Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Good Word for Paul

Several of my blog postings over the past months have been about politics or politicians. This time I am writing about Paul—but it is the Apostle Paul who is the subject of this article, not presidential hopeful Ron Paul or his son Senator Rand Paul.
Today, January 25, is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, celebrated by the Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. This Feast is also the final day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical observance observed by some churches since 1908.
Most of you who read this blog know well the biblical narrative about Paul’s dramatic conversion as he was on the road to Damascus for the purpose of apprehending and arresting followers of Jesus. He had a blinding vision of and encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
That life-changing event is depicted, with stark realism, in “The Conversion of St. Paul” by the prominent Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). (I find Caravaggio’s painting much more appealing than “The Conversion of Saul” by Michelangelo, 1475-1564, for whom he was named.)
The main matter I call to your attention here is the relation of Paul to Jesus and the question of whether Paul is a faithful proponent of the teachings of Jesus. There are now many Christians, and others, who see Paul more as one who perverted the message of Jesus rather than a faithful proclaimer of that message.
The current tendency among many is to downplay Paul. This is reflected in a new book by the young scholar/professor J. R. Daniel Kirk: the title of his book is Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? (2012).
Kirk (Ph.D., Duke, 2004) says that his book “is, in part, for folks who at times find themselves resonating with the statement, ‘Jesus have I loved, but Paul have I hated’” (Kindle ed., 100). That has especially been the position of many “liberal” Christians.
There are of course exceptions, past and present, but for a long time conservative Protestant Christians (evangelicals) have emphasized Paul’s teaching about Jesus far more than the teachings of Jesus. Those of us who have grown up in that tradition know well the significance of what is sometimes called the “Romans road” to salvation.
But among most non-conservative Christians, Paul’s emphasis on Jesus’ sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection have been downplayed and focus on Jesus’ teaching about working for the Kingdom of God now has become commonplace.
They also see Paul’s teaching about Jesus being exclusivistic, whereas the trend now is emphasis on an inclusive or pluralistic message. The teachings of Jesus can best be utilized for the latter.
Moreover, Paul is often seen as a supporter of slavery, patriarchalism, and anti-homosexual ideas and practices. Certainly writings in the New Testament attributed to Paul have been, and in some circles continue to be, interpreted in that way.
But Kirk rightly argues that Paul can, and should, be seen in a different way, in a liberating way. He makes much of the important words of Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ.”
That same verse is also seen as the key to interpreting Paul in the first chapter of another new book, C. K. Robertson's A Dangerous Dozen: 12 Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo but Taught Us to Live Like Jesus (2011). Paul is the first of those twelve, and the author contends that “at the heart of Paul’s message was a complete breakdown of all the boundaries and social divisions that he himself had previous guarded” (p. 4).
The conversion of Paul, and his subsequent life and activities, is certainly worth celebrating today, and I am pleased to have this means to put in a good word for Paul.


  1. St. Paul certainly was an amazing, outside-the-box thinker. His epistles to the gentile (and Hebrew??) churches, and to his apprentices have been accepted by the Church since they were written. It is sad that we do not have the writings of the other apostles to round out the early church documents in addition to tradition. Both "liberal" and "conservative" views need to be taken within the integrity of the scriptures if we are to hold faithful to what was said and accepted by the Church.

    Thankfully, the writings of St. Paul and St. John are part of the balance of scripture.

    Just this week I have had to deal with a zealous Christian attempting to forcefully proselytize a minor from a more traditional Christian background, coercing her to repeat the magic words of the "sinner's prayer". It was a good exposure to American religion for her, but sadly, not the work of the Holy Spirit.

  2. The irony in emphasizing Jesus solely is that we have only secondhand accounts reported in the gospels as to what he is purported to have uttered; whereas, with Paul we have letters written or dictated by him (granted through various translations and interpretations). With Paul there is at least a practicable way of reading his thoughts, but with the gospels Jesus' statements are frequently far more stark (e.g. hating your family, giving away everything, etc.) without the continual whitewashing and avoidance of his these statements by those giving us a warm, fuzzy Jesus. By seperating Paul from Christianity, as some try to do, these folks run the risk of diminishing Christianity to the level of a service club (i.e. blind guides) without the basic understanding of their own depravity and the need (universal) of the "Great Physician".

  3. Paul was a Greek to the Greeks, a Jew to the Jews, and a citizen to the Romans. His writings are the oldest in the New Testament. He wrote with a freedom that is hard to understand in our day, for he wrote without the long tradition of Christian development. He was our pioneer.

    Of course we love him and hate him, his pithy statements are all over the place, sometimes contradicting each other, often confounding us. For instance, Mormons did not invent "baptism for the dead." It is right there in 1 Cor. 15:29. But what did Paul really mean by it?

    In our modern world, we frequently want to read the Bible like a cook book. We find a chapter, work it up like a recipe, and then taste the creation. The atheists spit it out, and the true believers eat it up. I believe that whole model is wrong. Oh, there are some great recipes in there, but overall the Bible is more a book of questions than answers, a place to sharpen and test our souls. Paul models this for us, with his explorations of the mysteries of the gospel.

    Hebrews 6:1-2 speaks of "press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation" --yet every time I have ever heard it discussed, "laying again the foundation" has been exactly the point developed. Now Hebrews was probably not written by Paul, but he makes a similar point in 1 Cor. 13:11. "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." (NIV) When we read Paul we need to do the same thing. Read him for what he says best to you.

  4. My Thinking Friend in Kentucky, who is a noted scholar, sent this e-mail message:

    "Bravo, Leroy! I think we Protestants have often relied too much on Paul and too little on the Gospels, but my own studies leave me still with some confidence that Paul did a pretty good job of laying a foundation upon the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead and began an new epoch in human history. Christianity would be terribly impoverished without Paul."

  5. Okay... will give Paul another chance... Honestly would love to read the books you have mentioned in your blog.. I need to have a more informed education on Paul.. so tired of the misquotes one hears in church.. Painful! Would like to see him in a new light..Thanks-Leslie Tomichek