First of all, I know a lot of folks who know what I have written about Steven Paulson in the past probably just snorted out their coffee.
That said, it is all true. Read on if you doubt…
So, yesterday, I finally stopped re-tweeting this tweet every day:
It is true that I have written many things criticizing Steven Paulson (do a search for Paulson on my blog). At the same time, it is also true, to say the least, that I am sympathetic with some of his emphases.
For example, when 1517’s Caleb Keith tweeted this out a couple years ago:
…we had a good exchange about it, publicly (check it out!) and privately. Even as I felt led to attack Steve Paulson two weeks later (info about this here), leading to Caleb blocking me, before that we had this private exchange about his tweet:
Me: “Re: your tweet, that is the way I try to preach (I’m vicaring…now) — it comes out in my sermons more than my blogposts, because there I am always thinking more about the kind of thing you are saying in your tweet. If I get good material from commentaries to inspire me, I want it to be applied very personally right to each person, finally when it comes to announcing God’s forgiveness, absolution, peace.”
Caleb: “….I think this a rather important distinction in Lutheran preaching as Nestingen puts it you “hand over the goods” it’s not just about exhaling the text or pointing out there is law and Gospel but wielding them. It is in this way that we can say preaching delivers the promise of Christ like Baptism and Communion. Anyways glad to hear that the proclamation permeates your own thinking when it comes to delivering Christ and his promises to people. Though I know you have more reservations about Forde and Paulson than I do, this is at the heart of what they present.”
Me: “Caleb — I have far more reservations about those men than you do, largely b/c of the concerns Montgomery expresses in the new [issue from] Lutheran Concerns [this]. Those views can’t not affect their views of law, which also will affect [their] view of gospel. As regards their powerful personal preaching, there are men who are vs. them who also do this very well as well (see Weedon, Petersen, others) That means, in my view, orthodox Lutheranism needs to up its game, with more sanctification, more existential and penetrating preaching, and the the richest gospel possible…. Pax.”
So this is one of the emphases of Steve Paulson that I agree with. I also believe, with him and Oswald Bayer, that Luther’s confrontation with Cardinal Cajetan was an absolutely critical moment in the Reformation. In addition to this, as I already mentioned, I have another bit to confess here: I have alluded to this before, but what is very hard about my opposition to Steve Paulson is that there is a bit of a love-hate thing going on here with me and his teaching.
Now, I know Paulson’s teaching and style hold no appeal to many folks, even many highly intellectual folks. They find him confusing, even uninteresting, and ultimately not worth listening to. I, on the other hand, am drawn to it like a moth to the flames. Paulson is highly educated, knows his historical theology inside and out, is highly creative and sensitive to human nature, skewers contemporary philosophical outlooks (and ancient ones as needed), deftly alludes to and addresses our current cultural moment, and uses intense rhetoric which is clearly backed up with intense conviction and thought. In my mind, there is basically nothing not to like.
I also think he sounds like a pretty decent human being – someone who realizes that actions speak louder than words, and that those who only speak of love sound like clanging gongs.
And yet, at the same time, to my mind, all of this makes him all the more dangerous… not to the world, but to the word.
Why? Well, I’ve made my case quite fulsomely in the past, and even if I have had doubts about the vigor with which I made that case, I continue to believe that everything that I wrote is needed.
If you are not familiar with what I have written, start here (probably the best thing I’ve written).
All this said, I will confess that when Paulson is speaking about Christ and the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He brings, the man truly speaks to me. I can’t help wanting to be wrong about him. I can’t help wanting to be wrong about him about everything I have said. I have lost no number of online acquaintances and even friends because of my vigorous challenging of Paulson’s statements and the statements of others like him (like Gerhard Forde and other relatively “conservative” Lutheran scholars who fudge here and there on more classical views). Part of me wishes that I had no knowledge of the words he wrote in his 2011 book, Lutheran Theology, where he stated that Christ committed his own personal sin… (see here for more ; again, a follow-up, when doubt came…).
For if he had not written that book that said such things about Christ’s cry of dereliction, I would have had no concerns about the way he talks about things in the following talks:
Finally, after listening, re-listening, reflecting and praying, I don’t find anything objectionable in these talks, and must in the end say that they seem very edifying and encouraging and even helpful to me.
And yet, he also wrote the things he did in his 2011 book.
And he has never taken them back… nor tried to explain them in anything other than a superficial way (see his comments to Pastor Donofrio, prompted by my challenges, here).
1517 doesn’t say anything definitive about this either. Not long ago, a man who follows me on Twitter gave me permission to share what 1517 told him. Here is what he said:
“I submitted a question from [1517’s] contact form on their website…
Note they can’t do a simple “we disagree with X-point”. I really am not a fan of a guy like Soren Kierkegaard, but one really appreciates his “Either/Or” here… a bit of clarity and simplicity please! Or Luther for that matter: he talks about asserting, and how Christians can’t not assert, but 1517 runs from that here, when I believe it’s needed the most.
We are left with the “he likes to challenge us” approach. And the “we didn’t publish this”…
I have to ultimately agree with a fellow layperson, who put it this way: “For Paulson to claim that Jesus on the cross thought ‘I committed sin’ is not what Paul says in Corinthians. Jesus becoming sin is not the same as Jesus sinning. That isn’t difficult to differentiate.”
I guess he underestimates theological academics though.
Now, all of this said, I have nevertheless continued to think that Paulson is often untreated unfairly by some of his critics!
For example, when David Scaer, in a recent CTQ book review article said that:
…I remembered hearing a couple prominent theologians saying that Paulson denied the atonement, and actually got upset!
Even if the atonement does not play the same exact role in Paulson’s theological approach as it might in some other Lutherans, why would that be bad? Someone like David Scaer, I thought, could appreciate this! After all, he appreciated Robert Preus recognizing the value of his own “from below” approach regarding Christology compared with his own “from above” approach! Why couldn’t other theologians put the best construction on Dr. Paulson’s theology here, simply saying that Paulson and Forde are not necessarily the same? Why could they not see that Paulson did not deny the atonement and that it actually played an important role in his theology – even if where it was located in his theology was different? Paulson, after all, is not wrong to want to highlight the critical nature of proclamation: how the spoken word is central to all of life, here and in the life to come!
Yes, I knew that other prominent theologians I have heard have also said that Paulson, like Gerhard Forde before him, in the end actually denied the atonement. I, however, had read a lot of Paulson and listened to a lot of Paulson and had never detected this….
Then, however, a Paulson fan on Twitter put out a statement from his book The Outlaw God that I appeared to have missed, or at least not thought of sufficiently….
To this I asked:
“So did Jesus take our well-deserved punishment or not?
I think that offends even more… God does not disregard the law when He forgives sins. If He were disregarding the law, there would be nothing to forgive.”
The man replied “That’s why he discards it because all the sin is on Him and forgiven, no more accusation, sweet silence and freedom,” I said all of the following, in that last part finally remembering how I had ended probably my best article challenging Paulson:
And so this tweet that I have been re-tweeting for the past year now takes on new significance for me… And I am thinking that I need to listen even more carefully, and that theologians like Dr. David Scaer can see better than I can what is really going on.
Finally, I need to confess that my continuing to listen to (and even enjoy listening to!) Dr. Paulson probably is not helping matters at all… So, after reading old commentators on Romans 16:17 this morning, I am realizing it is probably best if I avoid listening to or reading anything that Steven Paulson says.
I do think that heavier hitters need to tackle this though – that is, Paulson on the atonement… I am hoping that they will get in the fight, because I think its best if I now sit this one out.
*Interestingly, the first part of this tweet, regarding how people are not offended by the idea of God “expect[ing] us to fulfill the law with the help of grace” is something I happened to tweet about yesterday as well:
July 4, 2022 at 3:54 pm
But I DO say those things, and 1517 doesn’t hate me. Instead, they encourage me to write and speak more.
July 7, 2022 at 5:52 pm
You DO say what things? : )