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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Peter’

paulIt is not uncommonly claimed that Paul’s thought developed over time.  The classic example of development in Paul’s theological thought is his dimming expectation of Christ’s imminent return.  As I have argued elsewhere, early on Paul believed that Christ would return within Paul’s lifetime and he advised Christians accordingly.  But by the time of his imprisonment in Rome, not too long before his execution, Paul’s expectation that he would live to see Christ’s return was flagging.  He no longer spoke confidently of himself and his correligionists as “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,” (1 Thess 4:15, 17, written ca. 41-43 CE) but rather began coming to terms with his imminent demise (Phil 1:21ff, written ca. 61-63 CE).  He still believed that the Lord would return soon, mind you, but no longer did he think he would live to see it (Phil 4:5).

Now, one may suspect that explaining the phenomena of Paul’s writings by recourse to his theological development is a distinctly modern approach to understanding the Apostle to the Gentiles, but, in fact, it is not.  In my last post I highlighted Paul’s scrap with Peter over Peter’s parting company with Gentiles at meals (Gal 2).  The late 2nd century apologist Tertullian (ca.160 – ca.220 CE)explained Paul’s actions as being the result of his relative immaturity as a Christian.  He writes:

Now [the Marcionites] adduce the case of Peter himself, and the others, who were pillars of the apostolate, as having been blamed by Paul for not walking uprightly, according to the truth of the gospel–that very Paul indeed, who, being yet in the mere rudiments of grace, and trembling, in short, lest he should have run or were still running in vain, then for the first time held intercourse with those who were apostles before himself. [3] Therefore because, in the eagerness of his zeal against Judaism as a neophyte, he thought that there was something to be blamed in their conduct–even the promiscuousness of their conversation–but afterwards was himself to become in his practice all things to all men, that he might gain all,–to the Jews, as a Jew, and to them that were under the law, as under the law,–you would have his censure, which was merely directed against conduct destined to become acceptable even to their accuser, suspected of prevarication against God on a point of public doctrine.[4] Touching their public doctrine, however, they had, as we have already said, joined hands in perfect concord, and had agreed also in the division of their labour in their fellowship of the gospel, as they had indeed in all other respects: “Whether it were I or they, so we preach.” (Against Marcion, Book I, Chap XX)

According to Tertullian, Paul outgrew this hot-headedness and later adopted the policy of becoming all things to all men that he might win the many, which, apparently, Tertullian took to be the policy that Peter endorsed all along.  As he writes in Book IV, Chap III of the same work, “And yet as Paul himself ‘became all things to all men,’ that he might gain all, it was possible that Peter also might have betaken himself to the same plan of practising somewhat different from what he taught.”

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt, "The Apostle Paul in Prison", 1627, oil on panel

To my mind, this sort of explanation is helpful not only for making sense of Paul’s letters but also for reminding us that Paul was not the two-dimensional, ready-made Sunday-school felt-board character we often imagine him to have been but rather a flesh-and-blood human being, living and thinking in the complicated, rough-and-tumble world of the first century.  Paul was a man attempting rethink everything he had learned at his mother’s knee and at the feet of his tutor, Gamaliel, in light of the recent resurrection of a crucified man who, by Pharisaic standards, had played fast-and-loose with the Torah, and in light of the still unfolding activity of the Spirit amongst Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen.  It is difficult to imagine how his thought could not undergo some change over the course of the nearly three decades in which he worked.

I, personally, am encouraged by the fact that the New Testament gives evidence of Paul’s humanity.  It is a reminder that these things actually happened and are not a bunch of made-up fairy tales, too pristine and tidy to fit in the real world.  Howeverso problematic these observations may be for our attempts at solving our contemporary theological conundrums, I prefer them to an unproblematic (and correspondingly unrealistic) picture of emergent Christianity because they indicate, to me at least, that maybe, just maybe the gospel is true.

But, of course, these observations make facile proof-texting appropriations of Paul’s letters (or of any New Testament text, for that matter) for contemporary theological purposes dubious indeed.  We must, rather, attempt by means of historical imagination to enter the world of the New Testament and sit at the feet of the Apostles as they were, listen into their debates amongst one-another and hope and pray to hear the voice of our common Master.  Then, hopefully having heard His voice, we must leave their very different world and attempt to live faithfully by what we have heard in our own.

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