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The Church Epistles and Bullinger

by Peter Wade

An explanation by Peter Wade of the “divine order” of the Church Epistles.

Elsewhere under Articles you will find the text of the first 22 pages of the book The Church Epistles by E.W. Bullinger. This book was first published in book form in 1902 from a series of articles written in 1898. Our ministry republished the first three chapters in 1978, including a foreword by myself, at a time when the book was out-of-print. It has now been republished by others.
    I wrote (see next page): “I have found great enlightenment in the divine order emphasized in this work, and having now prepared it for publication I am convinced of its timeliness for new generations of Bible students.” However, now it is the time to revisit the “divine order” and explain why I no longer see it as correct or enlightening.
    What I am about to explain in no way diminishes my belief in the supremacy of the Pauline Revelation for believers today, as well expressed in E.W. Kenyon’s articles “The Four Gospels in Contrast with the Pauline Revelation” and “The Recovery of Paul’s Revelation” (see Articles by Author in the main menu). Bullinger himself rightly defends Paul’s revelation strongly, and there is still considerable truth in the book, but the foundation on which the “divine order” is built is suspect to say the least.
    Bullinger wrote about the epistles to the seven churches, Romans to Thessalonians, and said: “Not only is the number of these epistles perfect, but their order is perfect also. The order in which they come to us is no more to be questioned than their contents… But what is that order? Is it chronological? No! Man is fond of arranging them according to the times when he thinks they were written, but God has not so arranged them. Indeed, He seems to have specially disposed of that for all time, and to have forbidden all attempts to arrange them thus, by placing the Epistles to the Thessalonians last of all, though they were written first.
    “The question, therefore, is settled for us at the outset, and so decisively as to bid us look for some other reason for the order in which the Holy Spirit has presented them for our learning… In all the hundreds of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the order of these seven epistles addressed to churches is exactly the same… these seven epistles are never given in any other order than that in which they have come down to us, and are given in our English Bibles.”
    It is no surprise that the order never varies. “The first-century Greco-Roman world ordered its literature according to decreasing length” wrote Frank Viola in Pagan Christianity (2002). “This practice is known as stichometry” [look it up at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stichometry; it is based on the number of lines in a handwritten copy of a book]. Much of Frank Viloa’s information on this matter came from Paul the Letter-Writer by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor.
    Take a quick check of your Bible. Romans is the longest letter of Paul and they get progressively smaller until you reach the letter to Philemon! Murphy-O’Connor notes that Ephesians comes before Galatians in some texts and Colossians before Philippians before some other texts (the errors in length are small). “The most thorough recent research… is that of David Trobisch, who found nine different arrangements” (1989, published in German). So much for Bullinger’s absolute statements that they never vary!
    So where did Bullinger get this “divine order” concept from? In his footnote number 10 on page 282, Frank Viola writes: “In 1864, Thomas D. Bernard delivered a series of talks called ‘the Bampton lectures.’ These lectures were published into a book in 1872 entitled The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament [you can download the entire book at books.google.com; see Lecture VI, pages 166 onwards]. In the book, Bernard argues that the present order of Paul’s letters in the NT were Divinely inspired and commended. This book became popular among Bible teachers of the 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, virtually every theological text, exegetical text, or Biblical commentary written in the last century follows the present chaotic order, not realizing how much it has blinded us from seeing the entire panoramic view of the NT. ‘Canonical criticism’ is big among seminarians. This is the study of the canon as a unit in order to acquire an overall Biblical theology. What is needed today is a theology built not on the present canon and its misarrangement, but on the chronological story of the early church.”
    Bullinger’s writings give no hint of Bernard’s book, though he was a contemporary and it was popular for several decades. Even though he has many footnotes in his book The Church Epistles, he gives no credit to Bernard for the concept. Yet it does seem likely that he was acquainted with the well-known Bampton series of lectures at Oxford University, and in particular Thomas Bernard, a fellow Anglican minister. So while Bernard is not as dogmatic as Bullinger, yet what Bernard wrote could well have been the seeds of Bullinger’s statements. He did soften his views in his later work The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, after correspondence with Charles Welch and A.E. Knoch. To be fair, in his later book he wrote about the chronological order of the epistles, “The truth flowing from this is so important that, if it should compel us to revise our own views in some particulars, or even to re-write certain matters, let us together thank God for the light that reveals further truth, and for the grace which enables us to receive, believe, and use it.”
    So what do I believe? I accept the principle of “the address on the envelope” as being critical to our understanding of the Bible. This means I accept the Pauline revelation found in the letters to the seven churches, Romans to Thessalonians, and the “pastoral” epistles from I Timothy to Philemon, which are letters addressed to individuals in the same time-frame as the church epistles. All other books should be interpreted in the light of the truth contained in Paul’s writings. Bullinger gives some helpful advice about resolving differences in his book How to Enjoy the Bible. You can read it online or purchase a copy for your lifetime study. Romans is still the place where Christian faith starts and Ephesians is still the highest revelation of God to believers.
    We have left the first three chapters of The Church Epistles by E.W. Bullinger on the web site at present, so you can read it and the quotes and links above, and come to your own conclusion.

Peter Wade

This page Copyright © 2000 Peter Wade. The Bible text in this publication, except where otherwise indicated, is from the King James Version. This article appears on the site: https://www.peterwade.com/. Check out our Bookstore.

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