Your support is helping expand Progressive Christianity. We are one of the largest sources for progressive theological perspectives, as well as our thousands of resources. It is hard to overstate their value – every time you donate it expands our ability to do all those essential offerings even better. DONATE NOW!

What is your opinion of St Paul?

 

Question & Answer

 
Q: By Ali
 
What is your opinion of St Paul?
 
A: By Dr. Carl Krieg
 

Thank you, Ali, for your question. I would like to respond on a variety of levels.

1.  Through the ages, the church has confirmed a number of writings as “scripture”, including the Hebrew writings, also known as the Old Testament, and the Christian Writings, also known as the New Testament. They were never intended to be worshipped as inerrant or infallible. The concept of inerrancy arose after the Enlightenment when Protestant Orthodoxy declared that the tools of literary criticism could not be applied to the Bible, because it was the revealed and inerrant word of God. Even Luther, whose Reformation cry was “sola scriptura”, by scripture alone, believed that the book of James was an “epistle of straw” and that the book of Revelation should never have been included in the writings. So the first point is that the letters of Paul, just like the rest of the Bible, are not inerrant. In all actuality, he thought he was writing letters to congregations he had founded.

2.  Paul did not write every letter attributed to him in the Writings. It is pretty much agreed that the only letters Paul wrote are Philemon, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, and Philippians. Not only that, but even some verses in these letters were inserted later, such as those in Corinthians that denigrate women. Paul writes in Galatians that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. In other words, in Christ all are equal. If you compare that to the writing of the later first century, such as 1 Timothy, it is absolutely clear that the orthodox church turned away from Paul, asserting that slaves should obey their masters, women should obey their husbands and be quiet in church, and that everyone should obey the government and its backers.

3.  The idea that Jesus was a sacrifice to an angry God and that he died on the cross to atone for our transgression seems prominent in Paul’s letters. Protestant theologian John Cobb, however, has studied the Greek forms of the word “sacifice” and has concluded that it is most likely that Paul did not intend the word to be used as blood sacrifice. He concludes instead that Jesus sacrificed himself just as a leader of a cause would sacrifice himself to inspire and lead his followers. This interpretation is certainly more palatable to modern sensibilities, but even if Paul had intended to interpret Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to the Almighty, we are free to disagree. To refer back to point number one, the Bible is not inerrant, and this applies to Paul as well as all the other writers. We must not forget that it was only St Anselm in the 12th century who proposed a logical explanation for such a primitive interpretation of the death of Jesus.

4.  In my mind, the real question to be considered in understanding Paul, is why in the world he was so excited. Good Lord, he was absolutely committed to traveling the world and spreading the “good news”! What was he so excited about? The disciples were excited because they had found in Jesus what it meant to be a truly human being, filled with love for one another, and awake to the presence of God that surrounded them. They believed that even though he had been crucified, Jesus was still alive in their midst, absolute proof that the evil manifest on Good Friday was overcome by the power of divine love, and that God ultimately makes all things right. They believed that. And Paul, certain that he had been encountered by the risen Christ, was as certain as were the first disciples. He is risen, and we are a new creation in him. That, for Paul, was a story worth his life to tell.

~ Dr. Carl Krieg
 
About the Author
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

Review & Commentary