A (sort of) Book Review: “Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?”

J.R. Daniel Kirk, “Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?”

I just recently picked up J.R. Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?” A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). Given my usual reading habits, I usually require a long time to get through a book, as I usually have a lot of them on the go at the same time. But this one, I managed to complete in a very short (for me) two weeks. This should tell you something right away about my appreciation for this book. It may also indicate it’s size relative to some of the other stuff I’m reading (a very manageable 200 pages).

What’s it about?: Kirk (assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, Northern California Campus) writes to address a problem in New Testament interpretation: the idea that Paul’s message found in his letters seems in tension with the message of Jesus presented in the gospels. Kirk points out that some critics have suggested that Paul “invented” Christianity as it came to be understood, and we have now a Christianity which reflects Paul not Jesus, and our theology lifts up Paul as the “manual” for the Church. Or on the flip side are the critics who marginalize Paul as someone who “got it wrong” and dismiss his letters and focus only on the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So, Daniel Kirk seeks to address this situation by framing the question differently- with the use of narrative. Kirk proposes framing Paul letters within the narrative he is trying to present and live out. This narrative which Paul works out of is the Jesus narrative- the narrative of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Israel narrative. Kirk suggests that Paul’s letters place him in that same narrative trajectory as the Gospels- that humanity has been infected by sin, and God has begun a great work of redeeming the cosmos. This narrative which focuses on Israel and the covenant of God reaches its climax in Jesus, who fulfills God’s intentions by bringing all of creation under his Lordship which is the Kingdom (or reign) of God bringing the final conquest over sin and death (future, eschatalogical victory) into the present to redeem the cosmos through Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection. Kirk proposes that if we realize that Paul is firmly entrenched in this presentation of the cosmic reign of God coming through Christ to reconcile creation, we see more and more that Paul is not at odds with Jesus, and the issues which seem to present tension can be in many ways resolved or lessened.

Chapters 1 & 2 are basically a summary and comparison of the Gospel message of Jesus and the Gospel message of Paul. Jesus preached the arrival of the reign of God in himself. Paul makes little reference to the Kingdom. But as Kirk points out, this is merely a terminology issue. Paul brings a message of the victorious resurrected Lord of the cosmos. This cosmic lordship of Christ which we see in Paul is very much the point of Jesus’ message, that in him, God is reconciling, redeeming and gathering that which is his to himself. Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man is declaring that he will reign as God’s viceregent in creation- a job initially described as belonging to humanity, who have failed to faithfully perform their role. Thus, the design of God described in Genesis is being re-established in Christ. This is the narrative we see reflected in the gospels and in Paul.

From there, Kirk goes into several key issues which some have interpreted as tension or disagreement between Jesus and Paul. Kirk does this from the perspective that all these topics flow out of the same narrative of God’s redemptive work fulfilled in Christ, which should provide our hermeneutical approach to Paul’s teaching. So, issues like community, women, inclusion and sexuality take up the following chapters. I wish I had room to get into each chapter individually, but this space hardly allows for that. But I do want to highlight a few points.

Kirk argues that for Paul, as for the gospel writers, we, as followers of Jesus, are called to “live out” or into the Jesus story. Our calling is to set aside our own selves, and be “in Christ”, and live out that life. For Jesus and Paul, our behaviour should be modelled after Jesus’ cruciform love. In all things, whether thinking about community, our view of women, our view of social justice, our view of sexuality, etc. we ought to be focused on the redemption of the other, bringing Christ’s love to bear on all things. So when we proclaim homosexuality as counter to the creation intent of God, how does that impact our calling to love our neighbour as ourselves? How do we live out that love in a way which is redemptive not permissive? Does Paul provide teaching which is condemnation things like homosexuality, or does he present a message in which there is redemption a new creation?

So, although on the surface, it seems that Paul is more “conservative” than Jesus, and seems to uphold things which Jesus seems to be tearing down (gender inequality, slavery, exclusive community based on moral success, etc.) when we dig a bit, Kirk argues we find that Paul is actually calling the churches to selfless, mutually submissive, redemptive love. That Paul’s teaching is a calling, like that of Jesus, to be drawn more in line with the life exemplified by Jesus. He is not saying slavery is ok. Instead he is calling slave and slave owner to live out the cruciform love of Christ in their own situation. Instead of upholding a male-led household, Paul is calling husbands and wives both live out the redemptive, self-giving, sacrificial love which Christ demonstrated. When we read that story into Paul’s ethical instructions and the “household codes” (e.g. Eph. 5:18ff, Col. 3:18ff) we see not an upholding of the old order of things, which Jesus appears to be subverting. Instead we see Paul radically reorienting the old order to reflect the cruciform Jesus story which fulfills the larger cosmic story of God responding to humanity’s failure and working to redeem and reclaim his creation.

The Strengths:

Like I said, this book is manageable. It is strongly academic, but still manages to be inherently applicable, readable and practical for a variety of audiences. Pastors and well-read laity can take much from this book, and because it comes in at 200 pages, it doesn’t drag or overwhelm as some scholars can. Kirk, though definitely an accomplished scholar (his previous book on resurrection and justification in Romans is on my “to read” list, but is a much more scholarly approach to writing, judging by the gleaning I’ve done of the bibliography and footnotes), is still almost pastoral in tone at times. Kirk doesn’t write with complete scholarly distance. He is passionately engaged, and cares deeply for the implications of his conclusions. This comes through clearly in his writing. He wants the church to appreciate Paul and see in the Pauline corpus the redemptive love of Christ and see them live out Paul’s understanding of loving, forgiving, grace-filled community which reflects the standards set forth by Christ.

Secondly, I must say, his argument is convincing (although, I should admit a bias towards this perspective before picking up the book). I admit, some passages in Paul (particularly in the Corinthian letters) have caused some tension in my mind. Kirk’s narrative approach allows us to see Paul not as an ethical treatise writer, but a bold preacher pushing his audience to hear the Jesus story and seek to live it out in their own context. Paul’s ethics flow from the redemptive power of God expressed in the Gospel that Jesus enters history to fulfill the trajectory of God’s redemptive work through his covenant people, which culminates with victory over sin and death. Kirk’s response to more conservative readings is gracious, but also successfully confronts interpretations of Paul which suggest he is out of step with Jesus.

Kirk’s chapter on Christian community (chapter 3) is among the best things I’ve read with regard to the church. Kirk directs us to the fact that God’s redemptive work is completed through community. We experience Christ’s work, and fulfill his work in the context of mutually submissive community. That the ideals of love, forgiveness, grace, compassion, justice, etc embodied by Christ are lived in with others with whom we share in the possession of the image of God, and the light of Christ.

Equally helpful is Kirk’s take on Paul’s words regarding women. The complementarian position (in households and in male only pastoral ministry) relies heavily on Paul. Many have observed that Jesus welcomes women, and seems to empower them in ways which would be subversive in his historical context. But then it appears that Paul undoes any advances in the status of women which Jesus may have provided his female followers. Kirk, using the narrative approach demonstrates how Paul’s words concerning household codes are very much in the same subversive vein as Jesus. Paul, argues Kirk, puts forward a relationship of husband to wife which demands selflessness and cruciform love from both sides, and points to Paul’s declaration that men and women give their bodies to each, and yes, the woman has authority over the man’s physical body (1 Cor. 7:4). He also highlights Paul’s admonishment of female ministry leaders in Romans 16, and the implications of 1 Cor. which seem to assume women have been providing leadership in the Church by prophesying, teaching, etc. This scholarly approach to the issue of the role of women which takes seriously Paul’s seemingly anti-women in leadership stance is a voice which is very much needed in the debate. For another evangelical scholar to push this encourages me. All too often more conservative folks dismiss the arguments in favour of leadership open to women as the work of liberals who reject biblical authority or who have a low view of Scripture. So, here is an evangelical, New Testament scholar interacting intensely with the text of Scripture and holding it up as authoritative and saying yes, women can preach.

Kirk tackles some thorny and messy issues which the church has not always handled well, and speaks grace into them. He boldly tackles the issue of sex and devotes a chapter to homosexuality specifically and handles it with admirable grace and biblical integrity. His examination of Romans 1:26ff is a take I was blown away with. Most folks take Paul’s two verses which proclaim homosexuality as a result of people rejecting the creator and condemn homosexuals and stop reading Romans there (or skip ahead to chapter 8 where the good stuff is). The whole point of Romans 1-3 is that under the law, all people are guilty. Kirk then provides encouragement to think through the implications of “love your neighbour” and “do unto others” in light of this. We are to love our neighbour (whatever their orientation may be) and do for them what we would want to receive from our neighbour (whatever their orientation may be).

Overall, I find Kirk’s hermeneutic helpful, and his conclusions sound. Emphasizing Paul as a proclaimer of the Gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord who is redeeming the cosmos allows us to see Paul’s ethics as cruciform, not imposing.

The Weaknesses:

I really can only point to two things I would call weaknesses.

First, I am a tad disappointed with the lack of secondary source interaction. Kirk’s endnotes (and as I noted in other reviews, I seriously prefer footnotes) reveal that there isn’t a lot of interaction with other theologians. There are several places where such interaction would be warranted. For instance in introducing the discussion and purpose/intent, he mentions a general dislike of Paul by some who see him and not lining up with Jesus on several key issues, however, he doesn’t get into the arguments of any authors making this suggestion. Or, in the discussion of women in the church, he doesn’t make any references to complementarian sources. It would have been nice to see a greater level of interaction with this. What are others saying which differ from me, and how do I respond? There are a few points when Kirk reiterates several key points to remind the reader what he’s up to, which can be good, but trimming some of those reminders down to leave some page space for more interaction with secondary sources would have strengthened the overall outcome. Many of the sources Kirk does interact with fall into his own tradition or “tribe” of like-minded theologians. In other words, he quotes and refers to theologians he generally agrees with (Wright, Hays, Gorman, McKnight and Barth make up the bulk of his secondary source interactions), and not those who disagree (he does refer to Piper once, but not in his chapter on women or sex, but perhaps it would have been helpful to see Kirk interact with Sproul, Packer, Carson, Keller or Catholic & Orthodox authors).

The second “issue” which deserves to be noted is the use of primary source material (i.e. the Bible). While Kirk is intensive in his study of relevant bible passages, he does what the vast majority of us do: rely on some passages over others (canon within a canon). We all (those who study and communicate theology, whether pastors, or academic theologians) do this to some degree (I’ve only written one sermon from Thessalonians and the Pastorals combined). This book, which is designed to be an approach to interacting with Paul doesn’t cover the scope of the Pauline corpus in a way I would consider ideal. If you take a peak at the Scripture index you see what I mean. We see only a few references to Paul’s oral material presented in Acts, and some of Paul’s writings get significantly more coverage than others, and a few of the Pauline epistles get left out entirely (2 Thess, 2 Tim, Titus & Philemon). Of course this isn’t surprising given the more extensive nature of other Epistles, but interacting in some way with the breadth of the Pauline corpus would be helpful. Romans and the Corinthian Epistles take up far more space than any others. Colossians comes up only 3 times (none of the references to Col. include the wonderful Christological content of Col. 1), and Eph. chapters 1-4 are also completely absent. I would have loved to see more interaction with the breadth of the Pauline corpus, and I even spotted a few places where specific passages would have been handy to include (e.g. a chapter called “Living Out the Jesus Narrative” could have used some interaction with Eph. 5:1-2 or Col. 1 and a chapter on the Christian Community could have used some input from Eph. 4).

Overall Assessment:

This is an incredibly valuable work. I give it my full recommendation to anyone wrestling with the Pauline letters (which we all probably should be doing). It will help us to frame Paul within the Gospel. The Gospel proclamation which we see Paul thoroughly engaged in within the book of Acts, is the retelling of the work of Christ, which has implications. The Pauline Epistles are Paul’s working out of that redemptive work of the Messiah, which Kirk depicts as the eschatalogical reality of redeemed creation being brought to bear in the present. Obviously, how the future truth of the Kingdom translates into the present is going to be difficult to sort out. As the old order is subverted by God’s people to embody the Kingdom here and now, what God’s people look like now has some areas which we need to wrestle with. The Pauline corpus is not a series of rules for conduct but a depiction of what happens when the reign of God collides with the old order in real life. We have to look at them from multiple angles. Paul wrote to a Church he had interacted with in Corinth to address specific things happening in Corinth which were part of the Corinthian Christians trying to figure out how the reign of God would look in Corinth. We can learn much from that. What does it mean for Christ’s followers 1900+ years later in St. Thomas, Ontario to embody the reign of Christ here. It won’t be the exact same. Were Paul to write to an Epistle to Centre Street Baptist Church, it likely wouldn’t look like any of the New Testament Epistles.

What Kirk has provided is a narrative framework- the Gospel narrative- with which to interpret Paul, which can also be used to frame our own work now. So while this book is an academic theological work, it has something to it which can be brought to bear on the work of 21st century communities of followers.

5 Comments on “A (sort of) Book Review: “Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?”

  1. Without reading the book myself, it seems that I’m actually on a good trajectory with Kirk re: Paul.

    I think also, if you haven’t read it yet, reading “The King Jesus Gospel” by McKnight may also help reframe Paul in the Jesus narrative as McKnight uses the Corinthian confession to point to the greater Jesus narrative within Paul’s writings. And then Fitch/Holsclaw in their chapter on “Gospel” in “Prodigal Christianity” take Romans to show how Paul rewove the entire OT into the narrative of Jesus… from Davidic Israel to Abrahamic blessing to Adam…

    Thank you for this review, now I KNOW I need to read this book.

  2. Thanks Robert. I have read McKnight’s “King Jesus Gospel”. It was helpful, but I think Kirk’s work here gets deeper into the specific ethical issue which flow out of framing Paul with the Gospel narrative. Kirk definitely leans on McKnight’s earlier works (and NT Wright who is so influential for McKnight). This book flows from the line of thinking which informs McKnight’s work.

  3. Gotcha. That makes sense.

    Would you say that Kirk’s work would be helpful in dialog with the accusations by non-Christians of the ethical problems of Christianity from the past (slavery, mysogeny, etc)?

  4. I mean… obviously I’m not going to go to an unbeliever, hand them the book and say, “Here… this will fix everyhing”… But thanks… Now.. to find the time to read this book along with the 300+ other books I want to read…

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