Friday, July 30, 2010

Impeaching and Banishing St. Paul

In his introduction to J. B. Phillips' translation of the New Testament epistles entitled Letters to Young Churches (1947), C. S. Lewis offers thoughts on why liberal modernism pits Paul against Jesus, with the result that Paul gets impeached as an authority for Christian faith and life and banished from the progressive "canon within the canon" of scripture.

A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St. Paul. It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the gospels) and that St. Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the epistles). This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts came from the mouth of our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St. Paul. If it could be proved that St. Paul altered the teaching of his Master in any way, he altered it in exactly the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed. But there is no real evidence for a pre-Pauline doctrine different from St. Paul's.

The epistles are, for the most part, the earliest Christian documents we possess. The Gospels come later. They are not "the gospel," the statement of the Christian belief. They are written for those who had already been converted, who had already accepted "the gospel." They leave out many of the "complications" (that is, the theology) because they are intended for readers who have already been instructed in it. In that sense the epistles are more primitive and more central than the Gospels - though not, of course, than the great events which the Gospels recount. God's act (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection) comes first: the earliest theological analysis of it comes in the epistles: then, when the generation who had known the Lord was dying out, the Gospels were composed to provide for believers a record of the great Act of some of the Lord's sayings.

The ordinary popular conception has put everything upside down. Nor is the cause far to seek. In the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage at which you do not yet attack the King in person. You say, "The King is all right. It is his Ministers who are wrong. They misrepresent him and corrupt all his plans - which, I'm sure, are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect." And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself.

In the same way, the nineteenth-century attack on St. Paul was really only a stage in the revolt against Christ. Men were not ready in large numbers to attack Christ himself. They made the normal first move - that of attaching one of His principal ministers. Everything they disliked in Christianity was therefore attributed to St. Paul. It was unfortunate that their case could not impress anyone who had really read the Gospels and the Epistles with attention: but apparently few people had, and so the first victory was won. St. Paul was impeached and banished and the world went on to the next stage - the attack on the King Himself.

~ C. S. Lewis


Joe Rawls said...

I highly recommend Larry Hurtado's How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans 2005). From a close study of Paul's letters, he shows that it is quite reasonable to believe 1. the first Christians thought Jesus had risen bodily from the dead; 2. they thought he somehow shared in God' own divinity; 3. these beliefs were present within a few years of the Crucifixion (at the latest); and 4. these beliefs arose within the context of Second Temple Judaism and were not imports from Greco-Roman paganism. I am struck by the extent to which the Jesus Seminar fails to even engage with Paul's writings.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the summary of Hurtado's work, Joe. On your recommendation (via Facebook, I believe), I acquired a copy of his book and I've read about half of it. It goes a long way towards refuting those who argue that central claims of the Christian faith were "made up" by later Christians and that those claims obscure the "purity" and "simplicity" of the faith of the first Christians.

Anyone interested in more on Hurtado should check out my posting (with accompanying video) entitled, "How Did the First Christians Understand Jesus' Resurrection?"

BillyD said...

I got the book, too, but had only just started it when schoolwork drew me away. It's on my to-read list.

Bryan Owen said...

I'd love to know what you think of Hurtado's work when you get a chance to dig into the book, BillyD.