The Apostle Paul. Sigh. What can I say? Heretic? Gnostic? Apostle?
The guy takes a beating. If nothing else, the fact that his name is awash in confusion and fisticuffs, beloved by tyrants and saints alike is proof that there is much more to his message than can be deciphered in a “five week series on Romans” (thanks, old SGM church! They were big on series’s…so damn boring, I got a lot of daydreaming done).
This is a relatively short post. Here, we will take a deep look at the concept of “Law”. It’s not an easy thing to unwind. The Platonist thinking that anthropomorphizes abstract notions is tenacious to the point of being almost impossible to separate from man’s existential understanding in TOTAL. How many people here would acknowledge that the “laws of nature” are not merely a construct of man’s conceptualizing mind, but are ACTUAL. That is are THE cause of the effect of all actions of nature, even though you have never seen a law of nature, you have only seen nature?
Yeah. Pretty much every hand in the room.
Some days I’m convince that I could spend my time better in a bar.
When discussing the concept of “Law”, in this case, we’ll say a moral Law, as a standard measure of value (which I define as a combination of truth and morality (moral GOOD)), before we can jump right in to building a philosophy around the idea of “Law” we must first answer very specific questions. These questions will form our foundational presumptions and thus define the entirety of our metaphysical and epistemological approach to not only what we consider the standards of truth, but also how to enforce them…upon ourselves and, more importantly, upon other people.
This is good to understand. Whole nations of people have been wiped out because of how certain other people decided to answer these questions.
The understanding which forms the crux of any moral law is simply this:
Doing this thing (x) is GOOD.
So what are the obvious (or perhaps not so obvious) questions which must follow? The first is, of course: WHY is it GOOD? The second is, of course: WHAT is GOOD? Meaning that any idea which presents itself as a law must have a standard by which it is measured in order that doing it, whatever IT is, can be called “GOOD”. In other words, the act of doing it (A) must be in service to something (B), and that something then must be the root of WHY doing that thing is GOOD. A (the act) is GOOD because it is in service to B (the object). So we must define what exactly B is, which gives the law a right to declare that doing A is GOOD.
If B is the Law itself, meaning if the standard of GOOD is the Law itself, then that means anything NOT the Law is inherently and totally antithetical to GOOD (the root of the doctrine of Total Depravity). Which contradicts the notion that anything else NOT the Law can act in service to the Law. For the Law itself is the standard of value, and as such, anything else can only exist as a contradiction to it. If the Law itself is GOOD, and GOOD is absolute, then nothing else can be GOOD, and nothing else can DO GOOD, because GOOD cannot by definition proceed directly from that which is not GOOD.
So remember, the first question is WHY is doing it GOOD? The answer in this first example is: because the Law itself is GOOD. The act of obeying the Law is GOOD because, and only because, the Law itself is GOOD.
But that is a contradiction in terms. It is senseless. Because if the Law is GOOD itself, then any act of any outside agency (not GOOD) is redundant and irrelevant. The Law, being GOOD, does not need man to act in service to it, because it is already utterly and completely GOOD in and of itself. Bringing man into the picture can only ever present an offense to the pure GOOD of the self of the Law. Man cannot act in service to that which is already perfectly GOOD without him. Therefore, man can never do GOOD, for GOOD is not man, it is the Law. Man can do no GOOD because man is by definition outside of GOOD. All of man’s actions stem from a place which is NOT GOOD, because the Law is GOOD, and as such, any action of man, regardless of what it is or if the Law (contradictorily) says to do it cannot possibly be GOOD because any action will be in service to that which is already perfectly GOOD without him, rendering the Law itself a hypocrite, demanding GOOD but being GOOD without such action. So, crazy as it sounds, this is precisely the argument those who claim the Law as the source of God’s judgment upon mankind. The Law saying “do x or y” is the beginning and end of goodness. Man offers nothing to the Law. And thus of course the only way man can be reconciled to the perfect GOOD of the Law is to die. Non-existence is man’s only way of “existing” in peace with the absolute Law.
Now, alternately, if we say that doing A is GOOD because B is MAN…that is, humanity, then the perfect standard of GOOD is not the Law, but human beings. And if human beings ARE the standard by which the Law can be declared GOOD or not, then the Law itself as any source of self-derived morality becomes moot. It cannot in fact be a Law because a Law, in the moral sense, presumes obedience to IT as the prerequisite for moral behavior. Moral GOOD. But man, if man is the standard, cannot act in service to a Law in order to be GOOD (which he already is) but can only act then in service to himself, because HE is the standard of all GOOD. Making the Law itself as a LAW, again, moot. The Law may be instructive to man…it may teach him efficacious ways of affirming himself as the standard of GOOD, but it can no longer BE the standard which binds man. Which means that man is not declared righteous or unrighteous by how well he obeys the Law, but by how well he affirms himself and others for HIS OWN sake, for the sake of his LIFE, which is the standard, not the Law. Thus the Law now becomes “law”…for if the Law merely points to man as the standard of WHY obedience to the Law is GOOD, then obedience to the Law itself as the source of reward or damnation becomes moot and irrelevant. Behavioral actions become relative to the LIFE of the individual human being…actions demanded by the “law” now become contextual to the human being. Which again means that the law is NOT absolute, but MAN is. And thus all actions can only be observed as GOOD or EVIL insofar as they affirm that MAN has the right to his LIFE in any given context because his life is THE standard of all VALUE (morality and truth).
This, I submit is Paul the Apostle’s point, and as you can see, it is a difficult one to articulate. Those who might be quick to judge Paul for his confusing epistles would do well to offer him the benefit of the doubt. The good news is that he does, eventually, make the right argument. Salvation cannot logically be of the Law…it must be of Christ, because Christ represents the reinstatement of humanity as the plumb line of value by God, Himself; a removal of the Law which can only logically condemn men/demand their death as payment for its moral perfection. The bad news is that the argument in light of the juggernaut of Platonist thinking which so pervades Western thought to the point of it almost being utterly fused with man’s entire understanding of his own categorical existence, means that false teachers like Calvinists, James Jordan, and other gnostics will swarm to exploit the tedious argument to serve themselves like Yellow Jackets swarm trash cans. Given the difficulty of Paul’s task, I submit that Jesus had him pay for his crimes against humanity both physically and psychologically. In addition, he gets to go down in history as the most misunderstood, misrepresented, and exploited Christian in history, beloved by mystic despots everywhere.
6 thoughts on “The Apostle Paul’s Burden: The wisdom in ferreting out his message and extending him the benefit of the doubt”
I cured myself of this by going back to Jesus Christ and letting HIM interpret Paul for me.
Jesus Christ found value in the most despised ones of His time. He made himself lowly. The Platonist (Calvinist and even most evangelicals) start with Paul. Jesus seems to be an afterthought. They try and make Jesus fit into Paul which always leads to total confusion.
I honestly think that if folks understand Jesus Christ they cannot be any pointer of Calvinism scales. At the same time, we are all on a journey and I give the nice ones some leeway. But these punks running around telling people only they have the true Gospel and we must submit to them….well….my job is to warn folks about them and their ridiculous Pagan Greek caste system doctrine.
Jesus Christ made restoring the plumb line possible. It is up to us to do it.
You know what I think the problem folks have with Paul? They try to make him into a systematic theologian.
He was writing letters to people in different cultures with different situations. Not only that but Paul was a Jew, a converted Jew, writing in Greek to Gentiles who think in Greek cultural terms (and converted Jews and proselytes) but live under Roman rule. Whew!
Your last comment: perfect. That is a GREAT point. The more I read paul, and put away the gnostic interpretive assumptions that form the basis of most Western thought, the more I understand what he was trying to say. It is not an easy concept in light of the philosophical environment of the time, as you rightly point out, and that has only gotten worse.
Also, I am more convinced of the reason and veracity of Christ now. I feared evangelizing when is was a dead eyed Calvinist because I knew deep down in my rational brain (which was a dried out husk after 15 years in the SGM CJ Mahaney money machine) that I had absolutely no actual basis for what I believed. I knew that any half smart person could push me to cry “mystery!” in just a few chess moves.
That’s why these people eschew debates with people that have spent time thinking and studying. They are more scared of their own ideas than we think, I submit. It is this fear which ( (in part) drives them so quickly to tyranny and violence.
I highly recommend that book by Verduin, Anatomy of a Hybrid. I am only on chapter 3 because it is an intense read that I have to go back over several times to process, highlight and check out on my own. But he starts from a different perspective on what you are talking about.
He makes the dichotomy a “sacral vs a composite” society. Ironically God started with Abraham to move away from a sacral socity and one thing he points out that has always bothered me was how we read the OT. We read it as the Jews were the chosen people and exclusive as in….don’t mingle with bad guys. We “over read” God, I think. God has a “chosen” people to be light in the world but they end up being like the bad guys over and over. (Sound familiar?)
And we see inch by inch God is moving them away from being sacral to composite. Inclusive. It is not about conformity or uniformity. It is about individual salvation. Verduin calls it progressive Grace. And I think he is on to something others think is heresy. (One thing we miss are the large numbers of proselytes in those days. The NT mentions a few but there were more in number than we understand)
And this has helped me understand Paul who is talking now to a composite society and no one understands him today because that means nothing to us. I think NT Wright might be making the best arguments about Paul and I think that might be the case because he has studied these ancient cultures and sees Paul in that context, also.
(He has a take on “give to Caesar what is Caesars that is very different than what we have typically thought. )
Just on my own studying the culture of 1st Century Ephesus has changed the way I read Ephesians and 1 timothy totally. (Even Revelation)
Basically the Western church is ignorant of that ancient culture Messiah moved in. They are not connecting dots correctly in my opinion.
I have not read NT Wright’s magnum opus on Paul but I want to. I have watched several interivews and am THRILLED he starts it off with the letter to Philemon.
Philemon is one of my favorite books and one I have talked a lot about in the past because it gives us insight within that culture of just how radical Christianity really was.
He contrasts that letter with another letter by Pliny. I cannot wait to read it. But the price is a bit steep.
My goodness we have badly misunderstood God.
“The good news is that he does, eventually, make the right argument. Salvation cannot logically be of the Law…it must be of Christ,”
All that rigamarole to say nothing but that? Really? No way.
The dirty little secret is that “salvation” in the Pauline sense is not needed to begin with. That’s why Paul is not worth bothering with. His whole rigamarolic superstructure is there to solve a problem that NEVER even existed.
And incidentally, that very point was Jesus’ original good news: the Pharisees are wrong, the Law is not a roadmap to heaven that you have to keep perfectly: the Law is to make you a decent and worthwhile human being in this life as opposed to a Pagan or Pauline beast of the field.