One of the pleasures in reading Paul’s letters is that I get to walk with him as he slogs his way toward a deeper understanding of who Jesus is, and what it means to be a Christian. The Journey from Thessalonica to Rome may have taken only five or six years, but the distance between them is great, and it took him thirty years to make it from where he had started back in Jerusalem. His side trips to Philippi and Ephesus reached as far as one could reach with two feet still planted firmly on the ground.
It saddens me when others treat these letters as if they were dropped out of the sky, eternally etched in stone, having expressed precise and unchangeable truth that Paul is simply passing on. It’s that literal inerrancy thing. If the early church discerned his letters to be authentic scripture, I think they did so recognizing that they were records of journeys of faith, not of Paul’s only, but also of those to whom he wrote. They begin in one place and move to other places as they search, not without conflict, for understanding. They are holy journeys that, if nothing else, declare the journey itself to be an inerrant truth. It is inerrantly true that we are called to a life of seeking understanding of God’s truth, and it is inerrantly true that our ability to understand is always changing.
I’m sympathetic with Thessalonians who were led (by Paul) to believe the end of time was imminent, and so quit worrying about the needs of daily life. They were new Christians. Paul was their teacher. That’s what they were sure they heard. The Anchor Bible Dictionary was not available to them. I’m sympathetic with Paul who had to admit he didn’t quite get it right, and had to reframe his own understanding of what time means.
I’m sympathetic with the Corinthians who were probably getting along just fine in their rowdy rather immoral seaport town, until Paul came along to tell them about Jesus. Now they were Christians, but what did that mean? Who knows how many letters it took to craft a fence around their many ways of misunderstanding and misadventuring. It certainly made Paul think deeply about what baptism meant, what the Eucharist meant, and what eternal life might mean. They kept learning and so did Paul.
I have no problem affirming that all scripture is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, and I believe that in Paul’s case Godly inspiration has had much to do with showing us not only what a holy journey toward understanding looks like, it has also called us to go on our own life long journey. Accepting Jesus is not enough to become a Christian, although it may be enough for salvation. By itself it’s just a declarative statement that leaves one no better off than those early Corinthians and Thessalonians: eager, confused, and often dead wrong. The glib faith journey that preachers so often prattle on about (including me sometimes) is also not a holy journey, because it often means little more than learning the catechism and becoming proficient in church speak.
On his holy journey, Paul boldly stated that “Here is where I am now. It’s not where I started, but I’m closer to the goal than I was yesterday, and I intend to press on.” Now there is an inerrant truth to live into.