Does What the Apostle Paul Said Matter? (Or Is Jesus the Only Norm for Christianity?)
Many years ago, when I was in seminary (1970s), there was a huge controversy raging in Christian scholarly circles about whether Jesus and Paul could be reconciled. Some Christian New Testament scholars had been arguing for a long time (at least a century) that they cannot be reconciled and that, while Paul may be interesting, Jesus is Christians’ real norm for believing and living. In my moderate-to-progressive evangelical seminary we were introduced to several Christian scholars on both sides—some who argued that Paul and Jesus held different ideas about God, humanity, salvation, etc., and some who argued that there is no real conflict between their beliefs and teachings. The “Jesus versus Paul” debate raged in New Testament scholarship then and before.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
A quick and easy examination of books on the subject—using any internet search engine—will turn up numerous books and essays on this subject. While the discussion and debate about it has not gone away, it seems to me that people have pretty much settled into one opinion or the other. Either they believe Paul “invented” Christianity, in which case here I mean orthodox Christianity and not Christendom, and that it is not what Jesus had in mind, or they believe Paul, under divine influenced called “inspiration,” built on the foundation Jesus laid but did not depart from the spirit of Jesus’s religion. In other words, to simplify the difference, some Christians believe Paul wrote things in his epistles Jesus would not have agreed with, while some other Christians believe Paul said (in his epistles) more than Jesus said (so far as we know) but Jesus would agree with everything Paul wrote.
It is not unusual to hear some Christians saying things like “I don’t really care what Paul said on this subject; my only concern is with what Jesus said or would say.” Especially many Christian feminists, and here I am not talking about “evangelical egalitarians,” tend to say such things about Paul. They and other progressive Christians often say that Paul was simply a man spouting opinions and when those opinions don’t seem to agree with what they think Jesus would say they feel perfectly free to ignore them.
On the other hand, especially conservative Christians, Catholic and Protestant, tend to believe Paul, too, was inspired by the Holy Spirit when he wrote his epistles and that, unless Paul specifically said that what he wrote was his own opinion and not “from the Lord,” Christians should consider what he wrote authoritative. Many conservative Christians will still say that we do not have to take everything Paul wrote under inspiration literally; they admit that some things were accommodations to culture (e.g., that women must pray with their heads covered and be silent in church). But they do not think Paul was just spouting opinions in his epistles.
For those of you who would like to read a good book expressing my opinion about this matter look at extremely scholarly and well-written books about Paul and Jesus by New Testament scholar David Wenham, especially his 2010 book Did Paul Get Jesus Right? (Oxford: Lion). By endorsing Wenham’s book I am not suggesting that I agree with every “jot and tittle” of it, but Wenham, who belongs to a family of relatively conservative but extremely scholarly theologians and biblical scholars, does a great job of dispelling the common myth that Jesus would disagree with Paul.
Why am I now writing about this old subject, where most Christians (except students) have already settled into one view or the other? Simply because it is coming back again in debates about gender and sexual orientation—among Christians who consider themselves evangelical in some, perhaps even very broad, sense of that word. True, many of them have given up using “evangelical” to label themselves due to the media’s misuses of the label, but often they pastor churches that are historically evangelical or work in educational institutions that are historically evangelical.
I have often heard Christians who claim to be biblical, that is concerned about following biblical religion including especially the New Testament, say something like “Well, I don’t really care what Paul said about anything; it’s Jesus I look to for my spiritual guidance.” Now, of course, they don’t necessarily mean they think Paul was wrong about everything; what they mean is that Paul was wrong about many things—especially ethics. Their tendency is to believe Paul was ethically challenged—perhaps not in his personal life but in his lack of compassion for and acceptance of marginalized and oppressed people. Jesus, on the other hand, accepted such people, including ones Paul would have simply expelled from the churches.
A great book that wrestles with this particular issue is Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperOne, 1996). People should not talk that way (as described in the paragraph above) until they have read that book in particular.
My experience is that many, perhaps most, American Christians are drifting in the direction of believing that Paul was ethically challenged compared with Jesus. Sermons tend to be based primarily on Jesus’s life and teachings in especially the synoptic gospels while Paul is largely ignored. This is especially true in non-fundamentalist (including non-“neo-fundamentalist” churches associated with the renewed Reformed movement). In fact, a person who dares to claim that what Paul wrote is inspired and authoritative is often treated as someone who just doesn’t “get” that real Christianity is only about Jesus.
I have argued here many times before for a Christ-centered biblical hermeneutic, but that has never meant that Paul’s epistles should be ignored or cut up and parts discarded or that Paul should be declared “ethically challenged.” What too many Christians are now doing is not very different from Thomas Jefferson with his The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth known popularly as “Jefferson’s Bible.” He simply cut out of the New Testament (ignoring the Old Testament completely) whatever did not seem reasonable to his Enlightenment-shaped mind.
So what’s next? I predict some of these anti-Paul Christians will go on, with Jefferson, to “cut out” even much of what Jesus is recorded as having said in the New Testament. Not literally, of course, but in terms of what they consider authoritative and what they do not—for Christians.
What really drives this (what I will call) anti-Paul movement among Christians who otherwise claim to be biblically-committed and doctrinally orthodox? In other words, they claim to believe in the supernatural inspiration of the Bible (even if they don’t use the word “supernatural”) and they claim to be “biblically committed” and they do believe in the incarnation, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith alone, salvation through (by means of) Jesus’s death on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc. But when you mention a passage from Paul to them they wrinkle up their faces and say things like “Well, I just think Paul was wrong about a lot of stuff; Jesus is my guide, not Paul.”
So, again I ask, what drives this anti-Paul movement among such Christians (who would not otherwise be considered theologically liberal)? I can only suspect it is culture. These people, in my humble opinion, are very concerned to go with the drift of American culture with regard to what they consider compassionate and inclusive ethics. That is, they want to be nice and inclusive toward all people—except those who are not also nice and inclusive. They “feel” that Paul was not nice and inclusive whereas Jesus was. Their belief, based on a perception of Jesus’s way of life especially with regard to “sinners,” is that Jesus was generous and accepting of all people in a way Paul was not and elite, enlightened American culture is.
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