Beyond Mere Christianity
What about Paul?
all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by
His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’
—The Apostle Paul (Romans 4:23-24)
unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of
the saints in light, who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath
translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son, in whom we have redemption
through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.’
—The Apostle Paul (Colossians 1:12-14)
When I discuss
Jesus with mainstream Christians, some questions tend to come up again and
again. The most common questions sound something like this: ‘What about St.
Paul? What about all the other great Christian thinkers and theologians and
scholars who have labored down the centuries and developed great systems of
thought and great systems of philosophy around accepted Christian theology?
Doesn’t their work revolve around the idea of Jesus being the only begotten Son
of God and the sacrifice for mankind? Aren’t you ignoring them?’
Not at all. It
is quite impossible to ignore Paul, because he is a gifted rhetorician and a
theologian of extraordinary and enduring influence. It is equally impossible, however, for a thoughtful Christian to obey
Paul if Paul is at odds with Jesus.
Christianity, following Paul, does in fact tell us that there is a Natural Law
(also known as a Moral Law)—an inherent law of wrong and right that
the vast majority of human beings can perceive plainly, and that they want,
deep down, to follow. Mainstream Christianity tells us that there is a Law
reflecting the Divine, a Law that humans cannot possibly expect to obey
properly without the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. It is because we are sinful, because
we cannot expect to fulfill the demands upon us, we are told, that we come
short of the glory of God. This is Paul’s position, and the position at which
mainstream Christian theology begins.
Yet even though
we understand what Paul is saying, we must also understand what Jesus is
Jesus has, as
we have seen in Chapter Three, a much deeper and richer conception of human
moral perception than Paul and the other Christian theologians do.
explicitly rejects, as we have seen in Chapter Five, his own claims on
divinity. He is clearly a prophet (that is, a messenger from God); he is not himself
God, and he says so.
Jesus maintains, as we have seen in
Chapter Six, that complete submission to the will of God, before death overtakes
us and we are held accountable for our sins, is the criterion for salvation.
And we may rest assured that whether we
are ready now or not to admit this fact to ourselves, or discuss it with
others, we will ultimately be held accountable for what we know, and what we
choose to ignore, about the teachings of Jesus.
So let us suppose that Paul tells us—just
as C.S. Lewis and a thousand other great Christian thinkers tell us—that
you and I can never, no matter how hard we may try, live up to the demands of
the Natural Law that God has placed within our hearts.
Let us suppose that Paul and a thousand
other great thinkers tell us that God Himself became a human being in order to
make it possible for us to have those demands met on our behalf.
Even if Paul and a thousand other great
thinkers warn us that we are lost if we do not conform our minds to their
notions of salvation …
Even if Paul and the others insist on all
of this, we are bound to listen to Jesus.
Jesus overrules Paul, and there simply cannot be any dispute
on this point … except from people who reject Jesus. This fact has been
systematically ignored—and/or purposefully obscured—for
two thousand years. So I hope you will forgive me for repeating it here.
What Paul and
the others say to us is intriguing and (potentially) very important. However,
if we do not grant Jesus Christ the final word on matters of ultimate importance,
we must take a moment to ask ourselves exactly what kind of Christians we are.
Do we follow men? Or do we follow Christ?
It is imperative that we make a conscious effort to compare
the world view that Jesus presents with the world view that Paul and the others
present. We cannot assume that the two world views are identical simply because
we have been raised to believe they are identical. In fact, they are not identical.
The mere fact that our fathers, mothers,
grandmothers, and grandfathers (and anyone else who came before them) believed
something to be the case does not make it so. Jesus and Paul do in fact offer
very different world views, even if our parents and grandparents did not notice
And if the
world view of Paul is in conflict with the world view of Jesus … then Jesus
must be granted priority, whether or not that priority is popular.
said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answering
said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as
yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly: do this, and you
shall live.’ (Luke 10:26-28)
Imagine Paul to be correct. Suppose the love of God, love so
strong that it amounts to complete submission, is not enough to secure
salvation. Suppose there were another
requirement for spiritual success than the one mentioned in the Gospel passage
Imagine that salvation did demand ‘the redemption that is in
Christ Jesus’ (Romans 4:24), ‘redemption
through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:14)
Imagine salvation did require God Himself to take human form and shed His blood in
order to forgive our sins and make eternal life possible for us.
in the world would Jesus, when answering his questioner in the passage above,
fail to mention this fact?
Jesus makes it
abundantly clear: the young man has answered correctly!
If the young man
had not answered correctly, and had
left out the part about the blood and the sacrifice and God taking human form …
would Jesus have said, ‘You have answered correctly: do this and you shall live’?
So. What about Paul?
The problem is not, cannot be, that Jesus
is not listening closely enough to Paul.
The problem must therefore be that Paul
is not listening closely enough to Jesus.
The more research I put into the subject of the
early history of the Gospels, the more I found myself thinking of that
conversation about the Gospel
of John with my priest. I realized that what he had
been unwilling or unable to tell me was that
the author(s) of the Gospel of John had been lying.
This was manifestly not an eyewitness account,
though it claimed to be.
I was in a strange situation. I was certainly
enjoying the fellowship of the Christians at my church, who were all committed
and prayerful people.
Being part of a religious community was important
to me. Yet I had deep intellectual misgivings
about the supposed historicity of the Gospel narratives.
What’s more, I was, more and more undeniably,
getting a starkly different message from the Gospel
sayings of Jesus than that which my fellow
Christians were apparently getting.
There came a point at which I was fascinated by the
apparent intersection of the Christian mystic tradition and that of the Sufis
and the Zen Buddhists. And I had even written on such matters. But there seemed
to be no one at my church who shared my zeal for these issues.
In particular, I was interested in the research
being done that indicated that the oldest strata of the
Gospels reflected an extremely early source known
as Q, and that each of the individual sayings of Jesus within it needed to be
evaluated on its own merits,
and not as part of the narrative material that
surrounded it. The narrative material, I learned—material accounted for, among other
the crucifixion narratives that form the core of
conventional Christian theology—was in fact added
many years later. I started focusing much more
closely on these verses, and using them as a
criterion by which to evaluate those parts of the
New Testament that had for years seemed cold
and foreign to me.