Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Real Paul?

 “We are not all Apostles, who were sent by a firm decree of God (certo Dei decreto) to us as infallible teachers (infallibiles doctores). Hence they cannot err, but we can, and we can be deceived in our faith, since we lack such a decree of God.”

Think of Paul the apostle and what comes to mind?
  • The love chapter.
  • The profound theologian.
  • The doctrine of grace.
  • Freedom in Christ.
It's a starry eyed approach, reinforced by the deep respect with which Paul's writings are read, whether in the lectionary cycle of mainline churches, or as proof texts hauled out to prove a preacher's point beyond any shadow of doubt.  Though most of us might never refer, as Luther did, to certo Dei decreto or infallibiles doctores, many of us begin with that very presumption.

But as anyone knows who has actually bothered to read Paul in context, he was at times - and one is tempted to say most times - a thoroughly egotistical and cantankerous old sod.  He is self obsessed, vain, sarcastic, irritable, uncharitable toward others, abusive and authoritarian.  He even falls out with his close colleagues, Barnabas is the obvious example along with John Mark, unless they are firmly submissive under his commandeering apostolic thumb.  He goes ballistic at the slightest hint of criticism.  We even suspect that he's not above inventing a few stories - or at least stretching the truth - in a good cause... his cause.  Few epistles demonstrate this more relentlessly than 2 Corinthians (chapters 10 -13).

Things are not going well in Corinth.  Along with some genuine concerns, which are quickly dealt with, the really big issue seems to be that locals have dared to criticise Paul and show some independent thought.  The apostle is clearly irritated and in no mood to take prisoners.  While claiming not to boast, Paul lets rip with a series of boasts to put his 'opponents' (who are actually fellow Christians) in their place.  You have to wonder what the Corinthians side of the story was, but of course we have no access to that.

Pastoral concern or just a massive hissy fit?  Whichever, the author of the love chapter didn't practice what he preached.  Of course Paul, like everyone else, was "only human."  But that's the very point where Luther throws out the anchor: certo Dei decreto and infallibiles doctores.

We can read Paul with the deepest respect, but it isn't possible to factor out his idiosyncrasies or his humanity.  Firm decrees and infallibility?  Not so likely.


  1. Paul is the author of Christianity. He is probably a person that most would not have liked very much in person. He was the kind of zealot that said he "beat himself into submission." He used the Old Testament to make it mean what it never meant. He misquoted it and stretched parts beyound repair to make his points. When "all Asia" forsoke him, he seems not capable of wondering why. For a Hebrew of the Hebrews and the smartest Pharisee in the box among his peers, he sure used the Greek a lot to makes his Hebrew points.

    For a man who never met any earthly Jesus, never quotes one ,whose Christ was crucified in the heavens and never seems to have recently actually lived and learned nothing from the Jerusalem Apostles, he sure gets a lot of the say in what it's all about.

    He was a man who seems not to have known that the earthly Jesus is said to have said, "Go ye there fore into all the world" and as a result spends way too much time trying to prove that Abraham, the father of the circumcision, was really the father of the uncircumcised.

  2. Hey Gavin, You new template dumped your side bar and all the fun references I use to get. If I were Paul, I would use old sort of self-righteous accusations against you, but I will resist. :-)

    Couple issues:

    To accurately just "Paul" it may be helpful to sort out the "Real" Paul with the same vigor that the Jesus seminar sought out the "Historical" vs "Mythical Jesus"?

    For instance, many of the Epistles ascribed to Paul were forged: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thess, 1 & 2 Tim, Titus. And Hebrews was "mistakenly" attributed to Paul. (See here)

    Also, wasn't the "Love Chapter" also considered not written by Paul but a pre-Christian love poem that was borrowed into Corinthians?

    Now, if Paul proves cranky and irritable and mean after all that initial winnowing, fine. But I am curious what the difference would be.

  3. In a way, I wonder if we would notice these character thingies related to St. Paul, if we hadn't witnessed exponentially worse through Herbert W. Armstrong. The reason I say this is that for the people at the church which I currently attend, such things seem to be completely below the radar. That aspect is simply never discussed, although Paul's background and circumstances are from time to time.

    In spite of these "quirks" (for lack of a better term), I do find much of spiritual value in Paul's teaching, and a lot of common sense and encouragement. In fact, it is through his writings that we can most clearly understand the error in the teachings of the WCG! I don't know that I'd want to repudiate that.

    Of course I'm able to make those statements from the comfortable position of our own era, and of not having had any personal interactions with Paul. Still, I can't see his behavior as quite falling to the level of HWA's.


  4. Sabio, no new template, at least not recently. The sidebar is still there. You may want to try loading in a different browser.

  5. so what did you think about my comment on Paul?

  6. The thing that I like to keep in mind is that the writers of the NT did not write to enlighten but to deceive people.

    A person has to believe in the resurrection and the impossibility of it to think that Paul is writing to enlighten people. And, if a person thinks that, they have already been deceived by the same man they are looking to for enlightenment.

    In other words, it has already been presumed to be enlightenment. However, the evidence of what we can see with our own eyes tells us that this resurrection thing did not happen.

    Evidence and facts ARE enlightening things, however, fantasies enlighten no one and only serve to make deceptive people rich.

    Sorry, iron horse cowboy, I'm wise to con-men of all stripes anymore and I'll have a beer on that.

  7. Sabio, yeah I agree on the deuteropauline stuff and the anonymous authorship of Hebrews. I've also read that the love chapter is an interpolation, and not part of the original text, but would have to hit the reference books again to check the details.

    B-Bob, yep, those chapters in 2 Corinthians are particularly scary if read with the inflections and voice of a certain "pastor general" of unlamented memory. I wonder if Paul's jowls shook too?