Responding to the Jesus' Words Only
View of the New Testament
There are some in the liberal camp of Christianity who wish to accept the words of Christ as true and authoritative, but reject the words of one or more of Christ's apostles as heretical deviations from Christ's teachings. Those who reject the words of the apostles typically do so either in totality (all of the apostles), or of one individual in particular (usually Paul). It is commonly asserted that Paul's teachings conflict with Jesus' teachings, and that Paul was either deceived Himself, or was a deceiver of others. What I wish to do in the brief article is examine whether such a position can be supported Biblically and/or logically. I will demonstrate that it lacks support from both Scripture and reason, and therefore is not a tenable position.
The Biblical Perspective
The first thing we need to note is what Jesus said concerning the words of His apostles. He declared that if we believed on Him, we would listen to His apostles as well:
Remember the word that I said to you, "A servant is not greater than his master." If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also (John 15:20 NKJV)
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word (John 17:20 NKJV).
If Jesus' words are taken as authoritative, and Jesus told us to listen to what His apostles said, then it is a false dichotomy to pit Jesus against Paul, John, Peter, etc.
The Logical Perspective
Rejecting the Entire Apostolic Circle
If we cannot trust that the apostles accurately taught the people what Jesus Himself taught while He was on earth, or what He taught them by divine revelation after His ascension, why should we trust what they wrote concerning Christ's teachings and deeds in the Gospels? After all, Jesus did not write an autobiography. Jesus' words and deeds have only been preserved for us by the apostles (and Mark) in the Gospels that bear their names. The trustworthiness of those records depends on the trustworthiness of those who recorded them. If the apostles were guilty of teaching doctrines in contradiction to Christ's teachings why should we believe they quoted Christ accurately? Why should we believe that what the apostles recorded Christ as saying is truly an accurate report of Christ's words if the apostles are not trustworthy enough to continue in Christ's teachings themselves? Why would they want to accurately report what Jesus said and did if what Jesus said and did was in opposition to what they were teaching and doing? If their teachings truly differed from Jesus' teachings it would be most reasonable to assume that they would attempt to alter His words so that they would match their own. Maybe they just made stuff up, or misquoted Jesus on purpose. That is what we would expect from people of such an immoral character as to deviate from Christ's teachings in order to advance their own, and advance them in the name of Christ. Seeing that the NT is the only place in which we find Christ's teachings discussed from those who purport to have been eyewitness, and seeing that we have no reason to believe that such liars and deceivers as the apostles would want to preserve His true words (because it would contradict their own), we would have every reason to doubt that the teachings ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels are really Jesus' teachings, and thus we have no source to know what Jesus truly taught. Ultimately this leads us to believe that the whole NT is a lie, not just the epistles.
It may be argued that while the apostles deviated from Christ's teachings, the histories of Christ they penned are reliable. It must be recognized that the Gospels are not a mere history or biography of Christ, but a theological history. Even the casual observer will notice that the Gospels do not always record Jesus' words the same way, nor His live-events in the same order. Each evangelist quoted Christ in different ways and in different contexts, rearranging the historical timeline of those events to convey his own unique theological purpose. The Gospel writers, then, were not acting as mere historians, but rather as theologians. If their theology was contradictory to Christ's, why should we trust the theological history they penned involving Christ's words? We would have every reason to believe they manipulated His words to say what they wanted them to say, not what Jesus actually said, or meant to say by those words.
The real question here is What basis do we have to believe that the words and deeds attributed to Christ in the Gospels are actually Christ's words and deeds, and not just the apostles' fabrication or manipulation of those words/deeds to fit their own deceptive teachings? One cannot critically deny the words of the apostles and at the same time accept uncritically the words those same deceivers attributed to Christ. If we have reason to doubt that the words of the apostles are truth, we should equally doubt that the words they attributed to Christ are truth. The belief that the apostles' doctrine is not to be trusted, while their records of Christ's teachings can be, then, is not justified.
Rejecting Paul Alone
Some, recognizing that the trustworthiness of Jesus' words as recorded in the Gospels depends on the trustworthiness of those who recorded His words, will affirm that the Gospel writers held to Jesus' teachings, but Paul deviated from the same. Such an assertion cannot be supported Biblically. The Scriptures indicate that the apostles accepted Paul's teaching. If they accepted Paul's teachings, and Paul's teachings were in error, why should we trust the apostles' doctrine? It would seem illogical that they would approve of, and associate with someone they considered a heretic.
According to the church historian, Eusebius, Peter was responsible for assisting Mark in the composition of his Gospel because Mark was not an eyewitness of Christ. If it can be shown that Peter approved of Paul's doctrine, it would bring Mark's Gospel into suspect. Indeed, we do find that Peter approved of Paul's doctrine. Peter went so far as to call Paul's writings Scripture (II Peter 3:15-17). Peter did not believe Paul was heretical. According to the above referenced passage, Peter thought Paul was full of wisdom and that His writings were inspired. Furthermore, Peter recognized that some individuals twisted Paul's words to make them mean something Paul did not mean to convey, resulting in the destruction of those individuals. The corollary is that if Paul's words were interpreted correctly they would result in one's salvation. Peter went on to tell his readers to be on guard so that they would not be led away by such men who twist Paul's words into error, falling from the truth. Apparently Peter was convinced that what Paul taught was truth, not error and deception. If Peter was in cahoots with Paul, we have one of two options: We must accept Peter's opinion of Paul and his writings, or we must reject Peter as a heretic along with Paul, and therefore reject all or portions of Mark's Gospel.
Luke, the author of Acts and the third Gospel bearing his name, accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey. Does Luke's association with Paul make him suspect as well? Surely Paul would not allow a man to travel and minister with him who did not believe the same message as him. If Luke would not succumb to Paul's deceptive teachings he would have been on the first donkey back to Jerusalem. It would be reasonable to conclude that Luke was deceived by Paul's strange and foreign doctrines as well, causing Luke to misconstrue Jesus' words and deeds in his Gospel. This makes the Gospel of Luke suspect along with the Gospel of Mark.
If we do trust Luke, then what about Luke's accounts of Paul's visits to Jerusalem with the apostles (Acts 9:26-31; 11:29-30; 12:25; 21:17-26)? Never once do we read about a disagreement over Christ's teachings. Instead we find the church giving the right hand of fellowship to Paul.
If one will grant the reliability of Paul's personal historical accounts, he himself noted that he went to Jerusalem and conferred with the apostles, telling them all that he taught about Christ in order to make sure that His message was not false (Galatians 2:1-10). According to Paul the apostles approved of his message, adding nothing to it. They recognized God's calling on his life to minister to the Gentiles, and gave their blessing to him to preach Christ to the Gentiles. Looking at Luke and Paul's accounts, then, we have no reason to believe there was a doctrinal conflict between Paul and the apostles. If Paul was in error, we would have to conclude that all of the apostles were in cahoots with Paul in his attempt to distort Christ's teachings. If this is so, we cannot trust the words that any Gospel writer ascribed to Christ, and thus have no assurance as to Christ's true teachings.
It is entirely arbitrary to accept the Gospels as true reports of Christ's teachings, and yet reject Paul's writings as distortions and heresy. It is also arbitrary to accept the Gospel writers accounts of Christ's words as accurate, and yet believe that the apostles strayed from Christ's teachings themselves. One must make an a priori commitment to reject everything but Christ's words, and/or an a priori commitment to believe that while the apostles may have been deceptive elsewhere, they were not deceptive in recording what Jesus said and did. Why should we believe this line of reasoning? With such arbitrary reasoning I could assert that only Paul taught truth, and all the other apostles were liars, so we must reject the Gospels as true accounts of Christ's teachings. Anyone can make assertions like these, but it has to be backed up with sound reasoning and evidence. To date I have yet to see any sound reasoning or evidence to support the notion that the apostles deviated from the teachings of Christ, and therefore only Jesus' words can be trusted. In light of the evidence, we have the rational obligation to accept both Jesus' and the apostles' teachings as congruent and harmonious.
See also Is Religion Philosophy Gone Bad?
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