Reinventing Paul: A Review of the book by John Gager

At the encouragement of a post to the House of Bishops and Deputies Listserv of the Episcopal Church, I just finished reading the Kindle Edition of Reinventing Paul, Oxford University Press by John G. Gager, PhD, recently retired chair of the Religion Department at Princeton.

Ted Mollegen, Deputy from Connecticut wrote to the other deputies:

“We need to prepare for some oncoming sizeable theological shocks.  St. Paul was the author of approximately half of the New Testament. Biblical scholarship of the last two-plus decades is leading to the conclusion that St. Paul’s epistles — especially Romans and Galatians — have been very badly mistranslated and is interpreted — from the third century onward….

“When all this is sorted out, some very well respected biblical scholars of the last two decades have concluded that Paul believed in (a) the Abrahamic covenant and the Torah as God’s means of salvation for the Jews and in (b) Jesus’s faithfully dying to accomplish salvation of gentiles.  Thus justification by faith really meant salvation (justification) because of the faithfulness OF Jesus, not justification because of individuals’ faith IN Jesus.  This new understanding means that such church giants as Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther have seriously misunderstood the theology of Paul.  If the new understanding of Paul’s theology continues to be borne out under increasing scrutiny, the situation will be profoundly embarrassing to many present-day church leaders, some of whom will probably meet it with frantic denial and attempted rebuttal.”

Dr. Gager is certainly taking some of the “New Perspective” work on Paul of eminent scholars such EP Sanders to a radical extreme.  Gager’s argument in a nutshell is that Paul really taught that the Gospel and Jesus’ redemption is ONLY for the Gentiles, and NOT for the Jews. That Paul taught that Jesus is only the Lord and Savior of non-Jews. The implications being that Jewish people continue to be under the Law (Torah) and will find salvation only through being faithful to the Torah and not through faith in Jesus.

Here are a couple of pull quotes:

“For Paul, Jesus is neither a new Moses nor the Messiah, he is not the climax of… God’s dealings with Israel, but he is the fulfillment of God’s promises concerning the Gentiles.” (John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Locations 1529-1531). Kindle Edition.)

“The law remains in effect for all who are circumcised.” (John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Location 1548). Kindle Edition.)

YIKES! The primary flaw in Gager’s argument (other than making the text of Romans say exactly the opposite of what it says) is that he doesn’t contemplate the Davidic Covenant. Paul begins affirming Jesus as David’s heir according to the flesh and the one who was declared with power to be the “Son of God”. (Romans 1:4, cf. Psalm 2 and 2 Sam. 7:14ff.) Nor does Gager integrate the implications of the saving confession “Jesus Christ is Lord”. (Romans 10:9) Paul says of this confession that leads to salvation:

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call upon him.” (Romans 10:12)

For Paul, Jesus is Lord (YHWH) and Savior for both Jew and Gentile alike. He totally misreads Paul argument in Romans 1-3 that all are in need of the Good News of the Gospel. Paul writes:

“What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin…. Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:9, 19b-20)

The Decline and Fall of Christian Scholarship in America

I want to lament the state of scholarship in the United States, especially the fall of Princeton University (note: Princeton Theological Seminary is a seperate institution) as a once great Christian institution. There was a day when Princeton University was a bastion of Christian belief and thought.

While Gager is likely not intending to make a statement about the institution which then employed him this quote says volumes not only about his own presuppositions and worldview but about the spiritual decline of the institution with which he was at that time affiliated:

“As for myself, I have no particular religious or theological view to defend.” I am Christian only in the broad cultural sense of that word; I am affiliated with no religious institution of any kind.” –John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Locations 208-209). Kindle Edition.

Indeed, he is right in saying that he is not affiliated with a “religious institution of any kind.” The founders of Princeton in the mid 1700’s would never have contemplated hiring a person such as John Gager who considers himself an “nonbeliever” and cultural Christian only (his words). The founders of Princeton would have considered their school “a religious institution”.

The founders of Princeton (while suspect to the Anglicans at that time) were seeking to kindle the fire of the Great Awakening along the principles taught by such preachers and theologians as Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, and George Whitefield.  It is sad how far away we have moved from the strong faith of the founders of this country. Perhaps, we Anglicans really should be suspect of them now!

Gager reveals only at the end of the book that his statement that he has “no theological view to defend” is really quite feigned when he says this:

“It may seem rash for me, as a non-believing “Christian,” to venture onto theological territory. I do so because of my conviction that there is more at stake here than mere Christianity. My proposal is that we strip away the apocalyptic framework of Paul’s thought in a different way. If we remove this apocalyptic mystery altogether, that is, the notion that in the final days of this era God causes Israel’s momentary stumble in order to redeem the Gentiles, we are left with two basic affirmations: one, God’s unshakable commitment to Israel and to the holiness of the law (= Judaism); and, two, the redemption of the Gentiles through Jesus Christ ( = Christianity).” (John G. Gager. Reinventing Paul (Kindle Locations 1620-1622). Kindle Edition.)

It would seem that John Gager is ashamed of the very Gospel which Paul so clearly says is “First for the Jew and then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) Gager does no favors for the Jewish people in “reinventing” Paul. In seeking to do so he would deny them their birthright and the promise of God to them in their Messiah, Jesus. The promise of the Gospel, Paul unashamedly argues, is properly theirs to inherit FIRST!

I leave you to ponder a quote from NT Wright’s excellent commentary on Romans in the “New Interpreter’s” series which I believe more aptly incorporates the “New Perspective” on Paul without throwing the theological baby out with the bathwater:

“When Paul thinks of Jesus as Lord, he thinks of himself as a slave and of the world as being called to obedience to Jesus’ lordship. His apostolic commission is not to offer people a new religious option, but to summon them to allegiance to Jesus, which will mean abandoning their loyalties. The gospel issues a command, an imperial summons; the appropriate response is obedience.

“The ‘obedience’ Paul seeks to evoke when he announces the gospel is thus not a list of moral good works but faith. Faith, as Paul explains later (10:9) consists in confessing Jesus as Lord (thereby renouncing other lords) and in believing that God raised him from the dead (thereby abandoning other worldviews in which such things did or could not happen…) This faith is actually the human faithfulness that answers God’s faithfulness.”  (N.T. Wright, Romans Commentary, NIB, vol. X p. 420.)

As well meaning as John Gager may be in seeking to provide a new paradigm to “help along” Jewish-Christian relationships by reinventing Paul and the Gospel. Paul himself would tell us that the Gospel of Jesus remains the only and singular hope of peace between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is the one who will “tear down the dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile.  Paul writes, “Jesus Christ is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one.” (Ephesians 2:14)