This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series: ‘The Lost Message of Paul’ (Chalke)
Chalke, Steve. The Lost Message of Paul (2019). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
Although I’ve already given a critique of some of the teaching of this book, I’m going to pause in order to give a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the whole thing.
I want to make sure I’ve grasped Chalke’s teaching before saying any more about how convincing, or unconvincing, I find it.
1. The conversation
Second only to Jesus himself, Paul is the most influential person in Christianity. He has been blamed for some of Christianity’s worst excesses and mistakes. But he has been seriously misunderstood. It’s time to re-visit what he really thought and taught, and to read him afresh in his original culture and context.
- This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series: ‘The Lost Message of Paul’ (Chalke)
- 1. The conversation
- 2. The revolutionary
- 3. Longing
- 4. Air
- 5. A new world
- 6. Perspective
- 7. A legal error
- 8. Faithful
- 9. Think like a Hebrew
- 10. What if?
- 11. Aha!
- 12. Oxymoron
- 13. The Double Whammy
- 14. True
- 15. The crux
- 16. Shades
- 17. Layers
- 18. Different
- 19. The elephant
- 20. Credo
- 21. A twist in the tale
- 22. Judgement
- 23. The pruning
- 24. Wired
- 25. Refined
- 26. In heaven’s name
- 27. Metaphor
- 28. Rescued
- 29. The revolution
2. The revolutionary
Too often Paul’s writings have been ‘weaponised’; his words used to justify cruelty towards slaves, women, black people, LGBT people and others. But, actually, he was a champion of inclusion. Our view of Paul has been distorted by Augustine, Luther, Calvin and others. The Reformation only succeeded in replacing one form of abuse with another form. We need to get back to the real Paul.
It is sometimes thought that Paul subverted the simple and grace-filled message of Jesus. On the contrary, he truly grasped it, and took it, with enormous energy, to the world.
It is essential to read Paul in context of second-temple Judaism. The work of Ed Sanders and other proponents of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ help us to do that. To do so will teach us, among other things, that for the Jews of Paul’s day ‘salvation’ was not about relief from private angst, but rather release from social enslavement.
5. A new world
Saul’s experience on the Damascus Road did not change his story as a faithful Jew: it completed it. Until that point, he was convinced that he had to oppose the fledgling Christian movement. Of what use was a dead Messiah? But he now became convinced that Jesus was alive, and that he was the Messiah not just for the Jews, but for the whole world. In Christ, God has visited the world in order to put it to rights in line with his ancient promises. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean assenting to a set of beliefs, but rather to entering God’s story of deliverance. It’s not so much about individual ‘salvation’, but rather about corporate renewal.
The science of hermeneutics can help us to regain a proper understanding of Paul in his context. For example, it is by failing to do this that we read 1 Cor 7:26-29 as supporting celibacy. We must remember that all Paul’s letters were occasional, and written for a particular audience. Given the cultural distance between Paul’s world and our own, it is a mistake to generalise too quickly from the specific situations he addresses. This was Luther’s mistake, when he too readily applied what Paul said about 1st-century Judaism to medieval Catholicism. This mistake also led to Luther’s appalling attitude (in later life) to the Jews of his own day. Over the years, Paul’s words have been used ‘to sanction crusades and inquisitions, to approve witch-hunts across Europe and North America, to portray African people as cursed by God and therefore to justify the enslavement of millions, to legitimize apartheid as well as anti-Semitism, to keep women subservient to men, to incite Islamophobia, to oppress gay people, to abuse the environment and more. Mis-reading Paul has caused immense harm. Let’s return to him afresh.
7. A legal error
When Paul rejected to ‘the works of the law’ as means of salvation, he was not referring the law in its entirety (how could he possibly be opposed to lying, cheating, adultery, etc?), but rather to laws relating to circumcision and food that acted as boundary markers for the Jewish faith. The Reformation emphasis on ‘salvation by faith alone’ is, accordingly a big mistake. The Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of legalism, from which a gospel of grace would release people. It was already a religion of grace, from which good works flowed out of a heart of gratitude. What was needed in the early church was to pull down the boundary markers that excluded others. And there are still boundary markers in today’s church that similarly need to be pulled down.
Luther, Calvin, and other Reformation thinkers made a huge mistake in translating pistis as ‘faith’ (rather than ‘faithfulness’). ‘Faith’ is about accepting certain doctrinal propositions; ‘faithfulness’ is about action and behaviour. ‘Faith’, in the sense of mere belief, leaves you in no better place than a demon (James 2:19). The gospel, then, is not about ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’, but about living faithfully in line with the story of Jesus.
9. Think like a Hebrew
A simple, even if enthusiastic, reading of Paul today will not disclose his real meaning. He must be read in his own context. That all-important word pistis must be understood in terms of his thought-world, as derived from the Hebrew scriptures. Hebrew religion was never very interested in ‘belief’ in the abstract. It was committed to a way of life. In other words, it was not interested in ‘faith’, but in ‘faithfulness’. This is consistent with the Greek use of pistis, derived as it was from the deity of the same name, the goddess of fidelity. The Roman name for that goddess was fides, which bears the same connotations. The Old Testament has several words that are broadly equivalent to pistis, and they all carry this same meaning of ‘trustworthiness’ (see Gen 15:5f). Given this background, pistis cannot mean ‘belief’, in the sense of ‘the ability to hold to a particular set of intellectual positions’. It must mean ‘faithfulness’, or ‘allegiance’.
‘Biblical “faith” is not intellectual assent to a concept, a commitment to a set of doctrines and theories, or a mystical sense of peace and well-being. Instead it is a risky commitment to a radical way of living; a call to action, a way of walking, a summons to loyalty and allegiance. This, and only this, is pistis.’
10. What if?
Luther taught – and modern evangelicals teach – that salvation is by grace through faith. But this doesn’t make sense. Grace has to do with God’s free gift, whereas pistis – faithfulness – has to do with our own effort. Moreover, ‘Faith, from an old Protestant point of view, becomes something that you are either born with – good news for you – or not – very bad news for you. But there is nothing you can do about it. You either have it or you don’t. You are either “saved” or not. And all this is preordained: decided beforehand. A gift, or not, from God. You are born “in”, or you are born “out”.’ But if this is so, why did Paul bother evangelise at all, since the dice have already been rolled?
The whole muddle is sorted out when we realise that what Paul is referring to in Ephesians 2, Romans 3 and other passages is not our faith(fulness), but Christ’s. To translate pistis Christou as ‘the faithfulness of Christ’, rather than ‘faith in Christ’, turns the whole thing on its head, and undoes centuries of Protestant error. The oldest translations of the Bible consistently rendered this phrase ‘the faith of Christ’, and Richard Hays (in The Faith of Jesus Christ) shows that it’s time we rehabilitated that translation.
‘The idea that it is the ‘faithfulness of Christ’ as opposed to the old concept of ‘faith in Christ’ which is the basis of salvation would be nothing short of a revolution. It would turn our understanding of the message of the Bible upside down. It would stand Luther’s sixteenth-century idea on its head. It would be a paradigm shift. Not just the latest development in business as usual; not some helpful new extension to the old Reformation building. It would be, at one and the same time, a return to the ancient pathway, and a brand-new beginning.’
Words need to be understood in the historical and literary context. Moreover, they are fluid – their meaning changes over time and in different contexts. With a key passage such as Romans 3:21f, it is essential that we do not read our own preconceived ideas into Paul’s words. Even the phrase usually translated ‘to all who believe’, the meaning has to be, ‘to all who faithfully live the way of Christ.’ ‘The Church is made up of all who ‘believe’ (the word Paul uses is pisteuontas, a derivative of pistis); all those who choose to live faithfully to the way of Christ. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile; the ‘works’ of Judaism count for nothing. Everyone gets the same deal on exactly the same basis – the faithfulness of Christ and the grace that is theirs as a result.’
Becoming and being a Christian, then, is about committing ourselves to the faithfulness of Christ to God’s plan and purposes, and to the grace that flows from this, and living in that flow.
Calvin, like Luther, believed that we are saved by grace. However, he and his followers concluded that ‘some of us are chosen and so are saved (we are “in” because grace is irresistible). Some of us are not (we are “out” because atonement is limited).’ In his forensic way, Calvin replaced Jesus’ image of God as a loving parent with that of God as a stern, if fair, judge. The effects of this have been catastrophic, not only with regard to our perception of God, but with regard to our own sense of guilt and unworthiness.
What, given this doctrinal move, are we to make of the wrath of God? A study of the biblical terminology, in context, reveals that it is not the unflinching fury of a despot, but rather the anguish of a parent, one who is ‘taken aback, troubled, pained and broken with sorrow by our rebellion and rejection of his ways.’
The difference between wrath as anger and wrath as anguish can be seen in the way the NIV translates Psalm 4:4. In 1984, ‘In your anger, do not sin’, whereas in the 2011 edition, reflecting a development in understanding of the terminology, is is translated, ‘Tremble and do not sin.’ (See also NASV, GNB, and even the old AV).
We can readily see that ‘anguish’ is consistent with – a part of, indeed – God’s love, in a way that anger is not.
All of this is clinched by the teaching of 1 John where, after saying that ‘God is love’, the explanation is given: ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’
13. The Double Whammy
Where does the Western church get all its ideas about guilt and unworthiness before God? The Eastern half of the church has never accepted the doctrine of ‘original sin’. That doctrine owes its origin to Augustine of Hippo and was developed much later by John Calvin. It teaches that we all enter the world with Adam’s fallen nature. The analagous doctrine of total depravity teaches that there is ‘no vestige of goodness left in us’. But, ‘I do not believe that God perceives any of us as totally depraved. As Martin Luther King once put it, there is some bad in the best of us, but there is also good in the worst of us.’
In fact, the Bible starts with original goodness, not with original sin. The story of the so-called ‘fall’ in Genesis 3 has nothing to say about satan or sin. It is, rather, a myth that speaks of ‘the loss of innocence; the journey of humankind, as well as that of every individual, into moral responsibility.’ And it is a moral responsibility in which God has by no means abandoned them.
God is love. That is central to everything. ‘Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking – the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger – is defined by it.’
God showers us with his love. But our wrongdoing has consequences. ‘We are punished by our sins rather than for our sins.’ God’s commandments are in place precisely to protect us from the consequences of our own bad choices.
Even when God ‘gives over’ people to the consequences of their own actions (Romans 1:18ff) he sorrows for them and does not give up on them. For, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13, ‘Love never fails’.
Why have the historic creeds neglected to place the love of God centre and front of stage? Why has the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and countless others terrified people with a vision of a wrathful God? Even those who preach the love of God make it conditional – ‘Believe the gospel – or else!’ But, actually, God’s love has no conditions.
15. The crux
Too many presentations of the gospel stop at the cross. The resurrection is, at best, a sort of ‘happy-ever-after’ appendix. ‘The cross without the resurrection is a disaster.’
‘The thought that on the cross Jesus is somehow placating God’s anger is completely foreign to Paul. Instead, armed only with the non-violent power of truth and love, Jesus opposes and defeats the anger, sin and violence of humanity and the forces of evil that sit behind them. He soaks them up, but he will not submit to them. He absorbs their consequences, but they cannot absorb him. And his resurrection, three days later, turns the tables. Sin, evil and the threat of death could not defeat him; now he has defeated them!’
The cross is about human anger, and divine love. And that divine love is to be the model and motivation for our own lives. It is to shape every aspect of our personal and corporate lives.
Various views concerning the afterlife were held in the ancient world. The Old Testament is quite sketchy on the matter. However, the Jewish people did face the life to come with hope (see Psa 16).
No extended descriptions of hell were given in the early church until several centuries after the time of Paul. Augustine – and, much later, Aquina) taught that the happiness of the blessed would be enhanced by their consideration of the tortures of the damned. As depicted by Dante and Michelangelo, hell is a place of ferocious suffering. To often, the teaching of Paul has been read through the lens of this extra-biblical teaching.
The notion that the ‘unsaved’ will suffer eternal misery in hell has been taken for granted by large swathes of people. But this belief is a ‘a toxic mix of medieval Catholic imagery plus five hundred years of post-Reformation Protestant teaching.’ It does not reflect the teaching of the Bible. Nor does it reflect the teaching of the Eastern church, according to which Christ has overcome hell, and emptied it, setting free its inhabitants. Although the Reformers re-thought many aspects of medieval Catholicism, they left unquestioned its assumptions about hell.
Although Protestants from Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham have taught that hell is a place of eternal punishment, other voices, including that of John Stott, have entertained annihilationism (or conditional immortality).
Another voice is that of Tom Wright, who entertains the ‘grotesque’ notion of hell as dehumanisation. And the idea, held by Wright and many others, that God will ‘in the end honour the decision of those who reject him’ does not do justify to the flow of Paul’s thought.
19. The elephant
Can we seriously believe that a God of love would inflict eternal torment based on the decisions made and the behaviour exhibited in the few short years of our lives?
Is God less compassionate than us?
Must we believe in a postcode salvation, where you eternal destiny depends on whether you were raised a Christian, a Hindu, or an atheist?
Does God set his love only on some (a few, perhaps) human beings?
Questions such as these abound. When we turn to Paul, we discover that ‘hell has no place in Paul’s message’. He never mentions it. Indeed, according to Romans 5:12-19, God’s gift of eternal life is as extensive as the sin and condemnation for which it provides the remedy. In Colossians 1:19f, Paul declares his belief in God’s reconciliation of all things to himself.
While the Old Testament does not speak with one voice on this theme, Psalms 22, 30, 65, and 103 are among those passages that do look forward to universal reconciliation. According to Phil 2:5-10, every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord. According to 1 Timothy 4:10, God is the saviour of all people. As all die in Adam, so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor 15:22).
A belief in universal reconciliation in Christ was held and taught by luminaries in the early church such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Gregory even maintained that ‘the originator of evil himself will be healed.’ Jerome taught that ‘all God’s enemies shall perish, not that they cease to exist, but cease to be enemies.’ Belief in universal redemption, though widespread, was never condemned in the historic creeds.
Why would we wish to limit the power of God’s love? Why cling on to the unbiblical idea of eternal punishment in hell? If the thought of our loved ones perishing is intolerable to us, is it not more intolerable to God himself? And were not the warnings of Jesus himself directed towards those who behaved judgmentally to others, turnings their lives into living hells?
The level of theological confusion caused is matched only by the level of pastoral distress. The doctrine of eternal suffering brings no glory to God, no comfort to the bereaved.
It makes no sense to speak of a God of love until we embrace the promise of restoration and reconciliation.
21. A twist in the tale
Our Western understanding of the Bible suffers from the individualism of our age. But the understanding of the ANE was much more collective and communal. So was Paul’s. His vision is for the renewal of the entire cosmos. And if God’s plan is to renew everything, surely that includes every person?
As Barth maintained, this is not a belief in universalism (for that is usually taken to assert that there are many paths to God). It is, rather, a belief in the reconciliation of all things in Christ.
Jesus Christ is indeed the only way to God. But his saving grace is extended to all. Paul’s exclusivism is totally inclusive.
What then of judgement? Paul does indeed teach that ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’. God will indeed put all things back to rights. But why should this entail the ultimate exclusion on any person.
Can we not see that the worst of sinners are also victims – victims of parental abandonment, abuse, neglect, and so on. Moreover, we are all implicated in the systemic evils of consumerism, racism, sexism, and so on.
Even the ‘handing over’ of a man to ‘Satan’ for ‘the destruction of the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 5) is redemptive: he is to be left to go his own way so that he can come to his senses and that ‘his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.’
In the Old Testament, God’s coming judgement is seen as a good thing, because all wrongs will be put right. For us, in the West it has come to be associated with punishment. For Paul, ‘God’s justice is always grace-filled, always restorative, but never retributive.’ God’s ‘righteousness’ is not punitive; it is his covenant faithfulness, his deliverance.
‘Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38f.)
23. The pruning
Although Paul never mentioned hell, Jesus spoke a great deal about Gehenna. But Gehenna is not an everlasting place of fire, for according to Jeremiah 31:38-40, the whole area ‘shall be holy to the Lord.’ According to Joel 3:18, ‘all the ravines of Judah’ (including the valley of Gehenna) ‘will run with water’.
‘Although in the sayings of Jesus, the stench of Gehenna was a powerful metaphor for the inevitable consequences of a broken way of being human, it had had nothing to do with everlasting punishment in hell. When Jesus warned his contemporaries about Gehenna, he wasn’t telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn for ever in the next one. Instead he was warning them that to live out of sync with the values that he was teaching (the values of the kingdom of God) was stupid and self-destructive.’
Turning now to the teaching of Jesus on ‘eternal punishment’, the underlying term – kolasis aiónios – is best understood as ‘a time of pruning’. The word kolasis (in contrast to timória) is only ever used in Greek secular literature for ‘remedial punishment’. And the word aiónios (in contrast to aidios) refers to a limited period of time.
Why are ‘good’ people good, and ‘bad’ people bad? It is all too easy to moralise about this, and to make each person individually and solely responsible for his or her behaviour. But our experiences in childhood will profoundly affect our neurological development, and predispose us to various forms of antisocial or prosocial behaviour. In other words, out moral behaviour as adults is strongly dependant on the neural pathways that were developed in early life. ‘Sin’ is less black-and-white than we thought.
It’s clear from both Malachi 3:2 and 1 Cor 3:10-15 that the fire of judgement is a refining fire, not a fire of destruction. It is best to see the fire as a metaphor for Christ himself. His searing love will melt even the idiest of hearts.
26. In heaven’s name
Our pictures of heaven have been coloured by the same kinds of non-biblical images that we have used to depict hell. But heaven is not some future ethereal existence. It is God’s reign in the here and now. Through Jesus, the life of the age to come has already broken into the present. The day is coming when both dimensions – the earthly and the heavenly – will be fully integrated.
Contrary to some popular evangelical thought, the Bible’s teaching on the Lord’s ‘coming’ makes extensive use of metaphor. In using terms such a ‘parousia’, Paul is borrowing imagery partly from the rhetoric of the Roman empire and partly from the Jewish idea of the day of the Lord (see esp. Dan 7). Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians, cloaked as it may be in this imagery, is the same as his teaching elsewhere – ‘when the Day of the Lord comes, all those who are alive will be transformed and those who have died will be resurrected.’
‘Heaven is not somewhere ‘up there’. We are not flying away. Paul’s message is not about some mass migration from a doomed world to a blessed heaven. It is about the divine transformation of our earth, not its devastation. It is about the end of this era of war and violence, injustice and oppression. It is about a new world of justice and peace.’
Given that 2nd-Temple Judaism was itself a religion of grace and not of works, what did Paul mean by ‘salvation’?
For Paul and the other Bible writers, ‘salvation’ was much more than a hope of life after death. Soteria and sozo refer to all-round wellbeing. And it is clear that this pertains to the here-and-now as much as it pertains to the future (1 Cor 1:18; Rom 13:11f).
The OT terminology covers a range of themes, including ‘deliverance, liberation, welfare, escape, release, relief, relaxation and rescue.’
The very name ‘Jesus’ (Yeshua) conveys the idea that ‘God saves and rescues, individually and communally, practically and materially, globally and cosmically, universally and eternally.’
And Paul had to tell the world, He didn’t want anyone to miss out. He was the great includer.
29. The revolution
The Reformation merely replaced one system of control with another. But Paul tells us that Christ came to set us free (Gal 5:1). And virtue is the outcome of this. God in Christ has already included you. Now live as if that were true! And God’s Spirit will empower our own efforts in order to make this happen (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 2:4f).
Living the Christian life is not only a partnership; it is also a battle (Ephesians 6:12). In Paul’s teaching, evil does not only reside in individuals; it resides in socio-political systems. Redemption, then, needs to be institutional as well as personal.
Since we, and the world we live in, are at present very far from we should be, we are to engage with God in ‘collaborative eschatology’ – working with God to restore, reconcile, and renew all of his creation.
‘Though we live ‘East of Eden’ we still bear the divine image. We are still God’s representatives, in our working and business lives every bit as much as in our private lives. Our money, our time and all our other resources – both personal and professional – are tools, not toys. Our personal budgets and corporate annual accounts are simply the story of our ethics displayed in numbers. And, since we are already counted in, our task is to anticipate the future Day of the Lord in the way we live now. To possess without becoming possessed. To work as God’s representatives to tackle poverty, inequality and social injustice in all its forms. To collaborate with God in the redemption of all things.’
‘If there are habits and behaviours that have no place in the coming age, they are habits and behaviours that have no place in our lives now, and no place in the businesses and community activities over which we have influence or control. Our personal code of ethics, our corporate investment manual, should reflect – indeed will always reflect – who we really are and who we are becoming.’
‘Let us live up to what we have already attained’ (Phil 3:16).