Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Cardboard Paul

There is a very simple and tidy version of Paul that is easy to understand and explain. What's nice about it is that it can be taught from children's church to the pulpit. You can't get to heaven by being good enough. No one can earn their way. All we need to do is believe in Jesus and we'll go to heaven.

It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with that theology. But there are a number of scholarly consensuses that may surprise even many pastors. These are places where most Pauline experts pretty much agree that Paul was saying something a little different from popular interpretations. Here are some examples:
  • "Paul" was not Paul's Christian name. Acts calls him "Saul" for about 10 years after he believed. He did not see his faith in Jesus as a changing of religions. He remained an Israelite to his death. The name "Paul" probably relates to his Roman identity.
  • Paul's opponents in Galatia were not non-believing Jews but other Christians.
  • The starting point for all Paul's language of law is the Jewish law. Paul never uses a phrase like "the moral law." Our starting point for all Paul's language of law should be the Jewish Law.
  • The phrase, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 is now generally taken in reference to God's righteousness, his faithfulness to save, not to a righteous standing from God (although that idea is also in Paul). The OT evidence for this reading is overwhelming.
  • When Paul says, "all have sinned," he was thinking in terms of Jews and Gentiles, both groups, even though he held this of all individuals too.
  • Romans 7 is not about the inability of a Christian or Paul himself to do good. In the overall context, Paul is vividly picturing the struggle of someone who wants to serve God, but is not yet in Christ.
  • Paul doesn't really talk about heaven as our eternal destiny but about a future resurrection to a restored and liberated earth.
  • Romans 9-11 are not primarily about individual predestination but about God's plan to bring the Gentiles into the people of God while most of Israel disbelieved.
  • Paul's ministry focused on non-Jews. He did not primarily minister to Jews nor did he see his mission as ministering in established churches. He started churches where there weren't any and he primarily focused on Gentiles. All his churches were primarily Gentile churches.
Here are some further shifts in thinking that are quite common, even if not unanimous interpretations by experts on Paul:
  • Paul did not see himself as a horrible, miserable failure at keeping the Law before he believed. Quite the contrary. He probably thought he was the best Pharisee since sliced bread (Phil. 3:6).
  • Gospel certainly means "good news," but the focus of the good news for Paul was not on salvation but on the inaugurated reign of Jesus. Salvation may be an implication of the good news, but it is not the center of the good news.
  • "Justification by faith" was not really the center of Paul's theology but a theme that emerged primarily when he was debating with his Christian opponents (e.g., in Galatians and Romans). 
  • The expression, the "faith of Jesus Christ" in Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 is probably a reference to the "faithfulness of Jesus Christ" to death, although I think most of Paul's references to faith have to do with human faith in God. Paul's theology was thus more theo-centric than Christo-centric.
  • The expression "works of Law" especially had in mind those parts of the Jewish Law that distinguished Jew from Gentile (e.g., circumcision). Paul was not talking so much about faith versus works in the abstract.
  • In Romans 2, Paul refers to Gentile Christians when he speaks of Gentiles who demonstrate the law written on their heart. This means they have transformed minds, walk in the Spirit, love their neighbor, etc.
  • Paul teaches a thorough depravity in Romans 3 rather than an absolute depravity.
Here are a few interpretations that I also believe are fairly obvious exegetically:
  • Paul overwhelmingly understands salvation in the future tense. We will be saved from wrath (Rom. 5:9). Any present tense language is proleptic, anticipatory.
  • Paul does not have a doctrine of inherited sin or a sin nature. This is a bad translation in the NIV1984. Paul speaks of "flesh," which is not inherently sinful but inherently weak. When Sin entered the world, the default human state became sinful, not because we have a sin nature but because our flesh exists in a world in which Sin reigns. We cannot help but sin without the power of the Spirit. But we did not sin "in" Adam (Augustine's misinterpretation of Rom. 5:12). We sin like Adam.
  • The transformed mind of Romans 12:2 is not about ideas but about our mindset toward how to live, especially to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Here are some other debate points about the real Paul:
  • Paul probably lost the debate at Antioch in Galatians 2 and spent most of his ministry in some tension with the Jerusalem church, including James and Peter.
  • I don't think Galatians was Paul's first letter, but a letter written closer to the time of Romans, perhaps while Paul was in Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Corinth has also been suggested on his second.
  • Both Philippians and Philemon may have been written during jail times at Ephesus. It seems quite possible that Paul was jailed for a time at Ephesus around the time of Acts 19 and that he may have been kicked out of the city and told not to return.
  • I'm sympathetic to the interpretation that sees the "worship of angels" in Colossians 2 as a reference to worship with angels rather than worshiping angels.
  • Many more...

No comments: