Podcast listener Josh in Kelowna, Canada, writes us. “Hello Pastor John! Do we have any indication that the authors of the Bible matured in doctrine, ministry, or in their experience of the Christian life? For example, should we expect to see a progression of clarity from the earlier writings of, say, Paul, to his later writings? Would his ongoing study of the OT Scripture (combined with the direct revelation he received from Christ early in his ministry) have changed or altered his earlier opinions or viewpoints? Not saying that his earlier writings would have been false or wrong, but wouldn’t greater clarity have come over time as he saw deeper meaning and more connections? Or does the doctrine of inspiration somehow hedge against this line of thinking?”
Let me try to say something on a principle of reading or interpretation, which I think helps us not go down unfruitful rabbit trails. And I am relating this to a larger issue that I see, and we will try to bore in on the particular issue of a maturing biblical writer.
What I have in mind with this principle that I am talking about is the bad tendency to take our focus off of the text of Scripture and put it on influences that may or may not have shaped the biblical writers, but, in fact, which we only have access to through the texts themselves. Or, in some cases, we may have some modest access outside the biblical text to a cultural or a personal circumstance that may have influenced a biblical writer, but whether in fact that externally known situation actually did shape the mind of the writer can only be known from the text that he wrote.
I have read far too many unwarranted pronouncements that such and such was the situation at that time and therefore the writer meant such and such. That simply does not follow, unless the writer in his text shows us that he was influenced by such and such. So I am very wary of people asserting that the meaning of a text is such and such because of something they claim to know about the circumstance of the writer, when, in fact, the decisive knowledge about that circumstance comes through the writer himself, through the text itself.
The principle that follows from that observation, and that concern, is that we should put primary — this is kind of John Piper principle number one — we should put primary and decisive emphasis on construing the text as we have it, allowing any situational factors to help us only if the author shows us in some way that those situational factors are, in fact, important for understanding what he wrote. So you get from the text a situation at Corinth, say, or at Thessalonica, which you do, but you get it from what Paul himself says.
So the particular circumstance that Josh is talking about is the extratextual possibility that an author’s maturing over the years might affect his understanding of reality, which might alter in some way how he treats that reality in the inspired text of Scripture. And my point is that the only way we could know this is if the author showed us in some way that his different way of expressing himself was owing to his growth in the maturing of his understanding. Otherwise, we will only be guessing that the way he expresses himself in a later writing is different from the way he expressed himself in an earlier writing because of a growth in maturity. But we may be wrong. We don’t know that unless he tells us. There may be other factors that cause him to express himself differently.
And, of course, the same question concerning growth and maturity could be asked about senility or weariness or depression or conflict. In other words, a biblical author could walk through any of those personal experiences in such a way that how he expresses himself in one year would be different from the way he expressed himself in another year and one can think of almost endless possibilities of personal and circumstantial factors that would cause a writer to express himself with greater or lesser clarity or depth at different times in his life.
What it really comes down to is whether the claim of Scripture to be written by divine inspiration implies such a safeguard against error that whatever the personal and circumstantial factors are in a writer’s life, God is so guiding his words that those factors won’t compromise the truthfulness and usefulness of Scripture. And that is, in fact, what I think the doctrine of inspiration, as taught in the Bible, does imply. So Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out” — or inspired — “by God.” That is one thing. Secondly, and, therefore, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
He says two things about Scripture: One is that it is breathed out by God, inspired by God, guided by God, controlled by God, which means controlled by God’s character, which is truth and reliability. So that is one thing he is saying. And then he says: And so it is profitable. It is useful. It is helpful.
So those two important things, it seems to me, imply that we should not be distracted from the actual text of Scripture by trying to figure out what personal or circumstantial factors outside the text may have shaped the text, unless the text itself indicates that those factors are significant. And then we will know from the text itself, rather than kind of sleuthing around behind the text and thinking we can find it another way.
Practically speaking, I would say that if we see something in 2 Timothy — which is the last letter Paul wrote — that is different, not contradictory, just different from Galatians or 1 Thessalonians, two of the earliest letters of Paul, we would be spinning our wheels in an unhelpful way to devote very much energy in trying to discern if this difference were owing to Paul’s being older or more mature or depressed or in conflict or tired or whatever.
A far more fruitful question would be: What are the differences? How do they compare? How do they contrast? What new and deeper things do we learn about the reality being described, because now we have two descriptions, not just one? And the reason for this approach is that it will be pure speculation to try to guess whether the differences are owing to maturity or some other factor unless he tells us. And it is not useful. It is not useful for preaching. It is not useful for personal devotions to diminish our authority by guesswork, which is what really bothers me about a lot of the way people approach the Bible these days. There is just so much guesswork in what people are doing with texts.
So, in summary, my answer is: We simply do not know whether Paul had a deeper grasp of reality near the end of his life than he did at the middle of it. That may sound strange, because you might just assume, well, goodness, don’t you grow? Well, no. No. You might be at your peak at age 40 and going downhill from there.
I mean, I am 70. Okay? I know that I am in some ways not as sharp probably and as insightful as I once was. There is a kind of wisdom, maybe. Aging takes some people backward, not forward. But either way, how that affected his writing can only be determined by actually attending to the writing itself, not speculating about the causes of why the writing is the way it is. God ordained for the writing to be what it is, old or young, middle or aged. And he did not reveal all the personal and circumstantial reasons why the writing is the way it is.
So, as Isaiah says, “To the teaching and to the testimony!” (Isaiah 8:20). Minimize speculation. Maximize observation, observation, observation.
Very good. For the record, at 39 I am nowhere as sharp as you at 70. Also for the record, I should ask: To your knowledge, does Paul ever tell us that his thinking has matured?
No, not that I know of.