Posted by: jadanzzy | October 22, 2008

Paul-bearer

My relationship with the apostle Paul fell through about 2 years ago by no fault of his own. I suspect it was collateral damage from the manipulation of his words for the selfish benefit of local churches I’ve been a part of (as opposed to the dynamism of the expression of believers). I found his words to be sapping of life. Along with my letting go of modernist contraptions like “biblical inerrancy” or “final authority of”/”plenary nature of” scripture, I also let go of the idea that Paul’s words held as much weight as Jesus’ ( yes, I used to believe that, so as to maintain the unity of the full authority of Scripture).

So, I essentially ignored Paul and his letters (authentic and/or otherwise). I created, in my mind, a picture of Paul as a self-obsessed, self-aggrandizing man. A man I could blame for Augustine’s obsession with sex and sexual purity. This was a man that caused much strife between Jew and Christian, man and woman, church leader and layperson. I didn’t want more of it. I thought it was better, at the time, to just focus on Jesus’ words since he is, after all, the Savior. It was my rebellious attempt to put Mr. Pharisee in his place. If I were to be honest with myself, it felt good to do so.

Things have changed, although maybe not in a way that would seem obvious.

After listening to Frank Viola scream and shout at a conference a while back about how we’ve misconstrued Paul’s words, it forced me to leave the door slightly ajar. While in no way endorsing Frank Viola’s agenda, his rants about how Paul was in no way obsessed about creating authoritative hierarchy in the church left me with questions in the vein of, “OMGWTF did we screw Paul over?” or “Did modernism destroy him too?”. Viola posited that Paul would form and visit communities of the Way, teach, empower, and then leave the communities take it upon themselves to incarnate Christ in a way that made sense to them. It was intriguing, at least for someone who’s believed Paul to “pope” around competing with Peter most of his formative life.

Since then, I wanted to give Paul more slack. Rather than seeing him as a self-important figure, I saw him as an emotional, desperate, and most importantly, passionate figure (read Romans). The guy was Nietzschean in his emotionalism. It was a fresh perspective. The guy just really cared. Then I found out that only half of the “Pauline” letters were truly authentic: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. On top of that, the texts that were more institutional and order-obsessed were less likely to be Pauline. Paul, in his nature, was extremely radical for his time. This man was truly converted.

This morning I was reading Philippians. While reading, I decided to see what the very authoritative biblical commentary, Wikipedia, had to say about the text. Apparently, the Philippian church was very poor. And the fact that they helped towards Paul’s finances made his letter to them all the more powerful to me. Very powerful. His letter reeked of love and affection, of care and concern. They were poor and oppressed, struggling to find their way as their beloved Paul was in chains. I wish I had known how to read Paul in this way earlier. I wish I would’ve read all of scripture in this way earlier. Paul, a diasporic Jew, full of academic and religious credential, initially believing that he was truly obeying God by thwarting the cult of Jesus Christ, wanting desperately to show the Jerusalem church that the Gentiles needed Christ in a different way, beatened, shipwrecked, chained, and killed under an oppressive system, has found a place in my heart again.

Frankly, it doesn’t make sense for me to view Paul as this monolithic source of authority. Rather, I see Paul as a phenomenally Godly man whose words still affect me and cause me to want to love and wrestle in the same way he did by the same grace of God he knew.

P.S. Reclaiming Paul is a great Pauline resource.

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Responses

  1. nice post, i agree with your description of paul.

    maybe it’s bc of where you’ve come and gone on the spectrum of weight on paul’s letters (from a hyper-inerrant view to outright rejection and then back to finding some redeeming value), a path that i haven’t traveled in my own thinking, but i don’t understand why you feel like contextual reading that accounts for authorship, circumstances, and culture detracts from the fact that it contains God’s message for people across the generations of human history, as if the meaning were obscured and only now, 2000 years later, is being restored.

    i feel like i’ve heard traditional evangelical exegesis of paul’s letters that involve a close study of culture and context, audience and authorship, to find the best meaning instead of lifting a literalist narrative from the letters on the page. but i have no problem interpreting every sentence with a clear understanding of culture and context.

    i tend to stop short when there is heavy scholarly speculation or debate, and weigh carefully rather than jumping in with one radically different interpretation. but i have no problem saying that the scriptures are a holy, canon product of the church as guided by the Holy Spirit to speak with authority to generations with mystery and power until Jesus returns.

    also, why do you make exception for the words of Jesus? while Jesus is a more important person in human history, are the literary methods ascribing the words and actions of Jesus somehow more reliable or passing more stringent muster? i’m just curious.

  2. It’s not that the literary methods ascribing the words of Jesus are more reliable, it’s the faith-guiding idea that these are the words of Jesus himself, who is the Messiah. If I were to follow in the same logical trajectory for Paul, it’d fail. Paul is not the Messiah.

    But there is a point that I see from your question. Even Jesus’ words are filled with human context. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the words of Jesus are really HIS words, but his words through the author.

    But one thing that Paul has that the Gospels don’t is the first-person narrative that always carries more authentic weight than a third-person account of a supernatural figure.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this.

  3. Guess a lot of the problem with Paul lies in the heavy handed application his words receive in some quarters. Few people appreciate the original context?

  4. its funny that the gospels have more weight than the letters at one point in your life… considering the gospels were written later and are basically made up of different rag tag stories of Jesus’ biography and sayings. The Pauline letters were written at the same time as their subject matter. The Gospels were written way after (close to 30-50 years) Jesus came.


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