Category: (1) Why are there so many different Christian interpretations?


Pauline Christianity is a term applied to what some perceive as the religious teaching unique to Paul’s writings and distinct from the gospel of Jesus. That is, Jesus taught one thing, and Paul taught something completely different. Those who believe in a separate Pauline Christianity believe that the Christianity of today has little to do with Jesus’ teachings; rather, it is the product of Paul’s corruption of those teachings.

We believe that the New Testament is a unified whole: the Gospels present the life and work of Jesus the Messiah; the Epistles explain the meaning and scope of Jesus’ work and apply it to daily living. For example, Matthew 28 narrates the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, and 1 Corinthians 15 explains the significance of His resurrection. Mark 15:38 tells of the temple veil being torn in two when Jesus died; Hebrews 10:11-23 reveals the import of that event. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Gospels also inspired the Epistles to give us a fuller understanding of God’s plan of salvation.

However, those who theorize about a separate “Pauline Christianity” tell a different story:

Jesus, a great teacher, considered himself to be the long-awaited Messiah for the Jews. He believed that God would overthrow Rome and bring His kingdom to earth. In preparation for this, Jesus taught a message of unconditional love, tolerance, and non-judgmental acceptance of everyone. Alas, Jesus’ mission of inaugurating a new earthly age failed when the Romans crucified him.

Jesus’ followers, believing that God had raised their rabbi from the dead, continued to meet in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, Jesus’ brother. Their intention was to await the still-coming kingdom and continue observing Jesus’ brand of enlightened Judaism. But along came Saul of Tarsus, who faked a conversion in order to infiltrate the church. Peter and James and others who had actually known Jesus were suspicious of Saul, who had never met Jesus.

Then Saul, who started calling himself “Paul,” had a stroke of genius. He artfully combined traditional Hebrew ideas with those of pagan Greek philosophy, creating a new religion that could appeal to both Jews and Gentiles. He began preaching that Jesus was actually God, that Jesus’ death was linked to the Jewish system of sacrifice, that one could be saved by simply believing, and that the Mosaic law was obsolete. Paul’s zealous missionary activity and persuasive writings took his new “gospel” around the Roman Empire. The Jerusalem Church, including Peter and James, disowned Paul as a heretic and cult leader.

After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Jewish Church lost authority, but the Gentile Church founded by Paul increased its influence. One of Paul’s fervent followers wrote the book of Acts, which gave Paul legendary status with its glowing portrayal of him as the hero of the church. Later, four unknown writers gathered scraps of information about Jesus and wrote books they called “Matthew,” “Mark,” Luke,” and “John”—but Paul’s theology, already dominant in the church, tainted the writers’ perspective. Thus, Paul’s religion won out over Jesus’ religion.

In short, Paul was a charlatan, an evangelical huckster who succeeded in twisting Jesus’ message of love into something Jesus himself would never recognize. It was Paul, not Jesus, who originated the “Christianity” of today.

Commonly, those who hold to the above theory also believe the following:

1) Jesus was not divine. He never claimed to be God, and he never intended to start a new religion.

2) The Bible is not an inspired book and is riddled with contradictions. None of the Bible, except possibly the book of James, was written by anyone who knew Jesus. There are fragments of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, but it is difficult to discern what he really said.

3) Paul was never a Pharisee and was not highly educated. His “conversion” was either a personal hallucinogenic experience or an outright fraud. His claims to be an apostle were attempts to further his own authority in the church.

4) Pauline theological “inventions” include a) the deity of Jesus; b) salvation by grace through faith; c) salvation through the blood of Jesus; d) the sinless nature of Jesus; e) the concept of original sin; and f) the Holy Spirit. None of these “new doctrines” were accepted by Jesus’ true followers.

5) The Gnostic Gospels are closer to the truth about Jesus than are the traditional four Gospels of the Bible.

The concept of “Pauline Christianity” represents an outright attack on the Bible as the Word of God. Adherents of the “Pauline Christianity” theory are truly misrepresenting Jesus’ teachings. They choose to believe His words on love but deny His teachings on judgment (such as Matthew 24). They insist on a human Jesus, denying His divinity, although Jesus plainly taught His equality with God in passages such as John 10:30. They want a “loving” Jesus without having to accept Him as Lord and Savior.

Any time a skeptic finds a “disagreeable” doctrine in the Bible, he is likely to say, “That passage has been corrupted,” or, “Paul wrote that, and we know he was a liar.” Where the Gospels teach a “Pauline” doctrine, such as Jesus’ atonement for sin in John 1:29, the skeptic dismisses it as “inserted by devotees of Paul.” In reality, the skeptic’s only basis for such a selective approach to Scripture is a personal bias against the idea of Jesus’ atonement.

Interestingly, Paul’s credentials as an apostle were attacked, even in his own lifetime, by those who desired to lead the church into legalism and other errant ideologies. Paul defends himself from the spurious attacks of false teachers in 1 Corinthians 9; 2 Corinthians 12; and Galatians 1.

Paul’s apostleship is attested to by the miracles he performed (Romans 15:19), the training he received (Galatians 1:15-20), and the testimony of the other apostles. Peter, far from being Paul’s enemy, wrote this about him: “Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

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The Pauline epistles are the 13 “letters” written by the Apostle Paul that are included in the canon of Scripture. The Pauline epistles are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.

The Pauline epistles contain much of the doctrine the Christian faith is built upon, especially in relationship to salvation. The Pauline epistles expound on the doctrines of sanctification, justification, redemption, and reconciliation. The Pauline epistles contain significant teachings on difficult theological issues such as: election, predestination, foreknowledge, the deity/humanity of Christ, God’s ongoing relationship with Israel, and the Judgment Seat of Christ. The Pauline epistles also get very practical in how the church should function, containing teaching on: spiritual gifts, qualifications of church leaders, the role of women in ministry, and the relationship between law and grace in the life of a Christ-follower.

The Pauline epistles are not to be confused with “Pauline Christianity,” which is the unbiblical view that Paul’s teachings in the epistles are unique in Scripture and distinct from the gospel of Jesus. The “Pauline Christians” believe that what Paul taught differs from what is taught in the Gospels. This belief goes against some of the most fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christians, including the inerrancy of Scripture, the unity of the Bible and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We know that “all Scripture is God-breathed,” inspired by the same Spirit. Therefore, it is a unified whole, preserved forever by God. The Pauline epistles are part of that unity and the teachings they contain are equally inspired and in complete harmony with the rest of the Bible.

“If all Christians have the same Bible, and the same Holy Spirit, should not Christians be able to agree?”

Scripture says there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). This passage emphasizes the unity that should exist in the body of Christ as we are indwelt by “one Spirit” (verse 4). In verse 3, Paul makes an appeal to humility, meekness, patience, and love—all of which are necessary to preserve unity. According to 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, the Holy Spirit knows the mind of God (verse 11), which He reveals (verse 10) and teaches (verse 13) to those whom He indwells. This activity of the Holy Spirit is called illumination.

In a perfect world, every believer would dutifully study the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15) in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s illumination. As can be clearly seen, this is not a perfect world. Not everyone who possesses the Holy Spirit actually listens to the Holy Spirit. There are Christians who grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30). Ask any educator—even the best classroom teacher has his share of wayward students who seem to resist learning, no matter what the teacher does. So, one reason different people have different interpretations of the Bible is simply that some do not listen to the Teacher—the Holy Spirit. Following are some other reasons for the wide divergence of beliefs among those who teach the Bible.

1. Unbelief. The fact is that many who claim to be Christians have never been born again. They wear the label of “Christian,” but there has been no true change of heart. Many who do not even believe the Bible to be true presume to teach it. They claim to speak for God yet live in a state of unbelief. Most false interpretations of Scripture come from such sources.

It is impossible for an unbeliever to correctly interpret Scripture. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). An unsaved man cannot understand the truth of the Bible. He has no illumination. Further, even being a pastor or theologian does not guarantee one’s salvation.

An example of the chaos created by unbelief is found in John 12:28-29. Jesus prays to the Father, saying, “Father, glorify your name.” The Father responds with an audible voice from heaven, which everyone nearby hears. Notice, however, the difference in interpretation: “The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.” Everyone heard the same thing—an intelligible statement from heaven—yet everyone heard what he wanted to hear.

2. Lack of training. The apostle Peter warns against those who misinterpret the Scriptures. He attributes their spurious teachings in part to the fact that they are “ignorant” (2 Peter 3:16). Timothy is told to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). There is no shortcut to proper biblical interpretation; we are constrained to study.

3. Poor hermeneutics. Much error has been promoted because of a simple failure to apply good hermeneutics (the science of interpreting Scripture). Taking a verse out of its immediate context can do great damage to the intent of the verse. Ignoring the wider context of the chapter and book, or failing to understand the historical/cultural context will also lead to problems.

4. Ignorance of the whole Word of God. Apollos was a powerful and eloquent preacher, but he only knew the baptism of John. He was ignorant of Jesus and His provision of salvation, so his message was incomplete. Aquila and Priscilla took him aside and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:24-28). After that, Apollos preached Jesus Christ. Some groups and individuals today have an incomplete message because they concentrate on certain passages to the exclusion of others. They fail to compare Scripture with Scripture.

5. Selfishness and pride. Sad to say, many interpretations of the Bible are based on an individual’s own personal biases and pet doctrines. Some people see an opportunity for personal advancement by promoting a “new perspective” on Scripture. (See the description of false teachers in Jude’s epistle.)

6. Failure to mature. When Christians are not maturing as they should, their handling of the Word of God is affected. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:2-3). An immature Christian is not ready for the “meat” of God’s Word. Note that the proof of the Corinthians’ carnality is a division in their church (verse 4).

7. Undue emphasis on tradition. Some churches claim to believe the Bible, but their interpretation is always filtered through the established traditions of their church. Where tradition and the teaching of the Bible are in conflict, tradition is given precedence. This effectively negates the authority of the Word and grants supremacy to the church leadership.

On the essentials, the Bible is abundantly clear. There is nothing ambiguous about the deity of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, and salvation by grace through faith. On some issues of less importance, however, the teaching of Scripture is less clear, and this naturally leads to different interpretations. For example, we have no direct biblical command governing the frequency of communion or the style of music to use. Honest, sincere Christians can have differing interpretations of the passages concerning these peripheral issues.

The important thing is to be dogmatic where Scripture is and to avoid being dogmatic where Scripture is not. Churches should strive to follow the model of the early church in Jerusalem: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). There was unity in the early church because they were steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine. There will be unity in the church again when we get back to the apostles’ doctrine and forego the other doctrines, fads, and gimmicks that have crept into the church.