How important is it?
In our adult Sunday School class at my church we’ve been in a series on Romans, using N.T. Wright’s book on Romans as a guide. Wright is a proponent of the “new perspective” on Paul and his writings so much of our time in this class has been focused on the difference between the new and the old. It is a challenging and interesting discussion and I find myself somewhat addicted to the study – and I am not happy about that. I can’t seem to shake the thought rolling around in the back of my head that my fascination, and my assumption that “getting it right” on my understanding of Paul’s writings, is not as important as I’d like to believe it to be.
In the non-charismatic, somewhat reformed, branch of evangelicalism to which the Evangelical Free Church belongs it is very easy to form the opinion that the Epistles, particularly those from Paul, are somewhat more inerrant than the rest of the Bible. OK, that isn’t quite fair; there isn’t an evangelical out there who will actually say that. It is true however that the assumption is that these books are the most critical to understanding our faith; even if that is not actually said out loud either.
You see, we are sure that it is in the epistles that the great doctrines of the church are laid out; that the defining characteristics of what it means to be a Christian take shape. Paul and the other writers began sending letters to help fledgling churches facing overwhelming odds and grappling with all sorts of issues. These letters were full of advice and instruction and, as they were passed from church to church and read aloud, they very quickly became so essential, and so well-loved, that they were accorded the status of Scripture.
We’d like to believe that our study of these books, and our focus on them, is the natural continuation of 2,000 years of Christian history. In actuality however this type of study goes back, at best, to the reformation and really didn’t become the typical way to read the Bible until much more recent times. Early expositors loved the Bible and considered it the direct revelation of God but the way it was understood, and the level of study of the different parts of the Bible, varied widely.
If there was a common thread of Bible study in the early centuries of the church it was that we were to read it and seek diligently to understand how to apply the principles of our faith to daily life. Augustine, who absolutely nobody considers a liberal, made the following observation:
“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up the twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
So here is what troubles me about my Sunday School class, or any similar ones for that matter – as we seek to understand the “correct” reading of Paul do we leave the class with a greater love of God and our neighbors and what does that greater love look like? If there is any assumption is the epistle-centered “doctrinal” form of evangelicalism it is that greater accuracy of knowledge about God will automatically lead to a greater love for God and a greater ability to share that love with others. I simply do not believe that is true.
In fact, statistics frequently show the opposite is true. The likelihood that a believer will be instrumental in leading another to Christ, on average, drops steadily the longer they are in the faith. This tells me that passion deriving from a personal experience of the saving grace of God is much more important than greater doctrinal capacity. I almost wonder if the zeal for knowledge of doctrine impedes evangelistic fervor. Perhaps some of us are more comfortable in a Bible study discussing the evangelistic methodologies of Paul than we are actually sharing the Good News.
I really like my class and the study is enjoyable and addictive to doctrine junkies like me. But I am not so sure that deciding whether or not Wright is right (heh!) is critical to the outworking of my faith.