Tuesday, July 18, 2017

After the Reformation IV: Pauline Theology

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One thing you learn when growing up Protestant is that you cannot understand the words of Jesus except as explained by St. Paul. The dominican words of the Gospels are too vague and symbolic, too emotional and hyperbolic, to ever be understood in their plain sense. Christ's admonition to perform good works and the threat of damnation leveled at the justified are simply too complex to be taken at face value. What the average Christian needs is an interpreter who is also speaking divine words: enter Paul the Apostle. Jesus, with whom the Christian supposedly has a personal relationship, takes a back seat to Paul, with whom he is not allowed to have active relations.

Supposedly one need only look at some of the crazy things Christ said—plucking out eyes and spinning yarns—to see that he was speaking simply and to simple people. For robust theology, one apparently must look elsewhere, and St. Paul's epistles are easy pickins for the would-be reformer. Not, of course, that any contradiction can actually be found between the words of Christ and the inspired writings of St. Paul, but in many ways his words are easier to to twist than Our Lord's. In his writings "are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction" (II Pet. 3).

These terrible warnings remained unheeded by Fr. Martin Luther, who was so bold as to flagrantly correct St. Paul's epistle to the Roman Church. The Apostle's theology of grace, justification, predestination, and law are highly complex. Because of the density of his writings, the average layman is relieved to rely on a commentary rather than slogging through the epistolatory swamp on his own. If the commentator appears erudite but still writes at a low level, he is almost certain to succeed in convincing many.

When Protestantism began to disintegrate into liberal movements, its overemphasis on St. Paul remained. These new perfidious theologians accused the Apostle to the Gentiles of inventing Christianity and of twisting the true teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This was nothing more than the flip side of the longstanding reliance on Paul—an inevitable exploitation of an interior imbalance. There has been some pushback among conservative Protestant scholars with a so-called New Perspective on Paul, but most consider this an unwanted compromise.

Throw a rock into a crowd of Protestant theologians, and you are unlikely to find one that specializes in anything but Pauline theology. Sometimes they possess a passing familiarity with the other books of Holy Writ, but much in the way one might remember the required reading of his youth (Homer and Virgil in a better age, Steinbeck and Salinger in ours), not in the way of an expert or a careful reader. They cannot abstract their heresies from the Gospels, and must of necessity find easier targets.

Like many of the theologian-saints who have graced the Church of God throughout the centuries, St. Paul has not been free from the indignity of misuse and exaggerated importance. He had a much more humble opinion of his own person and abilities, and a higher opinion of his office, than most of his commentators have bestowed upon him.

It is unseemly to cast aspersions upon any part of Holy Scriptures, but one does wonder if Protestants will ever be cured of their Pauline madness if they do not put down the Collected Letters of St. Paul and read just about anything else in its place. Their theological tunnel vision has been corrupting Catholic schools for far too long, and if only for our sake it needs to come to an end.

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