William Wrede on Paul

William Wrede, Paul (Lexington: American Theological Library Association Committee on Reprinting, 1962), 180–182:


For Paul it demonstrably was who first—even if a certain preparative work had already been done—introduced into Christianity the ideas whose influence in its history up to the present time has been deepest and most wide-reaching. Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, Luther, Calvin, Zinzendorf—not one of these great teachers can be understood on the ground of the preaching & historic personality of Jesus; their Christianity cannot be comprehended as a remodeling of ‘the gospel’; the key to their comprehension, though of course sundry links stand between, is Paul. The backbone of Christianity for all of them was the history of salvation; they lived for that which they shared with Paul. This second founder of Christianity has even, compared with the first, exercised beyond all doubt the stronger—not the better—influence. True, he has not lorded it everywhere, especially not in the life of simple, practical piety, but throughout long stretches of church history—one need but think of the Councils & dogmatic contests—he has thrust that greater person, whom he meant only to serve, utterly into the background.


But this reshaping of Christianity was manifestly a precondition for his work of setting it up, over against Judaism, as a religion with a principle of its own. Without his theology of redemption he would not have been able to treat Judaism as a superseded religion. He preserved the new faith from pining away as a Jewish sect; he rescued it for history; but he did this by transforming its character.


Paul is, in truth, a figure grand enough to have a place in the world’s history. We need not think for a moment of those special incentives and suggestions which an Augustine or a Luther found in him. What enabled him to accomplish the task of his life was that religiously, as well as intellectually and morally, he was an extraordinary personality; and no doubt this also, that he had not become a Christian in the normal way. The ‘revelation’ freed him from the fetters of tradition in which the members of the mother community were bound; it gave him the power to make a new beginning.


Jesus or Paul: this alternative characterizes, at least in part, the religious and theological warfare of the present day. The older school is no doubt convinced that with Paul it enters, for the first time, into possession of the whole and genuine Jesus; and it is also able, to a certain extent, to take up the historical Jesus into its Pauline Christ. Still, this Christ must needs for the most part crush out the man Jesus. On the other hand, even the ‘modern theology’ is not willing to forsake Paul. Paul is rich enough to afford them precious thoughts, such as they can make entirely their own. It finds especially congenial Paul’s fight against the Law, although the ‘protestant’ element in that contest is readily over-estimated. But in Paul’s own mind all this, without the kernel of his Christology, is nothing, and no honour paid to the great personality can compensate for the surrender of this kernel. As a whole Paul belongs absolutely to ecclesiastical orthodoxy, whether it preserves his views quite faithfully in matters of detail or not.