Jesus versus Paul: A Sign of Liberal Theology?
Let me just say right off the bat that, as a scholar of modern theology, pitting Jesus against Paul and Paul against Jesus has been a hallmark of liberal Protestant theology since the Enlightenment. But even Thomas Jefferson couldn’t accept everything Jesus said so he created what has come to be known as “The Jefferson Bible” which is really titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Every Christian I have ever met who pitted Paul against Jesus and Jesus against Paul (e.g., Paul was a misogynist but Jesus was a liberator of women) went on, at least when pressed, to disagree with Jesus, too. And that’s because Jesus said some pretty hard things for liberal/progressive Christians to accept.
Scholars of modern theology well know and virtually all accept that a hallmark of modern, liberal-progressive, Protestant theology has been a preference for Jesus over Paul to the extent of demoting Paul’s writings to a kind of non-canonical status—interesting to read but not inspired or authoritative for Christian faith and practice. Of course they find nuggets of spiritual wisdom in some of Paul’s writings, but overall and in general they do not consider Paul’s writings authoritative for Christian faith and practice.
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That’s well-known about liberal-progressive mainline Protestants. What’s new is that many evangelicals (or former evangelicals) are embracing this same historically-theologically liberal-progressive attitude towards Paul. Over the past forty years I have heard many people within traditionally evangelical Protestant circles say something like “I don’t care what Paul said; I follow Jesus” or “Who cares what Paul said? I care what Jesus said.” Some even go so far as to call this attitude “Red Letter Christianity.” (Some older Bibles put Jesus’s words in red letters.)
There are all kinds of problems with this division between Jesus and Paul. Of course, Paul was not God incarnate or the Son of God and Jesus was (and is). However, all that we know about Jesus comes from the New Testament and Paul was the first writer of the New Testament. The gospels were all written after Paul’s letters—at least after some of them.
The whole New Testament is traditional, classical Christianity’s highest authority for Christian faith and practice; no part of it should be dismissed as irrelevant and no writer of it should be vilified or dismissed as uninspired.
The claim that “I follow Jesus and not Paul” is like Thomas Jefferson’s scissor-cutting approach to the New Testament and always eventually leads to cutting out parts of Jesus’s own teachings and actions. This claim is really an example of what the Catholic modernist theologian said about liberal Protestants—that they looked down the well of history for the “real, historical Jesus” and saw their own faces looking up at them. In other words, these people who say these things, even evangelicals, are simply creating their own version of Christianity that fits their preferences.
Now, I cannot say with absolute certainty that these people who pit Jesus against Paul and Paul against Jesus are wrong. I’m not the final judge of right and wrong in theology. What I can say with absolute certainty is that they are not Christians in any historical-theological sense. What I mean is that they are revising Christianity so radically that it is no longer real Christianity. There has to be some real continuity of Christianity throughout the ages and respect for the whole Bible as God’s Word written is one necessary hallmark of true, authentic Christianity. Saying that does not close the door to varying interpretations of the Bible. It is simply to say that dismissing a whole portion of the Bible as without value or authority is a clear indication of the dying of Christianity—in that person or among that group.
Yes, I know, we all know, that Martin Luther was guilty of criticizing the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” but he did not expel it from the canon. Yes, I know, we all know, that everyone works with some kind of “canon within the canon” of scripture even if they don’t acknowledge that. My criticism here is only aimed at certain evangelicals and Baptists (and other generally conservative Christians) who are raising their voices against Paul as if he were a false apostle and not appointed by the Lord and not inspired by the Spirit as he wrote—all because he dared to urge subordination of women to their husbands and women’s silence in the churches. All that has been explained numerous times as not God’s word to women for all times and places but Paul’s instruction to women for perilous times and places where Christianity was being viewed as a cult partly because of the leading roles of women. N. T. Wright and Ben Witherington, among other evangelical scholars, have definitively explained how these instructions did not make Paul a misogynist. And Paul said other things that are liberating of women such as that husbands and wives should submit to one another and that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
When I hear a so-called Christian calling out Paul as unworthy of belief and pitting him against Jesus, I now what else I am hearing that isn’t being said—yet. That some things Jesus said are also false and unworthy of belief and obedience. These people are simply starting with what they prefer and implicitly doing the same thing Thomas Jefferson did. At least he had the “guts” to do it physically and formally and defend it (in letters to critics) and not pretend that everything Jesus said fit his Enlightenment sensibilities.
I will finish by saying that people who do this, who say things like “Who cares what Paul said?” are not fit to teach in Christian schools and, if they are employed at a Christian school, should keep quiet about such heretical opinions.
I have taught at three noted Christian universities and, in each one, I have discovered professors and instructors who quietly let it be known that they do not believe something that is crucial to historical, biblical, classical, orthodox Christianity—such as the deity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, miracles, etc. They ought not to be teaching any subject in truly Christian (as opposed to merely “church-related”) schools. They are foreign objects whose presence will corrupt the whole place. They should resign and go teach in a liberal institution that doesn’t value authentic Christianity but values pluralism higher. There are plenty of them.
I will end this diatribe with a relatively lengthy (but legal) quotation from one of my favorite books of theology: Why? On Suffering, Guilt, and God by Abraham van de Beek (Eerdmans, 1990): “We [Christians] are bound by the sources of the Christian tradition, of which Jesus Christ is the center. To become detached from those sources is to become detached from the Christian community. Christian faith cannot do without Jesus Christ, or else it ceases to be Christian faith. And Jesus Christ can never be viewed apart from the tradition in which he stood and from the witness of the people around him who recognized in him the revelation of God–that is, apart from the Old and the New Testament. Here we find the critical norm to which in our thinking, whatever our further orientation may be, we need to subject ourselves. What we are told in the writings of the Old and the New Testament is decisive. It sets the tone for everything we want to say about God…though this does not mean that everything in these writings is one the same wavelength. On the contrary, confronting us in the pages of these books of many centuries is a broad and colorful array of testimonies. But this does not alter the fact that for us these multicolored writings are witnesses to the truth of God as articulated by Israel, the apostles, and evangelists. We have no better criterion than the Bible. Therefore, for us these words of men fulfil [sic] the function of the Word of God.” (2-3) Amen and amen.
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