Finding the gospel in Paul’s letters

Some Sundays I find myself thinking about why the compilers of the Lectionary chose that day’s four Bible passages to go together. Sometimes it is obvious; other Sundays it is difficult to discern a pattern. Yesterday (the first Sunday in Lent) I found it easy to see the linkages. We began with Genesis and the story of Adam’s & Eve being tempted to eat the fruit of the tree they had been told not to touch – and giving in to that temptation. As a comment on that we had Psalm 32, the first half of which declares that those whose “sin” is forgiven by “the LORD” are happy. (The psalm explains that the way to obtain this forgiveness is to “acknowledge” or “confess” our “sin”, our “transgressions”.) Then (rearranging the order in which we heard the passages read) we had Matthew’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness but not giving in, not yielding to the temptations. And as an epistle reading we had Paul in Romans 5 developing his interpretation that Adam (why not Eve???) is a “type” of “the one who was to come” (i.e. Jesus Christ). Paul sees Adam as representative of the entire human race: when Adam “sinned” we all sinned. But Paul also sees Jesus Christ as a representative of the entire human race: because Jesus was “righteous” we are all given “the free gift of righteousness”; one man’s (i.e. Jesus’s) “act of righteousness” leads to “justification and life for all”.

There is ample room for differences of opinion as to my understanding of what I think Paul is saying. However, what intrigues me is why Paul is so unpopular at St. Bede’s Chapel – and in many other places as well. Those of us who have the opportunity to attend Sunday worship at St. Bede’s know that there is competition to volunteer to read the lectionary passages from the Hebrew scriptures or the Gospels – so as not to be left having to read Paul!

Paul’s argument about Adam and Jesus Christ being representative “types” suggests to me a starting point for an explanation of why we don’t find Paul congenial. The argument is strange, alien to our way of thinking. Even though it has a relentless logic, the basic premise is unconvincing.

Yet it has not always been so. Paul’s letter to the Romans (which also presents other arguments purporting to explain our “justification” – not just the “Adam our representative, Jesus Christ our representative” argument) has exercised a profound influence on the development of Christian doctrine and the history of the Christian Church. St. Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, John Wesley were all transformed by their reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Cardinal John Henry Newman, a man of towering intellect, used Paul’s “representative” argument in his great hymn (and, incidentally, opera libretto) Praise to the Holiest in the Height (the opera is The Dream of Gerontius):
“O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.”

Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Newman are themselves representative of Christian theological thinking down the ages: they all found a resonance in Paul’s arguments. Paul’s explanations made sense to them. But Paul seems not to strike the same chord for us: his arguments do not persuade us.

I think one reason lies in Paul’s masculine approach. Remember, he writes as if Eve wasn’t in the story (although he brings her in when it suits his purpose: in his first letter to Timothy he grounds his refusal to let a woman “teach or have authority over a man” partly on the fact that “Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”!) Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Newman were all men who lived in a male-dominated world: Paul’s reasoning made sense to them. We live in a world where feminism has opened our minds to new understandings and new ways of reasoning, and has corrected our sympathies and perspectives.

But it may be broader than our feminist enlightenment. We live in a post-modernist society. Like it or not, we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, influenced by post-modernism. We simply don’t approach issues in the ways of the past. We are not on Paul’s wavelength. It is hardly surprising that we don’t warm to arguments made by someone trained in the traditions of Pharisaism almost 2,000 years ago.

However, although Paul’s arguments and methods of reasoning may be alien to our ways of thinking, his gospel (his good news) is, I suggest, the same as ours. In the very first verse of his letter to the Romans he says that he has been set apart for “the gospel of God” – and he devotes the first half of the letter to explaining that gospel. And embedded in yesterday’s complex reading from Romans 5 there are clear statements of what that gospel is: it is a “free gift … that brings justification”. It is a gift that offers “abundance of grace and … righteousness” enabling us to “exercise dominion in life”. It is a gift that “leads to … life for all.”

I think we can find the “gospel of God” in Paul’s letters even though we don’t necessarily buy his reasoning or his prescriptions on other matters.

Andrew Brockett

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3 comments on “Finding the gospel in Paul’s letters

  1. Sylvia says:

    Another reason many of us dislike reading Paul is that we don’t like his writing style (or the way it’s been translated). It is frequently difficult to understand what he’s driving at, and the sentences are too long. There’s no flow to the reading — and we’d rather read something easier.

  2. andrewbrockett says:

    Fair enough. We are not alone in finding Paul difficult to understand. Whoever it was who wrote the Second Letter of Peter (I think most scholars agree that it wasn’t the Apostle Peter) wrote at chapter 3, verses 15 & 16: “… our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this [waiting for the second coming] as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand ….”

    Andrew

  3. awanthony says:

    This a well researched and well reasoned article which demonstrates to me that when it comes to bible passages we should look beyond our objections due to prose style or outdated perspectives because there is always something to discover from which we can learn. Thanks, Andrew.

    Alan

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