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.

Continue reading “What is Paul good for? [Rethinking salvation #3]”

Preaching on Romans

Ted Grimsrud—January 12, 2015

Last Fall I began a new sermon series. Every month (or so), I plan to take a chapter from the book of Romans for reflection. I am especially interested in reading Romans as anti-empire literature, recognizing, of course, that Paul’s main concern was positive—what he calls “the obedience of faith.”

I think, though, Paul’s vision for faithful living can best be understood against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. To follow Jesus, to live faithfully in relation to the true God, Paul believed, required being aware of the main story that competes with the gospel—the story of empire. After all, Paul is writing this letter to Christians who actually live in the belly of the beast. And all Christians of that time would always be aware that the empire killed Jesus as a rebel against Rome.

Yesterday, in the third of the sermons, I talked about Romans 2.

Here’s a link to that sermon: “How churches go wrong.” And here’s a link to the whole series.

Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2011

Jesus’ approach to salvation was simple—he bypassed the sacrificial system and offered direct forgiveness. He answered a direct question about how to inherit eternal life by reiterating what he believed was the essence of the law and prophets: love God and neighbor. He told an amazing story about a terribly sinful son who is welcomed by his father back into the family simply by returning home.

In other words, if we take our cues from Jesus himself, we should not be investing his death with the kind of meaning that sees in his death the one necessary sacrifice that might satisfy God and enable God to bring salvation about. To the contrary, Jesus echoes the prophets by insisting that God operates according to the logic of mercy, not the logic of sacrifice, payback, reciprocity, and punishment. According to Jesus, God’s justice is restorative not retributive.

But what about Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Jesus’ message, Paul the Apostle? How compatible is Paul’s understanding of salvation with Jesus? Do we have to choose between the two? I think not. In this, my third post on salvation (the first was “Does Jesus’ death have meaning?” and the second was “Jesus’ death and my salvation”), I will make that case that Paul was faithful and accurate to Jesus’ main message (with the implication that later Christianity has actually misread Paul).

Like his Jesus and the prophets, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world.  Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor.  Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death. Continue reading “Does Paul agree with Jesus about salvation?”