How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Review of Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Paul, part 1: new perspectives

Read time: 11 minutes

Steve Chalke is a British “Baptist minister, author, speaker, justice campaigner, broadcaster, social entrepreneur and former UN Special Advisor on Human Trafficking”, and the founder of the Oasis Trust. The Lost Message of Paul is his belated sequel to The Lost Message of Jesus, which he wrote with Alan Mann and published in 2004.

The earlier book got him into hot water with conservatives and evangelicals, not least because of its characterisation of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as “a form of cosmic child abuse”. This one is less controversial. Remarkably, he refrains from commenting on Paul’s views on same-sex relationships, apart from a brief swipe at churches that still impose boundary markers: “It is about regular attendance, being at mass, or confession, or about being christened, or not being divorced or a practising gay or gender non-binary or….”

Chalke has worked hard at developing a dialogue between recent scholarship on Paul and his own instincts as a pastor and spokesperson disillusioned with the narrow dogmatism of much modern theology. My feeling is that in the end his instincts win out, but it’s an honest attempt to bring the two programmes together, and for that reason, if nothing else, it is worth reading. Here I’ve made some comments on the issues that stood out as I worked through the twenty-nine short chapters. I’ve used the Kindle edition, so we’ll have to do without page numbers.

“If we respect the Bible, we’ve got to work harder at it together—and that’s only going to happen through open, honest enquiry and questioning.”

If you’re new to this site, you will find that I tend to critique books like this from the giddy hermeneutical high ground of a rigorous narrative-historical method of interpretation. I think the approach has integrity, but it may come across as tendentious and unfair; it will irritate some and mystify others. Sorry about that.

New perspectives on Paul

Jesus’ audience was primarily Jewish. He had insisted, however, that his followers should take his message ‘into all the world’, teaching them about his revolutionary way of being human.

This sounds good because we are all now “humanists”. But it misrepresents the mission of the first disciples. They were sent to Israel and to the nations to proclaim the coming kingdom of God, which was an announcement in the first place about what God was about to do by way of judgment and inauguration of a new political-religious régime in the ancient world. People were to be baptised in light of that conviction and were taught to live accordingly—a revolutionary way of being Jewish, in the face of intense opposition, in advance of the predicted annexation of the Greek-Roman world. The New Testament story is more narrowly focused than we would like it to be.

Paul’s task was to discover how to apply Jesus’ life-transforming and liberating message to communities for whom the cultural trappings of Judaism were completely foreign.

This is true as far as it goes, but the future orientation of the message is again missing. Paul believed that in the coming decades the world as he knew it would be radically transformed. The crucified “messiah” who had confronted him on the road to Damascus would be confessed as Lord by the nations, from Jerusalem to Spain, to the glory of Israel’s God. This historical transition entailed and demanded the liberation and transformation of a renewed people of eschatological witness.

The story that Paul lived in is what we call Second Temple Judaism. This is the oxygen that he, like all other first-century Jews, breathed.

Chalke registers the importance of the so-called “new perspective on Paul” that is typically traced back to Ed Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). The emphasis in chapter 4 on Jewish eschatological expectation is more or less correct: in Jesus’ time Jews “believed that they were living in a ‘real-time’ drama, one which would reach its climax when their long-awaited messiah figure finally arrived to wage war on their enemies and set them free.” It would be nearer the mark, I think, to say that sections of the population were waiting for God to intervene to defeat Israel’s enemies and establish his own direct governance, perhaps through the agency of a Davidic messiah.

Jesus and Caesar

And now that story, the story of Second Temple Judaism, had reached its climax through Jesus, the long-awaited but equally improbable Jewish Messiah—who was also the true Lord of all. But this king, unlike Caesar, Paul has come to understand, does not rule through acts of violence and subjugation. Instead he chooses to bring true liberation of all men and women through his self-sacrifice.

The New Testament story about Jesus certainly has to be aligned with the Jewish story about the triumph of YHWH over Israel’s enemies, and it is right to stress the fact that Jesus has become king not “through acts of violence and subjugation” but through humiliation, suffering and death (cf. Phil. 2:6-11). But the focus on “true liberation” is wrong. For Paul liberation is a means to an end, one aspect of the reconfiguration of that people chosen in Abraham to serve the living God; and the end is the empire-wide acknowledgment that the one God of Israel has given his Son the authority and power to judge and rule over the nations currently subject to Caesar.

I hold to my view that we understand Paul better if we don’t try to make him the exponent of a generalised, universally applicable theology—whether the personal-salvationism of modern evangelicalism or Chalke’s personal-liberation theology.

But, in Paul’s mind, this was not about two rivals—Caesar and Jesus—vying for the top position. It was about a different order of thinking. It was about liberation rather than control. Liberation from the pursuit of power and self-interest rather than through the pursuit of power and self-interest.

The antithesis between liberation and control is misleading. Chalke rather depicts early Christianity as an anti-capitalist, anti-imperial liberation movement. He notes, for example, that all the pages painted by Christians on the walls of the catacombs in Rome are “images of deliverance”—Daniel in the lions’ den, the men thrown into the furnace, or the exodus. Why? “Because for all the early Christians, just as for Paul, Jesus was the liberator, the Messiah.” But the hope expressed here is not for a new exodus for the whole world but for the preservation of the persecuted saints in times of extreme trial and for the eventual arrival of this outcast community in the “promised land” of the age to come.

The only way to make sense of this narrative historically is to identify it not with modern visions of global renewal but with the conversion of the Roman Empire and the vindication of these witnesses of eschatological transformation. Yes, “for Paul, being a follower of Christ is about changing society.” But it was about changing his society.

Chapter 5 ends with Paul—the “erstwhile ferociously nationalistic, deeply conservative and merciless persecutor of the followers of the Way—emerging from self-isolation following his Damascus road experience, having rethought his whole worldview.

“Paul the global leader is born!”

No, Paul the Jewish-Roman apostle of the Son of God is born!

Things to come

But, it seems more than likely that, rather than being anti-sex or anti-marriage, he simply understood that in the middle of the first century AD (long before contraceptives), in a famine-stricken city, more marriages meant more mouths to feed.

Here again Chalke veers away from eschatology towards a more general social-ethical reading of Paul. He argues that Paul’s preference for celibate singleness (1 Cor. 7:25-31) presupposes widespread famine in AD 51—the “present crisis” referred to in verse 26. But the expression “the appointed time has grown very short” (7:29) and the apocalyptic outlook of the letter (eg., 1 Cor. 1:8; 3:13; 15:20-34) and of Paul’s thought, suggest that the “distress”, which they are perhaps already experiencing, is a reference to their experience of opposition and persecution in the period leading up to the parousia.

Nevertheless, the hermeneutic point made in chapter 7 is excellent: “If we respect the Bible, we’ve got to work harder at it together—and that’s only going to happen through open, honest enquiry and questioning.”

It is time to go back to the drawing board and start again, not for the sake of the academic exercise but because we want to build something that is healthy to live in and that provides us the space and resources we need to get on with the job we are employed to do.

Bang on. The argument is that we have to come to terms with the new perspectives on Paul that have proliferated over the last few decades. But we also have to generate something workable out of the academic enterprise.

Chalke does a good job of summarising the New Perspective argument about works and the Law and the historical background to the current But it seems an overstatement to say that “Paul really didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with Judaism at all.” There was nothing wrong with the Law, but it had not been able to guarantee Jewish righteousness, therefore Israel faced the destructive wrath of God prescribed by the Law. That surely is a central theme of Romans 2-11.

I fear that Chalke is too anxious to include everyone (“for Paul the only boundary marker is being human”). Paul, like Jesus, is an apocalyptic thinker. There is a cut-off point in view: “Or do you not know that unrighteous people will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither the promiscuous, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor men who lie with other men, nor thieves, nor the greedy, not drunkards, not revilers, not the rapacious will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9, my translation). That has to be part of the narrative, and assimilating it may be harder that Chalke thinks (see my book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission).

“Faith in Christ” or the “faithfulness of Christ”?

Chapter 8 on pistis as “faithfulness” is very good, except that again Chalke rather rewrites Paul as a godly humanist. We are called to live “faithfully”, he says, to the great truth that we are all chosen to live in accordance with the “best way of being human, the most fulfilling way of being human.” I think that the “faith” or “faithfulness” by which the early churches would be “justified”, as Paul taught, was directed towards the momentous future outcome—the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations. Paul was a messianic imperialist, not a humanist.

If the word faith didn’t exist—or went on an extended holiday—and we had to use a different word—we couldn’t do better than to replace it with trust, loyalty or allegiance.

Chalke’s debt to Matthew Bates’ argument that pistis means “allegiance” is apparent here. I’ve given my reasons for thinking that Bates pushes the thesis too far in several posts reviewing his work. The critique of a narrow fideistic salvationism is right, but “belief” remains central to New Testament pistis because the gospel was essentially a promise: the God of Israel was going to do such and such. Clearly, believing that promise presupposed trust in the God of Israel and translated into steadfast, faithful, practical allegiance to the risen Lord into whose hands God had committed the future of his people. But allegiance is not faith; it is an outworking or consequence of faith.

Chalke blames the phrase “faith in Christ” for a lot of the things that are wrong with modern Protestant theology. The jury is probably still out on the translation of pistis Christou—“faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ”? But either way, the idea of personal faith in the fact of the risen Jesus as the one who would come to judge and rule is not at all alien to the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament.

Chalke is trying to use the exegetical argument to resist a form of conservative or fundamentalist Christianity that demands faith as a difficult psychological work, reinforced by the threat of eternal punishment in hell. So to put the emphasis on Jesus’ faithfulness rather than on our faith is, naturally, a liberation. Fair enough. But that was hardly the sort of distorted “faith” that Paul had in mind when he wrote that Abraham was justified by his belief in the promise of God.

The “anger of God” or the “anguish of God”?

Far from being driven into a red-hot rage by our sin, the Bible reveals to us a passionate God who is taken aback, troubled, pained and broken with sorrow by our rebellion and rejection of his ways.

In chapter 12 we are given a quick overview of the Hebrew and Greek terms used to express the “anger” of God. The conclusion is that they don’t really mean “anger”—and certainly they don’t mean “wrath”—but something more like “anguish”. The problem with this is that the “anger” of God in scripture is not just words and images. The prophets believed that when God got angry with his rebellious people or with his enemies, he was likely to punish them. Or to put it the other way round, the prophets and apocalypticists—including John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles—believed that successive catastrophes inflicted on Israel by the Assyrians, there Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans were not arbitrary historical calamities but concrete manifestations of the wrath of God against his people.

Chalke allows only that God gives people over to their own sinful ways (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 28)—a sort of passive-aggressive judgment. “God doesn’t punish them or harm them in any way. Why would God do that? Instead, trembling with sorrow, God simply lets them go the way they have chosen and weeps as they punish themselves by their short-sighted and wrong decisions.” But Paul goes on to say that God has decreed that “those who practice such things deserve to die”, that there will be a future judgment, wrath against both the Jew and the Greek who does unrighteousness, that the Jews are “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”, and that God will be avenged against his enemies (1:32; 2:5-11; 9:22; 12:19).

Yes, Paul advocates love as the necessary ground for Christian community and spirituality (1 Cor. 13), but this is still part of a bigger story about the role of the community as a witness to a future judgment of Israel and the pagan world. I think that Chalke’s pastoral and moral concerns have got the better of his reading of the first century Jewish apostle.

More to come….

Geoff Leslie | Sat, 03/21/2020 - 23:59 | Permalink

Thanks, Andrew. I think your explanation of ‘the wrath of God’ as being the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the Roman Empire makes so much biblical sense I wonder that it has not caught on. People are still trying to see it in final post-mortem terms in which a substitutionary atonement is the only way to make sense of salvation; whereas your historical perspective brings a whole new light on ‘faith(fulness) in/of Christ. We survive times of overwhelming catastrophe (like the Corona Virus pandemic) by faithful living, emulation of and allegiance to Jesus.

Your perspective calls for creative and courageous interpretation of our times that most people don’t feel free to undertake and if they did, they may feel very unsure about claims of what God was judging and what the future of our current secular-humanist ‘Babylonian’ hegemony will be. I’m sure you are right to point to things like ecological fragility and over-consumption as some of the signposts to the arrogance of the current Kingdom.

A liberationist gospel like Chalke’s is great but in the end sounds like a standard secular progressive agenda. I do hope people continue to engage with your perspective and bring it to bear on our world. Thanks for your work.

It is quite typical that the Exgetic perspective merges seamlessly into a contemporary theological statement. But since the Enlightenment the discussion has hermeneutically gone along the following lines: no more “dicta probantia”!

Andrew tries to bring the narrative component forward, so he asks us to construct a new common narrative that unites us as God’s people…

Yes, but at the same time we have a highly complex systematic theological thought system (developed at least in the 2000 years in the theological world:-). Shouldn’t we also construct a systematizing theology as a meta-theory over the narrative, in order to then generate a practical-simple narrative for the people?

Where are the needs of systematizing thinkers? (philosophy, natural science, psychology, and in the end also theology as systematic theology or as practical theology)? Shall we abolish this kind of thinking effort?

What I find difficult, in any case, is the quick step from the Bible to practice in the church, as almost everyone does. Just as Steve Chalke’s in “The Lost Message of Paul” does in my impression… in spite of and with all the historical distance that he includes through the new perspective exegesis.

And in GERMAN:

Ganz typisch ist, dass die Exgetische Perspektive bruchlos übergeht in eine heutige theologische Aussage. Dabei ist doch schon seit der Aufklärung die Diskussion hermeneutisch dahin gegangen: keine „dicta probantia“ mehr!

Andrew versucht zwar die Narrative Komponente nach vorne zu bringen, also fordert er uns auf, ein neues gemeinsames Narativ, das uns als Volk gottes verbindet, zu konstruieren…

Ja, aber zugleich haben wir ja ein hochkomplexes systematisch – theologisches Gedanken-System (zu mindestens in der 2000 Jahre entwickelt in der theologischen Fachwelt:-). Müssen wir nicht auch eine systematisierende Theologie als Meta-Theorie über dem Narrativ konstruieren, um dann wieder ein praktisch-einfaches Narratv fürs Volk zu generieren?

Wo bleiben die Bedürfnisse der systematisierenden Denker? (Philosophie, Naturwissenschaft, Psychologie, und am Ende auch Theologie als systematische Theologie oder als praktische Theologie)? Sollen wir diese Art der Denkbemühungen streichen?

Schwierig finde ich auf jeden Fall, den schnellen Schritt von der Bibel zur Praxis in der Gemeinde, wie ihn fast alle gehen. Wie auch Steve Chalke’s in „The Lost Message of Paul“ nach meinem Eindruck vorgeht… trotz und bei allem historischen Abstand, den er durch die “new perspective”-Exegese einbindet.

Mark Townend | Thu, 11/03/2022 - 22:47 | Permalink

After reading Chalke’s book I’m pretty disappointed. He hasn’t followed the evidence where it leads but argues that God is love and that’s all there is to his character, everything derives from that, including his holiness, righteousness and justice. I think this is a personal preference rather than a serious engagement with the Bible, as he repeats ‘in my view’ time after time. His arguments are disengenuous, because he engages only with parts of verses to make his points rather than the scriptures in their contexts (which rather ironically he accuses others of doing). He says he will only use undisputed books of Paul to make his point but doesn’t really use 2 Corinthians which is not just a local church letter but addresses the church in Greece and ignores disputed books of Paul, such as 2 Thessalonians, which don’t really fit with his agenda (and also uses James and 1 John, not by Paul).

Chalke spends a lot of time considering the Church in Alexandria and his hero Origen (At least a 4th generation Christian), not really going into the fact that the roots of the church there were based on Valentinian Gnosticism and Neo Platonism. Whilst doing so he misses the teachings of 1st generation Christians like Polycarp, Clement of Rome (Who is probably mentioned as an associate of Paul in Philippians 4:3) and Ignatius (specifically their clear teachings on eternal punishment, which he seems to prefer to avoid). 

There are some huge difficulties in his use of etymology to make his points (the faithfulness of Christ). He has neglected to consider the changes to English words over the centuries. ‘Of’ used to mean ‘away from’ or ‘from’ in old English so he is presenting a false dichotomy here. Faith in Christ/Faithfulness of Christ might be better explained by a 3rd option, faith from Christ. In this case faith coming from Christ can still be rejected! If you read wider around the Bible you’ll soon find that there is a requirement to have believing faith, and this wider perspective is avoided by Chalke (the faithfulness of Christ doesn’t answer the wider context in the Bible).

Something else very confusing is what he believes about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, in one chapter he seems to deny the miraculous nature of Paul’s encounter only to later contradict himself by mentioning how Paul was made blind. I believe Chalke has an ulterior motive to undermine the necessity of conversion to Christianity here in order to maintain his universal view that all will be saved. Conversion is another ‘boundary marker’, signs of exclusion, to him. Ironically he pays little attention to Paul’s biographical accounts later in Acts (actually the later parts of Acts as a whole) where he talks a about his baptism (a boundary marker) and how he considers the former way of life as a Jew naught which seems to totally contradict the fact that Paul would still consider himself a 2nd Temple Jew under and extension of the old covenant. 

He rejects the idea of the new covenant, it seems, instead preferring an extension of the old covenant but there’s no biblical basis for latter and plenty for the former. 

Chalke hasn’t come at this book objectively but has tried to read Paul through a liberal 21st century lens, something that he argues against vehemently in his earlier chapters we shouldn’t do. I found his book full of contradictions and harsh as it is to say, hypocrisy (when he was guilty of the arguments he levelled at other Christians). What is sad is that I feel he is trying to desperately hold together 2 worlds, he desperately wants to remain relevant to society but and also wants to cling on to his Christian roots but would be better to get off the fence and fully embrace one or the other. He has become a worldly confirmist, contrary to the instruction in Romans 12:1-2. 

I do get upset when I think about this but if the theology doesn’t support the thinking then we’ve got to be careful not to try to force a square peg into a round hole. I think Chalke is desperately trying to whittle the sides of the peg off to fit it in but if you look carefully you can see him doing it through most of the book. 

This book is dangerous, because it has the potential to mislead thousands of people away from believing faith. We can’t shy away from the difficult sections of scripture in a modern day society because if the Bible isn’t authorative we’re just wasting our time entirely.