The Enigma of St Paul

(This is Neil) I’d like to do two things with this overdue post. First, I want to note the passing of Henry Chadwick, the great Anglican historian and member of the Anglican Catholic International Commission. Please read Rowan Williams’ tribute, in which he observes that “the ecumenical scene is pretty wintry with less room for the distinctive genius of another Chadwick.” Then read all of Chadwick’s books and pray for, in Archbishop Williams’ words, “more hospitable times.” Second, I want to recognize that, as Todd has already reminded us, the Pope has announced a Jubilee Year to the Apostle Paul to run from this past June 28 to June 29, 2009.

It would seem to be a good time to quickly look at a lecture delivered by Henry Chadwick on St Paul. “The Enigma of St Paul” was given on February 27, 1968 and can be read here (PDF).

Professor Chadwick shows us that we really must read Paul with good judgment. After all, Paul, he writes, has long attracted “extreme critics” who have regarded him as “archdeceiver” and “corrupter” of the Gospel, and, on the opposite wing, “ecstatic admirers” who have seen him as nothing less than the “Comforter” prophesied in St John’s Gospel. The Gnostics believed that their dualism and rejection of the world could be discovered in Paul’s epistles. Even the orthodox found reading St Paul to be a rather perilous affair. Chadwick writes:

Orthodox interpreters inevitably wished that the apostle had composed his letters more slowly and carefully. Origen, for example, in a fragment of his commentaries lately discovered on papyrus, remarks that many heterodox doctrines have originated from incomprehension of Paul’s text; for the apostle being, as he himself said, “rude in speech,” failed to exercise proper caution in expressing himself.

We are reminded of the warning and regretful words in 2 Peter iii. 16 that in Paul’s letters there are “certain things hard to be understood which the unlearned and unstable wrest to their destruction.”

What is the point of these words of caution? Chadwick wishes us to remember that some of our seemingly modern problems were already known to ancient readers. The apparent “enigma” of St Paul doesn’t end or interrupt the history of Christianity, but has always been a part of it. As we will see, it is not something from which we must (or can) desperately escape.

If we may jump ahead, early modern readers also found Paul to be difficult. More specifically, his texts seemed to resist against certain deeply held presuppositions. Liberal rationalists, seeing Paul as the tortured and introverted apostle discovered by Luther, believed him to be overly pessimistic and to have “superimposed on the basic Christianity of the Golden Rule a complicated structure of doctrine about the Atonement and the Sacraments.” The Pietists worried that Paul’s doctrines occluded the simple “experimental” religion of the Gospels. Later on, even some Evangelicals “found simplicity in Paul by leaving on one side him [the] ecclesiological and sacramental passages” in Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles.

Paul’s depiction of divine grace rescuing a corrupted humanity resists against the liberal desire to see Jesus as “a wise and benevolent teacher by the sunlit shores of Galilee.” But, says Chadwick, we can’t retreat to the opposite wing to see Paul as marked by a long struggle with a tormented and wounded conscience. After all, the imprisoned Paul doesn’t express disenchantment, disappointment, self-pity, “weary disillusionment or cynicism.” Paul’s letters (here Philippians) thus resist the “common modern notion that neurosis is an indispensable attribute of genius and that to be torn and twisted, dogged by drugs and drink, is a necessary qualification for recognition as a true artist.” (On this latter point, one should read the late Krister Stendahl’s “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” which first appeared in the Harvard Theological Review in 1963 – a few years before Chadwick’s lecture.)

But what of the intractable problem of sex? Can Paul be neatly categorized (and then dismissed) as a “misogynist celibate”? Turning to 1 Corinthians 7, Chadwick reconstructs the context. While, in the previous chapter, Paul had been arguing against antinomians who believed that Christian freedom meant that “all things were lawful,” here Paul confronts “a group which deduced from the doctrine of the higher life of the spirit a radical rejection of the body,” including the renunciation of marriage. After all, it could be considered, in antiquity if not presently, that such renunciation “freed the soul from the downward pull of matter, elevated it above the distractions of earthly things, and laid it open to inspiration from higher powers.” (Philo believed that Moses “dedicated himself in continence so as to be ready at any time to receive the inspiration of prophecy” – the sort of claim that later proved influential in the Christian embrace of clerical celibacy.)

Paul actually agrees in principle with this group, but his practical recommendations would displease them: “because of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife,” Paul says, and he instructs married couples, “Do not deprive each other,” except for times of prayer, “so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control” (1 Cor 7:2, 5). Paul accepts the arguments that there is a “celibate ideal” (“It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman,” 1 Cor 7:1), and that marital relations should be temporarily avoided “to be free for prayer” (1 Cor 7:5). Nevertheless, as Chadwick says, “The Corinthians are on no account to suppose that baptism marks a discontinuity with the past so radical and so absolute that marriage is abrogated by it.” We sense a double resistance: against the view that celibacy is unnatural, but against the dualism that would completely reject marriage and raising a family as worldly. (Vincent Wimbush suggests that Paul here recommends a “life of tension”: “The believers were to be worldly enough to gain converts, but they were to be enough detached from the world not to be distracted and frustrated by its challenges.”)

Paul’s treatment of marriage and celibacy, then, is ambivalent – an ambivalence that obviously persists in the history of Christianity. This ambivalence usefully resists our desire for unequivocal answers. It also shows Paul’s method: “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law–though I myself am not under the law–to win over those under the law” (1 Cor 9:20). Paul shows us the complexity of missionary activity (and perhaps Christian life in general). Chadwick writes of 1 Corinthians 9:

This passage is considerably illuminated by two passages in Philo of Alexandria when he tells us that there was lively discussion in the Greek synagogues about the intellectual integrity of the missionary apologist, seeking to interpret his faith to people with strong prejudices. How far might he go in accepting their language and principles in making his faith intelligible and acceptable to them? His purpose, says Philo, is to save whom he can; yet there are limits imposed by personal integrity and by loyalty to the truth. What are these limits, we at once ask. But at this critical moment Philo’s discussion tantalizingly breaks off. At least it is evident that he regarded a certain flexibility and adaptability as both necessary and right. He felt it a merit to use tact in presenting a case, and no doubt wisely declined to lay down a general rule. These texts of Philo are important evidence that Paul’s procedure was in line with a recognized line and not merely the unprincipled vacillation of a trimmer, as his critics took him to be when they accused him of “pleasing men” (Gal.i.10 etc.) or of writing with such uncandid subtlety and irony that one could not be sure of the meaning (the charge rebutted in 2 Corinthians iii-iv).

We can see this flexibility when Paul writes of the Jewish Law. Should Gentiles accept circumcision and follow the Law? Or was the Law now superseded and forbidden even to Jewish Christians? Paul sees the Law as valuable, but provisional: “the law was our disciplinarian for Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24).

Of course, all of this ultimately means that we must read Paul with good judgment. We must become aware of the “prejudices with which we have allowed our spectacles to be colored” – our attempts to put Paul in a box. And we have to realize that Paul will always remain enigmatic to us. Part of that has to do with the inevitable remoteness of the first century to us. But, Chadwick writes, part of it has to do with “his temperament, the sudden quality of his mind, the intensity of his psychological and religious insight.” These things “put him apart from us, at the same time as they bring him alive and enable him to speak with perennial power.” Ironically, our inability to finally grasp Paul – to render him predictable, just more of the same – means that we keep reading him. We then find our place in the history of the church, alongside all of the other readers of this enigmatic St Paul.

We’ll miss Henry Chadwick.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Enigma of St Paul

  1. Katherine says:

    Your link to the Chadwick lecture just goes to the US Bishops’ conference website, and I don’t see a link for the lecture there.

  2. Neil says:

    I’m very sorry about that. The link has been fixed – it should never have gone to the US Bishops’ conference website.

    Thanks for letting me know.


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