Paul, or Jesus?

Conversion of Saint Paul (Michelangelo Buonarroti)

Through sophisticated 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."[1]

Machen subsequently turned the content of that article into his much more developed work, The Origin of Paul's Religion--which 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 them- selves 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."[2]

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.

In The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, J.H. Bernard explained how the meaning of Jesus' teaching about the coming Spirit in John 16:8-14 is intimately related to the fuller revelation of the canon that He would give the Apostles. He wrote, 

"Though in the teaching of Jesus all the truth might be implied, it was not all opened; therefore the Holy Ghost was to add that which had not been delivered, as well as to recall that which had been already spoken. There is an evident contrast intended, with regard to extent of knowledge, between 'these things which I have spoken while yet present with you,' and 'all things which he shall teach you.' Nay, there is the plainest assertion which could be made, that things were to be said afterwards which had not been said then ; and those not few but many -- ('I have yet many things to say unto you') -- not of secondary importance but of the highest moment ('Ye cannot bear them now'). They are things of such a kind as would now weigh down and oppress your minds, seeing that they surpass your present powers of spiritual apprehension. But these many and weighty things shall not be left untold. 'When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth.' He shall guide you, as by successive steps and continuous direction, into the whole of that truth of which the commencements have now been given; and especially into the highest and central part of it. For it is also made plain on what subject this light shall be poured, and into what mysteries this guidance shall lead.'He shall testify of me;' 'he shall glorify me;' 'he shall take of mine and shew it unto you;' 'at that day ye shall know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.' Not then for some secondary matters (details of Church order or relations of Jews and Gentiles) was this light and witness of the Holy Ghost reserved (though to these questions also the divine guidance extended), but rather for the great and central mystery of godliness, embracing the nature, work, and offices of Jesus Christ, his mediatorial relations to the Father and to the Church, the redemption of men by his blood, and the salvation of men by his life. But instead of attempting to enumerate these great ideas, it were better to comprehend them all in his own vast and unexplained expression,  'He shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you.'

"We have now reviewed the teaching of our Lord in the flesh, in order to draw from it an answer to this question, 'Is the revelation of the great salvation given to us in that teaching to be considered as final and complete?' The answer has been, 'No! It has not the appearance of being final, and it explicitly declares that it is not complete. When it was ended, it was to be followed by a new testimony from God, in order that many things might be spoken which had not been spoken then.' The testimony came; the things were spoken; and in the apostolic writings we have their enduring record. In those writings we find the fulfillment of an expectation which the Gospels raised, and recognize the performance of a promise which the Gospels gave. If we do not, the word of salvation, which began to be spoken by the Lord, has never been finished for us."

While all of this ought to come with the convincing force with which it is intended, we still have to seek for a satisfactory answer to the questions about apostolic teaching that appears to be new ethical teaching-distinct from what our Lord taught during His earthly ministry. The prime explain is found in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 and 14:37-38.

John Murray, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminister Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote the single most helpful chapter on the internal testimony of Scripture, with special references to the Divine inspiration and apostolic authority on account of the language used in such places as 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:37-38. In 1 Cor. 7:10-12 the Apostle employs phraseology that might be construed as unauthoritative judgment

"Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her." 

Does this mean that part of our Bible is not authoritatively binding, and that these passages are just pious advice? Seeking to set out an accurate explanation of what Paul actual meant, Murray wrote:

"The passage in I Corinthians 7:10-12 is sometimes understood as if Paul were instituting a contrast between the authoritative teaching of Christ and his own unauthoritative judgment on questions bearing upon marriage and separation- "But to the married I give charge, not I but the Lord. ...But to the rest I say, not the Lord." A careful reading of the whole passage will, however, show that the contrast is not between the inspired teaching of Christ and the uninspired teaching of the apostle but rather between the teaching of the apostle that could appeal to the express utterances of Christ in the days of his flesh, on the one hand, and the teaching of the apostle that went beyond the cases dealt with by Christ, on the other. There is no distinction as regards the binding character of the teaching in these respective cases. The language and terms the apostle uses in the second case are just as emphatic and mandatory as in the first case. And this passage, so far from diminishing the character of apostolic authority, only enhances our estimate of that authority. If Paul can be as mandatory in his terms when he is dealing with questions on which, by his own admission, he cannot appeal for support to the express teaching of Christ, does not this fact serve to impress upon us how profound was Paul's consciousness that he was writing by divine authority, when his own teaching was as mandatory in its terms as was his reiteration of the teaching of the Lord himself? Nothing else than the consciousness of enunciating divinely authoritative law would warrant the terseness and decisiveness of the statement by which he prevents all gainsaying, "And so ordain I in all the churches" (1 Cor. 7:17).

That Paul regards his written word as invested with divine sanction and authority is placed beyond all question in this same epistle (1 Cor. 14:37,38). In the context he is dealing specifically with the question of the place of women in the public assemblies of worship. He enjoins silence upon women in the church by appeal to the universal custom of the churches of Christ and by appeal to the law of the Old Testament. It is then that he makes appeal to the divine content of his prescriptions. "If any man thinketh himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things I write unto you are the commandment of the Lord. And if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." Paul here makes the most direct claim to be writing the divine Word and coordinates this appeal to divine authority with appeal to the already existing Scripture of the Old Testament."[4]

While so much more could be said, of this much we should be assured: All attempts to contrast and dissociate the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul will end in a bifurcation of the canon itself. Adversely, this will inevitably lead on to the undermining of both the apostolic teaching on redemption, as well as the apostolic ethic for the life of the members of the New Testament church. Far from helping those who are uncomfortable with the apostolic teaching on such things as homosexuality and gender relations in the church, such a bifurcation will ultimately serve to undermine the entire revelation of God in Scripture.



2. Geerhardus Vos, The Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003) pp. 302-303.

3. J.H. Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament (London: Macmillan & Co, 1864) pp. 85-86

4. John Murray, "The Attestation of Scripture," in the N.B. Stonehouse ed, The Infallible Word (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Gaurdian Company, 1946)

Nick Batzig (@Nick_Batzig) is the Assistant Pastor at Wayside PCA in Signal Mountain, TN, and an associate editor for Ligonier Ministries. He formerly served as the Organizing Pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Georgia, and as the editor of reformation21. He blogs regularly at Feeding on Christ.

Related Links

"Theology on Target" by James Renihan [Part 1]  [Part 2]  [Part 3]

"Preaching Romans" by William Barclay

Jesus on Every Page by David Murray

Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul by William Barclay

Why I Love the Apostle Paul by William Barclay

This post was originally published as "Disassociating Paul from Jesus" at Feeding on Christ. Shared with permission.

12/04 Correction: The quote from Geerhardus Vos comes from pp. 302-303, not 202-203.