Perhaps you noticed that UBF does not officially believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. When Sarah Barry wrote the UBF Statement of Faith, she scrupulously avoided those words. In my opinion, it was a very wise move. I like the UBF Statement of Faith, and I wish that more people would take it seriously.

    I’m also not convinced that every Bible study and sermon needs to be Christo-centric and Christo-telic, unless those terms are understood in a broad sense. If you take too narrow a view of those criteria, many of the teachings of Jesus wouldn’t pass the test.

  4. Charles B

    Hi Joe, I appreciate your historical approach to viewing scripture. I’ve heard that Luther questioned the authority of the book of James claiming that it was not of apostolic authorship. He was also suspicious about the book of Revelation. I love these books and find them massively edifying, but we should examine why great church founders, whom we are deeply influenced by, thought the opposite.

    UBF has a very strong evangelical slant, which means that most of the congregation or leaders hold to an inerrancy/infallibility view of scripture. I know this to be true because of how highly we champion Bible study/teaching and hold to the phrase ‘the word of God has power to change people’. I hold to both of these sentiments, to a degree, but at the same time, I think that I personally need to re-examine these stances. Your post urges me to take a more balanced/realistic/researched view of what I’m actually espousing. I thought that your previous post on your hypothetical reflection and subsequent response was quite inflammatory (though perhaps that was not your intention). But I think that with this post you are running the risk of becoming anathema, for you are touching upon one of the holy grails of the evangelical movement. We don’t like being dragged into deep and uncharted waters, especially on this topic. You risk undermining our entire enterprise, (if that were possible!). You couldn’t mention these comments in a UBF/evangelical meeting without someone, at least one person, thinking that you are a heretic.

    One question I would pose to those who think this way is, “Do you think that we have a perfectly communicated Bible in our hands today? Was the Bible originally written in modern English?” Much more could be said along the same vein as this question. I think that our view of scripture and the original language that it was penned in are evolving throughout time, as evidenced by the many ‘more precise’ translations that keep coming out. Perhaps the one truly infallible/inerrant thing is the revelation of God’s Word, that is Jesus Christ himself. I have heard of people coming to Christ without a Bible, e.g., through a vision of some sort or an audible call from one perceived later to be Jesus, namely in the Muslim/Arab world.

    I like this post and I hope that many more will raise questions on the topic whilst still holding to a very high view of scripture.

    • CharlesB:

      Thanks for sharing. Your mention of Luther recalled something I discovered about Luther, as I too had heard that Luther “questioned the authority of the book of James claiming that it was not of apostolic authorship”, as you say.

      So I think we should indeed “examine why great church founders, whom we are deeply influenced by, thought the opposite.” When I examine Luther, I find that he struggled greatly with the books of James and of Paul, but I find that Luther actually didn’t “think the opposite”, necessarily.

      But one reason these “giants of faith” were indeed giants is because they were able (to an extent) admit they were wrong about something and were able to keep learning based on verses like Romans 3:4.

      For example, Bainton wrote about Luther: “…in his preface to the New Testament of 1522 James was stigmatized as “an epistle of straw.” Once Luther remarked that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul. Yet he did not venture to reject James from the canon of Scripture, and on occasion earned his own beret by effecting the reconciliation.”

      And also: “Faith,” he [Luther] wrote, “is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works there must be something amiss with faith.”

      (Bainton, Here I Stand, Page 331)

      James and Paul are not so difficult to reconcile actually:

    • Charles B

      Brian, thanks so much for the enlightenment. I am also reading the book, Here I Stand, in the hopes of learning more about Luther and his faith tradition. I’ve haven’t read so far as to see his evolution in regard to the authority/validity of James’ epistle, so I thank you for your correction. I also like your blog post on reconciling James and Paul. This author explains this reconciliation in a bit more detail here: It’s a bit long, but a good read. But I like your summary; as you said, it’s not as complicated as we perceive it to be.

    • Charles, thanks for sharing the link and welcome to the dialogues!

      I found the “Stand to Reason” article quite helpful, and more complete than my brief/minimilistic introduction post about reconciling James and Paul on my blog. In one sense, reconciling the two are like comparing one building (James) to an entire city (Paul), since Paul contributed far more to the Bible than James in terms of quantity.

      I especially like these statements from the “Stand to Reason” blog you pointed to. I think they are relevant to this discussion:

      “I have seen people twist themselves into theological pretzels trying to deal with this problem. There are a few unresolved conflicts in the Bible, but this is not one of them.”


      “Saved by works? The Law gives us no hope because it has a built-in defeater to any attempt at justification by works: The Law demands perfection.”

      Even though Apostle Paul was a “Pharisee of Pharisees”, he understood his own fallibility quite well.

  5. Joe Schafer

    Charles, thanks for your thoughtful and helpful comment. I can understand how some would sense that this article might be dangerous or threatening to people’s faith. If they think that way, I would strongly urge them to read the article carefully and point out exactly where they believe I am in error. I want to be corrected. If anyone believes I am seriously wrong and treading in dangerous waters, then love and godly concern for my faith should compel them to correct me, and I am eager to listen.

    There is a danger in undermining the authority of Scripture. But there is also danger in resting one’s faith on dogmas of Scripture that are unsupportable and unbiblical because they do not accurately describe the Bible that we possess. I have not come to my views in a thoughtless way. I’ve done a large amount of reading on the subject and continue to do so, and I weigh the opinions that I encounter very carefully.

    One idea that is popular among certain evangelicals is that inerrant/infallible Scripture implies that, when you read the gospels, all the words of Jesus are a perfect, error-free transcription of what actually came out of his mouth on each occasion, as if they were captured on an audio recording. That cannot be true. Jesus gave his teaching in Aramaic or possibly Hebrew, and the NT manuscripts are wtritten in Greek, so already we have a translation. The written form of the gospels synthesize the teachings of Jesus that were initially preserved in the oral traditions of the early church. I believe that the four gospels accurately and reliably portray who Jesus is. But I think it is wrong to expect them to conform to modern western notions of what historical accuracy ought to be. They are first-century documents, written under first-century standards and assumptions, which are very different from (not inferior to) 20th century assumptions.

    A great deal of what I learned about how to approach the Bible, I learned from Sarah Barry. One of her favorite sayings is, “Let the Bible be the Bible.” She thought it was wrong to expect the Bible to conform to externally imposed systems of thought (e.g., premillenial dispensationalism). It’s okay, and even necessary, to approach the Bible with some theories and ideas of what to expect. But we should always be willing to allow those theories be challenged by the text. If our working assumptions about Scripture are unsupportable, then we should let them die. We need to interact with the Bible that we actually possess, not the Bible that we wish we had.

    The theological roots of UBF lie in mainline Presbyterianism, not in populist 20th century American fundamentalism. The UBF Statement of Belief reflects those roots. If you say that most of the UBF congregation and leaders now hold an inerrancy/infallibility view of Scripture (perhaps you are right about that; I’m not sure) then this would actually be a drift away from UBF’s roots.

    • Charles B

      Hi Joe, I like the statement Sarah Barry made, “Let the Bible be the Bible.”. Imposing our current cultural or personal views on scripture can’t help but lead us to aberrant views about God as well as erroneous personal application. And I think that (correct me if I’m wrong) this is what this whole discussion is about. It’s not about theological nit-picking or swordplay or lording certain scriptural views over others, but about trying to perceive the true nature of God and man. But I’ll also ask, what exactly did Sarah Barry mean by that statement? How does one allow the Bible to interpret itself? I think that you provided a good exegetical/hermeneutical approach at the end of your post, but I’m sure that much more could be said on the subject. I’d like to hear how others approach Bible study as well. What I fear is that Sarah Barry’s statement can be made into an oversimplification as to how to approach the Bible when in fact, it’s a very difficult process. I’ve heard similar statements echoed by other leaders and I’ve also listened to their messages for almost ten years now. And what I’ve found is that although statements like these are uttered as well as “let the Holy Spirit lead our personal/corporate Bible study”, strong tones of evangelical fundamentalism as well as our own UBF subculture augments how we view/teach the Bible.

      I’ll just give a few brief examples. For instance, I’ve heard the statement ‘keep the Sabbath Holy’. This is said in the context of exhorting someone to be faithful to coming to worship service on Sunday and worshiping God with the congregation. This is not a bad exhortation, but is the Bible being accurately used in this instance? What exactly does it mean, to us, to keep the Sabbath holy? Furthermore, is this statement even for us? My impression is that the Mosaic Law was deemed obsolete and that we are now under a new covenant. In fact, Paul devoted an entire epistle in regard to this subject. Anyway, if we were to hold to that statement then shouldn’t we worship from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday? We don’t do this because historically we worship on Sunday, thus honoring our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Hebrews explains that our Sabbath as Christians has taken on an entirely new meaning. But I feel as though in UBF we are not in unanimity concerning this and just in general how to bridge the gap between the OT and NT, not to mention how to view the NT in light of the intertestamental period. You talked about the danger of interpreting the NT through our modern day lenses, but I would say that we need to address our problems with viewing the OT properly as well. In my opinion, we take several passages out of context from the OT. Passages that were for Abraham, Sarah, Jeremiah and other biblical figures come to mind immediately. Of course, other churches are guilty of these kinds of unhelpful interpretations as well, so I am not singling our ministry out. But would you say that part of this attitude lies in the fact that perhaps we are more fundamentalist than some might want to say? We want to ‘take the Bible as it is’, almost in a literalist interpretive manner, but is this actually correct or helpful?

      You also mention that our roots lie in mainline Presbyterianism. I can see that effect in how we have the construct of a board of elders or presbyters. Perhaps we have also taken from it the element of austerity or what Samuel Lee called a ‘manger spirit’ or ‘manger ministry’, for Presbyterians did not want an ornate building or lavish service to detract from worshiping God. But we also deviate from this faith tradition as well. Its roots lie in the Reform Movement, which was heavily influenced by the doctrinal views of Calvin. I would be hard-pressed to find many people in UBF who are familiar with Calvin’s views. In fact, I would go so far as to say that in many messages over the years I have heard a mixture of Calvinism and Arminianism. Until recently (I have seen a change as of late), many of the messages I’ve heard and the way I was taught personally, was mainly imperative-based. The conclusion from each message or study was ‘how then should you live?’ or ‘what should you do?’. Of course there are imperatives to heed, but we can also jump the gun, forcing others to make or accept bad interpretations or commands that are not there. Perhaps this imperative-based view comes from our strong evangelical slant; eventually we must go out and evangelize the nations. I’ve seen a mix of Calvinist and Arminian stances among our leaders, but most undoubtedly a strong fundamentalist/evangelical slant as well. And the subtle subculture nuances go without saying at this point. What do you think? Does this type of smorgasbord exist? And if so how do we properly navigate/fix it? Or do we just let it work itself out naturally?

    • I wonder how Sarah Barry with such a healthy approach to Bible study invented such a prayer topic about 100000 UBF missionaries. This prayer topic is unsupportable and “we should let it die”. Joe, you have already mentioned somewhere about the seldom and special gift of being a missionary. Reading the book of Acts I see that there were 2-3 missionaries among thousands of believers. And Paul was chosen to be a missionary for Gentiles because no other Jew would become such a missionary if he hadn’t been the worst sinner. Paul rejected his jewness completely and taught the pure gospel of Jesus and “let local leaders lead”. UBF missionary movement (koreans go everywhere and everywhere lead), UBF itself is unsupportable in the light of the Bible.

    • Joe Schafer

      Charles and Vitaly, I’ll respond to you below.

  6. Joe Schafer

    And if anyone has the urge to denounce what I have written as dangerous, heretical, out of the mainstream, etc. I would suggest that they do a little research to find out what some influential modern Christian thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis have said about the Bible. Conservative evengelicals really like these guys, but they were pretty far outside the strict inerrantist-infallibility camp.

  7. Joe Schafer

    Charles B, you raised a plethora of questions. Let me try to address some.

    “And I think that (correct me if I’m wrong) this is what this whole discussion is about. It’s not about theological nit-picking or swordplay or lording certain scriptural views over others, but about trying to perceive the true nature of God and man.”

    Yes, I fully agree. This is what I want to do.

    “…what exactly did Sarah Barry mean by that statement? How does one allow the Bible to interpret itself?”

    When she said this to me, she was speaking about how the Bible is enigmatic and doesn’t fit neatly into any man-made interpretative system. The Bible is diverse and seems to have an exception to every rule.

    “…although statements like these are uttered as well as “let the Holy Spirit lead our personal/corporate Bible study”, strong tones of evangelical fundamentalism as well as our own UBF subculture augments how we view/teach the Bible.”

    Yes. There is some diversity within UBF but, generally speaking, I do hear strong tones of evangelical fundamentalism and the unique UBF subculture. I’m not against conservative evangelicalism per se, nor am I against the unique UBF subculture. These cultures have something important to say to the broader church. But they also have a great deal to learn from the broader church. What I don’t like is when a messenger seems unaware of or unwilling to question his own cultural bias, when he speaks carelessly on a debatable issue as if his interpretation is the only correct one. Voicing strong opinions is okay in my book, as long as the messenger is willing to concede that they are just opinions.

    “What exactly does it mean, to us, to keep the Sabbath holy?”

    Observing the Sabbath is not a law binding on Christians. I believe you know that Paul speaks to this in Colossians 2:16-17. I have observed the same thing as you: there is a great deal of ignorance in our church and many others about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and especially how the gospel relates to law. Although UBF prides itself on the frequency and intensity of its Bible study, there are some gaping holes in the way we teach and train people. I am a perfect example of this. After 25 years of UBF-style Bible study, I couldn’t give a thoughtful, coherent answer to the question of how the gospel relates to law. I suppose my ignorance wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been willing to admit that I was ignorant. But I pretended to be knowledgable. I acted as though questions like that were unimportant and brushed them aside.

    “Until recently (I have seen a change as of late), many of the messages I’ve heard and the way I was taught personally, was mainly imperative-based.”

    Yes. Whether people are willing to admit this or not, I believe that the articles on UBFriends over the last two years have helped to raise awareness of this issue. But there are still lots of imperatives being tossed around. This is symptomatic, I believe, of not deepening our faith in the gospel. Unless we continually question our own understanding of the gospel, we tend to assume that we already know what it is. We reduce the gospel to our shallow understanding and then try to evangelize others without allowing ourselves to be evangelized. We start viewing people as objects rather than subjects, and then we naively think that preaching imperatives will have an effect on them. It won’t.

    “Does this type of smorgasbord exist? And if so how do we properly navigate/fix it? Or do we just let it work itself out naturally?”

    UBF is a complex living system. There’s no way for human beings to fix it or manage it. God will have to do it. Living systems have an amazing ability to heal themselves, provided that leaders don’t try to hinder the process or control it to achieve their desired outcomes. In my opinion, the best way to participate in the process is to open up channels of dialogue, which is what we have been trying to do on this website. Refusing to participate in the discussion, marginalizing those who express differing opinions, etc. is a really bad idea.

  8. Joe Schafer

    Vitaly, I have learned a great deal from Sarah Barry over the years. I wonder how she feels today about that prayer topic for 100,000 missionaries by 2041. Perhaps someone will ask her.

    • Joe, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend over 6 hours with Sarah Barry last year. We didn’t ask that specific question, but similar ones. I won’t speak for Sarah Barry, but the sense we got from those discussions was that she isn’t entirely pleased about what UBF has become and the future direction proposed in 2011.

      We can see this in the 50th Anniversary “blue book”, where we see one direction given by Sarah’s message (a rather good, Biblical direction based on grace and love and Christian witness) and another, almost opposite direction, given by the other lectures (a loosely defined, smorgasbord-style direction based on nostalgic heritage and law).

    • Joe Schafer

      This agrees with what I have sensed in my conversations with her over the last two years. I repeatedly heard her express concern about the lack of native leadership in UBF. And she has talked about broadening our understanding of mission beyond campus evangelism to encompass our whole lives, including how we live in our homes, how we interact with our neighbors in the communities where we live, what we do in our jobs, etc. In my opinion, these are all key issues.

  9. Charles B

    Joe, I concur that the UBF subculture has some unique qualities which are beneficial to the broader body. And at the same time, as you said, we would do well to acknowledge our limitations and continue to learn from a variety of faith traditions and other subcultures. I can honestly say that I have been blessed by our commitment to Bible study and the call to actively participate in God’s redemptive plan, namely through shepherding others and teaching the Bible. I also like Sarah Barry’s attitude in regard to approaching the Bible. She says that even if she’s studied a passage many times before, she approaches it with the mindset that there is always something new to learn. I think that this kind of disposition is key as we dialogue about scripture and pray for the continual evolution of UBF and the church at large.

    Whenever we think that we’re ‘solid’ Bible teachers, perhaps this is a foreboding sign of just the opposite. The Pharisees held a similar view as this one (and I’m not accusing anyone in UBF of being akin to them). The Law as they interpreted it was somewhat straightforward; they knew the ins and outs with the Talmud serving as one of their intricate guides. But their view was actually dangerously outdated and their methodology severely outmoded. They missed the point that the law and the prophets illumined the path to the living God who we can never cease to grow in our knowledge of (that is, experiential and factual knowing).

    That being said, I have a couple of questions concerning scripture that have been gnawing at me. If we do take Paul’s epistles as inspired writings communicated through a sinfully flawed man, then can we extrapolate this concept and say that we still have people writing scripture today? One objection to this is that via Revelation 22:18-19, that the entire canon of scripture is closed. But I take that verse to be contextually speaking of the book of Revelation itself. Closing the canon on scripture has not, historically speaking, been a neat and straightforward process. Canonicity runs into the same issue that you’ve raised in your article; fallible men, moved by the Holy Spirit nonetheless, chose which books to include in the canon and which to exclude (the Council of Trent for Catholics and the Westminster Confession of Faith for those in the Reform Movement). What’s to say that, after all the literature that’s been published in the centuries since then, we couldn’t convene a similar council and canonize other writings? If Jesus is the final authority on all things pertaining to God and man, then should we be afraid if our Bible does change throughout time? Put another way, is there a distinction between the Bible or the word of God and Jesus Christ, the Word of God? And if so, how do the two interact? Does this idea undermine Sola Scriptura?

  10. Joe Schafer

    Charles, once again, you ask some great questions. I will share with you my present opinions. If others want to chime in with their opinions, please do.

    “What’s to say that, after all the literature that’s been published in the centuries since then, we couldn’t convene a similar council and canonize other writings?”

    I am quite sure that people will not be writing any more Scripture. The first three centuries AD were a remarkable time in the history of the church. Christians had to come to grips with some very difficult problems that the apostles didn’t solve for them. They didn’t have words like Incarnation and Trinity. They were trying to put into words (a) things for which there were no words and (b) things which deeply conflicted with the traditional Hebrew understanding of God and the Old Testament. Church councils met and hammered it out. The process seemed difficult, messy and embarassingly human. But I believe that the Holy Spirit was working in this process. It culminated in agreement on the major creeds (Apostles, Nicene and Chalcedonian) and the canonization of Scripture. That was a special time in the history of the Church and it will not be repeated. God has worked in other amazing ways since then in various parts of the church. Two great examples that you point out are Trent and Westminster. One could add Vatican II, Lausanne, etc. These events are important, but the situation is unlike the first three centuries. Things are different now that the church is divided.

    “Is there a distinction between the Bible or the word of God and Jesus Christ, the Word of God?”

    Yes, there is. The Bible is a written document, the second is a living person and a member of the Trinity. The former is a witness to the latter. We worship Christ but we don’t worship the Bible. Elevating the Bible to an object of worship is a big mistake. It’s called biblicism or bibliolatry. Interestingly, the Apostles’ Creed confesses faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and makes no statement about Scripture at all. The Nicene Creed is similar. The early Church fathers maintained a high view of Scripture but did not think it was necessary to put any statement about it in the creeds.

    “Does this idea undermine Sola Scriptura?”

    I guess it depends on what you mean by Sola Scriptura. That concept is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. One slight quibble I have with the UBF Statement of Belief is that it says that the Bible is our final authority in faith and practice. In my opinion, it would be better to say that the final authority rests in the God of the Bible, not in the Bible itself.

    There are many fantastic resources about these topics. One of my favorites is an essay written in 1989 by N.T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” which is available for free at this website:

    Take a look at that essay if you get a chance. I’d love to hear what you think.

  11. Thanks, Charles, Joe, Vitaly, Brian. This is a great thread of discussions. It helps us to not become “same old same old” “old wine skins.”

    But I fear that some traditionalists may think: “These guys are just wasting time, instead of feeding sheep. There are __ (5 to 50) thousand sheep on their campuses who are going to hell, and these guys are just taking and talking and ‘doing nothing’ for the work of saving lost souls.”

    Boy, do I cringe hearing my own words from just a decade ago!

    @Charles, We can add add Semi-Pellagianism to Calvinism and Arminianism.

    Regarding the Law and imperatives, I wrote this before UBFriends started:

    I still basically think that though most in UBF loves God because of the grace of Jesus, our teaching is often still primarily Law driven, mission driven, instructional and informative.

    A result of such a way of preaching or Bible teaching is that no matter what we text we study from the Bible, the point always tends to be similar: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, buckle down, “repent, be thankful, don’t complain, and work harder!”

    Of course, these important teachings are in the Bible. But they are not of first importance. God is. Jesus is. The Holy Spirit is. The Trinity is. The Gospel is. Grace is.

  12. Joe Schafer

    Ben, thanks. You imagined that some people may be saying:

    “These guys are just wasting time, instead of feeding sheep. There are __ (5 to 50) thousand sheep on their campuses who are going to hell, and these guys are just taking and talking and ‘doing nothing’ for the work of saving lost souls.”

    This is what I would say in response:

    “Are you saying that a Christian should be so busy teaching the Bible to other people that he should have no time to seriously reflect on what the Bible is about or how to read it properly?”

    • Ben/Joe,

      You’ve revealed here one of the main points in the “crux of the matter” regarding the UBF mindset: Do we really want/need the world to be filled with kamakazi Bible teachers who learn a quick word from the Bible and then teach it to the first college student they find on campus?

      A few years ago I would have said, “Yes, what’s wrong with that?” The issue is that anyone who wants to “teach the Bible” must respect the Bible text. In this case, James (James 3:1) has to be taken into account, as well as the teaching from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:34) which Hebrews confirms (Hebrews 8:11). Over the past 2 years, these books (not just the single quotations I listed here) caused me to change my thinking of myself as being a Bible learner.

      Perhaps I’ll publish my testimony entitled “From a Bible Teacher to a Bible Learner” :)

  13. Charles B

    Joe, Ben and Brian,

    Discussing and pondering this issue of how to view the Bible correctly is precisely what I’ve been wanting to do for quite some time. I’m so thankful that we’ve been given this opportunity here. I’ve recently been put in charge of a small fellowship group and so I’ve been asking the question, “how can I really be of benefit to these people; what can I impart as well as learn?” After hearing testimonies in which people claim promises that are not theirs or make applications that seem aberrant, I’ve come to the conclusion that our biblical outlook, as a ministry, needs somewhat of an overhaul. To me, it’s not necessarily enough to say that the Holy Spirit Himself will fix all of this; I think that the leaders are given a commission to speak or instruct through the power of the Spirit to help us the congregation to navigate especially this particular matter. Brian, I appreciate your testimony of how you became a Bible learner. I think that you have shared many important lessons which I have also gleaned from studying the materials of other ministries who are committed to correct exegetical and hermeneutical methods. This is so vital in a time when our ministry is beginning to emerge, in my estimation, from the traditionalism that colored our lenses when viewing/teaching/preaching from the Bible.

    Joe, the N.T. Wright lecture you posted helped me to sort out some of thoughts I’ve had from as far back as the time I started attending UBF. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I’m not saying that he has ‘cracked the code’, but I think that he is on the right track. There is so much material for discussion there that it might warrant a separate thread altogether. I encourage others to read this article as well ( Several years ago, I attempted to read his book, The New Testament and the People of God. I wanted to understand how to read the gospels because since they are not as straightforward as the epistles. I think that this article is a good primer for such a book.

    I’ll simply touch on this point for now because it is a relevant one to me: He says, “How easy it has been for theologians and preachers to translate the gospels (for instance) into something more like epistles!” His view, similar to yours Joe, is that the Bible is not merely a guide book for right living or even a step by step manual which instructs us as to how to connect with the triune God. It’s actually a narrative of God’s dealing with his people which necessarily include communication of His instructions for them interwoven throughout the text. This is not to say that things such as Jesus’ commands are not for us, but for the first century Christians. That would be preposterous. But when I think about the Bible in the aforementioned way, I am less inclined to ‘jump the gun’ and forcibly extricate a personal application from the Bible, that may not be there in the first place. It’s as Wright says, we actually display a low view of scripture when we think that we need to help it interpret itself in this way. I think that in our Western, analytical mindset, we want a bullet list of what to do or how to divide the particular book. But the Bible was not written in this way; it was written primarily by easterners. Even in Luke’s writing, who was Greek/Gentile, wrote in a flavor that is somewhat foreign to our modern thought pattern. In another piece, Wright also says that though Paul was educated in Greek thought, the structure of his epistles still display the influences of an eastern mindset.

    But to make this personal to our ministry, why is personal application stressed so much in testimony writing? I think that there is a genuine, good intention behind this because leaders want to help people grow. But sometimes I surmise that it is done out of fear that people will not grow if they do not ‘own’ what they are reading. This is true to some extent. But I think that this is a kind of knee-jerk reaction which actually short-circuits a healthy reading and subsequent interpretation of the text. In critiquing a written work, one is taught to read the article multiple times so that they can first ascertain what the writer is actually saying. In this way, terms can be thoroughly researched, any historical analysis done and so forth. Then a paraphrase is in order which will help the reader to digest the material further. After thorough understanding, then the actual critique comes. But if we’re forced to make a critique without the investigation, can we truly expect to come to a sound conclusion about the piece? Of course not, but we encourage students to this very thing all of the time. We encourage them to take short passages and extract some kind of personal application. Has this been totally ineffective? No, but we can do much better. For all of the leaders who have turned out to be spiritually potent, in one sense or another, how many students have left broken and disillusioned because of erroneous conclusions arrived at through this method? For me, this method has ceased to work and I think that Wright points out exactly why. It’s because the Bible itself is meant to augment our world view, not an application we have arrived at when viewing the Bible trough the lens of our particular faith tradition. I’m not saying that we should throw application writing out of the window, but there is so much more to be learned if we just take in the narrative that is set before us. For instance, when reading the OT, namely Isaiah, I am blown away how God uses godless nations to carry out his good, pleasing, sovereign will. What kind of God can do that? I can only conclude that He is utterly amazing; this kind of thing changes my heart on the spot. But if I quickly focus on how God punished the godless nations despite God using them for his purpose of judgment, then depending on my mood or spiritual state, I could internalize this and draw some fallacious or even harmful conclusions about myself or others. (Recall how some pastors commented that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgement upon New Orleans; but my response is ‘don’t you think some Christians died in that event as well? So are you in the position to say that it was God’s judgment?’ cf. Lk 13:1-5)

    One last note Joe, I realize that my point about critiquing an article sounded somewhat like your message from several years ago on how to write a proper testimony. How would you (or do you even feel as though you need to) revise that message? From what I remember, it was pretty sound; but in light of your current biblical view, what would you make of that sermon?

    • Wow, Charles, I am simply stunned and amazed and edified by your thoughts here…as well as being very thankful, especially if indeed you are a long-time UBF member. I am surprised but I applaud your joining into these dialogues!

    • Joe Schafer

      CharlesB, I’m glad that you read NT Wright’s article and got a lot out of it. That article has so much packed into it, because Wright has such a whimsical and fertile mind. Later he clarified and expanded it for a general audience and published it as a book, which I also highly recommend.

      That report you mention, about how to write a testimony, was something that I produced in 2002. I remember it only vaguely. I’m sure that now I would agree with parts and disagree with parts. How about this: Maybe I can post that on UBFriends tomorrow as “An Actual Report from Joe-2002” and let everyone critique it?

      Personally, I love to talk about and share with Christians what I have been learning from the Bible and about the Bible. I talk about these things virtually every day, especially with my wife. I have a greater awareness today of what I am learning and what God may be doing in my life than I have ever had before. But these discussions are much more like dialogue, not proclamation, and my conclusions are more tentative. I no longer proclaim that “God taught me this” or “God taught me that” because I feel that my life of faith is an ongoing journey, and it would be premature to make such strong statements when I am still on the journey. Also, I want and need to hear what my wife and others close to me have to say about it before jumping to conclusions. In one sense, I speak with a lot less certainty than before about what I have been learning. And yet, I am more certain than ever that God is working in my life. Does that make any sense?

  14. Charles B

    Brian, I’m really thankful that we have such a forum where we can freely share these kinds of thoughts. I’ve been wanting to talk about this particular issue in a constructive way that is not simply construed as being divisive or unthankful. Also, I thank you for your efforts in helping to sustain this site with your technical expertise and written contributions.

    Joe, as per your last question, I think I know what you are saying. Before, you approached the Bible and expected to extract some concrete lesson which you could apply to your life, thus effecting certain spiritual growth. But as you’ve communicated, this has stopped working, to an extent. It seems as though now your stance in regard to the Bible is that you encounter the living God through it, who is not as comprehensible (for lack of a better word) as a set of bullet points which spell this God out in exact terms, more than you ever had before. Bible study is no longer an exercise in stocking characteristics or nuggets of wisdom into neatly sorted tupperware bins labeled with precise categories. Instead, it’s more about meeting and being comfortable with a person (God), more so now than ever before, who is not as accurately comprehended by our limited minds as we once thought. Perhaps this new-found surety or confidence you speak of, even in the midst of swimming in the ocean of the unfathomable Creator, is that you have more assuredly encountered the God who years prior knew and loved you without your knowing it so deeply as you do now.

    A few years ago, someone in my local chapter did a presentation based on your message about testimony writing. It was received well, and to my knowledge people are still writing testimonies more or less according to some of those guidelines. In light of the things we have been discussing, perhaps it would be a good idea to openly critique that message; not necessarily to tear it down, but to improve upon it for future practical implementation.

    Despite my frustrations, there are various reasons why I am still in the ministry. One strong reason is that I want to help the young students under my care to grow in a spiritually healthy way. Since one of UBF’s deeply influential hallmarks lies heavily with the testimony/reflection writing process, I think that this is a key area to revisit and perhaps revise. It would seem as though Bible study methods would precede a discussion on testimony writing. But everyone has heard and heard again of new and improved Bible study methods. But if we constructively and graciously discuss an issue as personal as testimony writing, people will begin to talk either positively or negatively; I’m pretty sure no one is indifferent to this topic. This will open up further discussion about methods of biblical interpretation and so forth in a more natural, and hopefully not divisive, way.

    Maybe I need to take a step back here and get everyone’s opinion. Am I putting too much stock into this issue? Personally, I am deeply convinced that testimony writing heavily influences, for better or worse, the spiritual growth of the young people under our care, not to mention my own. Ben has also singled out authoritarianism and a non-Christocentric/telic view of scripture as more overarching sources of unhealthy spiritual growth. But where do we actually start? I suppose that this is what ubfriends is devoted to. Any positive thoughts/comments on this issue?

    • Charles B

      By the way Joe, I think that your ability to share your new-found spiritual experiences and outlooks with others for the sake of feedback/accountability or sheer comradery, is a sign of great achievement in and of itself. As a leader, it is very difficult to be transparent. In prior posts, you’ve shared this struggle quite articulately. While this seems frightening on the surface, perhaps because of the potential judgment that could ensue, when our doubt and honesty is communicated to an audience who cares, it is actually an extremely liberating process. We don’t have to have all of the answers, even as leaders. We can instead put our trust in the supreme authority of God and lead others to do so as well. Thanks Joe, in all of this, for sharing your heart with us.

  15. David Bychkov

    Hi Joe. Thanks for your thoughtful article and thanks everyone for the ongoing discussion. I feel pretty shallow about this topic, having some not clear defined feelings and ideas though.
    So let me express that I’m not really satisfied with your logic, which I’ve undestood as fallibility of Paul have influenced his Epistles in the way that we can not claim them to be infallible word of God, and therefor we should distinguish between the words of God and words of Paul which actually we have in Epistles.
    I wonder why shouldn’t the same logic be applied to Moses and Prophets? They also were fallen men, but they claimed quite a few times that their words are the word of God (Ex. 24:3, 2 Sam 7:5, 1Kings 13:2, Is. 7:7, Is. 10:24, Jer. 7:20 and many many other passages). In those passages prophets claiming to speak from God mouth directly with all the authority. We can not find in their words any feelings of uncertainty. What is the problem with Paul which should lead us to struggle that his fallibility should either lead to fallibility of his writings or lead us to 2-modes struggle?
    I think the Bible have no problem with calling the OT law to be both Moses and God’s law. Why should we distinguish? (both for Moses and for Paul).
    Let me say few words for narrotive reading as well. I do agree that it is crucial issue to undestand that the Bible revealed us the story of redemprion. That it has little narotives and big narrotive. Though if we speaking in terms of literature – the Bible contains different ganres. It contains narrotives and it contains law lists, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, apocaliptic literature.
    Somewhere earlier you’ve mentioned that the Pentateuch is not describes us the law, but the story how God gave the law to his people. I will object this distinction, as in terms of literature we have long lists of law in the Pentateuch, and the law itself had been continually mentioned throughout both old and new testament. So it should have some own value. The same is with poetry or wisdom literature. If it is up to Psalms they was not necessary strongly bound to some stories. And their purpose was not in telling us stories about God and his people in some defined situations and times. And as I know many moderns scholars think that their main purpose was to lead God’s old testament church to worshiping God, and they actually were using in their worship services. I think something similiar is to Proverbs. They were collected throughout centuries, and they were to teach God’s people wisdom, containing principles etc.

  16. Joe Schafer

    David, thank you for these questions. I think it’s going to take a long time to discuss them. You are very correct to point out that the Bible contains different genres of literature. Some are narratives, others are not. We have to treat each passage in a way that is sensitive to its genre. But together the books of the Bible present a narrative of how God has worked and is working in the world. The Penteteuch does contain laws, but those laws are embedded in a narrative, and most of the laws do not stand alone apart from the narrative. I have been reading a book titled The Penteteuch as Narrative by John Sailhamer which tries to explain the structure of the Penteteuch (which was written as a single document, not five books). Sailhamer makes an interesting case that the underlying message of the Penteteuch is a comparison of two covenants — the covenant of Abraham, which is based on promise, and the covenant of Moses, which is based on law. And the Penteteuch already presents a message that the Mosaic covenant has failed, and the true hope for Israel is found in the Abrahamic covenant. This will take a long time to discuss, and I want to continue the conversation with you and many others.