Aug 25, 2023

Do Jesus and Paul Contradict One Another?

4 Min Read

Some have sought to pit Jesus’ ethical teaching over against the writings of the Apostle Paul. Such false dichotomizing is often driven by a desire to distance oneself from the Apostle’s clear condemnation of homosexuality (Rom. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) and restrictions regarding roles in the church (1 Tim. 2:12; 1 Cor. 14:35). But interpreting what Jesus taught during His earthly ministry against what His Apostles subsequently wrote reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of biblical revelation. The desire to set Jesus and Paul at odds—or to subtly downplay the fact that the Apostolic writings are the very words of Christ (Col. 3:16)—will inevitably backfire on those who believe they are helping others embrace a more tolerant brand of Christianity.  

At the turn of the twentieth century, the church faced the attacks of a theological liberalism in which theologians sought to divide Jesus and Paul. Although the driving factors in the theological liberalism of the twentieth century were somewhat different from our current church controversies, the method and desired end are strikingly similar. Attacks on the organic unity of Scripture led professors at Princeton Theological Seminary to write some of the greatest arguments for the defense of the unity and progressive development of the canon of Scripture. For instance, Geerhardus Vos, professor of biblical theology at Old Princeton, helpfully explained: “The relation between Jesus and the Apostolate is in general that between the fact to be interpreted and the subsequent interpretation of this fact . . . It resembles the embryo . . . which truly contains the structure, which the full-grown organism will clearly exhibit.”1

To understand this principle, we must first recognize that Jesus didn’t personally write down what He taught. The content of the four Gospels, the Epistles, and the book of Revelation were written by “holy men of God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). They are a unified record of the historical facts. Jesus also did many things that were not recorded for the faith and life of believers (John 21:25). Jesus promised the disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit to them to lead them into an even fuller understanding than that which He had given them during His time on earth (John 16:13). This promise was fulfilled in the completion of the canon through the writing of the book of Acts (Acts 1:1–2), the Epistles (2 Peter 3:16), and the Apocalypse (Rev. 1:19; 21:5). One scholar writes:

Things were to be said afterwards which had not been said then . . . “When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth.” He shall guide you, as by successive steps . . . into the whole of that truth of which the commencements have now been given; and especially into the highest and central part of it . . . The testimony came; the things were spoken; and in the apostolic writings we have their enduring record.2

Interpreting what Jesus taught during His earthly ministry against what His Apostles subsequently wrote reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of biblical revelation.

While the New Testament canon is an impressive witness to the Spirit’s guiding His Apostles in the truth, we still need a satisfactory answer to why there exists Apostolic teaching that appears to be new ethical teaching distinct from what our Lord taught during His earthly ministry. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote a fuller explanation about lawful divorce:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband . . . To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him . . . But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. (1 Cor. 7:10–15)

In these verses, the Apostle strategically employed the phrases “not I, but the Lord” and “I, not the Lord” to frame the fuller nature of this revelation. Biblical scholar John Murray has helpfully explained:

The passage in I Corinthians 7:10–12 is sometimes understood as if Paul were instituting a contrast between the authoritative teaching of Christ and his own unauthoritative judgment on questions bearing upon marriage and separation . . . A careful reading of the whole passage will, however, show that the contrast is . . . between the teaching of the apostle that could appeal to the express utterances of Christ in the days of his flesh, on the one hand, and the teaching of the apostle that went beyond the cases dealt with by Christ, on the other.3

Attempts to pit the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul against one another will result in a division of the canon. This can lead people to undermine both the Apostolic teaching on redemption as well as the Apostolic ethic for the lives of the members of the New Testament church. Far from helping those who are uncomfortable with the Apostolic denunciation of things such as homosexuality and women functioning in pastoral roles, this separation ultimately serves to undermine the entire revelation of God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.

  1. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 202¬–203.
  2. J.H. Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament (London: Macmillan & Co, 1864), 85–86.
  3. John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” The Infallible Word, ed. N.B. Stonehouse (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Guardian Company, 1946).