Would Paul Have Made a Good Evangelical?

Would Paul Have Made a Good Evangelical? May 24, 2012


Even when you account for 2000 years of cultural differences between Paul and Evangelicalism, the answer is no.

Why? Because Paul didn’t treat the Bible the way mainstream Evangelicalism says you need to.

The way Paul handled his Bible–what we call the Old Testament–would keep him off the short list for openings to teach Bible in many Evangelical seminaraies and Christian colleges. Heck, John Piper, John MacArthur, and R. C. Sproul probably wouldn’t let Paul lead a home Bible study, at least not without supervision.

Here is the main reason why:

For Evangelicals, the Old Testament leads to the Gospel story. For Paul, the Old Testament is transformed by the Gospel.

For Evangelicals, the Old Testament, read pretty much at face value, anticipates Jesus. For Paul, the Old Testament is reshaped in order to conform to Jesus.

For Evangelicals, the Bible is God’s final authority. For Paul, Jesus is the final authority to which the Bible must bend.

You see, Paul had a monumental theological and hermeneutical task before him.  The Old Testament is centered on Israel’s need for obedience to the law of Moses in order to stay in God’s favor–what the Old Testament often calls “life.” God’s favor is most clearly demonstrated by Israel’s remaining in the Promised Land–if they obey, they stay; if they disobey, the are cast out (which is what the exile to Babylon was all about). And, as an added benefit, when Israel is faithful to God, the other nations will take notice and also bend the knee to Yahweh, Israel’s God.

Obedience to law; holding onto the land (and along with it worship in the temple); conversion of the Gentiles. All central elements of being an Israelite.

The Gospel of Christ that Paul preached said:

Law was a parenthesis, a temporary measure; holding on to land is now a non-issue; Gentiles can claim Israel’s God as their own as Gentiles.

Clearly something has to give. For Paul, it was the Old Testament.

Paul cites the Old Testament 106 times; 59 times in Romans. For example, look at the string of quotations in Romans 9:25-29. Paul is arguing for Gentile inclusion in the plan of God–Gentiles do not need to be circumcised, thus following Jewish law. They are included as Gentiles simply by faith in Jesus the messiah.

Paul could have simply said, “Jesus is here and we are turning a new page. From now on we welcome Gentiles with open arms without them becoming Jewish first.”

That would have been a pretty radical message all by itself, but Paul gets even more radical. He argues that in the Old Testament itself teaches that Gentiles are to be included among Israel solely on the basis of faith–not obeying the law. Paul claims that Gentile inclusion without circumcision was God’s plan all along.

If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you would be right to wonder how Paul is going to pull that off, since the Old Testament is so adamant about maintaining the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

In this string of quotations in Romans 9, Paul cites two passages from Hosea and two from Isaiah to support his claim that Gentile inclusion is part of God’s plan. The problem, though, is that all four of these passages have nothing to do with Gentile inclusion. They are all aimed at God’s mercy at restoring Israel.

This is not a minor point. Paul is not getting a little creative with some passages, tweaking them a bit, teasing some fresh angle out of them. He is saying that these passages support his Gentile agenda, even though a plain reading shows unequivocally that they are about Israel.

Flip over to Romans 10:5-8. Paul places two passages from the law of Moses side by side–and he pits them against each other.

The first is Leviticus 18:5, where Yahweh tells Moses that the Israelites are to “Keep my decrees, for the man who obeys them will live by them.” Note that keeping the law is assumed to be attainable and a benefit to those who do so.

But in very next verse Paul brings in another passage from the Law, Deuteronomy  30:13-14. In Deuteronomy, these verses have a very clear meaning. The commands that God is giving to the Israelites are doable. They are not out of anyone’s reach. They are not up in the heavens or somewhere acoross the ocean. They are right here–“in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

The Israelites were expected to keep these laws, and keeping them brings life, which is sort of what Leviticus 18:5 says. The two passages are in complete harmony.

But Paul contrasts these two verses to pit law against faith.

For Paul, Leviticus 18:5 is correct insofar as it goes, but Paul clearly does not present obedience to the law as a benefit to anyone–which contradicts the point of the passage.

Paul’s handling of Deuteronomy 30:13-14 should, by all standards, drive mainstream Evangelicals crazy. In Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites to keep these doable-written-on-your-heart commands. Paul says it is not about commands at all but about having faith in Christ, apart from the law of Moses.

Either Paul can’t read or something else is up.

Something else is up.

Paul handles his Bible the way he does for two reasons: (1) Judaism has a long history of manipulating scripture in the interest of supporting theological arguments. Paul, in case you need reminding, was a Jew trained in this way of using scripture. (2) Paul’s grand goal in Romans is to make the case that Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing before God; Paul’s angle is to show how the law itself made that same point all along–which requires Paul to take get very creative with the Old Testament.

If anyone else were doing this–me, you, the Pope, Jehovah’s Witnesses, an emergent pastor, a liberal theologian, a first year seminary student–Evangelicals would call it “distorting the inerrant Word of God.” Paul, however, either (1) gets a free pass because Paul is an apostle (and apparently it’s OK for apostles to do this), or (2) Paul’s reading of the Old Testament is defended as being consistent with the Old Testament meaning (which leads to overly subtle and back-breaking arguments).

Here is the great irony. Without question, as a first century Jew, Paul believed his scripture was God’s Word. He had what Evangelicals like to call a “high view” of scripture.

That is correct. It’s just that Paul’s high view and an Evangelical high view are clearly not the same. I’m just glad Evangelicals weren’t around at the time to try to stifle Paul, to keep him from landing his gig as apostle to the Gentiles. We would have missed out on a lot.


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