Posted by: rogermitchell | July 19, 2015

Squaring the circle of Jesus versus Paul

Matthew Porter engaged my friend Jane Almond in a discussion on Facebook beginning with the question “How does the Kenarchy approach deal with Paul and other NT (New Testament) writings without down grading them please? I am clear on its frame for OT (Old Testament) and post Constantine, but not post Gospels NT.”

Jane responded ” I’m not an expert Matthew… Better to ask Roger Haydon Mitchell about that one… You’ll get a proper reply. Roger?”

I said “I’m happy to attempt a ‘proper reply,’ Matthew, but as I don’t know your approach, could you put the “without down grading them” point a little more clearly please? My incarnational hermeneutic does prioritize the gospel testimony, but I don’t see this as downgrading the other NT writings, but I don’t want to brush this off with a simplistic answer.”

Jane retorted “Simplistic???? #theologicalhumour!”

And Matthew said “You are v. kind not just to say “buy my book!”. I would have taken Jane’s gloss happily but here goes:
I have engaged on your Kenarchy blog a few years ago, and you and Sue even longer ago have been to Newham to speak to leaders through the auspices of my predecessors at Transform Newham and its forerunner, Newham Christian Fellowships. Through other reading and my own ponderings I am hitting the reality of the Jesus hermeneutic and would be pleased to ‘square the circle’ of Jesus vs Paul. Thank you very much.

This all led me to say that I think to “square the circle of Jesus vs Paul” is an important ask, and ask Matthew and Jane whether they were willing for me to import this conversation onto my blog and continue it here, as it is complementary to my last post. Jane said “Wow! Will look forward to that! Matthew Porter I wasn’t avoiding you but am teaching all day so have my head in History GCSE right now…” He replied “Yep, fine. Others’ contributions will no doubt add.”

So here we are moving the discussion over here to my blog where more people could engage with it, so come on all you followers, surfers and clickers engage away!

I have four main points with which to “square” this “circle”:

1. The Jesus story is not primarily for the church, it’s for the world, and therefore we need to have this conversation in and for the public forum. While at this stage it may seem irrelevant to a post Christian society, the testimony of Jesus and the new humanity it announces are both the origin of much that is good in our Western history and the inherent prophetic critique of what has gone so badly wrong. I’m not too bothered about whether of not pet Christian doctrinal positions are offended, but rather to provide the resources for a politics of love that humanity so desperately needs right now.

2. As I understand it, good theology explains events when or after they are happening. A good example of this is Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost. Who would have been able to extrapolate the events of that day from the words of the Jewish Old Testament prophet Joel before the astonishing events of that day took place? Likewise Paul’s letters take the events of the incarnation that we read about in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as their source and rationale.

3. The generally held view that one or another of Paul’s epistles chronologically preceded or paralleled one or another of the gospels is unproblematic in this light. It is not a question of Paul’s gospel being followed by the church’s gospel but Paul drawing on the oral testimony which was being written even as he was teaching and applying it. So I read Paul in the light of the gospel testimony in which I believe he was writing.

4. However, I have no awkwardness in saying that the testimony to Jesus found in the gospel narrative is the primary source for me. It altogether explains the love encounters with God and people that have characterised my life since childhood. This is in keeping with the point about good theology I made in (2) above. As I see it all knowledge is first existential and relational and only secondarily historical and rational. That’s not to say that I regard the gospel narratives as unhistorical and irrational, but that experiences of self-transcendent love de-imperialise truth. Which is exactly the opposite of what set doctrines, systems or programs tend to do. The latter establish an exclusive body of truth that can be used to curtail progressive thought and the coming fulness of the new humanity whereas the good news of life-giving love, or kenarchy, breaks open new social and political ground in which the multitude of humanity can thrive.

Your comments please!



  1. I think I may be simplistic here (or simple) but I don’t see how it’s possible to have or practice or aspire to kenarchy without Jesus and his example. Therefore, the gospels are an essential expression of how to be kenarchic (as I understand it). Paul’s massive road encounter with Jesus seems to me to be both a transformative experience and confirming event of his shift from the systems you describe to the self-transcendent love he was truly born again for. And, simply, his writings tell us about this journey and encourage us to follow…? I hope this isn’t oversimplifying it and would be my start towards answering Matthew’s question.

    • I agree with you, but I also think that it is possible to encounter Jesus outside the gospel testimony, both by divine encounter and in those in the image of God who are what the testimony itself describes as “sons of peace”. I think this is important to acknowledge as for many the baggage now surrounding the church and its theology is a turn off and makes it a difficult place to start the journey.

      • Yes, I agree with that Roger. I wasn’t meaning to exclude those encounters as real and valid. I actually think testimonies of that nature are extremely powerful.

  2. Perhaps the question has more to do with the post-Paul letters like Ephesians, which does inscribe Greco-Roman hierarchy structures and traces them back to a primal time “before the Foundation of the cosmos.” The gender roles and accomodation to slavery are at odds wothany knarchy, no?

    • I don’t take Ephesians to be necessarily post Paul. But the main point is how we read the writer’s use of the structures (I assume that you are referring to Eph1). If our hermeneutic exegetes the text via the gospel testimony then the placing of Jesus overall simply has the effect of turning everything upside down and as such overturns the Greco-Roman hierarchical system.

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