Bible Q&A: What would Christianity look like without Paul’s letters?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

If the New Testament didn’t have any of Paul’s letters, would Christianity still be a complete faith, founded on salvation through Jesus Christ?​

Answer:

Paul is thought to have penned his letters some 20 years after Jesus’ public ministry, death and resurrection. By then, the gospel had begun to be preached across the Roman Empire and many had come to faith. Even long after all texts – including Paul – that make up what we now call the New Testament had been written, local Christian fellowships didn’t have automatic access to them. But once the early Church began to assemble its sacred writings, Paul’s epistles were considered to be an essential part of the inspired word of God.

To the non-Pauline New Testament authors, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ is as central as it is to Paul. But ‘complete faith’, as the questioner puts it, goes beyond personal salvation. Paul is just as concerned about the big picture – God’s righteousness, Gentiles becoming part of God’s people, God’s salvation plan for Israel – as he is about individuals being reconciled to God.

Similarly, Jesus offered God’s grace to people he met in the street, but his core message was ‘Thy Kingdom come’: God’s rule on earth. You could argue that, on the surface, Paul’s focus was on Jesus, not God’s kingdom, but at the end of the day the two messages merge into one, as Paul equates the visible arrival of the kingdom with the triumphant return of Messiah Jesus.

Paul and the other New Testament authors also agree that accepting God’s grace in Jesus is only the start. ‘Complete faith’ is not a one-off decision to believe, but lifelong commitment to discipleship. Jesus warns against people calling him Lord but disregarding God’s will (Matthew 7.21); James says that faith without deeds is dead (James 2.26); and Paul asserts that faith has to express itself through love (Galatians 5.6).

In other words, there’s a thread going through both Paul and the rest of the New Testament: ‘complete faith’ comprises personal salvation, personal holiness and the big picture of the coming ‘Kingdom’ – the restoration of God’s righteous rule on earth.

Paul the theologian systematises key New Testament themes such as salvation by faith (Galatians, Romans) or Christ’s dual (i.e. divine and human) nature (Philippians 2). Paul the pastor gives us a host of principles that have guided the Church over two millennia. And Paul the missionary has inspired generations of Christians by his zeal for the spreading of the Gospel message.

Paul is sometimes emphasised at the expense of other New Testament voices. On the other end of the spectrum, he has been accused of twisting the message of Jesus, and therefore ignored. Neither of those extremes is an appropriate way of reading the New Testament, which is a harmonious whole. 


Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!

This article was written Michael Pfundner, who works in our publishing team.

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