Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Jesus vs. Paul?

Recently I've been running up against a controversy of which I'd previously been blissfully ignorant: the supposed conflict between Jesus and Paul. I guess I'd known about the views of Ferdinand Christian Baur and the "History of Religions School" that had pitted Jesus' allegedly minor innovations to Judaism against Paul's ostensibly radical innovations, which then supposedly synthesized into early Catholocism. But I also thought that this theory was considered to have been discredited and outmoded. I didn't think that anyone who took the Bible seriously bought into it. Seems I may have been mistaken.

Apparently, the general idea is that we've been too influenced by Paul and his teaching of justification, which, we're told, leads to a focus on individual salvation, "accepting" Jesus as savior, praying a simple prayer, and being eternally secure thereafter. Evidently, what we should be doing is focusing on the teachings and example of Jesus in the Gospels. We see the differences described nicely here (by someone I consider a dear friend, by the way).

Scot McKnight weighed in with a Christianity Today cover story describing the difference and offering a harmonization. In this article, McKnight describes his own journey from a heavily Pauline-centered church background to an almost exclusive focus on Jesus which created a problem: as he writes, "I was so taken with Jesus' kingdom vision that reading Paul created a dilemma every time I opened his letters." Jesus taught the Kingdom and Paul taught justification by faith, and efforts to fit either one into the other's categories distort their teachings. I felt that McKnight (as on so many issues) was dealing with the issue in a very balanced manner, so I followed my curiosity by reading his book, The King Jesus Gospel.

In The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight sailing deftly between two potential shipwrecks: the Scylla of what McKnight calls "soterianism," the focus on individual salvation I described above; and the equally dangerous Charybdis of a Jesus-of-the-Gospels-centered social activism-focused Kingdom vision that forgets about a gospel of grace through faith.

McKnight's solution to this problem is, first of all, to let Paul be Paul and to let Jesus be Jesus, as opposed to trying to squeeze one into the other's mold. Second, he doesn't simply allow one to trump the other, as some do by dismissing Jesus' teachings as pre-Pentecost (and thus essentially irrelevant to the present church age), or by dismissing Paul's writings as something of a hijacking of Jesus' message. The heart of McKnight's solution is to anchor both Jesus' Kingdom message and Paul's justification message onto the bedrock of the Gospel itself. Taking either approach alone truncates and thus distorts the Gospel.
What the Gospel itself is, McKnight argues, is the story of Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of the story of Israel, which gives the plan of salvation its proper context. Put simply, the Gospel is neither "Pray this prayer and believe this truth so you will go to heaven when you die," nor is it "Imitate Jesus and do good works to make the world a better place." Both of these find their rightful place and emphasis in the context, not of a theological construct, but of a story. A story-within-a-story, to be exact: Jesus' story within Israel's story.

This is not the place to describe in detail what each of those stories is or how they relate to one another. What I do want to draw attention to is that McKnight argues persuasively that Paul and Jesus were actually telling the same story, sharing the same gospel, even if the implications they each drew out of that gospel had different emphases. Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 as the story of Jesus, strongly focused on his death and resurrection. McKnight demonstrates that Jesus shared that same gospel, because his life, teachings, and ministry lead inexorably to the question, "Who is he?" The gospels themselves flesh out Paul's gospel outline in 1 Corinthians 15, and also focus heavily on Jesus death and resurrection. The sermons in Acts, sharing the gospel in its earliest form, do the same thing. The same gospel is shared throughout the New Testament, and given its context and meaning by the questions raised by the Old. It's all one Story.

So the Gospel is not merely a matter of sin management - you have a problem, Jesus came along to solve it - but neither is it a matter of following the life and teachings of Jesus, as we would follow Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Both of these approaches share an elephant-in-the-room-sized problem: they minimize the importance of the Resurrection. The transactional approach of regarding Jesus dying for our sins means that the debt was paid once Jesus died; the Resurrection becomes nothing more than God's "Told ya so!" The Imitate Jesus as a Perfect Person model wants to wander around and around the Gospels and find ways to emulate what Jesus did, but never quite get to the point of the crucifixion and resurrection, just as followers of Martin Luther King would focus on the marches he led and the speeches he gave, more than the circumstances of his tragic murder. For McKnight, Soterians (the first group) focus only on Good Friday; the second group focuses only on Jesus' life prior to Good Friday; neither group has much room for Easter Sunday onward in their theology. McKnight argues for the necessity of a complete story, as opposed to one of several truncated stores that we like to tell.

For McKnight, and for me, the Resurrection is hugely important because it establishes Jesus' kingship now. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15,
As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet....
The Gospel story is his story; we belong to him. That is where we find both our justification and our purpose. One doesn't make sense without the other.

McKnight demonstrates all this very convincingly, and I'm convinced he's dead on right. I have only a few quibbles about the book.
  • One, McKnight structures the book with an anti-soterian focus; he doesn't emphasize nearly as much (as he does in his Christianity Today essay) the dangers of the Jesus-only movement that forms the other peril that he avoids. 
  • Two, McKnight insists rightly that the story of Jesus only makes sense within the context of the story of Israel, but he doesn't make clear why the story of Israel should be relevant to modern, non-Jewish readers. Those of us who grew up on the Old Testament may find this self-evident, but we are not really the kind of soterians McKnight is concerned with. 
  • Three, McKnight lays much emphasis on how the sermons of Acts locate Jesus' story within Israel's story, but doesn't reflect on how much the hearers influenced the message's presentation. Peter and Paul (not to mention Stephen) focus much more on Israel's story when speaking to a Jewish audience, because it was immediately relevant to them. This is true even of Paul's evangelization of largely Gentile areas, in that his recorded sermons are often in the synagogues to Jews. When speaking to an exclusively Gentile audience, such as at the Areopagus in Athens, Paul largely leaves Israel's story out, although McKnight tries to tie in Israel's story through Paul's allusion to Adam (and thus to the Old Testament creation and fall narrative). It might be better to say that Jesus' story makes the most and best sense in the context of Israel's story, not that it only makes sense in that context. 
  • Four, McKnight doesn't give sufficient weight to salvation history in discussing the differences between Jesus and Paul. Certainly we should be following Jesus, not Paul, but there were just as certainly aspects of the gospel that were clarified post-Resurrection and post-Pentecost. Jesus as the Word Made Flesh is the final authority, but Paul was in a position, historically, to be able to tell The Rest of the Story. A Christology that focuses on the Jesus of the Gospels and neglects the fuller revelation of Jesus in, for example, Colossians 1 and 2, is a truncated Christology. (Not that McKnight does this; he just doesn't bring attention to this as a possible problem, as he does with the problem of a salvation-centered gospel.)
Despite these quibbles, The King Jesus Gospel avoids the usual tendency to swing the pendulum to an opposite extreme. I deeply appreciate McKnight's careful analysis of the New Testament and the creeds of the church as they relate to his subject.

Anyone who pits Paul against Jesus, particularly those who feel that Paul hijacked the Kingdom message of Jesus, must contend with some very serious concerns. On virtually everyone's reckoning, the gospels were written later, perhaps decades later, than most, if not all, of the Pauline epistles. In other words, they were written by and to a church that was already heavily Paulinized. Imagining that you can get back to a pre-Pauline, pristine message of Jesus by looking to the gospels completely misunderstands the nature of the gospels themselves. Additionally, what Jesus preached is a lot closer to what Paul wrote than is often thought: Mark describes its content in this way: "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).  "Repent and believe" could easily come right out of Paul's playbook.

The Bible is a complex book. Following Jesus has a simple core, but is complicated in its outworkings. Pitting one part against the other is not the best way to get at the complex reality of the whole. It's a better idea to trust in the truth of each part, and then find out how they fit together.


  1. Excellent thoughts. I agree with all four of your critiques. It is puzzling to me why McKnight was much more explicit in his criticism of soterianism and only implicitly addressed the "Red Letter" crowd. The last three points are probably a result of editing to keep to a typical length for this type of book. I'd definitely like to see those topics fleshed out.

    The points in your conclusion really resonate with me in the Jesus vs. Paul discussion. Not just the chronology of Paul's letters vs. the gospels, but also the fact that there is no evidence that the Apostles had any disagreements with Paul over his treatment of the gospel. If Paul contradicted Jesus' teachings so radically we should see evidence of it, which we don't. Instead, we see implicit endorsement of Paul's message in Acts and explicit endorsement (setting aside authorship questions for the moment) in Peter's second letter. Paul's confrontations were with pagans and "Judaizers", whose ideas certainly wouldn't resonate with the "Red Letter" folks.

    IMHO, it's just intellectual laziness (which is rampant in our society, in and out the church) to set Paul and Jesus at odds and pick sides. Working out the implications of the gospel is hard work and so few are willing to put in the effort.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bob. I actually do understand why McKnight doesn't focus on the "Red Letter" folks (nice term, BTW). Based on his background, which he describes in the book itself, he sees the larger and more prevalent danger as being Pauline "soterianism." I have the germ of a blog post boiling around in my head, to the effect that we're all reacting against something, and it takes an awful lot of self-awareness and self-discipline to get to real balance. Now that the germ is out there, feel free to borrow it and beat me to the punch--all's fair..... :-)

  2. I think that much of the evangelical church misunderstands the nature of the Bible by calling it a book. It is in fact a library of works which is simply small enough to fit within a single codex. The classic "I know the author line", when taken literally, demonstrates an inability to recognize the distinction of perspectives in the Bible, and how they work together to form a whole and stronger witness. Ultimately it is the agreement of the different voices in the Bible that I feel gives it more of a persuasive authority than the single voice of the Koran for instance.

    1. Absolutely true - but we have to be looking for that unity and not just harp on what differences we find.

    2. I definately agree that the emphasis should rest on the unity over the distinctives.

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    1. If the comment has nothing to do with the post, then it's spam. Just sayin'.

  4. From Dave Porter
    Hi Keith,
    Great stuff, as usual. In my admittedly limited experience, folks whom I've run into who believe that Jesus and Paul contradict one another do so because they have an ax to grind with some portion or another of the bible. And I don't even qualify as an armchair theologian, but I do think that when one takes a big picture view of scripture, (dozens of authors over thousands of years in several different cultures) the continuity of the message is astounding. Of course, it is because all were inspired by the same God.

    1. Yes, taking that big-picture view, which involves some understanding of salvation history and progressive revelation, is vital to seeing that continuity.