Learning to Love Paul

J.R. Daniel Kirk‘s new book, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity (BakerAcademic, 2011) may very well be a touchstone for the next generation of Christians who can’t accept the traditional Paul (on historical grounds) and yet who want to explore what Paul looks like if we begin with a more accurate understanding of Jesus, of Judaism, of the Bible’s Story … and of Paul himself.

What role does Paul play in your faith and in your theology? Have you struggled with him?

We begin with this: lots of Christians today are struggling with Paul. (For some that is just incomprehensible, while for many this speaks volumes.) Some are bothered that Paul doesn’t talk kingdom enough; others that Paul doesn’t even talk about Jesus’ teachings; others that Jesus was so activist and justice-oriented and Paul, well, those aren’t his gigs. Some find  him “distasteful, offensive, oppressive, exclusive, confusing, arrogant, or just plain wrong” (3). Others wonder why he gets so much attention and why his theology is the lens through which the whole Bible is read. Others think Paul was not so important until Augustine and after him not until Luther and Calvin. Kirk gives us more: Paul the angry Reformed theologian, the promoter of internalized Christians, the Neoplatonist, the exclusivist, the oppressor, the judge, the chauvinist, and the imposer of order.

Daniel Kirk thinks Paul’s been given a misreading. He thinks we need to get to the narrative shape of Paul’s thinking, to the Story at work in Paul’s letters.

But Daniel also thinks that many (post?) evangelicals no longer operate with the assumptions of the previous generation, including concern with inerrancy as the foundation. “For this generation (in which I include myself), a network of relationships and experiences fills the primary role of confirmation of our beliefs that earlier evangelicals would have located primarily in ‘objective’ truths such as the inerrancy of Scripture or, to take another example, proofs of the resurrection” (7).

Kirks strategy is to show that Jesus and Paul inherited the same story of God at work in Israel, and that Mark’s Story of Jesus and Paul’s Story of Jesus are very similar — that is, Jesus and Paul are at one on the Story. This leads, he argues, to a revolutionary reinterpretation of Paul (for some). That one Story is this:

The God of Israel acted decisively in the person of Jesus to restore God’s rule and reconcile the whole world to himself (9).

That Story is about God (and this God is known through the Story God is in, not through such terms as immutable, etc). This is a Story about Israel as God’s chosen way of blessing the world. No Story in the Bible without Israel. Israel has a future: new king, pour out Spirit, live in Land, free from overlords, the temple.

Big one: The Gospels are Israel’s future. The future tense becomes present tense. This Story comes to its “pointed realization” in the crucifixion and resurrection. Paul’s churches have been “scripted into Israel’s story” so that the whole Gentile theme in Paul is about realizing the promise to Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. They get to be part of Israel’s Story.

The center of this Story, of course, is Jesus. He is the King and brings the kingdom. The Gospels tell the Story of God ruling through Jesus, and the oddity of this Story is that God reigns through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He becomes King, as it were, via those acts. Resurrection is about new creation and about ruling creation.

Mark’s crucified King — first half about king, second half about how he rules as king —  and Paul’s christology are very similar: it is about Jesus ruling as the one who was crucified and raised.

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  • Trav

    I’ve been reading King Jesus Gospel today, and it sounds as though yourself and Kirk are of one mind, at least where it comes to defining the story and what Paul is really saying.

  • Peter Stone

    I have no problems with the writings of Paul or him as a historical person. But for many people like myself who grew up in the Church we had Paul overload. nearly every Sermon was based on Paul or his writings while many other people or books where ignored altogether. I am starting to enjoy Paul again but it has taken a while. I am also seeing a growing tide of the Marcion heresy again with many Christians ignoring the OT altogether and even some books within the NT. It would be interesting to see how many people in the Church has heard a sermon in the last year which wasn’t based on the NT and more specifically Paul.

  • Ben Thorp

    @Peter – although we’re about to begin a series in our church on Ephesians, the previous mini-series was taken from Genesis 1, John 1, and Revelation 21…. (and our next book-based series will definitely be OT)

    I agree with Peter that some churches tend to be a bit Marcionist, which is very dangerous. Equally, however, I think a number of churches have reacted badly against Paul, and try and ignore him as much as possible.

    As someone with a high view of Scripture, I have a real issue with the number of times I hear people dismiss Scripture as “just Paul”, in a way that they wouldn’t dare do with any other writer in the Bible – I’ve never heard anyone suggest that something was “just Jeremiah being melodramatic” or “just David getting over-emotional” or “just Moses”.

  • jesse

    I have never really struggled Paul, but I know people who do. I have a friend who believes that Jesus is authoritative but not Paul but that the teachings of Jesus feel condemning. I have tried to help her see things a little but differently with only mild success. For me, it has helped having people like N.T. Wright at my disposal as I read Paul. All of those things that Kirk sees people struggling over when it comes to Paul, I don’t see in Paul at all. Paul had to do something that I don’t think anybody else could do: “call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience of faith”. The obstacles to doing this were incredible, but Paul was willing to anything and everything to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

  • Ann

    I wonder if the issues about Paul arise because we don’t read Paul’s epistles in their entirety. I recently learned a little about letter writing during the time of Paul and how the letters were to be read in the community in their entirety. They work better when consumed as a whole, but not when we pick out texts here and there to prove parts of our theology. Just a thought.

  • How do I say “Yes” to all 5 of you at once?

    Trav, I think Scot and I are coming at the same question from different angles, and with quite similar ground in terms of what a holistic gospel looks like.

    Peter, Ben, Ann, and Jesse, a fair bit of what I suggest in this book is that the Paul people despise may not be the biblical Paul; or, that he might be closer to Jesus than we’d like to think!

  • Jim

    I was Pauline long before I was a Christian. I think the only book/letter of the Bible I read and talked about was Romans. (That was followed by too many years reading Francis Schaeffer.) Thanks be to God, I was finally converted to Christianity and am now trying to read Paul in light of Jesus. (There might be something of this problem in American Evangelicalism over the past fifty years.)

    Thanks to your work, Scot, and others like you who are helping with this process.

  • I have come to regard most everyone in between Origen and N.T. Wright as the blind leading the blind into a ditch with Augustine leading the way. Origen referred to Paul as THE Apostle and if anyone understands Paul better than Tom Wright, I don’t know who that might be. They both focus on Jesus, as does Paul.

    Not long ago a comment about Jonathan Edwards spoke of the fact that his extensive writings were mostly about Paul with very little coming from the Gospels, and that was generally so until recent times. I think the Reformation is presently undergoing an extensive reformation, if not a complete do over. Jesus may make a comeback yet.

  • “I have come to regard most everyone in between Origen and N.T. Wright as the blind leading the blind into a ditch with Augustine leading the way.”

    OK….that’s not simply good…that’s priceless!
    Gonna memorize that one.
    Made my day! Thanks!

  • Charles, I am suddenly comforted by the fact that I come after Tom Wright!

  • Daniel @#10, I ordered your book today along with, finally, Scot’s King Jesus Gospel. I am greatly encouraged by the younger people coming up who actually seem to get it. Surely there have been others along the way but to my mind, N.T. Wright is smashing his way thru the massive walls that have been built around the simple message of Jesus over the past 1800 years in Western thought and theology. And what seems to be too thick to penetrate, he just goes around. Perhaps church history will come to recognize a major division of before and after Bishop Tom.

    Surely he doesn’t have all the answers, as I’m sure he would be first to admit, but I have set myself the goal of reading everything he has written at least in the past ten years. Not going to finish that tomorrow or the day after, especially because he seems to keep coming out with new books as fast as I can finish the older ones.

    I keep my eyes open to the possibility of Jesus returning in ways that are under the radar of our Dispensational brothers and sisters. Could your book be a forerunner? I look forward to reading your thoughts, and Scot’s as well.

  • I just ordered the book on Tuesday. Can’t wait to read it.

  • Cal

    On the tide of psuedo-marcionism:

    The other major extreme is looking at the OT and not understanding it is a reflection of the coming Christ, pointing to Him, shadows pointing to the Truth. I don’t want a sermon about the 10 commandments, and what they mean, as much as I want to hear about how the Mosaic law points to Christ.

    The Law is complete, the Command of King Jesus is now!

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Oh my, how sweet it is to see older (my gen) Jesus people like Scot and younger (my kids gen) believers in and followers of Jesus coming so certainly to terms with the Jesus Paul came to know and the Paul Jesus inspired as so thoroughly of one mind and understanding about what God was doing back then.

    I was blessed with a sort of _tabula rasa_ consciousness, an intellectual ignorance and naivete “B.C.” when I began reading the New Testament Gospels (King Jimmy, no less) and became a believer through an encounter with the living Christ. I continued reading the New Testament as though it was all commentary on and a reflection of the life and teaching of Jesus; I never knew a gospel as formulated by the Reformation through the somewhat distorted lens of Augustine. I studied sacred history, archeological theology, biblical studies, then secular scholarship, and then even more evangelical graduate studies. I never could quite understand how Jesus had come to be seen in “Pauline” ways that Jesus couldn’t confirm. Paul had come to be someone that didn’t conform to the teaching of Jesus, and that didn’t make sense to me. I am neither a scholar nor teacher in the Church, but appreciate those few who do make sense of the whole of the Scriptural witness in its own terms rather than forcing into a Procrustean bed of Protestant preconception. It has been a great consolation to me see the work of Scot McKnight, N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington, John Stott, Richard B. Hays, Chris McKnight, J. R. Daniel Kirk, and others bring focus to the real coherence and integral consistency of the Jesus I encounter in Scripture and Spirit and the Jesus known and proclaimed by Paul.

    BTW: I named my 22 year old son Matthew Paul because I knew the vision of the two were one.

  • I noticed this morning that the first volume in Wright’s three volume (so far) magnum opus was published in 1992. So I want to correct my above statement about reading everything Wright wrote (ha!) in the last ten years to make that twenty. I have those three volumes but I’m saving them for last.