The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Paul’s letters

An icon of Paul the apostleLibraries of books have been written on the letters of Paul. This syllabus highlights just a few significant passages from three letters for their significance in Christian theology and spirituality. While it is unlikely that Paul wrote all 13 letters in Christian scripture attributed to him by church tradition, it is likely that he wrote those under discussion here: 1 Corinthians, Romans and Philemon. (See What Paul Meant, by Garry Wills, for probably the best short discussion of Paul’s letters.)

Paul’s theology of the church with divine love as the basis for its life comes after lengthy discussion of problems agitating members of the church in Corinth, a Greek seaport infamous for its fleshly diversions. Paul’s letter seeks to establish his authority and provide guidance to the church, which leads to Chapter 12, in which he enumerates the variety of God-given spiritual gifts and argues that all of them operate to edify, or “build up,” the community, which Paul calls “the Body of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12.27) “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12.12-13)

This discourse leads into Paul’s sublime “Hymn to Love” in chapter 13. It is the “more excellent way” of life in community than merely acknowledging the multiplicity of gifts bound by unity in Christ. Without love, says Paul, spiritual gifts ring hollow; indeed, they may become pernicious and destructive without love that is patient, kind and not ever arrogant, boastful or rude. Love, moreover, is a sure path to self knowledge, knowledge of myself as God sees me. Faith, hope and love are the great virtues of Christian spirituality, but Paul says love is the greatest, perhaps because love precedes faith and hope; i.e., neither would be possible without love of God we learn in and through Christ Jesus.

Paul’s principal theme in Romans is faith, by which he interprets Jewish tradition and salvation history beginning with Abraham. He argues that faith not law justifies humanity before God. Historically, faith antedates law in the history of Israel; indeed, Paul argues that even Moses the lawgiver acknowledged that the righteousness of law did not foreclose God’s sovereignty over righteousness: “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.” (Romans 9.16) This argument may sound a little forced and tedious to contemporary ears, but it was vital to this period of Christian history as well as to subsequent generations of Christians. Paul’s letter to the Romans was fundamental to Martin Luther’s objection to “works of the law” in Roman Catholicism manifested by the sale of indulgences, which led to his challenging this practice on theological grounds and fueling the Protestant reformation. To this day, there exists a tension between one aspect of Christian tradition maintaining that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” as in the letter of James, and another claiming that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3.28) Anglican theology maintains that what’s “true” resides somewhere along the continuum between these two positions, and that while resolution of this debate is unlikely, truth is more likely in the middle of the stream than on either shore.

Apart from these high doctrinal matters, the Paul’s letter to Philemon gives us a brief but clear glimpse of a minor matter that, if writ large, becomes a veritable model for bringing all the “great doctrines” into play. It’s a letter to a Christian who owns a slave named Onesimus, whom Paul is sending back to his owner with the clear desire that the slave be set free. We know nothing of how the slave became Paul’s companion, but now that all these relationships are one in Christ, Paul pleads for Onesimus’ freedom on the basis of love. Roman law is clearly on the master’s side, especially if Onesimus was an escaped slave; but even if not, Philemon is under no legal obligation to honor Paul’s request. As an apostle of some repute in the Christian community, Paul might have ordered Onesimus’ freedom, but for the sake of continuing fellowship and friendship in Christ, Paul appeals “on the basis of love” and argues that the master-slave relationship is meaningless now that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers in Christ. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philemon 15-16) Paul’s letter to Philemon is a snapshot of the apostle’s vision for the world, a world in which there “is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28)


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