Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?

Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? December 17, 2011

*The following is a book review written by Lawrence Garcia.

Lawrence is the Senior Teaching-Pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear, Arizona. He is a pastor devoted to the educational growth of his congregants, and the raising up of a new generation of disciples, who will think, tell, and live out the Christian story. Lawrence is currently attending Liberty University.

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Momentary confession, Jesus on the pages of the Gospels—the champion for the poor and marginalized, the healer of the diseased, the denouncer of oppressive structures, and the reconstituter of communities—“Have I loved.” “But Paul?”—the author of draconian household codes, impossible ethical standards, and authorial affirming dogma—has often left me living out a type of Christianity that oscillates between Jesus’ baptism and Damascus road. It is precisely such a dilemma that J.R. Daniel Kirk’s latest book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity sets out to solve through a narrative re-reading of the Pauline corpus. Kirk states, “Such a positioning of Paul within the larger narrative sweep of Israel’s history… frames the invitation to rediscover the apostle on the following pages (4).”

Kirk begins this narrative rediscovery of Paul with God himself as understood not in the abstract categories of omni-this or omni-that, but “as someone who is at work within and even bound to the story of Israel.” In other words, before we can demonstrate that Paul is in continuity with Jesus’ ministry we must first ground them within the story they both understood themselves to be playing a part. This methodology is somewhat characteristic of how the rest of the chapters are constructed: (1) the story of Israel’s God and his people, (2) the story of Jesus as it relates to this foundational narrative, and (3) how Paul’s life and teaching fit neatly within the two. Albeit in a more concise manner, this is asserted by Kirk:

For now the important takeaway is that Jesus as we meet him on the Gospels is not living out a self-contained story. He is acting out a final, climactic scene in the ongoing drama of Israel that stretches back to creation and comes to its promised resolution with his death and resurrection. And we see the same claim with Paul (15).

It is when we place the various topics that Kirk brings to the table to be examined within this narrative framework—“Christianity as Community,” “Judgment and inclusion,” and “Liberty and Justice for All,” just to name a few—that Paul, time and again, is proven to be in harmony with Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel stories. Thus, the very things that so often characterized Jesus’ ministry that we pre-Paulinists so cherish can finally begin to shine forth from beneath the caricatures of the Apostle: justice for the poor at Corinth, inclusion of the Gentiles at Galatia, and recognition of women’s ability to play roles normally reserved for males. All actions we’d expect from our beloved Galilean! Moreover, what I appreciated as Kirk teased out this storied-coherence between Jesus and Paul was that it was done with exceptional exegesis, honesty at points of contention, familiarity with first century culture, and an open willingness to re-assess some parts of our texts, inspired as they are, which may themselves need to be rethought in light of this cruciformed narrative. Particularly striking was the conclusion in the second chapter:

What it means, then, for us to be followers of Jesus is to live into the full potential of our God-given humanness. Or, put differently, we come more and more to bear the image of God that is the image of our older brother, Jesus. And this means that, like him, we will be agents of God’s reign. We will anticipate that not only our hearts but also our bodies, our communities, our justice systems, and our use of the earth will all become increasingly conformed to the pictures of self-giving, restorative love by which God has made himself known to the world in Christ (52).

Perhaps, what struck me most was Kirk’s willingness to take head-on difficult topics such as women’s place in ministry and homosexuality that are inevitable subjects that must be raised in a project of this nature. Moreover, the sensitivity that Kirk illustrates while navigating between the conflicting texts, gaps in cultural milieu, and the wider Israel-shaped narrative in which our stands must make ultimate sense is nuanced and well-articulated. I can only promise that he re-confirms some positions, challenges others, and proposes all new ones that may surprise many. Nevertheless, regardless of what side of the debate you stand, one thing is for sure, that if we live out a narrative of hatred we “may even be showing ourselves disqualified for the eternal life that comes to those who love God and neighbor.” Words that should be taken with all the gravity implied in them.

Overall, this book serves as a healthy corrective for those who, like myself, see a polarized relationship between the Messiah Jesus and the Apostle Paul. If allowed to have its intended impact, what we will see in our scholarship, teaching, and preaching is the great unifying theme that the one creator God has and is inviting us all to take our role within this redemptive narrative that Jesus fulfilled with pierced hands and that Paul’s beautiful feet proclaimed. And maybe, just maybe, having finally put the book down find yourself saying, “Jesus and Paul have I loved.” I know I did.

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  • Sounds like a really interesting read. Another good book for seeing the narrative outlines of Paul’s thought is Ben Witherinton III’s book, “Paul’s Narrative Thought-World.” He also shows the storied world of Paul’s thought from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David to the Messiah to the Messiah’s people. It’s a great corrective of the picture of Paul the “sterile dogmatician.” (Not that dogma has to be boring. Barth, anyone?) 

    • @facebook-6019919:disqus … I agree. it sounds great and I’m sure Witherinton has some good things to say on the subject as well.

  • Evelyn

    I’d like to highly recommend Michael Gorman’s ‘Reading Paul’ – it takes the New Perspective to a whole other level, and after reading it I was finally able to connect Jesus and Paul, and see the unity between them, esp. in terms of peace, social justice, cruciformity. Fascinating discussion of justification too 🙂
    ~Blessings~

  • Good review and a book I’d like to read. Thanks!

    I do think that we need to be far more careful in how we approach Paul’s epistles. The more I read, the more I think my argument is not with Paul at all, but rather with the theologians who presume to speak for him. I doubt Paul would recognize, let alone endorse, most “Pauline Theology.”

  • Charlie

    Kurt, Kirk’s book sounds good, I like to encounter more writers about Paul.  Forgive me, though, I had to chuckle when reading Pastor Garcia writing about, “living out a type of Christianity that osculates between Jesus’ baptism and Damascus road”.  I think he meant oscillates as in going back and forth quickly.  But osculate is, in fact, a word, which is why the red spell-check underline did not alert him.  Thing is, osculating is kissing.  In context, I don’t think he was kissing between the two events. (chuckle!)

    • Academiachurch

      Yikes! Good catch!

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been hanging out with Paul a lot lately, being in the process of translating 1 and 2 Corinthians, among other things. I wonder if there is as much “contradiction” as some imply? “Jesus have I loved….” but Paul loved him, too… and he saw him on the Damascus road, spent years in solitary fellowship with his Lord, was commissioned personally by our Lord to preach (something none of us can lay claim to, certainly, I can’t!); he was caught up to heaven and received revelation directly from the Lord Jesus, and inspired by the Spirit of God, he spoke (and wrote) “his gospel” which was revealed to him by the same Lord he endured so much for and for whom his every breath was devoted…

  • Really?!?!?  Really?!?!

    Is there is a different perspective on Pauline gospels that is good for women?  And homosexuals?  How is that possible?  

    I am totally willing to go there…

    • Margie Hearron

      Jesus was more affirming of women. He allowed women to be disciples- students of his teaching. Most rabbis would never had allowed women to sit at their feet.

      The Apostle Paul stance on women is similar to any Jewish religious man. I do think that some of the Pauline prohibitions on women are not legitimate at all. Many scholars believe that Paul never said that women should not teach and have authority over there husbands, but that Paul, translated correctly, says that woman should not teach and have authority over their husbands. 

      Also, many people are re-examining the homosexual “prohibitions” in the New Testament. Basically it’s a fight between authority figures. Do you associate homosexuals with Jesus’ statements on eunuchs being born or do you go with Paul in Romans (first chapter). Now, you might not know but many scholars believe that Paul could have been referring to homosexual prostitution and temple worship. Paul also being ignorant of understanding that people do have different sexual orientations might have thought that all people were heterosexual by birth, but  education has taught society that this is not true. We, even, now know that some men are truly bisexual individuals. Scientific research has proven this. 

      Many people also debate the whole premarital sex concept that some believe Paul taught. 

      I think these 3 things are definitely up for debate. Also, some scholars actually say that only half of the writings of page in the Bible are actually the Apostle Paul’s.

      If you would like to know more, get in touch with me on Google Plus. http://gplus.to/margieh