One of my first discoveries after going through a year of BCP was that the readings are from the epistles and the gospels with the rare exception to prove the rule. Off hand I can remember one reading from Isaiah and I am too lazy to go back through and count the exceptions.
I had a time of fellowship with a couple of retired priests, one being my father. One of them made the comment that we tend to read the Gospels through the lens of the Epistles – especially Paul’s letters – rather than the Epistles through the lens of the Gospels.
I know that for a number of scholars the fact that Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels speaks to them of the Epistles being closer to the teachings of the early church. But let us consider this. Paul, after his conversion took off to Arabia for three years. He did not go to the people closest to the source – Jesus. We are not sure what exactly he did for those three years. We also know that Paul was often on the outs with the disciples who experienced Jesus in the flesh. Paul did not spend a lot of time in Jerusalem, closest to the source, but was a Jew of the Diaspora. That coloured a lot of his thinking and the lens through which he saw Jesus. I am beginning to wonder if we can legitimately base our understandings of the early church and its understandings of Jesus based on Paul’s letters. Maybe James’ letter is actually a better lens (and I will admit to a bias for James’ letter).
Of course being of a more Protestant tradition – I grew up in a more evangelical Anglican congregation (although my father’s early mentors were more of a Anglo-Catholic background which makes my background an interesting mixture) – Paul’s letters very much influenced the theology with which I grew up – maybe not so much the theology I learned from my parents but definitely the theology of the Church around me. My background has always held me in a creative tension with those letters. The social justice – action in the world – keeps me closer to James (and let us remember the Paul had real issues with the Church in Jerusalem headed by James) but I worshipped in a world dominated by Paul. My colleague's comment about reading the Gospels through Paul’s letters made sense to me in my current challenges with the Church.
Part of the tension is the recognition that as much as I have problems with Paul, it is probably due to Paul’s reaching out to the Gentiles that Christianity eventually flourished. (or maybe I am doing God a dis-service. It may well have been that another vehicle would have been found and it would have been a different base on which Christianity flourished – who knows.)
Another of my more current understandings of Paul is that for Paul the end times were just around the corner. I am currently reading Diarmaid MacCaulloch’s Christianity The First Three Thousand Years. On page 114 he writes:
… Christianity was not usually going to make a radical challenge to existing
social distinctions. The was that Paul and his followers assumed that the
world was going to come to an end soon and so there was not much point
in trying to improve it by radical action.
… He made notably little reference in his letters to the ‘kingdom of God’, that concept of a radical turn to world history which had meant so much to Jesus and had accompanied his challenge to so many existing social conventions.
Paul only experienced Jesus in a personal revelation rather than in community and incarnation. He was very Jewish and it can appear that he fit his understandings of Jesus into that tradition. He did not benefit from travelling and listening to Jesus and having Jesus challenge his understandings as Jesus did for the disciples.
So we end up with a lens of focus on personal salvation with end times coming soon. Although, to be fair, one can see a dealing with the failure of the end times to come in Paul’s later letters. Sometimes, when I read the letters, I wonder if there is real continuity with the Gospels.
The Church became preoccupied with individual salvation. My colleague made another interesting point. Paul’s understanding of atonement was largely based on the Fall or original sin. We now understand those stories to be myths - attempts to understand how in a world created by God there can be so much wrong. Paul’s understanding was that Jesus’ main role was to bring about the return to our origins before the eating of the fruit. In the main, Paul’s emphasis was on living a life of personal rightness – not so much calling society to account.
I happen to believe that as well. But I see it more through the lens of the prophets. Somehow, something went wrong in creation. Probably it had a lot to do with humankind’s wilfulness. I see the law trying to set guidelines/rules about how to live in a manner that benefits all of creation. The Ten Commandments are very important in how to live individually within community but the Law is more than the Ten. It also looks at living as a community in a larger context.
I love the Summary of the Law in the BCP – ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ When saying morning prayer at the 10:30 service I almost always use the Hear, O Israel rather than the Apostles’ Creed. It places God at the centre but speaks to the fact that we can only have God placed at the centre when we live in right relationship with those around us. Paul does have some insights as to how to live that out in context of Christian community but maybe not so much on how to live and effect change in the context of living in and transforming the larger community around us.
My colleague suggested that we should actually be reading the Epistles through the lens of the Gospel rather than vice-versa. It makes sense to me. In that light, I can see how Paul enriches our understanding of living our faith incarnationally in our faith communities and in the larger communities around us.