Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Paul for the Perplexed 1

Paul.jpgIt seems Christianity is taking sides. Some of it is overt and conscious while most of it seems unconscious and many are not even aware this is happening. On one side are Christians who think and believe like Jesus, and they take the Gospels as their primary (and sometimes only) source. On the other side are Christians who think and believe like Paul, and they take Romans (especially) as their primary (and sometimes only) source. 

As I said, many aren’t aware they are doing this, but here are some indicators: if the words kingdom and Jesus and Sermon on the Mount and justice are the major terms one uses, then one might be a Jesus-only Christian. If the words are justification and Christ and salvation and faith alone and atonement are the major terms one uses, then one might be a Paul-only Christian.
What do you see as the tell-tale signs of one or the other? Do you see this tendency today?
Hence, we need a good book that re-introduces us to the apostle Paul, and I think I’ve found that book. It is by Tim Gombis and it is called Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed)
.  Recently I got a similar book by Mike Bird (Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message
), and I almost did a series through Bird’s book but I’ll have to beg Mike’s forgiveness as I go through Tim’s.

Books like this have to do the introductory thing. So, Gombis gets us going by quoting one of my favorite Paul scholars in the world, Morna Hooker: The problem with Paul is that we know so much about him. Or at least we think we do!

Then we get the “how do we know Paul” issue: from his letters, and Gombis thinks (as do I) that arguments for non-Pauline authorship of the letters traditionally assigned to Paul are not as substantial as many think. So we know about Paul from the letters and from the Book of Acts, which Gombis takes as basically reliable.
Then Paul’s Life: born in Tarsus, educated some in Jerusalem, Paul (Saul) became a Pharisee. Which meant Israel was in an intolerable condition: unfaithfulness led to exile, and Israel’s current oppression meant unfaithfulness to the Torah. The Pharisee was committed to Torah observance. But Paul’s primary concern was the nation of Israel: sin was national, repentance was national, and therefore the hope (read: resurrection, new creation) was national. Paul cared about God’s relation to Israel.
On Jesus: Paul knew Jesus was not the Messiah; then he was converted. First mission, controversy, second and third missions.  Arrest, imprisonment, Rome and he sees a release of Paul with some further ministries.
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posted August 26, 2010 at 5:13 am

What do you see as the tell-tale signs of one or the other? Do you see this tendency today?
Dallas Willard has an expression (paraphrase), “Yes, they’re saved by grace through faith; in fact they’re paralyzed by it.” I believe that he uses this to describe the tendency that some have to be suspicious of any effort exercised by a follower of Jesus (think, “obedience,” or “spiritual development”). This suspicion is based on an understanding of grace that is a predictable consequence of only reading the gospels through a Romans lens and sees “legalism” and “trying to earn one’s salvation” as a greater risk to the disciple than disobedience or indifference/lukewarmnes.
captcha: “that keepth”

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Obie Holmen

posted August 26, 2010 at 8:31 am

The roots of this dichotomy go back to the first generation of the Jesus movement and the struggle between Paul and James. James was the brother of Jesus who became the leader of the Jewish, Jerusalem based followers of Jesus. Certainly, their conflict was over Torah observance but was quite likely christological as well.
With apologies for blatant self promotion, allow me to suggest another book for your list that deals with these issues from the standpoint of historical fiction. “A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle” was recently released to critical acclaim by church historians and an exuberant response by readers. For more information, click on my name.

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Matt Edwards

posted August 26, 2010 at 9:50 am

I think “justification” and “kingdom” are the two shibboleths. Jesus obviously cared about righteousness, but he didn’t talk about justification nearly as much as Paul. Paul obviously cared about the kingdom of God, but he only uses the phrase a couple of times. How people talk about “salvation,” whether in terms of the kingdom or in terms of justification, usually tips someone’s hand as to whether they read more of Jesus or Paul.

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Matt Edwards

posted August 26, 2010 at 9:55 am

Oh, and when someone refuses to use the term “justification,” instead preferring to talk about “being righteoused,” you know that they are of the new perspective and that they are trying hard to harmonize Jesus the Jew and Paul the Jew.

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John Mark Harris

posted August 26, 2010 at 10:18 am

Calvinists are Paul-ites, and people who carry “red letter” Bibles are Gospel-ites.
The reality is, Paul wrote before the Gospels were written, Jesus didn’t write anything, we only have the gospel writer’s representation of what Jesus said, within a theological context. We know all the Gospels don’t agree verbatim, yet we still believe they accurately represent the words of Jesus. This allows for a synthesis and an understanding that each gospel is trying to say something.
Paul was preaching Jesus, some of Jesus’ own words are relayed through Paul. You have to take BOTH… Neither trumps the other.

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posted August 26, 2010 at 10:38 am

Great questions. I don’t know if people realize how joined at the hip the term “Christ” was to the idea of “kingdom” for Paul. There could be no kingdom of God without a Messiah/Christ/King, and no Christ without a kingdom. I remember reading somewhere that Wright recommended reading “King” everywhere Paul uses “Christ” to begin to get a sense of how much king/kingdom were also in Paul’s thinking and teaching. A fantastic exercise.

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posted August 26, 2010 at 10:44 am

Just scanned the Amazon posting; loved the chapter 2 title, and wondered:
Is there any attempt to delineate Paul’s writing as a form of cross-cultural communication? Is the history too distant to discern the distinctives of worldview (ala Paul Hiebert) of Paul or the Jews and Gentiles who live beyond ancient Palestine? Scot: any suggestions?

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Bill Colburn

posted August 26, 2010 at 10:52 am

While the OT creates a need for a better revelation of God – finally found in Jesus – the writings of Paul are not a better revelation of God than the life of Jesus found in the gospels, rather they are a deconstruction of that need. It seems to me that that gospels anchor us in the best God-perception (Jesus’ life), while the OT constructs our need for the Messiah and the NT writings of Paul theologically interpret and correspond that need to Him.

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posted August 26, 2010 at 11:34 am

I found a community in my old churc that constantly focused on the suffering involved in following Jesus and you have to stop having fun if you want to get to heaven and be good. hmmmmm

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posted August 26, 2010 at 12:14 pm

This was very helpful for me. I can see that I tend to rely heavily on Paul (Romans is the book I keep coming back to). This post has really shown me that I need to be careful to balance that out with plenty of Jesus :-) How wonderful that God gave us both!

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Randy G.

posted August 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I grew up in a very Reformed setting. After college, I rejected Paul and concentrated on the Gospels for about seven years. I reasoned that if we took Jesus seriously as the incarnate Son of God, we should lean toward judging Paul by Jesus rather than trimming Jesus to fit Paul.
It was my discovery of N.T. Wright that helped me re-read Paul. Wright’s work showed me that Paul’s letters were not engaged in mere mind-games and exercises as I had previously thought. I was in grad school studying history, and reading Paul as engaging the Roman Empire and other powers of the day with the Gospel of Jesus Christ helped me grasp the entire NT.
Randy Gabrielse

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Nathan C

posted August 26, 2010 at 4:39 pm

The Jesus-only crowd might perhaps be better described as Matthew/Luke-only, since their rhetorical focus tends to be on a subset of those two gospels. In my experience, Jesus-only Christians have comparatively little interest in, for example, the sacramental language in John 6, Mark’s exorcism stories, or the Transfiguration.

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posted August 26, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Nathan #6–
Really? My experience of the Romans/Paul crowd is that they are dismissive of the sacramental because it seems to imply works (see Peter, #1 above). John 6, the transfiguration are extremely important in the Gospel tradition. And goodness, Matthew 25 must drive the Romans/Paul crowd crazy! Now, you may be speaking of a different sort of Jesus-only crowd that my circles. I come from a Wesleyan/Anglican tradition.

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posted August 26, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Wow: my post makes 14 comments here on Paul, and there was 91 comments on “What did Jesus know?”
There’s no controversy about Paul compared to what Jesus knew!

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posted August 26, 2010 at 8:02 pm

I am sure Scot could frame a post on Paul that would bring controversy. This is the first of a series though – and I am looking forward to the next, both the post and the ensuing comments.

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posted August 26, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I always wondered why Paul’s (or any other New Testament writing) deserves to be on the same level playing field as those teachings attributed to Jesus in the synoptics. The “orthodox” doctrine of scripture we have now holds Paul’s writings, as well as the rest of the New Testament, to be authoritative and inspired. Perhaps they are. But how could we know? I mean really know? Sure Jesus meantioned the Holy Spirit coming to comfort and guide, but isn’t that still the case today? I don’t take any modern pastor’s words to be authoritative. It’s one thing to say Jesus, son of God’s teachings are authoritative, but everyone else’s who’s works made it into the cannon after him? This isn’t so much faith in Jesus, or God in general, but in tradition. Not meaning to be offensive, I just think Jesus’ writings should take precedence.

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Nathan C

posted August 26, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Jerry #13, I carry no brief for what’s been labeled the Paul-only crowd, so I’m not going to defend them.
And you’re quite right; the sacraments, the Transfiguration, and the Great Commission are all *very* important elements in the Gospel story. Indeed, that’s my entire point.
As Prof. McKnight noted in the post, the great topoi for “Jesus-only” evangelicals are kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, and justice. In my experience, such folks often give short shrift to much of Jesus’ life because they restrict their gospel reading to the parts of Matthew and Luke which are immediately useful for inculcating morality or promoting social justice. Red letter Christians seldom seem to have much use for John’s (not particularly moralistic) gospel.
And that’s really unfortunate, because you miss a lot of good stuff that way.
As for background, I was raised Methodist (UMC) and have been a member of the Episcopal Church for several years now. I’m pretty thoroughly mainline, and in my home circles this hasn’t been much of an issue. I’ve not noticed RCs talking about it either, so I suspect Jesus vs. Paul is more of an evangelical issue than a Christian one per se.

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posted August 27, 2010 at 9:50 am

@RJS #15,
My apologies: my comment was a lame attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor, and just tried to notice the contrast between the responses to the two posts of the day… :)
Like you: I”m expecting folks to comment excessively once we get into one or more Pauline topics in which someone “steps on their puppy…”

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posted August 27, 2010 at 10:58 am

When I teach justification and sanctification (spiritual growth, formation, kingdom living)at the church, no one has a hard time at all integrating Jesus’ teaching with Paul’s. Most people get that you have to read the sermon on the mount in light of the crucifixion. Just because the audience who first heard the sermon on the mount didn’t know about the atonement yet doesn’t mean the audience Matthew was writing to didn’t understand applying these principles required the foundation that comes from justification. I personally find that it’s only people who like clean and categorical systems or have particular agendas/hobby horses who can’t relate the two together.

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kevin s.

posted August 27, 2010 at 11:57 am

@john mark harris
Well put. I would add that the dichotomy between the Gospel and Pauline texts is not nearly so stark as some pretend, especially if you read the full gospels (per Nathan’s comment). Christians shouldn’t be taking sides. Paul wasn’t Jesus, but Jesus didn’t write the gospels.

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