Did Paul Have a High View of Scripture?
Yes, of course he did. He was a Jew trained in the traditions of his people. In fact, he had such a high view of scripture, for a while there he was trying to put to death those annoying Christ-followers who undermined it.
That high view of scripture was not abandoned when Paul became a follower of Jesus himself. It was just transformed and utterly refocused.
Paul had a high view of scripture. It’s just doesn’t look like what conservative Evangelicals insist on when they talk about a high view of scripture.
For Paul, his scripture–the story of Israel–come to its conclusion in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the creation of a new people of God made up of Jew and Gentile on equal footing. But that conclusion could only be seen in hindsight. It wasn’t obvious. That’s why Paul had to argue his case, and, as I mentioned in my previous post, Paul had to make some deft moves to bring Israel’s story into the story of Jesus.
What we’ve got here is, for modern Evangelicals, a bit of a paradox: Paul no doubt deeply respected Israel’s story as God’s Word, but that Word now had to be re-read, because of what God did in and through Jesus did not follow the playbook.
A messiah who died and then rose from the dead. Two problems here:
1. The messianic hope of Judaism was basically (it’s more complicated than this) of a king like the good old days; a military leader who would rid the land of its current squatters, the Romans, so the people of God could get their independence back.
2. This messiah would set an example for God’s people by living according to God’s Law, thus ushering in a new age of peace and communion with God.
Land and Law. These were connected. Israel lost the land to the Babylonians in the 6th century BC because of their failure to be faithful to God’s Law. Hence, to get it back–I mean actually get it back fully, not just be guests of the Romans–faithfulness to the Law was a big deal.
But Jesus wasn’t about getting back the land. He spoke of a different kingdom, the Kingdom of God, where chariots and bloodshed are out of place, and even kings bow the knee to a higher authority.
And keeping the Law of Moses was not top on Jesus’ to-do list. No, Jesus didn’t advocate razor blading the law out of the Bible. But he clearly thought that some things were more important–like loving God and others. Maybe that’s why he thumbed his nose at some purity laws, like eating only clean foods, or touching corpses and menstruating women.
Jesus didn’t meet most people’s messianic expectations (those who even had such expectations). It didn’t help his reputation that Jesus was killed by the Romans. A sure sign of messianic failure was to be executed as a criminal by the very people you are supposed to run out of town.
No one was expecting a messiah to act like this. Now throw the resurrection into the mix, and you are bound to have some confused Jews running around Palestine in the first century.
To make things even more confusing–and infuriating–the earliest Christians were convinced that Gentiles didn’t have to become Jewish through circumcision before embracing the God who told Abraham that circumcision is non-negotiable. Gentiles could stay Gentiles.
Enter Paul. Paul’s letters can generally be explained this way: he is trying to wrap his arms around how all this Jesus stuff fits together with what one was led to expect from reading Israel’s story. In other words, how can this (a crucified and risen messiah) be the proper conclusion of a story that didn’t have such a thing in mind.
For Paul, his scripture was a non-negotiable element to help the first Christians understand what God was up to then and there. But to make that connection between then and now, Paul, without question, had to rethink some things, and more importantly had to learn to read Israel’s story by (1) accenting those points that were more clearly joined to the gospel, and (2) read other portions of his Bible against the grain.
How scripture was read, what scripture meant, was placed by Paul on a trajectory the church is mean to follow: the Old Testament is God’s Word that has to be re-understood, re-thought, re-read in light of Jesus.
In a way, Jesus already said this: you can’t put new wine in old wineskins. The old ways can’t contain the new thing Jesus is about.
So, yes, Paul had a high view of scripture. It just wasn’t the final word. Jesus was.
I know this sort of thing can make some Evangelicals nervous, but take it up with Jesus and Paul.