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Disassociating Paul From Jesus: Breaking Down the False Dichotomy


By means of sophisticatedly crafted statements on social media, certain prominent voices in the evangelical wing of Christendom have revealed their penchant for pitting Jesus’ ethical teaching against that of the Apostle Paul. To elevate what Jesus taught over against what His apostles taught reveals a fundamental deficiency with regard to the doctrine of biblical revelation. Such false dichotomizing is ostensibly driven by a desire to distance oneself from the Apostle’s condemnation of homosexuality and his teaching about gender role distinctions in the church. The desire to set Jesus and Paul at odds—or to subtly downplay the fact that the apostolic letters are, in fact, the very words of Christ—will inevitably backfire on those who believe they are helping others embrace a more tolerant brand of Christianity in the church.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the church faced a form of theological liberalism in which theologians sought to disassociate Jesus and Paul. Although the driving factors in the theological liberalism of the twentieth century were somewhat different from our current ecclesiastical controversies, the method and desired end were strikingly similar. Attacks on the organic unity of Scripture led professors at Princeton Theological Seminary to proffer some of the greatest arguments for the defense of the unity and progressive development of the canon of Scripture. In his 1912 article titled, “Jesus and Paul,” J. Gresham Machen confronted the liberal attempt to make Paul “the second founder of Christianity”—a redactor of Jesus’ teaching. Machen wrote,

In recent years there is a tendency to dissociate Paul from Jesus. A recent historian has entitled Paul “the second founder of Christianity.” If that be correct, then Christianity is facing the greatest crisis in its history. For—let us not deceive ourselves—if Paul is independent of Jesus, he can no longer be a teacher of the Church. Christianity is founded upon Christ and only Christ.

Machen subsequently turned the content of that article into his much more developed work, The Origin of Paul’s Religionwhich is one of the greatest refutations of efforts to disassociate the foremost Apostle from the Savior.

Geehardus Vos, the great biblical theologian at Princeton, explained that the relationship between the biblical revelation about the earthly ministry of Jesus and the Apostolic writing is the relationship between “the fact to be interpreted and the subsequent interpretation of this fact.” He wrote,

It is a total misunderstanding both of the consciousness of Jesus and of that of the N.T. writers, to conceive of the thought of ‘going back’ from the Apostles, particularly Paul, to Jesus…To take Christ at all He must be taken as the center of a movement of revelation organized around Him, and winding up the whole process of revelation. When cut loose from what went before and came after, Jesus not only becomes uninterpretable, but owing to the meteoric character of His appearance, remains scarcely sufficient for bearing by Himself alone the tremendous weight of a supernaturalistic worldview. As a matter of fact, He does not represent Himself anywhere as being by his human earthly activity the exhaustive expounder of truth. Much rather He is the great fact to be expounded. And He has nowhere isolated Himself from His interpreters, but on the contrary identified them with Himself, both as to absoluteness of authority and adequacy of knowledge imparted (Luke 15:16; John 16:12-15). And through the promise and gift of the Spirit He has made the identity real. The Spirit takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto the recipients. Besides this, the course of our Lord’s redemptive career was such as to make the important facts accumulate towards the end, where the departure of Jesus from the disciples rendered explanation by Himself of the significance of these impossible. For this reason the teaching of Jesus, so far from rendering the teaching of the Apostles negligible, absolutely postulates it. As the latter would have been empty, lacking the fact, so the former would have been blind, at least in part, be- cause of lacking the light.

The relation between Jesus and the Apostolate is in general that between the fact to be interpreted and the subsequent interpretation of this fact. This is none other than the principle under which all revelation proceeds. The N.T. Canon is constructed on it. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles stand first, although from a literary point of view this is not the chronological sequence. Theirs is the first place, because there is embodied in them the great actuality of N.T. Redemption. Still it ought not to be overlooked, that within the Gospels and the Acts themselves we meet with a certain preformation of this same law. Jesus’ task is not confined. to furnishing the fact or the facts; He interweaves and accompanies the creation of the facts with a preliminary illumination of them, for by the side of his work stands his teaching. Only the teaching is more sporadic and less comprehensive than that supplied by the Epistles. It resembles the embryo, which though after an indistinct fashion, yet truly contains the structure, which the full-grown organism will clearly exhibit.

This, of course, raises for us the question about the content of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. We should at once observe that Jesus never personally wrote anything. The content of the four gospels, and the content of the words of Jesus in the book of Revelation were written down by “holy men of God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” They are no less the work of the Spirit of God through the instrumentality of chosen men than are the words of the Apostles in their addresses to the church. Additionally, it should not be forgotten that the Apostle John ended the fourth gospel by reminding us that “there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Certainly, Jesus taught many things that were not recorded for the church throughout the remainder of the New Covenant era. However, Jesus promised His disciples that the Spirit of God would come and would give them even more revelation than that which He had given them throughout the time of His sojourning with them on earth. This promise is fulfilled in the completion of the canon with the writing of the book of Acts, the New Testament epistles and the Apocalypse.