JESUS HAVE I LOVED, BUT PAUL? : A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity. By J.R. Daniel Kirk. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. Ix + 214 pages.
If you ask many of my progressive Christian friends what they think of Paul, their responses might be less than complimentary. Paul simply doesn’t rate with Jesus, and in the minds of some, Paul ruined the faith that Jesus established. Now, it’s true, there have been liberal attempts (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s First Paul) to rescue Paul from ignominy by separating out the truly Pauline letters from the pseudo-Pauline letters. Thus, Paul’s more radically egalitarian message is seen as being set aside by later church leaders who sought to shore up the church by casting it in a more hierarchical framework, and doing so in the name of Paul. But, who is Paul, really, and how does his message fit with that of Jesus? Are they polar opposites or are they on the same page?
Daniel Kirk, an assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary (my alma mater), seeks to address the concern that so many have about Paul. Unlike Borg and Crossan, he doesn’t focus on authorship questions – it should be noted that Borg and Crossan don’t appear as dialogue partners. Instead, he uses a narrative approach to demonstrate how Paul and Jesus were of a similar mind and purpose, though their contexts and questions addressed may have differed.
Using this narrative approach, Kirk suggests that Paul attempts to write the Gentiles into the broader narrative of the People of God. For Paul this doesn’t come about through conversion to Judaism by way of circumcision, but by way of adherence to the person of Jesus, who reveals through the cross and resurrection the purpose of God. As Kirk lays out this narrative, going back and forth between the gospels and the Pauline texts, his purpose is very practical. This is not simply an apologetic for Paul; it is an attempt offer Paul as a guide for faithfully following Jesus in the 21st century. His hope is that we will discover how we should embody the story of Jesus, with Paul as a companion. In addressing ancient and modern questions, this narrative approach is dynamic in nature. Thus, as Kirk writes: “Our calling is not simply to recite agreed-on points of doctrine. Rather, our calling is to freshly discover with the communities we are part of what it means for us to live out the narrative of Christ crucified” (p. 30).
Chapters explore the concepts of new creation and kingdom of God, Christianity as community, and ways in which we can live out the Jesus narrative. These chapters lay the groundwork for chapters dealing with judgment and inclusion, women, liberty and justice, sex, and homosexuality. He closes with a chapter entitled “Living Interpretations.” Ours is a living faith, and even as Paul wrote the Gentiles into a narrative that was defined by circumcision as the prime identity marker, we find ourselves being written into this story. Because it is a story it can’t be defined in solely propositional forms. It must be lived. And this story that begins in the Old Testament moves towards its end (telos) in Christ. He believes that both Jesus and Paul understood the story of God in this way.
For the modern reader who knows that there have been supersessionist tendencies in the church, it would have been helpful for this issue to be addressed directly, so that this narrative doesn’t get taken in an anti-Jewish direction. I don’t believe that Kirk goes in this direction, but it would have helped to have acknowledged the danger.
I’m not a Pauline scholar, so I’ll leave the minutiae of the academic conversation to others. Instead, I’d like to point us to the way in which he addresses the question of living out this faith. One of the key points in moving into this conversation is dealing with the question of justification. He makes it clear that for Paul there isn’t this strong delineation between faith and works that so often dominates Protestant theological conversation. Faith, he notes, isn’t just assent to something, rather “faith works.” Paul might take off the table some markers of Jewish identity – circumcision – but the faith that truly matters “is faith that works through love” (p. 92). The point is that our ethics, our actions need to be rooted in the foundational narrative of Jesus. Thus, we simply can’t point to some Judeo-Christian ethic and say – well this is how the nation should organize itself.
From this point he moves on to issues of inclusion and judgment, the role of women (an issue suddenly again a hot topic in our society thanks in part to Mark Driscoll and the political sphere), social justice (Glen Beck made this an issue as well), sex and homosexuality. I’m going to focus attention on the latter two, because Kirk’s perspective is intriguing. On the other issues, Kirk would say – there is both judgment and inclusion, but knowing how this works is important. On women he represents that growing trend toward full inclusion of women (that’s a requirement to be a faculty member at Fuller – you can’t teach women how to be pastors if you don’t believe they belong in the pulpit, and Fuller is committed to that proposition). As for justice, it is the desire of God as revealed in the life and death and resurrection of the crucified messiah.
Sex – it’s a topic ever in our thoughts, but not always on our lips. We live in a sex-saturated age. It’s not that sex didn’t play a role before; it’s just that media has made it more visible, and there is a greater openness in our society’s sexual mores. So, how do we interpret the biblical narrative with regard to sexuality in our day? As he notes, Jesus did talk about sex and family, including divorce (Jesus was not overly supportive of the idea, despite its prevalence in the church today). Sex, he suggests, in the biblical narrative, is designed to be expressed in a committed covenant relationship, which we call marriage, and it’s to be a life-long partnership. This chapter will be a challenge to many, if not most, modern Christians. Divorce is a regular occurrence, even among clergy, and whether or not we acknowledge, sex no longer is linked to marriage in the minds of perhaps a majority of Americans, and probably among a majority of Christians as well. Although we don’t like to talk about such things, Kirk takes on this taboo subject rather directly.
The discussion of sex is central to the next point – the development of a Christian position on homosexuality for the 21st Century. He insists that if we’re going to discuss developing a more open view of homosexuality, then we must have “truly Christian narrative of the story of sex” (p. 173). Whatever the nature of partnerships, his understanding sex is something that exists within a committed, life-long partnership, where two are made one flesh. He provides guidance for how we as church deal with the realities of our age, but this is the standard that must wrestle with.
Now, with my hints as to his understanding of sex, what is his position, as an evangelical, toward homosexuality? I will say -- it’s an intriguing discussion. He acknowledges that Scripture says little about it. He acknowledges that Jesus is silent, but that doesn’t mean Jesus, unlike Paul, had a more open view. It’s just that culturally Jesus likely wouldn’t have dealt with it. So silence is silence. Regarding other texts, he suggests that his conservative friends should leave Leviticus well-enough alone, as the church no longer finds much of Levitical teaching binding on the modern church. This leaves two Pauline texts (Romans 1:18-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), along with two others (1 Timothy 1:8-11 and Jude 7) that require attention. He addresses both Pauline texts, noting that for Paul homosexuality is “anticreation”; it’s contrary to nature. But is that the end of the conversation?
Returning to Jesus he addresses the suggestion that Jesus’ view can be intuited from his commitment to inclusion and social justice. He addresses suggestions as well that this issue has parallels with women and slavery, though he points out that with homosexuality you won’t find any biblical counterarguments to reigning cultural practices. Thus, there is little direct biblical support for an open position, but that’s not necessarily the end of the story. Remember that he suggests that whatever position we take on homosexuality must be placed in a broader conversation about sexuality and a reminder that this is ultimately a living narrative. So, are there no possible arguments for affirming homosexual practice? The answer is – possibly -- but, advocates for inclusion must do several things.
1. Refuse to endorse all forms of homosexual engagement, but instead do so in a way that reflects the “biblical standard of lifetime loyalty to one partner who is also in Christ.” To do this many churches/denominations are going to have to back away from concessions to the sexual revolution.
2. Advocates need to offer a more compelling way to “plot homosexual partnerships within the narrative of God’s story” (and he offers ways in which this might be done).
3. The church must understand this affirmation as a work of the Holy Spirit of God. And there is precedent for this – the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God without circumcision, which “flies in the face of a huge swath of Old Testament teaching. But the Spirit of God gave divine testimony to God’s approval of these gentiles without their becoming circumcised Jews” (p. 185). In this matter, it is the faithful and committed expression of faith in Jesus that is determinative of this new move of the Spirit.
Added to these three points, is the commandment to love one’s neighbor. In articulating a Christian position, we must ask the question – what does it mean to love our neighbor? He writes:
If the faithful Christian practice of committed homosexuals provides the strongest argument in favor of the church’s blessing of homosexual unions, the rancorous, destructive, and otherwise unloving behavior of the traditionalists is one of the strongest indications that they are not on the side of God (p. 186).
I expect that is proposal will be received by many on both sides of the issue with resistance, but it is an interesting proposal, but one that is challenging to all sides of the debate. Are we willing to go down this road less traveled? I appreciate Kirk’s desire to address what he finds to be the “insufficiently Christian way people are advocating for certain positions,” both on the left and the right (p. 190). To move forward, he calls on us to recognize that with regard to sex, no matter our sexual identities, we are “full of disordered desires that point us toward our need for the twin redemptive work of both forgiveness from guilt and liberation from bondage” (p. 192).
I found this book to be challenging and enlightening, maddening at times, but revelatory at many others. I might not agree at every point, but this is a cogent, thoughtful, evangelical perspective on Paul and the way in which Paul’s message can resonate in the 21st century. I might have wished that he had spent more time attending to authorship questions, and perhaps engaging Borg and Crossan, as well as Tom Wright and Richard Hays, but this is a most interesting book, that is well worth reading. And I might add, it is a reflection of the best of that open spirit that I found at Fuller while a student there more than twenty years ago. Take and read, won’t you?!