What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]

Ted Grimsrud—September 1, 2021

When I read Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, I was struck with how much she focused on the thought of Paul the Apostle (as she interpreted it) and how little she paid attention to the life and teaching of Jesus. She presented her theology of salvation, in my opinion, in a clear and persuasive way. And I would say that she quite definitely takes her place square in the middle of the Christian tradition—Catholic and Protestant—that may broadly be categorized as Augustinian. That tradition, going back to the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo (the second most influential Christian theologian ever, after Paul himself), has been by far the dominant shaper of Christian theology in the West. Rutledge echoes the theological line from runs from Augustine through Anselm, Luther, Calvin, and down to Barth.

Christian faith with Jesus at the center

I believe that Rutledge (and the others) present a problematic understanding of salvation, though. I think they distort the biblical story’s portrayal of salvation, on the one hand. And, on the other hand, I think that salvation theology, not coincidentally, has a problematic legacy in relation to the ethical practices of the Christian churches, especially in relation to the ethics of warism and violence more broadly. A big part of these problems, I would say, seems to follow from the interpretive move to marginalize the life and teaching of Jesus (and with that, the teachings of many of the Old Testament prophets and the message of Torah itself) and foreground a certain reading of the Apostle Paul.

So, I advocate for a reading of the New Testament and a theology of salvation that places Jesus’s life and teaching at the center. I see this as simply a straightforward way to read the New Testament since it clearly places the story of Jesus as the main event. Even if the mainstream tradition does not approach theology this way, I think it should have. It is more faithful to the Bible itself to do so. I also believe that such a Jesus-centered approach underwrites a more peace-oriented perspective. No longer would the message of Jesus be marginalized, and no longer would we affirm an understanding of the cross and salvation in general that marginalizes the call to embody Jesus’s way of life as central to the very definition of Christian faith.

In making this point about centering the story of Jesus and de-centering the theology of Paul, though, I am not advocating excluding Paul’s thought from our theology. To the contrary, I believe that the tradition Rutledge embodies actually misreads Paul himself. I think reading Paul in light of Jesus is the best way to appropriate the message that Paul actually intended to convey. To read the New Testament straightforwardly, I would say, is to take the ordering of the writings there seriously.

We start with the four gospels. They give us what matters most, the story of Jesus’s life and teaching. This story stands as our most important theological source for all of theology, including our theology of salvation (I have written two books that take this approach, Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions, and Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness). Then we consider the book of Acts, followed by Paul’s various letters that we read as supplements to the gospels more than separate, independent sources. Finally, we have the other writings of the New Testament, including Revelation—also to be read a supplement to the gospels (see my forthcoming book, To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation) as an example of how to interpret Revelation in light of Jesus).

Affirming Paul’s theology

To illustrate how reading Paul in light of Jesus might work, I want briefly to summarize important elements in Paul’s theology that I believe confirm, strengthen, and extend the message of Jesus. Like Jesus, Paul taught the centrality of God’s mercy and whole-making justice as the core meaning of the Bible’s salvation theology. I think Paul is an important resource for Christians today who wish to follow the way of Jesus. These are reasons why, drawing especially from Paul’s letter to the Romans (this is a preliminary sketch; we ultimately need to be more attentive to Paul’s other writings as well):

  1. Critique of sacred violence. We are first introduced to Paul in the New Testament when the book of Acts tells us about a youthful leader among the Pharisees, then called Saul, who approvingly participated in the killing of Stephen, an early leader among the Jesus followers. Soon afterwards we learn of Saul spearheading vicious persecution of the emerging Christian movement. Then, Saul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, his life radically changes, he becomes Paul, and the Jesus movement has its most important theologian (see Acts 9). We read in Acts and in Paul’s own letters how his change of orientation shook him to the core. He realized with devastating intensity that his zealousness in defending Torah (as he understood it) against these “heretical” Jewish followers of Jesus who threatened to upend everything he believed in was actually violence against God. Paul’s abhorrence toward his own sacred violence remained at the center of all that followed for him. So, Paul gives us a powerful critique of what we could call “murderous orthodoxy,” the violent repression—in God’s name—of what he had seen as dangerous heterodoxy. Such violence lingers close to the surface in all kinds of religion that establishes rigid boundary markers that must be defended coercively in order to protect the core truths of the faith community. Such violence, Paul realized and emphasized over and over again, was actually itself an act of rebellion against the loving God of Jesus.
  2. Defining Torah in terms of love of neighbor. At the heart of Paul’s own initial hostility toward Jesus was his sense that Jesus (and his followers) profoundly violated Torah, the law codes that stood at the center of the pure faith that Paul and his fellow Pharisees sought to champion. Jesus welcomed sinners, he took it upon himself to forgive and heals those outside the circle of Torah faith, and he generally weakened commitment to practicing “works of the law” (the term Paul later used of the emphasis on controlling boundary markers). After Paul met Jesus, the intensity of the radical reorienting of his faith stemmed from his realization that he had Jesus exactly wrong (and hence had Torah exactly wrong). Jesus taught that Torah is best fulfilled through acts of love, mercy, and healing—especially directed at those considered unclean by those zealous for purity. So, Paul realized and made central to his ministry a positive affirmation of the law as the law of love—you are being faithful to Torah when you love your neighbor (Rom 13:8-10). Paul’s problem before he met Jesus was what he later came to see as a wrong view of the law. He had used the law as a basis to exclude and Other. That was not love. So, Paul actually continued to see himself as one who sought to be faithful to the message of Torah—and that was very important to him. But the heart of Torah was love of neighbor, echoing Jesus’s teaching and practice. “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13).
  3. God loves enemies. Part of what made Paul’s encounter with Jesus so profound was how it reoriented his very understanding of God. Paul did not at all question that he wanted to be committed to the God of Israel. What he questioned, and changed, we could say, was his understanding of this God’s disposition toward God’s enemies. Rather than treating them with violence, returning—in effect—an eye for an eye, the God of Israel loves God’s enemies and always seek their healing (see Romans 5). Paul embraced that understanding of God as a way to find security in his trust that God loved him. Paul saw himself as having rebelled against God in spite of his best intentions; he was the “chief of sinners.” And, we must remember, Paul’s self-characterization was not mere rhetoric. He recognized that in his vicious actions toward the followers of Jesus (who he came to recognize as the very Son of God), he had marked himself as God’s enemy. So, that Paul himself could find such life-changing healing and mercy in God meant that all other sinners (“enemies”) could as well. And this was relevant not mainly on the level of an individual’s relationship with God but on the social level. God’s love of enemies shapes how believers think of their enemies, and this becomes the basis for creating and sustaining communities that embody the healing way of Jesus.
  4. God’s “justification” of sinners makes for social transformation. Paul is appropriately recognized for his language about the reconciliation of human beings with God—most specifically the term “justification.” At the core of this term in the Greek is the root “dik,” which is also the root of terms translated as “righteousness” and “justice.” The language of justice in the Old Testament refers especially to the restoration of human relationships in the community of ancient Israel. In Paul, as well, justification is a social term, signifying the reconciliation of people with each other at the same time they are reconciled with God. The most explicit statement of the motif of reconciliation comes in the letter to the Ephesians (a letter that scholars say may not have been written directly by Paul, but one that reflects Paul’s thinking and that is positioned with Paul’s other letters in the New Testament). The image in Ephesians is a broken-down wall that no longer separates Jews and Gentiles but leads to the healing of their past enmity. Just as Jesus spoke in one breath of the love of God and the love of neighbor, so Paul writes of reconciliation with God and among human beings as together the heart of the gospel. Note also that the letter to the Romans, where Paul develops the notion of “justification” at length, concludes with strong instructions about social reconciliation in the community.
  5. The Christian vocation is to follow Jesus and to live in service to others. Throughout his writings, Paul calls his readers to imitate Jesus—and to do so especially in serving others in the same way Jesus serves others. Probably the most powerful expression of this motif comes in the letter to Philippians. In chapter 2, Paul draws on what almost certainly was an already existing litany from Christian worship that praises Jesus for living as a servant even though he was equal to God. What is not always noticed is that Paul prefaces this confession with an assertion that his readers should imitate this disposition of Jesus. His point, thus, is more about the exhortation for the practice of faithfulness to his readers than simply a theological confession about Jesus’s divinity. Paul may not overtly refer to Jesus’s life very often. However, that he so commonly challenges his readers to imitate Jesus’s life of servanthood, of caring for the vulnerable and marginalized, of refusing to grasp for power and domination, indicates that he was aware the stories the gospels tell and assumed that his readers were too. And Paul prioritized in his allusions to Jesus the life of solidarity, compassion, and active service. Jesus matters—most of all as a model.
  6. Paul emphasizes the call to conversion, to repent and trust God. In his letters, Paul does not say much about his encounter with Jesus that turned his life upside down. However, his “conversion” from a persecutor of Jesus to a servant of Jesus is present in the background of all that he wrote. As Jesus began his ministry in Mark’s gospel with the simple call to repent, to turn from enslavement to idols to the freedom of embracing the good news of the presence of God’s kingdom, so Paul also affirms the need and possibility of such a turn. Like Jesus, Paul was optimistic about human possibilities following such a turn; he consistently holds up a high standard of faithful living that is indeed possible for one who truly has converted from the binding trust in idols to trust in the freeing message of Jesus empowered by the presence of his Spirit.
  7. The core human problem is the deception of idolatry. Paul does indeed focus his exhortations on the problem of sin and the promise of healing. However, his emphasis in doing so has more to do with freedom from the deceptions of idolatry than personal misbehavior. Sin is not so much an impure heart that chooses to lie and cheat and steal as it is a power that acts on us from the outside. Sin is linked with the aspects of our social world that ask for our loyalty, often deceiving us to think things made with human hands (including human ideologies and institutions) deserve the kind of loyalty due only to God. As is taught in the Old Testament, idols gain power over us as we withhold our loyalty from God. In Romans 1, Paul details the dynamics of what happens when humans turn to their idols—a spiral of alienation and injustice characteristic of the Roman Empire. Then, in Romans 2, Paul turns on his self-satisfied religious readers who thought that by not bowing down to the Empire they would be free from idolatry. The very pride in their non-Roman identity could itself point to making an idol of that identity (as Paul himself did) and practicing violence to protect the boundaries that were erected to sustain the purity of their identity (as Paul himself did). As Jesus did, Paul linked violence with idolatry and offered release from bondage to the idols simply through turning back to God, a God of peace.
  8. We live in a world profoundly shaped by the principalities and powers. Paul uses terms such as “principalities and powers” to describe the social and spiritual dynamics wherein human creations (states, religious structures, ideologies, nationalism, ethnocentrism, etc.) act on us and shape our ways of seeing the world around us. These dynamics, as Paul suggests in Romans 8, seek to separate us from God—substituting idols for God as the objects of our loyalty. Paul uses language that has often been linked with the spiritual powers of evil (“Satan,” “devil,” “demons”). However, he understood the spiritual forces and the social forces to be inextricably linked. Jesus exorcising demons was not different from people of faith being freed from empire-domination by trusting in Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar. As Jesus posed the choice between an identity as a citizen of God’s kingdom and as one who got one’s prime identity as part of some human kingdom, so Paul suggests that one must choose who one will commit to as “lord” and “savior”—King (or Messiah) Jesus or the emperor.
  9. Jesus’s death is best understood in terms of how it exposes the idolatrous Powers. Paul is usually invoked as a major source for later atonement theologies that see in Jesus’s death a necessary component for the opening of access to salvation. However, in the tradition not much attention is paid to a key teaching that Paul had about Jesus’s death that focuses more on the elements that are central in the gospels’ accounts. In Colossians (like Ephesians, a letter sometimes said not to be written by Paul; like with Ephesians, I take seriously the location of Colossians among Paul’s other letters), we are told that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:15). I understand this to be giving a summary of precisely the core meaning of Jesus’s execution by the Roman Empire (with collaboration from the Jewish religious leaders): Jesus exposes the idolatrous leaders of state and religion as God’s rivals, thereby breaking their idolatrous hold on people that is based on the Powers’ claims to be God’s servants. Rather, they are exposed as God’s rivals—and those who notice this exposure turn from trusting in them and undermine their power (I develop this point at length in my book, Instead of Atonement). Likewise, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we read a similar assertion: “None of the rulers of this age understood [God’s wisdom]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). God’s “wisdom” was manifest in Jesus’s life of love and resistance that led to his being executed by the human rulers (clearly influenced by the demonic powers). That act of pure, evil violence, an act of rebellion against God, exposed the power elite’s true character and in that way freed people from idolatry. These insights from Paul link closely with Jesus’s own teaching that his followers should take up their crosses and follow him—that is, follow his path of courageous love and resistance.
  10. Affirmation of upside-down politics with anarchistic tendencies. The political character of Paul’s theology is hidden by the failure of readers to recognize that his use of the language of “Lord,” “Christ,” “kingdom,” “savior,” “justice,” and numerous other terms was an appropriation of the language Romans used to express their veneration for the emperor and the Empire. Paul poses a political alternative to empire as a way of life, with a different king and a kingdom that operates according to the values of service and compassion, not domination and possessiveness. That is to say, Paul echoes the political teaching of Jesus—recognizing that the core meaning of “politics” is has to do with how we order human social life. One of Paul’s most detailed political statements comes in Romans 12–13 (though interestingly, his teaching in this passage portrays “Christian politics” in ways that are about the opposite of the traditional use to which Christians have put Romans 13:1-7). Paul begins the passage with a call to not be conformed to the world but rather transformed by a worldview renewal (12:1-2). Based on what follows, we could read this to a call to reject the power politics of Empire and embrace an upside-down politics. The politics of the renewed mind is a decentralized empowering of the “many members” of the community, who each have valuable and distinct gifts (12:4-8). What Paul describes here is a kind of self-organizing, non-hierarchical community that gives equal value to all members. This is a politics of love (12:9-10) that is fundamentally non-retaliatory (12:14-21)—summed up with the call: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (12:21). Rather than the exhortation toward passivity and granting a blank check to political leaders that the tradition has affirmed, chapter 13 continues the call to overcome evil with good. Respect the ordering function of the state without returning to the idolatry that Jesus’s execution by Rome exposed. Don’t resist with violence but remain committed to a politics of love (13:8). The sum of the political instruction comes in 13:9-10: The commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

This list of ten aspects of Paul’s thought that make the most sense when we see Paul as supplementing Jesus’s teaching is tentative and partial. I suspect, though, that further investigation would strengthen my argument. When we start with Jesus and the gospels, and then read Paul mainly as a commentary on Jesus’s life and teaching (not as a spinning out of a new theology that starts with a cosmic transaction in Jesus’s crucifixion that creates a new path to salvation and not as a crucial step toward creedalism and later Christendom), we will find a great deal of common ground. Paul’s theology of salvation and political philosophy are best understood in light of Jesus’s, not as something different.

10 thoughts on “What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]

  1. This is an awesome reflection on and study of what I have always thought was an exceptionally close correspondence between the life and teaching of Jesus and the (converted) beliefs and teaching of Paul. Very well and concisely done! Kudos.

  2. I by no means am a scholar nor seminarian. But it would seem to me that if one is a follower and believer in Jesus as Lord one would hold his words teachings and life as the best pattern and example of life. I am not a Jew so the Old Testament, while holds great value. The writings of Paul help perhaps how the church can function and how we might relate to be another in many ways. But the words of Jesus that we have recorded as sermon on the mount and the great commandment of. All. Are the key of living. For me when I live them I hopefully am not far the Kingdom. Can be summed up in 2 words trust and love.

  3. Ted, I’m wondering whether you might have read Douglas Campbell’s recent (2020) Pauline Dogmatics? One of Campbell’s principal stated aims is to help readers (re)discover what he calls a more Pauline reading of Paul – by which he means just the kind of Jesus-centred reading you’ve outlined above.

    1. Thanks, Rob. I am afraid that I have not read Campbell, though I have wanted to. His books are kind of hefty. But I bit the bullet and just this morning ordered a cope of Pauline Dogmatics. Your endorsement pushed me over the edge!

      1. Pauline Dogmatics is not without heft, it’s true, but I found it very readable, certainly much more so than many academic tomes. I hope it proves a worthwhile use of your time 🙂

  4. Marvelous, simply marvelous. I wrote a somewhat similar essay earlier this summer “Paul: Friend or Foe?” which I then modified for another platform as “A Pickle for Progressives and Paul?”
    See: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2021/08/a-pickle-for-progressives-paul/

    Thank you for your fine work and obvious care and respect for the scriptures.

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

  5. Reblogged this on Natural Spirituality – Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth and commented:
    With so many crises and dire needs these days, I need to connect this good article to some of them. One in particular is the rancorous division we have in the US right now… with no signs of it improving. A great deal of this is among Christians and between certain Christians and others. In this context, those who seek to be sure religious freedom is not curtailed, or are “defenders of the fault ” have particular responsibility to understand both Jesus and Paul. And to grasp and FOLLOW their example in making the gospel truly good news for everyone, not just those who view things similarly.

    1. Thanks, Howard. A couple of months ago, I was part of the Sunday School class on the Christian Right. The content was alarming and depressing. I suggested in our last session as we were thinking about what can be done that one slightly possible avenue to work at bridging the divide is having discussions with conservatives about the Bible. That may be a small piece of common ground. That thought seems to be in the same spirit as your comment.

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