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Posts Tagged ‘Theological diversity’

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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One of the most striking passages in Paul’s letters comes in the second chapter of Galatians.  Paul has been demonstrating his solidarity in the gospel with the Jerusalem based Apostles, Jesus’ orignal disciples and His brother, James.  While always being sure to maintain that his message and ministry is independent of theirs, Paul has been keen to underline their fundamental agreement.  But then, as there always does, there comes a “but.”

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:11-13)

Paul goes on to give Peter a stern dressing down because, he says, Peter “stood condemned.”  One wonders if Peter saw it that way.  I suspect not.  Had Peter knuckled under to Paul’s tirade, we would expect Paul to say so.  He has been

Peter and Paul at Antioch

Peter and Paul at Antioch

adamant about their fundamental agreement up until this point in the passage, but here he is content to give us only one side of the story and himself the final word and to leave it at that.  Apparently these two Apostles did not come to a meeting of minds.

We do not know exactly why Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles.  Perhaps Peter thought such a practice would be expedient in his mission to the Jews; his way of being as one under the Torah to those under the Torah.  Perhaps James’ men brought news of Jewish persecution of the churches in Jerusalem, and Peter thought it best not to push the issue until things quieted down (cp. Acts 6:11-14).  At any rate, we ought not to assume that he had no good reason at all.  We should not even facilely assume that he was clearly wrong and Paul was clearly right.

And there’s the rub.  Apparently, as they sought to make sense of their world in light of Jesus’ resurrection and the urgings of the Spirit, the Apostles could and did come down on different sides of an issue.  Galatians 2 narrates one instance, but we find these early Christian differences enshrined in the very pages of Scripture as well.

For instance, John the Seer voices his clear disapproval of those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira eating food sacrificed to idols: 

 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate. (Revelation 2:14)

But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)

The fornication in view here is probably a metaphor for idolatry (cf. Rev 17; Hos; Ezek 23, etc.) to which John understands eating of food sacrificed to idols to be tantamount.

The Apostle Paul had a more nuanced and liberal view of the matter.

 

 

 

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one. 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

Paul sees nothing intrinsically wrong or idolatrous in eating food sacrificed to idols per se.  However, he says, not everyone sees it that way and we need to respect their tender consciences.  John the Seer comes to mind.  On Paul’s definition, the author of the Book of Revelation would qualify as a “weaker brother,” a designation that we may suppose John would have been less than pleased with.

 

 

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526.  From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer, 1526. From left to right, John, Peter, Mark and Paul.

Similarly, whereas the Gospel of Mark (10:1-12) does not permit divorce under any circumstance, Matthew apparently sees this policy as being too strict and permits divorce on grounds of adultery (19:1-9).  Paul seems to side with Mark on the matter: Christians are not to seek divorce, even from unbelieving spouses who were likely cavorting with temple prostitutes (1 Cor 7:10-16).  Most of us sympathize more with Matthew, however.

We find that Jesus and Paul believed the end of the world and the final Judgment would arrive within a generation (e.g., Matt 24:34; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27; Rom 13:11-12; Phil 4:5; 1 Thess 4:15, 17, etc.).  The author of 2 Peter seems less hopeful (3:8-9).  All of us, with the aid of hindsight, agree with 2 Peter over against Jesus, Paul and the Synopticists.

There’s no two ways about it.  Sometimes to side with one Biblical author one must side against another.  Things are not as simple as just “believing the Bible.”  The diversity of opinions between the Apostles and within the pages of Scripture itself forces us to pick-and-choose, to take sides, to disagree with one Biblical author or another.

It is the Bible itself, not hubris nor merely our modern sensibilities, that forces us to do so.  At the end of the day, as when God challenged Jacob at Peniel, the Bible gives us no choice but to wrestle with the Bible if we would procure its blessings.  We cannot simply assent to whatever it says.  That way does not lie open to us.  We have to try, with the aid of the Spirit, to wrest Jesus, who is the true source of our life, from the pages of Scripture; to discern the voice of the resurrected Christ amidst the diverse and at turns discordant voices of the Biblical writers.  It is for this reason that I will, at times, feel fully at liberty to prayerfully and gladly disagree with an Apostle.

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