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Scope: Paul’s lasting effect on Christianity was through his letters. That collection formed the basis of the New Testament canon. The reading of them in worship through the centuries continued to shape Christian perceptions. Issues that Paul did not deal with well, subsequent Christianity didn’t either. Paul was not strong on either sex or politics. Later Christians struggled with both. But three emphases in his letters continue to challenge all readers. First, he insists on the primacy of experience of the risen Jesus, empowerment through the Holy Spirit, and a faith that follows the pattern of Jesus. Second, he focuses on the moral character of the community rather than the privileges of the individual. Third, he shows his readers how to think. These three aspects of Paul brought Christianity into a fruitful conversation with the larger world of philosophy and continue to subvert all reductions of Christianity to mere religious routine.
I. Paul’s influence on the church and on the world came above all through his letters, which played both a pivotal and controversial role in the formation of the New Testament.
a. Evidence from the early 2nd century suggests that Paul the Apostle was honored as a martyr and revered as a practical moral teacher.
b. His letters were also quickly collected and used by early teachers of impeccable orthodoxy, such as Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch.
c. Paul was also the favorite author of heterodox groups who exploited his polarizing rhetoric in their own cosmic dualism.
i. Marcion regarded Paul as the only true teacher of the Christian movement. Marcion regarded spirit as good and matter as evil. He founded a radically dualistic form of Christianity, in which the God of the Old Testament, who created matter, was evil. Jesus revealed a new, true God to save humans from their physical captivity. Marcion’s Christianity privileged virginity and asceticism and it ultimately died out.
ii. Paul’s letters were vigorously interpreted by Gnostic teachers in the direction of a world-denying asceticism.
d. Paul’s letters, together with the four Gospels, form the heart of the eventual orthodox canon.
i. His letters follow the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, thus placing Paul in the company of the other apostles. His collection ends with the Pastorals, thus bracketing the more radical Paul with the more conservative Paul.
ii. The canonical arrangement creates the possibility for hearing a variety of Pauline voices.
II. Paradoxically, it was Paul’s theology that influenced the West rather than his moral pedagogy.
a. Paul’s concern in his letters was not with theological propositions but with the stability and integrity of communities that he tried to shape according to the “mind of Christ.”
b. But his thought – especially in Galatians, Romans, and the Corinthian letters – proved to be a resource for theologians seeking to establish positions, from Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century through Luther and Calvin in the 16th, to Karl Barth in the 20th.
i. Augustine was tormented by his own sexual drive and read Paul autobiographically. For Augustine, Romans 13 enabled him to become chaste. But Christianity became imbued with Augustine’s view of sexuality as a human problem.
ii. Luther was an Augustinian monk who was tormented by his inability to keep the monastic rule perfectly. When he read Galatians, which proclaims freedom from the law, he too took Paul autobiographically. He tried to reform medieval Catholicism, with its emphasis on canon law and ritual, by calling for a return to the radical Paul, who espouses a personal relationship with God – through Scripture and faith alone.
iii. Karl Barth, one of the greatest 20th theologians, was influenced by Kierkegaard and the senseless devastation of World War I. In his commentaries on Romans, Bart rejects the 19th century view that Christianity is the bloom on the rose of social progress. He proposes, instead, that what Christianity is about is much more tragic and deeply entrenched in humanity than simple social progress can remedy.
III. Because of Paul’s centrality and importance in the New Testament, some of his weaknesses turn out to be Christianity’s weaknesses as well.
a. The New Testament – above all its letters – consists in occasional writings addressing particular circumstances of the past. It cannot yield a consistent theology or ethics.
b. Like other New Testament writers, Paul has been of limited usefulness as a guide to later Christians because of his historical circumstances.
i. As a member of a small sect in the process of birth, Paul had no concept of Christianity’s relationship to the larger political and cultural order.
ii. Paul’s comments on sexuality are random and geared to the expectation of “all things passing away.”
iii. Paul’s views on slavery and gender – and, for that matter, on non-Jews – reflect the limitations and biases of a Jewish male in the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire.
c. Paul’s relativizing of gender, class, and ethnicity can have a liberating and equalizing effect. It can also result in confirming and conforming to conservative social constructions.
i. For example, if whether you are male or female does not matter, why pay attention to male/female differences? If whether you are a slave or free does not matter, we can let slavery be.
ii. Thus, Paul has been invoked by conservatives to legitimize just the opposite of what he was really after – a more egalitarian form of community.
IV. Paul’s most enduring importance is found, not in specific propositions, but in certain emphases that pervade all his letters.
a. He takes his stand on the experience of the living God, who for Paul has been revealed most powerfully in the story of Jesus, because of whose death and resurrection, God’s power is at work to transform humans. Jesus as the pattern for a new humanity is a powerful and evocative claim.
b. He pays little attention to the fate or fortunes of individuals, keeping his eye constantly on the moral integrity of the community. Paul challenges every form of individualism at the expense of common good.
c. Despite his objection to philosophy, Paul is, from beginning to end, a thinker. His refusal to provide one-size-fits-all answers and his insistence that his readers also think through the implications of experience for behavior has enabled Christianity to remain a flexible and adaptable religious tradition that has engaged and continues to engage the larger world of thought and culture.
Augustine, On Grace and Free-Will
Karl Barth, “The End of Religion,” in Meeks, pp. 220-257
Martin Luther, Death to the Law.
Questions to Consider:
- What good and bad things happened to Paul once his writings became “Scripture?”
- What would be different about Christianity if Paul’s letters were seriously taken as the “heart of the canon?”