Paul trumps Jesus’ own apprentices in Western Christianity

It’s ironic, is it not, that the three guys who actually spent THREE YEARS WITH JESUS EVERYDAY as his very own right hand men, disciples of the rabbi, have been side-lined in Western Christianity as second-rate to the great Apostle Paul, a guy who never met Jesus except in ecstatic visions? It’s hilarious. The six letters written by these three immediate learners from Jesus are down-played while Paul’s thirteen are held up as the centerpiece of Christian doctrine and belief.

How can we deny it? Western Christianity, and certainly Protestant Christianity, is built lock, stock, and barrel on Pauline theology, not least because the Reformation was largely a movement built on Pauline doctrines.  Every single time in my entire life that I have ever heard someone quote a passage from Peter, James or John’s letters that disagreed with something Paul said, everyone within earshot scrambles to make sure that Pater, James or John conform to what Paul said. “Well, what they really mean is…” is what they say, and what follows is a way of explaining the passage so that it agrees with what we perceive as Pauline doctrine. Not once have I EVER heard someone read something in one of Paul’s letters and make it conform to the theology in Peter, James or John. And yet, logically, who would we think knew what Jesus intended better?

Well, we say, Paul was SO WELL EDUCATED! And Peter, James and John, well, you know, dumb blue collar fishermen and such. Country bumpkins. Paul’s the real theologian. These guys are more like someone telling fireside stories.

I’m not buying it.

The Reformation is long done. We don’t need to keep chanting it’s formulas and favorite verses for the next two thousand years. Meaning: we don’t need to act like the Reformation question is the centerpiece of Christianity. Do we really think the point of the Bible is “here’s how you get to heaven”? If so, we’ve got a really, really, thick set of 16th century European lenses on for glasses.

What if we took Peter, James and John just as seriously as we take Paul? What if we took them even more seriously than we take Paul, and made his theology fold into theirs? Saw theirs as prior since they were WITH Jesus all that time? I can answer that: our theology would look a lot different.

And that’s not even to mention the more obvious question: What if we read Paul through the lens of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus (as we have for 500 years) through the lens of Paul?

Time for some theology, bro.

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Reading Paul differently than the Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries have handed down to us a way of reading Paul which basically boils down to “Romans and Galatians give us the framework for what Paul really wanted to say; the other letters fill in the details here and there.” Said that way, it’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?

The Reformers were hunting for answers to questions which perplexed them in their day. And they found answers. They calibrated those answers according to the thought systems and categories of their own day and age. The question is, were the answers they found actually what Paul was talking about himself, in his own day? Once you assume that what is on your mind is what was on the biblical writer’s mind, you start reading everything through the  lens of those assumptions; you start hearing and seeing things in the text the writer was not actually saying.

The world’s leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright proposes a thought experiment. What if we DIDN’T assume that Romans and Galatians are what REALLY count, and that the other letters are second-place  fillers?  “Suppose we come to Ephesians first… Colossians close behind, and decide we will read Romans, Galatians and the rest in light of them (Ephesians and Colossians), instead of the other way round.  What we will find, straight off, is nothing short of a (very Jewish) cosmic soteriology. God’s plan is ‘to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth’ ….and as the means to that plan God’s rescue both of Jews and Gentiles …now coming together in a single family… the sign to the principalities and powers of the ‘many-splendored wisdom of God’. [1]

If this unity of all mankind, Wright goes on, Jew-and-Gentile as the sign of God’s coming reign over the whole world, had captured the Reformers’ hearts and minds, and they only THEN went and started fitting in Romans and Galatians, what would we have gotten? “…the entire history of the Western church, and with it the world, might have been different. No split between Romans 3:28 and 3:29. No marginalization (in Reformation theology) of Romans 9-11….” Wright goes on to list much more.

In short, we’d end up with a different theology and a different picture of the Gospel. (And, I might add, the Reformers’ teachings would not have been used in anti-Semitic persecution of Jewish people!)

So, should we just assume Romans and Galatians are the real deal and the other letters take second place? Or should we be trying to hear Paul all over again? And if we do, will we find that the Reformers were answering questions in their day, but not necessarily accurately describing what Paul was talking about?  These are the kinds of questions that lead many of us to contend that we continually need new theology, up to date with everything we can learn about the Scriptures, and what the writers were talking about in their own time and situation.

 

 


[1] N.T. Wright Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. IVP 2009.