In a recent exchange over on Tripp’s blog regarding servanthood and fatherhood, there’s been an exploration regarding what Paul says in Ephesians 5 on the relationship between husbands and wives and what it means to submit. At one point, one respondent asked me “Where in the Gospels does it say that men and women are spiritually distinct?”
My post today is not about wives and husbands, but about this idea that the Gospels somehow trump the Epistles. There’s an understanding that somehow the Gospels reinforce modern enlightened understandings (on marriage, sexuality, etc.), whereas the Epistles, especially the Pauline epistles, contradict in some way, the Jesus of love, inclusivity and tolerance.
Currently, for example, much is trotted out about the fact that nowhere does Jesus condemn homosexual behavior. In fact, nowhere, so the argument goes, does Jesus say anything about homosexual acts. The silence, then, is interpreted to mean that this Jesus who did away with the old Law–which, by the way, did condemn homosexual behavior in no uncertain terms–now frees us to engage in whatever sexual practices we desire, so long as they’re consensual and monogamous.
But this fails to take into account one simple and important fact: the only sexual relationship Jesus did bless was the heterosexual union of a man and woman in marriage. Not only did Jesus uphold this standard, he blessed it with his presence at the wedding in Cana in Galilee. Furthermore, Jesus’ holding up of the standard of lifelong heterosexual marriage is based explicitly on the Genesis creation account. In other words, Jesus understood that there was one way of holy sexual behavior, rooted in God’s original design for the universe, and that this was the lifelong marriage of one man and one woman. This is something Jesus actually did say (as opposed to making guesses about what Jesus did not say), and in fact, not only is it what he did say, the very nature of what he said and his rooting it in the creation account, shows that it is the standard which does not allow any exception.
But this is only one example. My point is that the divorcing of Jesus from the Epistles is not somehow more authentic Christianity, but is frequently little more than remaking Jesus in our own image.
This Jesus is also the one who spoke about Church discipline and about treating the unrepentant Christian “as a tax collector and pagan” and gave to the Church the authority to bind and to loose (Matthew 18:15-20). But of course this text is often ignored in favor of the more winsome “He is a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” We don’t much emphasize Jesus’ “Go and sin no more” since we’d rather hear “Neither do I condemn you.”
David Mills, in his article, St. Paul the Eccentric, writes:
This is a now common problem in Western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant: the Christian who believes that Jesus of Nazareth is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, and who also almost completely rejects the unfashionable teachings of the Bible found outside the four Gospels. As our society becomes more and more interested in “spirituality,” we find more and more people talking in very traditional terms about Jesus while assuming that the Scripture in which he is revealed has nothing to say about any part of their lives they wish to keep to themselves.
These people in effect separate the Gospels they accept—partly because they have not read them closely—from the Epistles they reject. It is usually St. Paul whose words they reject. The other New Testament writers they usually ignore, perhaps because they did not say anything so offensive to modern ears as St. Paul’s instructions on men, women, and sexuality. They do not reject even Paul’s Epistles entirely, of course, as they accept those useful verses, most famously Galatians 3:28, that they can take out of context to support some view one suspects they already hold for other reasons.
Those who think this way often divide Jesus the gentle prophet of inclusive love (or however the favorite Jesus of the moment is described) from St. Paul the rule-maker, and sometimes also divide St. Paul the apostle of freedom from St. Paul the unreformed Pharisee. Sometimes they simply talk a lot about Jesus and pretend that St. Paul did not exist. The first tactic seems to have been the more popular some decades ago, while the latter seems now to be the more popular of the two. It is certainly shrewder to forget to invite St. Paul to the party than to invite him and then pick a fight with him in front of the guests.
The problem with all this anti-Paul, pro-Jesus, and anti-judging Jesus, pro-inclusive Jesus, is that Scripture is divided up according to the criteria of the reader. Certainly it’s true that all Christians fail to live up to all the standards of Scripture. And it’s also true that we tend to ignore those passages of Scripture that conflict with our worldview or cherished practices. But this conscious attempt to provide a rationale for excising one or another passage–usually by complicated interpretive methods that gut the text of any intrinsic meaning–is a different thing altogether. It is the willful subjection of Scripture to our own authority. We decide what’s in and out, what applies and what doesn’t. Rather than Scripture being a living active sword to divide joint and marrow, we are the swords dividing up Scripture to suit our tastes. We judge Scripture. It doesn’t judge us.
To further complicate this divorcing of Paul and Jesus is just a plain historical fact: Paul’s epistles were the earliest New Testament Scriptures the Church had, and Paul’s epistles were beginning to be recognized as Scripture by the Church as early as the AD 60s* when Peter wrote: “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). In other words, both on internal New Testament evidence, as well as evidence supplied by the earliest Christian writers, Paul’s letters were understood to be of equal weight with the Old Testament Scriptures at a very early date, even within his lifetime.
Add to this the other fact that the Gospels were not written (at the earliest) till near the deaths of Peter and Paul (in the case of Mark), or until well after their deaths, as in the case of Luke, Matthew and John, and far from making a case for the more primitive authority of the Gospels, one is quite struck by the fact that the Episles held the earliest (chronologically) place of authority.
But of course, it is not my intent to place the Gospels over against the Epistles. At the same time that the Apostles, and Paul in particular, were handing on the Tradition Jesus had established, the oral pieces of what later became our canonical Gospels were also being circulated in the Church. In other words, the Gospels and the Epistles were equally authoritative both chronologically and pneumatologically. Neither can be divorced from the other. But most be understood together.
*Addendum: I recognize the dispute as to the authenticity of the Petrine authorship of this epistle, but following other NT scholars, I find the difficulties surrounding the assertion that 2 Peter is pseudepigrapha are far greater than the difficulties surrounding Petrine authorship. So a date of mid-60s seems to me to be the most reasonable conclusion, even if no theory entirely lays to rest its own difficulties and problems.