Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? J. R. Daniel Kirk [ Feature Review ]

Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? J. R. Daniel KirkThe Straight Story on Jesus and Paul

Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:
A Narrative Approach to
the Problem of Pauline Christianity

J. R. Daniel Kirk

Paperback: Brazos Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Christian Amondson.

Someone gave Daniel Kirk a difficult task. It is no small feat to trace the lines of continuity between Jesus and Paul, let alone do so in such a manner that re-kindles interest in Paul for contemporary Christians who, though largely inspired by the compassion and inclusion of Jesus, struggle to appreciate the fiery Apostle to the Gentiles. To that end, Kirk largely succeeds. Readers of Kirk’s book will find ample evidence that the Paul of the New Testament bears more resemblance to Jesus than the hard-hearted rule monger with which many of us grew up. In fact, on several fronts Kirk demonstrates how, upon closer inspection, Paul turns out to be as radical as Jesus: Paul the champion of individual salvation turns out to be Paul the Christian communitarian; Paul the articulator of a salvation by faith without works turns out to be Paul the radical disciple on the way of the cross; Paul the exclusive judge turns out to be Paul the universalizing ecumenist; Paul the patriarchal misogynist turns out be Paul the co-laborer with many women of his day; and Paul the homophobic guardian of the sanctity of marriage turns out to be Paul the good Samaritan who places all sex under the need of redemption.

Kirk’s book offers good news for many contemporary Christians, especially those who find themselves increasingly uncomfortable with the possessive grip the conservative right has held on the Apostle. Through Kirk’s careful examination of his epistles, Paul becomes not only an ally but the champion of the reconciling and world-embracing love of Jesus. Further, there are several key themes Kirk returns to throughout the text that are worth mentioning here. First, for Paul, Jesus is the King of the Kingdom of God, God’s representative on earth. Second, the way of this kingdom is cruciform; life is found when it is given away self-sacrificially on behalf of others. Third, through this Kingdom God is actively creating a new creation within the old, a new creation that appears upside down when viewed from the perspective of the world that is passing away. Fourth, we are called to enter into his kingdom and therefore to participate in God’s creative activity in the world.

On all these points I share much agreement and appreciation. And I very much think Kirk has done a great service in recasting Paul as the Apostle of the crucified messiah for those of us who may have struggled to see why Paul should matter for discipleship to Jesus. With that said, I do want to acknowledge some concerns I have about Kirk’s book, concerns rooted within the narrative framework used link Jesus to Paul.

As his subtitle indicates, Kirk grounds his account of Jesus and Paul in narrative, and in particular one that begins with creation, stretches through Israel, climaxes with the resurrection of Jesus, and continues on today. This is a very appealing story, one that is as elegant as it is simple: God’s original and abiding desire is to have humans—the part of creation made in God’s own image—“rule on God’s behalf.” This is what Kirk calls “the primal vision of the ‘Kingdom of God’” (33). However, Adam (and Eve) failed in this calling. And where they failed God chose in their place Israel, the seed of Abraham. As Kirk puts it,

“If God is the source of Abraham’s blessing, Abraham is the source of the world’s blessing. This means that the only way for the world to be blessed is for God to bless Israel first. And this is why the story of Jesus, in both the Gospels and in Paul, is the story of Israel brought to its God-ordained climax. God is making good on the promise to Abraham to bless the entire world through Israel.” (13)

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  1. Good review.  Like the emphasis at the end.  I think I will probably steal that line about us not telling God’s story but being the story that God is telling.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. And steal away! I’m pretty sure I stole that from Hauerwas (don’t ask me where, though). 

  3. Wait a second, I think you stole that from the book you’re reviewing! Or at least something close to it… 🙂

  4. Christian, I wonder though to what degree Paul doesn’t tell it explicitly because he assumes it. Why would the gospel come first to the Jew (Rom 1)? Why would reconciliation matter (Gal 3) if not in a context where Israel was already present (necessitating the unqualified inclusion of the Gentiles in Christ)? We might say that Kirk overstates things, but I think saying that Paul never uses the narrative (even by implied context) is likewise an overstatement.

    • No, I think Christian’s point clearly stands. That the gospel comes first to the Jews does not mean that the narrative postulated by salvation-historical thinkers is correct. And your post pretty much bears this out because you basically admit that it isn’t there. We just have to assume that it is implicit (i.e. read it in, allow it to determine, in advance how we interpret Paul and the Scriptures).

      Put more simply, does Paul refer to Israel as God’s failed agent, which thus made necessary Christ’s appearance and work, or not? Does Paul portray Israel as Abraham’s seed to whom the promises have been give, or not?

      Christian (and Galatians, and really Romans too) say no. And so if we want to challenge that, we have do more than just call his words an “overstatement.” We have to actually show why they are wrong.

      • I do think there is a stating of Israel’s failure. But from Paul’s perspective this is judged entirely by the fact that the crucified Christ is the success. Paul can only say what he does about Israel because he has come to the prior conclusion that Jesus is the one in whom God is bringing this plan to fulfillment.

        And, Israel and the Law are important pieces–if now cast in surprising roles. There is an olive tree that gentiles are grafted into, and this isn’t just a tree that is Christ. The Law does play a sin-magnifying role in the story–which is a surprising part to give it, one that you couldn’t guess from reading Deuteronomy. But it still has a part that makes it integral to the story. In addition to magnifying sin, it becomes one of the chief witnesses to something OTHER than itself as God’s means of righteousness and salvation.

  5. Thanks again for this thoughtful, substantive review. I’d love to have some conversation on the (non-)narrative of Israel question. I have a couple of lines of thoughts. Here’s one:

    One of the recurring issues in NT scholarship has to do with what has been dubbed an “apocalyptic” reading of Paul. Those who look to Ernst Käsemann and J. Louis Martyn as mentors tend in this direction. The point is something like this: God’s act in Christ is a radical in-breaking into the cosmos, not a development from within a continuous narrative. Often, this is set in contrast to a “salvation historical” or “narratival” reading. 

    Read the above paragraph as: “Apocalyptic readers don’t like Tom Wright.”

    But there is an important point of push-back that has to be offered to this dichotomy, and is being offered in various venues; namely, that the dichotomy is a false one.

    The in-breaking work of God, that introduces surprising redefinitions of God, salvation, the people of God, and the place of scripture, still must be told as a story that brings the OT to its God-intended resolution.

    In Galatians, this means focusing relentlessly on Abraham as the point of narrative continuity: God gave him a promise, a promise that is fulfilled in the blessing of the Gentiles in the crucified Christ. 

    The Law is a point of salvific discontinuity, but still plays an important role as custodian for a time. 
    The definition of the people of God is still “Abraham’s seed”–even though the definition of that seed has now been focused on Christ (as you rightly point out) and those who are in Christ bear the title “children of God” = seed of Abraham.

    There is a fulfillment of the Isaianic summons to the barren woman to shout and break forth in songs of joy–even if the non-Torah-observant Gentiles are the surprising fruit of her womb.

    So for the “Story of Israel” part of my narrative approach, I would say that the story of Israel is still important, but it is important in a way that could not be predicted before Jesus came and transformed how that story finds its resolution. This is an after-the-fact Christian reading of the story that affirms, with the apocalyptic readers, that it is a surprising in-breaking of God that brings about the fulfillment of the covenant promises.

    • Daniel, I appreciate your thoughtful response to Christian’s review. I wonder though about the way you frame the matter as apocalyptic thinkers simply not liking Tom Wright. The problem with that framing seems to me to be that at issue here is not whether we must choose between “apocalyptic” and “salvation history”, but rather what kind of apocalyptic logic is operative in Paul’s theology.

      I mean, Wright is thoroughly an apocalyptic thinker, no less than Martyn. However Wright’s mode of apocalyptic is more of what Martyn rightly describes as “forensic apocalyptic theology” whereas Martyn, Kasemann, and others find in Paul a “cosmological apocalyptic theology”. And herein lies the crucial difference. It is not a matter of whether or not our theology is apocalyptic, but what sort of apocalyptic logic will be at work.

      And the question to my mind, is whether or not the more Wrightian narrative approach is really able to avoid lapsing into the apocalyptic theology “the teachers” in Galatians, where the role of Christ is subsumed into nothing more than the mechanics how the community gets people “in”. 

      I don’t mean to put that all on you or your book, which I haven’t had a chance to read as of yet, but only to mention some of the issues I think are at work in these discussions that often get clouded. And thanks also to Christian for the work reviewing the book and generating this kind of discussion.

      • Also, if it matters, Martyn teases out the nature of these competing apocalyptic theologies in his Galatians commentary, pages 587-88.

      • Halden, I’m not sure what dangers a narrative approach present for falling into the “teachers’ trap.” 

        Ok, well maybe I do. I take that back.

        One place it has happened in the history of theology is that in covenant theology such a strong emphasis on “continuity” has been in play that the Law has continued to be the measure and marker of the people of God–it’s simply that the Law has been done by Christ and imputed to us.

        Here is where the “surprise” dynamic becomes important, inasmuch as the Law gets sidelined for a different, surprising resolution to the story. 

        It’s still a story, because what is happening can only be understood as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. But the story of Abe itself is amenable to several interpretations, some of which are more transformative of the original text (such as Paul’s) some of which read it in more continuity with the Torah and related practices (such as the Teachers’).

        I’m not sure Wright’s forensic apocalyptic is guilty of, or in danger of, the misreadings that have characterized Reformed Covenant Theology, because he doesn’t see Jesus as eschatological law keeper.

  6. “Paul is demanding that the story of Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord be the determining narrative for the people of God, not the story of Abraham’s circumcision” (105).Though this is surely an appealing narrative, it is troubled by one problem: Paul never uses it. Paul does not write about Israel as God’s failed agent. Nor does Paul write about Israel as Abraham’s seed of blessing. The seed, as Paul points out in Galatians 3 (a passage Kirk specifically interacts with!) is Christ and Christ alone: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as many; but is says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ” (Gal 3:16). For Paul (at least in Galatians) “the story” of Jesus is not one that has been slowly unfolding since the primal history of creation.I am not sure how one can say “Paul never uses” this particular narrative. He may not expound on it in the detail that, say, Matthew does (Mt. 1-7), but Romans 3:1-8; 9:1-6; 10:1ff; 11; and Eph. 2 all presuppose and hint at this narrative. Paul was fully immersed in Israel’s scriptures, knew this failed story (even Romans 7 might be included in this), and reflected it subtly in his writings. His focus was on the Messiah’s work and the outcome (Jew & Gentile) – for both theological and practical reasons, I believe. But that doesn’t mean this narrative is not undergirding the end results. 

    • Jeff, thanks for highlighting this point in the review.

      Reading it again, I see that Christian seems to be responding to something I did not say. I don’t say here that Israel is God’s failed agent, or that there is a slowly unfolding or developing story. 

      I say that there is something new that defines the seed of Abraham, a new requirement that replaces the old. Christian, the more I read what you’re thinking, the more I wonder if the narrative language threw you off by creating an assumption that the book does not meet? The passage you cite from my book proves the very point you’re trying to make!

  7. I haven’t read the book yet (though I’m getting to it) but the Israel narrative seems to me to always be there just beneath the surface with Paul. Just this week I was reading the famous imitating Christ passage in Philippians 2, containing the “every knee shall bow” text. Paul is “flashing” the Israel story. Isa 45:22-25

    22 Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.
    23 By myself I have sworn,
    from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
    “To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear.”

    24 Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
    are righteousness and strength;
    all who were incensed against him
    shall come to him and be ashamed.
    25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel
    shall triumph and glory.

    I’m not a N.T. scholar but it seems to me that Jesus could rely on his audiences to know “the story.” Paul has a different audience. He still held to he story but he had to translate the story (with all of its continuities and discontinuities) into something his gentile audience could comprehend. He isn’t so much offering a new story as expanding the old story to incorporate the gentiles.

  8. Daniel,
    Thanks again for taking time to respond. To begin with I want to reiterate that I really appreciated your book. And part of what makes your book great is that it is accessible for folks (and here I’m primarily thinking of young folks) not versed in new testament scholarship and, thus, not all that interested in getting into detailed accounts of how Paul and Jesus are really on about the same thing. And to that end, it makes perfect sense to employ a narrative arc that connects Paul’s work and writing to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Gospel accounts to that effect. What I mean is, this is a wonderfully useful pedagogical tool, and a powerful one at that, as it allows one to highlight major points of continuity (and between Paul and Jesus, I am in 100% agreement that there is primarily a continuous relationship) without having to wade through all the nuance (which takes so much time!).
    However, once one has been intruded upon by points of discontinuity—parts of the text that don’t quite fit the parameters of the narrative—it becomes difficult to continue telling that simple story, even if it is wonderfully helpful. And this is my dilemma. I’ve been charged with the catechesis (and odd word to use in the context of an Anabaptist house church, but useful nonetheless) of a young person in my church, who, for all intents and purposes, is a blank slate when it comes to the Scriptures (read: not sure who Abraham or Moses are). Thus, it would be very appealing to use the same narrative to “explain” to her how the Scriptures all hold together, how, as you put it, “The in-breaking work of God, that introduces surprising redefinitions of God, salvation, the people of God, and the place of scripture, still must be told as a story that brings the OT to its God-intended resolution.” One of the points of my review (one of two main points, and I hope we can get to the other point soon, as I actually think it is more important: that of how we use “story” and it potential pitfalls) was to highlight one intrusion into this story. As others have commented, it is “implied” in Paul that the story you
    present is the same story he embodies and employs. And while I am very open to
    hear a more substantive case for how it is that Paul is assuming a failed-Israel-necessitates-Jesus-as-the-climax-of-the-covenant narrative, it a) does not seem clear from the text that this is the case, and b) if one can step outside of this hermeneutic one can see several places where Paul seems to be saying some quite to the contrary. I tried to highlight just one of these points (drawing on my reading of Martyn): Christ as the singular seed of Abraham. But there are others: no mention of Gentiles entering into Israel’s covenant with God given at Sinai, the repudiation of the Law, the bold assertion that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision are anything, but that what is something is a new creation, and the fact that the Galatian Christians were Gentiles, without recourse the narratives of Israel when they entered into life the life of the Spirit—there were no (or hardly any) Jews in the areas of Galatia that Paul visited. All of these—especially when taken together—point to something like an argument that Adam fell, God promised Abraham that God would rectify this, and Christ is that rectification. Or even more strongly, that the Spirit can act upon people without regard to any previous story. 

    To put it this way, had Israel been faithful and had they endured in their calling to bless the nations, Jesus would still have had to come, because he was the promise. And that is because Israel was not plan A to Jesus’ plan B. The entire cosmos was held in captivity, and in Christ all the cosmos is rectified through the faith of Jesus Christ. Christ was plan A all along.

    So, all of this to say, had I read your book two years ago, before having started reading apocalyptic biblical scholars and theologians like J. Louis Martyn, Douglas Harink, and Nathan Kerr, I would have had only very minor quibbles with anything you wrote. And would have heartily concurred with the narrative that you draw to connect all the dots and demonstrate how the OT reaches its resolution in Christ. And I could have then used your book to help teach my young catechumenate. But now I things are just too complicated (and, I should add that there are now a host of questions for me concerning the role of Israel . . . I get that).  Which means that catechism is probably going to be difficult road to travel.

    • Christian,

      I don’t disagree with what you’re highlighting here. I do think that one of the greatest problems folks from Reformed worlds have is in recognizing the massive discontinuity that intrudes upon the world with the advent of Jesus. This is why in the ethics sections, for example, I do not start with the OT but with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The story that most defines who we are is the crucified and risen Christ, and that story redetermines the story / stories that preceded it as well.

      But it is also possible to fall off the other side of the horse.

      Without bringing the gentiles into the world of Torah observance, the Sinai covenant, and the like, Paul can say to them, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that our fathers and mothers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea…” The inclusion of the gentiles in the family of God means that the OT fathers are their fathers now–they are, in some way, brought into the story of Israel.

      The surprise is that they are brought in by being united to Christ, and behind that, that a crucified Christ is the new defining marker for the family of God.

      Similarly, we might look at the olive tree metaphor in Rom 11. The Gentiles are grafted into the tree that is Israel(‘s). But the surprise that comes with the Christ event is that the way to remain joined to the tree is now Christ-shaped faithfulness (not Torah-shaped).

      Despite the fact that Sinai becomes a place-holder rather than a route to salvation–which is a MASSIVE transformation of the story–Paul depends on the story of a people defined by Abraham, whose faithful line is continued in the election of Jacob (Rom 11), whose king David received a promise of a lineage, whose exiled people were promised a glorious restoration. 

      I read your engagements, and your personal struggles to figure out how to catechize, as a bit of a falling off the other side of the horse as you’ve fled from continuity to discontinuity. 

      One of the most important points in narrative theology is the ability to say, “Because we live here and now and not there and then, we must believe and act differently.” To be at a different point in the story is to reassess what came before. Paul did this in a radical fashion with Jesus’ death and resurrection. But that surprise, and the revisionist hermeneutic that ensues, does not undo the narrative connection. That’s why Paul has to go to such great lengths to try to prove his discontinuous narrative by appeal to the story itself.

  9. Hi Daniel,
    I wanted to respond to three things you wrote:

    1) In response to Jeff you wrote: “Reading it again, I see that Christian seems to be responding to something I did not say. I don’t say here that Israel is God’s failed agent, or that there is a slowly unfolding or developing story.”

    I agree that I don’t think you use the exact wording of Israel being a “failed agent” nor of a “slowly unfolding story,” but in chapter 1 you do write several things that point in this direction, things which I take to mean both these two points. Here are four taken from that chapter (italics are mine):
    “The story of Israel becomes, over the course of the biblical narrative, a tale of unrequited love leading to national disaster, Israel’s failure to live up to God’s calling to be the obedient, faithful representatives of humanity lands the people in exile” (13).

    “For now the important takeaway is that Jesus as we meet him on the pages of the Gospels is not living out a self-contained story. He is acting out a final, climactic scene in the ongoing drama of Israel that stretches back to creation and comes to its promised resolution with his death and resurrection. And we see that same claim in Paul” (15).

    “The story of the Gospels is the story of God, to be sure, but of God at work in a uniquely powerful way in Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, that King of Israel who represent God’s rule to the world. And in doing this, Jesus Plays the role of the first humans, a role later assigned to Israel, to rule the world on God’s behalf (Gen. 1:26)” (19).

    “The second exodus of Israel’s great story is realized by Israel’s would-be king doing what neither Adam nor Israel nor David had been able to do before: faithfully obey, without grasping after God-like power, in self-giving service on behalf of the world God had created” (25).

    Again, you may be meaning something different in these statements, but I take what you write here to mean that God’s action in Jesus was necessary because Israel (as well as Adam) failed in its calling as God’s agent/representative of blessing to the world.
    Subsequently, I see this as single narrative as containing a double declension narrative: the primordial fall of Adam and the fall of Israel. Thus, Adam was meant to be God’s representative/agent and failed; Israel was meant to fulfill what Adam failed to do, and then failed. Jesus then, was sent in to fulfill what Israel and Adam both failed to do, and succeeded. Though you don’t use this exact wording, it seems to me that double-declension narrative is a fundamental—though implicit—presupposition of your (and the New Perspective on Paul) salvation-history narrative.

    But, with that said, I am very open to hearing how this is not the case.
    2) In response to me, you wrote: “Similarly, we might look at the olive tree metaphor in Rom 11. The Gentiles are grafted into the tree that is Israel(‘s). But the surprise that comes with the Christ event is that the way to remain joined to the tree is now Christ-shaped faithfulness (not Torah-shaped).”
    I am concerned about this, though. What you write here is tricky, because I’m not sure what you mean by Christ-shaped faithfulness: is this Christ’s faithfulness or ours? Perhaps it is moot, because in either case, you use the language of “remain” which makes me think you mean that we have a role to “be faithful” in order to stay within the blessing. The problem with this, though, is that—and this is one of Marytn’s key points—that in Christ God is not replacing one means of right decision for another: law-observance for faith in Christ. Rather, through Christ’s faith—when we were sinners—the world has been reconciled to God in Christ. The Old antimonies of faithfulful/unfaithful have been completely undermined altogether!
    I’m sure you’ve already read these essays, but if you haven’t, I would encourage you to read the three essays on Galatians within Bassler’s Pauline Theology collection. The first is by James Dunn, and it seems to be arguing for something quite similar to your position (or what I am understanding your position to be). The last is by Lou Martyn, and offers what I find to be a very persuasive rebuttal to Dunn’s contention that Paul is trying to modify, in light of the cross and resurrection, the means by which the Gentiles can now enter into the blessings of Israel’s covenant with God. Martyn, argues, though, that this is exactly the position of the teachers! They are concerned with a modified covenantal nomism to ensure Gentiles are able to be brought in to Israel’s covenant. Paul, on the other hand, is arguing for some much more radical that a revising of the entrance requirements. He is saying that the primary movement is not from outside Israel’s covenant to inside, but rather that God has invaded the fallen cosmos in Christ, and is drawing all people’s into himself. Not as an extension of Israel, but as a “new creation” or, you might say, the new covenant of Christ’s body.
    Anyhow, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this particular essay of Martyn, if you have read it or get to read it. I think it gets at the heart of the matter of what I’m trying to raise (albeit rather clumsily) here. 

    3) Finally, to me you wrote: “I read your engagements, and your personal struggles to figure out how to catechize, as a bit of a falling off the other side of the horse as you’ve fled from continuity to discontinuity.”

    I have to disagree as—in addition to presenting a false dichotomy—your statement misunderstands what I’m claiming (both in the initial review and in my comment). I am not necessarily embracing total discontinuity in place of continuity, but instead am saying that there are enough texts that problematize the narrative as presented in your book that it might not be best to teach it, only later to have to say: “well, it’s a pretty good overview of the whole Bible, but now we have to deal with these difficult passages that don’t seem to fit, or seem to outright contradict it.” I’m just wondering if there is another way to approach teaching the “story(ies)” of the Bible in a way that doesn’t latter require pulling out all the parts we had to keep hidden. Or worse, a way to teach that doesn’t force us to posit a continuity where there clearly isn’t one. How do we tell the story of Jesus and Paul in a way that allows for things to not be so neat and tidy? That is my main concern.