By Thomas W. Hudgins
(Interview questions by Henry Neufeld, YouTube video here. Note that this is not a transcript of the interview, but rather a written set of answers to the same questions.)
HN: What do you regard as the Pauline epistles, i.e., what literature do we have that you are confident was written by the apostle Paul?
TWH: The letters written by Paul are, following the order they appear in modern New Testaments: Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews. Based upon the evidence that exists, it is my conclusion that Paul is the author of fourteen New Testament texts.
HN: What weight do you give to Acts of the Apostles in understanding Paul?
TWH: Historical. Accurately reflects both the life and the ministry of the apostle Paul in the period of his life that Luke covers. Difficulties at reconciling details in Acts and other texts of the New Testament, especially Galatians, are only difficulties, not impossibilities. Bruce Epperly mentioned “a degree of veracity” when he talked about some of these difficulties, such as the Jerusalem Council mentioned in both Acts and Galatians. I would agree that it doesn’t give a “complete picture of Paul,” but rather a “snapshot,” though I would also clarify that the Paul presented in Acts is not different than the Paul of history nor is it at odds with Paul as he presents himself in his own writings or Paul as he is presented, ever so briefly, in the writings of Peter. We know more about his thought than we do the events of his life (though we should also point out that we know more about the events of his life than we do those of 99.9% of the population who lived during the first century). And what we know of his thought corresponds to the facts that we know of his life.
HN: If you were introducing Paul as the next speaker at a conference, what might you say about him?
TWH: From what I know of him through the New Testament texts, I’d probably just keep it short and sweet, pointing to how Paul is actively training younger men in the faith, has an interprovincial ministry, spent three years with the Lord in Arabia, has been fiercely resisting the spread of any so-called gospel that involves man doing something to earn the un-earnable favor and grace of God and attempting to secure for oneself on the merits of one’s own effort (to no avail) the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of his or her soul. And I would encourage those in the audience to pray for him as he continues to take the gospel to people who haven’t heard the message of the cross before and to pray for his people, the nation of Israel, that they, as did Paul did, will repent and believe in Jesus the Messiah, the one promised in the Scriptures and the one for whom they have been waiting.
HN: Imagine we’re living in the first century, I am about to go on a mission trip with Paul, and you were talking privately and confidentially with me. What might you say?
TWH: I’d let you know that I am going to be praying for you. I’d tell you to prepare your heart, to be yourself and be the best you that you can be (because Paul doesn’t let fake go very far), to be teachable (because if Paul’s letting you go with him, it’s because he wants you to see his example), to be ready and willing to endure hardship and persecution (because every place Paul went, it found him and those with him, every single time) and to not give up at the first sight of something that doesn’t fit your world or the level of comfort to which you’re accustomed, to remember that this isn’t a trip but a mission, to remember that Paul isn’t perfect, that he might snap at you, that he might let you down, that he doesn’t know everything (e.g., Acts 16), but like every mature follower of Jesus, he’s got a lot more that would make your life better than he does that would make your life worse. Listen to him. Let God use you. And be there to serve others, even Paul, because in everything that you do, with everyone you meet, in every place you that you travel, you are Jesus’ personal representative. And if Paul ever tells you that you can ask him one thing and he’ll definitely answer it, ask him . . . [whisper so that no one else can hear].
HN: What do you think modern interpreters most commonly misunderstand about Paul?
TWH: Here’s a few:
- That Paul wasn’t a pastor.
- That Paul wasn’t perfect.
- That Paul wrote letters to correct issues in Christian communities. He wasn’t a philosopher, he wasn’t one to muse and reflect in ink for the sake of reflection. He was a man that was driven by one mission, namely to spread the message of the cross as far across the world as he could, in the most strategic way possible, to as many people as possible, for as long as he possibly could, at whatever personal cost necessary.
- Paul didn’t always point to his own life as an example. He only did so when he was speaking to people who had witnessed the way that he lived.
HN: What do you regard as Paul’s primary theological sources? What role do you see played by his Jewish background, his knowledge of the Greek world, and his own experiences, especially visionary?
TWH: So, I’m going to answer this question by paying special attention to the word “primary.” There’s no question that other sources had some impact on Paul’s thinking and his ministry. But when we think about what “primarily” had the greatest impact on him, it has to be his upbringing in a devout Jewish home, his training under Gamaliel, and, most importantly, the Hebrew Scriptures. There’s no question that he understood the world and worldview of the Gentiles. He was able to engage elements of them that threatened the life of Christian communities and the nature of the gospel. But he hardly “built Christianity” on the foundation of the Gentile world, nor did Paul leverage an opportunity he saw to make Gentile-friendly the faith that he knew and treasured. The inspired texts of the Old Testament were the basis and primary sources for everything Paul thought and believed. Second in order of influence would not be the Greek world but the Spirit of God who led Paul throughout his ministry and through him inspired texts to serve New Covenant communities.
HN: What might Paul say to the American church today?
TWH: A lot. Big buildings are a waste of the resources God has entrusted to his people. The church should be known for what it does outside its walls and, within them, known only for being devoted to faithful teaching, strategic planning, proclaiming the return of the Lord via regular celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (and yes, he would flip out over the little wafers and fake wine), being of one mind, known for what binds people together and not what makes them distinct, clear explanations of the gospel (by everyone, to everyone, everywhere God sends them), etc. That the greatest investment a person can make is bringing a younger believer alongside them and training them to live a life that expends every ounce of strength God gives them, every drop of wisdom, every single talent, every spiritual gift, every minute of every day to making other people’s lives better and introducing them to the one whose death on the cross proclaims loud and evermore the love of God. And he’d most definitely tell them to shine a light on their weaknesses so that God might shine a light on his strength and power.
HN: How does your acceptance of Hebrews as genuinely Pauline impact your understanding of the apostle and his work?
TWH: Well, I think we miss out on a lot about the apostle Paul when we relegate the letter to the Hebrews to an anonymous corpus. Let me just give you two examples.
- Paul’s letters are heavily focused on Gentile believers. Jewish elements in his letters are tied to his explanation of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, the nature of the gospel and what is necessary for a person to receive the forgiveness of his or her sins, and refutations of false gospels that involved works as a basis or a means to salvation. Certainly, there are other Jewish elements to his letters, but we get no picture of what it would look like for Paul—the apostle to the Gentiles—to address a purely Jewish audience that had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Luke records for us in Acts what it looks like for Paul to address Jews evangelistically in a synagogue setting and what it looks like for Paul to do so among a purely Gentile audience. The letter to the Hebrews, however, gives us a picture of Paul’s teaching had he directed his efforts and energies towards exclusively or predominantly Jewish communities who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. We have to remember too that Paul always wrote corrective letters. In the case of the letter he wrote to the Hebrews, there were some among the community that were entertaining the idea that perhaps they had placed their faith in Jesus in vain or they had directed their attention so much on Jesus that they had neglected elements of their culture that were still binding on them as Jews. Thus, we have in Paul’s letter a “better than” message and exhortations to press forward without looking back, to stay focused on Jesus, since he accomplished for his people what God only foreshadowed in the Jewish people’s long history of waiting for the Messiah. So, for example, in Hebrews 3, Paul contrasts the faithfulness of Moses with the superior faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
- There are two imitation passages in Hebrews. The first is Heb. 6:11–12: “And we earnestly desire that each of you show the same diligence resulting in complete assurance until the end, so that you will not prove to be lazy, but imitators of those who through faith and steadfast endurance are inheriting the promises.” The second, an appeal to imitation, is Heb. 13:7: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” Appeals to imitation are not uncommon in Paul’s letters. Paul tells believers to imitate himself and others in most of his letters, and usually the appeal is to his own example. What’s interesting is Paul does not appeal to his own life as an example for the Hebrews to follow. There would have been a lot for them to imitate, in my opinion. But no appeal to himself as an example. Why? Paul directs his audience’s attention to those within their community who had served and led them. He allows the readers to use their own memory of the leaders they once knew. Paul is always mindful of the impact his own example has on believers that he has served with and alongside of. He always lived as though he were giving believers that were dear to him, especially Timothy, a τύπος (“example”) for their own lives to follow after. And in Hebrews, with these two passages, it is very clear that Paul recognized again the importance of other people’s examples. Instead of presenting himself as the example (or even just an example) to a group of believers he probably had little contact with (given his intense missionary travels and close association with church in Antioch), he does not attempt to give himself as an example. Instead he reveres the godly leadership these believers knew firsthand, which he no doubt knew from his travels and stays in and around Jerusalem. Then, he tells them to imitate that faith. There’s one other group that Paul did not personally meet and serve, namely the Colossians. And guess what. He didn’t use his example with them either.