Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My Paul Problem: Part I

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.”


crystal said...

Ha :-)

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. ..... Me too.

I just can't make myself like Paul. He seems almost gnostic, he's ok with slavery, bad news for women and homosexuals. On the other hand, Peter killed a couple of church members, so Paul might say to him, "At least I don't have to bury my mistakes." :-)

cowboyangel said...

Interesting post, Jeff. I've always had a bit of a "Paul problem" myself. I respect him, and I know how important he was, but I'm not sure his controlling nature was always a good influence on the others. While I agree that there was obviously a strong Pauline/Johannine character, I think the dichotomy would be more with the Georgian/Ringoian character, no? I'm not sure who you mean by "Jamesian/Matthean," unless you're referring obliquely to George Martin. Still for all his faults, Paul did produce some beautiful works on love. "Blackbird," too, has always been a favorite.

Sorry, couldn't resist. I blame your hilarious announcement from Jesus and the easy target of "Pauline/Johannine." Maybe they should put that on the record labels, rather than Lennon-McCartney. Or, as Paul has been doing of late: McCartney-Lennon. (The controlling bastard!)

Once upon a time I was more into the faith-works debate. But at some point I just felt like it was more of an offense-defense thing. You've got to have both. The true goal is Love, as Paul so eloquently pointed out in Corinthians.

I like some of Paul's writings. Ephesians, for example, is quite beautiful. And I don't think his take on slavery, women, or homosexuals is any different than what's in the Old Testament. Or that he "invented" Christianity. One may struggle with what is said in the Bible about various issues, but I don't think Paul can be blamed for the thousands of years of thinking and writing that preceded him. The issue, it seems, would be with Judaism, not Paul. I guess the question is, how much Judaism did Paul inject into the teachings of Jesus? But this is also the man who wrote "All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful."

Whatever, I think you nail it when you talk about him being the first systematic thinker on what Jesus taught us.

In a sense, maybe Paul the saint isn't so different from Sir Paul, the Beatle. "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" may make me want to throw the stereo out the window in disgust, but I would never want Paul to have NOT been a Beatle. His voice (and I mean in overall presence and influence) is essential to the Beatles. Nor can I imagine the Bible or Christianity without the writings of the earlier Paul. (Funny, their characters actually do seem similar, don't they?)

Your annoucement, btw, is classic. Very, very well-done.

cowboyangel said...

Oh, was the "unlikely source" you mention in the subtitle the Eastern Orthodox church and their concept of Theosis? I'd like to hear more on what that is and how it influenced you.

Jeff said...


Remember, "All You Need is Love" is Johannine, not Pauline. :-)

The unlikely source was no the E.O. This will be inseveral parts, so I'll get to that later.

Great post. I'll respond more in depth later. I love doctrinal Beatles discussions.

Hi Crystal,

Yeah, Paul was always talking pneuma (spirit) over flesh, wasn't he? Elaine Pagels once wrote a book called The Gnostic Paul. She thinks everybody was a gnostic, though. She's a gnostic herself. :-)

Don't forget that a lot of that stuff that you don't like about St. Paul was written not by him, but written later in his name when the monarchical episcopate was taking shape (authority was being established over a more free-wheeling movement).

Whose fatalities are you laying at Peter's feet? Ananias and Sapphira from Acts? Who else? Don't forget about him lopping off Malchus' ear either. Jesus had to clean that one up for him. :-)

cowboyangel said...

Sure, John wrote the best known tract on love, and being more of a Johannine Beatles fan, I think he consistently wrote better works on love, but I was thinking of "Oh Darling!," "And I Love Her," things like that. The Gerogian works on love are also quite good. Even St. Francis Sinatra loved "Something."

But I'm pulling this away from the real topic at hand. Sorry! One of us needs to post on the Beatles, however. Gotta get all this off my chest.

crystal said...

Will - I don't think his take on slavery, women, or homosexuals is any different than what's in the Old Testament. .... you make my point for me.

Jeff - Yes, Ananias and Sapphira. Jesus went through three years of public miistry, including getting murdered, and never knocked anyone off. Peter's in control for three months (actually don't know how long :-) and decides to make an example of some backsliders.

Jeff said...

You know Crystal, I never really thought about that. Jesus never struck anyone dead, save perhaps for the herd of swine over the cliff. As for Peter... Was it a "sign and "wonder" on his part that did it, or a self-inflicted offense against the Holy spirit? Either way...

Jeff said...


Regarding your Paul problem...

I’ve always found that the Johannine epistles were a good exegetical corrective to the possibility of a glucosamine overdose being adminstered to the laity through the Pauline missives. For example, we’ve always needed correctives like “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” to those saccharine epistles such as “Hello Goodbye” . If not for the Johannine influence, Paul’s most well-beloved working pastoral letter title would have remained “Scrambled Eggs”, instead of “Yesterday”. There were even times that a letter issued by Paul should have been read by John. A Johannine vocal on “Oh Darling!” would have worked much better than the Pauline vocal, but the workaholic control freak just had to “prove” that he could “out-Johaninne” John.