Gospel of Jesus or Gospel of Paul?

Christians always end up in arguments when they try to force a systematized interpretation on the Bible. scriptureIt can’t be done, simply because the Bible is not a single book but a collection of documents that evolved over the course of history. None of the Scriptures were written at the same time. The epistles, sermons, and homilies written after the Scriptures that Jesus knew and quoted were built on those same Jewish Scriptures. These writers, such as Paul, Clement, and Ignatius, if that is who really wrote them, wrote long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, yet they too expounded on the oral tradition passed on by the apostles and other new believers. These Epistles later attained the status of Scripture by the “Fathers” of the church. Some of these writings “made the cut,” while others did not.

So why do we insist that everything Paul or James or John wrote was Scripture? Because the bishops and priests of the early church held a council and declared them so. Protestants do not want to accept the authority of bishops and priests of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, yet even Protestants agree upon the canon of Scripture approved by these same bishops and priests. So given that this is the approved canon of Scripture, still, why do we insist that everything in it must be consistent with every other part? We have writings spanning years and decades, yet both Catholics and Protestants insist that everything harmonizes.

It isn’t too surprising then to find that Paul contradicts both Jesus and James.

Paul:

“8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Ephesians 2).”

James:

“14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2).”

Jesus:

“18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will know them by their fruits.

21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7).”

So which is it? Theologians try to get around these difficulties by saying that each of these writers really agree, but they are talking about different angles of the same problem. Paul is talking about works of the law and James about works of righteousness. No one knows which one Jesus is talking about. Well, whatever. To me, theologians and those who insist on literal interpretations are fearful that unless doctrine isn’t tidied up into a nice, neat package, the faithful masses will revolt and accept nothing or they will come up with some wacky interpretation. Well what if they do? This type of literal thinking displays an all or nothing, black or white, false dichotomy argument that doesn’t trust the individual believer or the Holy Spirit to move believers in the direction God intends.

Personally, I don’t mind living with such inconsistencies in the Bible. Paul, to me, merely interpreted the Gospel of Jesus in order to teach his followers to live good lives. James also interpreted the Gospel of Jesus and taught that saying you believe and acting like you don’t is hypocrisy. Neither one is the perfect interpretation. All interpretations of Jesus’ Gospel have evolved, and are still evolving. If it were static then it could not stand up to the test of history and the Holy Spirit would not be necessary.

So, the argument going on among religious scholars is really about who’s interpretation is the right one. Each theologian wants to be RIGHT. Well, the only RIGHT Gospel is what Jesus himself said. Not what Paul, a Pope, Clement, Luther, or Calvin said. Go to the source. If Jesus says, “forgive seventy times seven” then do it. There’s no need to discuss particulars. If Jesus says we’ll be judged then live as if you will. No need to discuss justification or sanctification or prevenient grace or predestination, etc. etc. The Holy Spirit works in and through the hearts of believers to interpret what God sets before us each day. God’s Spirit is manna enough for that day. Of course you could get into the thorny issue about whether redactors of the Gospels put words in Jesus’ mouth, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Ours is not to dissect the Bible ad nauseum, ad infinitum. As a pastor friend of mine said recently, “To do ministry is to get out of the way so that others may experience God’s presence.”

So, do we get in the way of another’s experience of God’s presence? Do we throw roadblocks in the way? Do we throw in front of other believers Scripture passages, pet interpretations, Christian fads, prominent Christians’ falls from grace, religious politics, or some other roadblock in another’s path so as to obscure the experience of God in that person’s life? Do we quibble over every jot and tittle until we do not see the forest of Experience, Scripture, and Tradition, but only the trees of sectarian interpretation? How about we just get out of the way? I’m going to step out of the way right now. But don’t take my word for it.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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One thought on “Gospel of Jesus or Gospel of Paul?

  1. Gee, the three verses EASILY fit together.

    We are all SAVED by Faith. You cannot attain everlasting life through works.

    But once you are SAVED through Faith, to be “productive” in the eyes of God (remember the several parables about servants being non-productive) you must “bear fruit” – that is do good works to help others.

    This _includes_ bring the gospel to them so they may also be saved by the grace of God through Faith.

    There is nothing wrong about doing good works without faith, but you are not saved. There is everything wrong about having faith, but not reaching out to help your brothers and sisters through good works. Even with the faith, without works, you will not be saved.

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