Some time back, I was in this confusing and exciting time in my life when God was leading me out of my theological comfort zone into something richer. (He’s always been doing this, of course, but this was one of those intensely formative seasons that shine in my memory like a hot flame.) During this time, I had been prompted to think more deeply about the practical and ethical implications of following a crucified God and in typical fashion, I preached a series of messages on the topics of Jesus and his cross. Nearly three quarters of the way through this series, a member of the church approached me and firmly told me I needed to preach “less Jesus and more Paul.”
This was not a particularly new concept to me. I am steeped in a tradition that occasionally holds those who focus on the gospels with deep suspicion. More to the point, many of my experience seemed afraid that thusly emphasizing Jesus would undermine the complex, perilously built arguments we had made about “sound doctrine” from the epistles. Thus, those who granted undue importance to the gospels were often labeled “change agents.” (Indeed, it wasn’t long after this man approached me that I was labeled similarly.) Some would even go so far with this view as to argue that Jesus’ teachings and actions were not normative for Christians because he lived under an older dispensation while we live under the new one. It was, in this view, Paul that counted where ethical living was concerned.
What struck me that day, during this formative season of my life, was that I had been preaching from Paul. Back in the day, I did handouts for every sermon and I happened to have a copy of each from the series I was preaching. I pulled them out and asked the man to look them over. Where were my texts from?
I’ll tell you. They were from Paul.
Even this week, I encountered a respected scholar from my heritage that argues against holding this “christological fallacy.” We can’t see the gospels – or Jesus’ teachings and life – as more authoritative than any other part of Scripture. Those who do so, the argument goes, are trying to get away with something: to undermine doctrine, or discredit some part of inspiration, or some other such nefarious nonsense.
But, let me suggest that my happy adoption of such a fallacy came about precisely because I took the authority of Scripture seriously. (I often remind people that I am only as “liberal” [whatever that means] as I am because I was raised to take the Bible seriously.) It is, after all, the witness of Scripture that leads one to place Jesus’ life and teachings at the center of how we understand what God is teaching us in Scripture. Jesus becomes the lens through which we interpret Scripture at the insistence of Scripture itself.
It is Paul who incessantly preached the crucified Lord. (And, might I suggest, that if we read Paul as primarily talking about anything other than Jesus, we’re reading him wrong.) It is Paul that would spend the opening chapters of nearly every one of his letters discussing the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, and actions before drawing ethical applications with an important therefore. (That is, he says, “I’m going to talk to you about how to live on the basis of all this talk about Jesus we’ve been having.”) It is Paul who gives us the rich, practical language of Christ-likeness.
And, this isn’t even to begin discussing all the ways the other writers of the New Testament insist on the same emphasis. Nor is it to begin discussing the beautiful, complex dance between the Jesus and the Hebrew Bible, which at the same time gives us context for understanding Jesus and demands re-interpretation through a christological lens because of Jesus.
I say all of that to stake out this claim: if it is a fallacy to see Jesus – his life and his teachings – as the absolute, defining center of how I understand both Scripture and my life, call me fallacious.
I’ve been called worse.