Hermeneutic consistency is the means by which Christian apologists try to harmonise disparate parts of the Bible. Saddled with the premise that the Bible is the Word of God they need to demonstrate a consistency it doesn’t have because God, as its ultimate creator, could not possibly be the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14.33). Consequently, they set about ironing out the Bible’s many discrepancies and contradictions to arrive at what they claim is a consistent and uniform Salvation Plan.
Unfortunately, this being an essentially dishonest enterprise, they have to pretend that New Testament authors with conflicting ideas about what it means to be a follower of Jesus are really saying the same thing. As I demonstrate in Jesus v Paul Round 2, there are vast differences between Paul’s good news and that ascribed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels. In the latter, Jesus is made to say that ‘righteousness’ can be cultivated in a measure-for-measure arrangement so that the extent to which a person forgives, gives to others and demonstrates compassion and mercy is mirrored exactly in how much God forgives, gives and shows mercy and compassion to that person in return. Paul on the other hand sees ‘salvation’ as being entirely undeserved. It is, rather, the result of God’s ‘grace’, which is given even though unmerited. According to Paul, showing compassion and mercy and offering forgiveness has no bearing on whether one is saved or not. These – Jesus’ path of righteousness and Paul’s unearned salvation – are two entirely different, and mutually exclusive, ‘ways to God’. Christians choose to remain blind to this fact.
They see no difference between the two ways to redemption because they are taught that Christianity is one grand scheme, woven, as it were, from a single piece of cloth. From this perspective, Jesus and Paul are simply drawing attention to different aspects of what is taken to be a consistent pattern. But this isn’t so; the New Testament is more like an untidy patchwork, a series of explanations by at least a dozen hands of what Jesus was about. Its most prominent voice is Paul’s (and those who pretend to be him); Christians prioritise Paul’s teaching over and above that of the synoptic gospels, which is markedly different, and interpret their ‘good news’ in the light of Paul’s mysticism. What doesn’t fit, they discard.
This has been a problem ever since the start of Christianity; the differences and disputes between Paul and the original disciples is well documented in the New Testament itself. Paul did not regard those who had walked and talked with Jesus as having a grasp of the true gospel (his) and was not reticent about saying what he thought of them. In Galatians 5.12, for example, Paul is so pissed off with the apostles he wishes they would accidentally castrate themselves.
Enter Luke, the original hermeneutic harmoniser. His Acts of the Apostles is designed to reconcile the radically different doctrines. By and large he succeeds, with most believers down the ages, perhaps because they haven’t wanted to, unable see the joins. But Acts doesn’t get Paul’s itinerary right, let alone his theology. The speeches Paul makes in Acts are not about the salvation through grace that concern him in his letters. They make concessions to other teaching – that of repentance and forgiveness (for example in Acts 13.38 and 17.30) while the real Paul makes no such compromise. There are no exhortations to repentance nor the promise of forgiveness in Paul’s own writing; there he mentions repentance only once, in a strikingly different context (Romans 2.4), and forgiveness not at all.
Moreover, Paul is adamant that he did not receive his doctrine from Peter or anyone else (Galatians 1.11-12). Instead he insists he got it direct from the Lord – i.e. through the hallucination he alludes to in Galatians 1.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15.45 – which explains why it is so radically different from the original believers’. In Acts, however, Luke isn’t very happy with this – he’s trying to harmonise, after all – and has Paul meet Peter and James very soon after his conversion (Acts 9.26-30). Following some initial sheepishness, Luke implies, they all get on famously.
According to Paul, however, he and Peter didn’t meet for the first time until three years after Paul’s conversion (Galatians 1.18) and it was fourteen years later before he talked with a larger group of disciples (Galatians 2.1), when ‘the pillars of the church’ summoned him because of his wayward teaching. Paul records how he ‘rebuked’ Peter shortly after this (Galatians 2.11-13) because he objected to Peter’s interpretation of what was involved in following Jesus. In short, Paul and the apostles could not agree on what constituted belief in Jesus and what part Jewish law played.
Two questions result that Christians need to ask themselves, though invariably they don’t:
1. Where there are discrepancies between Paul’s theology and account of events, and Luke’s – written 15-20 years after Paul’s death – which is more likely to be correct?
2. Who is more likely to have the greater understanding of Jesus’ teaching: Paul who never met him but made it all up in his head, or Peter and the other disciples who spent years with him, listening to what he said?
In answer to the second, Christians down the ages have opted for Paul, the one who made it all up. His Salvation Plan is, after all, easier to buy into than Jesus’ mad idea of giving everything away and loving your enemies. Having chosen their man, it follows that the rest of the New Testament must be forced to comply with Paul’s ideas.
This is hermeneutics in the hands of Christians; an intellectually dishonest sleight of hand designed to bring everything into line with their interpretation of Paul’s idiosyncratic take on a man he never met. As for those who are unimpressed by their contortions, well, it must be that they have a faulty hermeneutic. Praise the Lord!