The Lost Message of Paul by Steve Chalke

Cover image of The Lost Message of Paul

Probably only the closest of readers of this blog would be aware of my theological leanings which are unique; some might even say heretical. Influenced by N.T. Wright, intrigued by Rob Bell, eventually finding Andrew Perriman I have come to adopt a narrative-historical hermeneutic rather than the dominant historical-grammatical approach of modern evangelicalism.

So when offered a chance to review The Lost Message of Paul I was excited.

We have misunderstood Paul, badly.

We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them.

· What if ‘original sin’ was never part of Paul’s thinking?
· What if the idea that we are saved by faith in Christ, as Luther argued, was based on a mistranslation of Paul’s words and a misunderstanding of Paul’s thinking?

‘Over the centuries,’ writes Steve Chalke, ‘the Church has repeatedly failed to communicate, or even understand, the core of Paul’s message. Although Paul has often been presented as the champion of exclusion, he was the very opposite. He was the great includer.’

Given my theological journey, if anyone is open to a book about the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Paul, I am.

But this book was a disappointment. Perhaps it was because at first I was only able to read it in fits and starts, but it struck me as just not well organized or written. Despite my avid interest in the subject, it did not grab or hold my attention. I almost had to force myself to read it.

It is an attempt to popularize certain academic understandings or scholarly debates, particularly what is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but does so at a superficial level and in one sided fashion. The style is discursive and meandering jumping between theology and devotional and social issues seemingly at random. It just didn’t flow for me.

There really isn’t anything particularly new here for anyone who has been following this debate. Which brings two challenges: 1) I have a hard time recommending such a meandering and hard to follow book to someone who wants to learn about this approach as there are much better books out there for those who want to understand the debate surrounding Paul and 2) if you are already familiar with the debates I am not sure what this adds.

Those who want to use NPP to reject evangelicalism and who embrace a progressive, for lack of a better term, approach this book will be embraced. And for those who reject either NPP, progressive theology, or both this book won’t change anyone’s mind. And as a few of the critical reviews note, Chalke writes as if his approach is obvious and a given rather than a highly controversial one.

I agree with Chalke on NPP and I agree that many in the church have flattened the story of the Bible into over-simplified theology (accept Jesus or go to eternal torment in Hell). He highlights the importance of Second Temple Judaism and the problematic nature of Luther’s approach. But again, he then assumes that the only logical end result is progressive Christianity stripped off almost all its credal beliefs. It is not a humble wrestling with the challenging issues of faith today but a rather arrogant proclamation that Chalke has it all figured out and has discovered true Christianity.

When I went to look at other reactions to compare to my own, I found mostly negative reviews. Here is a sampling:

There are useful things in this book about reflecting on Paul’s context, central purpose and primary target audience – but Chalke’s actual reading of Paul is highly selective and leads not to clear understanding but further lack of clarity.

The rest of the book is mainly taken up with an attempt to rewrite the theology of heaven and hell; including a lengthy excursion into Dante’s architecture of the afterlife.

I found the arguments more emotive than compelling. They are based on a selective use of Paul, a long line of straw men and a failure to interact with a wide range of evangelical scholars who have written on the subject.

I cannot recommend this book; there are better popular treatments of Paul’s thinking. Try Tom Wright’s Paul: A Biography.

Inspire Magazine review

David Robertson’s initial reaction was pretty harsh (see below) but he offered a more tempered but still critical review in Christianity Today.

This is an easy to read, and well-written book – much better stylistically than the earlier work. As always with Chalke the book will be described as ‘controversial’ and will delight some (like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren) and appall others. From a personal perspective I found that The Lost Message of Paul contained some interesting information, provocative arguments, challenging questions and old heresies.

Steve argues that ‘all the old narratives are dead’ and that we need a ‘new story’. He blames Augustine, Luther and Calvin for getting Paul’s message wrong. But his new story suffers from some major defects.

David Robertson in Christianity Today

He appreciated the writing more than I did but I did not read his previous book so have nothing to compare it to.

This is a better-written work than his previous…but after a slightly promising start, it quickly went downhill.  You will discover very little about the Apostle Paul here – and his lost message.  But you will learn a lot about what Steve Chalke thinks – and lo and behold, it appears that all along Paul and Jesus were really 19th Century Protestant liberals, who spoke in an evangelical code – which remained hidden – until Steve came to reveal ‘the lost message of Paul’.   Overall, whilst there are some insights, this is a shockingly bad book.  Chalke speaks as though he is an expert in Greek, Hebrew, History, Theology, Psychology, Science – whereas in reality he just cherry picks and quote mines sources which support his pre-determined destination – and amazingly he arrives there.   A Bible that is not the word of God, a Jesus who didn’t exist, a heaven and hell that are only on earth….a cross that did not atone and a God who fails….This is about as far as it is possible to get from Christianity whilst still claiming to be a Christian. 

David Robertson at The Wee Flea

Tom Creedy offers a very thorough and critical review and helpfully offers other, and better, sources for those who want to learn more.

As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend this book. Steve seems to be surprisingly unaware of a number of books and positions on Paul, as well as unwilling to take his own advice in reading and interpreting Paul. Of this almost 300 page book, some of it is helpful (some reminders on hermeneutics, and an acknowledgement that Paul and Scripture have been abused in the past and present), but it is like trying to pick only Minstrels out of a pack of Revels (an english chocolate that is, quite literally, a mixed bag). In fact, I’d go further: I think Steve should ask SPCK, his current publisher, for the rest of Tom Wright’s back catalogue, as well as dig into Paula Gooder, John Barclay, etc. It should be revealing that for a book purporting to open up a conversation about Paul, it simultaneously isn’t endorsed by any Pauline/New Testament scholars, and in my limited knowledge doesn’t engage with some of the key voices in the relevant discussion. For interested readers, New Testament scholar Michael Bird has a really helpful list of some of the best recent books on Paul

Thomas Creedy review

Chris Goswami at 7minutes has a much more positive view and gets at the challenge of the book. It has some valid points but always pushes the arguments to the limits and beyond and thus undercuts its ability to persuade.

 “We all know the stories of the pain caused by the misreading of Paul through the centuries … to justify some of the most brutal and repressive episodes in human history  … including apartheid, subservience of women, abuse of the environment and oppression of gay people”.

Steve Chalke is right about that and at the very least this book might soften some of the hard edges of the church. And he is right about the church at times being preoccupied with personal salvation: “go to church and get into heaven” is a cheap gospel as he makes clear.

On the other hand, Chalke’s “everything you know about Paul is wrong” proposal is built on selected scriptures and will be upsetting to ordinary church-goers. So, to conclude, this book is a helpful contribution, it takes some of the recent technical discussions on Paul (including NPP) and makes them more understandable to the ordinary church-goer, but I would not recommend it widely.

7minutes review

I didn’t dig into progressive reviews but clearly those who side with Chalke embraced this book.

THIS is a book that every preacher should read. Why? Once you have had an opportunity to engage with St Paul’s message as articulated here, it is “literally world-changing”. As its author confesses at the outset, the ideas presented are not his own: they represent a huge body of thought relating to Paul which has emerged since the1960s. The ideas are, though, brilliantly and very accessibly presented in this book.

[…]

This book could be seen as an extended meditation on the sentence “God is love”: “Once you understand that, everything else cascades from it. Every other category or concept in Paul’s thinking — the righteousness of God, the cross, the judgement seat of Christ, justification, anger.” Chalke quotes Barth: “If God exhibits characteristics of anger, judgement and the like they are never more than ‘repetitions and amplifications of the one statement that God loves’.”

“Love never fails,” Paul writes. Chalke speaks with the authority of someone who has dedicated decades, through the Oasis Trust, to attending to those who have been written off by society, seeking not to fail them. He argues that God in Christ does the same eternally, and Chalke quotes Barth again: “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all.” Chalke explains what this means to him in helpful detail.

Church Times review

Whew, that is a lot to digest! I hope I have given enough information for readers to get a sense of book, its approach and the pros and cons. For whatever reason, I did not enjoy it despite agreeing with much of the underlying issues Chalke is trying to highlight. In the end, I think there are better books out there to tackle this important subject.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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