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Eschatological Errors?

April 7, 2008

This morning I taught on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. I take both letters as written by Paul and hold that they were written in Corinth soon after Paul was run out of town at Thessalonica (as per Acts 17). All this is standard, orthodox and happy in the evangelical environment in which I’m teaching NT. However, what struck me as odd is that Paul seems to be somewhat mistaken in both letters. I shrugged the problem off in class; but in light of John Hobbin’s post on What counts as an error in the Bible?, I’m begging to wonder if the issue is bigger than I thought.

In 1 Thes, it becomes evident that Paul didn’t quite teach the poor Thessalonians everything they needed to know. As such, he’s having to send a letter to explain his eschatology. In and of itself this doesn’t seem to constitute error of Scripture. The canonical corpus, no Paul himself, would be the issue. Paul’s correction of doctrinal confusion caused by the extenuating situation of his persecution doesn’t provide us with a smoking gun in this regard.

In 2 Thes, the saga continues. Paul’s vagueness in terms of an eschatological time line in 1 The has led some folks to abandon all work and take up waiting for Christ’s return as a full-time occupation. Paul is quite vexed by this. He sets them straight both doctrinally and practically. The former is my concern here.

In his discussion first in 1 Thes and then in 2 Thes as well Paul is working with an immanent eschatology. He really thinks that Jesus is coming back soon. In later letters, Paul (or “Paul”) takes a longer view on eschatology and ecclesiology, seeing the need to prepare for a longer haul in light of the delay of the Parousia. But, here in Paul’s earliest canonical letters, he believes that Jesus will return in the immediate future.

Does this constitute and error in Scripture? Can one hold that Paul is wrong and hold a “high view” of Scripture? Not being encumbered by ETS’s doctrinal statement and the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, I’ve never really thought about this; but I’m beginning to wonder…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2008 10:53 am

    James,

    I think that one can hold a high view of Scripture while recognizing legitimate errors in Scripture (you might be interested in this post). Having said that, I’m not sure that this constitutes an error. I think if Paul said that Jesus did return, when in fact he didn’t (like Hymenaeus and Philetus), then that would constitute an error, but I don’t think that a belief in an immanent return qualifies.

    Plus, I think there were very practical benefits to such teaching/belief. I see it a ‘scare tactic’ of sorts, and we all know that fear can be a great motivator. All throughout the NT we have exhortations for believers to be ready and watch so that when Jesus returns they’re counted worthy (Mat. 24:36, 42, 44; 25:13; Mk. 13:32, 35; Lk. 12:40; 1Thes. 5:2-6; 2Pet. 3:10-12; Rev. 3:3; 16:15). It’s a way to call believers to obedience to Christ.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.

  2. April 7, 2008 11:39 am

    Jim,

    I think one can hold a high view of Scripture without holding to inerrancy (whatever that word might mean).

    What I find quite interesting here is that a strict view of inerrancy removes any chance for the apostles’/writers of Scripture to have had a theology that developed over time. A more conservative view of things requires that Paul, et al had to have the entire theology worked out at the beginning, rather than allowing it to develop. I’m sure some might disagree and say that their theology could have developed, but not in a direction that contradicted early theology already set down in the inspired text(s). I don’t find that a very convincing argument, but it is out there.

  3. wezlo permalink
    April 7, 2008 7:47 pm

    I don’t call it an error, like ohmygoshthebibleisn’ttrue, just that Paul’s belief in that happened to be wrong. Why, because Paul’s a human-being and well, people often work off of bad assumptions. Then again, I do agree with Calvin that strict inerrancy kinda paints you into a corner in that regard. If Paul’s mistaken, then the threads start unraveling.

    It’s kinda weird though, given that books like Acts have moments which seem to be deliberately correcting the “Jesus is coming back now stop working” mentality that existed in the Church. But then, in some circles saying that the New Testament documents are in conversation with one another (sometimes heated) that might get you flogged.

  4. April 7, 2008 8:13 pm

    Could the Pauline corpus show us that the Apostle had a both-and approach to his eschatology? Maybe he believed in the possibility of an imminent return but was also well aware of the possibility that the church may have a longer haul that hoped? Even now we Christians live with this tension. We realize that Christ could return now like a thief in the night and we also realize it could be a thousand or two thousand more years before that great day. The pastoral Paul would have needed to introduce both perspectives to the church and with that being said maybe even Paul’s understanding of the Parousia was vague in some sense?

  5. Hugo permalink
    April 7, 2008 10:41 pm

    It’s such a blessing that the Thessalonians took the call to live Christianly, AS THOUGH Christ’s return were upon us, as a call to live Christianly because His return WAS upon them; unfortunate, yes, in that they took it as a call to separate themselves from the world, but also charming in its earnestness and obedience and, most of all, a blessing in that it enabled Paul to redraw his distinctions in ways that still serve, us urgently in this time as in theirs. (Think Y2K.) Had Paul taught them to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, the Thessalonians might’ve gone marching to war, until Paul stopped them and told them that the point was to go marching AS TO!

    The errors are so human and so familiar to us, and the resolution of them so fresh. Sometimes I feel as though I am among the errant ones and Paul is sternly but lovingly setting me straight. Or straightening out my brothers and sisters in other limbs of the Body—right here today.

    I see as as sort of like the “Troubleshooting” section in the User’s Manual. It’s marvelous, really. There is an immanence in these divine communiques, but immanence in the sense of immediacy and intimacy. Reminiscent of the Nazarene’s special fondness for Thomas.

    It’s an interesting conundrum, but I’d like to see a feminist take on it, because I think the conundrum viz inerrancy and literalism may be a fairly arch construction and I have a hunch that a feminist exegesis would blow right past the ostensible contradiction.

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  1. Biblical Studies Carnival 29 (XXIX) « Dr Jim West

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