How are we to engage Paul’s letters? We have used Paul’s letters to defend our behaviors. But one of the questions I have wrestled with, particularly when I struggle with Paul’s perspective (or at least how the church has interpreted his perspective) is, what about Paul’s process of sanctification, and what does that mean then for his letters?
Two years ago I went to the Vatican. The Catholic tradition can be a bit foreign for those who grew up under the Protestant umbrella. I grew up Protestant and therefore, must confess, the Vatican was nothing short of personal disconnection. First of all, I have never found any inspiration in postmarking my prayers to Mary’s inbox. Nothing wrong with it I suppose. I have just never seen that in the Protestant Canon. So, to be sure, walking by scores of tourists “praying” homage to Mary and navigating around the sculptures and frescoes with her depiction did not find a homely place in my soul. The retelling of this experience is not an indictment on Catholic Church as much as it is a confession of my own personal ignorance.
On that same afternoon I hailed a taxi across town to the Roman Forum only to stumble upon a cave called the Mamertine. This was, allegedly, a cave Paul was held prisoner while in Rome. Within the dark, musky dungeon I suddenly became aware of a paradoxical fondness I had for this cavernous sanctuary.
Still living in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve begun questioning the warm affection I feel when reading Paul’s letters (and visiting his dungeons). When I say, “questioning” I do not mean doubting necessarily as much as I mean suspending my upbringing long enough to consider the matter as objectively as possible. It’s possible my upbringing may have led me closer to Paul teachings than to Jesus’!
This brings us to the crux of this article: How are we to engage Paul’s letters? We have used Paul’s letters to defend our behaviors. But one of the questions I have wrestled with, particularly when I struggle with Paul’s perspective (or at least how the Church has interpreted his perspective) is, what about Paul’s process of sanctification, and what does that mean then for his letters?
Now, let it be stated CLEARLY: I do not presume to be anywhere nearly as learned as Paul. Nor have I experienced a “theophany” or had face-to-face time with eye witness accounts. But I would not recommend my own teachings from six months ago to anyone due to how much I have since learned and grown. When I receive emails from someone saying, “I listened to your podcast on such and such from a year ago,” I think, “Oh my! I am so sorry!” If I, therefore, am changing through the process of sanctification, what must we conclude of Paul? How should we view his letters with sanctification in mind? It is not as if he thought of himself as writing Scripture when he was penning his letters.
Consider Paul’s approach to some sort of 3rd Heaven.* Recall that he, himself, did not know all mysteries. Yet we often regard his works as timeless truths. Consider Paul’s confession of doing what he did not want to do and not doing want he wanted to do^ (And this after his conversion). It seems evident that Paul viewed himself as being on journey, rather than one who had reached destination and forming doctrine for those still “in process.”
If Paul underwent sanctification (like all of the community of God), and he was unaware that he was writing Scripture at the time of authorship, why do we regard his Epistles as doctrine? By no means am I suggesting we disqualify his work as doctrine, but perhaps doctrine should not serve as our primary purpose for reading Paul. Additionally, I suggest Paul’s work be used primarily to show contextual examples of the way of love rather than the way of dogma. I am convinced that love and dogma were never meant to disagree, but some interpretations of Paul seem to lead its readers to arrogance and discrimination under the guise of religious justification.
So, Where do we go from here?
The opinions I have expressed above need not lead us to despair. Rather, it is my assertion that we (Protestants) acknowledge (and perhaps confess) our indictments toward the Catholic view of Mary is much the same as our devotion to Paul. Viewing Paul as a sojourner is appropriate. He should indeed have a voice in the church today. I believe his calling was unique, as all callings are, but the same Spirit no less. I also suggest Paul would have been surprised with the church’s attention of his contextual letters. Further, this man even considered himself the least of all Apostles.**
2. Re-center Jesus_
May we re-center the man-God, Jesus, with vigor, embracing the revelation and mystery of His life while keeping Paul in his proper place—as a follower of Jesus with wisdom to help shape the Church. But as Paul once said, it is foolish to follow Paul rather than Jesus.^^
The life of Jesus, through the Gospels, is intended to be read and re-read throughout the duration of life. Though Paul’s letters to the churches of the 1st century are meaningful, they demand continual re-interpretation. As much as we must engage Paul, a follower of Jesus must never leave the Gospels, as Jesus is our center and not Paul.
At this point a good Protestant (perhaps Reformed thinker like myself) may be thinking, “Yes, but are we not to imitate Paul as he imitated Christ?” This may be so, but when we have the life of Jesus before us through the Gospel accounts, it is vital we worship the Messiah rather than the one who speaks about Him.
3. A Means to Love, not End to Dogma_
May we view Paul’s writings not primarily as doctrine, but as letters from a man who was, himself, being sanctified. Within that perspective, Paul should lead us to great grace rather than arrogant dogma.
Paul’s letters were ultimately penned to hold the Church to the highest law of God—the sh’ma (Deut. 6:4) and the royal law (Lev. 19:18b). After all, it was Paul who suggested the greatest of all is love (1 Cor. 13:13). His direction, to be sure, included discipline, leadership, character, etc. But all of these fit into the compartment of growing in love, compassion and integrity—thus, God-likeness.
In the end, Paul’s writings should and were intended to promote the activity of love. If love is not the result of your reading of his letters, I suggest not that you put his Epistles down, but rather, that you read him differently in the perspective in which he should be read.
* 2 Corinthians 12:1-10
^ Romans 7:16,20
** 1 Corinthians 15:9
^^1 Corinthians 1:12