Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
-Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV)
They didn’t mean to ask, of course, which person is more important. Millennia of Christian teaching, not to mention the witness of Scripture, is unambiguous about that. Paul didn’t die for our sins. He wasn’t raised from the dead. The Holy Spirit is not poured out through Paul. He doesn’t intercede for us with God.
What’s actually meant by that question is something like this: “Which of the New Testament writings do you think is more important: the Gospels, or Paul’s letters?”
Still, that kinda sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Aren’t they both kind of important?” you might ask, and you’d be right. They are both kind of important. At first glance, it seems that you might as well ask, “Which do you like best: water or oxygen?” Might as well force a person to choose between shelter and clothing. For a believer, it seems obvious: there is no choosing between the Gospels and Paul’s letters.
A lot of years ago now there was a gentleman who attended my church for a while. He was — how best to say it? — on the cantankerous side. And one of the things he liked to raise cain about was this very issue. To him, and he would come right out and say this, the only truly inspired parts of the New Testament were Paul’s letters. The Gospels, Acts, the other letters — they had all been tainted by other influences. He stopped coming, actually, when we wouldn’t forswear teaching and preaching from other parts of the New Testament. (And you didn’t even want to get him started on the Old Testament!)
Actually, that point of view is more widespread than you might imagine. My Paul-only friend was the ideological descendent, whether he knew it or not, of a first- and second-century church leader named Marcion, who was one of the first church leaders to introduce a canon. His Scriptures were, you guessed it, Paul’s letters and a stripped-down version of Luke that fit his doctrinal assumptions.
That’s often, if not always, the reason believers look for a “canon within the canon,” a subset of the Bible that for one reason or another becomes more authoritative for us than the rest. Martin Luther called James an “epistle of straw” for its seeming contradiction of his pet teaching, for example. It seemed easier for him to just dismiss James than to try to reconcile it with his beliefs about faith and works. When two texts of Scripture seem to contradict each other, or at least to exist uncomfortably together, some remove the conflict by removing one of the texts.
In earlier generations, even my own spiritual tribe tended to emphasize Paul’s letters and Acts over the gospels. We had doctrinal assumptions of our own, and we found it easiest to say that anything that came before Acts 2 belonged to a different era. That, of course, included the Gospels. For us, it wasn’t that the Gospels weren’t Scripture. Our assumptions just rendered the Gospels less authoritative, at least in practice.
These days, the pendulum has swung. If we have a canon within a canon now, it’s probably the Gospels. They fit newer preaching styles better. They work better with our preference for story over proposition. And, often, our preference for the Gospels is used to defend a particular doctrinal position. “We have to read Paul through Jesus, and not the other way around,” goes the argument, which lets us pit Jesus against Paul, and who wants to argue that Paul is right in that equation?
Thing is, I tend to agree with that statement, but not for all of the reasons it’s sometimes made. It is a weakness of some of us, for instance, that we’ve made salvation a matter of understanding Pauline doctrine rather than trusting in Jesus. And so we think that understanding what Paul meant when said that we’re saved by grace through faith is the same thing as actually having faith. (It isn’t.) But the problem there isn’t Paul, and it isn’t remedied by relegating Paul to the bench like a reliever who’s having trouble finding the plate. The remedy is to read Paul better, to let him say what he wants to say without importing all of our assumptions.
Dismissing Paul isn’t fair to him, because in all of the letters attributed to him but two he introduces himself as an apostle or servant or both of Jesus. All he did and wrote after he met Jesus was to get other people to meet Jesus as well. Any form of the argument that Paul’s letters, well-intentioned or not, didn’t represent Jesus accurately kind of rips the guts out of the New Testament as Scripture, doesn’t it? That’s not to say there aren’t things in Paul’s writing that don’t coexist comfortably with the Gospels. But we don’t get to resolve the problems by favoring our own interpretations of Jesus over Paul’s.
It isn’t fair to Jesus either, because invariably we make him into the spokesmodel for whatever we wish Paul was saying. Think Paul sounds like a misogynist? No problem; preach on Jesus and Mary Magdalene or something instead. Don’t care for Paul’s “wrath of God” stuff in Romans? Easily solved, because Jesus said “Don’t judge” and he never said anything about God’s wrath or anything, did he? No, that’s too easy. There’s no check there on my own arrogant tendency to rewrite Christianity into a form that suits me better and then co-opt Jesus to teach it. Jesus will not be your spokesmodel. He did not come to make you comfortable, and if you find yourself comfortable with him it’s probably because you’ve remade him in your image.
I’m thinking about all of this because of a conversation with a friend who has changed his thinking on some things, and justifies it by an appeal to Jesus over Paul. I don’t necessarily disagree with his new position. But I’m wondering why he feels he has to set Jesus and Paul at odds to get there.
I do think we should read Paul through the filter of Jesus. Paul wouldn’t have it any other way, I imagine. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, there are things we only know about Jesus because of Paul. Paul believed the Holy Spirit was acting through his writing. And there were some others who thought so too. I think it a little foolish to dismiss Paul when you think he doesn't agree with Jesus. Maybe it’s better to go back and look again at what you think both are saying. Forgive me for saying so, but you’re more likely wrong than either of them.
It’s a bad habit to take the easy way out of our dilemmas with Scripture by ignoring the parts that don’t fit our preconceived notions. The Bible is supposed to confound us sometimes. Let it. Read it with others. Talk about it. Pray about it. Let it say what it wants to say — even the parts you don’t like. Especially the parts you don’t like. Sometimes you’ll come to an understanding with the text. Sometimes you won’t, at least not right away. You won’t always agree with the people with whom you read it, either. But God has never needed us to sit in judgment on the text. We were always supposed to fight with it.
Even if you have to fight with Paul. Come on, he’s pretty old. How hard it could it be?