Understanding Paul, part 3

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stay true to the Lord. I love you and long to see you, dear friends, for you are my joy and the crown I receive for my work.” (Philippians 4:1 NLT)

SAN PABLO10When we read the Christian Scriptures, what has become known as the New Testament, we tend to read it as one narrative written either by the hand of God, or by hands that were dictated to and put into motion by God. In fact, all of the Bible is really read that way. While it is certainly true that the authors of the Bible were inspired by God and by there relationship with God, I think that the way we typically read the Bible takes away from the richness of the individuals who wrote it, as well as their individual contexts and communities. This is no more true than it is with Paul and his letters.

When we read Paul’s letters we read them as Scripture. We look to them for authoritative doctrine and structure for the church. We read them looking for how God wants us, as the church, to live and act. We look to them for the boundaries that make up “the church”, and we look to define what is Christian and contrast it to what IS NOT Christian. When someone says or believes something that seems to go against the rubric of the Pauline Scripture as we interpret it, we tend to distance ourselves from that person and his or her beliefs. Often time the word “heresy” will get thrown away and the label of “false teacher” or “false Christian” will get thrown around.

While I am not saying that we shouldn’t be looking toward Paul’s letters for spiritual guidance, and I am not saying that Paul’s writings aren’t authoritative or useful as a rubric against false beliefs, I am also cautious about using any Paul’s writings, or any Scripture, that way. Paul, at the time, was doing what I like to call “Situational Theology”. He had started a number of Christian communities around Asia Minor and other parts of the Roman Empire and, like in all churches, conflicts and theological disputes arose between different factions (aka cliques) in the church. In the Galatian church, he had Jewish Christians not wanting to accept uncircumcised Gentile Christians into their church community. In the church in Rome, he was dealing with Gentile Christians who were being inhospitable to the Jews in their community, among other things. In another letter, Paul is letting Philemon know that it is not cool to own slaves and that Philemon should let his slave, Onesimus, go free.

Paul, in essences, is writing Christian theological responses to specific situations within specific circumstances. As a Pharisee-turned-Apostle, he is using his understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to address the behaviors, conflicts and situations in the local church communities he established. I do not, for one minute, believe that Paul ever foresaw his letters being called “Scripture.” Nor do I think he’d be comfortable with that, especially in light of how his words have often been interpreted.

Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that Paul’s letter’s aren’t Scripture. They are because Christians have and continue to be divinely guided by Paul’s words. Nor am I saying that Paul’s words have no relevance to the church today. They obviously do, and they will continue to for all time. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need to understand the context of Paul’s letters, we need to understand the key theological components of Paul’s central and core beliefs as a Christian Apostle, in order for us to be able to appropriately interpret them in today’s time and context. As with all Scripture, it is not enough to just take the word’s of Paul literally and apply them in heavy-handed and graceless ways; rather, we need to be prayerful and open in our approach to understanding the divine wisdom in the words of Christianity’s most influential theologian.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” (Galatians 5:25 NLT)

PRAYER
Lord, raise me up into a messenger such as Paul. Fill me with your hope and send me to proclaim that hope, the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who are hunger and thirst for it. Amen.

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