November 30, 2020

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible- by John Polkinghorne, Chapter 8- The Pauline Writings

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible– by John Polkinghorne

Chapter 8- The Pauline Writings

The earliest New Testament writings are the epistles of the apostle Paul.  First Thessalonians is considered to be the first epistle written about the year 50.  Polkinghorne points out that within 20 years of the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus was being described in exalted terms as “God’s Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead” (1:10).  It is also striking that Paul begins almost all his letters with the greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.  Although there was a common use of kyrios, much like sir, Polkinghorne believes that it reflects the Jewish use of Lord in place of the unutterable name of God.  Despite his being a monotheistic Jew, Paul is bracketing together God and Jesus in an extraordinary way.

It seems to Polkinghorne that Paul, as with other NT writers, is struggling to find words to express his experience of the risen Christ, and is being driven to use both human and divine-sounding language about Jesus, despite his Jewish monotheism.  The NT does not resolve the issue of the Lordship of Jesus and the Lordship of the one true God of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The issue is simply present, arising as a fact of experience, encouraged by the belief in the Resurrection and the new life that the first believers found had been given to them in Christ.  He says:

The Pauline witness is absolutely clear, both about the presence of human and divine attributes in Jesus and about the reconciliation (atonement) he has effected between a righteous God and sinful humanity, but in neither case are we given, in Paul, or elsewhere in the New Testament, a detailed theological theory of how these things can be.  Experience was everything; theorizing could wait.  In the case of human/divine duality in Christ, the Church was eventually led to the doctrine of the two natures, proclaimed in Chalcedon in 451, requiring the use of philosophical language quite different from the scriptural style of discourse, but, I believe consonant with scriptural testimony.  In the case of Atonement, the Church, while always witnessing to the fact, has not succeeded in formulating a universally agreed theory.

Another remarkable attribute emphasized by Paul is that, although the Christian community knew Jesus as a human individual, it had nevertheless experienced a corporate element in its relationship with Christ.  Paul tells the Corinthian church that they are “the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:12-27, Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:15-16).  Polkinghorne says he is not using “body” simply as a simile, or a literary device, but for him it is a spiritual reality.  Connected with this is the very frequent use of the phrase “in Christ”.  Without denying the humanity of Jesus, this participatory language points to a reality in Him that exceeds the simply human.

Paul’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures is also quite remarkable and scandalous to the literalistic mindset.  In Romans 9:3 he fuses two separate verses from Isaiah (8:14 and 28:16) to form a quotation about the stone of stumbling he wants to use, that although in Isaiah, clearly refer to the Lord God of Israel, he applies them to Jesus.  In Romans 10:13, Paul quotes from Joel 2:32, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  The context makes it clear Paul is referring to Christ, while Joel is clearly referring to the God of Israel.  And in the “Christological hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11, the assertion: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” is an unmistakable echo of what is said about God in Isaiah 45:23.  Many scholars believe Paul is reproducing a hymn in wide use in the early Church, which would take this form of proclamation of the Lordship of Christ back into very early times indeed.

Polkinghorne touches on the assertion by many modern scholars that it is not certain that everything to which Paul’s name has been attached was actually written by him.  Although in this modern world, that would be considered plagiarism, that was not the case in the ancient world.  There was not the modern concept of authorial integrity, so it was not considered fraudulent to present writings arising in a tradition that stemmed from an original author as if it had been written by that author himself.  It was considered to be giving honor to one’s mentor and acknowledging his influence.  There are varying degrees of doubt about Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians as well as the Pastoral Epistles; 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.  However, Polkinghorne notes, the variations in style and content could have arisen from developments in Paul’s thinking, from different target readership, or even from different amanuensis, since in all probability the letters were dictated.  Some people think this affects their place as “inspired” Scripture; I do not, nor does Polkinghorne.  The testimony of the early Church was that these documents belonged in the canon, and that is good enough for me.  The Church would have thought that, even though the precise document might not have been authored directly by Paul, the thoughts expressed by that disciple of Paul reflected the apostolic authority of Paul himself as passed down through testimony of those in the Church who heard him speak.  As Polkinghorne says:

…their place in the canon, and so their authority as Scripture in the Church, does not depend upon Paul having been their actual author.

If you, dear reader, have a problem with that, it is probably because you have a view of the Bible as a magic book.  I don’t say that to be insulting, after all I had that view for many years; it was what I was taught.  If you all recall last week’s Saturday Brunch and the Gloria Copeland video about the flu , then you will understand that many evangelicals hold the magic view of scripture.  In the Copeland’s and others viewpoint, the words of the Bible are magical incantations that invoke the power of God on your behalf.  They, of course, don’t use the word “magic” as magic is of the devil, but when all is said and done it is the same metaphysical ideological belief system.  But it is not the Book itself or the writings that hold the power. It is the meaning of the words through His human authors that convey the relationship He wishes to have with His people.  Contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, the medium is NOT the message, the message is the message.


  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    Hi MikeG.
    I will read this very soon.

    So much catching up to do.
    58 hours without Landline Phone or Internet. Government upgrade. I question that.

    It was a Lenten prologue. I am not sure what else I shall forsake in the Lenten Season. This was trial enough.

    I need to take a deep breath and see what you have all been up to in my absence.

    I am told getting over something one should apply the notion,
    Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.
    Such choices. I consider lots of chocolate another choice..


  2. Mike the Geologist says

    Blessings to you, Susan. Hope to hear from you soon.

  3. Susan Dumbrell says

    and so:-

    words spill off the pen
    a smudge here an ink blot there
    stumbling as we think.

  4. After watching (and participating in) the arguments over these issues, I am breaking down and ordering a course on philosophy of religion. Great Courses has one on sale for $20. I’m throwing in their course on argumentation along with it, just for fun.

    • Ronald Avra says

      Just curious, it seems as though you are making a major investment of time with this study, so what are you giving up to make room in your schedule for it?

      • One hour of commuting a day on average gives me plenty of time to listen to courses on tape. 😉

  5. Great post.

  6. “Polkinghorne touches on the assertion by many modern scholars that it is not certain that everything to which Paul’s name has been attached was actually written by him. Although in this modern world, that would be considered plagiarism, that was not the case in the ancient world. There was not the modern concept of authorial integrity, so it was not considered fraudulent to present writings arising in a tradition that stemmed from an original author as if it had been written by that author himself. It was considered to be giving honor to one’s mentor and acknowledging his influence.”

    I’m sorry but this is simply not the case. The ancients hated plagiarism as much as we do. See “Forgery and Counterforgery” by Bart Ehrman where he puts paid to this rationalization in a work of thoroughgoing scholarship. He quotes extensively from ancient writers on just this subject. The ancient Greek physician Galen wrote a book about it which we still have!

    As far as Pauline authorship, you will be hard pressed to find a non-fundamentalist NT scholar who thinks Paul wrote the pastoral epistles. Even leaving aside stylistic differences and different vocabulary some of the views expressed directly contradict Paul’s views expressed in the non-controversial letters (on the subject of women’s roles for example).

    On the subject of Pauline Christology he did have a very high view of Christ, no doubt. But he still didn’t believe Jesus was co-equal to God the Father. Even Philippians 2 is not saying that. It was centuries until the idea of the Trinity took hold. See 1 Corinthians 11:3 –

    “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. “

    • “Head” in that passage doesn’t mean what you think it means – and certainly not what the complementarians think it means.

      • Eeyore perhaps you should tell me what I think it means.

        • ‘Eeyore perhaps you should tell me what I think it means.’

          Well done!

          • Like I said – the context makes his implied meaning pretty obvious. So what’s well done about equivocation after the fact?

        • It seems pretty obvious from your comment – ridership. But please prove me wrong…

          • Ridership…?

            I really. REALLY. Hate my phone.


            • Many sympathies!

            • Eeyore, I’m aware that 1 Cor 11 is a fraught passage and Paul was not always the most transparent prose stylist. He seems to use the word translated “head” to mean different things, sometimes in the same sentence. This is a passage well argued over. But the meaning of “head’ is actually tangential to my real point which is simply that Paul always distinguishes between God and Christ. To Paul Christ was a pre-existent divine being who was exalted to a special status because of his willingness to humble himself and serve others. (The point of the famous passage in Philippians 2.)

              To the ancients (including Jews) divinity was not an absolute state. There was a hierarchy of divinity. It was a continuum. One could be divine without being identical to God. Paul thought Jesus was divine but he always distinguishes him from God. Two millennia of Trinitarianism has taught us well to read it into the New Testament but we are doing just that.

              I’m not sure what your comment about “equivocation after the fact” was in reference to, sorry.

              • Why do you speak of “the ancients” as if they were one thing, with monolithic views and understanding of divinity?

              • Apart from my question above, the Prologue of John shows that at least some ancient Jews living within a generation of Paul, and therefore historically very close to his thought world, could think of the man Jesus as being identical with the Word, and the Word as being identical with the creator God, i.e., they could think that Jesus = creator God. Or am I reading back into that passage from the other side of two millennia of trinitarianism? How else would you interpret the passage I’m referring to?

              • Or again, when the Gospel of John has Thomas call Jesus “My Lord and my God!”, it seems to show that the author/redactors of the Jewish Christian community that composed John, within a generation of Paul, were able to think of and refer to Jesus as equal to the creator God. That would mean that these at least these ancient people were able to think outside the mythological framework you describe. Notice that I’m not trying to prove that Jesus was God by citing these passages, or that the latter passage recounts an actual historical event, but that the writers/redactors of the New Testament were able to think and speak of Jesus as God in a way that you’ve said ancients, including Jews, couldn’t.

              • I acknowledge that Paul and the rest of the New Testament speaks in often ambiguous ways about Jesus’ identity and nature. But I believe that is because Jesus was reworking the definition of God right under their feet. Since the books of the NT are most definitely not magic books, the witness of its authors to the identity and character of Jesus Christ could not, humanly speaking, have been anything but halting and uncertain at times, even while it was ecstatic and passionately certain at others.

    • A few years ago it suddenly occurred to me how much ‘confessional’ material there is in the pastorals, especially 1 Tim. It is full of things like ‘this saying is trustworthy’ and even a hint that these sayings were part of a formal liturgy (which is one reason for a later dating).

      ‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.’ – ‘at the proper time’ in the service!

      ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.’ – ‘we confess’

      ‘Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.’ followed by the content of that ‘good confession’:

      ‘I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time- he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.’

      This is very likely an ancient confession (or charge the candidate affirmed) made at baptism.

      From Titus:

      ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
      Declare these things’ – or ‘speak these things’

      ‘But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things (or stress these things).’ ‘The saying is trustworthy (or ‘faithful’)’

      And my personal favorite: 1 Tim 1:15-17

      ‘The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.’

      I don’t know how many times I’ve heard some silly preacher say that Paul considered himself ‘chief among sinners’ – the worst there ever was. It’s very likely that EVERY Christian made that confession, perhaps every Sunday!

      These books are also full of teaching that is organized and presented almost like a catechism. While Paul could have written them, they seem to reflect a development in liturgy, organization, and formal use of confessional material one does not find in any of Paul’s other letters (and a much more developed church order and organization). It’s almost like ‘Paul’ shut off his mind and just started quoting familiar things to make his points.

  7. –> “‘Head’ in that passage doesn’t mean what you think it means – and certainly not what the complementarians think it means.”

    Does it mean Trump?


  8. Mike the G Man, The Monotones in the 1950’s asked the question in song ” I Wonder , Wonder, Who, Wrote the Book of Love? One of the verses is “did it come from above”? It is a great old 50’s song. God wrote the book of love and we call it the Bible.
    Stephen, I always thought 1 Corinthians 11.3 referred to Christ in his fully human form as he was fully human and God and as a “human” he was under God . I wish the Monotones would have addressed this in their song but it was only a 45 rpm so space was limited.
    Some say there is no such thing as an original thought and I have proved the point. Jesus was the word in the beginning , the living word and we find the word in the Bible, the word is Jesus, that is why we have the Bible.
    It is good for scholars, like the Monotones, to ponder on who wrote the book of love but other than academic interest it does not matter to obviously un academic me. Like Joe Biden I have no problem with some amount of plagiarism as my original thoughts are few and far between. The whole world is a stage and the play is the thing is what I like to say and the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, so I am not afraid to speak. Jesus love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
    I will “paraphrase” Polkinghorne’s thoughts into my own words or if I remember them quote them directly. I give Polkinghorne the same right to quote and reference me if he wishes. Unfortunately my most profound advice is to always get the large order of fries at McDonalds’s so my chance of being plagiarized is small.
    Mike G. I got the paperback Polkinghorne book for Valentines Day and thanks for your fine reviews weekly. I appreciate your good efforts and thoughts.

  9. Once again I offer this, particularly for Stephen, and hope the link doesn’t get thrown into mod:

    There are plenty of proto-Trinitarian passages in the Epistles. It’s actually not something that came along in the 4th century. What happened in the 4th century is that Christians used the Greek language to help them articulate what we can say about the Godhead. They could not have done that had not the ideas been present already. See Greg’s comment above. And please see the video.

    A lot of ancient literature was written “in the name of” an author to convey authority and to continue the tradition of that actual author’s “school”. That didn’t necessarily count as plagiarism, but it was also why eyewitness oral testimony was preferred, because theoretically one could chase down the original witness. That’s why the Gospels were written after the Epistles, and that’s also why it reeks of eyewitness oral testimony passed down accurately from the ones who experienced it. Again, see the video.


    • But what if the literature written “in the name of” someone else did not present ideas or teachings that person would’ve agreed with? A writer could be anonymously piggybacking off of the authority of another writer to gain a hearing for ideas the older authority would not have countenanced; in many cases, there’s no way to know either way if the anonymous writer’s ideas are consonant with the name they are claiming, or they are not.

      • All you have to do is read the rest of the body of work of the purported author – just like we do today.

        Most of the Christians who came after P.Dionysius, esp in the east, knew he was not the contemporary of Paul. That doesn’t change whatever truth appears in his writings, and from what I’ve read of him, that seems to be quite a bit and most of it squarely within the consensus of the Greek and Desert Fathers.


  10. senecagriggs says

    For the love of Mike, please stop equating the Copelands with Evangelicals. Puhleese.

    • Honest question: what is she? I remember the Copeland’s from my fundamentalist days. They were in the heart of the whole thing. I stopped keeping track decades ago so I am out of the loop now.

      • senecagiggs,, I think that during the election of 2106 the term evangelical came to apply for any conservative Christian or perhaps even non Christian who voted for Trump. Now the term is usually used in the press and other places as a negative stereotype shorthand description of anyone who does not a liberal outlook and is more conservative n politics, society norms and culture, I guess the term redneck was too insensitive .
        ChrisS the Copelands belong to that group of Christians who think that a good use of their tithes go to provide a lavish lifestyle and Lear jet to their Pastor. Most conservative Christians are as befuddled and confused about his appeal as the mainline Christians are. Kenneth Copeland is the Harold Hill of religion.
        However in America we have freedom of religion and the right to publicity. . If Kenneth Copeland came to most” evangelical” churches he would not draw a crowd except maybe for his fame and people being curious..

  11. Whether the ancients looked askance on forgery or not is immaterial to the problem it presents when assessing ancient documents, including the New Testament. An anonymous ancient author could gain a hearing and critical consideration for his own ideas by putting them in the mouth of an older authoritative author, regardless of whether that older author would’ve agreed with them or not. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite perpetrated a fraud that secured a place for his ideas as perhaps the most influential and authoritative teaching in the Christian mystical tradition by attributing his own words to a New Testament figure who we have no reason to believe subscribed to any of the doctrines or religious philosophy falsely attributed to him by his namesake. If you don’t think that is a problem, then you don’t understand why we rightly in modern times disapprove of forgery. In any age, those who perpetrate religious forgeries appropriate intellectual and spiritual capital from others, without their permission, in order to gain advantage for their own ideas.