Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kingdom Gospel

Before I say what I’m going to say, I need to make something clear: there is no difference, distinction, or divergence between the teaching of Jesus and that of Paul.  None.  I need to say this because it has been said by a number of people that Paul is the real originator of Christianity; that Jesus never intended to start a new religion but was rather seeking to reform Judaism and Paul, seeing the Gospel rejected by the Jews, went on to form a new religion that was a radical break from his Jewish roots.  Jesus, this viewpoint rightly recognizes, did not set forth a new system of religious doctrine and practices, but was a prophet whose teaching was more moral and ethical than doctrinal and religious.  There’s not much there that I’m going to quibble with.  Paul, on the other hand, was a religious and organizational genius who took Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection and developed a full-blown and distinctly Christian systematic theology, organizing distinctly Christian churches (as opposed to synagogues), something that Jesus never did over a wide geographical region.  Jesus provided the inspiration for this new religion, but it is Paul who took it in a direction Jesus never foresaw nor intended by creating a new largely non-Jewish religion.
Not true.  Paul never saw himself as anything but Jewish and never saw what he was doing as anything more than carrying on the work of Jesus in reforming the Jewish religion.  Paul consistently quoted the Hebrew scriptures—our Old Testament—in order to support his central premise that in Jesus the story of Israel was brought to its natural and fitting crowning point.  Paul realized that this crowning point was also a turning point in that the story of Israel now became the story for all creation—that Gentiles, formerly excluded from the story, were now included, and that this was part of the plan all along.
I needed to say that before I said what I want to say, so here goes: the only reason that anyone would accuse Paul of being the true originator of Christianity rather than Jesus is because too we have developed a theological/doctrinal system that pays more attention to what Paul wrote than what Jesus said. 
For instance, the doctrine of justification is a major doctrine of the Church, particularly Protestant churches since Reformation theologian Martin Luther made such a big deal of justification by faith.  But Jesus never used the word “justification,” and only in two places ( Matthew 12:37 and Luke 18:1) talked about a person being “justified” and even in these he using it in a slightly different sense than Paul.  For the apostle it was a major theme, especially in Romans and Galatians.  Likewise, in our doctrine we emphasize that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works.  This comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Jesus wouldn’t disagree with Paul’s point that no one can earn their salvation and essentially put God in their debt by their good works, but nowhere does he make the point by distinguishing between faith and works.  In fact, Jesus has a lot of good things to say about works.  To cite at one example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 
And our definition of “The Gospel” comes from Paul more than from Jesus.  We have defined the Gospel as a plan of salvation, a way of getting saved, and we have explained it by proof-texting Paul and largely ignoring Jesus.  For instance, one of the common tools that has been taught to Christians for sharing the plan of salvation is called the Roman Road because it uses verses exclusively from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Even when other forms of the plan of salvation use sayings from Jesus, it is largely to fit his teaching within a construction that is derived from Paul, though not necessarily a Pauline construction.  It is our construction, using some of Paul’s sayings, but I’m pretty sure that Paul wouldn’t have put it the way we put it.
Jesus said that the good news—the Gospel—is that the Kingdom of God has begun and the present evil age is on the way out (Mark 1:15), and Paul wouldn’t have disagreed.  When you develop a theology that largely ignores the teaching of Jesus, you are going to get a distorted view of Paul’s teaching, and an incomplete understanding of the Gospel and the plan of salvation.
Our starting point for theology is not just the person of Jesus—his divine/human nature—or the work of Jesus—his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead—but also the teachings of Jesus.  A proper theology will start with it all.  Once properly understood, then Paul’s teachings will be properly understood as well,.
And no one will be confused as to the real founder of Christianity.

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