A lunchtime meeting in a Chinese restaurant unconvinced and untaught me. My lunch mate was a well-known Evangelical theologian who quite rudely upset years of theological certainty with one provocative statement: “Most Evangelicals haven’t got the foggiest notion of what the gospel really is.” He then asked me how I would define the gospel, and I answered as any good Romans Protestant would, quoting Romans. He followed up with this simple but annoying rhetorical question: “You’re quoting Paul. Shouldn’t you let Jesus define the gospel?” When I gave him a quizzical look, he asked, “What was the gospel according to Jesus?” A little humiliated, I mumbled something akin to “You tell me,” and he replied, “For Jesus, the gospel was very clear: The kingdom of God is at hand. That’s the gospel according to Jesus, Right?” I again mumbled something, maybe “I guess so.” Seeing my lack of conviction, he added, “Shouldn’t you read Paul in light of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus in light of Paul (139)?”
McLaren is not alone. Currently in “Evangelicalism,” it seems very popular to change what Paul and the other New Testament Scripture writers meant by saying, “Shouldn’t we interpret what Paul and the other Apostles wrote by understanding what Jesus meant in the first place?” This desire appears wonderful, encouraging, and wholesome; however, the problem lies in our assumption that we know what Jesus meant better than Paul and the other New Testament writers. Instead of assuming that we are better interpreters of what Christ meant than the New Testament writers, I contest that our desire should be to understand how Paul and the other New Testament writers understood what Jesus meant, since they were eyewitnesses in the same historical and literary context, and were divinely inspired by God the Holy Spirit? They lived with Him, talked with Him, understood Him, and were divinely inspired by God the Holy Spirit to write inerrant Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17). These realities are not true for us! We may misunderstand Jesus. They couldn’t (at least in their writings since God superintended the writing process so that they wrote His inerrant word). Therefore, let us understand what Jesus meant by understanding His words in light of the progressive revelation provided by the New Testament Scripture writers who walked with Him, talked with Him, and were divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Thus, when authors, pastors, and church leaders make similar statements like Mclaren did above, what they’re really telling you to do is, “Read Paul (Scripture) in light of your interpretation (not Scripture) of Jesus’ words, instead of reading Jesus (Scripture) in light of Paul (Scripture).” Choose Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ words over your own. You may be wrong. Paul couldn’t be. If Paul was wrong, you must throw out the entire New Testament, for Jesus did not write any Scripture with His own hand. His words were recorded by other Scripture writers like Paul. If you can’t trust Paul, you can’t trust Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John either, or any other New Testament writer. Furthermore, the words of Christ that are included in the Four Gospels were placed there by the Gospel Writers (divinely inspired). We don’t have all the words Jesus spoke during His earthly ministry. The rest of the New Testament was needed to unfold what these disciples learned from Christ. That’s what we have in the rest of the New Testament: the Holy Spirit guided the disciples into all truth. We should trust their words as the unfolding of what Jesus meant instead of thinking we know what Jesus meant better than they did. Every word in the New Testament was either written by one of these apostles or someone they approved of. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pet. 1:21).
What are your thoughts?