Jesus Have I Loved Blog Tour Stop #2: ch. 1, Jesus Stories in the Gospels and Paul

[Welcome to Stop #2 on the Jesus Have I Loved blog tour – did you miss the first stop? Check out J.R. Daniel Kirk’s opening words here!]

“When I first met Paul, I simply did not like him.” These words come from J.R. Daniel Kirk, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. Some people are attracted to the Jesus of the New Testament, but find Paul “distasteful, offensive, oppressive, exclusive, confusing, arrogant, or just plain wrong.”

As for me, I never really had this problem. I have always been a “Paul” guy – I never found him troublesome, though I can see now why people have raised eyebrows over some of his statements. In fact, it is only in the last few years that I have fallen in love with the Gospels! Call me backwards!
In any case, part of what Kirk is interested in in his new book Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? is a narrative approach to this problem of the sweet Jesus and the stern Paul. Ultimately, Kirk desires to unite Paul and Jesus under one broader story of God’s redemption:

The God of Israel acted decisively in the person of Jesus to restore God’s rule and reconcile the whole world to himself. (9)

God is the main character of the biblical narrative, and the Jesus stories of the Gospels claim to be God’s long-anticipated return to bring the narrative to its definitive resolution (11)

By looking at the beginning of Mark (1:1-2) and Romans (1:1-3), Kirk persuasively identifies the striking similarities in terminology and perspective – the “gospel” involves the good news of God’s Son. Kirk goes on to observe that both Paul and the Evangelists underscore how Jesus takes up the mission and identity of Israel to bring restoration and salvation.

If you want to know the theo-narratological foundation of Kirk’s book, here it is:

Jesus as we meet him on the pages of the Gospels is not living out a self-contained story. He is acting out a final, climactic scene in the ongoing drama of Israel that stretches back to creation and comes to its promised resolution with his death and resurrection. And we see the same claim in Paul.

Kirk does not sweep under the carpet the clear differences between Paul’s perspective and that of Jesus. One of his most important points is that they stand on opposite sides of the resurrection (see pg. 20). I think Frank Matera in his New Testament Theology makes a similar point that the Synoptics and the Pauline tradition may seem different largely because of their “starting points.” Matera writes,

The starting point of the Synoptic tradition is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God…The starting point of the Pauline tradition is the gospel about Jesus Christ: the good news of what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of his Son. (p. xxix).

Evaluation

I found Kirk’s attempt to draw Jesus and Paul into the same broader story to be successful. When you read his very well-written, clear prose, you can immediately recognize the influence of people like N.T. Wright, Mike Gorman, Richard Hays, and Scot McKnight – and why not! He synthesizes and employs their contributions carefully and adroitly.

At the same time, I felt that Kirk did not deal with one of the most perplexing questions that distinguish the Jesus tradition from the Pauline tradition – that famous conundrum expressed by Alfred Loisy – “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” Why does Paul so consciously avoid mention of the Kingdom of God (save but a few times) and why is he is persistent in his use of the language of the Church? Inquiring minds want to know, Daniel!

A second lingering issue for me is whether or not it is too easy to fall in love with Jesus and sweep under the rug just how offensive Jesus really was. When I was teaching a Gospel of John grad course, we watched a film based on the Fourth Gospel (yes, with Desmond from Lost as Jesus!). It became so crystal clear to me that, at every turn, Jesus pokes and prods and provokes. Any time anyone tries to buddy up to Jesus or win his favor, he slaps them with a strange or offensive saying! I am reminded of Mark Galli’s Jesus Mean and Wild where he mentions the popular tendency to attribute to Jesus a “gumby-like quality.”

Thirdly, I would just say that while Kirk’s narrative approach is good, I was a bit surprised he did not also push for a “missional” approach. Now, he may be drawing the two in together, but I was expecting (and hoping for) explicit interaction with missional theology. It would only serve to strengthen his argument, I would presume.

Finally, I think in dealing with the matter of the Gospels and Paul, it would have been nice to have a bit of discussion about genre. Perhaps there is a clue to why we have such a warm and fuzzy view of Jesus versus the stern Paul in the type of literature, rather than focusing on the story patterns of each group. The letter genre, being occasional, often lent itself to Paul scolding or admonishing his converts. Texts like 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 2 Corinthians, 2 Thessalonians, and even Romans at a few points bear the sharp edge of the apostolic concern for holding firm to the truth of the Gospel. On the other hand, a biography (if the Gospels fit this category) are not as acutely direct (this is a debatable point, I recognize). They are, by nature, indirect forms of protrepsis – at least the ancient varieties were, as Richard Burridge has demonstrated.

My last word is this: I think the impressions that Jesus and Paul are not on the same page are just that – impressions. Kirk does a good job drawing them both into the same story of the one God so as to dispel unfortunate presumptions.

The heart of the book is really about living out the drama of God, not just theoretically explaining it. So, while I was interested in the early chapters, the rubber meets the road with how this story approach helps us tackle the big ethical questions of our day. For interactions with those chapters, though, I defer to my blog tour friends who will be commenting on the subsequent chapters of the book in coming days. Enjoy!

[Don’t Forget About the Tour Giveaway!]

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3 thoughts on “Jesus Have I Loved Blog Tour Stop #2: ch. 1, Jesus Stories in the Gospels and Paul

  1. Nijay, thanks for this review, and for the important questions you raise. You’ve situated the book well within the world of NT scholarship and summarized accurately what I’m up to. And, I hope that folks who do love already Paul will find much food for thought in the book as well.

    “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…”

    The huge issue of church versus kingdom of God is taken up in ch. 2, “New Creation and Kingdom of God.” There I argue that Paul’s theology of new creation corresponds to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. Moreover, with the church’s most basic confession being, “Jesus is Lord,” according to Paul’s letters, he is claiming for Jesus what Jesus claimed for himself: to be the figure entrusted to rule this new creation order that God is bringing about.

    The issue of loving the nice Jesus is one that I tackle throughout the book. Often the way that I find myself bringing Jesus and Paul closer together is to say, “Jesus isn’t as nice as you might think!” The chapter where I address this most directly is that on judgment and inclusion (ch. 5). The Jesus who says, “Do not judge,” goes on to issue commands about not casting pearls before pigs, commanding that we enter through the narrow gate, and promising catastrophic judgment for those who do not heed his words.

    I did not specifically elucidate the connection with missional readings in any self-contained discussion, but the book does contain statements such as these:

    At its heart, the mission of Jesus, and the mission of God, is active and participatory. Jesus, as the leader of this this band, and those called to follow him are all active agents in bringing the reign of God to expression on earth. (36)

    Following Jesus means being part of the people who are living into the promises of restoration, the people through whom God is on mission to the nations. (57)

    I confess, I’m finding the word “missional” a bit tired these days, but the idea that God is on mission in Christ, and that we are swept up into God’s mission, runs through the book like a read thread. So yes, a missional angle would augment the book, and highlight much of what is already there.

    Thanks again for your engagement, Nijay!

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