Jesus and Paul - a key question

 

This page explores a question which could not be fully discussed in either The 360 Gospel of Jesus (see page 6) or Sharing faith the Jesus way (noted on pages 54/5).

 

The question is 'what is the chief source for our understanding of the gospel and evangelism? To put it another way, 'what have we understood to shape our understanding of the gospel and evangelism?

 

Here you will see what I suggest is a 'premise' and a 'proposal'. I hope it will stimualte further discussion and study.

 

The Premise: We have generally inherited a Pauline model of evangelism.

The chief architect of the church, together with its mission, evangelism and understanding of the gospel, is St Paul.

 

‘Alone among the New Testament writers, Paul gives the most profound and most systematic presentation of a universal Christian vision. The force of Paul’s word and personality and the energy of his missionary commitment continue to make Pauline letters a powerful challenge to the church’s self understanding’

 

In the Protestant tradition, the content of ‘Systematic Theology’ is strongly influenced by material drawn from the Pauline epistles. In the Catholic tradition, the Pope announced a Year of St Paul and the letters are ‘a primary source of information about the life of the early church and have strongly influenced church thinking through the centuries.

 

Paul’s model of evangelism was based on his experience of conversion. Paul preached a Gospel formulated around the death and resurrection of Jesus eg Romans 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15 etc. Today we note that ‘conversion’ and ‘preaching’ have negative connotations for some people we try and reach with the gospel. One response to this may be to preach harder, the other is to explore other ways in which people can hear the good news better.

 

Whilst recognising that Paul’s own perspective was bigger than ‘preaching for conversion’, e.g. he speaks of love as the greatest gift (1 Cor 13), and being ‘all things to all men so that some might be saved’ (1 Cor 9:22), this is not the impression many have of evangelism today. Although there are exceptions in some parts of the world, a prevailing view inside and out of the church is that evangelists are insensitive, dogmatic and to be avoided. In addition, many Christians do not feel that evangelism is ‘their thing’ and even apologise if it suggested they are doing it.

 

It is not the fault of St Paul that we have such a low view of the ‘dreaded e word’: a phrase we read in many books written by evangelists themselves. It is that we have created a world view which gets in the way of people hearing and responding to the love Jesus has for them. St Paul himself modelled his life, teaching, preaching and encouragement to others on Jesus. I don’t want to criticise, dismiss or even diminish Paul: I’d just like to raise Jesus way.

 

Question: Is the theology and practice of St Paul the dominant model for mission and evangelisation inherited by the churches and nations you represent?

 

Visiting, and writing letters to churches while advising on order and practice, St Paul established and formulated a framework of common understanding amongst the earliest church leaders. However he was not the only one. Various other apostles were significant in spreading the early Christian Gospel but we have little record of them like we do from St Paul. I am not an academic but I do wonder if, because Paul was a writer and his letters were treasured and passed on, he gave the early church a language and theology beyond his initial intention.

 

My personal perception is this. Although ‘the rock’ on which Jesus said he would build his church was Peter; the significant preaching at Pentecost was Peter’s; and the Roman Catholic church follow the line of Peter, it is largely the pen and preaching of St Paul that set out the pattern for mission and ministry we have inherited in the UK, including the specific task of evangelism. St Paul has become our chief reference point in how to share the good news of Jesus. This is not a problem, but is helpful to acknowledge.

 

S Paul not only shaped the early ecclesial communities, including those in to which the Gospel accounts were written, but the whole church that has followed since. For example, though rooted in the Old Testament, the theological framework of redemption, justification, sanctification to name but three, were chiefly worked out by St Paul.

 

Discuss other great missiological themes, like salvation, grace, atonement, election, renewal, regeneration, reconciliation etc. How have they been shaped by the Pauline school?

 

Now I want to suggest that St Paul’s theology is based on his personal experience, and in particular his conversion. I believe that this in turn shaped his mission theology in the same way that our own experience of faith often shapes how we do evangelism today. This point needs to be recognised, not least as Christians seem either empowered or disabled by the conversion experience of others. The point of St Paul’s conversion influencing his mission theology is explored by Senior and Stuhlmueller in The Biblical Foundations for Mission.

 

‘Paul’s mission theology was not an abstract construct dangling from a universal principle, but an analysis of reality triggered by an initial experience that gave Paul a new world view.’ Further they suggest that on this basis, ‘the proper starting point and dominant motif of Pauline theology is soteriological. God offers salvation to all through the death-resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most of Paul’s theological reflection dealt with the dynamics of that redemptive process and its implications for human existence in Christ.

 

It is not surprising that people writing on evangelism will often use a model of mission attributed to Paul. John Finney illustrates the point with the title of a chapter in Emerging Evangelism. He calls it Evangelising Athens: Then and Now’’ .

 

Of particular note is Roland Alan’s seminal work, Missionary Method’s: St Paul’s or Ours? The assumption is that it is not Jesus, so much as St Paul who provides the model for our missionary methods.

 

Another very influential work, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments, makes the point clear. ‘The earliest Christian writer whose works are extant is the apostle Paul, and from him our investigation should begin’ . The eminent Professor C H Dodd assumes we should look to Paul in his investigation of the ‘primitive preaching that we emulate today’.

 

Further, in The Biblical Foundations for Mission we read: ‘The intensity of Paul’s convictions and his ability to articulate them in such a rich profusion of symbols and concepts forge his unparalleled contribution to the biblical foundations for mission ’.

 

It is said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Without criticising Finney, Alan or Dodd at all, or dismissing the critical contribution of preaching and pen of St Paul, I want to start in a different place.

 

Starting from a different place? There are many different starting places for a study of the Christian gospel. Some start from personal experience or biblical revelation, while others begin with analysis of the cultural context or church history. In England at present I would suggest that the preferred starting point is either ‘building relationships’ or ‘telling my story’. All are important and each approach informs our task of sharing the good news of the Jesus. Indeed each is part of the ‘360’ picture we are trying to put together.

 

We are often told that Christian teaching has been formulated from the triumvirate of scripture, tradition and reason. I am told John Wesley added ‘experience’. Many books have looked at evangelism from the perspective of tradition, reason and experience. All of this feeds the bigger picture but it is not the place I would like to start from at the moment. For me the Gospels are the place to start as they take us back to Jesus and what we read of his way.

 

The whole Bible can feed our understanding of evangelism. Raymond Fung wrote about ecumenical congregational evangelism from Isaiah chapter 65 in The Isaiah Vision, while Randy Newman, in an amazing chapter heading Solmonic Soulwinning, gives a perspective on dialogue evangelism from Proverbs.

 

Principles of modern mission have been drawn out from Old Testament Patriarchs, prophets and can probably resonance with most characters in the Bible. This is illustrated in the ground breaking academic text The Biblical Foundations for Mission which considers the whole biblical narrative.

 

There is logic to this as all the biblical characters, Old and New, were involved in the ‘missio dei’. For this, if for no other reason, we have good grounds for looking at how Jesus did it. Indeed, as he is the principal player on the stage of salvation history, you could even argue that we should look nowhere else.

 

However, my own personal reflection of 30 years study from several hundred books on evangelism, suggests that the big picture of the ‘Jesus Gospel’ is not explored very often. We frequently read of Jesus with an individual, for example Nicodemus or the Woman at the Well, but not the big picture. My starting place is therefore not just individual encounters but the whole narrative of the four Gospel Evangelists as you will see in the two books mentioned at the start of this article.

 

Discuss: Do you know of other work which has been done to piece together the big picture of what Jesus might have understood as the gospel?

 

The Proposal: We explore a Jesus model of evangelism.

 

As I have suggested in the books, although ‘evangelism’ is not a word expounded by Jesus and the word ‘gospel’ is not common in the Gospels, we have plenty of evidence from the given text to suggest that both were the norm. In many ways we take it for granted.

 

In devotional Bible reading, Sunday sermons and evangelistic addresses we frequently use individual instances of Jesus encounter with individuals as the basis for commending evangelism: the Call of the Disciples, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well are common examples. In addition we read how Jesus sent out the disciples as a model for mission and evangelism training.

 

Having said that, many still suggest that Jesus did not come with a mission in mind, and that the role of the evangelist came later as a construct of Pauline theology. Even the missiological masterpiece, The Biblical Foundations for Mission, observed ‘almost all of Jesus’ universal mission commissions found in the Gospels are presented as post-Easter contexts’ and comments ‘thus the Gospels do not offer strong evidence that during his lifetime Jesus of Nazareth engaged in an explicitly universal mission, not did he so commend his disciples. The gradual and often painful evolution of the church’s global consciousness, as documented in Acts and in the Pauline correspondence backs up this picture.’

 

My own view is that in the missio dei the chief agent is still Jesus. It is not Paul we preach but Christ. He is the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith’, including evangelism. The individual encounters illustrated above are enough evidence for this. Further, the full picture of the possible Gospel message Jesus had in mind is so extant that we cannot deny Jesus wanted to bring the full message of salvation to those he met. The list in Appendix A is ample evidence of this.

 

Recently, Robin Gamble has cogently argued that Jesus was an evangelist, indeed the greatest. From the other side of the pond Jerram Barrs has written about how we can learn evangelism from Jesus. He uses 15 key passages and explores each in detail. These are excellent books to accompany this study. Both are recent and timely as others too are exploring a Jesus model of evangelism which connects well with our post modern context.

There is one further point to make here. If ever there is a difference in style, theology or practice between St Paul or Jesus Christ, we do well to look to Jesus first.

 

The seminal quote which starts this study suggested that Jesus ‘insisted on seeing the person whole’, and met the needs of individuals as his starting point for their salvation. His words and actions were sometimes surprising: the ‘360 Gospel According to Jesus’ was not ‘one size fits all’. Here we shall attempt to see how the many aspects, or facets, fit together.

 

The Gospel message in the mind of Jesus can be pieced together. It is not Paul we preach but Christ, so why not look to him? If Jesus is The Redeemer, why not consider his way of redemption? If Jesus is the Way, why not look to his way? If Jesus is the Good Teacher why not learn from him? We are disciples of the Master. Whilst fully appreciating the Pauline model, this article proposes a ‘Jesus model’ and explores its application today.

 

In passing let me recognise that I know am danger of contrasting the traditions and Jesus and Paul too readily. This study is exaggerating the distinction to make a point.

 

Anyway, to make the point lets make the distinction, especially as I believe it will open new doors for sharing the good news, both for those who share it and for those who listen.

 

My position is this. I know Paul quotes little of Jesus words, and the Gospels make no reference to the Pauline text. Nonetheless the close geographical, chronological and experiential proximity of the New Testament founders and followers are too close not to be related. They are bound together in more ways than just the pages of a book! The image of warp and weft in a woven piece of cloth come to mind. My first point is that there is a difference though, and my second is that if there is ever a conflict, it should be to Jesus that we should look.

Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith ... and evangelism

 

Frost and Hirsch capture the current mood of some mission enablers and suggest as I do, that we look to Jesus as our chief model for mission in the twenty first century. It is a long quote but well worth considering in full.

 

‘Jesus is our primary model of mission, and the Gospels are our primary texts. This might sound somewhat prosaic, but it is actually a massive paradigm shift from the way the church has generally viewed Christology in the Christendom mode. Jesus has generally been read through dogmatic ontological frames (as in the creeds) or through the structures of Paulinism (as in the Reformation), both we believe obscuring the primary historical portrait of Jesus as found in the Gospels. The Christendom-era church has tended to load so much on to the historical debates about the nature of Christ in his being that it has obscured the fact that Christ was a historic person who represents the principle model of mission, ministry and discipleship, and the focal point of an authentic New Testament faith. We evangelicals have for too long read Jesus through predominantly what have been called Pauline eyes. We doubt the Apostle Paul read Jesus this way himself. But by reading the Gospels through the Epistles, a disturbing distortion develops. Effectively, the Gospels are not taken seriously as prescriptive texts for life, mission and discipleship. Now let it be said that we affirm the Pauline view of Jesus. But our perspectives on Jesus can be so weighted by and filtered through the Pauline interpretation of the Messiah that we are unable to see him without hearing the Pauline formulas in our head. Actually the problem is not Paul at all, the problem lies in Pauline-ism. Lie always the ism is the problem. It is worth being reminded that Paul himself was very keen to ensure that we focus on Jesus and not on him (1 Cor 1: 11-17) and he encouraged us to follow him only insofar as he followed the Messiah (1 Cor 11:1). Paul always pointed to Jesus, and we need to take his advice again now as we find ourselves in a missional setting remarkably similar to the one Paul was in’.

 

Discuss the Frost and Hirsch quote.

 

We all start from a different place when it comes to mission and evangelism. Where do you start from? Even looking to Jesus can lead us to different models of mission. Consider the implications of starting with the Incarnation, Crucifixion or Resurrection theology, for example. How could these come together in bigger ‘360’ picture?

 

A further question: is the concept of Jesus and evangelism new?

 

I have observed and suggested that few seminal books on evangelism in my collection appear to explore evangelism the way Jesus did it. Here are some that do.

 

The slim volume for young volunteers with the Soul Survivor project is one example of what I call the ‘Jesus 360’ model. It is called Outwardly Active: Mission the way Jesus did it. Another example is Bill Hybels Just Walk Across the Room in which he has a short chapter, significantly two thirds through his work, called Lessons from the Master which considers the singular account from John 4 of the Woman at the Well. Of particular note are the two books I have suggested as accompanying reading for this study - the first is Jesus the Evangelist by Robin Gamble, and the other is Learing evangelism from Jesus by Jerram Barr.

 

My argument in this ‘proposal’ is that we need a sustained consideration of how Jesus helped people follow ‘The Way’, with consideration of all the people that met the Master. We need to piece together a jigsaw of all the snippets or single texts which form the small pieces of the bigger ‘360’ picture. This approach means more than considering one off individual encounters but the whole message Jesus might have had in mind. It is very timely that two new books have explored this, ‘just like London buses’, arriving at the same time. May there by many more to follow.