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David Mills on Those Who Would Separate Jesus from St. Paul
In my files is the newsletter of a famous Episcopal parish in New York City. On one page is a sermon by its recently retired rector, in which he spoke of worship as “but the means of bringing us close to the source of our faith, and that source is very simply Our Lord Jesus Christ.” He then not only proclaimed his belief in the Virgin Birth but in the Immaculate Conception as well.
On the facing page was a response by the parish’s trustees to the assertion of the 1998 Lambeth Conference (the last meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops) that homosexual practices are “incompatible with Scripture.” The trustees declared their parish “a faith community in which membership and opportunity for lay and ordained ministry shall not be restricted on the basis of sexual orientation.” By “orientation,” let me be clear, they meant to include the practice thereof.
And in his sermon, the former rector himself promoted the approval of homosexuality, as well as the ordination of women. These innovations, apparently in contradiction to the teaching of St. Paul, he must have believed expressed the will of “the source of our faith.”
Separating Gospels from Epistles
What, one thinks, have we here? On the one hand a very, very high view not only of the Incarnation but also of our Lord’s mother herself, as deeply traditionalist as anyone could wish, and on the other hand a willful rejection of Scripture’s moral teaching.
This is a now common problem in Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant: the Christian who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, and who also almost completely rejects the unfashionable teachings of the Bible found outside the four Gospels. As our society becomes more and more interested in “spirituality,” we find more and more people talking in very traditional terms about Jesus while assuming that the Scripture in which he is revealed has nothing to say about any part of their lives they wish to keep to themselves.
These people in effect separate the Gospels they accept—partly because they have not read them closely—from the Epistles they reject. It is usually St. Paul whose words they reject. The other New Testament writers they usually ignore, perhaps because they did not say anything so offensive to modern ears as St. Paul’s instructions on men, women, and sexuality. They do not reject even Paul’s Epistles entirely, of course, as they accept those useful verses, most famously Galatians 3:28, that they can take out of context to support some view one suspects they already hold for other reasons.
Those who think this way often divide Jesus the gentle prophet of inclusive love (or however the favorite Jesus of the moment is described) from St. Paul the rule-maker, and sometimes also divide St. Paul the apostle of freedom from St. Paul the unreformed Pharisee. Sometimes they simply talk a lot about Jesus and pretend that St. Paul did not exist. The first tactic seems to have been the more popular some decades ago, while the latter seems now to be the more popular of the two. It is certainly shrewder to forget to invite St. Paul to the party than to invite him and then pick a fight with him in front of the guests.
A few years ago, Virginia Theological Seminary decided to admit students living in sodomitical relationships and to let them live together on campus, if their sponsoring bishops approved. They replaced their catalogue’s “Policy Statement on Norms of Sexual Behavior” with one called “A Call to a Holy Life,” which the dean called “more in keeping with the biblical balance of the Christian tradition.”
The new call began by saying that “trustees, faculty and students of the Seminary community are expected to be wholesome examples of persons called to a holy life.” This life it defined as “not an achievement but a gift of God’s grace that comes to those whose lives are grounded in Holy Scripture, enriched and disciplined in the community of faith, and focused on Christ as the companion and end of life’s pilgrimage.”
It sounds terribly religious. It is “focused on Christ,” after all. It is just not Christian.
To explain the absence of St. Paul from their teaching, should anyone object, these people will often say that they are preaching the “core” or the “center” of the Faith, the part that really matters. The more sophisticated may explain that they read the New Testament through Jesus, that their hermeneutic is “Christological,” but that the Jesus they follow is one freed from the distortions the Gospel writers inevitably added. If they are conservative, they may say that they are “keeping the main thing the main thing,” are not letting themselves and their parishes be distracted by “issues,” and are “focusing on the gospel.”
This is, in a sense, true. St. Paul defines his own mission as “I preach Christ, and him crucified,” not “I have instructions for you about sexuality and headship and similar subjects.” The Christian looks always to Christ and therefore listens to his words as recorded in the four Gospels. He does read the New Testament through Jesus and believe him the center of the faith.
But he looks also to those who speak for the Lord with his authority. The Christian who claims to love Jesus but ignores or spurns his spokesmen is like a soldier going into battle having pledged obedience to the general but refusing to take orders from the captains and lieutenants he has put in command. The officers are not only the general’s deputies but also the men whose job it is to relay the details that effect his wider vision and plan. Their commands are his commands.
The biblical revelation is, for Christians, a whole. It is still such, officially, even for mainline Christians: In the eucharistic Liturgy of most churches, the reader declares at the end of each lesson, Old Testament and Epistle as well as Gospel, “The word of the Lord.” (I am told that in some Episcopal seminaries students have reverted to using the old Prayer Book’s “Here ends the lesson” when they don’t approve of it.)
The Bible is all of a piece: a very complex piece, obviously, and one in which the relations of the parts are not always obvious (people still argue over the relation of Paul on faith to James on works), and in which some parts seem to have no purpose at all (most preachers I’ve heard just skip over the genealogies). This complexity does not mean, as modern scholars often assume, that the revelation is incoherent and contradictory. It may be, as Christians believe, subtle and sophisticated, its unity only partly visible to fallen man.
The Christian responds to this complexity not by choosing what he will accept and what he won’t—for this is all the man who separates the Gospels from the Epistles is doing—but by studying and obeying the texts, and thus coming to understand them more deeply and surely and to see something of the unity beneath or behind the diversity. The unlearned and the young in the Faith can borrow from the learning and wisdom of others, who can explain the agreement of Paul and James and the reasons for the genealogies.
One can reject this idea of Scripture. One can, with perfect logic, separate the Gospels from the Epistles, and even parts of the Gospels from the rest of the Gospels. There is no intrinsic reason to read the Bible as Christians have always read it. You can, if you want, treat the Bible as a collection of texts to be reviewed and used as you think best.
It is perfectly rational to claim, as the sort of liberal we are discussing does, that Jesus himself was a special revelation of God’s love for man, which can be seen in the Gospels (imperfect as they are) but was badly distorted in the Epistles, especially those of St. Paul, who could (says the liberal) rise to the heights of Galatians 3:28 but sink to the depths of Romans 1:26. One can do this and retain a religion in shape and language still Christian, still Christian enough, anyway, to hold pastoral cures and theological chairs.
Separating St. Paul
I suspect such people separate Jesus from St. Paul because they do not want to obey the rule of life Paul gives us, and they do not want to believe that Jesus would agree with him. It is not an easy rule in any age, and in ours it can be a costly one, socially and professionally. You will make those at a dinner party in most suburbs flinch by saying of homosexual people what St. Paul says of them in Romans 1, and if you are a cleric you will risk your future by treating the matter as urgently as the apostle suggests. You will upset many conservative Christians by speaking in the Pauline mode, because such speech is too pointed, too stark, too direct, too divisive.
Faced with such demands as St. Paul makes, people naturally turn away from their source, as one instinctively avoids the eyes of anyone who has just asked for volunteers. The shrewder ones will start talking ever more loudly about the Lord so that others will not notice they have turned their backs on his servant St. Paul.
That is the obvious reason, but my colleague Steven Hutchens has noted another. “There is,” he adds, “the absolute necessity of using truth to promulgate the lie. We should not be surprised when we see them appear together.” In these cases, a perversion of Christianity is best conveyed while talking fervently of Jesus.
Orthodox Christians look to Jesus and so look to St. Paul, and listen to St. Paul because he reliably points us to Jesus. We assume that God gave us the Epistles as well as the Gospels, because the Epistles tell us something the Gospels do not, or make clear something we would not always see rightly in the Gospels. Of course, a man stranded on an island with only the four Gospels, or even just one Gospel, would know what Jesus has done for him and would have a very good idea of what Jesus expects of him. But he would not know everything Jesus expected of him, and not everything he knew would he know confidently and accurately.
In the Gospels we meet Jesus himself. They tell Jesus’ story, and storytellers cannot include everything their subject did or said. In the Epistles we hear people who knew Jesus much better than we do tell us what he said, or would have said, about this, that, and the other problem we must solve. In them we have the narrative turned into a theology.
To take the most contentious issue of the moment, Jesus did not say (or is not recorded as saying) anything about homosexuality, the practice of sodomy being so thoroughly unthinkable to the Jews of the day as not to need mentioning. Left on our own, with only the four Gospels to tell us what Jesus wants, we could easily assume that a man may lie with a man as with a woman (in Leviticus’ practical definition) and in doing so express the love that Jesus did talk about and reject the legalism he condemned.
We would be wrong, but ours would be a plausible error, given the information we have in the Gospels alone. St. Paul’s exposition clarifies the question for us beyond mistake or dispute. (I know some do dispute it, but they can only do so by distorting Paul’s message in the way they accuse Paul of distorting Jesus’.)
A Rule for Discernment
Let me suggest a rule for discernment: A man who habitually speaks of Jesus Christ without also speaking of St. Paul and the other New Testament writers is not speaking as a Christian, no matter how orthodox his view of the Lord. He is not speaking as a Christian though he hold high office in a Christian body—and indeed he may have risen to such heights because he left out of his teaching most of the words of the controversial and discomforting St. Paul.
In other words, a man who proclaims the most thorough belief in the historical facts described in the Gospels and proclaimed in the Creed but neglects, ignores, doubts, or rejects the implications of those facts as drawn out in the Epistles is not an orthodox Christian. He may love the Lord, or seem to, but he does not also love St. Paul and the rest, and he who does not love St. Paul and the rest does not love the Lord who became man in first-century Palestine, but an image he has adapted to his own desires.
He may well be an accredited shepherd with many years’ experience, but he is not following the Shepherd’s Manual. He is rewriting it as he wishes, in the light, he thinks, of his greater knowledge and experience. It was written for primitive sheep, not the highly evolved sheep of today, and reflects the ancient shepherd’s simplistic understanding of wolves, not the insight of the modern shepherd. The modern shepherd understands that the wolves are seeking the one truth in their own way and must be affirmed in their personal journey, and that the shepherd’s traditional requirement to protect the sheep and the wolves’ desire to eat them must be held in creative tension till both come to see that the answer is found in a synthesis of their views, because each needs the other to be whole.
This shepherd is worse than a hireling, who runs away when danger threatens the flock and leaves the sheep who have been entrusted to him to the wolves. Hirelings are adequate shepherds as long as they do not have to risk their life. They hate wolves, even if they will not fight them. The shepherd who rejects the Epistles is in league with the wolves. He has accepted their rules for the care of sheep. In exchange for their friendship, he asks only that he be allowed to defend the sheep at selected times during the day, which permission the wolves are usually happy to grant, as long as their access to dinner is not unduly restricted.
The Scripture is a whole. It is all of a piece. It is a canon. Through St. Paul and St. John and St. Peter and the rest we hear our Lord speaking. The wise Christian, therefore, will not follow the shepherd who does not himself follow St. Paul and St. John and St. Peter and the rest. He will shun the man who talks in very traditional terms about the Lord but ignores or rejects the Epistles.
He who loves the General will obey his captains, even when they command what he does not like or want, and even when the wolves threaten. The man who disobeys the captains, though he has a picture of the general tattooed on his chest, is no friend of the general’s, but a traitor. •
This is the first in a series of three Views on liberalism.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.