Paul’s Authority?

This is a question I struggle with. Eric was leveled with the charge of iconoclasm for questioning the authority of Paul on the issue of sexuality. So I ask: Where does Paul’s authority lie? Does he fill in where Jesus didn’t explain things? Does he add to Jesus things that maybe weren’t meant to be added? Do either questions matter? Does he have final authority on sin and Christian practice? If not final authority, then where is his place in the “overall trajectory of scripture”?

Let’s venture out here a little bit. If you are arguing in the tradition of Paul as authoritative, don’t assume that this is self-evident. Prove it. If you are arguing that Paul’s authority is questionable, same applies: prove it.

Comments (4)

  1. Ron

    In early Christianity, there were the early believers in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus. Note that at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), it was James who, after listening to Paul and Barnabas and the others, stood up and rendered the judgment of what to do concerning the Gentile believers (write them a letter). Since James was the leader, he gave the final judgment in the matter.
    There was an ongoing dispute between James and Paul concerning theology. Paul had never met Jesus- had only seen him in a vision. James, on the other hand knew Jesus very well and therefore, James’ theology is likely closer to Jesus’ than is Paul’s. Paul was the missionary- trying to sell the gentile world on a jewish messiah. Paul was living in the gentile world and accepted gentile ways much more than the Jerusalem believers did.
    Because Paul wrote more than the Jerusalem believers did, or at least more of his writing has survived and was included in the Bible, his views won out. The Siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the dispersal and death of many Jerusalem believers also contributed to the fall of the Jerusalem Christians’ version of Christianity and it was Paul’s version that prevailed and was accepted as the official religion of the Roman empire and what is now known as Christianity.
    However, if we look at the book of James in the Bible, and the gospel of Mathew, we find a theology that is probably closer to early Christianity, and therefore closer to Jesus.
    One of the disputes was over faith versus works, with Paul arguing that we are not saved by works but by faith alone, while James stating that faith without works is useless (James 2:14-24).
    So, as to the issue in this post, as to what authority I would give to Paul, I would definitely make it a lesser authority, and insofar as it contradicted Jesus or James, I would say that it is in error.
    Paul had to make the sales pitch to the gentiles, and many things were likely lost in the translation to greek, and greek culture was added to the Jesus story in the process. The original Jewish version is much closer to the real Jesus. In Paul’s letters, we see few quotes from Jesus to back up what he says. Why not? While the gospels were probably written after Paul’s letters, early Christians certainly knew many of Jesus’ teachings by heart and probably had other written sources, such as Q. The education of the day was largely the memorization of scripture, so early Christians must have had many of Jesus’ words and stories memorized. However since he did not quote Jesus, Paul must have felt that he himself had authority, perhaps due to his vision of Jesus or because he has spent time with the apostles.
    So, basically, the version of christianity that has been passed down to us is Paul’s version, not the version of the Jerusalem Christians, which is closer to the real Jesus.
    The question we need to ask is do we want to know who the real Jesus is or do we prefer the Jesus that has been handed down to us through traditional Christianity? Is it scary to think that perhaps the Pauline version of Christianity that we know is very different from Jesus’ teachings? Or would it be better not to even consider such things, since the form of Christianity we have has worked for millions of people for 2,000 years and therefore must have great value, regardless of its authenticity?
    I am interested in reading other comments.

  2. SteveK

    Interesting post and comment. Let me make a few comments as well:

    1. I believe that actually Paul’s and James’s approach to Jesus didn’t differ. As in the context above (Acts 15), James actually took Paul’s side. This is the same in the faith and works so-called “controversy”. James said that you know faith by one’s works. Paul agreed with this in Romans 2 and 13, where the “faithful” in Christ fulfills the law– at least the same law James refers to– “love your neighbor as yourself.” They were actually in agreement in all the essentials.

    2. Most of the controversy about Paul has to do with the interpretaiton of Paul, rather than what Paul actually said. If we understand Paul as an interpreter of Jesus for the Gentiles, perhaps we could understand him better, rather than a person who somehow received a very detailed revelation apart from Jesus. In other words, if we could see Paul just reiterating Jesus’ words, then we would best understand Paul by understanding Jesus first. If we understand Jesus in his second-temple Judaism context, and then take those concepts and understand Paul giving those same ideas to Gentiles in a diaspora/pagan context, perahps we might know Paul better, and have Jesus’ teaching be even richer. (David Wenham has a couple of excellent books on this approach).

    3. Paul did quote Jesus, quite frequently. He didn’t feel the need to reiterate what he had already given the young churches during his time of discipleship– which was teaching the sayings of Jesus. So he had to fill in areas in his letters. All we get are bits and pieces of his basic teaching– Phil 2:4-11; Romans 1:1-4; I Cor 11:2, for example– which are actually re-statments of the teaching found in the gospels.

    4. Ultimately, in most arguments we have with Paul, especially when we think that Paul is disagreeing with Jesus, we are really arguing with the interpreters of Paul from Luther to the present day, rather than Paul himself. I think, generally, the “new perspectives” approach of Paul is very helpful.

    I had a thought recently, “What if Paul was going to give his teaching today– what would it look like?” So I wrote out some dialogues of Paul talking with modern university students. If anyone would like to read some of these exercises in theological and exegetical imagination, you can check it out at:

    Steve K

  3. Ron

    Paul admits that he was not taught the gospel that he preached. He says he learned it through his vision of Jesus. See Galatians 1:12. He never met Jesus except in his vision. He denies having learned the gospel from those who did know Jesus. However, the content of his letters is not generally from his vision. His letters are not like the prophecies in the Old Testament or like the book of Revelations. It’s often quite clear that he is arguing for his version of the gospel against others who hold different views. These arguments and opinions are not revelations from God. So, even if you believe that his vision really was a direct revelation from God, it does not seem like what we read really comes from his vision. Instead, it appears to be a lot of his own personal opinions about things, not based on any personal knowledge of Jesus or Jesus’ teachings.
    On the other hand, his gospel became popular to the point that it prevailed against the other various competing versions of Christianity. Early Christianity had many versions, just as modern Christianity does, however many early versions were persecuted, their books were destroyed, etc. and Paul’s version became the universal “catholic” faith.
    I know that many people just accept what is in the Bible as being the inspired word of God. If it is all inspired word of God, such people work very hard to try to reconcile differences and contradictions in the Bible because otherwise how can it all be correct? However I do not accept this view and look at the Bible more critically. There were real differences in early Christianity. It is clear to anyone reading Paul’s letters that he is frequently arguing against competing viewpoints. Likewise, James’ letter is addressed to the 12 Tribes of Israel (not to the gentiles) because he had heard that some of the Jews in the diaspora had accepted Pauline theology, and James was trying to convince them that his view was correct. James didn’t oppose Paul teaching the gentiles, but when Jewish Christians stopped Jewish religious practices because of Paul’s teachings, this was going too far. If you read the language of James’ letter, it is also clear that he is making an argument in favor of his theology. If Paul and James were making arguments about theology, that is because there were differences in theology.
    I simply give greater weight to the actual teachings of Jesus and to those who actually knew Jesus than to Paul who did not.

  4. Nathan Eanes

    Ron and Steve– I think this is a good conversation. I agree with much of what both of you have said, and I don’t have much to add.

    But I do want to bolster what Steve K said about how most of our disagreements with “Paul” are really disagreements with modern-day interpreters of Paul. It seems to me that people can interpet Paul in several ways:

    1) I know a lot of Christians (in fact, this may be a dominant view in American Christendom today) who seem to begin with a modern American/Western worldview, and then interpet Paul in light of those preconceived notions. They add to this the notion that Paul’s letters were “fact books” of doctrine meant to be taken literally by all people at all times. This brings about a theology that puts all kinds of false words into Paul’s mouth. Of course, this is wrong.

    2) A better way to look at it, I think, is to see Paul, Peter, James, John, etc., as interpreting Jesus for different people in different contexts. Each wrote letters addressing specific doctrinal issues and church conflicts that arose. Thus no New Testament letter is a complete explanation of the writer’s theology. We can gain great insight into God through reading these writings– as well we should, considering that Christians for thousands of years have done so– but we need not put the Scriptures in a straitjacket that says that every verse must agree with every other, and that all Scripture is inerrant and equally applicable for all times.

    So I guess my point is that if we use method #2 rather than method #1, we don’t necessarily have to have as many disagreements with Paul. I do believe we should still be critical of the text, of course, but I think when we interpret Paul in his proper context, many disagreements become diminished.


Comments are closed.