Monday, May 7, 2012

Why I am a Paulinist and believe I shall remain so

Being Anglican is not important in itself. To be Anglican is to be a Christian in a manner which accords with the truest understanding of the gospel we can achieve within the limitations of our humanity which even with the renewed mind of Romans 12:1-2 is prone to error. Thus the lurking question at all times as this blog progresses is "What is the gospel?" That question lies behind any claim to a true understanding of the gospel, let alone being a Christian in a manner which accords with that understanding.

In the odd moments when my mind draws aside from anxiety about our present questions and issues in the Diocese of Christchurch, sets aside reflections on the Crusaders or for that matter the abysmal loss of vision of NZ Cricket, I sometimes turn over certain themes or questions about understanding the gospel. Here are two macro or big picture matters.

First, the key to a true understanding of the gospel as a message from God for the whole world is Paul's Epistle to the Romans. For what it is worth, I do not see anything of significance in Paul's understanding of the gospel which is not in Romans. Yet any understanding of the gospel must incorporate the documents known as 'the gospels', i.e. The Gospel according to Matthew or Mark or Luke or John. So, a true understanding of the gospel comes from the reconciliation of Romans with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In one way the history of New Testament scholarship is the debate between those who divorce Romans from the gospels or Paul from Jesus and those who do not. A paradox in the debate is that without Romans we would not be having the debate because a Jesus movement with only the four gospels, having only had a Jerusalem based mission through Peter and James the brother of Jesus without Paul, would have led to either obliteration or a sect within the future development of Judaism(s). Romans is vital to the gospel being a message for the whole world, one I may embrace as a Gentile in the South Pacific as much as if I were a Jew in Tel Aviv.

Secondly, when we read the gospels carefully and slowly, we cannot but be struck by the differences between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John's Gospel. They are difficult to reconcile. John's Jesus seems very different from Matthew's Jesus to name the most difficult instance of reconciliation. Yet in John's Gospel we see through John's eyes dimensions to the life of Jesus and implications of his teaching and actions hidden by the Synoptic Gospels. Only by resolutely holding together the diversity of the four gospels may we have confidence in this life to see Jesus Christ and grasp in that seeing the fullness of the God who is revealed in him. The gospel is a message which is an invitation to the fullness of life in God. The only way to receive that life is through Jesus Christ and the best picture we have of the God who blesses us with life is Jesus Christ. Anything less than the four gospels in Holy Scripture is a diminished vision of God and the blessing he makes available to us.

If we Anglicans take seriously our peculiar history then we have a particular heritage in Pauline Christianity. The Epistle to the Romans, along with Paul's other writings, is the foundation of the European Reformation in general, as well as the English Reformation in particular. Cranmer's liturgies are suffused with a Pauline theology of grace. The Anglican Communion today, albeit through some accidents of British colonial imperialism as well as some intentional missional strategy, is Paulinist: an outcome of the gospel being a message to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. But its Paulinism is under threat. Individual member churches, for instance, asserting independent understandings of the gospel is contrary to Paul's universalist gospel, both as the one gospel to all and as the gospel whose outcome is the one body of Christ. In some cases we are seeing the assertion of a gospel in which the fullness of life is not exclusively centred on God's revelation to us in Jesus Christ. (One of those cases occurs in my own church which does not always proclaim the singularity of God in the face of other claimant gods and which sometimes pairs the Treaty of Waitangi with the gospel in such a manner that questions arise about the uniqueness of the gospel of Christ. For another, read here).

The remedy always lies in these crises in going back to Scripture. The proper content of sola Scripture  or Scripture alone is that only through Scripture do we find the gospel as God's way of salvation. For me that especially means finding my way back to the Epistle to the Romans, holding it together with the four gospels, as well as holding the four gospels together as one gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Father Ron Smith said...

A very interesting comment, Peter, wherein you champion the importance of Paul's message, without which, you imply, the testimony of the gospels would have been useless in the transmission of the Message of Jesus, (which predated the Pauline epistles).

As a simple, non-academic, follower of Jesus; I could not claim such a preference, believing that, without the Gospels, there would have been no verification of the message of Paul, which was consequent upon his conversion from his legalistic Phariseeism, into the liberating Light of Christ which he later encountered on the Damascus Road.

In other words, the two sets of New Testament Scripture are equally important. Paul's testimony cannot be said to be MORE important than that of the Messiah Himself.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the head.

"and which sometimes pairs the Treaty of Waitangi with the gospel in such a manner that questions arise about the uniqueness of the gospel of Christ."

Without naming names, I have come across a few well known Anglicans who write about the Treaty as though it in fact WAS the Gospel in a NZ context, and if we just get the Treaty right, the Kingdom will have come! You can find this attitude being expressed in pretty much any edition of Anglican Taonga.

The Biblical term for this is idolatry.

Suem said...

12 One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[a]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I am quite a fan of St. Paul actually, and of course his insights and teachings are central to the way the christian faith has developed. However, I think to understand Christianity we have to go back again and again to the accounts of what Christ did and said in the four gospels.
I am a Christian - I may be "Anglican" but that is incidental and ultimately irrelevant. I may be drawn to a Pauline understanding, but Paul's insights are not at the heart of my faith, Christ's teachings and parables and life are.