The arrogance of a theological liberal

Sometimes I’ve heard evangelicals (like myself) accused of being narrow-minded, sectarian, intolerant; acting as if they, and they alone, understand what the Bible is all about.

But whatever accusation anyone could possibly throw at us along these lines has nothing on William Wrede, whom I’m reading to get a bit more acquainted with late 19th-century liberal scholarship on Paul. To Wrede, for example, we can attribute the influential idea that Paul was the real founder of Christianity (as opposed to Jesus), because Paul’s theology was at most points opposed to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. In his book Paul, Wrede has some startling and often quite interesting insights into the apostle Paul’s letters. But what was most startling to me was this claim:

At this point [i.e. as Wrede begins to expound Paul’s doctrine] the reader who desires to follow us is expressly begged to discard, as far as he possibly can, any conceptions he may have formed of Pauline doctrine. Among all the innumerable Christians of the various churches, who believe that they share Paul’s views, there is to-day no single one who could be said to understand them in the sense in which they were really meant; and the same is true of those who regard themselves as opposed to the apostle’s teaching. At most a few members of certain small societies approximate to a true understanding of it (page 85).

In short, Wrede is saying, “I am the only person in the entire world who really knows what Paul was on about. So listen to me, and me alone, if you want to understand the Bible here.”

There’s arrogance for you.

Wrede, William. Paul. Translated by Edward Lummis. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2001. Reprint of Wrede, William. Paul. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1908. Translation of Paulus. Halle: Gebauer-Schwetschke, 1905.