After a week of snow, my city of Dundee returns to comparative warmth. This morning’s blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
THE LETTER OF PAUL TO THE
1Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—2and all the members of God’s family* who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
There Is No Other Gospel
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.8But even if we or an angel* from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant* of Christ.
Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased16to reveal his Son to me,* so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Paul was adept at operating in the greater intellectual freedom of the gentile world, away from the restrictive orthodoxy of Pharisaic Judaism. But there were drawbacks to winning converts in places where there was no thought control: others could come and turn your converts towards their thinking.
Paul is dealing with just such a situation in his letter to Galatia. My own research leads me to think that Paul had a special bond with the Celtic inhabitants of the remote province of Galatia, which fuels his sense of personal betrayal, when he receives a report that they are turning towards some kind Jewish legalism which involves male circumcision. In combatting their “unfaithfulness” as he sees it he uses a very dangerous argument which has a bad subsequent history in Christianity: “those who are leading you astray are giving human teachings whereas my teaching comes directly from God.”
This leads him to give the only personal testimony we have about his own conversion. It lacks all the colour given it by the author of Luke/Acts, but is very clear on two matters. Firstly he acknowledges that his own eminence in religion led him to persecute the Christian assemblies; and secondly, he describes his conversion as a divine revelation of Jesus Messiah “to me” or as it might be better translated, “in me”. This revelation, he says, is almost identical to his calling as a messenger to the gentiles.
Can we approve of this type of argument which can look just like the kind of spiritual bully boy tactics which have disfigured the Christian Church over the centuries, leading to Christians killing each other in the name of Jesus?
I think we must disapprove of Paul’s argument while approving his conviction that something fundamental was at stake in Galatia.
It can never be good enough in any dispute amongst Christian believers to claim immediate divine revelation for one’s own view. It was surely not true of Paul whose conversion had doubtless been influenced by the faithful discipleship of those he was persecuting, who stuck to their faith in Jesus although it meant pain or death at the hands of his thugs. Nowhere in his writings as we have them, does Paul speak about them at all. Yet it must have been through them that he came to his theology of the suffering Messiah Jesus, who died for us while we were all still sinners, just as Paul’s victims suffered for him while he was still a persecutor. Moreover although he may not have received early instruction from the chief apostles, surely he gained his knowledge of Jesus and the gospel from the ordinary believers in Damascus and other places.
So we must accuse Paul of gross exaggeration when he rules out a human contribution to his conversion and grasp of the faith. Nevertheless, I think his conviction of a special calling from God cannot just be dismissed. The revelation of Jesus in him is intimately linked to his mission to the gentile world. In fact we might say that the revelation of Jesus Messiah in him the Jewish rabbi, is specifically the revelation that this Jesus is for all the world and not just for Jews. The way the glad tidings of Jesus break through the arrogant righteousness of Paul is simultaneously the way they break through the confines of Judaism into the rest of the world.
Paul is saying that the divinity of Jesus and of his own revelation is precisely its inclusiveness. Anything, like circumcision or Jewish Torah or as in the case of the Corinthians, divisions between those with the “knowledge” and those without it, that denies the all-inclusiveness of God’s love through Jesus, is anathema.
If we claim that our truth is immediately given by God, we are at best mistaken (like Paul) and at worst dangerously arrogant (like those who burnt heretics); but if we take our stand on the all-inclusiveness of God’s love against all attempts to exclude some sorts of people, then we ally ourselves with the great Apostle Paul through whom the gospel found its way to Galatians and Irish and Scots and Zimbabweans and Americans. The real “catholicity” of the church is just this divine all-inclusiveness, rather than any Roman or Orthodox or Protestant claims to be king of the swingers.