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Cover image of The Lost Message of Paul

The Lost Message of Paul by Steve Chalke

Probably only the closest of readers of this blog would be aware of my theological leanings which are unique; some might even say heretical. Influenced by N.T. Wright, intrigued by Rob Bell, eventually finding Andrew Perriman I have come to adopt a narrative-historical hermeneutic rather than the dominant historical-grammatical approach of modern evangelicalism.

So when offered a chance to review The Lost Message of Paul I was excited.

We have misunderstood Paul, badly.

We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them.

· What if ‘original sin’ was never part of Paul’s thinking?
· What if the idea that we are saved by faith in Christ, as Luther argued, was based on a mistranslation of Paul’s words and a misunderstanding of Paul’s thinking?

‘Over the centuries,’ writes Steve Chalke, ‘the Church has repeatedly failed to communicate, or even understand, the core of Paul’s message. Although Paul has often been presented as the champion of exclusion, he was the very opposite. He was the great includer.’

Given my theological journey, if anyone is open to a book about the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Paul, I am.

But this book was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because at first I was only able to read it in fits and starts, but it struck me as just not well organized or written. Despite my avid interest in the subject, it did not grab or hold my attention. I almost had to force myself to read it.

It is an attempt to popularize certain academic understandings or scholarly debates, particularly what is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but does so at a superficial level and in one sided fashion. The style is discursive and meandering jumping between theology and devotional and social issues seemingly at random. It just didn’t flow for me.

There really isn’t anything particularly new here for anyone who has been following this debate. Which brings two challenges: 1) I have a hard time recommending such a meandering and hard to follow book to someone who wants to learn about this approach as there are much better books out there for those who want to understand the debate surrounding Paul and 2) if you are already familiar with the debates I am not sure what this adds.

Those who want to use NPP to reject evangelicalism and who embrace a progressive, for lack of a better term, approach this book will be embraced. And for those who reject either NPP, progressive theology, or both this book won’t change anyone’s mind. And as a few of the critical reviews note, Chalke writes as if his approach is obvious and a given rather than a highly controversial one.

I agree with Chalke on NPP and I agree that many in the church have flattened the story of the Bible into over-simplified theology (accept Jesus or go to eternal torment in Hell). He highlights the importance of Second Temple Judaism and the problematic nature of Luther’s approach. But again, he then assumes that the only logical end result is progressive Christianity stripped off almost all its credal beliefs. It is not a humble wrestling with the challenging issues of faith today but a rather arrogant proclamation that Chalke has it all figured out and has discovered true Christianity.

When I went to look at other reactions to compare to my own, I found mostly negative reviews. Here is a sampling:

There are useful things in this book about reflecting on Paul’s context, central purpose and primary target audience – but Chalke’s actual reading of Paul is highly selective and leads not to clear understanding but further lack of clarity.

The rest of the book is mainly taken up with an attempt to rewrite the theology of heaven and hell; including a lengthy excursion into Dante’s architecture of the afterlife.

I found the arguments more emotive than compelling. They are based on a selective use of Paul, a long line of straw men and a failure to interact with a wide range of evangelical scholars who have written on the subject.

I cannot recommend this book; there are better popular treatments of Paul’s thinking. Try Tom Wright’s Paul: A Biography.

Inspire Magazine review

David Robertson’s initial reaction was pretty harsh (see below) but he offered a more tempered but still critical review in Christianity Today.

This is an easy to read, and well-written book – much better stylistically than the earlier work. As always with Chalke the book will be described as ‘controversial’ and will delight some (like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) and appall others. From a personal perspective I found that The Lost Message of Paul contained some interesting information, provocative arguments, challenging questions and old heresies.

Steve argues that ‘all the old narratives are dead’ and that we need a ‘new story’. He blames Augustine, Luther and Calvin for getting Paul’s message wrong. But his new story suffers from some major defects.

David Robertson in Christianity Today

He appreciated the writing more than I did but I did not read his previous book so have nothing to compare it to.

This is a better-written work than his previous…but after a slightly promising start, it quickly went downhill.  You will discover very little about the Apostle Paul here – and his lost message.  But you will learn a lot about what Steve Chalke thinks – and lo and behold, it appears that all along Paul and Jesus were really 19th Century Protestant liberals, who spoke in an evangelical code – which remained hidden – until Steve came to reveal ‘the lost message of Paul’.   Overall, whilst there are some insights, this is a shockingly bad book.  Chalke speaks as though he is an expert in Greek, Hebrew, History, Theology, Psychology, Science – whereas in reality he just cherry picks and quote mines sources which support his pre-determined destination – and amazingly he arrives there.   A Bible that is not the word of God, a Jesus who didn’t exist, a heaven and hell that are only on earth….a cross that did not atone and a God who fails….This is about as far as it is possible to get from Christianity whilst still claiming to be a Christian. 

David Robertson at The Wee Flea

Tom Creedy offers a very thorough and critical review and helpfully offers other, and better, sources for those who want to learn more.

As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend this book. Steve seems to be surprisingly unaware of a number of books and positions on Paul, as well as unwilling to take his own advice in reading and interpreting Paul. Of this almost 300 page book, some of it is helpful (some reminders on hermeneutics, and an acknowledgement that Paul and Scripture have been abused in the past and present), but it is like trying to pick only Minstrels out of a pack of Revels (an english chocolate that is, quite literally, a mixed bag). In fact, I’d go further: I think Steve should ask SPCK, his current publisher, for the rest of Tom Wright’s back catalogue, as well as dig into Paula Gooder, John Barclay, etc. It should be revealing that for a book purporting to open up a conversation about Paul, it simultaneously isn’t endorsed by any Pauline/New Testament scholars, and in my limited knowledge doesn’t engage with some of the key voices in the relevant discussion. For interested readers, New Testament scholar Michael Bird has a really helpful list of some of the best recent books on Paul

Thomas Creedy review

Chris Goswami at 7minutes has a much more positive view and gets at the challenge of the book. It has some valid points but always pushes the arguments to the limits and beyond and thus undercuts its ability to persuade.

 “We all know the stories of the pain caused by the misreading of Paul through the centuries … to justify some of the most brutal and repressive episodes in human history  … including apartheid, subservience of women, abuse of the environment and oppression of gay people”.

Steve Chalke is right about that and at the very least this book might soften some of the hard edges of the church. And he is right about the church at times being preoccupied with personal salvation: “go to church and get into heaven” is a cheap gospel as he makes clear.

On the other hand, Chalke’s “everything you know about Paul is wrong” proposal is built on selected scriptures and will be upsetting to ordinary church-goers. So, to conclude, this book is a helpful contribution, it takes some of the recent technical discussions on Paul (including NPP) and makes them more understandable to the ordinary church-goer, but I would not recommend it widely.

7minutes review

I didn’t dig into progressive reviews but clearly those who side with Chalke embraced this book.

THIS is a book that every preacher should read. Why? Once you have had an opportunity to engage with St Paul’s message as articulated here, it is “literally world-changing”. As its author confesses at the outset, the ideas presented are not his own: they represent a huge body of thought relating to Paul which has emerged since the1960s. The ideas are, though, brilliantly and very accessibly presented in this book.

[…]

This book could be seen as an extended meditation on the sentence “God is love”: “Once you understand that, everything else cascades from it. Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking — the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger.” Chalke quotes Barth: “If God exhibits characteristics of anger, judgement and the like they are never more than ‘repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves’.”

“Love never fails,” Paul writes. Chalke speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated decades, through the Oasis Trust, to attending to those who have been written off by society, seeking not to fail them. He argues that God in Christ does the same eternally, and Chalke quotes Barth again: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Chalke explains what this means to him in helpful detail.

Church Times review

Whew, that is a lot to digest! I hope I have given enough information for readers to get a sense of book, its approach and the pros and cons. For whatever reason, I did not enjoy it despite agreeing with much of the underlying issues Chalke is trying to highlight. In the end, I think there are better books out there to tackle this important subject.

Christian Origins and the Question of God Reading Challenge

I have been a fan of N.T. Wright for quite a while now. I have read a number of his books but they have been the popular versions (and his New Testament for Everyone volumes) rather than the scholarly tomes that inspired them.

I have long wanted to read his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, however, and even picked up used versions of Volumes 1 & 3.  But I had to be honest with myself. I was unlikely to read that many pages in small print paperback.  I didn’t want to shell out the dollars it would cost to buy all the volumes in Kindle format.

Well, as luck would have it, the prices changed.  You can now get a whole lot of Wright for a lot less money. As of right now you can all four volumes for $7.99 each:

The New Testament and the People of God (V1)
Jesus and the Victory of God (V2)
The Resurrection and the Son of God (V3)
Paul and the Faithfulness of God (V4)

Plus, as a bonus you can get Paul and His Recent Interpreters for $5.99!  That is over 4k of Wright for less than $40.  Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.

However, therein lies the rub.  If you read all five books that is 4,145 pages.  Just the 4 Christian Origin volumes is 3,739.  That is a lot of reading.  And this is not light reading by any stretch of the imagination.

So how does one commit to something like this?  Well, I think you have to do just that, make a commitment.  So what I’m going to do is read Paul and His Recent Interpreters this year.  And commit to reading the Christian Origins and the Question of God series in its entirety in 2016.

Broken down over the course of 12 months that is only about 300 words a month; certainly doable.  The trick will be reading it in larger enough chunks that I get something out of it and end up with an understanding of Wright’s massive work.

This will be no easy challenge but I think it will give me something to shoot for in 2016.  Anyone else up for the challenge?

Faith in an Emerging Culture?

I have only read one book in the Faith in an Emerging Culture Series from Paternoster (Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church) but the preface really captures where I am in my exploration of my faith these days:

It is common knowledge that Western culture has undergone major changes and we now find ourselves in an increasingly postmodern (or post-postmodern?), post Christendom, post industrial, post-just-about-anything-you-like world. The church now sits on the margins of western culture with a faith ‘package deal’ to offer the world that is perceived as out of date and irrelevant. How can we recontextualize the old, old story of the gospel in the new, new world of postmodernity? How can we fulfill our missional calling in a world that cannot any longer understand or relate to what we are saying? ‘Faith in an Emerging Culture’ seeks to imaginatively rethink Christian theology and practice in postmodern ways. It does not shrink from being explorative, provocative and controversial but is at the same time committed to remaining within the bounds of orthodox Christian faith and practice. Most readers will find things to agree with and things which will irritate them but we hope at very least to provoke fresh thought and theological/spiritual renewal.

So much so that I am using the first half as a teaser for my Sunday School class in 2015. I think these questions and issues have only become more relevant and important even as the term “emerging” in connection with church has mostly faded.

Andrew Perriman on justification by faith

Reformed theology regards justification by faith as a central soteriological principle that determines the final destiny of the individual. It stands in absolute antithesis to the supposedly universal but futile endeavour of humanity to justify itself by its ethical and religious works. It assumes a forensic or judicial framework: at the final assize no one will be be justified—and therefore escape condemnation to hell—by anything that he or she has done; only those who have faith in the atoning death of Christ, etc., will be justified. It is essentially a metaphysical notion. Narrative has nothing to do with it.

My pragmatic-eschatological interpretation is that justification by faith presupposes the call of God to pursue a hazardous and uncertain course or to stand firm under threatening conditions. The right response to such a call is belief, trust, faith, faithfulness. Habakkuk 2:4 is seminal: when the wrath of God comes upon Israel, the righteous will live by their faithfulness (cf. Rom. 1:17). At some point in the future those who take that difficult and narrow path will find that they were right to do so—they will find that they were justified all along, despite the incredulity and antagonism of those around them.

— Andrew Perriman

Yawning at Tigers by Drew Dyck

I am a bit of a sucker for cheap books on my Kindle. And lately I have been on something of a theology/faith kick (so much so that I am now hopelessly behind in my reading).

So when I saw Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying by Drew Dyck temporarily on sale for less than two dollars I had to click.

Yawning at TigersWhen was the last time you were overawed by God’s majesty? Have you ever stood in stunned silence at his holiness and power?

In our shallow, self-centered age, things like truth and reverence might seem outdated, lost. Yet we’re restless. And our failed attempts to ease our unrest point to an ancient ache for an experience of the holy.

Drew Dyck makes a compelling case that what we seek awaits us in the untamed God of Scripture—a God who is dangerous yet accessible, mysterious yet powerfully present. He is a God who beckons us to see him with a fresh, unfiltered gaze.

Yawning at Tigers takes us past domesticated Christianity, into the wilds where God’s raw majesty, love, and power become more real and transformative than we could ever imagine.

One again I found myself torn about my reaction to a book touching on faith, theology or the Bible.

I really like what the author is getting at here: that we domesticate God and make him safe and tame. And I think the first half of the book does a good job of getting us to think about why and how we attempt to tame God and what the repercussions of that are for our lives and our communities.

But then in the second half of the book I felt like he slowly slipped back into rather conventional approaches to Christianity with a focus on Jesus and God’s love. Not that there is anything wrong necessarily with this approach (although I have certain nits to pick) but it seemed at times a little disconnected from the larger topic.

Dyck is trying to show how God is both holy, awesome and transcendent but also deeply loving, present and personal. I get that. And the incarnation is the pivot on which this well told tale turns.

I have been trying to figure out why I didn’t enjoy the book more than I did.

I liked the way he frequently touched on the narrative or storyline of scripture and brought in prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea to illustrate his points. I liked the section dealing with suffering and how different cultures and time periods view(ed) the crucifixion very differently. And he used the tearing of the temple veil effectively to illustrate the impact of Jesus death. There is a blend of anecdote, personal experience and theology that makes for easy reading.

But in the end, I feel like Dyck is making some theologically loaded arguments without unpacking them or going into much detail. I guess I feel like he is stealing a few bases rhetorically.

Basically, he views the story of God and Jesus through the lens of the first chapter of John. The Incarnation, in the doctrinal sense, becomes the point of the Gospel, the remainder of the New Testament, and the rest of history for that matter.

The point of Jesus’s suffering is so God would know what it feels like to be human. The answer to evil and pain in the world is “God with Us” in Jesus. The missional movement is modeled after the incarnation, etc. The whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is shrunk down to God coming to earth to show us how much he loves us.

Now, I know what you are saying: “Kevin, this is rather standard evangelical stuff.” Yes, I know. But having wrestled with these issues, and tried to sort out many of the underlying questions, and approach scripture with fresh eyes and/or less doctrinal baggage or presuppositions, they too often come across as easy answers. A spiritualized, universalized approach that neuters the Biblical story in important ways. But I am pretty confident that is my rather unique hang-up these days (shocking, I know).

If you are looking for a book that seeks to highlight the awesome holiness and majesty of God and yet connect that to his infinite love and pursuit of His people you will enjoy this book.

As I said, Dyck blends theology, anecdote, and personal experience in an approachable and engaging way. He looks to make scripture come alive instead of fade into stale flannel-graph stories.

Although well written and organized, however, I am not sure there is much in the later half of the book that isn’t standard fare in evangelical Sunday School classes and sermons on Sundays. But perhaps I have just heard this approach frequently and there are swaths of American Christianity where it has not been discussed or embraced.

And I will admit that it is easy to embrace one side at the expense of the other; to focus on God’s sovereignty and judgement at the expense of his love and dogged pursuit of the lost; or to focus on God’s love and compassion while ignoring his transcendent, all-powerful and holy nature. This is certainly frequently evident in discussions of these and related topics. We tend to pick a side rather than live with tensions. And Dyck rightful explains the danger involved in this temptation or tendency.

That said, I think the story of scripture is a bit more complicated than what is presented here; but perhaps that is asking too much of a book of this nature.

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