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25th May, 2009

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Paul: misapplied, misunderstood, but never mistaken

Who do you think would win the contest for the most misunderstood man in history? Were I a wagering man, I would not hesitate to put every penny on the apostle Paul. Indeed, I tear my hair out almost every time I read someone's interpretation of what constitutes the essence of his theology. This author cannot help but suspect that when Paul rises from his grave and hears how Protestant Christendom has read his words he will be wracked by alternating paroxysms of laughter and weeping. Ever since Martin Luther, Protestant theology has been indelibly marked by its misunderstanding of Paul, teaching that Paul's theology begins with "his conception of man's inability to fulfill the law of God without the help of grace to such an extent that he is a slave of sin and must wage war against the flesh" (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia) and from there going on to hammer out a theology of salvation by faith alone without any role for "works" (translate, obedience to divine law) in the process of salvation. (Some Protestants of Calvinistic bent believe that Christians must keep some laws but tie themselves into a Gordian knot trying to explain why.)

In short, Protestant theology believes that Paul's greatest bugbear was legalism. Though defined in so many ways that it has become a meaningless term in serious discussion, most Protestants would agree that the core of legalism revolves around the worst sin a person can commit - trying to earn his salvation by his own efforts. Paul supposedly hammered out his doctrine of justification by faith in opposition to those who believed they could get themselves into the kingdom of God. Standard Protestant theory tells us that the legalistic Jews of Paul's time were obsessed with earning merit in God's eyes by punctilious attention to ritualistic detail. I don't know about you, but I've never come across anybody who thinks he can obligate God to forgive his sins and resurrect him from the grave by dint of his rigorous exertions. In spite of the ubiquitous belief in Protestant circles to the contrary, the Jews of Paul's time were not addicted to such a misbelief, either. Truth is, Paul didn't give more than a passing thought to the imagined deviation of thinking one can earn salvation.

Please don't think I am riding off on some hobby horse here. Many distinguished scholars have been sounding the klaxon for decades against the phoniness of the legalism boogeyman and the misapplication of Paul's doctrine of justification by faith. Ever since Harvard Theological Review's 1921 article by George Foote Moore titled "Christian Writers on Judaism", scholars have had little excuse for retaining the notion

that Paul's struggle was against self-righteous salvation-earners. George Eldon Ladd is correct in observing that "the doctrine of justification was by no means central to Paul's theological thought but was only a polemic that he created for the purpose of dealing with the Judaizing controversy. In fact, the whole Pauline religion can be expounded without a word being said about the doctrine."1 Ladd does not go on to expound the problem of the Judaizing controversy. For anybody truly seeking to understand Paul and the meaning of justification by faith in his writings should read the short but remarkable insight into Paul's mind by Krister Stendahl titled, " Paul Among Jews and Gentiles". His fundamental thesis is that Paul's work and writings must be set against the backdrop of the novel problems that arose when Jews and Gentiles were brought together through faith in Jesus Christ. He points out that Paul's writings should not be seen as existential philosophizing about guilty consciences. For those willing to go the extra distance, one should read E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism. All these authors, however, go only part way towards reconstructing Paul's thinking. Much remains to be understood.

In a nutshell, the Judaizers, or Circumcision party, of Paul's time insisted that salvation was open only to members of the commonwealth of Israel. To Jews, in other words. Faith in Christ and submission to God's will was not enough for salvation, according to them. God administered salvation only to Abraham's physical seed and so, for a Gentile to have any hope of salvation, he had to become a Jew in all senses of the word. He had to undergo a rigorous conversion process which was climaxed by circumcision. Paul labored to show that Gentiles have equal access to the atoning work of Jesus Christ as Jews do without having to undergo naturalization to become Jewish citizens in order to come under God's grace.

The issue Paul was dealing with had nothing to do with whether or not followers of Jesus Christ should observe biblical laws. It was taken for granted back then that if law-keeping was good enough for Jesus Christ it was surely good enough for them. But orthodoxy dies hard; the momentum for theological change has not yet built up a head of steam. However, it appears to be intensifying. More and more believers at the grass roots level are beginning to question standard anti-law Protestant theology. Interest in "Messianic Judaism" and "Hebrew Roots" movements is on the increase. A hopeful sign, indeed, but maybe it's too early to know if the buds will blossom.

1A Theology of the New Testament, p. 438

Quote of the week

It is hardly possible to exaggerate the extent, the permanence, the vast importance of those services which were rendered to Christianity by Paul of Tarsus. For it is in his epistles that we find the earliest utterances of that Christian literature to which the world is indebted for its richest treasures of poetry and eloquence, of moral wisdom and spiritual consolation. It is to his intellect, fired by the love and illuminated by the Spirit of his Lord, that we owe the first systematic statement of the great truths of that Mystery of Godliness which had been hidden from the ages, but was revealed in the Gospel of the Christ. It is to his undaunted determination, his clear vision, his moral loftiness, that we are indebted for the emancipation of religion from the intolerable yoke of legal observances - the cutting asunder of the living body of Christianity from the heavy corpse of an abrogated Levitism.

Frederic Farrar, The Life and Work of St Paul


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What readers think

The chapter "The great legalism hoax" (pdf) from the Dawn to Dusk book "Showdown in Jerusalem" elaborates on the theme of this blog.

See also the helpful chapter (pdf) "Added because of transgressions" from the Dawn to Dusk book

For a general work dealing with the modern movement to recapture the true roots of Christianity, see John Garr's book (pdf) "Restoring our lost legacy: Christianity's Hebrew heritage"



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