Inspired Apostles

by Glenn Conjurske

One of the popular misconceptions which has apparently had a firm hold upon the church for a long time is the notion that the apostles were “inspired”—-that is, that they were somehow infallible, preserved from all error in doctrine or practice. Statements of this doctrine, or incidental allusions to “inspired apostles,” are common in the writings of the church.

An article entitled “Authority of the Apostles” in The American Baptist Magazine for 1834 says, “Infallible inspiration was also necessary to qualify persons for that office. John 16:13. They had not only to explain the true sense and spirit of the Old Testament, but also to give forth the New Testament revelation to the world, which was to be the unalterable standard of faith and practice in all succeeding generations. Luke 24:27. Acts 26:22,23, and ch. 28:23. 1 Pet. 1:25. It was therefore necessary that they should be secured against all mistakes, by the unerring dictates of the Spirit of truth. Accordingly, Christ both promised, and actually bestowed upon them, the Holy Spirit, to teach them all things; to bring all things to their remembrance, whatsoever he had said unto them; to guide them into all truth, and to show them things to come. John 16:13,26. Their doctrine must also be received, not as the word of man, but, as it truly is, the word of God, 1 Thess. 2:13; and is that by which we are to distinguish the spirit of truth from the spirit of error. 1 John 4:6.”

Joseph Travis says, “If ever St. Paul was called to the ministry, so was Stephen Olin: with this difference, that the former was inspired—-the latter not.”

A. A. Hodge says, “How far, precisely, the inspiration of the Apostles extended we cannot tell. But it extended to all their teaching (”whosoever heareth you heareth me”) and to much of their official action.”

Here then, we have three statements, from a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Presbyterian, ascribing inspiration or infallibility to the apostles. The third is willing to impose some limits upon that inspiration, so that it does not extend to everything the apostles ever did, but still he affirms the fact, and applies it to “all their teaching.”

Now to be short, I believe the notion of inspired apostles is not only false, but very dangerous also. I no more believe in the infallibility of the apostles than I do the infallibility of the pope. Such a doctrine is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but just the reverse. Who could dream of thinking Peter inspired or infallible when Paul said, “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed”?—-or when Paul further affirms that Peter “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel”? (Gal. 2:11 & 14). On that occasion, Paul “said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Verse 14). This plainly indicates that Peter was wrong in both his teaching and his official action. He compelled the Gentiles to live as the Jews, and vacillated himself, according to who was present.

Both his teaching and his action, then, were to be tried by truth and reason, and not merely assumed to be infallibly correct. Nor were they to be tried only by another apostle—-though that would suffice to prove the apostles fallible—-but tried by all the people. Paul said these things to Peter “before them all,” with the obvious intent that they “all” should judge of the matter.

But Paul erred also. The author of Galatians and Hebrews took a Jewish vow, and would have offered a Jewish sacrifice, had not Providence prevented him. What he wrote is inspired and infallible. What he thought, felt, preached, and did were not so.

We do not believe the apostles, in their ordinary life and ministry, were any more inspired than any man of God in any age. It may be they had more understanding than some of us do, it may be they had more zeal and love and holiness, but they were no more infallible.

The Bible doctrine of inspiration does not apply to the apostles, but to the Scriptures. “All Scripture is inspired of God.” The “scripture” is what is written. To that the doctrine of inspiration applies, and not to those who wrote it. We know that the writers of the Old Testament, as Moses, David, and Solomon, erred greatly. If it is held that the apostles were “inspired” in fulfillment of the promises of Christ, and particularly in order that they might write the New Testament, I merely call attention to the fact that most of the apostles never wrote a line of Scripture, while some who did write Scripture, as Mark and Luke, were not apostles. But this matters nothing. The books are inspired, not the writers of them.

Observe too, the doctrine of inspiration concerns the final result, the books themselves, and not the process by which they were written. Of the latter we know little or nothing, nor do we know that the same process was always in use while the different books were written, or even in all parts of the same book. For two centuries the liberals and modernists have troubled their heads about the process of inspiration, but the Bible doctrine of inspiration does not concern itself with the process, but the result. To place inspiration in the process by which the books were given is a departure from the doctrine of the Bible, and a step in the direction of the worse error of placing it in the writers. We do not believe the writers were inspired, not even while they were engaged in writing the Bible. They may have had wrong thoughts—-held wrong notions—-indulged wrong emotions—-Paul may have been impatient with a slow amanuensis—-John may have had hard thoughts of Diotrephes—-at the very time they were engaged in writing the books of the New Testament. The doctrine of inspiration does not secure them from this. It secures the books from everything false, but not their authors.

But this notion of “inspired apostles” is not only false, but, in the wrong hands, very dangerous also. It draws men away from the written Scriptures, which actually are inspired and infallible, to a supposed and fictitious infallibility in the apostles, and so sends them hunting in the early “church fathers” for some records or relics of what the apostles said or did. This is really the root principle of the Romanists, who a millennium and a half ago were debating the proper date of Easter (!!), on the basis of the supposed example of the supposedly infallible apostles. Whatever the adherents of this principle can find, or think they find, in “the early church” is immediately assumed to represent the example of the apostles, and exalted to the place of authority, by which the Scriptures must be interpreted. This is great folly, on two counts.

First, it is foolish to assume that the practice of “the early church” is in any sense a true representation of the practice of the apostles, and when “the early church” is so defined as to include the first three centuries of Christianity, the folly is extreme. Who would dream today, but two centuries after the death of Wesley, of taking the present Methodist church as a true representation of the doctrines and practice of John Wesley? It would be difficult to imagine a proposition more foolish than this. Yet this is just the folly of those who think to find the doctrine and practice of the apostles in “the early church.”

But more. Even if we could admit that “the early church” gives us a true picture of the practice of the apostles themselves, and even if it could be proved beyond doubt what the practice of the early church was, and even if the early fathers did not contradict each other, and even if it could be assumed or proved that the apostles always agreed with each other, still I absolutely deny that this is any basis for our faith or practice. The apostles did not know everything, nor understand everything, and we utterly decline to make their understanding the measure of our own. They may have known ten times more than we do, and yet for all that we may understand things which they did not. We may learn things from the apostles’ own writings which the apostles themselves did not know. They could record the sayings and doings of Christ without understanding everything in them. I do not trouble myself whether all the apostles understood the doctrine of the rapture. If what is written necessitates it, this is all we need. We know from Peter’s explicit testimony that the Old Testament prophets did not understand all that they wrote themselves—-did not understand the two comings of Christ—-but searched their own writings for the understanding which eluded them. The New Testament is inspired by the same Spirit, and certainly contains more than its human writers understood.

We know as an absolute certainty from the Scriptures themselves that the apostles erred. We know therefore that they were not “inspired” or infallible. What they wrote is perfect and infallible, and this is our all-sufficient guide. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:20). Those who direct us to apostolic example, or to apostolic tradition, or to “the early church” as the repository of that tradition—-those who make this the rule of our faith, or the rule by which to interpret the rule—-”have no light in them.” This is Romanism, not Bible Christianity.

Glenn Conjurske