Robbing Jesus to Pay Paul?

Cruttage over at the Open Faith Network posted a link to Gary Novak’s page about Christian morality. Novak is a Mormon, and he’s also of the school of thought that sees an irreconcilable difference between the Jesus recorded in the Gospels and the Jesus presented in Paul’s letters. I looked him up to see what other people had to say about him, and found this page at Davis D. Danizier’s site. Danizier does not believe that Jesus is a savior, but a teacher; he’s also in the Paul vs. Jesus school of thought. Danizier pointed Novak to Liberals Like Christ, which also has some things to say about Paul vs. Jesus from a theologically liberal point of view.

I’ve sometimes wondered about this apparent difference. Paul explicitly and repeatedly declares that salvation is by grace through faith, and “not by works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus, on the other hand, talks a lot about works, sometimes clarifying the Old Testament law, sometimes extending it, sometimes explaining what it was pointing to. There’s the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. There’s a judgment parable in Matthew 25:31-46 in which the basis of judgment is the good deeds done or not done to “the least of these.”

Do these and the rest of Jesus’ teaching demonstrate that Jesus taught salvation by works rather than by faith? Jesus does talk about faith and belief, but are these required in addition to, before, after, or instead of works? Likewise, Paul talks about works, but does his teaching about works contradict his teaching about faith?

I’m going to start with Paul. Typically, a Pauline letter begins with what God has done for us: salvation by grace through faith. Only then does Paul issue any commands or exhortations to works. In Romans 5-6, he emphasizes that grace abounds even where sin is greatest, and yet forbids us to think that we are therefore free to sin all we want in order to get more grace. This is the key to understanding the relationship between faith and works, as Paul saw it: our salvation is by grace alone, through faith; as soon as we rely on our works to save us, we are doomed, because we can’t keep the whole law perfectly without sin. Our pursuit of righteousness, our efforts to love God and our neighbor, must be our response to salvation rather than our attempt to earn it.

What about Jesus? So much of Jesus’ teaching is about ethical and moral standards that are impossible to keep perfectly at all times. Is he giving us an ideal to strive towards, with understanding that we won’t reach it, but a promise that our imperfect efforts will nevertheless be acceptable for our salvation? Does he require perfect attainment and expect that people will be able to achieve it? Or does he teach perfection in order to show us our sin, to reveal to us how unable we are to save ourselves by our works, paving the way for the idea of salvation by faith?

I wish that Jesus had explicitly and directly said some of the things Paul says about salvation, faith, and works. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to read the New Testament and come away with a sense of general unity without feeling that one has to twist and force things to make them fit together.

I also think that one’s premises make a big difference in the conclusions one will reach after such a reading. I.e. if you believe that Jesus is not God, or that miracles are impossible, or that the idea of an atoning sacrifice is evil or foolish, then it will be hard for you to come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Savior. On the other hand, if you believe in the inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible, it will be hard for you to conclude that the Bible has any contradictions or errors.

As for me, I believe that the Bible is indeed the word of God, and that it has been preserved remarkably considering its antiquity. I believe it is meant to be taken as a unit and not to be picked apart, some things accepted and some rejected. Nevertheless the various parts must be approached with respect for their nature; e.g. poetical passages about the shadow of God’s wings should not be taken literally as if God had a physical body. What’s uncertain still for me is how to approach certain accounts like Job or the Creation story or Paul’s teaching on women; I do not want to too easily accept solutions that are either personally convenient or overly simplistic or overly forced…

May the God of truth lead us into all truth, even if it means correcting our faulty premises and conclusions.

Anyway, back to the Paul vs. Jesus thing. Consider just two things that Jesus talked about: “fruit” and his own death.

He talks about knowing people by their fruit (Matthew 7 among others). But isn’t it true that fruit is a result, not a cause? In other words, talking about works as fruit fits in just fine with Pauline theology about works being a response to salvation rather than its cause.

Even more significant is the way Jesus talks about his impending death. He does not teach that his death is merely a symbol of opposition to good moral teaching, but declares that his death will be an atoning sacrifice. Consider this passage about the Last Supper:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

If Jesus taught a salvation by works, what need would there be to pour out his blood for the forgiveness of sins? Salvation by works should mean that our works cover over our sins.

As I’ve searched and read and talked about this issue, I’ve found out that this is a relatively new controversy starting in the 19th Century as part of the “historical Jesus” movement. One thing that’s interesting is that the Gospels were written down after the letters of Paul. Also, it seems that the early church would not have canonized the Gospels — or Paul’s letters — if they thought there was an irreconcilable difference in their doctrines.

Here are some interesting links on “Paul vs. Jesus” or “Paul vs. James” from the unified point of view:
Catholic Answers Forums
Tekton Apologetics
Third Millenium
Learn the Bible

Broadening the search to “historical Jesus” leads to even more resources. Here’s just one, because I’ve been working on this post for days and my eyes hurt.

Can the New Jesus Save Us?


Note: When I saved these posts from my former blog, I neglected to include the links.


2 thoughts on “Robbing Jesus to Pay Paul?

  1. My general policy is to avoid commenting on your religion posts, because we’re coming at things from such different perspectives, but I’ve had an interest in these ideas for some time, so what the heck.

    When I was directing a Christian a cappella group in college (I was an atheist then, too, but that’s another story), and at one point we were looking for music by bands that aren’t explicitly “Christian rock” that dealt with Christian themes, and one of our members brought us “Fly From Heaven” by Toad the Wet Sprocket (are you familiar with the group?). I think, though, that the people bringing it had a rather superficial understanding of the song, because what it was really getting at was this Paul/Jesus controversy from historical Jesus studies. They got as far as seeing that it was talking about Paul and Jesus, and I guess that was good enough. Rather than going into it here, I would point you to a blog entry I wrote about it:

  2. Interesting song. I’ve written a handful of songs myself about biblical things —,,,
    And there’s poems, and a story, and more.

    I am glad that I have learned about the historical Jesus movement, and other questions and ideas — I don’t want to put any blinders on. I don’t want to accept anything — faithful or skeptical — without examination. But as you say, I start with a different set of assumptions / premises.

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