A series on my difficulties with St. Paul, and how they were largely solved by an unlikely source
In the last post, we had a bit of a discussion on the historical Jesus theories, and whether or not they are generally harmful to people’s faith in their deconstructionism, or if they are capable of enriching our faith with new insights. I hope I can make a case concerning how the latter turned out to be true in my particular experience.
I used to spend a good amount of time in the Catholic apologetics community on the web. I’ve witnessed tons and tons of heated debates on the web between Protestants and Catholics on the subject of “faith vs. works”. I’ve seen people on both sides striving mightily, twisting themselves into pretzels, trying to explain how St. Paul (“one is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” – Romans 3:28) and St. James (“one is justified by works and not by faith alone” –James 2:24) were using different words to say essentially the same thing. Hmmmm.
I found the arguments used by both sides to be strained and unconvincing. The only thing that I could say with certainty was that Protestantism seems to be heavily Pauline/Johannine in character, and that Catholicism seems to be heavily Jamesian/Matthean in character. I also couldn’t figure out why this Paul vs. James dichotomy was never a big deal in the first 1500 years of Christendom. This was confirmed in a sense by looking to Eastern Orthodoxy for help on this matter. It seemed that with their emphasis on theosis, they had scarcely considered this issue at all, beyond simply saying that we are saved by a faith that works through love, which is basically the same as the Catholic position.
I’ll say straight out, that except for the discourse on love from Corinthians, I don’t like the letters of St. Paul as much as the four Gospels and the “Catholic” Epistles. I find St. Paul contradictory and really hard to understand. He was a much better rhetoritician than a logical thinker, in my view. I always have to remind myself that his writings were specific letters sent to address specific problems in specific church communities, and perhaps they should not be read as theological constructs in the same way the four Gospels are.
In addition, Paul of Tarsus claimed to be of Pharisaical background, trained at the feet of Gamaliel. Strange kind of Pharisee, from what I can see. To me, he looks like a real Hellenistic, rather than Palestinian type of Jewish thinker… When I read his letters in comparison to the Gospels, they seem very different in tone and emphasis to me, almost to the point of being a different religion. I started to have some real problems with St. Paul’s thinking, and if I had relied on the standard “orthodox” Catholic apologetic arguments alone, I might have slipped into a real crisis of faith.
I’m not the first person to have these problems of course. Big thinkers and philosophers from Thomas Jefferson to Nietzsche have accused Paul of being the great “inventor” or “corrupter” of Christianity, turning the Gospel of sweet and gentle Jesus into something else altogether. Not so fast. What these guys didn’t know in their respective times was that Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings. They are older than the Gospels. They are the first writings about Jesus Christ that we know about. Therefore, St. Paul cannot be dissed or dismissed lightly.
What is shown below is to be taken tongue-in-cheek and with a grain of salt. It was in a letter I sent to a friend a couple of years ago. It was a satirical piece, meant to be partly humorous, written in the style of a Woody Allen monologue... Don’t take it too seriously, but it does reflect what I was struggling with at the time.
Hypothetical address of Jesus to His disciples before the Ascension:
“Peace be with you… Repent and rejoice. The Kingdom of God is at hand! It is within you and all around you. Trust God completely and work with Him to bring the Kingdom about. Put all of your Faith in Him. Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul. Love one another as I have loved you. If you love me, keep the commandments. Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Give to one who wants to borrow, without asking for anything in return. Always be ready to forgive, for my Father in heaven will extend forgiveness to you by the same measure. Remember the poor. Remember me when you eat and drink. Go out and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. It is finished…. Um…Just a few announcements before I go…. Now you all know I designated Peter as my Rock, the first of all of you among equals. Well, Pete is a big-hearted guy and a heck of a fisherman, but he’s not much of an administrator… He flip-flops a little too much… Do you all remember my “brother” James, who always thought that I was a little crazy? Yes? Well, Peter will be handing over the reigns of the Jerusalem Church to him. He’s good at running stuff. He’ll make sure you all keep up with your Temple observance… OK, then. Good to go? I’m leaving now… Oh wait!!! I almost forgot one important thing … There was just one little thing that I didn’t get around to while I was here…. I can’t believe that I almost forgot (chuckle). You know I chose you twelve specially. What’s that? Well…, yeah, Judas didn’t work out too well…. Choose Matthias in his place. The problem is, none of you write too well. I don’t have a systematic theologian in the whole crew… I probably should have left some documentation of my own, but anyway, too late for that now… There’s this guy that I never met while I was here. His name is Saul. Pardon me? No, none of you know him either. He’s going to have a hand in killing Stephen… Whoa, whoa, now! Don’t get upset... Saul will come around and change his name to Paul, and everything will turn out OK. James will never trust him completely, and he’ll mouth off to Peter, but don’t let that bother you. He can just wave his Roman citizenship papers whenever he gets into a jam. He’ll go from persecuting you guys to being one of your brothers. More importantly, he’s going to explain what my whole life and death was about, since I don’t think any of you guys are quite up to the task. Remember my parables and what I said in the Sermon on the Mount? Forget all that. It was just a preview of what my “saved”, predestined, Godly-elect automatons may or may not be up to someday. Good works don’t really matter, you see…. That doesn’t make sense? (Sigh) Well, Paul will explain the whole thing to you… The main point will be, ‘Admit that Jesus died for your sins, or you can go to hell’. Got it? I know, I know, it all sounds Greek to me too, but… whatever… I’m out. Later. Shalom.”