Don’t Let the Fact That Paul’s Letters are Now Christian Scripture Undermine Their Message and Authority!

Paul, in his time, made a case for relaxing Scriptural stipulations about the need for anyone within Abraham's household to be circumcised in order to be part of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). He did the same with regard to the people of God being called to observe the things written in the Law of Moses, i.e. Scripture as it existed in his time. When he did so, he himself could not simply declare his own writings Scripture so that it was Scripture against Scripture. He made his case, as well as he could. Later, the largely Gentile church which benefitted from his case elevated his writings to the status of Scripture as a result.

It would therefore completely miss, even undermine, the point of Paul's letters to now say, as Paul's opponents did in his time, “You can't include THOSE people in the people of God – that's contrary to Scripture!” For the whole thrust of Paul's writings has as its central pillar the conviction that God can enlarge his people and be still more inclusive than he had been in the past, even if it means setting aside commands that he had previously given to his people.

When conservative Christians use the current Scriptural status of Paul's letters to undermine or distract from what those letters were in the first place, when they were written, they are in using their canonical status not to elevate the authority of Paul's writings, but to avoid their radical implications, and the transformations they might lead us to make as a church in our own time, were we to understand what they are about and take them seriously.

I have written before about this, calling this the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to Scripture. It is a popular approach among conservative Protestants, who are willing (at least in principle) to do what Scripture says (although in practice they manage even so to dilute or ignore its radical teachings about things like wealth and possessions, for instance). But to ignore that these texts became Scripture because they made a persuasive case, and did not when they were first written persuade because they already had scriptural status, risks missing the point of those writings. It allows people to take for granted the inclusion of those who are already in in their time, and draw fast and rigid boundaries excluding others, even though the whole essence of some of those writings was to accomplish precisely the opposite.

So don't let the fact that Paul's letters are now Christian Scripture lead you to miss their powerful, radical, inclusive, and at that time arguably “unbiblical” teaching. Otherwise, you are liable to line yourself up alongside the opponents of Paul against those who are making a case akin to the one Paul made nearly two thousand years ago, those of us who allow the most fundamental Christian principles to challenge us to accept those whom God accepts, even if it means setting aside some texts that were previously used to define a narrower and more restrictive community in the past.

 

  • Straw Man

    Would you say that Paul’s ability to do miracles was a particularly convincing reinforcement of his arguments? And is it bit disingenuous to relegate Paul to nothing more than the sum of his arguments–as if perhaps this blog, or some other clever argument, might someday be incorporated into the scriptures of the 23rd Century?

    Or is that not an assumption of liberal Christianity? I’m not completely aware of the assumptions underlying liberal Christianity. I’m more aware of the assumptions of conservative and fundamentalist Christians, although I’m not one myself. If you believe in a Paul-who-couldn’t-do-miracles, and don’t believe the Holy Spirit gifts were a real phenomenon in the 1st Century, then it would make sense to conclude that Paul’s view prevailed by force of argument alone.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      In Galatians, Paul argues precisely on the basis of their experience of miracles (what exactly he has in mind is not specified) and their experience of the reception of God’s Spirit, drawing the inference from their religious experiences that God had accepted them as they were, uncircumcised and without adopting the details of the Jewish Law and the practices it requires. And so then, as now, one can make an argument that appeals to religious experience. The verbal argument and religious experience seem very much intertwined, in at least some instances.

      • Straw Man

        OK, then doesn’t that distinguish Paul’s argument for including gentiles, with modern arguments for inclusiveness? Paul not only made a convincing argument; he backed it up by pointing to Gentiles speaking in tongues and prophesying. Is an argument structured similarly to Paul’s going to be equally convincing without that kind of support today?

        Your point is well taken that Paul’s letters had no intrinsic authority, not yet being “scripture.” But Paul’s words had a quasi-scriptural authority conferred by the fact that he was recognized as having Holy Spirit gifts that attested his message. He invoked this when he said things like, “says the Lord, not I.” We could not write a similar call for inclusiveness punctuated with “says the Lord, not I!” Nor could we appeal to our status as an apostle, as he regularly did, nor to our miraculous powers (or our hearers’ miraculous powers, conferred by laying on our hands).

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          When Paul says “Not I, but the Lord” he is referring to the teaching of Jesus, which he distinguishes from his own determination about a matter not addressed directly by Jesus. Christians today can and do draw on the teaching of Jesus, and distinguish it from their own, in the same way. Pentecostals can point to gay and lesbian Christians speaking in tongues to make a point like Paul’s in the sense you refer to, while other denominations might more likely refer to the fruit of the Spirit than spiritual gifts. But if your point is that most Christians, particularly in non-Pentecostal and non-Charismatic contexts, would not claim that God is speaking to and through them as directly as Paul did, then on the whole that is true.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dewayne.guyton Dewayne Guyton

    Here’s my 2 cents. It has nothing to do with Paul. It has to do with being a CHRISTIAN. First, there is NO SUCH THING as a Liberal Christian. How can you LIBERALLY believe what the Bible says. You either BELIEVE or you don’t! You either believe that sin is sin and the message is simple, to repent and sin no more or you pick and choose out of the Word of God what you will believe and you will be “spewed out of his mouth” and he will never know you! For the record, there is also no such thing as a homosexual Christian. To be a christian is to be CHRIST-LIKE. Christ was WITHOUT sin. If you are KNOWINGLY living a sinful lifestyle and UNWILLING TO LEAVE THAT LIFESTYLE, Christ is NOT in you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      So your stance is that Paul was not a liberal Christian, but no Christian at all, since he clearly did not believe what Genesis 17 said, about no one being able to be part of Abraham’s household and the covenant with him unless they were circumcised?

    • EdM01

      Thank you Dewayne for proving that being a gay Christian is like being a Jewish Nazi.
      Now, ‘splain how Jesus healed the gentile Centurion’s slave boy (slaves were used sexually back then, that’s how it was), ‘splain the extent to which He loved Lazarus was noted amongst His fellow Jews, and ‘splain the beloved disciple, whose relationship with Him even the other disciples found remarkable.

  • Lucian

    Paul himself doesn’t seem to have shared your opinion concerning the implications of his writings. ( In the same vein, one could also argue to allow the consumption of human flesh when preaching the Gospel to cannibals, inasmuch as “Paul would’ve done the same !” ).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I do not follow your reasoning. Would you care to explain your point further?


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