Page 2 – Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? J. R. Daniel Kirk
But of course, like Adam (and Eve) before it, Israel failed to obediently carry out God’s plan for it to “mediate God’s presence and blessing to the world” and so was sent into exile (12). Jesus, then, marks Israel’s full return from exile, the restoration of Israel to the calling for which God had intended it. In Jesus God’s blessing is not only present to an Israel in bondage, but to an entire cosmos in need of deliverance. And this is how Paul understood the story. Paul, the missionary par excellence, understood that in Jesus God was reconciling the whole world to himself. The Gentiles could now be brought into the story of Israel (or, as Kirk also puts it, into God’s family), though Paul was adamant that Gentiles could so enter without conforming to the ethnic markers and rituals of Judaism—circumcision, dietary restrictions. Rather, as Kirk notes, “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. It is instead a story much more docetic with regard to Israel; Christ alone is the promise made to Abraham long ago, and has been laying in wait until the appointed time when God chose to apocalypse him. Furthermore, for Paul the primary movement of salvation is not from being outside the story of Israel to being brought in, but rather is that all people—whether Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free—are brought from under the powers of sin and death in the present evil age into Christ. Taken together it is clear that there is much more discontinuity in “the story” of Israel, Jesus, and Paul than Kirk’s account allows for.
And perhaps this is the big point. While I fully concur with Kirk that stories are necessary because they show and instruct rather than simply tell the truth that we are, indeed, caught up in a grand story, I am not so sure that it is a story so easily narrated. After all, such clear and concise stories tend toward requiring that we who know “the Christian story”—God’s representatives—make sure that it is kept straight and comes out right, a position that has often ended with disastrous results (see: the cross).
Daniel Kirk’s book has much to commend it; in fact, it is a fantastic resource for Christians struggling to reconcile Jesus and Paul. However, while story and narrative are currently the vogue way of doing theology, we need to be mindful that in the end it is not we who rightly tell the story of God; if properly understood, it is we who are the story that God tells. At minimum our being God’s own story should should serve as a reminder that the stories we find in the Bible are many, and that they don’t always allow for a simple, straight narrative to be told. Instead these stories force us to wrestle and grope toward understanding God’s grand design as we step out in the faith that somehow, someway God is indeed working to reconcile all things in Christ, a point on which I am sure both Jesus and Paul would agree.
Christian Amondson is a member of Church of the Servant King, Eugene, Oregon.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com