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#231 Repelled by Paul?

September 19, 2011
Q

Dear Dr. Craig,

I can hardly believe I am writing to you to ask this question.

I have spent many years avoiding Christianity and yet sincerely searching for Truth. I have studied Buddhism, academic philosophy, and have been involved with Occultism.

The reason for being willing to search for Truth in these places whilst avoiding Christianity was because I found the Christian faith in Paul unreasonable.

Very recently, I watched one of your lectures and was emotionally moved in a way I could not have anticipated; first: I saw how Christianity could be reasonable, and second: I felt that the Truth you were teaching was somehow the Real Truth, against which my others were as shadows.

I now feel called to Jesus - yet I remain repelled by Paul.

I see many reasons to believe in Jesus, but very few to trust Paul's experience. Believing in Jesus seems reasonable, but believing that Paul was not deluding himself seems harder to justify, especially when Paul seems to contradict Jesus and oppose the apostles.

My question is: Is it possible to be a Christian, without having faith in Paul or his doctrinal contribution? Would the essential Christian teachings of the Church remain, if we reject Paul's contribution?

If not: How might one have a reasonable faith in Paul to the degree of confidence necessary to adopt his interpretation of Jesus.

Thank you for your help,

Anthony

United Kingdom

Dr. craig’s response


A

It’s wonderful to read of how God is working in your life, Anthony! I remember as a non-Christian teenager, when I first read the Gospels about the life and teachings of Jesus, how I, too, sensed that this was the Real Truth and how I could not turn my back on it (or, rather, on him). After becoming a Christian, I learned that this was the convicting power of God’s Holy Spirit in my life, drawing me to Himself. You do well to attend to His call.

But you’ve got a problem with the apostle Paul! And so you wonder if one can become a Christian without having faith in Paul or his doctrinal contribution.

Now at one level, the answer to your question is easy: of course, it’s possible to be a Christian without believing in Paul or his doctrinal contribution! After all, think of all the Christians who lived prior to Paul’s letters’ being written or widely disseminated. Or think of someone today who does not have the Bible in his own language but who hears a broadcast of the Gospel on a shortwave radio or sees a showing of the Jesus film in his village and places his faith in Christ. Such persons are obviously Christians without being disciples of Paul.

But this answer is doubtless too easy. What you want to know is if someone like yourself who has read Paul’s letters can not believe in him or his doctrinal contribution. That’s a more difficult question, especially since you didn’t share with me just what your problems with Paul are.

To begin with, though, you certainly don’t have to believe in Paul in order to be a Christian. Paul himself would have insisted on this point. For example, in writing to the Christians in Corinth, he said,

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name (1 Corinthians 1.11-15).

Paul obviously had no interest in generating a Paul following! Later in the same letter he explains how his Corinthian converts should regard him:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.5-7).

So you don’t have to believe in Paul to follow Jesus.

In fact, you don’t even have to like Paul! There were other Christians in the early church like John Mark and Barnabas and even Peter, who sometimes didn’t see eye to eye with Paul and quarreled with him. But remember, Paul laid before the Jerusalem apostles Peter, James, and John the message he preached among the Gentiles, and they ratified his teaching (Galatians 2.7-9). Certainly there are passages in his letters where Paul can come across as over-bearing. When you read his letter to Philemon, for example, you can’t help but sense that he’s really turning the screws on this guy. But then keep in mind that Paul is sending back to Philemon a runaway slave who has become a Christian under Paul’s ministry, who has been a helper to Paul and whom Paul loves as a brother and that Philemon under the law has every right to exact punishment on this incredibly courageous man, and you’ve got to cut Paul some slack for applying the pressure to Philemon to forgive Onesimus. One can’t help but wince, too, when Paul tells the Corinthians that he “worked harder” than any of the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15.10), even if that is true. But again, cut him some slack: Corinth was infested at that time with itinerant pseudo-apostles who were attacking Paul’s being a genuine apostle and threatened to destroy the work he had birthed in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12.11-13). He needed to defend his credentials, though he thought himself behaving like a fool in doing so.

The longer I’ve been a Christian the more I’ve come to admire the apostle Paul. This was a man of towering intellect, who could take on both the Jewish theologians and the Greek philosophers of his day, and who was unfailing in his courage and perseverance and dedication. Just read Luke’s account of his ministry in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul himself wrote of what he had endured in the course of his ministry through the Mediterranean world:

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11.24-28).

I cannot even imagine what this man went through. His body must have been a mass of scar tissue. Finally he died a martyr in Rome. Who am I to criticize such a man? I am humbled and convicted by his commitment and his love of the Lord Jesus.

Nor can I imagine why you think that Paul might be deluding himself. Are you familiar with the account of his conversion? It’s really quite amazing when you step back and think about it. Saul of Tarsus (as he was called in his pre-Christian days) was a Pharisee! People sometimes ask why the Jewish leaders didn’t become followers of Jesus. They’re overlooking the most notable example of one who did. He was actually in the employ of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to go about persecuting Jews who followed Jesus. He held the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death in Jerusalem. He was actually responsible for dragging people out of their homes and even sending them to death for following Jesus as Messiah! And then he left everything and became a Christian missionary because one day, as he was going to Damascus to seize Christians there, he saw an appearance of Jesus (I Corinthians 9.1; Galatians 1.13-17).

The resurrection appearance of Jesus to Paul is perhaps the best attested historically of all the resurrection appearances. We have three accounts of it in Luke’s Acts, as well as multiple references to it in indisputably genuine Pauline letters. It is historically certain, if anything is, that such an event occurred. So if you want to dismiss it as non-veridical, you’ve got to explain away his experience in psychological terms as some sort of hallucination or vision. But such explanations are fraught with problems. (See Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment [IVP, 2000], which includes the transcript of my debate with Gerd Lüdemann, who tries to explain Paul’s experience as a guilt-induced hallucination.) In short, I think it’s the person who would deny the veridicality of Paul’s experience who is on the defensive.

But putting Paul aside, let’s ask about his doctrinal contribution. Again, in one sense you don’t have to believe in Paul’s peculiar doctrinal contribution in order to be a Christian because the central doctrines of the Christian faith are also to be found elsewhere in the New Testament: in the Gospels, the theologically rich book of Hebrews, and the other epistles. The core doctrines of the Christian faith weren’t peculiar to Paul. Really, there’s not very much that you HAVE to believe in order to be a Christian. Essential doctrines would include things like the existence of a holy, loving, all-mighty God; your sinfulness before such a God and need of his forgiveness and moral cleansing; the deity and humanity of Jesus, his atoning death for your sins, and his resurrection from death; and the need for personal repentance and faith to access God’s grace. None of these doctrines is a Pauline idiosyncrasy.

As I reflect on your letter, Anthony, I worry that maybe you’re under the impression that certain Pauline doctrines, like the deity of Christ, aren’t taught elsewhere in the New Testament. This just isn’t true (see, e.g., John 1.1-3; 20.28; Hebrews 1.6; I John 5.20). See also what I have to say about Jesus’ own self-understanding in the relevant chapters in either On Guard (David C. Cook, 2010) or Reasonable Faith (Crossway, 2008). The New Testament Christians, who were, remember, monotheistic Jews, got their doctrine of the deity of Christ from the teachings of Jesus himself.

So I just can’t figure out what it is about Paul that would lead you to reject his doctrinal teaching. Maybe you haven’t understood that teaching correctly. Some people, for example, have been repelled by Paul’s teaching on election in Romans 9; but I’m convinced that they have misunderstood Paul’s intention in that passage, which is to broaden the scope of God’s election beyond the Jews to all who have faith in Christ Jesus. That’s why he can say, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10.11).

So I’d encourage you to read a biography of Paul and to continue to study his thought rather than give up on him. I think that one can have not only a reasonable faith in Paul’s teaching but that one can delight in the insights in this true genius and courageous servant of Jesus Christ.

- William Lane Craig