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Why Paul’s Letters Are Inadequate for Understanding Salvation

pauls letters

Jennifer Bashaw

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw (PhD, Fuller Seminary; MDiv, Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary) teaches New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, Ministry, and Homiletics at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. She has had a love/hate relationship with Evangelical Christianity ever since she felt a call to ministry in a Southern Baptist Church as a teenager. She has served as children’s minister, youth minister, and associate pastor in several different Baptist churches over the last twenty years and is ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA.

What did Jesus’s death life do: Part 1

A couple of months ago, I hopped on the podcast with Pete and Jared to chat about atonement. The major question we focused on was “What did the crucifixion do?” or put another way, “What did Jesus’s death accomplish?”

We analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of various theories that Christians throughout church history had proposed about how salvation works—the Christus victor model, penal substitutionary atonement, the moral exemplar model, scapegoat theory, and more. We basically solved all the theological problems we had inherited from Anselm and Abelard, from Luther and Calvin, and then we called it a day, having given the definitive solution to the question of how salvation works. 

And if you believe that, then I also have some indulgences I can sell you. Because answers to questions like, “How does salvation work?”, have much more fluidity, complexity, and mystery than can be answered in a forty-year academic career, much less a forty-minute podcast.

That doesn’t mean that we should give up on asking hard questions and naively assent to the short-cut theology available in commercialized Christianity. It means we have to approach these big questions in a variety of ways, read books from people who don’t think like we do, maybe enter the discussion from a different viewpoint.

So, for my first blog post with B4NP, I want to continue exploring the question of how salvation works. However, I am going to come at it from another direction. Instead of beginning with the question, “What did Jesus’s death do?”, I want to ask, “What did Jesus’s life do?” 

Most language about salvation—the kind you find at revivals, on the flyers left on your windshield, and in the pulpit of almost every evangelical-leaning church—is very crucifixion centered.

That makes sense for two reasons: first, cross language dials up the drama and urgency of salvation and that drives people to make decisions; and second, we Protestants (especially those of the evangelical variety) love us some Paul. And Pauline salvation language centers on Jesus’s death on the cross—reconciliation and peace come through the cross (Col 1:20, Eph 2:16), debt is canceled by nailing it on the cross (Col 2:14), the message of the cross has saving power (1 Cor 1:18), the cross rescues us from the curse (Gal 3:13), Jesus was delivered to death for our sins (Rom 4:25).

I could go on and on, but this post is actually not about rehashing Paul’s vocabulary of salvation. If you grew up in American Christianity, you probably know that vocabulary well.

I am suggesting here that if we want to understand salvation better, we need to stop constructing our theology of salvation predominantly (much less exclusively!) on Paul’s letters. We run into some huge problems if we rely too heavily on Paul for our understanding of atonement—we may miss the meaning and importance of Jesus’s life, we may draw the circle of God’s love and mercy too narrowly, and we may grossly misunderstand the character of God. Why might a Pauline-based view of salvation mislead us in these ways?

Simply put, Paul’s letters were never meant to explain salvation fully and so they are an inadequate source for a theology of salvation. Let me expound.

Three reasons why Paul’s letters are inadequate for understanding salvation:

  1. Epistles, or letters, are occasional literature.

When interpreting biblical literature, paying attention to genre is vital (Essential! Crucial! Indispensable! Another emphatic synonym!).

When we understand genre, we can read the literature according to its type and characteristics and that keeps us from irresponsibly misinterpreting it. The genre of Paul’s writings is epistle or, to be more accurate, an elongated version of the Greco-Roman letter.

One central characteristic of the epistolary genre is that it is occasional, or situational—it is addressed to a specific audience at a specific time for a specific purpose. When Paul pens a letter to a particular church, he tailors his message, his language, and his emphasis to match the situation of that church.

There are strengths to this type of writing, of course. It can be deeply personal, it provides helpful solutions to people’s problems, and it is focused on persuasively affecting change. The weakness of epistles, however, is that they are not meant to provide universal or systematic treatments of a subject. When Paul writes about salvation in his various letters, they will each have carefully chosen metaphors situated within purposely crafted arguments.

In other words, Paul’s language about salvation is flexible and changes depending on what point he is trying to make to his audience in that letter. This is why he emphasizes the power of the cross to free people from the law in Galatians (they had begun to rely on strict adherence to particular laws), but he emphasizes the importance of Jesus’s humble obedience on the cross when he writes Philippians (they were struggling with pride and division and needed an example of humility).

What does this mean for constructing a theology of salvation on epistles? It means we do not get the whole story from Paul. Even if we piece together the different arguments and metaphors from several letters, we will still have an incomplete, and therefore inaccurate, picture of atonement.

2. Paul provides a gapingly incomplete picture of Jesus’s life

Speaking of incomplete, a second reason why we shouldn’t limit our understanding of salvation to Paul’s writings is because he tells us almost nothing about Jesus’s life and ministry. Paul talks more about his own background than Jesus’s and he references his own actions as exemplary rather than Jesus’s (though, to be fair, he does say that people should imitate him because he imitates Christ—1 Cor 11:1).

Paul tells us a bit about the Last Supper, about the crucifixion and resurrection, and about who Jesus is in relation to Israel, but he does not mention the message Jesus preached, the people he encountered, or the way he lived his life.

This lack of biographical information about Jesus should ring a warning bell in our heads. How can we fill out a picture of salvation from literature that is missing Jesus’s teaching and healing ministry?

Paul may be able to give us part of the answer to the question, “What did Jesus’ death do?”, but his letters certainly do not address what Jesus’s life, teaching, and ministry did. Without that knowledge, can we understand salvation at all?

3. Salvation vocabulary in the Gospels differs greatly from salvation language in Paul.

As I have already established, Paul rarely mentions the details of Jesus’ life. In the Gospels, though, the picture we get of salvation revolves around Jesus’s life and ministry which then culminates in his death and resurrection.

For this reason, the Gospel writers’ vocabulary of salvation—with their descriptions of the kingdom of God and their explanation of the significance of Jesus’s life—differs significantly from Paul’s (more on this in my next post).

Paul’s vocabulary is more crucifixion centered while the Gospels’ vocabulary (especially the Synoptic Gospels) is kingdom centered. If Paul paints such a different picture of salvation than the Gospels and gives us a Jesus without his ministry and preaching, what kind of atonement theology do Paul’s letters produce? One that fails to offer a robust theology of salvation because it is only a small piece of a larger picture. One that is, in a word, inadequate.

If we want to answer the question, “What did Jesus’s life do?”, a question that should certainly be to key in our understanding of salvation, we need to turn to those first-century documents whose main purpose was to spread the good news about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection…you know, the Gospels.

And that is exactly what we are going to do in my next installation of, “What did Jesus’s death life do?”

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