Why is Paul’s Theology in Acts and in his Epistles so Different?

Masaccio, St. Paul
St. Paul, Maccio

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Philipp Vielhauer’s seminal paper “On the Paulinism of Acts”, exposed the serious discrepancies between the theology of Paul as it is presented in Acts and in the authentic epistles of the self-styled apostle. We will look at the four main discrepancies pointed out by Vielhauer.

Natural Theology

Paul’s only sermon to the Gentiles in Acts is the one at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). He first praised the Athenians for their piety (17:22). He told the Athenians that mankind was created such that they all seek God (17:27). Indeed all humanity “live and move” and have their being in the divine. Everyone has a natural kinship with God and is “God’s offspring” (17:28).

In his epistles, Paul also acknowledged that mankind has a natural knowledge of God (Romans 1:19) But rather than claiming that this makes them pious as in Acts 17:22, this knowledge led to neither honoring or thanking God (Romans 1:21) but to ungodliness and wickedness (Romans 1:18) which brings forth God’s anger (Romans 1:18). All this natural knowledge of God, instead of leading to piety and a natural kinship, simply means mankind is “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Thus we have Paul in Acts saying that mankind can reach some kinship and knowledge of God by independent, natural means. The historical Paul would have no such thing. Man is estranged from God and only through “Christ” could he be reconciled back to the divine. [23]


We have seen above that Acts presented Paul as a Jewish Christian who was utterly loyal to the law of Moses. And that this was contradicted by his epistles.

Here we will look at the one place where Luke seems to be letting the apostle to the Gentiles speak in his own language:

Acts 13:38-39

Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.

However this seemingly Pauline passage shows some major contradictions with the real thing upon close comparison. First we note that “forgiveness of sins“, is a phrase not to be found in the genuine Pauline letters. Indeed this phrase is found only in Pauline epistles considered to be inauthentic (e.g. Colossians 1:14, Ephesians 1:7). The historical Paul normally talks about sin, in the singular, which he looks upon as a kind of power. Some examples include Romans 3:9 (“both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin…”), Romans 6:12 (“do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies”), Romans 6:23 (“for the wages of sin is death”) and I Corinthians 15:56 (“The sting of death is sin”). Second we see that the forgiveness was tied to the messiahship of Jesus, which in turn was based on the resurrection. There is no mention that Jesus’ death itself had any redemptive significance. [24]

Finally, it is here a question of only a partial justification, one which is not by faith alone, but also by faith. Harnack was right in saying: “According to Paul the law has absolutely no saving significance, and thus also none for the one who was born a Jew; according to Luke…justification by faith is so to speak only complementary for Jewish Christians. It is necessary for them because and to the extent that they fall short of the fulfillment of the law or because the law provides no complete justification.” [25]


In Acts Paul made only one significant statement on Christology (Acts 13:13-43). According to this Paul, Jesus’ crucifixion was a result of an error committed by the people of Jerusalem (13:28) and a consequence of fulfillment of the scriptures (13:28-29). There is no mention anywhere of the saving significance of the cross of Christ.

However in Paul’s own writings we are told that the cross “is a judgement on all mankind and at the same time a reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11; II Corinthians 5:14-21) [26]


To Luke the parousia was no longer imminent and had been postponed to sometime in the future. For he had Jesus tell the apostles it was not for them to speculate about this event. (Acts 1:6-8) Thus we are given the following rather vague statement by the Lukan Paul about the coming day of judgement:

Acts 17:30-31

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

In the genuine Pauline epistles we get a very acute sense of the nearness of parousia: [27]

I Thessalonians 4:15

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. Paul believed that the time of the parousia was so near that he advised his followers to eschew worldly things:

I Corinthians 7:29

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as though they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as though they are not; those who buy something, as if it is not theirs to keep; those who used the things of the world, as if not engrossed in time. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Thus the theology of the Paul in Acts contradicts the one preached by the historical apostle in this four main points. Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ messiahship, the significance of his death and resurrection seems to be of a more primitive form than Paul; while his ideas with respect to natural theology, the Mosaic law and eschatology are all post-Pauline. [28]


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