Postmodernizing Paul: When Man Redefines Truth
by Robert A. Weathers
October 1999

Few of us would regard a shark-attack movie as a catalyst for theological reflection. For instance, this summer's horror flick, Deep Blue Sea , told of sharks accidentally altered in genetic experiments resulting in genius predators who invent their own ways to capture their human prey. Not much theologizing there.

But consider the grandfather of all shark movies, the film that frightened a generation of vacationers right out of the ocean, Steven Speilberg's 1975 classic, Jaws (think Jurassic Park , but with fish). In this earlier film, the small resort of Amity Island was terrorized by a Great White, until Chief of Police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) set out to hunt and kill the shark.

Early in the picture, Brody and Hooper are engaged in a midnight search for the menacing shark in the waters off Amity Island. As they cruise, they chat about their respective occupations and motivations, when Hooper reveals he is wealthy. Brody scoffs, "Doesn't make sense - they pay a guy like you to watch sharks." In a jab at Brody's revealed fear of water, Hooper retorts, "It doesn't make much sense for a guy who hates the water to live on an island." To which Brody responds, "It's only an island if you look at it from the water."

Mystified by Brody's twisted reasoning, Hooper quips, "Oh, that makes a lot of sense," and the two sail on.

Indeed, who would buy into such logic? Who would presume that his personal perspective actually constitutes reality? Actually, a lot of people do - particularly some so-called Bible scholars.

In the April 5 issue of U.S. News and World Report writer Jeffery Sheler surveyed a stable of scholars in prestigious institutions to produce a report on the theories currently circulating in Pauline scholarship. In the article, "Reassessing an Apostle - The Quest for the Historical St. Paul Yields Some Surprising New Theories," he advanced that "in a batch of recent books and articles, critics and admirers alike have sought to penetrate what some contend are flawed interpretations and deliberate distortions of Paul's teachings."

The scholars whose theories he inventoried are mostly of mainline Protestant or Catholic affiliations. The one exception is the evangelical scholar N. T. Wright of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, England. The implication, of course, is that conservative evangelical interpretations of Paul's writings are "flawed" and deliberately "distorted," and therefore need correcting.

So Sheler's selection of thinkers gaze at Paul from a variety of angles and promote, in Sheler's words, "provocative theories." For instance, according to some scholars Paul was a scrappy Jewish zealot who saw in Christianity a chance to advance his own agenda of rebellion against Rome. Another writer says Paul was confused. Since he had never personally known Jesus, he misunderstood the ways of Jesus and created his own version of what the church should be. He then advanced that version among the Gentiles, in relative isolation and comparative ignorance of the work of apostles like Peter who were missionaries to fellow Jews. Or, others argue that Paul never intended to start another religion but only to expand and reform traditional Jewish thinking. And some teach that Paul simply didn't care about the earthly Jesus. For him, Christ was merely a metaphor for love, the divine presence in the hearts of believers.

Still others suggest Paul never imagined his teachings would carry beyond the first century, for he firmly expected Christ to return in his lifetime and his doctrinal teachings, such as those on the roles of women in the church, reflect that expectation. Accordingly, he would be surprised to find that his writings were being applied in the twentieth century.

In addition, more extreme views still remain, such as that of John Shelby Spong, who in a 1991 book submitted the notion that Paul was a repressed homosexual. All the while mainstream scholars still challenge the integrity of the Pauline corpus, claiming he probably did not write much of what has been attributed to him.

Why do these scholars lack consensus about this seminal Christian figure, one of the true shapers of Western history? For the same reason Chief Brody could deny the reality of the island on which he lived.

Sheler's article was less a survey of contemporary Pauline studies than it was a survey of the application of postmodern scholarship to contemporary Pauline studies. Each of these theories are produced by scholars who, like our misguided police chief, believe their unique perspective actually constitutes reality.

As its name implies, postmodernism is the baby of modernism. In modernist thought, people were central and truth was discovered. From this, the scientific worldview emerged as the predominant way to interpret experience. Now, however, the postmodern paradigm stretches the centrality of the person to the limits. The individual decides what is true. Having decided, then, a person can easily ignore what someone else says is true, while honorably tolerating the other perspective. It's convenient for everyone, and no one gets offended. But neither does anyone learn the truth.

To facilitate this perspective, neither Sheler nor his flock of scholars ever mention the viewpoint held by most Christians throughout history - that the Bible is authoritative. In order to instill the text with their own predetermined meaning, these scholars must deny any preexistent, specific, discernible, Divine intent.

Sheler has treated us to a handful of "Brody-Bible scholars," those who interpret the Bible while denying the Bible's own claims to be, of all things, the Word of God.

But in the biblical worldview, truth is not decided; rather, it is revealed. God has spoken in the biblical text, so the meaning resides in the text, not in the reader. The text then imposes upon the reader the obligation to learn what the author meant at the time, what God was saying in those words then, and how God speaks in those words today.

This simple addition to the interpretive equation entirely changes Sheler's survey of ponderings on Paul. By ignoring the concept of revealed truth, the scholars conveniently release themselves from the obligation to respond to that truth. Then they could manipulate the text to mean whatever they wanted. If, however, the writings of Paul were inspired of God, then they are authoritative. And not only for the first century, but because of God's role in that revelation, the words and their intended meanings transcend time. Therefore, the words of Paul impose the Word of God on those scholars.

Yet, we must be careful, lest we pass judgement too selectively. These scholars tumbled into fallacious reasoning and ended up postmodernizing Paul. A just verdict has been passed down. But before we leave the jury box, let's admit that we can succumb to the same tendency. The truth is, there's a little Brody in all of us. We are naturally inclined to shape our interpretation of God's Word according to our own designs and desires. Postmodernist interpretations are as common at church as they are in those ivory towers. When we gather in our small group Bible studies, how often do class members nod their heads to verify virtually any personal adaptation of the words of Paul, regardless of his original meaning? When we elevate a desire for consensus and harmony above a commitment to truth, we forsake one of the most important questions of biblical interpretation: What did the author mean when he wrote it?

The fact is when we study the Word of God it interprets us. We cannot ignore it. We are called - indeed, compelled - to apply it, to obey it, to admit that it means just what it says. God never offers the luxury of molding His Word to fit our personal agendas, convictions, preferences, or interpretive whims. Whether the reader is a professional scholar, the local pastor, or the most austere member of the Sunday school class, the Word of God remains the Word of God. When Paul wrote, he was led by God to make a point - and that point remains.

The island is always an island, and no one's personal perspective can change that fact. And that, Chief Brody, is the truth.

Robert A. Weathers is pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Westminster, S.C.

This article reprinted by permission from SBCLife


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