Recently in a Bible study at Revesby, I invited participants to share some of their struggles.
I nominated the writings of Paul. (You may be aware I rarely preach on them.)
Especially in Protestantism, his writings have had a profound influence on theology and spirituality.
Their power is pervasive.
Years ago, I wrote a thesis on Latin American liberation theology. I was captivated by its passion concerning ‘good news for the poor.’
I was sharing this with a conservative, Christian friend; his reply, ‘But the poor are still sinners and need to repent.’
His input stopped the conversation dead. I felt quite deflated.
Sin, works, faith, repentance, conversion, salvation… These are some of the tropes that have arisen from Paul’s letters.
Many theologians, scholars, and laypeople view Paul’s letters, especially Romans, as propounding a universal schema, and condemnation of, the human condition. (‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Romans 3:23)
(Please note that these tropes inexorably lead to a form of anti-Judaism, if not incipient anti-Semitism.)
For me, these tropes are spiritually diminishing, and at odds with the ministry of Jesus. In the past, I found the best way to deal with them was to set them aside.
I’m now re-engaging Paul’s letters because I have discovered a reliable guide, a scholar by the name of Stanley Stowers.
In working through his insights, which are dense as well as compelling, I have become aware that while I disagree with those tropes, it’s hard to dislodge them.
Paul’s letters have fallen prey to the human tendency to generalise from one set of experiences, and writings, to universal constants, which are assumed to define humanity for all time.
Stowers argues that Paul was not in the business of generating universal truths about humanity. Instead, he was addressing a vexed issue in the life of the early Jesus movement – how should Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome regard Gentiles who had joined this movement?
The issue was particular and contextual. Losing sight of that, we become more susceptible to timeless dogma.
These tropes, this timeless dogma, blind us to contradictions. Paul is well-known for declaring all humanity to be sinners. (Although it was only later that Augustine propounded the Doctrine of Original Sin.)
However, in Romans 2:14-16, Paul makes clear that Gentiles do obey the demands of the Law, even without having the Law.
Such contradictions indicate the need for a different interpretation of the text. (There are many more, but space does not allow me to elaborate. Look at Philippians 3:6, in which Paul asserts of himself, ‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’)
Contradictions, at least when recognised, are uncomfortable, hard to keep in focus. (How might we hold together, Rom 2:14-16, Rom 3: 23 and Phil. 3:6?)
Oddly, they may be a gift, a sign of grace, an invitation to re-examine previously held positions.
I’m in the middle of this, still struggling, but a pathway ahead is visible.