Saturday, April 03, 2010

Apostatizing from the Apostle

Oh, and By the Way, from Jesus Too!

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

In his recent book A New Kind of Christian, Emergent church leader Brian McLaren explains that there are two disparate story lines (we might call them story lineups) explaining Jesus.[1] The dominant narrative, the Greco-Roman, arose out of an Aristotelian-Platonic philosophical dualism that has dominated the AD era (That is, after Jesus lived and died), and explains Jesus from what is an ongoing Western perspective. Of the bent of the Greco-Roman philosophical mindset, McLaren explains that it

was habitually dualistic, in the sense that an enlightened or philosophical mind would always see the world divided in two, the profane physical world of matter, stuff, and change on the low side and the sacred metaphysical world of ideals, ideas, spirit, and changelessness on the high side.[2]

This Greco-Roman “story line” has dominated how western civilization and Christendom has understood Jesus for centuries, having molded His narrative according its perspective of reality (i.e., the cosmos and the universe). The recessive narrative, the Hebrew, arose out of the cultural milieu of the BC era (That is, before Jesus’ life), and explains Jesus in what was an emerging story that was Eastern in perspective.

The Competing Story Lines

Consider the first story line, the one that came to dominate Western Civilization and Christendom. Imagine yourself to be a smaller person waiting in line to get into a stadium behind a lot big people to watch a big game. Given your stature, it’s difficult for you to see through or over the big bodies in front of you, but you have faith that the stadium entrance is ahead even though you can’t see the gate, the security guard or the ticket taker. Remember, Jesus did say He is the Door and the Way (John 10:7; 14:6), but the big bodies ahead of you hinder your view of Him. Yet you believe certain things about Jesus because the larger people in front of you have told about Him. But the description is their description and the narrative is their narrative, not really yours, and maybe for that matter, not even Jesus’.

So in such a way McLaren introduces us to some of the “big bodies” standing ahead of us who obstruct our understanding of the real Jesus, bodies like (as he lists them): Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), Billy Graham (1918-Present), Pope Benedict (1927-Present), John Newton (1725-1807), John Wesley (1703-1791), John Calvin (1509-1564), Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1469-1536), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), Augustine (354-430), and the Apostle Paul (c.5 BC-67 AD).

In McLaren’s view, the big people ahead of you restrict your understanding of Jesus because their understanding of Him has been prejudiced by a Greco-Roman philosophical mindset that has dominated the way westerners think about the world for over two-thousand years. For reason of their unconscious bias toward the Greco-Roman perspective, those persons standing in the story lineup ahead of you only serve to obscure the real meaning of “the Jesus narrative.” It’s their story not His. So to experience “a transformed faith,” McLaren suggests we must shuck the predisposition of the Greco-Roman mindset and immerse ourselves in what was the emerging Hebrew narrative. If we do that, we will understand Jesus. If we don’t, we won’t.

We consider the second story line. Frustrated by the big bodies ahead of us, we leave the line we are in and move to a gate where no big people stand in front of us. The Hebrew story line looked forward to Jesus and as such, offers, McLaren theorizes, a less tainted view of Him (presumably free from the prejudice of a Greco-Roman mindset). This story lineup began with Adam and includes such subsequent persons as Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. Through them we gain a better understanding of Jesus in situ (Latin, in his original setting). McLaren favors the Hebrew story line for reason of the Eastern and Semitic milieu from which the Jesus narrative derives—after all, Jesus was a Jew. As such, it offers a better explanation of Jesus’ life.

Conversely, McLaren thinks the Greco-Roman narrative has obscured the meaning of Jesus’ life for reason of its dualistic way of thinking. To McLaren, the Greco-Roman view of the world represents an imposition upon the Jesus narrative and therefore hinders, even obstructs our understanding Him. McLaren explains:

If we locate Jesus primarily in light of the story that has unfolded since his time on earth, we will understand him one way. But if we see him emerging from within a story that has been unfolding through his ancestors, and if we primarily locate him in that story, we might understand him in a very different way.[3]

So if you are a searcher trying to make sense out of Jesus’ life, which narrative or story would you choose to try and make sense out of Jesus?

Another Illustration

Look at it another way. Having spent some of my youth in a lake front cottage on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, one of the most charmed experiences nature provided to our family was the picturesque visage of sunsets on the horizon of the beautiful blue-green waters of the lake. On a calm and clear evening, we would watch until the last sliver of orange settled beneath the horizon. On some occasions, partial clouds enhanced the sunset as the rays of the sun, glancing off the clouds, would create a brilliant hue of colors consisting of merging shades of brilliant white, red, orange, steel gray, blue and green. Whether sunsets are viewed over the horizon of the Pacific, the mountains of west, or the plains of the Midwest, they are majestic. But, if we’re looking to watch a beautiful sunset, a combination of dense clouds can obstruct it. According to McLaren’s scheme, the giants of Greco-Roman narrative are like dense clouds obstructing the beautiful “Son-set.”

A Legitimate Point

Remember when, as they gazed upon the maze of a conflicting and doctrinaire Christendom, Christians used to resignedly state—maybe they still do—“Well, I just want to see Jesus. I just want to know Him.” Of course, out of such a statement questions arise. Why do you want to know Jesus? What kind of person was He? Why’s He so important? What do you want to know about Him? If you really knew Him, would you like Him? (Remember, the religious people of His day did not like Him.) Was He God? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Was He really raised from the dead? Is He coming again? In questing after Jesus, issues like these are forced upon us, issues that the consensus of church councils, creeds and confessions can help us resolve. After all, Jesus wanted to know what the disciples thought of Him (Matthew 16:13ff.), and if He wanted that out of them, who's to say He does not want that out of us? Though “tools of the faith” should never be allowed to usurp the original source materials that inform us about Jesus, we must know that according to Jesus’ own testimony, these writings (the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments)are about Him! (See Luke 24:44; John 5:39-40.)

I understand how, if persons draw their info about Jesus from secondary sources drawn up by theologians, church councils, creeds, confessions and commentaries—especially if written and formulated by unregenerate and corrupt minds incapable of knowing spiritual things (See 1 Corinthians 2:6-16; 3:18-23.)—their soul will not find satisfaction and faith in Jesus Christ, and to this degree, McLaren makes a legitimate point.

To illustrate this, the following dialog between the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his chief Roman Catholic inquisitor Johann Eck (1486-1543) will prove helpful. The inquiry—

  • John Eck: Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all. You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect law-giver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs [Ed. Does not Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection seal our faith?], confirmed by sacred councils, defended by the Church in which all our fathers believed . . . I ask you, Martin—answer candidly and without horns—do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?
  • Martin Luther: Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.[4]

Does Paul Obstruct the Jesus Narrative?

But to insert the Apostle Paul in the story lineup as one who supposedly hinders our understanding of Jesus, as McLaren does, manifests an incredible disconnect that flies in the face of two-thousand years of church history. Are we to think that Paul’s writings, which McLaren assumes are prejudiced for reason of the Greco-Roman philosophical influence upon him, actually obstruct authentic knowledge about and faith in Jesus Christ? Yet that is exactly what McLaren does! He writes, “When we look backwards to Jesus in this way, we aren’t seeing Jesus. We’re seeing Paul’s view of Jesus, and then Augustine’s view of Jesus, and so on.”[5] In other words, Paul’s understanding of Jesus is no more significant than that of the rest of the boys--or should I say “fathers”? (Oh, and by the way, are we to assume the writings of the other apostles to be “obstructionist” also?) In the arrogance of our soul, it's presumption to think that we in the 21st century can see Jesus more clearly than the apostles did in the 1st.

Even in his day—we know there’s nothing new under the sun—noted New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce wrote that in the eyes of some (McLaren might be classed with them.), Paul was considered a “liability” to genuine Christian faith. Regarding the opinion of Paul’s critics, Bruce continues:

It was he [Paul], they were sure, who had muddied the clear waters; and in consequence there was a current, or at least an undercurrent, of desire which may be styled ‘Back to Jesus’ and which virtually meant ‘Away from Paul.’[6]

The idea that Paul “spun” the story of Jesus according to a predisposition of his Greco-Roman mindset, begs for comment.

Paul: “Hebrew of Hebrews”

First, Paul described himself to have been “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). I ask, how much more a part of the Hebrew narrative could the apostle have been?

Second, in the book of Colossians, Paul warns that congregation that was steeped in Greco-Roman philosophy, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8, NASB). In the historical context, Paul’s warning would have been against Platonic philosophy, something that by placing Paul in the Greco-Roman story lineup McLaren infers the apostle to have been influenced by. Remember when Paul was at Athens, “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’” and then after he preached Jesus’ resurrection on Mars Hill, some of those same philosophers “sneered” (Acts 17:18, 32, NIV). All of this is to say, Paul’s perspective was not congruent with the Platonic philosophy that dominated the then Greco-Roman mind, and if it wasn’t then, neither is it now. That is why unlike McLaren, J. Gresham Machen wrote: “The Church has always accepted the apostle Paul, not as a religious philosopher, but simply and solely as a witness to Jesus.”[7]

Third, as a Hebrew, and in continuity with his rabbinical training, we could expect to find evidence of Paul being part of the Hebrew narrative in his writings, and indeed, that is what we find. In his letters he quotes the Old Testament about one-hundred and eleven times.[8] Additionally, his letters contain scores of allusions to the Old Testament writings. Again, how much more a part of the Hebrew narrative could Paul get? Sure, the style of the apostle’s communication differed from that of Jesus. Bruce makes the point: “As for idiom, we can readily distinguish between Jesus’ parabolic style with its telling pictures drawn from daily life and Paul’s strength in point-by-point argument of the Hellenistic diatribé pattern.”[9] But one cannot assume that the different styles indicate a divide between what Jesus preached and Paul taught. Scholars have stated that doctrines as taught by Paul did not differ from those Jesus taught, doctrines such as the depravity of the human heart and the substitutionary atonement, and so forth. As Machen asked,

If Paul really stood so near to Jesus, if he really came under Jesus’ influence, if he really was intimate with Jesus’ friends, how could he have misinterpreted so completely the significance of Jesus’ person . . .?[10]

Fourth, in dismissing Paul as an obstructionist to understanding the Jesus “narrative,” are we ready to dismiss the other apostles? Do they too represent an imposition upon the Jesus story line? After all, what’s fair for Paul is also fair to all, and if the other apostles are likewise summarily dismissed, then there is no real extant Jesus narrative, is there? The perspective and writings of Paul and the other apostles do not cloud the narrative of Jesus, but rather clarify it.

Fifth, Paul considered that his communication was the Word of God. He wrote to the Thessalonians: “And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (Emphasis mine, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, NASB). In a similar vein Peter, designated by Jesus to be first (Latin, primus inter pares, meaning the first among equals) among the apostles (Matthew 16:18-19), wrote of “our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16). Based upon the false teachers disdain for Paul’s writings, Peter warns: “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness . . .” (2 Peter 3:17, NASB).

Sixth and finally, the characters emerging out of the Hebrew narrative living at the time of Jesus were a cast of characters who in co-operation with the Greco-Romans executed Jesus. Neither narrative, it seems, appreciated Him in the end. As Peter told the Pentecost crowd, “this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). It seems that the Hebrew and Greco-Roman mindsets agreed on one thing; and it was, that Jesus needed to be executed.


After describing the tension (actual in McLaren’s case) existing between the “movement ‘away from Paul’” being a so-called movement “back to Jesus,” Bruce described that,

The Paul of popular prejudice and the Jesus of popular prejudice are both figments of the imagination, so that a movement away from the one may well [appear to] be a movement towards the other; but if we are concerned with the real Paul and the real Jesus, then a movement away from Paul turns out to be at the same time a movement away from Jesus, who found no more faithful interpreter that Paul.[11]

And so it is. To apostatize from Paul is to apostatize from Jesus, to remove oneself from the foundation of the apostle-prophets and thus to remove oneself from Christ Jesus Himself, “the corner stone” with the consequence that together Christians will not grow “into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21). It’s both arrogant and anachronistic to think that two millennia after the fact, we can somehow, in an esoteric way, by-pass the writings of Paul and the other apostles to discover “the real scoop” about Jesus. Such a story, whether exoterically discovered—all Gnostic writings notwithstanding—or esoterically comprehended will not be found. There is no new narrative of Jesus other than that contained in both testaments of the Bible.

Recognizing that no word picture is adequate to describe the beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ, I might look at it like this: in just the right combination, light clouds on the horizon may in fact enhance the beauty of the “Son-set.” In fact, unhindered vision of Christ before we reach glory might blind us! (See Acts 9:3-9.)

An ideology contending that Paul somehow obstructs the understanding of Jesus is not a new. At core, liberal Christianity disdains Paul’s message. Professing Christians can show themselves to be “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), and because they are, they will seek to dismiss Paul’s letters as relevant to a “Jesus-only” faith.

But at stake in the debate about whether Paul hinders or helps our understanding of the life and mission of Jesus is the authority that his writings, as well as those of Peter, Matthew, and John, will play in that understanding. If these apostolic writings are dismissed, then Christians will be removed from “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” will be without “Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone,” and will be “foreigners and aliens” in the world (Ephesians 2:20, NIV).


[1] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010).
[2] McLaren, New Kind of Christianity, 38-39.
[3] McLaren, New Kind of Christianity, 36-37.
[4] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1950 185.
[5] McLaren, New Kind of Christianity, 36. McLaren’s thesis is not new. Almost a century ago J. Gresham Machen wrote The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1923) in which he deals “with that hypothesis which makes the religion of Paul essentially the product of the syncretistic pagan religion [or philosophy] of the Hellenistic age.” (211)
[6] F.F. Bruce, Paul & Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1974) 15. Bruce cites a couple of authors, one of whom though he thought Paul was a “‘nice visionary’ . . . maintains that ‘it is arguable that St. Paul’s ‘crosstianity’ was one of the greatest disasters that has ever befallen the human race: a great black shadow of intolerance, a super totalitarianism that makes communism seem harmless by comparison”; and the other of whom thought of the apostle as “an intolerant religious bigot” who “demanded obedience with threats of Hellfire.” (16). At this point, we compare McLaren’s words. He writes of a moment when he realized that, “nobody in the Hebrew Scriptures ever talked about original sin, total depravity, ‘the Fall,’ or eternal conscious torment in hell . . .” (37) McLaren then blames the intrusion of Aristotelian-Platonic dualism (presumably exerted by among others, Paul) upon the Jesus message, never mind that David wrote about original sin (Psalm 51:5), Jeremiah about total depravity (Jeremiah 17:9), Moses about the Fall (Genesis 3:1-19; ), and Daniel about the everlasting punishment of the wicked (Daniel 12:2). Come to think of it, Jesus affirmed these doctrines too! (See Mark 7:14-23; Matthew 10:28.)
[7] Machen, Paul’s Religion, 117.
[8] The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition, Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger, Editors (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993) 889-890.
[9] Bruce, Paul & Jesus, 17.
[10] Machen, Paul’s Religion, 169.
[11] Bruce, Paul & Jesus, 16.

Reproduced in its entirety with permission. The original article is posted HERE. Pastor Larry DeBruyn is the author of several important books, the latest of which is UNSHACKLED: Breaking Away from Seductive Spirituality, available HERE. Visit Pastor Larry DeBruyn's new website for other archived articles like this: