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E.P. Sanders & The Fatal Fundamentalist Flaw

No human in the world can escape the effect of presuppositions on his thinking. I read Paul, A Brief Insight and was sometimes stunned by E.P. Sanders’ categorical dismissal of anything that he could not immediately comprehend or his disregard of processes of thought that seemed incoherent to him. On several occasions he accused Paul of arriving at conclusions that did not follow from his arguments presented in the text because he (Paul) was already set in his mind and would therefore just “prooftext” to make his point. This is especially obvious in Sanders’ analysis of Galatians. The only way he could do this is to disregard the inerrancy of Scripture and the belief that Paul was actually an inspired apostle of Jesus Christ with all of the inherent authority that comes with that label.

To believe in both the inspiration of Scripture and in its inerrancy is a fundamental of the Christian faith. It is an anchor, a bedrock, a foundational truth that is also a basic Christian presupposition in our approach to Scripture. Sanders slanders Paul by equating him to modern fundamentalists.

Paul argued like an ancient Jew; this is not in the least surprising, though reading the arguments can be bewildering. In Galatians 3:6-18 Paul argues terminologically, using proof texts from the Abraham story, and making the wording of that story fit his own view. A “proof text” is a passage from an authoritative source which contains words or phrases that a later author can use to “prove” his argument, without regard to the original meaning of the passage.  Those who know something of modern fundamentalists will understand Paul’s technique.  He was not concerned with the meaning of biblical passages in their own ancient context.  He had in Scripture a vast store of words, and if he could find passages which had the right combination of words, and stick them together, he scored his point.

While E.P. Sanders may be accurately describing many modern fundamentalists, he is slandering Paul. There is no doubt that following Paul’s argumentation in Galatians is hard and his hermeneutics of the Old Testament difficult to grasp, but we believe that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that not only is his conclusion right, but his process of thought in arriving to that conclusion is exactly right. Once, however, one concedes inspiration one has the right to not only doubt Paul’s process of thought, but his conclusions and, like Sanders, eventually arrive at a form of universalism and a tolerance of homosexuality. One also closes himself off to understanding of some passages that are explained by a faithful systematic theology.

For example, notice how Sanders’ pontificates on Romans 7. It does not, he says, “describe anyone, except possibly the neurotic” (153). The neurotic, only, say, “O wretched man that I am”?  Protestants are divided about whether or not Romans 7 describes the saved or unsaved man, but all take it to be a description (possibly hyperbolic, but not necessarily so) of the soul of man under the impression of the reality of Gospel truth about the pervasiveness of sin. Furthermore, Sanders thinks that Paul’s assessment of humanity is weakened by the fact that he did not have access to more sophisticated sciences (i.e. psychology) and several times throughout the book Sanders suggests that Paul would think differently now had he had more time to mature theologically and had he at his fingertips the resources of science and modern understanding that we now have.

Take for example, this simple statement regarding Paul’s view of the law:

“Similarly with regard to the law. He had not done psychiatric case studies of covetous people and learned that they coveted only because they heard the commandment not to covet. Nor had psychological study le him to the view that attempting to obey commandments leads to self-alienation. The critique of the law is not experiential, but again theological or dogmatic. The law must do something bad, since it was not intended by God to save – since God saves through Christ” (156).

Sanders is not complimenting Paul or affirming inspiration here. This is an academic critique of Paul’s work. He is treating Paul to peer review. Thus, there is some truth to the criticism and at least one fatal flaw. Obviously, it is true that Paul did not do a psychological study to determine how people would or would not respond to the command not to covet. For those of us who believe that Paul was inspired by God and that his writings our inerrant we accept this as an un-disturbing fact. The Holy Spirit knows human psychology quite well. Sanders goes on to say, however, that this is pure theological (read abstract) an dogmatic, but not experiential. Indeed, it is not experiential in the sense that it can be analyzed empirically in a laboratory, but where Sanders goes wrong is that it is in fact experienced and millions of Christians world-wide read Romans 7 and feel as if they are looking in a mirror. Christians who have felt the convicting work of the Spirit of God on their lives and the power of the Gospel understand the psychology of Romans 7.

Is it neurotic to feel that way about sin? Perhaps it only seems that way to those who have never felt the convicting work of the Gospel.

Proof texting is, indeed, a fundamentalist flaw. We should make every effort to avoid it. It has had scandalous effect on thousands of innocent people. However, when I completed Sanders’ work I realized that he really believes that the big one, the despicable fundamentalist flaw, is that fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and consequently respond to it as absolute authority.

This is, in his mind, the fatal flaw. In my mind, it is a precious fundamental of my faith.


One Response

  1. Bob,

    Great post. I continue to benefit from your writing.

    I did have one significant concern in this post which I hope you can clarify or correct.

    “Paul was actually an inspired apostle of Jesus Christ”

    “For those of us who believe that Paul was inspired by God”

    In both of the above quotes you suggest that Paul was inspired. I am firmly committed to the inspiration of Scripture, but I have major concerns about saying a person was inspired. One reason is that I have seen this thinking under-gird much of the error that has gripped the bibliology of Fundamentalism. But the main reason is that I don’t see how θεοπνευστος (2 Timothy 3:16) can refer to the state of a person. Rather, I view it as necessarily referring to a process (breathing out).

    I would appreciate any clarification you can give.

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