St. Paul's passes the test of time

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • May 9, 2008

{mosimage}As a Lenten discipline, I re-read the earliest documents of Christianity, namely the letters (or Epistles) of St. Paul. It is easy to forget that when Paul wrote these letters there were no Gospels, nor anything else of what today we call, with easy familiarity, the New Testament. My purpose was to see if, across two millennia, St. Paul’s authentic voice could still be heard.

As a relatively recent Catholic convert, I wanted to understand Paul’s view of the church at such an early stage of the Christian story.

The first thing that struck me was how certain Paul’s message is. Since Paul had never read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, how could he be so sure? Then I realized — of course, Paul had better sources than manuscripts; he had, first, his own personal encounter with Christ on the Damascus road; second, he had eyewitness accounts of the disciples, those men and women who were closest to Jesus during His earthly ministry, those who had stood mute, their hearts breaking with sorrow, at the foot of the cross, men who had peered into the empty tomb, those who had encountered the risen Lord in His mysterious post-Resurrection appearances. 

So forget the Gospels, Paul could have said, “I had eyewitnesses, in some cases those who wrote the Gospels, to rely on.” This, I believe, is what accounts for the unmistakable authority of Paul’s teaching.

Second, I was struck by what a hodgepodge of news, admonition, reproof and teaching the letters collectively consist of. Take, for example, chapter 15 of the first letter to the church at Rome. It is a profound meditation on humility and grace, a spirited defence of Paul’s unique mission to the Gentiles, but it is followed immediately by the kind of greetings and thanks (c. 16) that anyone living abroad might write back to an extended family. Nor is this a trivial point; at this early stage it is already clear that the analogue for the church is family — “the family of God” gathered in a particular location. When the church is understood as family, the answers to certain important questions, such as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbour?” become much clearer.

Third, I reminded myself that St. Paul wrote during the reign of the emperor Nero, a ruler who makes even our pathetic politicians appear almost bearable, indeed benign by comparison. St. Paul urged the early Christians to be respectful of, and subservient to, earthly authority (Romans 1, c.13, v. 1-7). As one who finds it often difficult to render anything unto Caesar except contempt, this is a hard and chastening teaching. Yet St. Paul is clear about it, and I must strive henceforth to be more respectful of those set in authority over me.

Then, too, I noticed that Paul is the first ecumenist. To the church in Corinth, he asks: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” In other words, there is one Lord and there is one church.

But the Christian church is today divided into a thousand denominations and sects. St. Paul wanted unity; but it is clear that such unity was not to be achieved by levelling down to the lowest common denominator of belief. 

In other words, Paul was not a precursor of the World Council of Churches approach to ecumenism. Instead, Paul repeatedly challenges the early churches to remember by whom they were called. Ecumenism is to be found not in the valley of compromise but on the high hill of orthodoxy. So, Catholics are correct to pray, with Christ, that “all may be one,” as Christ and the Father are one, but Catholics are no less correct to insist that unity be achieved on truth not on theological bafflegab.

My final reflection on re-reading Paul’s Epistles is this — what a superlative writer he was! Utterly original, flashing verbs, apt similes, subtle metaphors and with the ability to lodge a phrase imperishably in human memory. There are so many examples of this, but I will restrict myself to quoting my own favourite, what I have come to consider the authentic voice of this first missionary of the Christian Gospel (1 Corinthians c.13):

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

(Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London.)

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