Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:
A Narrative Approach to
the Problem of Pauline Christianity
J. R. Daniel Kirk
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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